The Sasanians in Africa
The seventh century A.D. is a period of ancient history scantly known especially for the intricate history of late Sasanian Persia (226-642).
In order to reconstruct the events of such period, scholars mostly base their argumentation on Byzantine sources [Christensen, 1944 (reprint, 1971), pp. 74-77; Pertusi, 1971; Papathomopoulos, 1983; Haldon, 1990, pp. xvii-xxxiii; Palmer, 1992] (obviously not impartial), even if also Islamic [Christensen, 1944, pp. 59-74] and eastern Christian sources [for the Armenian sources: Christensen, 1944, p. 77-79; von Esbroeck, 1987; for the Syriac sources: Brock, 1984; for the Georgian sources: Toumanoff, 1943; for the Coptic sources: Altheim-Stiehl, 1992; Altheim-Stiehl, 1998; Butler, 1902, pp. 69-92, 498-507; for the non-Christian (and scarce) Persian and other Iranian languages sources: Widengren, 1983, pp. 1269-1283; Schippmann, 1990, pp. 3-9 ; Cereti, 1995-1997] result extremely important.
In the last years of 6th century, the Byzantine Emperor Mauritius (582-602) agreed a potentially lasting peace treatise with Persia through the support granted to the Shãhanshãh Khosrow II Parvêz (590-628) in attaining his throne usurped by the rebel general Bahrãm VI Chubin (590-591) [Christensen, 1944, pp. 443-445; Goubert, 1949; Garsoïan, 1983, pp. 579; Frendo, 1989]. In that occasion Khosrow II gave back to the Byzantines those parts of Mesopotamia and Caucasia taken by his predecessors and even returned some precious Christian relics stolen by the Persians at the time of the wars of his grandfather -Khosrow I Anõshîrvãn (531-579)- with Justinian (527-565) [Peeters, 1947; Higgins, 1955; Stratos, 1968, pp. 14-56; Scarcia, 2000].
This exceptional period of peace was interrupted when a revolt took place in the Byzantine Empire and the usurper Phocas (602-610) ascended to the throne. Mauritius with most of his family were slaughtered causing Khosrow indignation and giving to the Persians the pretext to invade the easternmost fringes of the Byzantine Empire. Officially, the Sasanian armies helped the Byzantine generals rebelled to Phocas, but soon the real intentions of Khosrow were revealed when Heraclius (610-641) defeated Phocas (who was put to death) and was proclaimed Emperor. In fact, Khosrow refused to recognise Heraclius and began a vast scale invasion of the Byzantine Empire which leaded to the siege of the same Constantinople (626) [Barishic, 1954; Stratos, 1968, pp. 145-150, 173-196] and to the brief annexation to Persia of part of Anatolia (609-629) [Stratos, 1968, pp. 64-65, 104-105, 115-117, 152-153, 173-196; Foss, 1975; Schippmann, 1990, pp. 66-70], Syria (611-629) [Stratos, 1968, pp. 63-64, 104-105, 107-109; Morony, 1987], Palestine (614-629) [Stratos, 1968, pp. 107-111, 252-255; Schik, 1992; Atlante storico del popolo ebraico, 1995, p. 76; Maeir, 2000, p. 178, note 62] and Egypt (616/619-629) [Dihel, 1896, pp. 517-532; Christensen, 1944, p. 447; Stratos, 1968, pp. 7-9, 111-114, 123, 247, 283-285; Mac Coull, 1986, p. 308-309; Altheim-Stiehl, 1991; Altheim-Stiehl, 1992; Altheim-Stiehl, 1998. For other general works on Persian-Byzantine relationships in the early 6th-7th century: Garsoïan, 1983, p. 586; Shahbazi, 1990, p. 590; Haldon, 1990, pp. 33-35, 42-46; Carile, 2000. See also: Martindale, 1992; for a very good map about the situation in geographical terms: Atlas zur Geschichte, 1973, 22.I].
The occupation of Egypt is the first recorded evidence of the Sasanian presence on African soil [in Egypt -such as in other parts of Roman Africa- the Manichaean creed is attested in written sources, so it is possible to suppose, during its first diffusion, at least one contact between the Manichaean missionaries (in the 3rd century A.D. mostly Persian) and the local population; on Manichaeism in Egypt and Northern Africa: Jarry, 1968; Polotsky, 1996; Decret, 1999].
