Sudden Change or Gradual Transition?

A popular perception of the Arab conquest of Palestine as a period of violent transformation persists, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary.

The northern church at Shivta.

We’re in a thriving town in the Negev desert, in the southern part of what is now Israel, in late antiquity, that period straddling the ancient and medieval worlds. The notables are making donations to the local church. Officials are writing, and residents praying, in Greek. The governor of the province asks local residents to serve as guides for visitors and pilgrims to Mt. Sinai. John the priest, son of Wa’li, is granting a divorce to his wife Nonna, daughter of John son of Quthaim. “Between them many griefs were stirred and arguments presented”; the witnesses “all insisted that they remain together and argued with them at length to be reconciled with each other, but they were not deterred” (translation by C. J. Kraemer, Jr.). Welcome to Nessana in the late seventh century CE—some 50 years after the land was conquered by Muslim armies from Arabia.

We get this detailed picture of life in a southern town from a set of documents on papyri, preserved by the exceptionally dry climate, excavated in the 1930s at the site known then in Arabic as Auja el-Hafir, and today in Hebrew as Nitzana. The Nessana Papyri, as the documents are called, consist of two groups: the earlier one from the sixth and early seventh centuries, and the later one from the 670s and 680s. Those later papyri show life going on much as it had a century earlier; we can even trace one of the leading families of the community from the sixth century into the late seventh.

How do we explain this? How much did the Islamic conquest in the 630s really change Palestine? To answer that, we need to go back to the Byzantine period. The period is widely understood as one of great prosperity. We see a series of factors coming together: relative peace, a wetter climate, the rise of the Church as an institution heavily invested in community development, a boom in pilgrimage, and the making of products like wine on a commercial scale. This is not a new synthesis. It has been invoked for decades, by classicists like Philip Mayerson and by archaeologists like Yizhar Hirschfeld. It is not purely incidental that the most characteristic remains in the archaeological record are churches and evidence of the wine industry.

In some ways, the Byzantine period does not stand out as remarkable. If we look at settlement patterns, we see that the real break occurred in the Roman period. The reason appears to be straightforward: water. Before the Romans, settlement in Palestine was restricted to the coast, by springs and wadis, and along major roads. Afterward, people settled everywhere. Surveys in various regions show similar patterns, with previously blank areas of the map filling up during the Roman period. A new ability to find water underground, to transport water and store it, must have made this possible.

In these terms, the Byzantine period just sees the old pattern intensify – the same pattern, just denser. But there is no question that the Byzantine period generally represents the height of settlement and population growth in Palestine until the nineteenth century. A prime reason for this must be religion.

In the early fourth century, Palestine was a small, unimportant province at one edge of the Roman empire. Its population, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, from the Galilee to the Negev, probably numbered somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. When Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire, all this changed. No longer a neglected backwater, it became a new spiritual capital for the empire, paralleling the political reorientation around Constantinople.

This reorientation brought an influx of all sorts of people. For one thing, there was a rise in pilgrimage, arguably one of the first tourist industries, over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries. People came from all around the Mediterranean and beyond to see the biblical sites. Of course, this meant that biblical sites had to be found. Over a period of decades, a number of ancient religious sites were conveniently rediscovered. Tombs, shrines, and houses of everyone, from the Virgin Mary to Rahab, who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho, popped up on the landscape. One lucky, or enterprising, bishop in Eleutheropolis (modern Beit Guvrin) found the tombs of two different Old Testament prophets all by himself. These landmarks were clearly important to local communities. The village of Azekah, in the foothills southwest of Jerusalem, traded in its name—which had a pedigree going back to the Bible—to become Beit Zachariah, after the tomb of the prophet Zachariah was identified there in the early fifth century. (It subsequently became the Arab village of Zakariyya and, after 1948, Moshav Zekharia.)

