This little booklet - less than 100 pages all told - contains three lectures delivered in 2011 by G.W. Bowerstock which, to some extent, are complemented by his more recent book, "The Throne of Adulis".
The first lecture is about Byzantium, Ethiopia (Axoum) and the Jewish Kingdom of South Arabia, which was backed by the Sassanians and attacked and invaded by Christian Axoum, supported by Justinian's East Roman (or Early Byzantine) Empire. While there is not a huge amount of evidence, the author makes the most of what there is in his effort to reconstitute the main events of the power struggle which opposed the allies of the respective superpowers and which influenced pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia.
The second lecture is centred on the Persian capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614, following a crushing defeat suffered at the hands of the Sassanians by Emperor Heraclius the year before. The interesting bit is the role of the Jews still living in Jerusalem who clearly favoured the Persians and welcomed them. Given the treatment meted out by the Romans to them, this is hardly surprising. The Christian population, mainly Monophysites, do not seem to have put up a fierce resistance, partly because they were alienated from Constantinople for religious reasons but also, as the lecturer shows, because the Persians were careful not to alienate them. They seem to have mainly governed occupied Egypt, Palestine and Syria through the existing administrative local structures and, although they were some massacres and initial pillaging, this seems to have been kept to a minimum.
The third lecture titled "Heraclius' gift to Islam: the Death of the Persian Empire", is the most intriguing of the three. Here the author argues that, by weakening and almost destroying the Persian Empire as a result of the long war that he finally won, Emperor Heraclius, quite accidentally, played into the hands of the early Arab conquerors. What is more original, however, are the traces that can be found in some of the earliest Islamic writing (and one of the surates, in particular) of praise and rejoicing at the victory of the Byzantine monotheist Emperor over the pagan Persians. This seems to have happened just a few years before the Arab onslaught on Palestine and Syria begun. It also suggests that, at least initially, there was not the irreconcilable hostility and hatred that would develop after the first invasions.
In all three cases, the lectures are clear, concise and to the point and read as vignettes, giving us three glimpses of "Empires in Collision", each with its religion. A solid four stars.
The author is a highly regarded historian of Greco-Roman times who has built his reputation by taking a unique perspective on his subject matter. He examines great civilizations from the outside-in, positioning himself on the frontiers and showing how these edges of empires help us understand the inner workings of the empires themselves. One of his best-known books is "Roman Arabia," which covers Rome’s encounters with the Arabian Peninsula up to the beginning of the Byzantine age.
The current book takes the story further, through Byzantine times to the birth of Islam. It was developed from a series of three lectures in which he sought to present “a new vision of the momentous collision of the Byzantine and Persian empires at the same time as the rise of Islam.” The first part of the book focuses on how an escalating “imperialist” conflict between two smaller regional powers, the Ethiopian empire of East Africa and the Himyarites of Southern Yemen, spurred a collision on a grander scale between two “superpowers,” Byzantium and Sassanian Persia.
Part two covers a highpoint of that superpower collision, the conquest of Byzantine Jerusalem in 614 by the Persians. In the final section of the book, the author examines what is sometimes called the Byzantine emperor Heraclius’ “gift to Islam.” Heraclius personally leads his army deep into Mesopotamia and scores a major victory over the Sassanians, bringing the Persian empire to an end in 628. The triumph ended the Persian occupation of Syria and Palestine, opening the door for the Arab armies of the Prophet Muhammad. In the end, Heraclius’s own army was exhausted by war, and could not resist the Arab/Islamic expansion.
(A version of this review appeared in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, Sep/Oct 2014.)
I didn't know, that a very important precondition for the rapid Arab expansion into the Persian empire was the Byzantine defeat of the Persian army at Ctesiphon in 628. I already recommend this book to others.