G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

The order in which I’m approaching the things I said I’d do in this post has changed. I have to push the timeframe out by a month, so the last promised thing will be appearing in mid-October. And I’m switching the order of Lucian and Bowersock around, so Bowersock comes first.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam: a longer-than-500-word review.

This was not the book its title led me to expect. With a title like The Throne of Adulis and a subtitle of the Eve of Islam, one expects a contextualised discussion of kingship around the Red Sea within a relatively short timeframe. But in its 150 pages – this is not a long book – Bowersock ranges from the first to the sixth centuries CE and beyond, leaving one rather with the impression that The Throne of Adulis is not so much a coherent monograph in its own right, but rather the sketched outline of a longer work.

I’m not accustomed to finding academic works lacking in depth of field. In this case, the lack of depth which I perceive may be in part my lack of familiarity with the details of the Late Antique Red Sea, with which Bowersock may in fact be assuming that his readers are already familiar. If so, Oxford University Press have chosen poorly in how to present The Throne of Adulis to the public, for it is not presented in its cover copy or press release as a scholarly monograph appealing to a specialist audience, but rather as a book which “vividly recreates the Red Sea world of Late Antiquity, transporting readers back to a remote but pivotal epoch in ancient history, one that sheds light on the collapse of the Persian Empire as well as the rise of Islam.”

Nota bene, friends: it doesn’t do that. And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface. For Bowersock is not so much concerned with the wider Red Sea world, with its social and archaeological context – and let me say that I find the use of archaeological evidence in this book to be both limited and unconcerned with discussing the problems and benefits of said evidence for shedding light on people. Inscriptional evidence for important people, yes – but everyday persons, not so much.

Bowersock is interested in only one thing: an inscribed throne from the Red Sea port of Adulis, described by the sixth-century Christian writer known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. From here, he ranges outward to discuss the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Jewish Himyarite kingdom on the Arabian peninsula, and – briefly and in no great detail – the involvement of Byzantine and Persian interests in Axum’s wars in Arabia. When it comes to discussing the throne – the “throne of Adulis” of the title – and Axum’s situation in Ethiopia, it is a very straightforward, useful piece of research, comparing the description of the throne at Adulis with other inscribed thrones from the history of the Axumite kingdom and doing so in ways that I, as someone who knows little of Axum, can follow very well.

When he moves on to discuss Axum’s involvement in Arabia, and the Himyarite kingdom, his work stops being something that I can follow well at all. The discussion of the socio-historical context of the Arabian peninsula up to this time is lacking. Bowersock’s discussion of the Himyarite kingdom is seriously hampered by the fact that he does not take the time to lay out and examine the evidence literary and archaeological in a methodological fashion, so I am left not knowing if the lack of detail is Bowersock’s choice or a result of lack of data. The through-line of his narrative/argument is confusing, therefore, to follow, and he sketches a very limited picture of Byzantine and Persian involvement. Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.

And I’m left with a very odd feeling about the way in which Bowersock refers to Jewishness and Arabness. There seems to be an underlying subconscious strain of moral judgement there – not something one can easily put a finger on, but the choice of adjectives and adverbs strikes me very uneven at times. The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.

Anyway. The Throne of Adulis is a book of interest to people fascinated by inscribed thrones, and of very limited use in explaining the social and political context of the Red Sea in the century before the rise of the Prophet.