Monday, November 30, 2009

Iran in Late Antiquity

Part of it was a smaller average room size, I know, but I still got the feeling that at this year's MESA the panels I attended drew larger crowds than anything I was at last year except for the panel on modern Wahhabism chaired by Marc Lynch. Even here, however, two stood out, with not only the standing room only crowds I became used to, but people standing outside the door straining to here what was going on. One of these was this panel on authority and leadership in Shi'ism, which I'm not going to try blogging about, as I spent most of it scrunched up in tight seating by an annoying curtain before moving to the floor near the door both to ease my exit after the discussant spoke (I had to meet someone) and because most of the people standing looked like they could use a seat more than I could. I will, however, mention the importance of views of political authority in modern Shi'ism described primarily by Michaelle Browers of Wake Forest University, who highlighted the doctrine of the "guardianship of the righteous community" as an important alternative to Ayatollah Khomeini's "guardianship of the jurisprudent," as well as the discussion of Usuli democracy in the thought of Ayatollah Montazeri by Babak Rahimi of the University of California - San Diego.

The other, at the end of the day on Monday, was the fourth in a series on Iran in late antiquity sponsored by the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies and organized primarily by Ohio State's Parvaneh Pourshariati. Much as happened in early Islamic history during the 1990's, the 2000's have seen exciting new developments in the study of the Sasanian Empire, and to a lesser extent that of the Arsacids. In fact, Hugh Kennedy of the University of London's School for Oriental and African Studies, who began the session with a remembrance of Tel Aviv University's Ze'ev Rubin, one of the field's leading lights who recently passed away, declared his opinion that we were entering a "New Era" in the history of late antique Iran two key catalysts of which were the use of seals to reconstruct administrative history and the use of Syriac hagiographies for social history.

As almost all scholars today see the early Islamic world as representing continuity with rather than a sharp break with late antiquity, this renaissance has implications for the study of the development of Islam, as well. Kennedy's own paper, "Early Islamic Iraq and the Heritage of Late Sasanian Administrative Practice," was within this genre as he focused on the ways in which particular Sasanian practices of revenue generation, such as the head tax on those who did not practice the state's official religion, clearly entered wholesale into the financial administration of the caliphate, but the ends to which they were put, such as supporting the Muslim garrison towns of Basra and Kufa, were completely new.

The other two papers included one by Khodadad Rezakhani seeking to break down the generalizations of prosperity or decline when applied to all territories notionally under the rule of an empire by highlighting the different conditions which existed in micro-regions. My own paper at last year's MESA, "Eastern Arabia in the Sasanian Period: New Perspectives," was similar in that it reconsidered the evidence from written Arabic sources in light of the archaeological argument that the region saw a significant decline on the eve of Islam, rather than being at the height of its prosperity as had been put forward by J.C. Wilkinson during the 1970's and largely accepted since then. He was followed by Richard Bulliet, who presented the outline of his typically stimulating and provocative argument from his new book Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran. I won't go into all of it, which makes it even more a summary than the presentation itself was, but a key point is the fact that during the 11th century, lots of disasters were happening throughout the Middle East. Bulliet links this to climate, noting that much of Eurasia was going through an exceptionally cold period during that time, seen in tree ring evidence from Siberia and supported by accounts in the Arabic and Persian sources which tell, for example, of almost two feet of snow falling in a single blizzard in Baghdad and not melting for three weeks. The effects of this were amplified by an agricultural change in Iran which saw the introduction of cotton as a new and highly profitable cash crop by Arabs after the conquests. Because cotton is a summer crop, food crops were primarily grown during the winter, and the loss of the winter growing season thus led to starvation since the wealthy landowners weren't inclined to give up the cotton gravy train while it was still running.

The discussant, UCLA's Michael Morony, spent most of his time amiably cutting into Bulliet's argument, which he saw as "plausible" but troubled by a number of unaddressed points and unanswered questions regarding different types of cotton and soil management and various other points. It didn't have that much to do with Iran in late antiquity, but it did make me want to get a copy of the book, preferably with a good critical review alongside it.

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