paleo Ideofact

Thursday, January 23, 2003
Aziz Poonawalla, always a friend to Ideofact, offers some verses from the Qur'an and his own glosses to refute the notion that Islam was spread by the sword, along with a little history. This is an interesting historical problem, one that is somewhat related to the Crescent, Cross and Thor's Hammer series I started last week.

I think it's important to consider the condition of Northern Africa in the years prior to the Arab conquest when asking why it was armies professing Islam were able to sweep across such a vast territory in such a short period of time. Rome had fallen as an empire around 475 A.D.; its prior decline and the collapse of trading networks were accompanied by vast migrations. Barbarians descending on the old empire -- Lombards, Franks, Alans, Visigoths and Vandals. The latter group established itself in North Africa in the early 5th Century, eventually choosing Carthage as their capital. Carthage had been one of the breadbaskets of Rome; when the Vandals arrived, exports from the city, after a long period of decline, actually increased, most likely because the Vandals freed the Carthaginians from the onerous Roman taxes. In 534, Belisarius, a Byzantine general, reconquered the city for the Eastern Emporer, Justinian. Taxes went up, and trade declined. The Byzantines were, in other words, not very popular. Added to that was the problem of Orthodoxy: Northern African Christians adhered to any number of schismatic or heretical sects, including Monophysites and Coptic Christians. They had religious, as well as economic, reasons to dislike the Eastern Empire.

By the 7th Century (on the eve of the Islamic conquests) the city of Carthage (and much of Northern Africa) was in dire straits. In the excellent work Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, the authors write,
The last phases of occupation in several buildings near the city wall betray the pitiful condition of Carthage in the seventh century. The British excavators uncovered a comparatively well-preserved mud-brick building, L-shaped in form, dating from the late sixth or early seventh century. After its abandonment the zone was used as a burial ground. Henry Hurst, the excavator, writes that 'late burials occur commonly within the former urban area of Carthage, as in other sites of Byzantine Africa, and are conventionally interpreted as representing a late stage of decline, economically and in terms of population, when large areas of the city were redundant and the traditional regulations requiring burial areas to be outside the city walls were relaxed'. A further building over this graveyard has been interpreted as the home of refugees from the Arabs, who arrived in the province in 695-8. By then, the city was only a shadow of its former self and must have resembled the decaying industrial towns with which, today, we in the West are beginning to become familiar.
Later in the same work, the authors note the Arabs attacked towns and cities ruled by very unpopular Byzantine administrations. In the province of Cyrenaica, in modern Libya, the Copts welcomed the invaders into the city (ultimately a foolish move, because the Arabs soon expelled the Copts). Unlike their barbarian predecessors, the Arab armies quickly abandoned many of the old classical cities and towns, and established new settlements.

Another work, Dominique Sourdel's regrettably out-of-print Medieval Islam, notes
It must be added that other elements, too, were responsible for the ease with which certain towns surrendered to the invaders. The populations of Byzantine Syria, for example, were, as we know, very dissatisfied with the Byzantine rule which was imposed on them, and which expressed itself chiefly in fiscal demands held to be intolerable. Besides, these populations had adopted, from the religious point of view, Christian doctrines which did not conform with orthodoxy as defined by Byzantium. The Monophysite doctrine was there dominant and hostility to official theological formulas, which was usual, was without doubt based on a diffused feeling of discontent rather than on precise intellectual reasoning. In general, the eastern Roman Empire, whose dominion extended to Africa, was composed of provinces too various from an ethnic viewpoint and at the same time too developed culturally to be able to remain for long under the domination of Byzantium. Their inhabitants, who had for many decades observed, and sometimes taken part in, theological quarrels, did not find themselves in a position to reject immediately as a new religion, what appeared to them rather like a simple sect of Christian origin, as contemporary texts suggest. Thus no urban group in a Syria or an Egypt politically or religiously detached from Byzantium had serious reasons for not seeking, by a negotiated capitulation, some satisfactory arrangement permitting it at the same time to preserve the lives and goods of its members in the center of the new regime which these latter themselves helped to make viable.
There is little doubt that the Arab conquests were conquests, but there is also little evidence of "conversion by the sword." Expulsion certainly wasn't a nice fate for the Copts of Cyrenaica (although it seems to be an isolated incident), but again, it's not the same thing as forced conversion.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003
More school lunches
In response to this post, a friend writes:
You're right. To this day, whenever I smell that putrid stench of overcooked canned green beans (which are actually more of a 'grayish-green'), I immediately conjure up memories of 1st grade, where you could tell they were preparing lunch when the whole building began to take on that 'overcooked canned green bean' smell. (Which of course always seemed to mix in with the persistant smell of that elementary school white paste from art.)

