New Perspectives on Late Antique Iran and Iraq

The study of Late Antiquity has developed significantly in recent decades. Once the sole purview of scholars of the later Roman Empire, the term “Late Antiquity” has come to signify the nexus of cultures, communities, and socio-historical phenomena and processes that converged in the Mediterranean and Near East from the time of Constantine the Great to the rise of Islam and beyond. The political, economic, cultural, and religious ramifications of this convergence are indisputably significant for any proper understanding of Western, indeed world, history. Moreover, although regions, events, and communities within the Greco-Roman cultural sphere still receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the study of this period, scholars are increasingly working to incorporate the study of Christian Oriental, Arabian, African, and Iranian communities in a more holistic approach to a discipline that might more fittingly be termed the study of “Global Late Antiquities.”
The integration of Iran and Iraq into this dynamically shifting field is long overdue. Scholars have recognized for some time that the major transformations of the period were stimulated by the centuries-long confrontation between the Roman and Sasanian Empires. Long the province of specialists in ancient Iran, Sasanian Studies has in recent years been revitalized by scholars seeking to shift focus and bring the field into conversation with other scholarly discourses. Thus, specialists in both Late Antiquity and Sasanian Iran stand to benefit from bringing these fields into meaningful dialogue.
This panel will consist of papers by four well-established scholars whose work focuses on different fields relevant to a broader understanding of late antique Iraq and Iran. Each will give a broad overview of recent developments in their particular field, as well as commenting upon larger themes that demonstrate the importance of that field for our understanding of late antique Iraq and Iran, viewed in the broadest possible historical and cultural perspective. Touraj Daryaee and Shai Secunda will probe critical theoretical and methodological questions pertaining to the conceptualization of the period and the field of Late Antique Studies from the perspective of Sasanian and Talmudic Studies, respectively. In contrast, Isabel Toral-Niehoff and Teresa Bernheimer will present case studies relevant to the question of long term continuities in the period in the Sasanian (or former Sasanian) cultural sphere. Michael Pregill, the organizer of the panel, will provide introductory comments and will be the Discussant. Panel will be Chaired by Olga Davidson.


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For Peter Brown, whose work introduced the period known as “Late Antiquity” to many, the late antique world begun in the third and lasted till the end of the seventh century CE. Scholars working on this period in the eastern Mediterranean have largely accepted this historical periodization, but mainly within the geographical boundaries of their own areas of interest. Scholars are now increasingly in agreement with Brown that the Near East and at least part of Central Asia should also be counted as part of this historical paradigm. Michael Morony was the first scholar to put forth a solid case for why the Sasanians should be included in the study of the late antique field. There are, however, some scholars who believe that Late Antiquity is only the purview of the Mediterranean world, and that Sasanian Iran should not be included in the field, mainly because the religious and structural makeup of the Mediterranean world appears to them to be quite distinct from that of the Sasanian Near East.
In this paper, I will discuss how the Sasanians themselves saw the period and whether they perceived a significant shift in the area that they ruled (Iranshahr) at this time. Furthermore, while most scholars of Late Antiquity view the geographical boundaries of the field as the two great empires (Eastern Roman and Sasanian Persian), the Middle Persian and Persian sources provide us with a differing world view than that of modern scholars. I will suggest that the Sasanians had a much more holistic and inclusive view of their late antique world; that is, while historians of the Eastern Roman Empire held a bi-partite vision of the period, the Sasanians perceived a tri-partite division of the late antique world, which for them stretched all the way from China to the Eastern Roman Empire. I will argue that we should also be much more inclusive and take the interconnectedness of the late antique world as the Sasanians saw it into account in our contemporary approaches to the period.

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Al-Hira was the name of the capital of the Arab principality of the Lakhmids or Nasrids (ca. 300-602 CE). This late antique Arab metropolis was situated at the west bank of the Middle Euphrates, at the fringes of the desert on the Roman-Sasanian frontier zone. It lay at two days’ ride from Ctesiphon, and also in close proximity to the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Here Christian Aramaic, Arab Bedouin, Jewish, and Persian influences interacted and produced a multicultural urban symbiosis that drew on neighboring civilizations.

In this paper, I will explore al-Hira’s historical impact. One point of focus will be al-Hira’s role in the context of long-term processes of Arab-Persian interaction and transculturation. I will sum up our evidence about the political, cultural, and commercial ties connecting the Lakhmid principality and the Sasanian Empire, then focus on the possible agents of cultural exchange between the two. I will then call attention to the cultural spheres themselves and the issue of where and how Iranian-Arab transculturation as a process can be detected in the Hiran context.