Along with tourism, another major industry that grew substantially in this period in Palestine was the production of wine. Wine from Palestine, in a distinctive set of storage jars, was traded around the Mediterranean and as far away as Britain and Yemen. Pilgrims would have taken it home with them. But the wine of Palestine wasn’t valued just for being a Holy Land vintage. Ashkelon wine was prized for its medicinal qualities (Have bladder problems? Drink some Ashkelon wine, according to one papyrus from the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus), the wine of Gaza for its taste. The Roman writer Cassiodorus praised the best wine of his native Calabria, in the toe of Italy, by boldly suggesting that it was as good as Gaza wine. The entire stretch of land from Gaza to Ashkelon became one gigantic production center for wine, in order to put it out on a sufficiently commercial scale; in fact, Gaza wine was produced as far down as Negev towns like Elusa (Halutza) and Sobota (Shivta). Archaeological remains of this industry show clear evidence of specialized production, with different sites focusing on different parts of the process: some on the manufacture of storage jars, marked by piles of sherds today; others on pressing the grapes into wine, sometimes in giant industrial presses; still others for transport. Towns thrived in the marginal Negev environment as they turned grapes into a cash crop.

Pilgrims weren’t the only new arrivals. The rise of Christianity also brought monks; the monastic life, after all, was born in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Monks provided room and board for pilgrims—many monasteries had hospices—and served as guides to holy sites. Seemingly, the entire landscape was dotted with monasteries. The monks may have made “the desert a city,” in the famous phrase of the fourth-century bishop Athanasius (and the church historian Derwas Chitty), but others were embedded in the life of cities and towns. In particular, they could be found settled along the southern coastal plain between Gaza and Azotus (Ashdod, at modern-day Tel Ashdod). There, the monasteries were located in villages close to the major cities, and even in the cities of Azotus and its port Azotus Paralus (“Ashdod on the coast,” the site of Ashdod-Yam, five kilometers north-west of Tel Ashdod, within the municipal borders of modern Ashdod). In a monastery near Gaza, the monks Barsanuphius and John managed to serve as communal leaders in the sixth century without communicating directly with the outside world. Residents wrote them a series of questions concerning all sorts of matters, ranging from religious practice to everyday life; the two monks replied in a large series of letters, hundreds of which are preserved. Here too we see the prevalence of wine: “I want to press some Jewish wine in my winepress,” one petitioner wrote. “Is this a sin?” John’s reply is tolerant, if not exactly welcoming of non-Christians: “If, when God sends rain, it rains in your field but not in that of the Jew, then do not press his wine. If, however, God is kind and loving to all and sends rain upon the just as well as the unjust, then why do you prefer to be inhumane rather than compassionate?” (translated by John Chryssavgis).

Christianity’s role is most clearly visible in the number of churches built in this period. Nearly every village seems to have had at least one. Large cities like Jerusalem or Ascalon (Ashkelon) had several, for a population of ten to twenty thousand. And yet Palestine in the Byzantine period was also a kaleidoscope of religious and ethnic groups. This is the period of the Palestinian Talmud—its common name “Jerusalem Talmud” belied by the fact that there was no Jewish presence in Jerusalem at the time. The center of Jewish life in Byzantine Palestine was the Galilee; and yet there were thriving Jewish communities in other parts of Palestine, especially the southern coastal plain, where synagogues are attested at Gaza, Ascalon, and Azotus. The Samaritans were not just limited to the vicinity of Mt. Gerizim, but spread throughout the country, especially around Jaffa and in the coastal cities to its south. Samaritans may have been the largest religious group in the area around Jamnia (Yavneh), from the Bar Kokhba revolt throughout the late Roman and Byzantine periods.

How did this picture change after the Islamic conquest? Initially, not much, at least not on the surface. Very little would have seemed different to most inhabitants of Palestine in the decades following the conquest. Churches continued to be used and repaired, and new ones dedicated—around Jerusalem, in the Hebron hills, in the Galilee. Synagogues continued to be centers of Jewish life and worship, not only in the Galilee but in the southern Hebron hills as well. Samaritans, meanwhile, remained prominent in the southern coastal plain into the ninth and tenth centuries.

As people continued to live in the same places, so they generally continued to use the same names for them. In fact, many of the cities reverted to Arabic forms of their old Semitic names, centuries after they were given Greek ones under the Roman empire. So Diospolis, once Lod and Lydda, now became Ludd; Eleutheropolis, once Betogabra, reverted to Beit Jibrin; Ptolemais, originally Akko, was now Akka.

