A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vanished States: the One-Month Life of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (1918)

Transcaucasian Ruble, 1918, with
Armenian, Georgian and Azeri text, 917
A few years back, I started a series on "Vanished States," short-lived entities in the 20th century Middle East; I did posts on the Republic of Hatay (1938-39), the Syrian Arab Kingdom under Faisal (four months in 1920), the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz (1916-1925), and the Rifian Republic (1921-1926) With this post, I'm returning to the theme.

The last two years of World War I and the several years following it were a time of the breaking of empires. The first of the transnational empires was that of Tsarist Russia, beginning March 8, 1917, the "February Revolution" (Russia was on the Julian calendar).

The Provisional Government in Petrograd soon appointed a "Special Transcaucasian Committee," responsible for the areas south of the ridgeline of the Caucasus, comprising the modern states of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan.

At the time of the February Revolution, bear in mind that Russian forces were actively engaged against the Ottomans on the Armenian front, as well as operating in northwestern Persia.With the Revolution, there were widespread desertions on all fronts.
Areas occupied Sept. 1917

The Special Transcaucasian Committee took over administration in Transcaucasia and in Turkish territory that had been occupied during the war, This occupied zone was governed by local Armenian councils and referred to as Western Armenia and other terms.

The representatives on the Transcaucasus Committee were Mensheviks, members of the non-Leninist wing of the Social Democratic Party, who dominated the Provisional Government.

Evgeni Gegechkori
Then came the October Revolution on November 7 of the new calendar, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd. On November 11, 1917, at Tbilisi, a Transcaucasian Commissariat was proclaimed, making the Transccaucasus nominally independent of Petrograd. It was chaired by the Georgian Menshevik Evgeni Gegechkori.

In January 1918, in an attempt to strengthen the tentative union, it was decided to create a Sejm or Parliament. In December, the Armistice of Erzincan with Turkey was endorsed by the Commissariat.

The Sejm was led by Nikolay Chkeidze, another Georgian.

On March 3, 1918, the Russian Government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This called for the return to Turkey of its conquered territories. In negotiations in Trabzon, a delegation from the Sejm agreed to accept Brest-Litovsk as a basis for settlement, but this was rejected by the main Sejm in Tbilisi. Instead, on April 22, 1918, they declared the full independence of the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia, and also declared that it remained in a state of war with the Ottoman Empire.

The Flag
Unfortunately, the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia's name was longer than its duration as an independent state. With the collapse of the Russian Caucasus Army and Brest-Litovsk, the Transcaucasus cobbled together a Military Council of Nationalities of Armenian volunteers and Georgian and Azerbaijani troops. These untrained levies were no match for the Ottoman Third Army, which retook Kars and Erzurum and continued to advance on the Armenian front.

Anyone who has followed the Caucasus since the fall of the Soviet Union will not be surprised by what happened after the fall of Tsarist Russia. The existence of enclaves of one ethnicity within the boundaries of another (Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan) was explosive then as now.

Remember, too, that in April-May 1918, World War I was very much still under way, and Germany and the Ottomans were very much still allies.

As the Ottoman Third Army advanced against Armenia and began to demand Tbilisi, Georgia negotiated a treaty with Germany, promising protection. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, chose to ally with its Turkic cousins in the Ottoman Empire.

On May 26, Georgia declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia and proceeded to sign its treaty with Germany. Two days later, Armenia followed suit (the First Armenian Republic) and so did Azerbaijan. The Democratic Federative Republic had lasted from April 22 to May 28, 1918. Except for imposed entities under Soviet rule, the only real attempt at a Transcaucasian federation was virtually stillborn. Soon the three nationalities would be fighting each other, and the Bolsheviks, and Armenia would be fighting the Turks. There would be British intervention as well. But that is another story.

Monday, February 27, 2017

On 84th Anniversary of Reichstag Fire, More Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Attacks in US

Today is the 84th anniversary of the burning of the German Reichstag on February 27, 1933. I draw no linkages. Just today several Jewish Day Schools in the DC-MD-VA area alone were evacuated due to threats: these are schoolchildren. In just a week, Jewish cemeteries in the St.Louis and Philadelphia areas were desecrated, with tombstones being toppled. (In good news, in both cases, local Muslims re helping to restore the cemeteries.)

