Saturday, February 27, 2010

Islam’s Golden Age: An Archaeological Nonentity

John J. O’Neill’s latest guest-essay concerns the lack of any substantive evidence for a “golden age” of Islam.


Islam’s Golden Age: An Archaeological Nonentity
by John J. O’Neill


In my recently published Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, I have argued in detail that Islam, far from being a force for enlightenment in the so-called Dark Age, was actually responsible for the destruction of the literate and urban civilization that we now call Classical; and that, if anything, it was Islam that caused Europe’s descent into backwardness during the Middle Ages. In the same place I have argued in detail that the Islamic Golden Age of the late seventh to the mid-tenth centuries, during which the world of Islam is supposed to have basked in the light of science and learning, is a complete myth, and that no such epoch ever existed. The evidence for this is archaeological.

Until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholars were compelled to rely entirely on written sources for their knowledge of the ancient and medieval worlds. The competent historian of course always had the critical faculty with which to differentiate between fact and fable, between propaganda and honest reporting. There was also, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a more sophisticated form of textual criticism. Yet no matter how discerning the scholar, in the end all he had to work with was the written word. But this all began to change in the nineteenth century. From then on, scholars had something independent with which to check the claims of the chroniclers and annalists of old: the science of archaeology.

By the mid-twentieth century, archaeologists had begun to put together a fairly comprehensive picture of the archaeology of Europe and the Near East. Indeed, several areas of the Near East, such as Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, were and remain among the most thoroughly excavated regions of the earth.

Medievalists had of course been very interested in throwing light on the somewhat romantic though apparently fabulously wealthy and cultured Islamic world of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. Strange and wonderful tales were told of this epoch, though all agreed it was an age of high civilization. Indeed, the seventh to tenth centuries, as we saw, were regarded as the Islamic Golden Age. This was the age of the Omayyad and Abbasid Caliphs; the romantic epoch of Scheherazade and Harun Al-Rashid, the fabulously opulent Caliph of Baghdad, who is said to have donned the disguise of a commoner and wandered by night through the dimly-lit streets of the metropolis — a city of reputedly a million people. This epoch, and this alone, is said to have marked the age of Islam’s cultural ascendancy. Consider the following description from an English historian of eighth-tenth century Cordoba, typical of the genre: “In Spain … the foundation of Umayyad power ushers in an era of unequalled splendour, which reaches its height in the early part of the tenth century. The great university of Cordova is thronged with students … while the city itself excites the wonder of visitors from Germany and France. The banks of the Guadalquivir are covered with luxurious villas, and born of the ruler’s caprice rises the famous Palace of the Flower, a fantastic city of delights.” (H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages; 395-814 (Oxford University Press, 1935) p. 172) All are agreed that in later years, from the eleventh century onwards, the Islamic world began to fall rapidly behind the West.

On the word of the written histories, then, archaeologists expected to find, from Spain to eastern Iran, a flourishing and vibrant culture; an Islamic world of enormous cities endowed with all the wealth of antiquity and the plunder gathered in the Muslim wars of conquest. They hoped to find palaces, public baths, universities and mosques; all richly decorated with marble, ceramic and carved stone.

In fact, they found nothing of the sort.
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The archaeological non-appearance of the Islamic Golden Age is surely one of the most remarkable discoveries to come to light in the past century. It has not achieved the sensational headlines we might expect, for the simple reason that a non-discovery is of much less interest to the public than a discovery. Then again, as archaeologists searched in vain through site after site, they imagined they had just been unlucky; that with the next day’s dig the fabulous palaces and baths would be uncovered. And this has been the pattern now for a hundred years.. In fact, the entire Islamic world is a virtual blank for roughly three centuries. Normally, we find one or two finds attributed to the seventh century, then nothing for three centuries, then a resumption of archaeological material in the mid- or late-tenth century. Take for example Egypt. Egypt was the largest and most populous Islamic country during the Early Middle Ages. The Muslim conquest of the country occurred in 638 or 639, and we should expect the invaders to have begun, almost immediately, using the wealth of the land to begin building numerous and splendid places of worship — but apparently they didn’t. Only two mosques in the whole of Egypt, both in Cairo, are said to date from before the eleventh century: the Amr ibn al-As, AD 641 and the Ahmad ibn Tulun, AD 878. However, the latter building has many features found only in mosques of the eleventh century, so its date of 878 is controversial. Thus, in Egypt, we have a single place of worship, the mosque of Amr ibn al-As, dating from three years after the Muslim conquest, then nothing for another three-and-a-half centuries. Why, in an enormous country with up to perhaps five million inhabitants, should the Muslims wait over 300 years before building themselves places of worship?

