Tag Archives: Islamic conquest

Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III {Edit: struck at Jayy (Isfahan),and] islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God In the name of Allah’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas. Thanks to Yngve Karlsson for corrections in comments below!

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch (not conquered until 637) and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire [Edit: for nearly four centuries].

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the early caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.


1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).

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Seminar CXCIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah’; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.


1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9


1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth’: examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Seminar CLXIX: Spanish palaces in Winchester

The next seminar in my backlog of reports, horrifyingly lengthening not shortening despite the regular updates, was another visit of Anglo-Saxon England to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, in the form of George Molyneaux from Oxford with a paper called “The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century” on 13th March 2013. I went along, by way of showing the flag, but I’m not going to cover it here, for one thing because Magistra et Mater did already, and for another because it was quite acknowledgedly more or less the same paper I had earlier seen George give in Oxford and which I already blogged here. George did suggest I cover it anyway, with such phrases as “remarkably little development in the speaker’s thought” and so on but what can I say, I’m too far behind, and anyway if I miss that one out I now get to talk about me, always a hard temptation to resist.

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, looking rather newer on the inside as I discovered

I have been quite looking forward to writing about this one, because it marked the first time I’d got up in public to talk about my work for quite a while. Reaching it thus marks some kind of exit from the slough in which I’d temporarily found myself at Oxford and my starting to gather myself for whatever was coming next, and apparently I did this by accepting the kind invitation of Dr Kate Weikert to host me at the Winchester Seminar on Comparative Medieval Cultures the very next day, on 14th March 2013. The word ‘comparative’ carries more strength here than usually it might, because the set-up with that seminar series was (is, perhaps) that there would be two papers in each evening, chosen to complement each other and provoke, well, comparison. So I stepped up first with “Brokedown palaces or Torres dels Moros? Finding the fisc in late-Carolingian Catalonia” and then local hero Dr Phil Marter followed on with “Archaeological Investigations at the Medieval Palacio de Ambel, Aragón”, and this actually worked really well, it was one of the more fun seminars I’ve been part of.

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

I’ve been trying to work out what to do with my paper ever since, because it was something of an attack piece and I already have too much of a reputation as a negative scholar. All the same, you know, dear reader, that sometimes I feel scholarly outrage rather keenly and this paper was one of those. It was about places in Catalonia which bear a name in the form Palau- or Palou-, of which there are many and which are not fully understood. As long-memoried readers may remember, even some of the ones that are explained turn out not to be when one looks… The root is very clearly Latin palatium, which is what gives us English ‘palace’, but that can’t be what is meant here unless, as I said, conscious that there would be Anglo-Saxonists in the audience, you remember that sites like Cheddar have been called palaces, that is, big halls with some supporting sheds.1 A team led by Professor Ramón Martí at the Università Autonòma de Barcelona have made these names their own and come up with ninety-odd across the counties of old Catalonia, and some of those I’ve come across are only a matter of miles from each other; they’re just too thickly spread to be major élite settlements. Up until quite recently, there was only really one going explanation of these sites, that favoured by Pierre Bonnassie, that they were fiscal estate centres that probably went back to the Romans, but Bonnassie’s sense of the word ‘fisc’ was so broad, applying to properties the counts bought and then sold again the next day, for example, that this doesn’t actually explain as much as it might.2 And perhaps thus, it was in Bonnassie’s Festschrift that Professor Martí published the first version of his alternative theory, which he and a team of researchers have been filling out ever since, that they are in fact the relics of Muslim garrisons from the period of Islamic rule in Catalonia between 714 and 785.3

