Book Review

DENIS GENEQUAND. Les établissements des élites omeyyades en Palmyrène et au Proche-Orient (Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 200). xviii+462 pages, 391 colour and b&w illustrations, 5 tables. 2012. Beirut: IFPO; 978-2-35159-380-6 hardback €100.

Review by Clive Foss
Department of History, Georgetown University, USA

Foss image

Palmyra conjures up exotic visions of intercontinental caravans, the warrior-queen Zenobia, or columns and arches rising improbably from the desert sands. There may be nothing exotic about this book, but it is a monumental scholarly study of great importance for understanding the world of early Islam by focusing on Palmyra and the vast arid region of central Syria that surrounds it.

After Zenobia succumbed to the emperor Aurelian in AD 272, Palmyra entered into a decline exacerbated when Nisibis, far to the north, was given the monopoly of trade between Rome and Persia. The sixth-century historian Procopius even reports that Palmyra was deserted when Justinian rebuilt its fortifications. In fact, recent excavations reveal that the city, adorned by new churches, continued to prosper, if on a somewhat reduced scale, and positively flourished under the Umayyads who built a new marketplace and congregational mosque.

This introductory example hints at the merits of this work: it makes intensive use of the archaeological record for a time when other, written evidence is sparse or lacking; it puts its main focus, the Umayyad period, in context by examining the early Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries); and it illuminates the Umayyads in a way that few have done before.

The Umayyad century (AD 660–750) is a crucial period in the history of Eurasia, for it saw the creation of an empire that stretched from Spain to India, as well as the first public and monumental profession of Islam (as evidenced by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for example). The new state, ruled from Damascus, based its power on the fighting tribes of Syria. Its history, however, was written under its successors and enemies, the Abbasids (whose capital was Baghdad), and reveals little of the Umayyad state and society and virtually nothing about Syria. For that, new sources are necessary, notably the record of archaeology, where numerous sites of greater Syria (which includes Palestine) have been surveyed or excavated. Hence the importance of this work, which fully exploits this material.

Genequand begins with cities: Palmyra; al-Bakhra, 20km to the south, whose seventh-century development classes it as intermediate between Roman and Islamic urbanism; and, in greatest detail, Qasr al-Khayr al-Sharqi, a vast new city in the northern desert. The latter, founded by the caliph Hisham in 728, stretches over 10km2 and includes a large palace, a mosque, a bath and enclosures for agriculture with a water supply brought from 27km away. One of the merits of Genequand's work is its comprehensive view, not only dealing with palaces, churches and other monuments, but also looking at each site as a whole. This enables him to show that Qasr al-Khayr was home to a large population as well as the palace aristocracy and that it was intended as a new self-sufficient city with political, economic, agricultural and residential functions. It did not flourish long, being abandoned around 900. Nothing tells us who actually lived there.

Consideration of other similar sites in the region reveals much continuity from the early Byzantine period as well as many new establishments, most of them abandoned after the fall of the Umayyads, with the important conclusion that the major rupture here was not with the Arab conquest, but with the advent of the Abbasids.

Genequand examines 38 sites from Aqaba in the south to Madinat al-Far north of the Euphrates, all of rectangular plan with palaces or large residences. He puts them into eight categories, from isolated residences to large palaces and new cities. The latter, such as Anjar, Aqaba or Ramla, have in common an orthogonal plan, administrative buildings, congregational mosques, hierarchical residences, industry and commerce, and often colonnaded streets and baths. These were evidently headquarters of princes, governors and military commanders. Most of the sites, though, do not manifest all these characteristics but combine residences with installations for agriculture (olive and wine presses, water mills) and water supplies (from aqueducts or dams, some quite large). In all cases, Genequand studies remains not previously noted or understood. The text is admirably complemented by detailed site plans and very generous illustration.

All this leads to the central question: did these establishments have a significant agricultural role and if so were they profitable? The answer to the first is an emphatic 'yes', the second 'probably' since some of them long survived the Umayyads. Next, what were they used for?—and here is the most intriguing part of the story. Virtually none of them is mentioned in the historical record; archaeology alone reveals the extent of large agricultural estates in Umayyad Syria. They imply the existence of a rich elite, investing in the land, where, loyal to their tribal origins, they resided. This would be suitable for a region dominated by the Kalb tribes, who formed the bulwark of Umayyad power. The grandest of these sites can be associated with caliphs and their families, but these so-called desert castles were not, as often supposed, mere pleasure domes where the rulers could indulge their taste for wine, women and song out of sight of the urban faithful, but played a significant political role as the places where the rulers met the tribal leaders in suitably impressive settings. They mark the Umayyad control of the region and manifestation of their power, as well as the rise of a rural elite exploiting the country far more thoroughly than either their predecessors or successors.

When the conclusions of this work are integrated into the political, social and economic history of the period, they will make a major contribution to our understanding of a complex, important and often obscure period. Meanwhile, this work offers much provocative material for anyone interested in the Late Antique or early Islamic Near East. But, be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted or the general reader. Although clearly written and well organised, it presents a formidable array of detailed archaeological material which is not easy for the uninitiated. Nevertheless, it is a work of considerable importance for its presentation and analysis of information never available before.