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G. W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, 208 pages
Nathanael Andrade
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The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam / Glen W. Bowersock.‑ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 208 p., 8 illus., 2 maps.‑ (Emblems of Antiquity)

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1Between 523 and 525 CE, a Christian merchant traveled to Adulis, a port city on the Red Sea coast of Africa, and recorded the Greek texts inscribed on a white marble throne and a black basalt stele for the king (negus) of Ethiopian Aksum. While he did so, the king was planning an expedition to south Arabia to confront a Jewish monarch who was persecuting Christians. The “Adulis Throne” and its accompanying stele, now lost, are the focus of G. W. Bowersock’s The Throne of Adulis. In this concise, lucid book, Bowersock situates these objects within a short history of the late antique Red Sea and its imperial and religious antagonisms (6). Certain material intersects with that of Bowersock’s collected lectures in Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity (2012), but the perspective that The Throne of Adulis offers is new. Moreover, it synthesizes and pinpoints in a readable fashion the significance of recent scholarly advances in Aksumite and south Arabian epigraphy, archaeology, and history, including those of Christian Julien Robin and his fellow travelers. It thereby extends such knowledge to a wide potential readership.

2Before its sixth‑century recording, the Adulis Throne had an enigmatic past, and opinions have varied regarding its commission (Preface, ix‑xi). In this regard, Bowersock observes the following (Chapter 1: 7‑21). First, the Adulis Throne is consistent with roughly several dozen thrones that Aksumite kings raised subsequently at Aksum or other sites (16). Second, an illustrated map appearing in the three manuscripts of the text written by the Christian merchant who recorded its inscription, commonly called the Christian Topography (12‑13 and 16‑17; figure 1), contains an illustration of it. Third, the Christian merchant erroneously believed that the throne and its accompanying stele contained a single Greek text. In fact, the stele commemorated the feats of an early Ptolemaic monarch; the throne was raised by an anonymous Ethiopian king who emulated him. Fourth, the merchant transcribed the Greek for the Aksumite negus Kālēb, who sought precedent for an invasion of south Arabia. In this sense, the throne emblematized a strain of Ethiopian imperialism that linked Aksum and south Arabia.

3One valuable aspect of Bowersock’s narrative is its treatment of the life and travels of the Christian merchant who recorded the Greek inscriptions on the Adulis Throne and its accompanying stele (Chapter 2: 22‑30). In subsequent centuries, this figure became known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. By copying the inscriptions, Cosmas contributed to a long history of Greek usage in the Red Sea (30‑33), of which the stele was an early physical instantiation. Shortly after invading the Seleucid Levant in 246 BCE, Ptolemy III commissioned this stele to celebrate his achievement (Chapter 3: 34‑43). Ptolemy perhaps had it raised at Adulis itself, even if it may have arrived there later.

4The episode that brought together the basalt stele of Ptolemy III and the marble Adulis Throne is also remarkable (Chapter 4: 44‑62). The throne’s Greek inscription (46‑48) states that it was commissioned by an Aksumite negus, who remains unnamed. According to his inscription, this king had already reigned for 27 years and had subdued various peoples in east Africa and south Arabia. The same king probably also left monumental inscriptions in Greek at Aksum and Nubian Meroë (58‑61), and his activity can be collated with epigraphic evidence from south Arabia verifying that Aksumites occupied the region in the early third century CE (55‑56). The Adulis Throne was therefore commissioned and erected alongside the stele by a third‑century king; Gadara and Sembrouthes are two of the best candidates (57‑59). Whoever the king was, he set an enduring precedent for Aksumite imperialism in south Arabia (60‑62). Aksumite kings boasted of ruling it even after they had in practice ceded it (c. 270).