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Although I did so in the seminar, I don’t want to reprise either Professor Martí’s arguments for this or mine against it here, partly because the open web is not where to start such arguments, but mainly because as I say, I don’t know what I’m doing with this paper yet. A basic problem that is worth expressing openly, however, is that as far as I can discover, the map above is as close to a list of their ninety-odd sites that Professor Martí’s team has published, which makes even agreeing with them quite difficult. One really wants to know what the evidence is. So, for the seminar, I made a list. I went through all my various charter notes and the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia and Atles Històric de Catalunya that I have and found forty-eight such sites, not too bad considering that I could barely touch the counties of Barcelona, Cerdanya or Urgell. The main thing I learnt from that was something that Professor Martí’s team would also acknowledge, I’m sure, that no one explanation will deal with all of these sites. The idea of them as fiscal complexes or ancient Roman centres runs into immediate trouble when one realises that the earliest recorded one in my list was a new-build, put up before 832 by Abbot Castellano of Arles in an area he’d just cleared from wasteland.4 And in fact, the only reason we can be sure that any of these sites were not new-builds, however unlikely it seems that they should be, is archæology, and here we mean actual digging since the eight sites that have been surveyed by Professor Martí’s team all produced ceramics that could be early enough for their argument, but equally could not.5

Archaeology underway at l'Aiguacuit de Terrassa

Actual digging underway at l’Aiguacuit de Terrassa, site of a Palacio fracta

Well, here again fuller publication of results would really help, but as far as I can discover, including from the Martí team’s own publications, only three of these sites have been dug: Palofret in Terrassa, Les Palats in Carcassonne and l’Hort de Pelat in Riudoms.6 The first of these was at least active in the right period, and the latter two of these produced unusual burials, one of which is in fact almost certainly Islamic, though I’m less sure about the crouched burials at Les Palats, which the original excavators thought Visigothic and which have now been lost. All three of the sites, however, and a number of others, were once Roman villas, and until we get something more like a list of sites with their evidence from Professor Martí’s team I do feel as if that might be a simpler explanation of these place-names, although I do note that many of these places do appear to have had fiscal connections and operated as estate centres.7 That is, however, firstly not incompatible with them having previously been villas, and secondly what we would expect from similar work in Castile and the Carolingian world where palatium is exactly what you call a rural complex at which renders are collected.8

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, this is also plausibly the case in Aragón, because the Palacio de Ambel, about which Dr Marter was talking, is or at least was indeed a rural estate centre where renders were collected. That rather minimises its very complex history, though, the earliest parts of which are pretty obscure. What you are looking at there is, functionally, the outside of a really posh nineteenth-century block of flats. The trappings of that have been stripped away, however, to reveal a Renaissance grange of the Hospital of Saint John, for whom its Preceptory died in the siege of Malta of 1515, which seems to be depicted in a few surviving wall-paintings inside the building. And it really is inside, too: the current roof, complete with arcade, is directly over three small towerlets invisible under the tiles, between which it’s actually possible to clamber on top of the vaulting that used to hold up the old roof, and now just holds up the ceiling on its underside. Before the Renaissance phase, this was a complex of buildings rather than the single quadrangle arrangement, and one of those buildings was a Gothic church, erected by the Knights Templar from whom the Hospital got the place when the Order was suppressed. Its rood screen is still there and behind it is Islamic decoration in geometric interlace, and internal decoration that includs fake bricks painted over the stone courses, but all of this is Templar-period, not Mudejar. The church, though, is probably the oldest bit of that complex, because it reuses a circular tower, which is reckoned a Torre dels Moros (as almost everything early in Spain seems to be) but which, being built of packed earth on a stone lower course, isn’t giving away much with its architecture. It is probably ninth-century, which is still Islamic in this area, but the dating evidence is basically guesswork, so other schemes could be considered.

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Dr Marter and his team, or teams of which he has been part, anyway, have been working on this place for years, and what they are mainly doing is trying to stop it falling down and slowly restore it to its medieval configuration, which has involved such things as removing trees, finding a sixteenth-century letter hidden in the wall, and so on. But there was also time for some reflection on how the building had gone through its earliest sets of changes, and why the church wears such Islamic decoration. Was there an existing church in the area that this one replaced, and whose existing congregation, presumably Mudejar or Mozarab or whatever one wished to call them, culturally Arabicized, needed to be comforted that the new lords understood who they were and what was particular to them? Maybe, though if so sticking a Gothic rood screen in the way perhaps cancelled that message. Anyway, it seems clear that the place has lots to tell even after so many years’ work. And both of us got to think quite hard with each other’s examples about what one calls a Palacio on the Christian-Muslim frontier of Spain, and what work a palace really did anyway, and what it might once have been so as to wind up performing those functions. It was a good evening and I hope to see and indeed take part in more seminars so well configured in the future.


