It is difficult to know how to deal with the Moslems archaeologically – indeed it is difficult to deal with the Moslems at all, for they are not exactly enthusiastic at the idea of their history and origins being deconstructed by sceptical Western scholars. Certainly in our analysis they are the purest form of barbarians: any idea of democracy that one should think for oneself is an anathema. And it is a pyramid shaped society with the rulers at the top, though at first it is difficult to distinguish between the military leaders and the religious. It would be interesting to analyse their towns to distinguish between the palaces and mosques, and to trace the role of market places, but their trade was vigorous and the use of money widespread. It was not allowed to develop into a market based society. The archaeology of Islam and the analysis of Islamic towns and settlements promise to be one of the most exciting developments of the next generation.
Certainly everything changed. Many of the old cities collapsed but they were replaced by new ones on different sites. Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire was replaced by Baghdad which by the ninth or 10th century vied with Xian in China for the title of biggest city in the world. Carthage was replaced by Tunis and new cities such as Kairouan arose.
Archaeologically it marks a major break: the old settlements, towns, villages, farmsteads, many of which had been established in prehistory are now abandoned and it is tempting to see this as the beginning of a new dark age. To be fair new settlements often arose, often underlying modern settlements so that it is difficult to compare the two. Certainly from the archaeological point of view, agriculture in North Africa, the bread basket of the Roman world collapsed. Field surveys have suggested that if agriculture did not collapse completely it was changed out of all recognition. The history, or should one say the archaeological history of Islam should be one of the most exciting stories in archaeology today, but it is a story that is emerging slowly and chaotically.
The truth is that Islam was, and is, above all a religion based on war. Muhammad was a warrior. Born in 570, he began as a merchant, but following the battle of Badr in 624, he became a warrior even if a behind-the-scenes warrior, and the last 10 years of his life were spent on war, war, war, and by the time of his death in 632, Mohammed was master of the Arabian Peninsula.
And then the explosion began. The Persians had not really expected trouble from Arabia; they had not build walls to protect themselves as they had done to the North and the West. They should perhaps have been warned. There is interesting evidence from Petra, a border town that commands the passage through a mountain ridge that separates off the Jordanian desert from the deserts to the south. Here in the 1970s a spectacular cache of documents, the private papers of a wealthy merchant family were discovered and are still being analysed. The language of the upper classes was still Greek, the everyday language was Nabatean, a local dialect of the Arameic family of languages, however in the lower classes Arabic was coming into use. Whether this marks an actual migration of people is still uncertain. But Arabic influence was certainly spreading from the fourth century onwards: Arabic had become the language of the streets.
From 635, the Arabian tribes newly energised by the teachings of Mohammed conquered much of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean in one of the most remarkable conquests the world has ever seen. They began with the conquest of the Persian Empire, an empire as rotten as the Eastern Roman Empire, but one that was in a way even more influential, for the Mohammedans took over the still vibrant culture of the Sassanid Empire so that what we consider to be Mohammedan art is to a large extent based on the art of the Sassanid Persians.
At the same time Egypt was conquered and the great Egyptian civilisation which had lasted for nearly four millennia finally, came to an end. Admittedly the Christian Copts had already destroyed what remained of Egyptian tradition, but it was the Mohammedans who brought about the decisive break. Soon after, the Mohammedan conquests spread along the whole of North Africa and even up into Spain which was to form one of the most splendid parts of the Islamic realms. The Islamic armies even penetrated up into France until eventually they were repulsed by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours/Poitiers in 732, and Europe was saved from conquest by Islam. In a famous passage Gibbon expiates on the importance of the victory: had the French not won, he said, “the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet”.
But how do we assess Islam? On to Mohammed and Charlemagne