- The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam by G. W. Bowersock
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 208 pp.
In the thirty-fourth canto of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the brave Duke Astolfo climbs the fiery sky up to the moon in Elijah’s chariot, in order to recover Orlando’s wits. The moon is the “place wherein is wonderfully stored / Whatever on our earth below we lose. / Collected there are all things whatsoe’er, / Lost through time, chance, or our own folly, here.” Under the knowledgeable guidance of Saint John the Baptist, Astolfo takes an edifying walk on the moon among all the things that get lost on earth: fame, vows and prayers, lovers’ tears and sighs, variously wasted time, vain designs, but also “old crowns of the Assyrian land / And Lydian — as that paladin was taught — / Grecian and Persian, all of ancient fame; / And now, alas! well-nigh without a name.” Among these ancient crowns, one might find as well those of Aezanas and Kaleb of Axum, were it not for this book by Glen Bowersock, in which he illuminates the story of the martyrs of Najran, its background, and its consequences.
Out of three Chinese boxes the author unfolds a centuries- long drape of history that, it transpires, was the backdrop for the rise of Islam. A Ptolemaic basalt stele, extolling the conquests of King Ptolemy III Euergetes, was placed behind a fourth- century celebratory throne, commissioned by the Axumite negus Aezanas. Both carried inscriptions in Greek, which caught the attention of a sixth-century Ethiopian king, Kaleb (or Ella Asbeha), who had them copied by the Byzantine merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes just before launching an [End Page 328] overseas campaign against the Jewish king of Himyar, guilty of savagely persecuting the Christians under his rule. The marble throne, which then stood in the port city of Adulis on the shore of the Red Sea, long lost, lies now neglected in some remote marsh of Ariosto’s moon, but Cosmas reported the texts of the two inscriptions in his Topographia Christiana. Entering Cosmas’s pages under Bowersock’s knowledgeable guidance means abandoning some of our most cherished idées reçues: what we ultimately learn is that a massacre of Christians at the hands of Arab Jews inaugurated the challenge to the old order that led to the emergence of Islam. Retrieving from Ariosto’s moon the most recondite pieces of historical truth is no quest for a fainthearted historian.
Maria Conterno is a postdoctoral researcher in the Ghent University history department. Her books, published in Italian, include “Chronicles of the Times” at the Dawn of Islamic Expansion: An Inquiry into Seventh- and Eighth- Century Greek, Syriac, and Arab Historiography and a translation from Syriac and Arabic of three orations by Themistius.