1. Obviously I have not yet got bored of citing John Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 144-153.

3. Ramón Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) : hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-69.

4. Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXX (Barcelona 2006), doc. no. 17.

5. When I gave this paper, the most recent publication of the team’s theories seemed to be Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, “Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium” in Estrat Crític Vol. 5 (Barcelona 2011), pp. 364-377; there is also Gibert, “La integració a al-Andalus dels territoris a ponent del Llobregat” in Butlletí de la Societat Catalana d’Estudis Històrics 16 (Barcelona 2005), pp. 39-72 at pp. 50-55; Ramón Martí, “Palacios y guardias emirales en Cataluña” in A. Riubal (ed.), II Congreso de Castellología Ibérica, Alcalá de la Selva, 2001 (Madrid 2005), pp. 293-309; and Ramón Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, among other publications that more or less replicate these, though there might be newer ones I’ve missed.

6. The data for the latter two sites have to be strained from the publications in the previous note: there is no stand-alone publication of them that I’ve discovered, and these articles give you little more than a few lines on each. For Palofret, there is Joan Soler i Jiménez and Vicenç Ruiz i Gómez, “Els palaus de Terrassa: estudi de la presencia musulmana al terme de Terrassa a través de la toponímia” in Terme Vol. 15 (Terrassa 1999), pp. 37-51, online here. This article was written in the liught of Martí’s first publication of his theory, so that the interpretation of the site as Islamic is partly following him.

7. I get the Roman data also from the articles cited above, which is a bit master’s tools, but presumably the data is all equally valid.

8. See for example José Angel García de Cortázar & Ester Peña Bocos, “El palatium, símbolo y centro de poder en los reinos de Navarra y Castilla en los siglos X a XII” in Mayurqa Vol. 22 (Mallorca 1989), pp. 281-296; Josiane Barbier, “Les lieux du pouvoir en Gaule franque : l’exemple des palais” in Carl Ehlers (ed.), Deutsche Königspfalzen: Beiträge zu ihrer historischen und archäologischen Erforschung. 8: Places of power, Orte der Herrschaft, Lieux du pouvoir (Göttingen 2007), pp. 227-246; Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243-264.

Iberia: your genes are riding up on one side

I’ve been sitting on this paper for a while, hoping I could get some geneticist to collaborate on the write-up, because while I recognise enough of the words in genetics at least not to fall off when the argument goes round corners, I certainly can’t evaluate whether it’s soundly based or not. Simon Ford back at Clare in Cambridge gave it a once-over and thought it basically sane, though—and my thanks to him—and the point has come to write about it. Please bear in mind that I am not an expert in this stuff and would welcome any corrections or different perspectives, and read on. The work in question is a paper with twenty different authors that appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics for 2008 entitled “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula”.1 What it does is to take samples of the DNA of 1140 people from all over modern Spain and Portugal and compare them to similar datasets from Morocco and Tunisia plus an independently-derived average one for Sephardic Jews. The point of all this is the historical context that the Iberian Peninsula has, for a lot of its history, had a considerable Jewish population (`Sephardic’ actually comes from the Hebrew for Spain, ‘Sefarad’) and, of course, between about 710 and 1610, a fairly significant Muslim one that was ruling most of the area for most of that time. And, despite the fairly pompous title, what this paper does is compare what they consider to be the known history of the peninsula with the current genetic traces of population admixture.2

Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations

"Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations." "Sectors in pie charts are colored according to haplogroup in the schematic tree to the right, and sector areas are proportional to haplogroup frequency."

