The Fate of the Roman Cities of the Near East and North Africa

by Emmet Scott (January 2012)


The great Roman cities of the Middle East and North Africa some of the most iconic archaeological sites on earth. There are literally hundreds of them, in various states of preservation. In most cases the pillars of temples and public buildings still stand, like the “bleached bones” (as Kenneth Clark described them) of classical civilization. The Roman cities of Europe tend to be in a much poorer state of preservation because they were not abandoned. In Europe settlements such as London, Paris, Trier, Regensburg, Cordoba, etc, were occupied continuously from ancient times, and the fine cut stones of the temples and palaces were reused and remodelled on numerous occasions throughout the Middle Ages. And because people still lived in the localities many meters of debris came to cover the Roman settlements. It was not so in the Middle East and North Africa; here the great classical settlements were (with a handful of exceptions) abandoned and never reoccupied.

The abandoned cities usually now stand in semi-arid territories, landscapes that have not been cultivated for many centuries, though it is evident that they were extensively cultivated in Roman and Byzantine times. Historians are in no doubt that the majority of the abandoned cities were deserted because of the collapse of agriculture in the surrounding countryside. These settlements, with their large populations, needed productive farming communities in order to survive. The desertification of the territories in which they stood would have been a death sentence for them. But what caused the agricultural collapse?

This is a question that has exercised the minds of historians, natural historians and climatologists for over a century. It is a question of great importance, for it holds the key and the answer to a far greater conundrum: What caused the collapse of classical Roman civilization? We have to be very clear here: During the seventh century, when the Roman cities of the Middle East and North Africa were abandoned, the centre of classical civilization was precisely those areas. The great cities of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt in particular, metropolises such as Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, Heliopolis, etc were where the vast majority of the wealth and population that had constituted the Roman Empire were located. These regions had a thriving economy and an enormous and growing population.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, one of our foremost contemporary authorities on late classical civilization, remarks that, “throughout almost the whole of the eastern empire, from central Greece to Egypt, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period of remarkable expansion.” “We know,” he continues, “that settlement not only increased in this period, but was also prosperous, because it left behind a mass of newly built rural houses, often in stone, as well as a rash of churches and monasteries across the landscape. New coins were abundant and widely diffused, and new potteries, supplying distant as well as local markets, developed on the west coast of modern Turkey, in Cyprus, and in Egypt. Furthermore, new types of amphora appeared, in which the wine and oil of the Levant and of the Aegean were transported both within the region, and outside it, even as far as Britain and the upper Danube.” (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 124) This prosperity represented not just the late flowering of a decaying and doomed society; it represented, rather, in many ways, the very apex of Graeco-Roman civilization. “If we measure ‘Golden Ages’,” he says, “in terms of material remains, the fifth and sixth centuries were certainly golden for most of the eastern Mediterranean, in many areas leaving archaeological traces that are more numerous and more impressive than those of the earlier Roman empire.” (Ibid.) These cities and villages were sustained by a vast and thriving agriculture. Evidence of this has been found everywhere. Archaeological exploration of the Limestone Massif in northern Syria, for example, has revealed that during the sixth century the region attained great prosperity thanks to the cultivation of the olive tree. (See eg. G. Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1953), pp. 377ff.)

Studies here have revealed the co-existence of large and small holdings, but also a general trend, in the years extending from the fourth to the early seventh century, towards the break-up of the bigger estates and the growth of villages composed of relatively well-to-do independent farmers. (Ibid.) During this time an enormous system of cultivation and terracing made great expanses of the Middle East and North Africa fertile and productive. It was the existence of this agricultural infrastructure that permitted the existence of the late classical cities, and conversely, it was the destruction of the same infrastructure which led to their abandonment. But what could have caused such a catastrophe?

Not surprisingly, this is a question that has prompted a great deal of study and debate, both among scientists and historians, for it is ultimately a question which lies at the core of another one: What caused the end of classical civilization? Archaeologists and historians have demonstrated again and again over the past century that the real centre of Graeco-Roman civilization was – and in a sense always had been – in the East. Whoever or whatever destroyed the agriculture and the great cities of the East in the seventh century was also responsible for terminating classical civilization and initiating that relatively dark and unknown epoch we have come to call the Middle Ages.

