The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, June 13, 2005

Sugar land

Roger Simon has a post on Khuzestan (h/t Reynolds). This place is a satrapy of Iran on its border with southern Iraqi Mesopotamia. Apparently it is now culturally and linguistically Arabic, and dissatisfied with life in Khamanei's Persian empire.

Simon's first reaction to mention of Khuzestan is, "Where?" This is as good an opportunity as any for an 'Irâqi-history brain dump (c.f. Zaydism); so here follows what I know of the place -

Non-Muslim historians of Islam's beginnings actually do (or should) have a working knowledge of Khuzistan. This is due to the vicissitudes of document preservation; not much survives of the era, but one such survival is an eastern-Aramaic Nestorian chronicle which dealt with Khuzistan (of all places) covering 540-650s AD. Ignazio Guidi discovered this thing in 1889, and Alphonse Mingana translated it into French in Sources Syriaques. For Mingana, it was notable as a witness to Islamic doctrine written at latest under 'Abd al-Mâlik's caliphate (c. 690 AD). For my part, I kept getting it confused with the western Syriac "Maronite Chronicle", which deals with events from around 659-662 AD in Syria and on behalf of the Nestorians' rivals in Aramaic-speaking Christianity. When I first heard of a Khuzistan Syriac chronicle, my reaction was similar to Simon's: "where the hell is that?" Khuzistan was just as marginal in the 640s AD, but during this time it happened to lie on the Arabs' eastward line of march.

As a point of historical trivia, Khuzistan exists where the Biblical kingdom of Elam once existed. Elam was not marginal back when Babylon and Assyria were the Great Kingdoms of the Bronze and early Iron Ages. If it were still called "Elam" - or better, retained the Elamite language - the place would be an anthropologists' Mecca, so to speak. But after Ashurbanipal destroyed the Elamite kingdom c. 640 BC, the land of Elam became a frontier, and important mostly when said frontier was in dispute. When there was no dispute, the Aramaeans and Arabs cared about it only as a sugar (huzayé / khuz) plantation, hence its name. This status was not interrupted until the twentieth-century AD mass production of oil.

The Khuzistan chronicle still hasn't been translated fully into English; but it does exist in Syriac (obviously) and in translation in French, Latin, and Arabic. Mingana's seminal 1917 article "The Transmission of the Koran" (The Origins of the Koran, Ibn Warraq, pp. 97-113) has excerpts of it, and Robert G Hoyland's 1997 overview Seeing Islam as Others Saw It has more.

From the Chronicle, we can surmise that Beth Huzayé was a restive Persian province in 640 AD as in 500 BC and as now. In 640 AD the soon-to-be-"Khuzistanis" were Nestorian Christians, like their Mesopotamian neighbours; and spoke eastern "Syriac" (i.e. the last stage of Aramaic), again, like the Mesopotamians. The Chronicle represents the party of the Nestorian Church in the region. During the Arab incursion, Isho'yahb II of Gadala (r. 628-646 AD) was their pope, whom they title "Cathlicos", and had his seat in Mahoze.

After the battle of Ctesiphon in 637 AD, the Persians were forced into a defensive retreat from the new Arab empire. The Persian king took a look at his culturally-Semitic sugar land and decided not to defend it. From the regional perspective, as the Chronicle relates it, a Biblical plague of "the sons of Ishmael" conquered Persia, during which time "Arabs" poured into Beth Huzayé. The Arabs massacred the Christians of Mahoze and bore the city's gates back to their city of "Aqula". An Isho'yahb there, either II or III (of Adiabene: r. 649-659 AD), was obliged to move his seat from there to Karka (Hoyland p. 186).

The Chronicle tells that Aqula "named Kufa" was founded by a Sa'd bin [Abî] Waqqas. Arab accounts agree that Sa'd's city was Kufa near pre-Islamic Hira. This also suggests that the Arab grand strategy was a decentralised affair, to such an extent that the locals did not deem important the names or even existence of 'Umar and 'Uthman, despite that they had at least heard of Muhammad. (Hoyland pp. 186-7)

Kufa's role in the east cannot have postdated 650 AD. On that date, 'Uthman reorganised command of that front, reassigning its headquarters to Basra (c.f. Hinds, "The Conquest of Fars"). In addition, while we do not know what Isho'yahb II said of the Arabs who conquered Iraq and Khuzistan; Isho'yahb III viewed the Arabs as allies and patrons of Nestorian Christianity, and knew Isho'yahb II's old seat of Mahoze as the site of a subordinate bishopric from the mid 640s AD on (Hoyland p. 176). The Chronicle's Isho'yahb cannot be Isho'yahb III and so must be II.

(A further aside on the Chronicle's date of authorship: Hoyland further surmises that the Khuzistan Chronicle dates not long after 652 AD (pp. 183-5). To that I would add that the biographies of 'Umar and 'Uthman should have mattered to a centralising Marwanid ruler like 'Abd al-Malik and even to Mu'awiya before him, and that the Chronicle saw no need to distinguish between the exiled Isho'yahb II and the coddled Isho'yahb III; so it may even precede the latter's consolidation of his position.)

When Isho'yahb II left Khuzistan, the province lost its relevance to eastern Christianity. Over the centuries its inhabitants have largely abandoned the Aramaic language and the Nestorian religion. They have not however abandoned their ties to Mesopotamia. Now that the Mesopotamians are "Arabs" and Muslims (and occasionally Mandaeans), so too are the Khuzistanis.

UPDATE 11/13/2016: when Elymais became Beth Huzayé.

posted by Zimri on 18:50 | link | 0 comments

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