5By the sixth century, the imperial tensions that the Adulis Throne embodied had been exacerbated by religious differences. The Aksumite monarchs and the imyarite kings of south Arabia had converted to Christianity and Judaism respectively (Chapters 5‑7: 63‑105). In the fourth century Aezanas (‘Ezana), Aksum’s first Christian king, erected numerous commemorative inscriptions that perpetuated the rhetoric of Aksumite control over south Arabia. One of them contained texts in Greek, Ge‘ez written in an unvocalized Ethiopic script, and Ge‘ez rendered in a south Arabian Sabaic script (68‑70; figures 3‑4). The sixth‑century Aksumite king named Kālēb thereby inherited an imperial vision and religion that pitted him against the Jewish kings of Ḥimyar. These incited a particularly notable episode in pre‑Islamic Arabian and Red Sea history. Responding to a recent Aksumite expedition, a Jewish king named Yūsuf persecuted the Christians of Ḥimyar and massacred the Christian population of the city of Najrān in 523. Amid this activity, Yūsuf solicited the support of the Sasanian Persians and the Naṣrid dynasty at al‑ira, but by 525 Kālēb had occupied Ḥimyar and had revitalized the Christian presence there. Kālēb also raised victory inscriptions (95 and 98‑101) in Ge‘ez at Aksum and in Ḥimyar to commemorate his two expeditions. The imperial pretensions of the Adulis Throne, raised centuries earlier, had come to fruition, but now in the name of a Christian victory over Judaism.

6The Aksumite occupation of Ḥimyar intensified diplomatic confrontation between Rome and Persia in Arabia thereafter (Chapter 8: 106‑19). Despite their doctrinal differences, the Roman emperor Justinian aligned with Aksum with the vain expectation of increasing Rome’s part in the silk trade. The diplomat Nonnosus, whose multilingual family had produced Roman ambassadors to the Red Sea and Arabia for decades prior, played a key role in this (108‑11, with Appendix 135‑43). An Aksumite dynast named Abraha ultimately asserted autonomous authority in Ḥimyar and (in 547) held a summit at Mārib that attracted Roman, Persian, and various Arab ambassadors. He also commemorated this event on an inscribed stele (112‑14). But persisting imperial and religious tensions brought the Persians, at the behest of south Arabian Jews, to intervene in the region in the early 570s. Religious conflicts continued, but no Christian or Jewish political power was left in Arabia to manage them (117‑18).

7This contentious, unstable environment provided the context in which Muḥammad founded his religious movement (Chapter 10: 120‑33). Animosities among Jews, Christians, monotheistic pagans, polytheistic pagans (as Bowersock argues), and Muḥammad’s followers in fact eventually culminated in ways that led to Muslim domination of Arabia in the 620s and of the Roman and Sasanian Near East shortly thereafter. Moreover, while once being so avid to intervene in south Arabia through their proxy allies, the mighty Roman and Persian empires virtually destroyed each other through incessant fighting just as Muḥammad’s followers were overwhelming their opponents in Arabia. In this way, Muḥammad’s career ended the era embodied by the Adulis Throne, even as it owed it a great debt.

8 The Throne of Adulis illuminates imperial and religious antagonisms between Aksumite Ethiopia and south Arabia in late antiquity. It also illustrates how these antagonisms shaped the context in which Muḥammad formed a new religious movement. For this reason, it does an immense service to the oft‑unnoticed Adulis Throne and its embodiment of such themes. Some scholarship published after Bowersock’s text was at press, especially the fascinating Foreign Sailors on Socotra: the Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq (ed. Ingo Strauch, Bremen, 2012) and the material of Mikhail Bukharin contained therein, would have perhaps qualified his treatment of Greeks on the island of Socotra (24), the identity of the evangelizer Theophilus “the Indian” (80 and 104), and a famous Greek inscription from the port of Qānā in Yemen (80). But these are minutiae for which the author could not be responsible. As a short history of the Adulis Throne and “the historical drama” that it embodies (ix and 6), The Throne of Adulis is a remarkable achievement.

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Nathanael Andrade, « G. W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2015, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathanael Andrade

University of Oregon, Department of History

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