Islamophobia is also increasingly in evidence. In Olathe, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb, an Indian man was shot dead and another (plus a good Samaritan who intervened) were wounded. The shooter thought the Indian men were Iranian.

I still believe that most Americans are better than this, despite a history or racism and nativism. I hope I will be able to hold on to that belief.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Second Act in Mesopotamia: the Second Battle of Kut, February 23-24, 1917

We stopped following the centennial of the British Mesopotamian campaign in World War I after General Townshend's disastrous surrender of British and Indian troops at Kut in April 1916. The twin shocks of Gallipoli and Kut stalled British efforts in the Middle East for much of the rest of 1916, despite a successful advance across Sinai.

After Kut, the British had to reorganize the forces in Mesopotamia, and the new commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, who in January had been the last man off the beach at Gallipoli, was ordered to consolidate in the south rather than resume the advance on Baghdad.

Baratov (on right)
In fact the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Sir William Robertson, considered that Baghdad was not a major strategic prize. But as 1916 wore on, the British felt that Russian successes in the Caucasus and northwestern Iran under Gen Nikolai Baratov justified resuming an offensive toward Baghdad, squeezing the Turks between the British and the Russians and isolating Iran from German influence..  (In 1916, of course, no one foresaw the Russian collapse into revolution the next year.)

Kazem Karabekir Bey
By September 1916, British policy began to shift to a new advance on Baghdad, and in December Maude launched his advance up the Tigris. Advancing initially on both banks, supported by riverine forces, he was able to defeat or brush aside small Ottoman garrisons throughout January. Winter rains and several fortified positions delayed the advance. The main Ottoman force opposing Maude were elements of the Ottoman XVIII Corps under Kazim Karabekir Bey, with some 17,000 troops around the town of Kut. were faced by 50,000 frontline troops under Maude. Requests for reinforcements sent to overall commander Khalil Pasha (Halil Kut) were to no avail. The mistakes of 1915 would not be repeated.
Situation at Kut, February 22, 1917 ("1915" is a typo)

The "Second Battle of Kut" was more a battle of maneuver than of combat. As Maude's superior force approached Kut, he crossed the Tigris at Shumran Bend on February 17, threatening the Turkish right, while the rest of the force moved on its left. Outflanked and outnumbered, and certainly mindful of Townshend's disaster after letting himself be besieged, Karabekir Bey chose to extract himself from his untenable position. By February 24, the Ottoman force was retreating up the river, ursued by Maude's riverboats.

The Second Battle of Kut in some small measure may have offset the shock of the surrender, but it also marked the arrival of a much more competent commander, Less than three weeks later, Maude would enter Baghdad.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reprise for Washington's Birthday: GW's Letter to the Sultan of Morocco, and the Oldest US Treaty Always in Force

Today, February 22, is George Washington's actual birthday (adjusted for the Gregorian calendar), though we celebrated Monday on the President's Day holiday. This is a reprise of a post from 2015, noting America's oldest treaty always in force (1786), and Washington's 1789 letter to the Sultan of Morocco.

The US-Moroccan Treaty of Friendship of 1786, ratified by the Confederation Congress under the Articles of Confederation (before the US Constitution), has been renegotiated on occasion but is said to be the oldest US treaty still in force and never broken.
Sultan Muhmmad III ibn ‘Abdullah
I've noted more than once that Morocco had actually been trying to get our attention since 1777, when, on December 20, 1777, the Sultan of Morocco, Sidi Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah, also known as Sultan Muhammad III, issued a decree allowing any ship bearing the flag of the new United States of America, to put in at Moroccan ports. Both Morocco and the United States now retroactively see this as the first recognition of the US by a foreign power. (France would be the second, but not until 1778; in 1776, a port in the Dutch East Indies fired a salute to a US-flagged ship, but that did not represent the Dutch home government, which eventually followed the French lead.)

I suspect the painting of the Sultan is not contemporary; it's from Wikipedia.

The problem was, the US didn't immediately notice. In fact the day before the Sultan's decree, on December 19, 1777, George Washington and the Continental Army went into winter camp at a place called Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and spent a winter when the sunny shores of Morocco doubtless seemed terribly remote and the prospects of winning the war seemed almost as remote.

The Sultan's move came at a time when most European powers were paying tribute to the North African ("Barbary") states to permit them to trade; the American Declaration of Independence meant that the British tribute no longer granted them privileges.