Far from being prohibited by the new rulers, the wine industry continued to be an important part of the economy of the southern coastal plain under the Umayyads, who ruled between the mid-seventh and mid-eighth centuries. Archaeologists have shown that at least some of the many winepresses in the region continued to be used during this period. Muslims in Palestine and beyond, including some of the caliphs themselves, visited monasteries to enjoy wine. One of the preserved poems of the Umayyad caliph Walid II, a full century after the Islamic conquest, praises the wine of ‘Asqalan (Ashkelon).

Pilgrims continued to come from Europe, though in fewer numbers; the flow was supplemented by increased pilgrimage from the Middle East and the Caucasus. If trade with the Mediterranean fell off, the Indian Ocean trade filled the gap, with increasing connections to central and East Asia—and luxury imports in the form of Chinese porcelain.

The evidence for essential continuity in ways of life is everywhere in the archaeological record: continuity in settlement patterns and material culture is the hallmark of the seventh century. In fact, there is so little change in pottery and artifacts types that Donald Whitcomb, a leading American archaeologist of the Early Islamic period, suggested back in 1990 that the Early Islamic period should be considered as starting at the round number date of 600 CE, as the political changes of the following decades are not reflected in any major way in material remains.

This continuity says something about the conquest of the seventh century. Or rather, conquests: There were actually two invasions of Palestine, some 20 years apart: first by the Sasanian Persians in the 610s, followed by the Islamic conquest of the 630s. Some Jewish and Christian sources indicate that each conquest was destructive, but these texts appear to be polemical and are hard to trust. Muslim sources, by contrast, suggest a conquest of few battles, with the invaders making a number of treaties with individual cities in the Levant instead. Many of these sources are written from a later perspective, but the general picture fits with the archaeological record. There is simply no sign of widespread destruction in the seventh century. The coastal towns may have been most seriously affected by the Islamic conquest: a prolonged siege of Caesarea, Byzantine naval attacks in the following decades, and the conversion of some coastal towns to fortresses in response. But the effect on many places on the coast, like Ascalon, was if anything short-lived.

Neither the Persian nor the Islamic invasion appears to have been especially violent. And, as the Persian presence in Palestine was temporary, it had no long-term consequences. The Islamic conquest was another matter. Where we see its effects is not in any destruction or immediate collapse, but in gradual change. In general, Islamic rule in the wake of the conquest is characterized by some form of tolerance of the established culture—necessary, as the conquerors were a small minority among the total population of the region. (Restrictions on Jews and Christians would have been established over time; though such restrictions are featured in the “Pact of Umar,” traditionally dated to the time of the conquest, this document was probably composed some time later.) Arabic only gradually came to be the dominant language. Islam didn’t supplant Christianity as the major religion of the region for hundreds of years. Many changes, it seems, take place on the scale of centuries.

The Negev towns are a good example. Archaeologists, most notably the University of Haifa’s current Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program, have found significant evidence for change around the mid-sixth century: a shift away from the wine industry, declining urbanism, and a decreased population at multiple sites. And yet in the Umayyad period, over a century later, most of these towns were still inhabited (with at least one, Nessana, prospering). The towns that formed this cluster appear to have been abandoned at different times—Oboda (Avdat) in the the eighth century, Shivta and Nessana perhaps only in the tenth or eleventh, when their farming system also fell out of use. Here, in the most marginal of environments, where we might expect a swift collapse after any stress, the urban system survived an apparent mid-sixth century shock for some 500 years.

We see not a single process of decline or change, but multiple processes, taking place at different times between the late Byzantine period and the Crusades. In the coastal plains, most of the cities on the coast disappear here and there, starting over the course of the sixth century but ending only in the tenth or eleventh, extinguished like a set of candles flickering out, one by one. Many of the villages surrounding these cities were only abandoned toward the end of the Early Islamic period, around the time of the Fatimid caliphate (whether due to climate change or some other reason), with the settlement system finally finished off by the violence of the Crusades. This was the period when the settlement pattern of these areas was finally set: until 1948 there were clusters of Arab villages around Ashkelon—even though it was destroyed in the thirteenth century and remained uninhabited afterwards—and Jaffa, only piercing at those two points the dunes that otherwise ran uninterrupted through the plain. Gradually, Palestine’s ties move from the Mediterranean to the East (eastern pilgrims, the Silk Road), as it becomes part of Middle Eastern caliphates instead of Byzantine empires, and as the coastal cities are ravaged during the Crusades.

