Book Review: The Throne Of Adulis

[Note: This book was the subject of a non-book review earlier [1], but since the book review was not accepted by the journal which originally sent me the book for reasons that the book was not enough of a military history and that it would have been best reviewed by a specialist in late classical studies rather than a learned generalist, the review is below for interested readers.]

The Throne Of Adulis is, at its core, a book that has a great deal of interest to say about the political and diplomatic history of the Axumite Empire and its neighbors and allies and enemies. Given that this particular area of study is one that is little understood and poorly attested to in surviving documentation, Professor Bowersock cautiously but insistently advances a thesis that the imperialistic aims of the Axumite state to be overlords the kingdom of Himyar, driven by both irredentist claims to rule over southern Arabia as well as the desire to protect Christian co-coreligionists being oppressed by a powerful Persian-supported Jewish kingdom in what is now Yemen, and which were supported by the Byzantine Empire for ideological and geopolitical reasons, were an important element in providing the context and cultural ferment that allowed Islam to develop and that had a fateful consequence on the history of the world as a whole. Given the importance of the author’s startling and provocative claim, it is not surprising at all that the author is so cautious in warming up to his theme, instead spending most of the text setting the textual support for the importance of obscure Axumite history in the development of a coherent Muslim Arab identity.

G.W. Bowersock is a professor emeritus for ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Before retiring from active teaching in 2005, he taught classics and ancient history in universities including several colleges of Oxford University as well as Harvard University. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including previous books on Byzantine history (Julian The Apostate), Roman history (Roman Arabia), and art history (Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam). Many of these previous books also dealt with the subject matter of the history of Arabia and the beginnings of Islam, which form part of the context of this particular work as well. In writing about the history of Ethiopian involvement in Yemen, the author is working within a geographical and chronological and cultural milieu dealing with matters of Greco-Roman culture and language, art, and religion that are familiar to him.

The author develops his narrative of Axumite power over the course of nine short chapters. The book begins with an examination of the votive throne of Adulis itself and its textual similarities with a nearby Hellenistic victory stele by Ptolemy III, whose language was copied by the unknown Axumite nagus who commissioned the throne in the first place. Then the author discusses the importance of Adulis as the point of access between Axum and the outside world, as well as the importance of Christian travelers in recording what we know about Axumite history and epigraphy. Then there is a brief chapter on Ptolemy’s elephants, which recounts the historical context that viewed Adulis as an strategic place in East Africa from the third century BCE. Several chapters then examine the rise of the Kingdom of Axum as well as its distinctive religious beliefs and the process by which the kingdom chose Christianity (specifically a monophysite Christian faith that was similar to the Nestorian Christians of the Middle East and distinct from the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire). After this the author discusses the concurrent conversion of the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar to Judaism, and the anti-Christian pogroms that provided the causus belli for the Axumite invasion of 525 which led to a brief but important Ethiopian rule over Yemen. This war, in turn, led to further conflict and maneuver between the Byzantine and Persian Empires who had long fought for domination in the Middle East, which provided a tumultuous space in the Arabian peninsula that led, eventually, to the development of a powerful Muslim state, some of whose leaders were protected by Axum from pagan Arabs hostile to Mohammed and his new religion. Although many of these chapters deal with distinct subject matter, as a whole they seek to integrate Axum into the Greco-Roman world and justify its importance to the history of the Middle East in the period just before the rise of the Arabs in the 7th Century CE.

In order to understand both the cautiousness as well as the ambition of the author’s claim as to the importance of Axumite history and the larger imperial competition between the Byzantine and Persian empires, it is worthwhile to look representative samples from both the beginning and end of this work, to see the gradual but profound change from a cautious tone like this:
“The Adulis throne, as Cosmas describes it, bears a close resemblance to the thirty odd examples that have been discovered in Ethiopia, but the placement of the seat of the throne on top of pillars at the four corners of the base is altogether unexampled. The sides and back, however, appear consistent with examples that do survive, and the German excavators at Axum have proposed a drawing of the throne in a form comparable to those they discovered. Since what Cosmas saw may have been made considerably earlier than any of the ancient thrones that the German excavators discovered, it is not impossible that his throne had a more archaic design (18).”