In 1778 the Sultan appointed  a French merchant in Salé, next to Rabat, as consul for those countries not represented by consuls in Morocco. Caille wrote to Benjamin Franklin, the American representative in Paris, in 1778, suggesting negotiations for a treaty with the United States.

Late in 1780, according to a history published by the US Embassy in Morocco, but which now has a broken link, the Continental Congress approved the idea, telling Caille to move toward such a treaty. But only after the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain did the project move forward. In May 1784 Congress authorized Franklin, John Adams (US envoy to London), and Thomas Jefferson (the new envoy to Paris) to negotiate the deal. In October 1784, a Moroccan corsair seized an American merchantman in the Atlantic, and the Sultan pointedly noted that he had been asking for a treaty for several years. In 1785, Thomas Barclay, US Consul-General in Paris, was sent to Morocco to negotiate the terms. Adams in London wrote to Jefferson in Paris, "If Mr. Barclay will undertake the voyage, I am for looking no farther. We cannot find a steadier, or more prudent man." Barclay reached Marrakesh, then the Sultan's capital, on June 19, 1786. On June 28 the treaty was signed and sealed by the Sultan; you can read the English text here.

It was valid for 50 years and was indeed renewed in 1836. An additional article was added on July 6, 1786. Jefferson signed it in Paris on January 1, 1787; Adams signed in London on January 25, and the Confederation Congress ratified it and it entered into legal force on July 18, 1787. It remains in force.

Before getting to Washington's letter to the Sultan, a side note: in 1821 the Sultan's successor gave the US the property which became the US Consulate in Tangier. (The first Consul had arrived in 1797.) That site is now the oldest US diplomatic property abroad in continuous use, and it was the first overseas extraterritorial property named to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Site. It served as the US Legation until 1956, when with Moroccan independence an Embassy was opened in Rabat, and today is the he Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, with a museum and cultural center.

But I started this out as a George Washington's birthday post, so let's focus. In the same year, 1787, of the Treaty of Marrakesh, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia produced a new US Constitution which, after due ratification by the states,entered into force in 1789.  In that year, too, as anyone who lives in Washington or has ever seen a dollar bill knows, George Washington was elected President. On December 1, 1789. he responded to a 1788 letter from the Sultan to which no one had replied.

The text, from the Mount Vernon website (image of original above):                                             
City of New York December 1, 1789

Great and Magnanimous Friend,
           Since the date of the letter which the late Congress, by their President, addressed to your Imperial Majesty, The United States of America have thought proper to change  their government and institute a new one, agreeable to the Constitution, of which I have the honor, herewith, to enclose a copy. The time necessarily employed in the arduous  task, and the disarrangements occasioned by so great though peaceable a revolution, will apologize, and account for your Majesty’s not having received those regularly advised marks of attention from the United States which the friendship and magnanimity of your conduct toward them afforded reason to expect.
           The United States, having unanimously appointed me to supreme executive authority in this Nation. Your Majesty’s letter of August 17, 1788, which by reason of the dissolution of the late-government, remained unanswered, has been delivered to me. I have also received the letters which Your Imperial Majesty has been so kind as to  write, in favor of the United States, to the Bashaws of Tunis and Tripoli, and I present to you the sincere acknowledgements and thanks of the United States for this important  mark of your friendship for them.
           We greatly regret the hostile disposition of those regencies toward this nation, who have never injured them, is not to be removed, on terms of our power to comply with. 
           Within our territories there are no mines, wither of gold or silver, and this young nation just recovering from the waste and dissolution of a long war, have not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture and commerce. But our soil is bountiful, and our people industrious, and we have reason to flatter ourselves that we shall gradually become useful to our friends.
           The encouragement which Your Majesty has been pleased, generously, to give to our commerce with your dominions, the punctuality with which you have caused the Treaty with us to be observed, and the just and generous measures taken in the case of Captain Proctor, make a deep impression on the United States and confirm their respect for and attachment to Your Imperial Majesty.
           It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity of assuring Your Majesty that, while I remain at the head of this nation, I shall not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony which so happily subsist between your Empire and them, and shall esteem myself happy in every occasion of convincing Your Majesty of the high sense (which in common with the whole nation) I entertain the magnanimity, wisdom and benevolence of Your Majesty.
           May the Almighty bless Your Imperial Majesty, our Great and Magnanimous friend, with His constant guidance and protection.  
                                                                                              - George Washington

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bouteflika Cancels Merkel Meeting Due to "Bronchitis"

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has postponed a planned meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel due to "acute bronchitis." Bouteflika, who will turn 80 next week, has been confone to a wheelchair since a serious stroke in 2013, despite which he ran for and won a fourth term in 2014. He rarely appears in public, and then often with his much younger brother Said, 21 years his junior, who is seen as a power behind the throne and possible successor.

