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Sunday, July 20, 2003
The Byzantine betrayal of Syria
I just picked up Crossroads to Islam: The origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State by Judith Koren and the late Yehuda Nevo. Readers of this blog and website know that I consider the latter's Towards a Prehistory of Islam ("TaPhoI") a seminal influence.
This book is an attempt to update the theories of Wansbrough and Crone, and also to bring them into the popular domain. It is, unsurprisingly, published by Prometheus, who also publish Ibn Warraq's books; in fact iW is singled in the Acknowledgements as giving particular encouragement.
This book has been a decade in the making since Nevo's passing. Nevo's organisational skills as employed in TaPhoI were, in my opinion, seriously wanting; here, fortunately, there is no such problem. (Koren deserves high honours for that alone.)
It is divided into three "parts", of which I have read only the first. But that part is mind-blowing enough.
I already knew that the East Roman Empire had reorganised the Syro-Palestinian provinces in the late 3rd century. I also knew that the Empire had firstly devolved its defence responsibilities onto subsidised Arab tribes, and had further allowed organised opposition movements in the form of rival Monophysite (and Nestorian) Christian churches. I had thought that much of this was out of necessity, given barbarian (Avar, Slav) raids from the Balkans. As for alienating the "heresies", I just put that down to bigotry and folly (mostly Justinian I's), of the sort we are used to from Christian fundamentalists.
Nevo and Koren disagree. They think that the Byzantines destroyed their own empire on purpose:
The reason? The Emperor didn't control his own bureaucracy. It decided what the Emperor knew. The Emperor typically took charge violently, and tended to be ignorant of policy. This enabled the civil service, powerful businessmen, and great lords to run the Empire according to Constantinople's interests - not those of its provinces. (pp. 18-21) These interests were to divert Near Eastern trade from the Levantine coast through to Constantinople. Once said coast was in the hands of a "hostile" party - the Arab Caliphate - the Empire could legally blockade its own former ports without having to deal with provincial complaints. (p. 165)
To carry out this grand strategy, Constantinople ensured that, firstly citizenship was associated with Orthodox belief, and secondly Orthodoxy was to be defined and enforced in a way unacceptable to local belief - for example by rendering local saints (Nestorius, Theodoret, etc) posthumous heretics.
Constantinople also ensured the borders were kept on edge, so that the Byzantines could claim them as "indefensible". To do so it provoked silly wars with Persia. The borders were of course not in any natural danger; when the Empire had to fight Persia (in the 600's, say), it won a victory so crushing that the Arabs had no problem filling the vacuum. (p. 23)
Oh, and Constantinople imported Arabs into the provinces. Lots of Arabs. (pp. 71-75) They were trained to maintain the provinces, so when the Empire did walk away, the Arabs simply kept taxing the place on their own authority. (p. 23, 97-98)
And here is the kicker - the entire policy was kept secret for centuries. To provincials loyal to Rome, it was incomprehensible that Rome should give up lucrative provinces to desert barbarians. But Nevo and Koren say that these provinces were more lucrative to the right people if the provinces were outside the Empire than if inside.
If Nevo and Koren are right, this ranks among the greatest and most successful conspiracies in history. And among the greatest betrayals.
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