Seminary XXXV: what did the Islamic conquests actually change?

On Armistice Day, while some of you were quite rightly posting poppies in your blogs and I meanwhile had expected to mainly be asleep and so had scheduled that post about Vikings before I went away, I had hardly got back to work before I snuck away to go to a seminar.1 This was the third instance of the new Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar, and following Alice Rio’s wise strategy of inviting people from outside Cambridge,2 this time it was none other than Professor Hugh Kennedy, who is becoming a frequent flyer on this part of the æther, speaking to the title, “Continuity and Change through the early Muslim Conquests”.

Early Islamic castle (husun)—anyone know where?

Early Islamic castle (husun)—anyone know where?

(Edit: the castle identified as Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi in comments by Henrik Karl: someone give this man a job already!)

Hugh’s pitch was basically pretty simple and sensible, and oddly like the way Chris Wickham had tackled similar issues of early Islamic Arabia in his David Wilson lecture, in as much as both chose more or less to ignore Islam as a cultural and religious phenomenon and go for structures. Hugh was asking, as the title suggests, what Islamic conquest actually altered in the areas it took over. This stemmed from the observation that in ex-Christian Byzantine Syria and ex-Zoroastrian Sassanid Persia very different ‘Islamic’ cultures arise, and become reflected not just in the different societies of the area but also the different ruling groups that rise and fall in the control of Islam, the Umayyads from Syria and the cAbbasids from Baghdad and Iran. How much of this difference is explicable merely by what was usual in these zones before?

Some of the differences at least, Hugh argued, are Islamic in nature, and to do with the nature of the conquest. The Byzantine territories were taken piecemeal and by force and settled as they went. The Sassanid ones were however taken in one huge go, and urgent decisions had to be taken about how to pay and feed the army. The result, a salaried military occupancy in cities, vastly altered the Sassanid economy, mainly based on large rural estates, by creating a large market for produce and goods in the cities, which therefore swelled hugely. Lots of money also made its way back to Syria and there too the cities flourished. The cAbbasid takeover would stop this flow of money to Syria and its cities but Baghdad became huge in their care. Also, because of the different nature of the conquest and of settlement, existing administrative élites were incorporated far more fully in Persia, a gentry class remaining in their local positions much as in the Spanish frontier zones because the new élite were basically urban. Those élites meanwhile adopted many Sassanid trappings of rule wholesale, from headgear to coins; Arab-Sassanian coins bear the head of the last Shah, Yazdigerd III, for some years until a reform of 698 or so. Of course, the coinage of the Byzantine provinces is also imitative of the types before, which didn’t get mentioned, but the imitation there is uncomprehending and rubbish compared to the exact copy involved in the salaries of these soldiers in the towns like Isfahan. Numismatists have to struggle to tell early Arab-Sassanian coins from their predecessors; there’s no such issue (pardon the pun) with the more western stuff.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III

Anonymous Arab-Byzantine fals from Baalbek (Lebanon), 650-90 A. D., imitating Byzantine nummus of Two Emperors type

Anonymous Arab-Byzantine fals from Baalbek (Lebanon), 650-90 A. D., imitating Byzantine nummus of Two Emperors type

One of the reasons for this difference that only came out properly in the discussion (partly because of the presence of Dr Peter Sarris, who talks faster than anyone I remember hearing who was using English, even me) is of course the different nature of institutional survival. In Persia the Shah is dead (or fled to China, no-one cares), the state cult has been overthrown and its assets seized and anyone who wishes to participate in the new state must convert, but can then do so. There is no figurehead of local identity. In the ex-Byzantine provinces the Church remains, protected but stifled, with its assets at least partly intact. Here the élites who could not flee (so, second-rate élites as all really top-rank ‘Romans’ have somewhere else to go) have something to hang on to which is not a way into the new structure. Furthermore, their old head of state and head of religion still exist (for those that recognised the latter) and are free, may even be fled to if you can get there, so there is no easy way for their continuing opponents in Islam to accommodate such practices or people politically. Persia is no longer an enemy but Byzantium still is, which confuses matters for both subjects and rulers where it had previously had and hoped to regain power.

One other thing I’d never thought of, and that Hugh had not yet investigated, that is a religious factor, but one with an economic effect I’d never considered. What happens to pig-farming? Probably a bad business to be in under Islam. But that means a shift to less independent food animals that don’t pasture themselves so easily, and that must mean less fodder or more effort to gather it. What the effects of that shift are we don’t know but it seems arguable that there must be some. And although Hugh’s paper was basically about what kind of difference deliberate fiscal choices about how to raise and spend money can alter society, still, it being an interdisciplinary seminar, as we milled afterwards, there was as much talk of the pigs as of the tax-collectors. I hope someone picks up on the pigs while Hugh does the good work on the taxes…

1. It does interest me that Remembrance is a much bigger deal in the US, at least as far as the blogosphere goes, than in the UK, where the Great War killed a far higher proportion of the population and is on almost as many school history syllabuses as World War II, which is on so many that people I went to college with used to dismiss history as ‘Hitler Studies’.

2. Perhaps because she knows that if someone local presented everyone else would ignore them…

5 responses to “Seminary XXXV: what did the Islamic conquests actually change?

  1. It seems to me that Remembrance is even stronger in Canada. WW I was a huge event in Canadian (and Newfoundland) history.

  2. That desert castle in the picture: ‘Bilad al-Sham’ (as the Stanford site suggests, or just ‘Shaam’) is the southern part of (present day) Syria.
    As the place is clearly somewhere in the desert, it would be located somewhere in the sout-eastern part of Syria.
    You can probably find it in Warwick Ball’s book on Syria:

  3. Well, that’s a start: thankyou! I should have remembered that after your exile you’d be the person to go to on this.

  4. Probably Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, about 120 kms north-east of Palmyra (so it’s not really in Shaam anyway).


  5. I’m convinced! And it looks as if either the first link or the Stanford page stole the image anyway so my compunctions about doing likewise are consequently assuaged. Many thanks again! I shall edit accordingly.

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