Palmyra, Hatra, Nineveh – the list is long and continues to grow. Ancient cities that have weathered centuries have all been savagely attacked in a frenzy of human destruction. These Middle Eastern archaeological sites link the modern and ancient worlds, providing historians with a source of rich information, delight to adventurers, and tourist revenue for their host countries.

The remains of these and other sites that ISIS has systematically vandalized now exist primarily in photographs, maps, ancient scripts and modern research. A new book, Arabs and Empires before Islam provides a timely and sobering look at the politics and cultures operating in the Middle East prior to the rise of Islam in the seventh century.


Greg Fisher is an associate professor of Greek and Roman studies at Carleton University’s College of the Humanities


Greg Fisher, associate professor of Greek and Roman studies at Carleton University’s College of the Humanities, proposed, edited, and co-wrote the book along with 20 internationally renowned historians and scholars of the ancient world.

In hindsight, Fisher’s submission to the Oxford University Press seems prescient as the world now grapples with current Middle Eastern conflicts. Up until 2010 small amounts of information pertaining to pre-Islamic Arabs were scattered among different sources and in different languages. Fisher proposed pulling these together in English translation into one compendium.

“It’s intended to be the major resource for Arabs in the pre-Islamic period, covering Greek, Latin, Persian, Syriac and Arab texts, archaeological sites, inscriptions from the regions from Ethiopia to Syria and Yemen to Iraq,” said Fisher.

The book includes maps, images, poetry, graffiti and accounts of battles from multiple perspectives including contemporary Roman and Persian records, and later interpretations by Arab historians.


The book required a large amount of unpaid work by a handful of eminent scholars who already had work commitments elsewhere. Eventually a core group of researchers committed to work together to determine the book’s content. The authors sifted through previously published works and set aside already well-known historical accounts in favour of including content that had either never been published before or had not previously been available in English.

And it wasn’t without its challenges. In its infancy, Arabic was a spoken language without a script of its own. Until an Arabic script developed in the sixth century, written information in the Arabic language was recorded in Greek or in scripts associated with other languages. Compounding the issue is that some records were recorded on soft materials like papyrus or wood that haven’t survived over time.

“The information pertaining to South Arabia was especially problematic because there are only five or six scholars with the depth and breadth of expertise on the region who would be qualified to contribute a chapter,” said Fisher. “Christian Julien Robin, the pre-eminent expert on South Arabia agreed to participate which resulted in material that has never before been published.”

Another complication for scholars has been the presumed nomadic life of many of the pre-Islamic Arab tribes. Historical data is difficult to collect because archaeological evidence for people thought to be nomads is not always easy to identify. In turn, the Romans could be dismissive of those people who followed an “uncivilized” life style different to their own. Scholars have had to rely on what has survived of the Roman and Persian records. These often portray Arabs in one-sided, jaundiced accounts.


In fact, merchants, trade and religious practices flourished among Arab tribes. “The Arab world was not isolated. It was connected with Persian and Roman society and Islam partly grew out of this,” said Fisher. “Beyond the scholarly world few realize the religious diversity of the Arabs in Syria and Arabia which included Jews, Christians and pagans. And not everyone in “Arabia”, like South Arabians and Yemenis considered themselves to be Arabs.”

For their part, the Roman and Persian Empires occasionally protected and encouraged multiculturalism and diversity among their allies to ensure the survival of their own empires.

Early Islam partly developed in an urban environment. It wasn’t until the period between the eighth to tenth centuries that Muslim writers began to romanticize Bedouins and their presumed nomadic way of life. Such writers asserted that city dwellers could never completely understand Muslim Arab history without the “nomadic experience” and certainly not to the degree the Bedouins were able to.

When Fisher began working on Arabs and Empires before Islam the archeological site of Hatra remained unscathed by the war in Iraq. By the time the book was published the site had been severely damaged by ISIS. Ironically, history shows that the caliphate ISIS claims is the only legitimate form of Islam, was in fact the antithesis of the society they are currently attempting to destroy.

In capturing the past, Arabs and Empires before Islam might also be regarded as an epitaph for the present day. “Syria’s infrastructure is gone, its society smashed and history is in the process of being erased,” said Fisher. “The country and its history is almost beyond being salvaged. Syria has ripped itself to pieces.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 in , ,
Share: Twitter, Facebook