For decades the core of the debate raged around two opposing positions: One school of thought looked to climate change; another looked to human action. By the late 1940s however the evidence had moved decisively in favor of the latter, and the definitive work was published in 1951 by Rhoads Murphey, Professor Emeritus of History at Harvard. In an article entitled “The Decline of North Africa since the Roman Occupation: Climatic or Human?” he provides a detailed outline of the problem. I shall quote him at some length, as what he says is most instructive:

“The Romans were an agricultural people who expanded into their Mediterranean empire from a relatively humid base in Italy. It was natural that they should extend this approach to the natural environment into the African provinces. The Arabs were on the contrary a nomadic people, nurtured in the true desert of Arabia, and totally unused to an agricultural economy. Their technique was unequal to understanding or managing the highly-developed irrigation works of North Africa bequeathed to them by the Romans, and they had no need for dependence on the agriculture which these works had supported. Their different use of the land does not need to be explained by a change in climate. No military conquest is conducive to the maintenance of civil order nor the administration and technical organization which an intricate irrigation economy requires, especially when the conquerors are nomads. The Arab conquest destroyed the Roman irrigation works, or allowed them to deteriorate, and established in their stead a nomadic pastoral economy over most of North Africa.” (Rhoads Murphey, “The Decline of North Africa since the Roman Occupation: Climatic or Human?”, ANNALS, Association of American Geographers, Vol. XLI, no. 2, (June 1951)).

Murphey goes on to note that “Similar well-documented cases, for example, the Masai, are recorded from east and West Africa, where Hamitic or semi-Hamitic peoples in later ripples of the Islamic invasion displaced and overlaid sedentary Negro agriculturalists and substituted nomadic herding in areas where the only change was in social and economic custom rather than in the natural environment.” (Ibid., p. 124)

He continues: “Nevertheless, it is possible that the changed land use which the Arabs brought with them did in time affect the natural environment in a critical way. By the end of the eighth century AD there were approximately one million Arabs in North Africa. Each Arab family kept a large flock of sheep and goats, variously estimated at between fifteen and fifty per family. Goats are notoriously close croppers, and their unrestricted grazing in the Mediterranean area has had a virtually irreparable effect. In North Africa too, the added presence of several million goats undoubtedly destroyed large areas of grass, scrub, and trees, increasing the run-off, decreasing precious supplies of groundwater and lowering the water table perhaps critically, adding to the erosion of water courses, and disrupting the optimum distribution of surface water …” (Ibid.) Furthermore, “Contemporary Arab disrespect for trees (notorious in both Arabia and North Africa) except as lumber or firewood, and lack of understanding of the long-term value to themselves of tree-cover may suggest a further deteriorating effect of Arab land use on the productivity of North Africa. Indeed, one student of the problem, while agreeing that the North African climate has not changed significantly in the last 2000 years, states that the primary cause of the economic decline during that period has been deforestation, for which he lays the blame at the door of the Arabs.” (Ibid., pp. 124-5)

We should note that even those who continue to argue for a radical climate change in the seventh century are nevertheless compelled to admit the great destructiveness of the Arabs in the regions they conquered. The latter is revealed by excavation, and is fully supported by contemporary written accounts.

Yet even allowing for the destructiveness of the Arabs, and for their habitual misuse of agricultural land, this in itself does not explain the rapid and complete degradation of the cultivated territories of the Middle East and North Africa. After all, we must suppose that native husbandmen would not lightly have permitted incoming Arab nomads to graze their goats on carefully tilled and planted fields. Furthermore, the Middle East and North Africa had seen numerous invasions before, some of them very violent indeed, but none of them led to the complete destruction of the agriculture of the region. What was so different about the Arab Invasion?

In order to answer this question we need to consider the unique nature of Islam and in particular its application of political and social control through sharia law.

After the conquest of a territory and the submission of its inhabitants, the dictates of Islamic law, as enshrined in sharia, meant that the non-Muslim inhabitants could never again enjoy lasting peace and security. In theory, the “religions of the Book” (ie. Christianity and Judaism), enjoyed a special “protected” (dhimmi) status under the new regime. In practice however the position of the Christian and Jewish populations was anything but protected. This was because under sharia the rights of Jews and Christians were subordinate to those of Muslims. The legal testimony of a Muslim always trumped that of a Christian or Jew, no matter how many Christians or Jews testified. In practical terms, this meant that a dhimmi Jew or Christian might be insulted, robbed, or even murdered in the street, without any hope of legal redress. If such a complaint were taken to the authorities, the Muslim culprit would claim that the infidel had insulted the Prophet or the Koran. Two other male Muslim witnesses were needed to substantiate this claim, but these were invariably forthcoming, and the suit ended in the execution of the Jewish or Christian complainant.

As might be imagined, such oppressive conditions meant that Christians and Jews lived in permanent fear of the predatory attentions of Muslim neighbors, with the result that, over the centuries, the pressure to convert to Islam, or to emigrate from the Muslim-controlled territory, became almost irresistible.

A further exacerbating factor was that under Islamic law Muslims have a right to subsist off the labors and property of the infidel. This is enshrined in the concept of jizya, the tax which all infidels living in the Dar al-Islam must pay to their Muslim masters. But it was not just the Caliph and his emirs who were entitled to live off the infidels. All Muslims, irrespective of position, had this right; and Islamic law thus sanctified the plundering by individual Muslims of the local Christian and Jewish populations.