In recent years, the elder Bouteflika has frequently spent time in France for medical treatment, not always publicized. Since outmaneuvering and ousting his rivals in the security services, Algerians have tolerated his fragile health due to lack of a clear alternative. But there is a nervous uncertainty with every sign of worsening health, including the "acute  bronchitis."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bassam Haddad on Instant Analysis of the Arab Uprisings

I wanted to call your attention to a provocative piece by Bassam Haddad at Jadaliyya: A Preface to A Critique of Instant Analysis and Scholarship on the Arab Uprisings. 

The opening paragraph is a good summary, but read rhe whole thing:
Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zig-zagging and pendulum-swing judgements and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Nothing if Not Ambitious: UAE to Build City on Mars by 2117?

This Gulf News article raises many questions, but I suppose in 100 years they'll have built the UAE border to border with skyscrapers: UAE to build first city on Mars by 2117.

Monday, February 13, 2017

"Somaliland" to Give Emirates Air and Naval Bases at Berbera

The UAE plans to build air and naval bases at the port of Berbera in the self-declared "Republic of Somaliland," the northern region of Somalia that has functioned as a state since declaring independence in 1991, despite the lack of international recognition. Somaliland, which was the part of Somalia ruled by Britain before independence, maintains trade relations with the UAE and other Gulf states.

Under the agreement approved by the Somaliland Parliament in Hargeisa, the Emirates will provide investment and expertise to build the air and naval base, and will lease it for 25 years, after which Somaliland will occupy it.

This is clearly another stage in the UAE's increasing force projection beyond its borders, which have included a base at Assab in Eritrea for operations in Yemen, and deployments to Egypt for strikes in Libya. This move implies a long-term Emirati presence in the horn of Africa.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

For Lincoln's Birthday: Flap Over Confederates Seized in Tangier, 1862

 This is a slightly edited reprise of a post first posted on Lincoln's birthday in 2013.
Today is Abraham Lincoln's 208th birthday, as Americans used to know before Lincoln's birthday (February 12) and Washington's (February 22) were merged into a generic "President's Day." The US Civil War generally didn't involve the Middle East (though as I've noted in  "Stone Pasha and the Khedive Ismail's Yanks and Rebs," officers from both sides were actively recruited into the Egyptian Army after the war, and one became the Egyptian Chief of Staff under Khedives Ismail and Tawfiq.) But I thought today we'd focus on one diplomatic incident that did engage some of Lincoln's attention: the arrest by the US Consul in Tangier of two Confederates visiting that Moroccan city in February 1862, 155 years ago this month. It isnt well known but in addition to the Union, the Confederacy, and the Sultanate of Morocco, it also managed to draw in the British and French consuls and home governments.

As I noted a while back, on December 20, 1777, the Sultan of Morocco issued a decree allowing ships flying the new American flag to trade freely at Moroccan ports, which is sometimes seen as the first foreign state to recognize American independence. (The Dutch East Indies had already saluted the flag, but formal recognition by the Home Dutch Government was later.) It wasn't until 1779 that the Americans (who were busy fighting Redcoats) actually noticed, after Ben Franklin in Paris called their attention to it and the Sultan (Franklin called him "the Emperor") had been asking. Finally in 1786 a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed, the Treaty of Marrakesh. Morocco never asked the US for tribute and avoided the conflicts its neighbors faced in the Barbary Wars. An American Consulate was established in Tangier, and in 1821 the Sultan gave the US the building which has since been the consulate (until 1956, the US' main diplomatic post in Tangier). It's said to be the oldest US diplomatic property still in use.

Against this background (and then as now the Moroccans were proud of their priority as American allies), in early 1862 the Consulate in Tangier became entangled in a messy diplomatic dispute over the seizure of two Confederate agents. Tangier was, at the time, under the typical sort of foreign concession under which European consuls (including the US as honorary Europeans) had legal jurisdiction over their nationals. And Morocco recognized the United States of America, and unlike many European states had not declared neutrality in the American war, so Confederate States citizens had no standing.