And it is the same throughout the Islamic world. No matter where we go, from Spain to Iran, there is virtually nothing between circa 650 and 950. Spain, as we have seen, is supposed to have witnessed a flowering of Islamic culture and civilization in the two centuries after the Arab conquest of 711; and the city of Cordoba is said to have grown to a sophisticated metropolis of half-a-million people or more.. We recall the description of a flourishing and vastly opulent metropolis painted by the writer quoted above. Yet the same author admitted that “Little remains of the architecture of this period.” Little indeed! As a matter of fact, the only Muslim structure in the whole of Spain dating from before the eleventh century is the so-called Mosque of Cordoba; yet even this, strictly-speaking, is not an Islamic construction: It was originally the Visigothic Cathedral of Saint Vincent, which was converted, supposedly in the days of Abd er-Rahman I, to a mosque. Yet the Islamic features that exist could equally belong to the time of Abd er-Rahman III (latter tenth century) whom we know did conversion work on the Cathedral, adding a minaret and a new façade. (Louis Bertrand, The History of Spain (2nd ed. London, 1945) p. 54) Most of the Islamic features in the building actually come after Abd er-Rahman III, and there is no secure way of dating anything in it to the eighth century.

The poverty of visible Islamic remains is normally explained by the proposition that the Christians destroyed the Muslim monuments after the city’s re-conquest. But this solution is inherently suspect. Granted the Christians might have destroyed all the mosques — though even that seems unlikely — but they certainly would not have destroyed opulent palaces, baths, fortifications, etc. Yet none of these — none at least ascribed to the eighth to early tenth centuries — has survived. And even assuming that such a universal and pointless destruction did take place, we have to assume that at least under the ground we would find an abundance of Arab foundations, as well as artifacts, tools, pottery etc. Indeed, in a city of half a million people, as Cordoba of the eight, ninth and tenth centuries is said to have been, the archaeologist would expect to find a superabundance of such things. They should be popping out of the ground with almost every shovel-full of dirt.

Now Cordoba has been extensively excavated over the past seventy years or so, often specifically to search for Arab/Moorish remains. What then has been found?

According to the prestigious Oxford Archaeological Guide, the city has revealed, after exhaustive excavations: (a) The south-western portion of the city wall, which was “presumably” of the ninth century; (b) A small bath-complex, of the 9th/10th century; and (c) A “part” of the Umayyad (8th/9th century) mosque. (The Oxford Archaeological Guide (Collins, 1998) pp. 73, 119, 120) This is all that can be discovered from two-and-a-half centuries of the history of a city of supposedly half a million people. And the rest of Spain, which has been investigated with equal vigor, can deliver little else. A couple of settlements here and a few fragments of pottery there, usually of doubtful date and often described as “presumably” ninth century or such like.