Actually, a first encounter between Persia and an African people had already happened when Khosrow I expelled the Christian Aksumites (or Abyssinians) from Yemen in c. 570 A.D. [Conti Rossini, 1928, pp. 195-201; Harmatta, 1974; Muller, 1984, pp. 129-130; Smith, 1988, p. 129; al-'Mad'aj, 1988, p. 2].
The kingdom of Aksum was founded in nowadays Eritrea and Ethiopia by a Semitic-speaking language people originally immigrated in Eastern Africa from Southern Arabia around 6th-5th century B.C. [Giglio, 1980, p. 14; Anfray, 1990, p. 57; Phillipson, 1998, pp. 41-42]. The Aksumites accepted Christianism in the 4th century [officially around 325 A.D.: Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, p. 311; Phillipson, 1998, pp. 112; see also: Hable Sellassie, 1969, p. 5, n. 2] but, at least since 1st century A.D., they have developed a rich and highly civilised culture mostly based on the control of the maritime trade routes linking Roman-Byzantine Egypt with India [Monneret de Villard, 1948; Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, pp. 328-329, 345; Kobischanov, 1969; Kobishchanov, 1979, pp. 171-182; Munro-Hay, 1982; Munro-Hay, 1991, pp. 52-60; Weiner, 1990, pp. 403-405; Munro-Hay, 1996. In the monastery of Dabra Dammò were recovered some Kushan golden coins dated approximately to 2nd century A.D.: Mordini, 1960.a. One Kushana coin is reported to have been excavated in Zimbabwe: Horton, 1996, p. 448. The Kushana had intense commercial relations with Roman Egypt: Sherkova, 1991].
Aksum was in good relations with the Byzantines for the whole of its existence (lasted until 7th century [There is some evidence about a certain importance still devoted to Aksum by the Arabs in the beginning of 8th century, since in the paintings of Qusayr 'Amra (711-715) there is a representation of the Negus --in a very bad state of preservation-- among the six kings defeated by Islam: Conti Rossini, 1928, p. 214; Creswell, 1979, pp. 400-409; Almagro, Caballero, Zozaya, Almagro, 1975, p. 57, pl. XVII.a] and in the 6th century it was involved in the war which opposed Byzantium to Persia for a series of economic reasons [Smith, 1954, pp. 426-429; Harmatta, 1974; Harmatta, 2000]. In c. 525 the Aksumite Negus Kaleb Ella Asbeha prepared a naval expedition against the Himyarite king Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar (known also as Dhu Nuwas), who persecuted the Christians and had tried to stop the interference of the Abyssinians in South Arabia [Smith, 1954, pp. 451-462; Macmichael, 1967, p. 10; Kobishchanov, 1979, pp. 105-111; Bosworth, 1983, pp. 604-609; General History of Africa. II, 1990, pp. 203-233; Anfray, 1990, pp. 70-86; Munro-Hay, 1991, pp. 84-87; Phillipson, 1998, pp. 51, 112, 124].
Between the 3rd and the 4th century A.D. the kingdom of Himyar united Yemen for the first time after defeating Saba and Hadramawt [von Wissmann, 1964; Doe, 1982, pp. 67-70; Gajda, 1996; de Maigret, 1996, pp. 223-237]. Later, Himyar imposed a kind of protectorate on Central Arabia, governed by their vassals, the Hujrids (also known as Kinda) [Shahîd, 1986.a; Robin, 1996].
In 521 A.D. the Christian Ma'adikarib Ya'fur became king and, supported by the Aksumites, began a series of military expeditions against the Central Arabian tribes in order to reinforce his power and prepare a war against the Lakhmids of al-Hira (or Nasrids, Northern Arabian vassals of the Sasanians) [Smith, 1954, pp. 441-448; Shahîd, 1986.b; Bosworth, 1983, pp. 597-602]. After his death, ascended to the throne the Judaist Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, mortal enemy of the Aksumites and their Christian allies [Gajda, 2000].
