A World Revealed: The Throne of Adulis
For me, reading Glen Bowersock’s book, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford Univ Press, 2013) was like having a curtain pulled back opening up a previously unknown world. This is the world of the Red Sea area in late antiquity and the Byzantine period. (I know, this has nothing to do with the expressed focus of this blog site, on Christian Origins, but this is such a fascinating book, I can’t resist drawing it to the attention of readers.)
The period, ca. 300-700 CE, is outside my own period of any competence, and the geography is little known to me in any depth, the areas surrounding the Red Sea, present-day Ethiopia, Yemen. But it was a world/time of two major powers in a death-struggle with each other, with each power supporting client rulers, and striking alliances with local rulers to advance their own larger ambitions for geo-political influence. Plus, local rulers with their own ambitions, and religions wedded with political rulers and so used as a motivation for warfare. Sound familiar? But, I repeat, Bowersock takes us back into the world of late antiquity, although there are uncanny resemblances with the present time.
I had no idea that there was a powerful empire (Axum) based in present-day Ethiopia that also exerted (from time to time) rule over the southern Arabian penninsula. I didn’t know that this Ethiopian kingdom converted to Christianity sometime in the mid-4th century CE, or that Arab peoples of the southern Arabian penninsula converted to Judaism just a few decades later and formed a rather militant Jewish kingdom (Himyar) that carried out a brutal pogrom against Arabian Christians, or that the Ethiopian king took this as a reason to launch an invasion of Himyar (present-day Yemen) to re-establish his rule there, presenting himself as rescuing fellow Christians. The Persians (Sassanids) backed Himyar, and Byzantium backed the Christian king of Ethiopia in this struggle.
Later, after the Byzantine king had finally crushed the Sassanids (ca. 630s), the resulting power-vacuum in the Middle East allowed Muslim forces to assert themselves. Muhammed and his followers were resisted by Jews, but initially welcomed by Christians (e.g., when they arrived in Jerusalem).
Aside from opening a world of these and many other fascinating developments (which have repercussions down to the present day), Bowersock’s book is a powerful case-study of how topics, peoples, whole areas and periods can be overlooked, left out of “history” for various reasons. If you want a fascinating journey without leaving the comfort of your favorite chair, get into The Throne of Adulis.