And these are, in a sense, the results. You have to realise, before you start to read this thing, that we are in a game not of certainties or clear causation here but rather of statistically significant correlation. So, you will notice that the three African samples (which they got from elsewhere3) are dominated by haplogroup E3b2 (and I’m not even going to try and explain what a haplogroup is; I would just have to copy it from a better explanation like this one anyway) but the Iberian ones are dominated instead by various branches of R1. This doesn’t stop each of those groups having some trace of the other one’s dominant element, because these things occur throughout most of humanity by now, and the question is not usually down to a single genetic signature like the ‘Cohen gene’ but to a pattern being convincingly like another pattern. If you compare it to the Sephardic Jewish signature at top right (again, from elsewhere, on this occasion a separate survey by two of the authors whose data is only given as supplemental information online4) you’ll see that there the significant marker seems to be the balance of groups G, J2 and all other J groups, which is a bit harder to spot. So, rather than just try and spot colour matches it seems worthwhile to say what the paper’s authors think they’ve found, given that they have crunched this data in a number of other ways that don’t make such colourful images, and then remark on that. Their conclusions were, roughly:

  1. Obviously, the Gibraltar Straits do mark a genuine divide in the make-up of the populations, which is not to say that there’s no common blood (ultimately, after all, we’re all cousins) but that there is a statistically significant (and fairly obvious) difference.
  2. The Basque country and Gascony have a strong showing from haplogroups that barely show up elsewhere (R1b3f, otherwise only strongly represented in Catalonia and the Balearics, weirdly; R1b3d; and in the Basque Country proper, R1b3b, which actually doesn’t show up anywhere else on the plot except for a sliver in North-West Castile, although I wonder if the big sample size there might not be something to do with that) and are also statistically quite different because of that.
  3. In the peninsula overall, admixture from an African-type parental population appears to be 10·6%, but this varies widely; there is none in the Basque zones, but 21·6% in Castile, i. e. twice as much as elsewhere.
  4. Admixture from a Jewish-type population is rather higher, 19·8% overall, but again with variation: none at all in Minorca, but 36·3% in Southern Portugal.
  5. The diversity of haplogroups within the dominant one from Africa is lower in the Iberian Peninsula than in Africa, suggesting that only a subset of the African population as it now is is represented in the peninsula’s genes.
  6. Contrariwise, the diversity of the Jewish sample in the Iberian population is higher, suggesting a longer-term admixture (though see below).
  7. The African sample is represented, not as one might expect most strongly in the south around Granada and least strongly in the north, but rather in the west, especially Castile and Galicia, that is the furthest parts north of the west, as well as also in Minorca which is less surprising maybe.5

Some of this makes perfectly good sense with what we know of the demographic history of this area, although it does persistently have to be borne in mind that we are talking about a history covering all of the last, say, three thousand years, piled up and indistinguishable. There is some possibility of distinguishing chronology with such evidence: as the authors say, the low diversity of the African sample in the Iberian peninsula compared to the Jewish or African-local ones suggests that it arrived more recently than the others because it has presumably had less time to spread and average out. But this is not ‘proving’ the Muslim conquest from genetics or anything; it is noticing a particular phenomenon that the conquest we already knew about provides an obvious explanation for. Likewise, the strong Jewish signal in South Portugal is odd until you consider that Portugal, unlike Castile or Aragon-Catalonia, didn’t expel its Jews and therefore picked up quite a lot of exile population from the reconquered areas of those two kingdoms, i. e. the south, in the fifteenth century, who have presumably left some trace in the genepool since then. On the other hand, the western-side bias of the African signal is very strange. It is certainly true that Muslim settlement, for most historians at least, is unlikely to have been substantial outside of Córdoba’s immediate zone of control, and we can do quite a lot about suggesting from place-names which groups wound up where.6 That would explain the low signal in Catalonia, but it patently conflicts with the high signal in Galicia. The authors suggest that this is down to the forced relocation of the morisco populations to the north and west after the war of 1567-71,7 and so indeed it may be—we have to watch that we don’t immediately conclude “OMG settlement in 711!” from this data given that it also includes all movements since—but if so it seems very strange to me that the areas where we know Muslims were for longest show less of a trace, and that suggests that the incomers were distinctive and also didn’t mix very much, whereas the moriscos blended into the wider population much more.