The long-term consequences of such an outlook are not too difficult to imagine. A general climate of banditry and lawlessness was fostered; and we see, for example, in a very immediate way why immigrant Arab goat-herders in the Middle East and North Africa felt free to allow their flocks to graze on the cultivated lands of their Christian and Jewish neighbors, thus destroying the agricultural viability of these territories and reducing them, within a very short time, to arid semi-desert. One of the most immediate consequences was a dramatic decline in the population. Although precise figures are unavailable, we know that the medieval populations of Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa were much smaller than those under the last Byzantine administration. Estimates put the decline at anything from threefold to tenfold; and the result was that by the later Middle Ages large parts of the Middle East and North Africa comprised sparsely populated wasteland, housing economically oppressed and largely impoverished populations. In the fourteenth century, for example, the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, writing in the squalor of what is now Tunisia, marveled at the wealth of a visiting delegation of Italian merchants. And the same attitudes continued to produce the same results well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.

We possess, from the early Middle Ages onwards, accounts of these regions from European travelers (often pilgrims), who were generally appalled by what they saw. Thus for example in the late eighteenth century C. F. Volney, “probably the most perceptive European traveler to visit the Middle East before the nineteenth century” described in detail conditions in Syria and Egypt under the then Ottoman administration. The main problems identified by Volney were extortionate taxation, the lawlessness of the soldiery, the depredation of Bedouin Arabs, usurious interest rates, and the primitive state of agricultural methods and implements. After describing the routine pillaging of the Ottoman troops, Volney goes on to note that, “These burthens are more especially oppressive in the countries bestowed as an appendage, and in those which are exposed to the Arabs [ie. Bedouins]. … With respect to the Bedouins, if they are at war, they pillage as enemies; and if they are at peace, devour every thing they can find as guests; hence the proverb, Avoid the Bedouin, whether friend or enemy.” (C. F. Volney, Travels through Syria and Egypt (London, 1787), Vol. 2, pp. 406-31; in Charles Issawi, ed. The Economic History of the Middle East, 1800-1914 (University of Chicago Press, 1966) p. 215)

The latter is a clear reference to the Bedouin custom of permitting their herds to graze on crop-land.

Volney also remarked on the almost total lack of security while travelling: “…nobody travels alone, from the insecurity of the roads. One must wait for several travellers who are going to the same place, or take advantage of the passage of some great man, who assumed the office of protector, but is more frequently the oppressor of the caravan. These precautions are, above all, necessary in the countries exposed to the Arabs, such as Palestine, and the whole frontier of the desert, and even on the road from Aleppo to Skandaroon, on account of the Curd robbers.”(Ibid., p. 217)

One does not have to be a genius to imagine the impact of such conditions on trade and commerce.

About eighty years later Mark Twain visited the region and described it pretty much as had Volney, though using slightly more colorful language. Palestine, he says, is “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds ... a silent mournful expanse ... a desolation ... we never saw a human being on the whole route.... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” (Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York, 1869), pp. 361-2)

The above writers also noted a striking feature remarked upon by many other travelers: the almost complete absence of wheeled vehicles. The same feature was mentioned by Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton. In his 2001 book What went Wrong? Lewis asked the question: What went wrong with a civilization which – he believes – showed such promise at the start, only to be mired in poverty and backwardness from the 12th-13th century onwards? Lewis concludes his volume without arriving at an answer. Yet at one point he makes a telling observation: Wheeled vehicles, he notes, were virtually unknown, up until modern times, throughout the Muslim lands. This was all the more strange given the fact that the wheel was invented in the Middle East (in Babylonia) and had been commonly used in earlier ages. The conclusion he comes to, in line with that of Volney and many others, is that: “A cart is large and, for a peasant, relatively costly. It is difficult to conceal and easy for requisition. At a time and place where neither law nor custom restricted the powers of even local authorities, visible and mobile assets were a poor investment. The same fear of predatory authority – or neighbors – may be seen in the structure of traditional houses and quarters: the high, windowless walls, the almost hidden entrances in narrow alleyways, the careful avoidance of any visible sign of wealth.” (Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York, 2002), p. 158) In the kleptocracy that was the Caliphate, it seems, not even Muslims – far less Christians and Jews – were free to prosper.


Emmet Scott is a historian specializing in the ancient history of the Near East. Over the past ten years he has turned his attention to Late Antiquity and the declining phase of classical civilization, which he sees as one of the most crucial episodes in the history of western civilization.

His new book, Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy is published by New English Review Press and will be released on January 15, 2012. It may be pre-ordered through Amazon here and is available on Kindle now here.

 
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