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Timothy Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate AD 500–1000

Cairo, The American University in Cairo Press, 2012, xiv + 363 pages
Daniel Martin Varisco
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Timothy Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate AD 500-1000, Cairo, The American University in Cairo Press, 2012, xiv + 363 p., ISBN 978 977 416 544 3.

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1Interest in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade network crosses many disciplines and stretches from the earliest contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia through the Suez Canal, to the present. Much of the previous study has focused on the Roman period, the Mamluk/Rasulid period and the impact of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. Timothy Power has made a substantive contribution to the field with his survey of the archaeological evidence, much of it since the 1980s, for late antiquity and the early Islamic era. He presents this as a ‘desk-based assessment,’ pulling together data with the intention of undertaking future archaeological work. The result is an impressive synthesis with a 77‑page bibliography. To take his metaphor one step further, this assessment was made on a very large desk indeed. No one interested in the Red Sea region for any time period should neglect this useful resource.

2The author is not without previous experience on archaeological excavations in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, but he is careful to point out that his goal is to summarize the available material, a starting point requiring further revision. There are simply too many understudied sources, too many languages involved and too broad a time span to establish a definitive assessment at this time. The title is in one sense misleading, since Power’s analysis begins in earnest with the late Roman period of 325–525 CE in Chapter One rather than the arbitrary date of 500 (perhaps added by the publisher). This is preceded by a succinct introduction to the chronological and geographical parameters of Red Sea Studies. The second chapter deals with the ‘Contested Hegemony (CA. 525–685)’ of Ethiopians, Persians and Arabs, including the formation of Islam in the region. The third chapter, entitled ‘The “Long” Eighth Century (CA. 685–830)’, focuses on the major ports in the Sinai, Hejaz, Yemen and Sudan. Chapter Four, ‘The Early Islamic Bahr al-Qulzum (CA 830–970)’ also focuses on the major ports in the region during this time. The conclusion addresses what Power calls the ‘“Long” late antiquity,’ covering the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Muslim conquests and the setting for the world that opens up in the texts of the Cairo Geniza. In addition to the narrative, 8 maps are provided, along with a gazetteer of sites keyed to references from early Arab geographers.

3One of the major advantages of this survey is that the author links the archaeological evidence, which is still quite meager for this time period, with historical texts in Arabic. Power makes an important point by stressing that interpretation of this time period has overemphasized the whiggish views in the archive of the Cairo Geniza and the major Mamluk texts. He concludes that ‘the natural environment of the Red Sea region was neither as barren nor as dangerous as has traditionally been understood’ (p. 18). In addition, he notes that the ‘rise and demise’ of local ports must be seen in relation to the distribution of local produce and not simply long-distance travel to India and pilgrimage needs. I think this point could be expanded to recognize the significance of local traffic between the East African coast and the Yemeni Tihama, which was no doubt extensive throughout the entire time period but would not show up in the major Arab geographical and historical texts.

4The bulk of analysis covers the success of the Islamic conquests, which Power rightly notes ‘came not from the swords of the soldiers but from the pens of the administrators’ (p. 62). His discussion of the transition to the Islamic caliphate is particularly useful, including a cautious appraisal of what can be known about colorful figures such as Dhu Nuwas and Abraha, shrouded in legend. His knowledge of the sources on Yemen’s early history makes his survey all the more valuable, since much previous attention has been on the Sinai and the Egyptian coast. Yemen was particularly noted for its mines, described in some detail by the 10th century savant al‑Hamdani, and clearly a draw for invading forces in the early Islamic period. Yemen’s distance from the seat of caliphal power, whether in Damascus or Baghdad, combined with its geographical diversity, make it an area that no single power ever completely controlled, even during the zenith of the Rasulid dynasty at the end of the 13th century.

5A significant part of the book is devoted to Yemen, including its mines and those in the Asir region. Power notes that there is archaeological evidence for trade in Yemeni cotton textiles from Yemen to ‘Ayla (Aqaba) in the early Islamic period (p. 107). He suggests that the evidence for Zabid in the Yemeni Tihama indicates a military garrison more than a trade center for its first 200 years (p. 127). The first three centuries of Yemen in the Islamic era are poorly documented, the main texts by Yemenis being the work of al‑Hamdani and the flawed history of ‘Umara, so that it is difficult to reconstruct this early history with any accuracy. This is a call for new archaeological work in Yemen on this poorly known period. As Power rightly notes, there is virtually no reliable archaeological data for the important southern Yemeni port of Aden, in part since the modern city covers much of the older parts. The historical sources suggest that it had become the principle entrepôt of Yemen by the second half of the ninth century. Unfortunately, the historical evidence on Aden is not very useful until the Geniza archive and the early 13th century travel text of Ibn al‑Mujawir, masterfully translated by G. Rex Smith.

6Pottery is a major chronological marker, as well as an indicator of geographical reach; Power describes some of the findings from both Zabid, excavated by Ed Keall, and al‑Shihr, excavated by Claire Hardy‑Guilbert, While attention in other texts is often paid to the commodities traded via the port of Aden, Power discusses a number of local exports, including the reddish dye wars (false saffron or Flemingia grahamiana), the black dye khitr, frankincense and the cloth known as ‘asb (p. 176), as well as other textiles. The trade in hides and basic foodstuffs should also be added, especially those exported to Mecca.

7In sum, Power provides a refreshing overview of a region that has often received less attention than the Mediterranean or the greater Levant. The primary value of his work, even as tentative as the author notes at times, is that it combines the growing body of archaeological evidence with the historical sources. Given the paucity and unreliability of historical sources for the early Islamic era in the region, this is a needed call for further study. Power is correct to note that our understanding of the early Islamic conquest of the Red Sea region is skewed through the Abbasid literary valorization of jihad-cum-bloodthirsty Bedouin, a trope furthered in the early Orientalist readings (p. 189). The role of international trade, which dominates discussions of the greater Red Sea and Indian Ocean complex, needs a local balance, exploration of sites and examination of archival material to provide an on‑the‑ground context. Power provides a powerful prolegomenon to this goal.

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Daniel Martin Varisco, « Timothy Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate AD 500–1000  », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 11 novembre 2013, consulté le 21 juillet 2018. URL :

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Daniel Martin Varisco

Hofstra University

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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