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba, another kind of evidence for cultural admixture, more or less contraindicated by the genetic evidence

There are also three problems with their conceptual framework that I see which I think need discussion. The first, they have anticipated and headed off, although they don’t phrase it quite as I would, which is that if this Jewish signal prototype they have is already based on Jews from only this area then inevitably, you’d think, it is going to be much more admixed with Iberian material than a sample of a population outside Spain. In other words, there is a risk here of concluding, “Iberian Jews… are quite Iberian“, what is somewhat less exciting than the assertion “Iberian populations surprisingly Jewish”, which is more like what the paper actually says. The authors were not worried about this, as far as I can tell, but were concerned that the self-identification of the Jewish population that was used to obtain the sample on which they relied, i. e. the DNA of people who think they’re Jewish by descent, might well be less exclusively Jewish than those people thought. The counter that they have to this also works for my worry, however, it being that there are within that Jewish sample, as well as quite a lot of haplotypes shared with Iberian populations, three or four that are not but do match strongly with the Middle East. So, as long as they aren’t Greek or Phœnician (the long time-frame again), which seems unlikely given that they are as strongly visible in the West as the East, that does show some genuine Semitic ancestry to the sample group.

Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Admixture Proportions among Iberian Peninsula Samples

"Mean North African, Sephardic Jewish, and Iberian admixture proportions among Iberian samples, based on the mY estimator and on Moroccan, Sephardic Jewish, and Basque parental populations, are represented on a map as shaded bars on bar charts. Error bars indicate standard deviations, and three-letter codes indicate populations, as given in Figure 1."

That takes us straight to the second problem, though, which is one of missing populations. I am broadly happy that most of the Muslim army of 711 and subsequent settlement was probably composed of Berbers and other Africans (even if allegedly some of them might have been Vandals by descent…), I think this is one of the things that Guichard’s work makes acceptable, but nonetheless they weren’t all Berbers, there was an actually-Arabic presence in the officer corps, because we know some of them by name, and of course there was also a massive civil war in 741 kicked off, as the chronicles of the time (at least, compared to the chronology of the genetic evidence) see it, by a fresh wave of settlement direct from Syria.8 So it seems to me that when we see a Middle Eastern genetic sample, it doesn’t have to be Jewish, and that ideally there would be some way to check this sample for what might be a tiny tiny Arabic representation, but might not (and it would be really nice to know which and where).

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

Then there is another missing population, which is the actual Iberians. Quite early on the authors decide that the best comparator for the African and Jewish samples is the Basque one, as it shows no or little mixture with those groups, so everything else in the peninsula is then thought of as being more or less of a mixture between the three `parental’ samples. Well, OK, but whenever the Basques arrived in Spain, other groups followed, most obviously the Celtic groups we now call Iberians, and also maybe some Visigoths, you know, though we don’t seem to credit that those were numerically significant any more.9 I don’t think it diminishes the significance of the African and Jewish samples being different in the ways that they are too much, but I think that a better conceptual model might have been instead to take a total average of the peninsula and emphasise differences from it globally, rather than thinking in terms of `amibasqueornot’. Or, again, perhaps it would just be nice to have had some potential Celtic (or even Gothic) comparators factored in too so that we might get some sense of where those groups might have been best preserved, if they are at all. The paper’s only 11 pages long, after all, though I realise that I may just have idly asked for about three or four more years’ computing and sampling.

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad style

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad (i. e. a Berber Muslim) style. From Wikimedia Commons

So, in short, this stuff is really interesting but it’s very difficult to distill it down to historical events without essentially using what we already know to explain this new data. I get a certain kick out of knowing that some of the more traditional Reconquista-minded scholars would have been horrified to think that heroic Castile was actually more African and more Jewish than other areas of the peninsula but, if that’s down to post-reconquest resettlement by the kings, that becomes less of a delicious irony and more likely to be a reflection of the fact that populations who feel their identity may be dissipating are more likely to stress it aggressively. I think that these samples could actually be interrogated to tell us more about the settlement period by, for example, adding Arabic and Celtic comparators (if the latter can really be assembled, given how vague a group `Celtic’ populations are when considered historically10). At the moment, though, the main early medieval takeaway from this, which is what I at least am really interested in, is that it looks to be demonstrable that the African settler groups who (probably) arrived with and after the Muslim conquest really didn’t mix very much with the local populations. That’s not nothing, but I would still like to know if we might some day be able to guess at how much of the settling population they were from this kind of data, and thus guess also at the change in the élite too.