I will then proceed to discuss the local Christian community, known as the Ibad. Its origins remain obscure, but seem to go back to the fourth century CE, and the community grew in importance in the course of the fifth and sixth century. Al-Hira is attested as a bishopric since 410, and the seat seems to have been occupied continuously until the tenth century, when the city fell into decline. The official church in the city followed the dogmatic orientation of the Persian church, commonly known as “Nestorian.” However, Syriac sources point to the frequent presence of Monophysite missionaries in the sixth century, besides Western Syriac monks and ascetics, who had sought refuge from Byzantine persecutions in this marginal area. Via commerce, missionaries, and the visits of itinerant poets who frequented the kingly court, it is likely that reports about the Iranized and Christianized Arabs of al-Hira had some impact on the emergent Muslim community under Muhammad. Finally, I will discuss how the favorable location of al-Hira provided an ideal location for settlement by Arab Muslim forces when they conquered Iraq, so that they founded one of the first Islamic urban foundations, al-Kufa, nearby. Al-Hira’s multicultural synthesis can be seen as a direct precursor to that of al-Kufa, and to Islamic urban culture at large.

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The contemporary growth of interest in the study of Late Antiquity corrects a long-standing approach to a period that was formerly seen as one of decline and darkness. Recent years have seen a push to extend the chronological limits of the period later, to include the rise of Islam, and the geographical borders eastward, to include Byzantium’s ever-present “other” – the Sasanian Empire. Scholars in the field are increasingly concerned with thinking about how to incorporate “Eastern Late Antiquity” into a story that was formerly primarily about the West.
Questions of margin and center relating to religious matters are particularly relevant. For example, how should late antiquitists interested mainly in the history of Christianity conceive of the role of the Jews in the period, with their large diaspora and two centers of rabbinic culture, one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia? Indeed, even geographically speaking, matters of margin and center are fruitfully complicated when it comes to late antique Jews.
The Jewish community that essentially gave birth to normative Judaism as we have known it since the Middle Ages via the Babylonian Talmud flourished in Mesopotamia, the bureaucratic center of the Sasanian Empire, beyond the borders of Byzantium. Recently, the study of the Babylonian Talmud has been revolutionized by an effort to contextualize it within the complex religious space of Sasanian Mesopotamia. For example, long neglected Zoroastrian scholastic texts are now being pored over by Talmudists who see within these documents traces of a broad, legalistic religious discourse that flourished in the Sasanian Empire. Syriac literature has also become a new frontier for scholars of the Babylonian Talmud. At the same time, it has been acknowledged that the Babylonian Jewish community was neither sui generis, nor cut-off from its sister community to the West in Roman-Byzantine Palestine. There was a constant flow of foot-traffic between the two rabbinic centers.
The Sasanian Babylonian Jewish community thus provides a perfect pretext for asking some pressing questions that specialists in Eastern Late Antiquity need to confront regarding margin and center, Orient and Occident. This paper will deal with the significance of the term “Late Antiquity” for understanding Babylonian Jewry and its place within the religious terrain of the Sasanian Empire and its ongoing dialogue with Roman-Byzantine Palestine.

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As Patricia Crone has recently shown in her monumental study The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, 2014), the broad geographical area of Iran and Iraq witnessed an astounding number of uprisings in the decades and centuries following the Arab conquests. The form which these revolts took was as manifold as their number, and their ideas and claims were just as varied. Yet many of these movements can be usefully summarized under the label of “Khuramiyya” or “Khuramdiniyya.” While Crone explains Khurrami beliefs as “an ancient, widely disseminated“ substratum to Mazdakism, this paper will focus on a particular set of revolts that – at least at first glance – appear to have taken an Islamic form, namely the uprisings of the Kharijites. I will question the extent to which these uprisings reflect new Islamic models of authority and social change, or rather continue older late antique ideas – including those of the Khurramis – in a new guise.

The starting point is the revolt of Qatari b. al-Fuja’a, an Arab from the tribe of Tamim, who in the late 60s and 70s AH established himself as a Kharijite caliph in southwest Iran. Extraordinarily, there are a number of coin issues extant which attest to Qatari’s authority in the areas of Fars and Kirman. Carrying the famous Kharijite slogan la hukm illa lillah (there is no judgment but God’s), these coins include inscriptions in both Middle Persian and Arabic and lead us to ask three main questions regarding the context and content of Kharijite revolts. First, regarding their support, the sources present the main following of the movement as Arab, but the coins are clearly addressed to a local Iranian audience.. Second, regarding the claim to authority of the Kharijite leaders, in addition to the title amir al-mu’minin, there are also a number of Iranian titles and honorifics attested for Qatari (and other Kharijite rebels) such as dihqan or buzurgwari. Finally, regarding the context – both late antique and Iranian – of the slogan la hukm illa lillah, this slogan is usually understood to refer to the struggles of the First Civil War, but may well allude to larger questions of scripturalism and orality. Analyzing both textual and material evidence, this study will seek to shed light on fundamental questions of continuity and social change in the decades and centuries following the Arab conquest of Iran.