G. W. Bowersock has written a little book (in an Oxford series of short books about iconic objects) pegged to a sixth century monument in the form of a stone throne erected by an Axumite (Ethiopian) king in the ancient Red Sea port of Adulis. The book is nominally about the politics of the Red sea region and Arabian peninsula in the period shortly before the birth of Muhammad, but it is written in a way that make it appear that Bowerstock is still fighting the political battles of the sixth century, or making that century a pretext to put forward his views of twenty-first century politics.
The great powers of the period, the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire of Persia and the Christian Byzantine Empire were, as Bowersock has described them elsewhere, “Empires in Collision“, with all the messy wars, massacres, and refugee flows that such collisions entail. The regional powers along the Red Sea were the Monophysite Christian Kingdom of Axum (modern Ethiopia), sometimes allied with the Byzantines. And the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (modern Yemen), sometimes allied with the Sassanian Persians.
Christianity was, of course, a religion of converts in its early years in Ethiopia, but in the fourth century it became the state religion. Himyar is understood to have followed a parallel path, converting to Judaism by the late fourth century (p. 87). But since Himyar did not continue to be a Jewish kingdom, even less information about the conversion period has been preserved than in Ethiopia.
The Jewish kingdom of Himyar arose in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, flourished, then fell to an Ethiopian invasion backed by the Byzantine Empire. In the 520s it was led by Jewish king named Yusuf (Joseph). Archaeologists have found a fourth century synagogue in the ancient seaport of Qana in the Hadramaut. (p. 80) But the Jewish kingdom itself left no historical records, and, while some inscriptions have been found, most of what is known of it comes from Syrian Christian sources notable for their hostility to Judaism. Scholars in Persia and Byzantium had little interest in writing about this relatively unimportant region.
Bowerstock is part of a small group of scholars drawing on ancient sources and a growing but still small number of recently unearthed inscriptions to increase our knowledge of the Arabian region before Islam. But the number of sources is so few, and so much of what we do have from ancient sources was produced by partisans in the clash of empires and faiths, that most scholars approach sixth century Arabia with extreme caution.
Bowerstock was asked to write a a small book about a single very interesting object addressed to a general audience, and this may account for the oddly sweeping and definitive nature of a number of his statements.
In this period of intense competition between two great empires, it does not seem strange that the Axumite kingdom should have converted to Monophysite Christianity, or the the Himyar kingdom should have converted to Judaism. Each conversion event gave the converting dynasty the advantage of leaving pagan practices to join the rising trend toward monotheism, while not coming directly under the control of the Byzantine church. And, possibly, in the case of Himyar, of offering a new , monotheistic state religion that would enable the small, border kingdom of Himyar to seek the Sassanian aid necessary to maintaining independence form the Byzantine Empire. The sources are so paltry that the political and popular pressures on a fourth century Himyarite king are largely a matter of guesswork, but it is jarring to find Bowerstock describing the conversion of the Himyar kingdom to Judaism as “improbable” and “bizarre”.(p. 4) It is difficult to see why it is “bizarre” that a Jewish, monotheistic kingdom (Himyar) should have arisen on the eastern side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, but not bizarre that a monotheistic (monophysite) Christian kingdom like Axum should have arisen on the western side.
Bowersock then categorically asserts – citing scholarship on Sabaic epigraphy – that “from 380 onwards polytheism utterly disappeared form South Arabia”.(p. 83) Even if we discount the possibility that pagan inscriptions may yet turn up, the absence of pagan inscriptions is hardly the same as the absence of pagans. Further archaeology is extremely likely to turn up ongoing use of polytheistic images and practices, unless Arabia is unlike every other part of the ancient world. Such sweeping assertions may be the result of attempting to summarize great swaths of material for a popular audience, but they make thisreader acutely uncomfortable.
The “traditional Arab pagans” are portrayed in this book as passive victims of Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish powers, Bowersock asserts that they are “the only losers” (p. 5) in these wars. Yet surely it is an an oddly exclusive judgment when writing about a Jewish kingdom decisively conquered by a Christian army, that was itself shortly to be conquered by the armies of Islam.
In a very short book with little detail beyond the in depth analysis of the Throne of Adulis itself, Bowerstock makes space to engage in extensive discussion of Jewish atrocities, including what he describes as an “anti-Christian pogrom” that attained notoriety in ancient and medieval Christian texts. “Pogrom” is an oddly archaic term to apply, but Bowerstock cites it and a series of 38 martyred Christian bishops, priests and monks apparently killed in the early fifth century to assert “that the Azqir and Najran martyrs constitute incontestable evidence for the persecution of Christians by their Jewish overlords.”(p. 85) According to Bowerstock, it was this “brutality” – and not imperial ambition – that “provoked” the Ethiopian invasion to which Arabian Christians “owed their salvation.”(p. 86) Christian, Zoroastrian and polytheistic armies and kings do not commit atrocities in this book.
The struggle for control of Himyar was protracted, and since few details are known, Bosersock is forced to paint with a broad brush, first “a Christian presence… somehow managed to supplant the Jewish rulers and assume control of the country in the early sixth century” (p. 93), followed by “subversive Jewish activities against the relatively new Christian regime.” (p. 95) At this point according to Bowerstock, with a Jew again on the throne of Himyar, “Confessional solidarity would have undoubtedly impelled the negus (Axumite/Ethiopian king) to undertake this campaign…”(p. 95)
Well, maybe, although few kings have ever waged major campaigns motivated exclusively by “solidarity” with co-religionists. What we know about Ethiopian motivation comes from Christian sources, notably the inscription on the Throne of Adulis, and the text is “triumphalist.” Bowerstock assures us that this triumphalist “tone… accords well with (the king’s) mission of avenging the deaths of many Christians at Narjan and of assuring the security of many Christians who would reside in Arabia”.(p. 103) Bowerstock appears to this reader, at least, to be defending an early sixth-century invasion which I will assume was as bloody and destructive as other ancient wars of conquest, on the grounds that it would make Arabia safe for the “many Christians who would reside there” once the existing Jewish kingdom was destroyed. It sounds more like royal propaganda than historical analysis of royal reasons for conquering a wealthy neighboring kingdom, which in this case include loot, revenue, eliminating a rival kingdom, and gaining control of a major and highly profitable shipping route.
The Throne of Adulis succeeds in opening a small window into the Red Sea region before the advent of Islam, but Bowersock’s writing, especially his hearty approval for the “energetic Christian ruler” who attacked a Jewish kingdom in what appears to have been an unprovoked war of imperial expansion, strikes what can only be described as a very odd note.