1. Susan M. Adams, Elena Bosch, Patricia L. Balaresque, Stéphane J. Ballereau, Andrew C. Lee, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana M. López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Marina S. Gisbert Grifo, Maria Brion, Angel Carracedo, João Lavinha, Begoña Martínez-Jarreta, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Karl Skorecki, Doron M. Behar, Francesc Calafell and Mark A. Jobling, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” in The American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 83 (Bethesda 2008), pp. 725-736, DOI 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007 (open access). Twenty authors seems like enough, really, although I can’t help feeling that they could also have credited the historian they consulted with (see below) and, after all, this is very far from the most extreme case of multiple authorship I can think of.

2. For the known history, they appealed to Dolors Bramon (ibid. p. 734, Acknowledgements), who is the current expert on what is to be learnt about Christian Iberian history from Islamic sources; her little anthology, De Quan Erem o No Musulmans: Textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’Obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), is a frequent source of great help to me. So that was an unusually good choice, really, but apparently not a research contribution. Hmph.

3. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727, citing E. Bosch, F. Calafell, D. Comas, P. J. Oefner, P. A. Underhill and J. Bertranpetit, “High-resolution analysis of human Y-chromosome variation shows a sharp discontinuity and limited gene flow between Northwestern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula” in American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 68 (Bethesda 2001), pp. 1019–1029, and B. Arredi, E. S. Poloni, S. Paracchini, T. Zerjal, D. M. Fathallah, M. Makrelouf, V. L. Pascali, A. Novelletto and C. Tyler-Smith, “A predominantly neolithic origin for Y-chromosomal DNA variation in North Africa”, ibid. Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 338–345.

4. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727 and describing work by Doron M. Behar and Karl Skorecki; the data is tabulated in the online version of the paper as “Haplogroups and Y-STR Haplotypes of Iberian Peninsula and Sephardic Jewish Samples” here (PDF).

5. Here as elsewhere, the sample from Asturias is just too small to allow significant conclusions, which may be just as well considering how much that one would expect is missing from it. This gives me pause, again, about drawing conclusions too far from the other areas with proportionally lower representation in the samples, including not least Minorca of course.

6. For the somewhat localised nature of the Andalusi state, I am used to citing Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en la época de los Omeyas, Bibliotheca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), though I had the great pleasure of meeting the author this week and he tells me that he would now revise most of it! Extremely frustrating, as I have come to see it as canonical, which may be exactly why he would like to change it. Anyway. For place-names and settlement, the work of resort is by Pierre Guichard, either in French as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977) or trans. into Castilian & rev. as Al-Andalus. Estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente (Granada 1998), though Dr Manzano tells me this too must be considered obsolete now. I don’t know if I’d agree there (or, it turns out, with quite a lot else Dr Manzano would argue, which was fun; more on this in due course). Compare Jessica A. Coope, “Marriage, Kinship, and Islamic Law in Al-Andalus: Reflections on Pierre Guichard’s Al-Ándalus” in al-Masaq Vol. 20 (London 2008), pp. 161-177, which is interesting because it disagrees with Guichard in exactly the opposite direction to Dr Manzano. For an English introduction to these issues, albeit a controversial one, see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797, History of Spain 4 (Oxford 1989). Collins caught it from the critics here because he effectively refuses to use Arabic historical writing, reckoning it all far too late and legendary to be anything other than misleading. There is also, of course, the fact that he doesn’t read Arabic, and this makes him an easy critical target because of course how can he know what he’s missing? but if you compare the exactly contemporary and much more traditional ‘Abdul Wahid Dhanun Taha, The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of North Africa and Spain (London 1989), I would say that it is fairly clear that Collins had a point. The fact that we can get three books like Collins, Taha and Guichard all purportedly telling the same story and disagreeing so incredibly (to say nothing of Manzano’s Frontera) is a measure of how charged these debates are. Without that charge, after all, how could we ever have had the now-legendary Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), to which cf. Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513. I may have become sidetracked here.

7. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, pp. 732-733.

8. Testified to even in the Christian Chronicle of 754, also known as The Mozarabic Chronicle though `Mozarab’ is one of those words that means too many things and should be retired, as translated in Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 9 (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), pp. 111-160 with commentary pp. 25-42, cc. 82-86 in which the chronicler helpfully tells us that he wrote a whole book about this already so won’t repeat himself here. Do we have the book? No, we do not. Ah well. Nonetheless, it is this proximity to events that caused Collins to favour Christian sources over the Arabic ones. On the difficulties with the term `Mozarab’, see Richard Hitchcoock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), passim but esp. pp ix-xx.

9. Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain 409-711, History of Spain 3 (Oxford 2004), pp. 25-26.

10. On which you can see the brief and bracing statements of Guy Halsall, who risks Godwin’s Law at an early stage of a book by comparing Celticism to Germanism in his Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 24-25.

Seminars LXXVII & LXXVIII: into Lyminge and out of Medina

At the very tail end of last term, I went slightly out of my usual paths to go to a couple of papers, Gabor Thomas presenting to the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Medieval Seminar in London to the title, “Settlement Dynamics and Monastic Foundation in pre-Viking England: new perspectives from excavations at Lyminge, Kent” on the 30th November 2010, and then James Howard-Johnston giving the inaugural lecture at the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research on the 3rd December 2010. His title was “The Seventh Century and the Formation of Byzantium”.

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

I’d wanted to chase down Gabor because I’d not been able to make it when he’d presented about the same site in Oxford for some footling reason, and it sounded interesting. As he said at the outset, such a variety of monastic sites have lately been excavated (or in some cases, published having been excavated long before)—Inchmarnock, Portmahomack, Wearmouth-Jarrow, Nendrum—that our pictures of what an early insular monastery looks like in the ground has been greatly diversified just lately. Lyminge is seemingly going to add to this by not looking like the classic church-buildings-inside-a-vallum model that we had once been used to, but like a big basilical affair right next to a royal vill (in which latter respect, at least, it does seem fairly typical).1 It was a mother church for its area that lost its importance once its relics (of St Ethelburga) were moved to Canterbury for protection during the Viking attacks of the ninth century, and the town has more or less left the church alone so there was plenty to find, though much more may well be under houses. There were Frankish artefacts coming up from sixth-century contexts, so we can assume it’s begun in the conversion period, and there are two cemeteries which may relate to the settlement, not the minster (an ambiguous word I use deliberately because we can’t even agree on what the difference is, still less whether we can detect it in the ground).2 A small cluster of sunken-featured buildings showed specialised craft production debris, especially glass of which there was an unusually high amount, including window glass, which some sources would suggest had to be imported from Francia at this time (as indeed it might have been). There was no vallum. There was, however, a large building to the south with a metalled floor which Gabor thought was best explained as a threshing barn, though he did point out that diagnostically it was no different from many things that have been called halls and used to argue for high-status occupation, and invited us to think about that if we like. Being sure what was the vill and what the church, and whether they were united or contemporary was tricky with the data to hand, but it seems clear that the site was busy with stuff and that it helps us broaden in various ways our range of ideas about what a really early Anglo-Saxon church might have been like.

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Rather less specific and local was Professor Howard-Johnston’s lecture, delivered to commemorate the fact that just before the cuts hit Oxford has managed to establish a shiny new and very well-housed Byzantinists’ centre. Few could give better perspective on this than Professor Howard-Johnston, who has been teaching in Oxford for nearly fifty years and remembers being the only postgraduate in the university doing Byzantine stuff. Now there are fifty, almost all of whom (to judge from irreverent murmurings in the stalls) he had taught at some point. This doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, except in as much as he overran badly—but he managed to wrap this into his act, pointing out how many minutes more he’d slipped by every time he finished a section. No-one was going to miss this anyway and he knew it.