The sheer poverty of these remains can only be properly understood if we compare them to other well-attested archeological eras. Thus for example any single century of Imperial Rome’s history has produced not thousands, but literally millions of archeological finds, ranging from amphitheatres and temples down to pieces of pottery and objets d’art. That almost three centuries of Islamic history — three centuries of a supposedly Golden Age of opulence and prosperity — can produce virtually nothing from the Atlantic coasts of Morocco to the borders of India is an utterly astonishing fact; a fact which leads inexorably to a single conclusion: namely that the Islamic Golden Age of the eighth, ninth and early tenth centuries is a myth. And the elusive nature of all material from these three centuries, in every part of the Islamic world, makes us wonder whether the rise of Islam has been somehow misdated: For the first real mark left (in archaeological terms) by Islam in Spain is dated to the mid-tenth century, to the time of Abd er-Rahman III, whose life bears many striking comparisons with his namesake and supposed ancestor Abd er-Rahman I, of the eighth century. Again, there are strange and striking parallels between the major events of Islamic history of the seventh and eighth centuries on the one hand and of the tenth and eleventh centuries on the other. Thus for example the Christian Reconquista in Spain is supposed to have commenced around 720, with the great victory of Don Pelayo at Covadonga; but the real Reconquista began three hundred years later with the victories of Sancho of Navarre around 1020. Similarly, the Islamic invasion of northern India supposedly commenced around 710-720 with the victories of Muhammad bin Qasim, though the “real” Islamic conquest of the region began with the victories of Mahmud of Ghazni, roughly between 1010 and 1020.

What then does all this mean?

The lack of Muslim archaeology from before the tenth and eleventh centuries (with the exception of two or three monuments such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Amr ibn al-As mosque in Cairo, usually of the mid-seventh century), would indicate that the rise of Islam has been misdated, and that some form of error has crept into the chronology. But error or not, the fact that virtually nothing from before the mid-tenth century has been found means that Islam was not a flourishing, opulent and cultured civilization whilst Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. By the late tenth century Europe was experiencing her own “renaissance”, with a flowering of art and architecture, much of it strongly reminiscent of the Late Classical work of the Merovingian and Visigothic period.


Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.

Previous posts by John J. O’Neill:

2009 Oct 6 Islam and the Dark Age of Byzantium
  Nov 10 How Muslim Piracy Changed the World
  Dec 2 Islam and the Rise of Violent Anti-Semitism
2010 Jan 11 How Islam Breathed New Life into Slavery and the Slave Trade In Europe
  Feb 20 The Crusades: A Response to Islamic Aggression

14 comments:

randian said...

If the Reconqista didn't begin until the early 1000s, are you saying (a) Islam had 300 years of uncontested rule of Spain, or (b) Islam's invasion of Spain occurred 300 years later than the standard chronology?

If the latter, it poses the question "from whom was the history of that period obtained"? Islamic or European sources? What happens to the big hole in European history the latter interpretation creates?

Islam utterly eliminated Christianity in North Africa in far less time. It seems unlikely there would be any Christians left in Spain if Muslims had 300 unmolested years to do the deed.

Why wasn't the Mosque of Cordoba reconsecrated as the Cathedral of St. Vincent after the Reconquista? Removing symbols of their former overlords would seem like a high priority.

Arius said...

John O'Neill, I am very interested in communicating with you on some aspects of Holy Warriors, such as the idea that the Persian/Byzantium wars were at the same time as the Arab armies emerging from Arabia.

Do you have a blog were we can discuss this further with you?

Ice People said...

Thank goodness someone is refuting this ludicrous myth.

Zimri said...

Hello, once more, it's me - Zimri(el), LGF bannee, blogmocracy regular, and sporadic GoV troll.

I posted this on blogmocracy but it bears repeating here. Slightly de-ranted.

I’ll start with what O'Neill does right. Ward-Perkins points out that north Africa was already a disaster as of 600 (thanks, Vandals! and thanks, Justinian!). And Iran was a warzone throughout the Umayyad era. We can absolutely blame the Arabs for destroying Iran. And we can fault them for not doing anything worthwhile with north Africa, and Spain, as well.

So here’s what O'Neill does wrong:

1. He’s gliding over the Umayyad period in Syria and Egypt. Even he has to admit the fertile-crescent was a LOT better off than the rest of the old Roman Empire. Ward-Perkins in Fall of Rome points out (Umayyad) Syria and Egypt as the big exception to the poverty of the Dark Age (p. 126).