This cautious tone, carefully hedged with qualifying phrases like “it is not impossible” or “appear consistent” and “may have been made” can be contrasted with the much more bold statement about Mohammed’s difficult task as a theologian:
“The paradoxical double sense of the word hanif or hanifi, which allows it to describe both a Believer and a pagan, implies a world in which there could be both true and false monotheisms. The struggles between the Jews and Christians had already demonstrated this. But polytheism had to be reckoned in as well, and the dualist Zoroastrianism of the Persians, who worked in concert with the monotheist Jews, showed that there was no inevitable alignment through visions of the godhead. Hence Muhammad had to steer a course that was as treacherous theologically as it was politically and militarily (130).”

The main argument of this book is that the power of Axum in the 6th century CE was a major element in the development of Islam about 150 years later. The evidence used to support this claim is impressive and complex. Included in this evidence is the throne of Adulis itself, along with the victory stele of Ptolemy near the throne, the writings of several Greek-speaking travelers to the Red Sea over the course of several centuries, Axumite artifacts proclaiming changing religious beliefs and distinctive shades of meaning in multilingual inscriptions, as well as textual evidence from surviving ambassadorial documentation about the behavior of the Persians, the rulers of Himyar, Axum, and the Byzantine empire. Included in this are the accounts of martyrs as well as discussions of religious disputes. It is only at the end of the book where the author leaves aside the texts and makes his own statements about the history of early Islam, statements that are all the more curious in being more dogmatic while being less well-supported than the rest of the book, which is written in a far more cautious tone.

One of the most admirable aspects of this particular work is the honest and straightforward way in which Bowersock pays his debts to a diverse but small group of scholars who have helped to provide illuminating research on the subject of Ethiopian-Yemeni conflict. On the side of established experts who laid the foundation for Bowersock’s own research are those like A.F.L. Beeston, who first identified “The Authorship of the Adulis Throne” in 1980 as an unsolved problem. On the side of younger scholars just entering this field there is a similar praise from Bowersock to a former Princeton graduate student, George Hatke, who wrote and successfully defended a thesis in 2010 about Aksumite relations with Himyar in the sixth century CE. As an author generous with praise to those who have researched matters of Ethiopian and Arab and Roman/Byzantine history and their complex intersections, his criticism of various conclusions appears less harsh than it would otherwise be. Also of particular value is the fact that this book takes an approach that puts the excellent but obscure and narrowly focused aspect of much of the research about Axum and its neighbors and places it in a much larger context where its significance is much more clear, with an approach that cautiously avoids overstating the evidence that is available and qualifies its statements where there is significant doubt due to the relative paucity of Axumite texts. The author even, thoughtfully, distinguishes between two similarly-named individuals at about the same time, one of whom was a Byzantine ambassador to the Axumite court, and the other of whom was the pro-Christian ruler of Himyar after the successful Axumite invasion of 525, which is an area that could confuse many readers. Through this nuance and explanation the author manages mostly to avoid stating more than can be confidently supported by the historical record and helps the reader to avoid misunderstanding that historical record as well.

As this book is written mainly to those who have some interest or knowledge already in the world of Late Antiquity, its language and style present barriers to readers who do not have the requisite vocabulary in a wide range of subjects ranging from archeology to theology. Readers who are able to handle the very dry and academic tone of this work, which makes no concessions to mass appeal, will find much to appreciate if they share with the author an interest in political, religious, and diplomatic history as it relates to Ethiopia, Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, Persia, and the Byzantine Empire. The author is cautious where the evidence is limited, pointing to his own theories even as he admits the other possibilities that are known from the historical record, and is considerably more sympathetic to the claims of Mohammed than he is to the behavior of the Jewish rulers of Himyar, the pagan Arabs of Mecca, or the claims of the Axumite rulers to be descended from Solomon. Nevertheless, this work succeeds well in defending of the importance of Axum both in sheltering Muslims during the early period of Islam as well as the role of Axum providing through its invasion of Himyar part of the context by which Islam came into being. The book also provides a thoughtful examination of the surviving textual evidence about Axum, Adulis, and Meroe and their importance to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine worlds. This is a considerable achievement for a work whose main text (apart from introductory material, notes, indices, and an Appendix on a Byzantine family of ambassadors to Axum) is only 135 pages in length. For those readers who share the author’s broad interests and are not deterred by the author’s language, this is a worthwhile and short read.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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