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

The sum of the lecture appeared to be an explanation of what I thought was a forthcoming book, but which appears to have actually come forth a little while ago, and which I’m guessing will be very important. One of the problems with teaching the ‘Rise of Islam’ is that almost all the secondary work in English is by Hugh Kennedy. Now, Hugh is a friend and I love his work; he and Rosamond McKitterick vie for top place in number of books I own by academics. But one voice, especially such an authoritatively learned one, does not encourage the students to argue or to go and get messy with the sources, not least because most of the sources are not in languages they read. Hugh’s concentration, especially lately I think it’s fair to say, has been on the Arabic material, which Western scholars grow less and less happy about relying on because of the very long chains of manuscript transmission, over centuries, and because of studies that have (irreverently and disrespectfully, to some more traditional scholars’ minds) checked to see what this transmission was like in the places where it’s possible and found it wanting somewhat.3 Hugh’s most recent book therefore did a deconstruction on this literature looking for the stories it wanted to tell about a past it doesn’t really reflect. Now, however, here is Professor Howard-Johnston saying, well, we need to get all the material on the table together. This results in a very large book (and a consequently sturdy table I assume) in which he has treated the Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Latin and Arabic sources (I may have missed some here) for the Near East in the seventh century and, contrary to the current wisdom, finds that the Arabic material, however shaky it ought to be, is fairly close to the other sources in many matters of fact and chronology.4 It is not that they are without distortion (the capture of Jerusalem, usually placed shortly before 638, was probably much earlier, and the Shi’ite founder ‘Alī’s sons would seem to have fought on for twenty years after he was driven into exile, putting the pact that allowed the Umayyads to rule in more or less peace in 680 not 661 as it is usually reckoned), but it is less bad than has been alleged, or so he himself alleges. This has knock-on effects that will take a long time to consider.

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

In this lecture, however, Professor Howard-Johnston was deploying all this to settle the question, ‘when should we stop talking about the Eastern Roman Empire and start talking about Byzantium?’ For him, this is a question about the rise of Islam, hence all the source-gathering, but he opted for Autumn 644, when the first convoy of African grain came into Medina. We, knowing what was to come, can now see this as the beginning of a new world order, all very Pirennian (and that most famous of Belgians seems to be back in vogue in Oxford this winter as shall be told). To contemporaries, of course, even though the West and Middle East were lost, it was not clear that this would be so definitive; in the end, however, Byzantium is what is left holding out against Islam, and indeed almost the only state of the time that does, buffering the others to its eventual loss. A massive pressure on resources must have resulted, explaining a lot of Byzantium’s subsequent internal problems, and the Turks become very important, which of course also has its problems. But, Byzantium endures, and it endures partly by ceasing trying to be Rome, argued Professor Howard-Johnston: by lowering the scale of its warfare, going guerilla rather than field army, playing enemies off against each other rather than swatting or subverting them individually, fighting sieges not field battles, and fighting almost all the time against a superior superpower. Others might disagree, I suspect, but in this lecture at least, that was the making of Byzantium, a remnant polity forged in a determined effort to survive. It was a good lecture. The book looks like a bit of a challenge, but it’s obviously going to have to come on board after this. Of course, I thought the same about Hugh’s new one after his inaugural lecture, so it will be interesting to see who wins…


1. Chris Lowe, Inchmarnock. An Early Historic island monastery and its archaeological landscape (Edinburgh 2008); Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008); Rosemary Cramp, Wearmouth and Jarrow monastic sites (London 2005), 2 vols; T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides: The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007). These were four of about eight books whose covers Gabor had on a slide, and I’m afraid the only ones I noted; some of the rest was a bit more southern, I think.

2. On which, classically, John Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

3. Most famously Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2004) and now idem, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

4. As you can see above, James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001.

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…