2. He shouldn’t ignore the literary accounts of Islamic building programmes… because several of them come from their opponents. For instance Yazid III, social reformer. He’d got his support from people sick of earlier Umayyads who were wasting tax monies on big architectural boondoggles. So clearly there WAS building being done – Yazid counts as a witness complaining about it.

3. In his focus on Spain and northern Africa, he’s neglecting not only Syria but also Iraq. He needs to give us another paragraph explaining where’s Harun al-Rashid’s palace and why the mosque at Samarra, commissioned 848 AD, doesn’t count as architecture. (Plenty other mosques could be pointed to here.)

4. Syria, Iraq, Egypt maintained non-Muslim majorities for a long time. Even if there was prosperity in (say) ‘Abbasid times, the treasures dug up would just be … golden menorahs and Nestorian crosses. Oy vey.

5. Hulagu Khan. The Mongols deliberately sought out and destroyed Muslim buildings (saving Nestorian churches, for whatever reason). Since Baghdad remained a city where there were people living in it, and since Babylon was abandoned; we would expect to find lots of cool stuff in Babylon’s ruin, but Baghdad’s ruins would just be built over.

So, to sum up, he doesn’t convince me. He’s deliberately going to backwaters and claiming that as evidence. It would be like an archaeologist of the 1880s US finding a ghost town in New Mexico bypassed by railroad, and concluding that the era was a dark age here.

Not to say he IS wrong - it's just that he DID IT wrong. If he wants to make his case he needs to address the concerns I brought up.

steve said...

It was largely due to Muslims blocking European trade routes to Asia and Africa etc that Europe fell into the Dark Ages as this caused huge Damage to Byzantine and other European nations economies and it was not coincidence that European fortunes reversed only when they overcame this Muslim blockade with ocean going voyages in the 16th centuries once again opening up trade routes to China (etc) that had existed under Rome.

Watching Eagle said...

Randian, North Africa was mostly non-muslim for centuries after the "Muslim Conquest". More to the point, look at the Balkans (1389- 1900) and India (1200's-1700's) and you can see that non-muslim majorities have held on to existence for 500 years in the face of domnaion, just as they did in Spain.

I hve read the book [Holy Warriors] O'Neill is right in his thesis that EUROPE was profoundly altered by Islam in the 7th and early 8th Centuries.

however, I believe that he is misinformed about there being a 'gap of 300 years'.

The problem is that O Neill asks a good question "Why did the Muslims cause economic decline in the early 8th Century, but the ideological influence was not felt until the 10th and 11th. Centuries?", and then proceeds to answer the question from a 21st Century time-warp.

If there was no mass communication, no rapid transportation, no universal education and a lack of widespread literacy, the flow of ideas would be much,much slower. In fact, one could not reasonably expect to see Islam's ideological influence widespread for at least 200 years after the muslims had caused economic decline.

Another weakness with the 'Gap' idea is that O' Neil theorizes that Muhamed must have lived earlier that the recorded dates, since there isn't enough time with the "gap" for things to make sense.

This is sort of "destroying the village in order to save it", and badly undercuts his whole theory.

Another problem is that the Chinese and Indians kept records and there is no evidence of a gap in them.

Based on the 'absence of evidence' thesis, I propose an interesting hypothetical situation.

Suppose it is the year 2700 AD:

Europe has become a Caliphate Centuries ago, and some of the technological advancements of the 21st Century have been lost.

An archeologist points out that there is very little evidence of all the supposed buildings of the West between 1700 and 2000 AD [ few of the current buildings are built to last another 700 years], and notes that there is a great similarity between the dates of 9/11/1683 and 9/11/2001. He wonders how the Muslims could REALLY have receded for 300 years, and there have REALLY been so much 'science fiction' inventions during that alledged 300 years {1700-2000}. Surely it would likely be that those 300 years never existed, and the 'histories' [although noted by both Muslim and non-Muslim western sources] were mere fabrications, RIGHT???