The Emperor Justin (518-527) made pression on Kaleb for an intervention, officially to protect the persecuted Christians of Yemen, but actually to control one of the passages of goods from India destined to Byzantium. In c. 525 A.D. (or 528-530 for others) the Aksumites leaded personally by their Negus defeated the Himyarites and proclaimed king a Christian named Sumiyafa' Ashwa'. After the departure of Kaleb, the Aksumite general 'Abraha took the power and promised to Justinian to attack the Lakhmids. In 552 he penetrated deeply in Central Arabia until Mecca [Smith, 1954, pp. 431-441; Anfray, 1990, p. 86; van Donzel, 1999, p. 8; Gajda, 2000, p. 228].
Abu Morra Sayf b. Dhu Yazan of the royal Himyarite house asked for an external intervention [Bosworth, 1985, p. 226; van Donzel, 1999, p. 9]. The Byzantines and the Lakhmids refused to send their troops but not the Persians. According to al-Tabari [Zotenberg, 1869, pp. 210-211; Nöldeke, 1879 (reprint, 1973), p. 167], Khosrow I Anoshirvan armed eight ships with eight hundred released Daylamite prisoners, leaded by a certain Vahrez [Exactly as for many other Sasanian names, it is not clear if this was a personal name or a high-rank title: Bosworth, 1985, p. 226; van Donzel, 1999, p. 9; Gajda, 2000, p. 229], and with this army he defeated 'Abraha's son Masruq. Sayf b. Dhu Yazan was proclaimed chief of the reign, now a Sasanian protectorate known as Samaran [Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, p. 313; Monneret de Villard, 1948, p. 157], but after few years he died during a revolt that probably happened between 575 and 578. Vahrez intervened once more but this time with a more numerous army.
After the pacification of the region Sayf b. Dhu Yazan's son, Ma'adikarib, took the place of his father, while Vahrez became the first governor and head of a stable Sasanian military group still active after the Islamization of Yemen [Bosworth, 1985; Crone, 1998. On the discovery in Yemen of a unique carved capital displaying Sasanian elements: Keall, 1995.a; Keall, 1995.b; Keall, 1998. For two general works on Sasanian-Arab relationships before Islam published with very well-updated bibliographies: Bosworth, 1985-87; Bosworth, 1983]. This was certainly a first real contact between the Sasanians and an African kingdom, anyway the concrete Persian presence in the black continent happened only during the reign of Khosrow II.
The Sasanian conquest of Egypt between 616 and 620 still presents some obscure points. First of all, there is a certain confusion about the Persian general who leaded the invasion. The sources give accounts of two military personalities: Shahrbaraz and Shahin [Christensen, 1944, p. 448]. Several recent studies are more inclined to recognise the conqueror of Egypt in the person of Shahrbaraz, the same who was in very good relations with Byzantium and finally ascended the throne of Persia for few days in 630 [Stratos, 1968, pp. 231-234, 309-311; Mango, 1985; Haldon, 1990, p. 352; Hickey, 1993]. Shahrbaraz in 629 evacuated the territory taken from by Byzantines and around 630 gave back the Holy Cross, profaned and transferred in Persia during the sack of Jerusalem in 614 [Frolow, 1953; Stratos, 1968, pp. 245-252].
Regarding this episode there is some evidence about an indirect contact between Persia and Abyssinia. In fact, the Aksumite Negus Armah (7th century) issued a particular kind of coinage with a possible representation of the Holy Sepulchre just to commemorate the recovery of Jerusalem from the Sasanians [Munro-Hay, 1993, p. 32]. Then, it is not clear if the Sasanian limited their presence to the Egyptian territory or passed in the neighbouring regions. The written sources, in fact, reveal some hints to a probable Sasanian plundering in Cyrenaica in the west and Nubia in the south, exactly as happened during the conquest of Egypt acted by the Achaemenid Emperor Cambyses (529-522 B.C.) [Snowden, 1971, pp. 121-125, 184; Law, 1978, pp. 98-103, 105; Bresciani, 1985 (reprint 1993); Morkot, 1991; Török, 1997, pp. 377-392; Huyse, 1999]. Some Achaemenid monuments accompanied by carved inscriptions report in effect the possible condition of regions such as Putaya (Libya) and Kushiya (Ethiopia) as rendered tributary of the Persian Empire (fig. 1) [For a detailed study on the presence of these two peoples in the Achaemenian monuments and inscriptions: Walser, 1966, pp. 27-67, 99-101, pls. 29-30, 79-82, foldout pls. 1-2. See also: Conti Rossini, 1928, p. 54; Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, p. 305, note 3; Monneret de Villard, 1948, pp. 154-155; Leroy, 1963, pl. CLXII, a-b; Snowden, 1971, p. 125; Roaf, 1974, pp. 75-92, 137-143; Shinnie, 1978.a, p. 223; Cook, 1985 (reprint 1993), pp. 214, 219, 247, 263; Bresciani, 1985, pp. 503, 523; Tourovets, 2001, pp. 227, 251].
