War and peace on the Byzantine-Islamic border

Given the current events on what was the much disputed border between Rome/Byzantium and the Sassanid/Persian empires this book may make interesting reading, but the sad fact is that visiting many of the areas under discussion is now impossible unless one is in the Turkish army or wanting to join ISIL.

A review by Marion James

First published in Sunday’s Zaman, 15 August 2015

Turkey’s southeastern border lands, which are sadly becoming the focus of world attention due to neighboring conflicts and a reawakening of internal violence, are not just of geopolitical importance; they are strikingly beautiful.

Two of the most famous rivers of the world — the Tigris and the Euphrates — flow through, their names conjuring up images of the Garden of Eden and a peaceful paradise on earth.

When the decades-long conflict between terrorists and the Turkish government found a lull in a cease-fire, many people took the opportunity to do a GAP tour, so named for the initials in Turkish of a major project to dam the rivers and bring hydro-electrical power and irrigation to the region.

Cities such as Gaziantep are famous for copper and baklava; Abraham’s city of Urfa and many more began to open up to tourists. Boutique hotels sprung up in converted stone houses and charming restaurants and world-class museums were opened. One small town that benefited from the rush of tourists — both locals and foreigners — is Mardin, whose terraced houses and sandy-golden stone became iconic once money had been spent on restoration.

But the real star of the area is the scenery. I can recall sitting on a terrace in the evening in Mardin looking out across the vast Mesopotamian plain that stretched out below us. The lights twinkling in the distance, our tour guide informed us, were in Syria. We could look out across fertile land and a peaceful, unprotected border.

Tragically, now looking at the plain you look across to towns and villages ravaged by war, some in the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), where horrific atrocities have occurred. You look across land which is crossed over by desperate refugees fleeing from ISIL fighters.

The plain and the border lands some thousand years ago were called the “thughur.” They broadly cover the stretch of lowlands to the south of the Taurus Mountains — from Tarsus at the western point, then via Antakya and Kahramanmaraş up to the plain just below Malatya in the east. It seems this whole frontier area has been fought over for centuries. Back in the seventh century the Emperor Heraclius uttered a famous lament when retreating from this plain across the Taurus Mountains near Tarsus:

“Peace unto thee, O Syria, and what an excellent country this is for the enemy… What a benefit you will be for the enemy because of all the pasturage, fertile soil and other amenities you provide.”

This quotation is chosen by Associate Professor Asa Eger as the starting point for his groundbreaking analysis of this borderland from the seventh to the 10th century in his book “The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier,” newly published by IB Tauris.

His basic premise, reached through reassessment of archaeological surveys in the area, is that the traditional view of this frontier as a no man’s land forming a physical and ideological frontier between the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs is too simplistic a bipolar description and is far from the truth.

Instead, for Eger, this is a frontier of settlement and interaction, and he develops this theory throughout this detailed academic work. In the past there were no borders, as we know them now; this concept came in with contemporary nationalism. Instead, traditional scholarship concerning this area cites a contested patch of empty land with annual border raids launched between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb.

At first sight this doesn’t look very relevant to understanding the world today and would appear to be a study of interest only to museum curators. But as we begin to examine this area with him, we come across places such as the Amuk Valley near Antakya and the town of Dabiq in Syria, north of Aleppo.

These two names suddenly rang bells of warning and of relevance. If we understand anything about why ISIL is focused on this particular patch of land rather than attacking and invading any other part of God’s earth, these two names will resonate with us. ISIL calls their English-language magazine Dabiq, and base their war on an eschatological theology built on a single hadith:

“The Last Hour will not come until the Romans land at al-A’muq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best [soldiers] of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina [to counteract them].”

More worrying for those of us in İstanbul, their literature also often contains another hadith attributed to the Son of Hibban, At-Tirmizi, Abuya’li, At-Tabarani, Al Bazaar, Abu Nuaym and Al Hakim: “The Romans will surround a leader from my children. His name will be the same as mine [i.e., the Mahdi]. They will fight each other at a place called al-Amaq and one-third, or thereabouts, of the Muslims will be killed. They will fight again on another day and again one-third or thereabouts of the Muslims will be killed. On the third day they will fight again and the Romans will be defeated. And they will remain there until they open Constantinople. It is whilst they are distributing the spoils of war that a messenger will come informing them that the false messiah is in their home town with their children.”

This related hadith that mentions the fall of Constantinople, when linked to the fact that the Byzantines are the citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire, leads many Muslim scholars to disagree with the ISIL interpretation of these being end-times prophecies. Instead they see these prophecies of conflict in the Amak valley and Dabiq as being fulfilled in the eight centuries after the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

This modern jihadi rhetoric gives urgency to understanding the history of this region in the seventh to 12th centuries. Eger refutes a historical narrative of Holy War and re-analyzes archaeological evidence to recreate a frontier with mixed settlements, in a land which was fertile for crops and ideal for pastoral existence, where conflict was the expression of competition for scarce resources.

Given that the subject is so important in governing our current attitudes to the possibility for Islamists and non-Islamists or those of other religions to exist together in the region, it is a pity that the subject is treated in such an academic manner. The descriptions of the facts and figures of the archeological surveys are long; the passages describing daily life are short. Much evidence is given concerning buildings and objects left behind; few details are given as to how society functioned and how these buildings and objects would have been used. An opportunity to capture the imagination of the non-academic world has been sadly missed.

Nevertheless, Eger is to be credited with questioning previous assumptions, and introducing a sea-change in the way academics view this period. Hopefully future researchers and historians will build on this introduction and give us a more lively and exciting overview of life in this frontier.


Buy The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier: Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities (Library of Middle East History) here.

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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