And by the way, non-Muslim europeans will have dwindled so much by 2100--combined with such massive muslim migration to Europe, that this scenario does not seem far-fetched at all.

Moral: don't thorw out just history because it doesn't fit with your current everday experience.

Watching Eagle said...

More points about Spain and the Western/ Muslim calendars:

Concerning Spain, and the lack of archeology before the 10th Century, one must understand what history proportably says: That Spain was a refuge of the Umayyads
in 750 AD, and thus a sort of 'rebel kingdom' cut off from the Rest of the Islamic Empire at this time. One could hardly expect such a state to be opulent and powerful right away. This would explain why the Muslims got pushed back from France and back into Spain during the 800's. It was only in 929 AD that the Umayyads proclaimed that they were a Caliphate in Cordova-- And sure enough, there was a great resurgence of jihad in the 900's as a result of the new muslim power.

More to the point, if there was a "gap" of 300 years, it would seem strange that all of Europe was scared of Muslims if they had pushed the Muslims all the way back from Covodonga to south of Toledo in barely two generations after the muslim 'highwater mark' in Spain!! [If Toledo was recaptured in 785 AD, as the book hypothesizes.}

It is thus unlikely that the opulence of Cordova ever existed until 200 years after the Muslims had conquered spain (consistent with both history and archeology].

Another problem with the 'gap" theory is that the Byzantine Empire had not collapsed in the 7th Century, and Rome was not being threatened during the 660's AD.

In the 960's AD, the pope's goal of giving Rome German protection would seem more likely, due to the fact that Sicily and parts of Sothern Italy were under Muslim rule at this time.

Another problem with the 'gap' theory is as follows:

Why was the 'Holy Roman Empire' composed of Central Germany and the Alpine regions (the areas least affected by the Muslims and vikings, but not France, Spain, and England (which were under attack)?

More problems are that even with the 'gap' the battle of Mazikert is still a century too late to make the 'gap' make any sense.

Finally, there is the calendar problem. O Neil seems to think that Muslims simply copied the dates from the West, sicne they couldn't mark years very well.

But this is highly improbable for two reasons: 1)the Western Calendar is based on the sun, and wants to keep the seasons alinged-- the moon is irrelevant. The Muslim Calendar is totally based on the moon-- no regard is made for the seasons. The Muslim calendar is only 354 days long, (thus ramadan changes seasons as measured by the Western Calendar), so 100 Muslim year are equal to only 97 Western (solar) years. Thus, it is the year AH 1431 (NOT 1378) on the Muslim Calendar right now.

One can't just add a fixed number to the Western Calendar and get the correct Muslim year-- and people who could calculate it right could SURELY keep track of the years!

Watching Eagle said...

Calendars, continued:

Problem 2)there are Muslim coins bearing both AD and AH dates as far back as the 11th Century. This is 1-2 centuries BEFORE the book says that the AD dating system was popularized by Rome. What the coins mean is that the AD dating system was in widespread use with European lands that the Muslims were in contact with, if not the rulers of. Since the AD dating system was used on MUSLIM coins, it was being widely used a minimum of 1-2 Centuries before this in many western lands (remember that diffusion of ideas was very slow then.

Also, keep in mind that in the first Muslim Centuries, Muslims were no greater a percentage of the population of the "Muslim World (EgypT, Syria, North Africa)" than muslims are in Europe in 2010.

Thus, it is logical that Muslims could have added the AD dates to their coins for the sake of their 'infidel' subjects and customers.

But it is ludicrous to think that any Muslim could have gotten away with 'borrowing' the calendar from "the infidel dogs", and somehow skipped from AH 100 to AH410, wihout people noticing and the Caliph beheading him.

When was the last time Muslims learned something from other cultures, admitting that they did so because they didn't know themselves????

Nobody said...

Let me put it this way. The present day world of Islam is backward, stagnating and spawning violence well beyond its borders. Uncontrolled Muslim immigration to Europe has brought these problems to the West.

