In antiquity, ‘Arabia’ covered a vast area, running from Yemen and Oman to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Today, much of this region is gripped in political and religious turmoil that shows no signs of abating. In addition to executions, murder, and a bloody war against the security forces and other armed groups, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is also waging a relentless assault on the culture and heritage of Syria and Iraq. This represents a savage attempt to impose its own narrow view of history on the region, as well as to plunder artifacts for sale on the black market. But while contraband dollars support its operations, it is also the suppression of diversity that drives ISIS; the group is particularly devoted to the eradication of any inconvenient reminder of the pre-Islamic past, where communities of Jews and Christians flourished and pagan deities were worshiped. The conquering Muslim armies of the seventh and eighth centuries may have swept past the now-endangered archaeological sites of Syria and Iraq, but the Islamic State sees the destruction of such places as key to its core mission. This line of thinking explains their destruction of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra, parts of Hatra in Iraq, and countless other structures and sites. Elsewhere, the war in Yemen is causing a great amount of damage to the country. Even without war, Middle Eastern heritage finds itself in danger; in Saudi Arabia, for example, building work has claimed parts of ancient Mecca, erasing alternative narratives of the past.
In light of the seemingly endless attacks on culture and the loss of so many lives, it is more essential than ever to take stock of the region’s rich and varied ancient history. Framed by the vast expanse of the Roman and Persian empires, Arabia and its northern limits—Syria and Iraq—offered a land of contrasts. A traveller to Yemen would find lush mountains, rain, and farmland, but in the centre of the Peninsula and to the north, he would struggle across gravel, basalt, and sandy deserts. (To cross these areas required specialised knowledge, as a Roman military expedition to Yemen learned in 25 BCE). From the city of Zafar in Yemen to the famous emporium at Gerrha on the Gulf, and from the villages of Syria to the oases and watering holes of northern Arabia, a traveller would find a wealth of different peoples. Arabia included communities of Christians, such as those famously massacred at Najran in the sixth century CE. Pagans flourished throughout, but the Yemeni kings for much of the fourth and fifth centuries were Jews, before they adopted Christianity in the sixth. Arabia was a land where Roman and Persian agents competed for primacy in an ancient version of The Great Game, a competition spurred by the importance of the sea and land routes linking Arabia to the lands of the Mediterranean, Iran, and Central Asia. This network took Arab merchants to the Greek islands of the Aegean as well as to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad. Trade, and the imperial ambitions of Rome and Persia, allowed religious, political, and cultural ideas to travel across the ancient Middle East. Arabia was far less of an isolated backwater than some ancient sources, fascinated with its supposed, legendary exoticism, would like their readers to believe.
Why does this matter today? Encouraged by the lack of international action, ISIS continues its determined effort to utterly erase the monuments of the ancient past in Syria and Iraq, whether they be Shia shrines, Christian monasteries, or pagan temples. ISIS already claims franchises in Libya and has taken responsibility for bombings in Saudi Arabia, while the climate in places such as Yemen is febrile. The war in Syria in particular has already taken a terrible toll, but the attack on heritage, deeply connected as it is to the human cost, should be recognised for what it is. If Syria was ever to be reconstituted in the future, it would be missing the cultural underpinning of much of what made the country such a rich patchwork of communities; the same fate threatens Iraq, if the government fails to tackle ISIS. But the communal history of the world suffers as well, because much connects our own understanding of the past with the history of the Middle East. And so more than ever, it is vital to appreciate what is being lost: places like Hatra and Palmyra represented everything that ISIS avows to hate—multicultural and ethnic diversity, crossroads between east and west, and places of communication and cultural transfer. Appreciating the deep and complex history of Arabia is more crucial than ever for making sense of troubled times.
Image Credit: “Temple of Bel complex in the background and the agora on left center in Palmyra, Syria” by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.