According to Herodotus, these were not real Ethiopians but Nubians, i.e. the black inhabitants of the region bordering Southern Egypt [Cook, 1985, p. 263; Tourovets, 2001, pp. 250-251], albeit the incontrovertible similarities between the aspect of the black tributaries depicted at Persepolis and that of a pre-Aksumite Ethiopian statue and reliefs (fig. 2) [Leroy, 1963; Anfray, 1990, fig. at p. 40; Munro-Hay, 1996, p. 413].
In the 7th century the most powerful kingdoms lying south of Egypt were Nobadia (extended from the border with Egypt until the Third Cataract), Mukurra (the Makouria of classical sources or Dongola, extended from the border with Nobadia until the Fifth Cataract) and Alwa (Alodia, from the Fifth Cataract to the confluence of the Blue Nile with White Nile).
During the 6th century A.D. the Byzantines missionaries converted to Christianism these three black kingdoms: in c. 543 Nobadia adhered to Monophysitism, between 567 and 570 Mukurra became Melkite and in 570 Longinus (disciple of the exiled Patriarch Theodosius) converted to Monophysitism Alwa [Michalowski, 1967, pp. 13-15; Frend, 1968; Shinnie, 1978.b, pp. 559-564; Giglio, 1980, p. 12-13; Vantini, 1981, pp. 33-50; Munro-Hay, 1982-83, pp. 89-91; Kirwan, 1984, pp. 121-132; General History of Africa. II, 1990, pp. 185-191; General History of Africa. III, 1992, pp. 103-117. On the Byzantine demand for wild animals from this region: Papathomopoulos, 1983, p. 340]. Mukurra became Monophysite only after the Arab advance in this region (half of the 7th century).
According to Mas'udi who visited Egypt in 940, Mukurra absorbed Nobadia in 651 and Alwa as well became its tributary [Giglio, 1980, p. 80. The unification of the whole of Nubia under Dongola seems to have occurred around 697 by the king Merkurios: Shinnie, 1978.b, p. 569; General History of Africa. II, 1990, p. 187].
The archaeological excavations at Faras, the capital of ancient Nobadia, revealed the remains of civil and religious buildings which presented in the lower stratification traces of destruction ascribable to 7th century. Monneret de Villard and Michalowsky, the first archaeologists who excavated the site, linked the destruction of the site to the Sasanian invasion of 616-619 [Monneret de Villard, 1938, pp. 70, 186, 224; Michalowski, 1966, p. 9; Michalowski, 1967, p. 16; Michalowski, 1969, p. 15 ; Vantini, 1971, pp. 73, 87-88, 171-172, 181, 191, 291; Jakobielski, 1972, p. 25 note 53, p. 27 note 15; Rassart, 1973, p. 370; Shinnie, 1978.b, p. 560, 564; Vantini, 1981, p. 60; Vantini, 1985, p. 104, note 1. According to some ancient sources, the Sasanians reached Ethiopia: Stratos, 1968, p. 114; Vantini, 1971, pp. 87-88; Morony, 1997, p. 79]. A bronze ewer found in the Ballana tombs, dated cautiously to 4th-5th or 6th-7th centuries, could represent an evidence of the changes between Nubia and the Iranian world since its form remember very much Central Asian shapes [Mango, 2000, fig. 1:3].