But from stating these obvious facts to claiming that there was no golden age of Islam, that the Koran is very different from the Old Testament in its approach to violence, it's a very long way.

It conflicts with the obvious fact that some Muslims, maybe not many but they exist, seem perfectly capable of combining their religion with modern lifestyles, that some schools of Islam are not violent nor oppressive.

You are just diverting time and energy from real issues into sterile debates, undermining the credibility of those who warn against the danger of uncontrolled Muslim immigration to the West.

Thomas Fink said...

Interesting. John J. O’Neill thesis corresponds with the theorie of some german researchers (Heribert Illig, Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and others). They state that the early middle ages have not existed at all. Not only in the muslim world, but also in Europe you cannot find archaeological artifacts from say 700 to 800. I cannot give you the exact data, but you can google. It seems that for a time of around hundred years, you can find no coins, nothing. However, I am no specialist but I know some people who are definitely not crazy and who believe that part of our history is a later invention.

randian said...

It conflicts with the obvious fact that some Muslims, maybe not many but they exist, seem perfectly capable of combining their religion with modern lifestyles, that some schools of Islam are not violent nor oppressive.

Then name an Orthodox school that doesn't proclaim the necessity for believers to subjugate unbelievers under the rubric of Sharia law.

Nobody said...

Another attempt to start a pointless and sterile debate. It's beyond the point. But to answer your question, in every major Sunni school of Islam today, maybe with the exception of Hanafi, you can find people who define themselves as secular Muslims. Shia Islam has a strong tradition of political isolationism. There are Ayatollahs in Iran who oppose the concept of Velayat e Faqih. A couple of them are sitting in jail.In Sufi Islam there have always been apolitical streams. Anyway, it's not a function of the school, it's a matter of personal interpretation. To cut it short, yes, a modern Muslim can perfectly belong to a traditional school of Islam and insist on separation of religion from politics and keeping religion as a private business. If they want to reform, they can do it.

randian said...

But to answer your question, in every major Sunni school of Islam today, maybe with the exception of Hanafi, you can find people who define themselves as secular Muslims.

Every school proclaims the necessity of subjugating the unbeliever. All of them. That there exist Muslims who claim to be secular in no way changes the teachings of their religion. Since jihadists claims of a more authentic Islam is in accord with what the schools of jurisprudence actually say, there is always the clear and present danger of supposedly secular Muslims getting recruited into jihad.

We know a many Muslims who claim to be secular are lying. Check out CAIR and ISNA, closet jihadists all. The so-called "silent majority" aren't secular either, or else they wouldn't be silent about their not so silent brethren trying to bring Sharia law everywhere. Were that to happen, if the "silent majority" really were secular they'd be jailed or executed as apostates, so they have a large incentive to push back. If indeed they disagree with Sharia law, which I maintain they do not.

Nobody said...

I lived in the Middle East for the last 20 years. And I lived in Spain for a while where I was in touch with Muslim immigrants from Pakistan and Morocco. From what I could see Europeans have got not a notion about what's happening to them and to their Muslims. Sharia, the idea of Islamic state and such stuff are absolutely secondary issues here.

Much of the radicalization of Muslims in Europe was created by the European media itself. The amount of anti Western propaganda circulated by the media in countries like Spain is absolutely staggering. Muslims react to this first, religion comes second. Even Jihadists today talk about colonialism, multinationals, exploitation. Never mind secular Muslims. But there are no such notions in Islam. It's an entirely Western stuff of the kind the Western academy and media likes to entertain its audience with.

Muslims simply react to it more strongly. It's normal in the West for a person to blame his country for everything from hunger in Africa to robbing Iraq of its oil and then go to sip a coffee in Starbucks or whatever. In the Middle East the distance between ideology and action is much shorter. Strong views oblige one to strong actions. When these two civilizations met each other the ideological component of one of the two ignited the fuse of the other one.