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Ian Straughn

Islamic Archaeology

Archaeology and Religion

Islamic Landscapes

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Writing Lessons – Reading Response #1

I was struck by Chapter 8 of Arabia and the Arabs, “Language and Literature”. I’m doing my senior thesis on (broadly) Classic Mayan epigraphy via the ceramics of a specific site, so understandably I am fascinated by different writing systems. There is so much that a written record can tell or imply to anthropologists (and archaeologists, historians, scholars, etc.) about a culture, not only through actual translation but by examining the content, languages, format, materialism, context, and evolution of texts. We have to ask the questions:

All these questions lead to ideas about what was valued or highlighted by a culture.

For example: the chapter did not specifically address this last question, but it is possible to infer literacy levels in pre-Islamic Arabia by examining the corpus of inscriptions. The presence of abundant textual graffiti combined with surviving personal letters on mundane topics (e.g. commerce), and an alphabetic (and hence easier to learn than a logographic system) script all suggest that there was a relatively high literacy rate, even in nomadic groups (much of the graffiti is by these people). The presence of a literate society has huge implications for the forms of social organization and government that were possible to maintain.

The ancient writing system that I know best, Mayan, is a mixed logographic-syllabic script that records almost exclusively elite activity (including birth/death/ritual, tribute, war, and the ballgame) and supernatural beings in reference to myths. With such a complicated script and higher-level societal focus, literacy was an elite activity. The comparison with the various Arabic scripts, formats, and subject matter is striking. The pre-Islamic Arabian inscriptions record such a wide variety of information, reflection, and literary styles that it only highlights for me the difference between Mayan and Arabian (if I may be pardoned for using such an umbrella term) cultures. The Mayan civilization was highly hierarchical, and the culture valued warrior-ability and elite power above magnanimity and hospitality. The texts of pre-Islamic Arabia prove the people to value battle prowess but also successful commerce, architecture, inter-group treaties, relationships with the gods, people performed work for the good of the society, judicial agreements, poetry — these are all kinds of texts that Hoyland highlights in this chapter as especially prominent in the surviving record. The breadth of topics suggests a diverse, independent, peer-based (to some extent) society or collection of societies.

When presented with such an enormous collection of readable texts, I think it is often easy to get caught up in simply the translations without taking a step back to examine the broader context and implications of those texts. Sometimes we are forced to do just that – the Mayan example begs the question of why the texts deal only with rulers, elites, supernaturals, and object labeling – but it is essential to any epigraphic endeavor.

Posted at Feb 07/2007 12:11AM:
ZAFA: My first reading response, to Ch. 8 of Hoyland.

Reem Y.:

Arabia and the Arabs, By Hoyland.
Art, Architecture and Artifacts.
Arabian material culture?

Some scholars say that Islamic; mainly early Islamic art and architecture was a result of combined adaptation of Greco-Roman and Byzantine styles with Sasanean and Iranian styles. These diverse styles were found in early mosques, Qasers, residential complexes and Baths through their architectural structures, mosaics, frescos and inscription. This goes back to the belief that Arabs in Pre-Islamic times were nomadic people who did not have the typical life-style that other civilizations had. One of the main reasons is the surrounding environment “the desert mainly” that forced them to travel and prevented them from leaving any architectural structures behind them.

However it is believed that after time, Islamic art and architecture developed creating a certain style. Some of the Islamic characteristics are the geometric forms “which some may say was originally a South Arabian style” that functioned as decorations, the structure and the layout of Mosques, and the unexciting depiction of figures especially the prophet Muhammad. This non-figurative representation in Islam can be referred to the Nabataeans and the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs of North and Central Arabia as Hoyland refers to. However when this issue was brought up in my Islamic art and architecture class, this non-figurative representation in Islam was believed to be an Islamic style based on the religion’s ideas and Muhammad’s views and not something adopted from the Nabataeans. But won’t it be possible that this Islamic belief can be adopted from the Nabataeans like how the Arabic script which the Qura’an was written in, was originally adopted from the Nabataean script and was developed by the Arabs? Hoyland in page 168 says: “… the pre-Islamic Arab tribes’ acquaintance with Sasanian and Roman-Byzantine traditions at an early stage made possible the relatively short process of emergence of Umayyad art that was nourished by these sources.” Meaning that buildings did exist in pre-Islamic periods in Arabia. By reading chapter 7 from Arabia and the Arabs we realize that various types and styles emerge in different parts of Arabia, depending on the climate, the nature of the land, and the surrounding empires. In addition to that, trade and relations with near by countries and cities played essential roles in shaping the Arabian architectural style.

Another reason that Hoyland talks about is the “the type of materials and the skills available,” by reading the previous chapters and also in page 195, we came upon the subject of the kind of jobs that Arabs had, and it was mentioned that being a blacksmith “craftsperson” is not a highly respected or accepted job for an Arab man. This caused a severe lack of producing materials and also affected the level of development in the area. Therefore, if an Arab wanted to construct a building he would heir an Arab who is not that skillful or a non-Arab worker, who might be Roman, or Sasanian etc. The worker would be familiar with his country’s style and not the Arabian style and so the result would be a Roman or a Sasanian building. On the other hand, the type of material can reduce the amount of architectural remains especially in certain areas where stone is not easily found. The buildings in such areas would have been built of mud-brick, which by time “hundreds of years” would melt in case of water and would break, for it is not as strong as stone.

According to Hoyland, settlements were found in South Arabia with a great number of fortifications and multi-storey buildings made of mud-brick and wooden beams, which is a characteristic that can also be found in some Islamic structures. This can indicate the existence of Arabian architectural styles alongside Roman, Byzantine, Sasanian and Mesopotamian styles. It can be interpreted in case of Islamic art and architecture that Islamic style is not only a mix of Roman and Sasanian Styles but also a mix of Arabian pre-Islamic styles with the later styles.