There are no material traces of a stable Persian occupation in Cyrenaica. In some written sources there are brief hints to the Sasanian submission of Libya (that is to say Cyrenaica, divided under the Byzantines in the Prefecture of Libya Pentapolis, in its westernmost part, and the Prefecture of Libya Inferior, just bordering Egypt ) [Stratos, 1968, p. 114; Vantini, 1970, pp. 87-88; Pertusi, 1971, p. 618; Altheim-Stiehl, 1992, p. 87]. Specifically on the period between 575 and 650, the sources do not say anything [Roques, 1992, p. 18], a fact that does not exclude the possibility that the Sasanians entered in the region and at least sacked it [Goodchild, 1971, p. 51.Probably, in plundering the region the Persians followed the same direction of the subsequent Arabian conquest: Goodchild, 1967, fig. 1; Roques, 1994, fig. at p. 76].
Some material evidence on the Sasanian occupation of Egypt can be associated to the textiles recovered in the beginning of 20th century at Antinoe. Coptic art displays clear borrowings from Persian art, especially regarding sumptuous articles such as ivory and textiles, but much of these relics are definitely a local Egyptian production [Badawy, 1987, pp. 18-29. Specifically on Egyptian textiles displaying Iranian borrowings: Benaki Museum, 1972, pp. 24-25, fig. 1; Renner, 1981, p. 294; Trilling, 1982].
Three silk fragments from the funerary complex of Antinoe could be considered external importation, not only for the iconography but also for the same weaving techniques [Ghirshman, 1982, figs. 273, 277-278 ; Martiniani-Reber, 1986, pp. 44-46, cat. 10-11 ; Martiniani Reber, 1997, pp. 50-53, 111-112; cat. 4, 6]. The subjects of the ornamentation are winged horses in pearl roundels (fig. 3) and rams both in pearl roundels and disposed in horizontal bands. Elements such as the disposition of the horns of the rams, the wings of the pegasus, the collars with three pendants and the floating ribbons are all Iranian characteristics (fig. 4).
The same pearl roundels frame -although presenting some obscure points on its origins and significance- is a typical solution of Iranian art of Persia and Central Asia, and knew a very wide diffusion in the ancient world [Venco Ricciardi, 1968-69; Meister, 1970; Carmel, 1990; Jeroussalimskaja, 1993; Compareti, 1997/98; Otavsky, 1998].
Much was said about such textiles but at this moment of time is not yet possible to assert if they are an example of Persian or Central Asian (most likely Sogdian) production [Pfister, 1948; de Francovich, 1963, p. 173; Geijer, 1963; Grabar, 1971, p. 683; Manson-Bier, 1978, fig. 51; McDowell, 1995, p. 69; Compareti, forthcoming 2002], arrived in Egypt because of the exceptional extension of the Sasanian Empire under Khosrow II, from North-Eastern Africa to Central Asia.
Some prominent figures in Nubian paintings are represented wearing garments embellished with pearl roundels patterns. This could be an indirect Iranian reflection happened through contacts with Constantinople and the Arabs, in fact all the paintings are dated to an epoch comprised between 9th and 12th century [Innemée, 1992, pp. 161-63. For specimens of roundels on the garments of persons depicted in the paintings of the cathedral at Faras (Nubia), dated 9th-11th centuries: Michalowski, 1966, pl. V.2, XIV.2, XVI.1; Michalowski, 1974, pls. 55, 56 and fig. at p. 254; Martens-Czarnecka, 1982, pl. 29 (first half of the 9th century). For specimens of pearl roundels enclosing confronted birds besides a tree on the garments of a religious person, in the paintings of the apse at Faras, dated to 12th century: Martens-Czarnecka, 1982, pp. 91, 98, pl. 157. On Egypt as a place of production and exportation of precious fabrics during the Islamic period (but showing Iranian-Byzantine heritage): Calderini, 1946; Lombard, 1978, pp. 35-38, 47-50, 70-71, 94, 151-74; Del Francia, 1994; Compareti, 1997/98/99].