But scholars haven’t always reconstructed the Islamic conquest in this way. For most of the twentieth century, archaeologists and historians imagined a highly destructive invasion, one that spelled the immediate (or almost immediate) end of Byzantine prosperity. But over the last few decades, that traditional picture has collapsed. Already in the 1980s, the British historian Hugh Kennedy suggested that Byzantine prosperity in the Levant was already in decline by the second half of the sixth century. For Palestine, the American archaeologist Jodi Magness showed that much Early Islamic pottery had been dated at least a century too early. Many sites believed to have been abandoned or destroyed in the early seventh century were actually inhabited into the eighth century or beyond. The dating of the end of settlement, it turns out, had not been based on secure archaeological chronology, but rather on historical assumption: if occupation at a site appeared to end somewhere in Late Antiquity, it was automatically attributed to the Islamic conquest, since it was assumed to have been destructive in its very nature. The idea of decline caused by destructive Muslim armies had been too attractive to resist.

Besides Magness, international scholars like Robert Schick and Andrew Petersen, as well as Israeli archaeologists like Gideon Avni, have made important contributions confirming the idea that Palestine suffered no major destruction or decline in the seventh century. Today, scholarly debate focuses mostly on what, other than the Islamic conquest, caused decline in late antique Palestine—did it happen in the middle of the sixth century, or only much later?—or on the regional differences of its effects. Any lingering argument over whether there was major collapse immediately following the Islamic conquest has been settled.

But the new consensus of the specialists has yet to resonate with the public. Why? Few archaeologists, whether Israeli or foreign, who work in the country specialize in the period. For instance, there is only one position in the archaeology of the Islamic periods—which cover more than a millennium—at Israeli universities. Most excavations of Early Islamic sites in Palestine are not directed by specialists. They are salvage digs by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, who are perfectly competent excavators but do not focus on the period. Conventional wisdom has a hold, and archaeologists want to fit their finds into a pattern—in this case, the supposed pattern of decline after the Islamic conquest. (The situation, not surprisingly, is different among Palestinians, who focus more on the Islamic periods than their Israeli counterparts, and for whom the Islamic conquest is viewed more positively.)

The conventional wisdom is popular with the media and the public, too. Coverage across the spectrum of Israeli news media (from Haaretz to Arutz Sheva) emphasizes decline, portrays the ancient Arabs in a negative light, or simply ignores the fact that it was Muslims who lived in or ruled over prospering settlements. News stories on Haifa’s Byzantine Negev project, which itself portrays a sudden collapse in the mid-sixth century, inevitably include now-outdated claims that the area was abandoned in the seventh century, or details supposedly confirming Muslim intolerance. It may be that the notion of a devastating Islamic conquest continues to circulate because it serves as a powerful template for understanding modern Arabs and Muslims. The debate over the Islamic conquest, it turns out, is as much about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as it is about the seventh.

Maybe the problem comes from thinking of these changes as “decline” in the first place. It’s one thing to discuss the abandonment of a town, the decrease in population of another, or a drop in wine production. But framing the entire period as one of collapse or decline puts a straitjacket on how we interpret the evidence: we are only left to determine why and when there was a decline. Maybe Byzantine Palestine was less a culmination of prosperity than an unstable bubble in the first place. Some evidence suggests that before the late nineteenth century, there was a ceiling on the population of individual villages and towns in Palestine, and of the country as a whole. The historian Ze’ev Safrai has pointed to the “hyper-urbanization” of the Byzantine period, with the founding of many new cities that couldn’t be supported by the landscape: the coastal stretch from Gaza to Ashkelon, some 20 kilometers, contained no fewer than six cities in the sixth century. This was an unprecedented situation, and it’s not surprising that two of these cities disappear from the records by the end of the century. If the Byzantine period was a bubble, the following centuries would then mark a return to equilibrium. The emphasis on decline has led us to miss what actually happened in these centuries. Strip it away, and we begin to see an entirely new picture.

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