Seminary IX (places you can’t dig for medieval Islam)

Seminar at the IHR on Hallowe’en was Hugh Kennedy, who has recently relocated to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, giving a paper called “Landed Estates and Incomes in the Early Islamic World”, a topic that perhaps only he could make interesting to a wider audience, though I being a charter historian and a hedgerow Islamist (by which I mean that I know a bit, but I can’t read any of the real stuff) was fascinated throughout.

The basic theory he was propounding was that in the early conquests of the Muslims, powerful or wealthy invaders were, despite the legal prohibitions against profiting from the jihad, allowed to acquire large landed estates in the conquered territories as going concerns, where they lived like the lords who had preceded them on agricultural revenues. After about 800, however, in the wake of the cAbbasid revolution, this was changed, and thereafter Islamic magnates lived off grants of tax revenue. Hugh argued that, among other things, this meant that whereas as landowners the settlers had keenly invested in irrigation and other such improvements to make their estates turn a profit, afterwards there was no such interest in infrastructure, it became harder to make such a system work because of falling land potential and the peasantry going bedouin (and therefore not paying taxes), and that basically it only lasted a generation or two before going into fiscal meltdown. The chronology of this only really came out in the discussion, which had a lot of people saying, ‘but someone must be working the land if the taxes are being paid’, and it’s still not clear, as Hugh willingly admitted, why the cAbbasids pursued such a self-destructive course.

Palace of Qasr ibn Wardan, c.560 CE

For me, though, though the actual theories and discussion and so on were the meat, the gravy was in the illustrations. Hugh has been to the places he talks about and photographed them ,and usually had more detail than we could have got from any publication about the state of their archaeology. The problem with a few of them was that there was no archaeology, however, despite their being enthralling and high-prestige sites well away from development. In fact that’s the problem: these places were on the margins, as close to the desert often as sustained investment could make cultivable. (Another set of questions revolved around climate change in Arabia, where the sources seem to support a wide range of opinions.) This in turn means that they are now well away from the prosperous heartlands where modern states have grown up. Therefore, they tend to be near borders. Bab al-Hawa, as a quick Google will tell you, is in fact now a border gateway between Turkey and Syria, where getting any kind of international dig together is a little far-fetched. Worse still however is the old Persian site of Daskarat Malka, which was once an estate belonging to Shah Khusraw II. You will find nothing about this place on the web: it’s very nearly a Googlewhack, only one irrelevant result (at least until I publish this…). It’s never been dug, although apparently the surviving structures are impressive. Why not? Because, dear reader, the site is in a bad place, and has been for some decades; it’s on the Iran-Iraq frontier. Archaeology with land-mines in it!

So I guess we’re unlikely to find out more. Which bothers me, but it bothers Hugh a great deal more and I can’t say I blame him. Similarly several of his illustrations were from 1930s French military pictures taken from biplane surveys, because since then it’s been rather difficult to do aerial photography over, e. g., Syria, unless you’re the Hel HaAvir. Add this to the losses from archives and museums in Iraq due to the war there and it just makes me want to ask: how on earth are the winners in the Middle East going to write any history?

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2 responses to “Seminary IX (places you can’t dig for medieval Islam)

  1. Pingback: Boink Blogs

  2. Pingback: What the Internet has brought the armchair archaeologist, with particular reference to Samarra « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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