Also important background: the United States had just resolved a major crisis with Great Britain known as the Trent Affair, in which an American naval captain, acting on his own, intercepted a British ship at sea and removed two Confederate agents, Mason and Slidell, who were en route to London and Paris respectively. The British reacted with threats of war, including a buildup of troops in Canada, and Lincoln, saying he could fight only one war at a time, had to release the Confederate agents. That was resolved in January; in February a US consul in Morocco created a new, if lesser, diplomatic problem along the same lines.
CSS Sumter Running the Blockade, 1861
The Confederate States Ship CSS Sumter was the first of the Confederate Commerce Raiders. She ran the blockade in New Orleans in 1861 (picture), raided US merchantmen off Cuba and Martinique and in the Atlantic, capturing a significant number, and then put into Cadiz. Damaged and unable to refuel in Spain, she made for the neutral British port of Gibraltar.

Pursuing US vessels stood outside the territorial limit, in effect blockading her in Gibraltar; she was in need of repairs and still denied coal.

Raphael Semmes, CSA Navy
Thomas Tate Tunstall
Now the captain of the Sumter was Commander Raphael Semmes, who within the next two years would become the most famous of Confederate naval heroes as the Captain of the CSS Alabama. Besieged in Gibraltar, Semmes hit upon the idea of sending two agents across the Strait to Tangier, to buy a Moroccan ship carrying coal and sail it to Gibraltar to refuel Sumter. The two men were his own ship's paymaster, Lt. Henry Myers, a Georgian, and an Alabamian living in Cadiz, Thomas Tate Tunstall (usually called Tom Tate Tunstall), who had been US Consul in Cadiz until President Lincoln removed him for his Confederate sympathies. The two men took a French vessel to Tangier. Somehow (Tunstall later blamed two American missionaries on the same ship who had overheard conversations), their mission became known to the Union.

LT Henry Myers, CSN
 (Also, Semmes at the time claimed they were sightseeing in Tangier en route to Cadiz from Gibraltar. Tunstall acknowledged the real mission after the war.)

In any event, someone reported the two Confederates' presence in Tangier. The US Consul at the time, James DeLong, deciding that the Sumter had essentially been engaged in piracy, that Tunstall was a former US diplomat and Myers a defector from the US Navy, decided to have them arrested. Using his consular privilege he got the Moroccan authorities to arrest them and deliver them to the consulate, where they were quite literally clapped in irons.

US Consul James DeLong
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies,one of the main sources I've drawn from in this account, includes an extensive correspondence by an outraged Semmes. He appealed to the British in Gibraltar, who had little to gain from the fight and not only declared neutrality but in delivering Semmes' complaint to Morocco gave the Moroccans what Semmes saw as carte blanche.
He then tried the French, since the two captives had debarked from a French ship and, in his view, should have had French consular protection. He wrote to Confederate agents Mason in London and Slidell in Paris, but to little avail. The naval supply ship USS Ino sailed to Tangier to take custody of the captives. There were extensive protests by the European trading community in Tangier, and reportedly the Ino's commander had to draw his sword to the crowd to bring them aboard, still in irons.

To add insult to injury, the Ino sailed first to Algeciras, within full view of Semmes aboard the crippled Sumter in Gibraltar across the bay. It then took them to Cadiz, where another US vessel took them to Boston.

Semmes' efforts, however, did have some eventual effect. The French government eventually complained; pressure from other consulates reportedly led to some questions in Morocco, and there were murmurings in the British Parliament.  Perhaps as a result, Lincoln (while not disavowing the arrests as in the Trent Affair), ordered that the captives be considered not as Americans arrested for treason but as prisoners of war. Lt. Myers was accordingly exchanged for a Union POW in Confederate hands, and Tunstall, the civilian, allowed to return to the South.

Tunstall, however, immediately began a career as a blockade runner, was captured, and this time his captors insisted he could only be paroled if he agreed to stay abroad for the duration. He did.

Interestingly, though, Tunstall after the war again served as a US Consul: President Cleveland sent him to El Salvador, where the Spanish he had learned in Cadiz was of use.

Lincoln didn't apologize, but in March, 1862, a few weeks after all this, he did relieve James DeLong as US Consul in Tangier, the man who started it all. I suspect he wished he hadn't been quite so proactive.

