Mirage of the Saracen: Christians and Nomads in the Sinai Peninsula in Late Antiquity

by Walter D. Ward

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

I first visited the Middle East as an undergraduate in 1998, when I helped excavate the archaeological site of ancient Aila (modern Aqaba), an ancient port on the Red Sea. As a student, I was struck by how little western food was available in Aqaba, other than junk food like potato chips or candy and sodas. There was only one western restaurant in town and that was Pizza Hut, though the Royal Yacht Club served Italian cuisine. By 2002 in the wake of several luxury hotel constructions, a McDonald’s was being planned in the center of town. When I last visited in 2007 while doing research for the dissertation that formed the basis of my book The Mirage of the Saracen, there was a McDonald’s, a Hardees, a fried-chicken place (KFC maybe?), a “Friends” café named after the hit TV show, a Quiznos, several pizza places, and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten. This explosion of western fast food restaurants in Aqaba struck me at the time as a particularly obvious sign of western cultural and economic imperialism.

As I continued working on my dissertation, I began to think about this type of imperialism in the past — I was writing about roughly the same region (Third Palestine – modern southern Jordan, Israel, and the Sinai) and several centuries earlier (fourth-seventh centuries). The entire region had been controlled by the Romans since 106 CE when the Nabataean Kingdom was annexed, so political and military imperialism was out of the picture for my period. As I looked further into the region in late antiquity, I noticed the steady pace of Christianization and increasing agricultural prosperity, especially in the Negev desert. I began to see this as cultural and economic imperialism, but in my dissertation, this is where I left it.

As I began revising for my book, I started to wonder if there was evidence that the Roman authorities or the Christians justified their actions. I began to read the Sinai Martyr Narratives not just as evidence of actual or fictive events, but as unconscious rhetorical justifications for the monastic “conquest” of the Sinai. This helped me frame what I wanted to the book’s main message to be — I argue that those justifications helped create an extremely negative association to the word Saracen, which was later used for Muslims for much of European history and perhaps has an importance today. Thus, my experiences over the past decade and a half in visiting the Middle East came to profoundly shape my research and interpretations of late antiquity, as well as being perhaps relevant for today’s transformations in the Middle East.

Walter D. Ward is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

 

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