A unique woollen textile recovered in the monastery of Däbrà Dammò (Ethiopia, 6th century A.D. -but restored several times), considered Sasanian in a first moment, seems most likely later (fig. 5) [Mordini, 1960.b, pp. 233-34, fig. A. Textiles were imported in Ethiopia since the 1st century A.D., especially from Egypt: Munro-Hay, 1991, pp. 130-131, 137-138 (see also: Munro-Hay, 1982, p. 110)].
Echoes of post-Sasanian and Islamic court arts exist also in Ethiopian paintings, especially in those dated 10th-13th centuries A.D. [Etiopici, centri e tradizioni, 1971, p. 132; Lepage, 1975, p. 70 and figures at page 66 and 71; Lepage, 1977, pp. 337-40 fig. 8, p. 342 fig. 9]. Recently, Sasanian borrowings accepted through Byzantine art were claimed for a unique Aksumite miniature from Abba Gärima (Ethiopia) at Mädära, dated 6th-9th century (fig. 6) [Lepage, 1990, fig. 3, p. 809; Mercier, 2000, pp. 42-43, fig. 2].
Sasanian elements in Ethiopian art were then claimed for the wooden panels at Däbrà Dammò dated 10th century -most likely of Coptic inspiration [Conti Rossini, 1928, pl. XXXVIII, 116; Mordini, 1947; Etiopi, centri e tradizioni, 1971, pp. 130-31; Anfray, 1990, pp. 170-172] - and in pottery [Etiopici, centri e tradizioni, 1971, p. 133].
In other part of south-eastern African coast, the so called Partho-Sasanian and Sasanian-Islamic ware production appeared during excavations from Somalia to Mozambique [Smith, Wright, 1988, pp. 121, 140; Freeman-Grenville, 1988.a, p. 5; Horton, 1996, pp. 441, 445-446, 449]. Then, some Parthian and Sasanian coins were recovered in Zanzibar (Tanzania) [Horton, 1996, p. 447] and other parts of the Eastern African coast [Freeman-Grenville, 1988.b, p. 5; Knappert, 1992, pp. 146, 150-151].
It is possible that the Sasanians were in contact with a not identified African kingdom since the reign of Narseh (293-302). In fact, the inscription of Paikuli says about the relations with a Zand afrik shah, where Zand (or Zang) is probably the Persian form of the Greek Azania, that is to say, the eastern African coast [Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, p. 314; Monneret de Villard, 1948, p. 157], a place where many Persians migrated in the Islamic period [Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, pp. 335-336].
Such discoveries, in addition to archaeological excavations in the Persian Gulf and in localities as far as Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, seem to support what the sources say about an impressive maritime expansion of the late Sasanians [Conti Rossini, 1928, p. 198; Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, pp. 313-317; Williamson, 1972; Whitehouse, Williamson, 1973; Wilkinson, 1973; Whitehouse, 1979; Wilkinson, 1979, pp. 888-889; Qatar Archaeological Report, 1978, pp. 147-149; Wilkinson, 1983, pp. 190-192; Frye, 1983; Prickett-Fernando, 1990; Tampoe, 1990; Gropp, 1991; Fiorani-Piacentini, 1992; Kervran, 1994; Whitehouse, 1996; Kennet, 1997]. According to Tabari, Khosrow I Anoshirvan would have even subdued a Sri Lankan kingdom and also the Somali coast with an expedition not dissimilar than the one which took Yemen [Conti Rossini, 1928, p. 200; Monneret de Villard, 1937-38, p. 315, note 2; Imam, 1996, p. 173. On the Sasanian coins recovered during archaeological excavations in Sri Lanka: Boperachchi, 1993, p. 79].
The information given by Tabari must be considered cautiously but it should not wonder so much since the historian Procopius reported of the impossibility of the Aksumite agents -sent on request of the Byzantine Emperor- of competing with the Persian merchants on the Indian and Sri Lankan market . It would be interesting to know if the Persians had there a privileged treatment because they paid more the same goods requested by the Byzantines, or because they were protected by a threatening naval force which had, possibly, already given proof of its power in the Indian Ocean.
The second hypothesis would seem more convincing (and fascinating) especially in consideration of Tabari's records, albeit not supported, at the present state of knowledge, by direct archaeological evidence.
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