The title of the present post will surely strike some as at least strange. What can possibly be the links between these two peripheries of the Roman Empire? However, a book that I just read offered me some very interesting insights.
It is the latest product of the pen of Eivind Heldaas Seland, newly appointed Associate Professor of World History at the University of Bergen. His book is titled: “Ships of the Desert and Ships of the Sea. Palmyra in the World Trade of the First Three Centuries CE” (Harrassowitz Verlag 2016) and although it is just over 100 pages it is a most praiseworthy historical treatise. Eivind attempts to reply to two questions: “Why did Palmyra become important in the long-distance trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean? And how did the Palmyrenes go about establishing, operating and expanding their business?” (p. 89). By using his own experience of the landscape around Palmyra and of the site itself (Eivind has been member of the Norwegian-Syrian mission to Palmyra); his mastering of both ancient sources and contemporary research (an eloquent example of his erudition is the discussion in p. 54 relating to the Muziris papyrus); the traditions of the social anthropological school of Bergen in matters of borders, ethnicity and identity; as well as network theory; Seland offers satisfying answers to these two questions. His book is richly illustrated, although sometimes one could wish for larger format for some of the maps, but this was surely a choice dictated by the publishers. They must also be held responsible for a series of typos that do not harm the overall quality of the final product though. The book by Seland will make, in my opinion, an essential point of reference for researchers of the ancient world, as well as an excellent part of a students’ compendium at the University of Bergen – and elsewhere – for years to come. The author has contributed in the most positive way in our understanding of the position in world history of a site that had unfortunately come into the news lately in very negative terms due to the attacks and destructions by Daesh. The reader of “Ships of the Desert and Ships of the Sea” feels definitely wiser on the nature of the society, trade and world place of Palmyra in Late Antiquity, either this reader is a specialist in the field or an amateur; like the present reader specializing in Nubian Studies!
So, closing this post, let me summarize the three points of Nubiological interest that I gleaned from reading Eivind’s latest book:
1. In p. 13, we learn that Palmyrene military forces were used by the Romans in strategically important frontiers, among which Nubia!
2. This information gains in importance if combined with the itinerary followed by Palmyrene caravans bringing products from India to the Mediterranean using the Red Sea and the Nile Valley. The African people most involved in this trade were definitely the Blemmyes, but the way that these contacts also affected the Nubians is worth further analysis, especially in relation with the spreading of new ideas, like Christianity.
3. And most important, exercising comparativism with the prudence of a world-historian: how comparable is the case of the nomadic populations of the Syrian Desert, with whom the Romans seem to have engaged through a combination of alliances, deterrence and subsidies (p. 20), with that of both nomadic and sedentary populations to the south of Egypt in the same period of Imperial Rome? Are these “phylarchs” and “ethnarchs” of the Syrian Desert analogous to the “phylarchs” of the Blemmyes and the “basiliskos” of Nobades, as known from Nubian sources? If the granting of such titles was not only linked with a policy of pacification and control, could they also be seen as tokens of recognition of a special role of these “foederati” in the world trade interests of the Roman Empire? It is interesting perhaps to underline that both Palmyra and Meroë seem to lose their international role at the same time, and in concordance with the disintegration of the ancient Roman Empire. The medieval era will bring new balances that set Palmyra and Nubia in different peripheries – albeit parallel again – defined this time by the Islamic Caliphate.