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Toral-Niehoff Isabel, Al-īra. Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2014, xviii + 251 p.

Adam Talib
p. 272-277

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  • 1 See Sarah M. A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American (...)

1It is only in recent decades that the word “Arab” has become synonymous with the word “Muslim” in popular discourse. Indeed when Arabs first started immigrating to the United States in large numbers in the early 20th century, being Christian – in addition to being wealthy relative to other immigrants – allowed them to lobby successfully to be classed as “White” in the census1. Now, however, as Islamophobia in countries like France and the United States reaches pandemic proportions, Arabs are most often portrayed as uniformly backwards, dangerous, and Muslim. In the Arab Middle East over the past century, war, sectarian violence, colonial occupation, economic pressure, and xenophobia have led large numbers of non-Muslim Arabs to emigrate, or sometimes flee, signalling the death knell for centuries of complex and distinctive religious diversity. It is into this bleak and deteriorating environment that Isabel Toral-Niehoff’s history of a Christian capital in Late-Antique Iraq arrives. Al-Ḥīra was not only a Christian capital – indeed Toral-Niehoff calls it a “Cultural Metropolis” – but its Christian character is perhaps the most striking thing about this most striking of pre-Islamic Arab cities. Nevertheless, Toral-Niehoff also rightly stresses that al-Ḥīra was the unacknowledged third cultural capital of early Islamic Iraq alongside al-Kūfa, its better known neighbor, and Baṣra. Al-Ḥīra made important contributions to the development of Islamic culture both before and after the conquest of Iraq.

2Toral-Niehoff has surveyed all the available primary sources in Arabic, Syriac, Middle Persian, and Greek to assemble the most comprehensive history of al-Ḥīra available in any language, surpassing her predecessors Gustav Rothstein (1899) and ʿĀrif ʿAbd al-Ghanī (1993). In the first chapter, Toral-Niehoff unpacks the varied and challenging source material available for Ḥīran history, including archaeological and epigraphic sources, as well as ideological systems of thought like the Arabo-Islamic literary tradition and the chronicles of the Syriac Church. Chapters Two and Three treat al-Ḥīra’s natural environment and its legendary origin respectively. Chapter Four addresses al-Ḥīra’s status as Sassanian vassal and satellite, while Chapter Five describes the layout of the city itself, an important example of a pre-Islamic urban Arab environment. Chapters Six and Seven explain, with enviable clarity, the complex melange of ethnicities and languages present in al-Ḥīra based on literary accounts. Chapters Eight and Nine and Chapter Ten, Part Five all cover various aspects of ruler-ruled dynamics: from the Lakhmid dynasty’s relations with the Arab tribes, the centrality of the king’s court, and the ruling family’s crucial and protracted liaison with Christianity.

3Christianity is the subject of Chapter Ten, the longest chapter in the book, and perhaps the most important. Toral-Niehoff draws on textual as well as archaeological history to present as complete a history of Ḥīran Christianity as the sources permit. This is far easier said than done, however, as the material is found in a variety of conflicting sources in a number of languages, including some unpublished or inaccessible manuscripts. Chapter Ten benefits from the most important recent studies of the history of the Church of the East, but it is a shame that Toral-Niehoff did not have access to Jack Tannous’ 2010 Princeton dissertation on the social and cultural history of Late Antique Syria. As in the other chapters, Toral-Niehoff’s presentation of historical evidence is clear, straightforward, and comprehensive. She has done a tremendous service in making all this material available to students of Late Antique Arabian history. We can always hope that new source material for Ḥīran history will be discovered, but that possibility grows ever less likely as Iraqi and Syrian society and patrimony continue to be destroyed. In the absence of new material, any further insight we hope to gain into Ḥīran history will be extracted from sensitive, broad, and sympathetic readings of the sources that Toral-Niehoff has so expertly brought together in her volume.

4In the appendix, Toral-Niehoff helpfully includes lists of Ḥiran kings based on various sources, one with regnal dates; a list of Church of the East Bishops in al-Ḥīra in the pre-Islamic period; a list of Church of the East Patriarchs; and a list of Sasanian Emperors; as well as two gorgeous maps of Late Antique Arabia and the Ḥīran environs.

5All students and scholars of early Islamic history, late antiquity, the Church of the East, and the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires should read this compact and indispensable history. They will also want to keep an eye out for Kirill Dmitriev’s forthcoming study of Ḥīran poets, a topic that Toral-Niehoff did not have occasion to discuss at length (see p. 142-50).

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1 See Sarah M. A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2009.

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Référence papier

Adam Talib, « Toral-Niehoff Isabel, Al-īra. Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2014, xviii + 251 p. »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 139 | 2016, 272-277.

Référence électronique

Adam Talib, « Toral-Niehoff Isabel, Al-īra. Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2014, xviii + 251 p. »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 139 | 2016, mis en ligne le 17 février 2015, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Adam Talib

The American University in Cairo

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