Damn, back then, we didn't even have chicken nuggets or tacos. (Am I the only who seems to sense that tacos weren't even introduced into America until around 1978?) All we had were pizza slices and 'cheese wedges'. I never got the cheese wedge thing. Why were they always served with pizza? Did they honestly think that pizza and a piece of cheddar cheese were a balanced diet? Or was that just their way of saying, "we know this pizza sucks, so here is a little piece of cheese to make up for it."
I'd mention some other lunch cafeteria horrors (I'm still haunted by what passed for tartar sauce, which was served with fish sticks -- and, as I recall, the accompanying vegetable was always grey beans), but I don't want to provoke anymore bad flashbacks.

Monday, January 20, 2003
R.I.P. Robert and Linda Braidwood
I've gotten so used to relying on the excellent Cronaca blog for archaeological happenings that I almost missed the sad news that Robert Braidwood and his wife Linda died a few hours apart on the same day in the same hospital. Robert was 95, Linda was 93.

The Times obit notes about Robert,
Dr. Braidwood, a dynamic figure who some say was an inspiration for the famous screen archaeologist Indiana Jones, brought a literary sensibility to his exacting work.

As he set out on his expedition to Turkey in 1963, he said in a statement: "Somewhere in one of perhaps a dozen places in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago, some man made a remarkable observation: he observed that a common weed which he had doubtless collected for eating was growing where he had previously spilled seeds.

"Once man was able to remain in one spot, he was able to start thinking about matters other than gathering food. He was able to begin thinking about his new relationship to other men, new relationships to his immediate surroundings and to those forces in nature which played such a large part in his existence."
I don't know about the Indiana Jones business. I will say this, though: as a freshman in 1982, I took an introductory archaeology course in part because of Indiana Jones. I kept taking them -- majored in anthropology, in fact -- because work like Braidwood's intrigued me. From the Times again:
In decades of work investigating humans' transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to farming and living in villages, the Braidwoods discovered some of the earliest known buildings and copper tools as well as the oldest known piece of cloth.

They also helped transform archaeology from a field primarily devoted to providing museums with recognizable and intact artifacts to a discipline that studies the processes of change.

They helped develop the modern approach to field work, with its painstaking recovery of fragmentary and "nonartifactual" remains, and were among the first to create research teams that included scientists from other disciplines.
The Braidwoods were truly among the pioneers of modern archaeological science. They used field work to test a hypothesis of the previous generation's giant, V. Gordon Childe. Childe argued that agriculture (which, using round numbers, began around 10,000 years ago) began in oases -- or optimal zones, where vegetation and fauna were plentiful enough to support year-round settlement. Childe's idea was that the familiarity a year-round, sedentary community would build up with plants and animals would lead to cultivation and domestication. The Braidwoods found, however, that agriculture began in more marginal areas. If I recall correctly, they theorized that agriculture was a labor-intensive adapation to less-than-optimal climates, and one with profound effects on humanity. I think the earliest Homo Sapiens Sapiens date to somewhere around 90,000 to 100,000 BP, so for nine tenths of the species residence on the planet, we managed to be shirkers. Then someone got stuck with a bad piece of property, and had to go to work to make a living a from it. And there began man's first steps toward civilization. The Braidwoods were among the first to trace that step.