Note on sources: I'm drawing this from multiple sources, including Semmes' memoirs, biographies of him and obituaries of Tunstall, the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, etc. I can't cite them all here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

As Tiran Issue Persists, a Historical Sidelight: Was Tiran Ancient Iotabe?

On January 16, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Egyptian government's effort to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty was unconstitutional and that the islands were an integral part of Egypt. A great many Egyptians were outraged by the perception that rightfully Egyptian territory had been "sold " to Saudi Arabia in exchange for an aid package. As in most territorial disputes, the Saudis do have a claim, but the Egyptian courts keep backing Egyptian sovereignty.

Despite the ruling, the issue is still in play. The Supreme Constitutional Court will hold a hearing February 12 on whether the State Council, which led the push against transferring the islands, had the proper standing. And the issue is also still before Parliament. While virtually all state institutions are strong supporters of President Sisi, the islands issue has clearly divided institutions.

I will leave it to the courts and Egyptian-Saudi negotiations to determine the fate of the islands. Instead, I want to discuss a sidelight of the history of the islands. Not the 20th Century history, which most Middle East hands will be familiar with given the islands' position allowing Egypt to close the Strait of Tiran, but rather its possible role in late antiquity.

Tiran and Sanafir control the entrance to the Gulf of ‘Aqaba (Gulf of Eilat in Israeli usage) and shipping from the main basin of the Red Sea toward points inside the Gulf must pass through the Strait between Tiran and Sinai. Today the islands have no permanent inhabitants, except Egyptian military and members of the Multinational Force and Observers; they are part of an Egyptian national park and are visited by tour boats from the Sinai resorts and scuba divers.

Arabia and Vicinity 565 AD (Wikipedia)

In late antiquity, Egypt and Syria-Palestine were both under the rule of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, then facing its historic rival in Sassanian Iran. Byzantium was in a loose alliance with Christian Ethiopia; the Himyarite Kingdom in what is now Yemen shifted alliances, at various times coming under Jewish, Persian, and Ethiopian rule. I've dealt with this period before, here. During this period, the great powers had their satellite allies or client states in Arabia: the Ghassanids for the Byzantines (a Monophysite Christian Kingdom of Arab origin with its capital at Jabiya in the Golan), and the Sassanians had the Lakhmids, Nestorian Christian Arabs with their capital at Hira in Iraq.

During this period, the ancient incense trade from Himyar north to Syria passed by caravan through the Hejaz, or by sea to the Byzantine port of Ayla near modern ‘Aqaba (the adjacent Israeli port of Eilat is a modification of Aila, the Biblical Elath).

In the fifth and sixth centuries AD we encounter a number of references to a port, usually also described as an island used as a trading station and toll station on the route from the Red Sea to Aila, known as Iotabe (Ἰωτάβη). It is mentioned in a variety of historical and ecclesiastical texts between 451 AD, when a bishop named Macarius attended the Council of Chalcedon, and 536 AD, when it was represented in a Synod at Jerusalem by a Bishop named Anastasius. In 473 it was captured by an Arab who is recorded as Amorkesos (possibly ‘Amr ibn Qays or perhaps Imru'l-Qays, but not the king of Kinda of that name or his more famous son the poet). After a quarter century the Byzantines took it back and gave autonomy to the local population, who are believed to have been Jewish, in return for customs duties. (During Israel's occupation of Tiran after I967, Israel sometimes cited this Jewish heritage, and renamed the island Yotvat.)  In 534 AD the Byzantines took it back again.

But in the 85 years during which Iotabe can be documented, while it is clear it is somewhere in or near the Gulf of ‘Aqaba, only one author gives us a specific description of its location. This is Procopius of Caesarea, the great sixth century historian of the age of Justinian. Procopius accompanied General Belisarius on his campaigns against Persia in the early 530s. In this context, Procopius in his The Persian Wars, Volume I, Book XIX, says the following;
At that time the idea occurred to the Emperor Justinian to ally with himself the Aethiopians and the Homeritae [Himyarites], in order to injure the Persians. I shall now first explain what part of the earth these nations occupy, and then I shall point out in what manner the emperor hoped that they would be of help to the Romans. The boundaries of Palestine extend toward the east to the sea which is called the Red Sea. Now this sea, beginning at India, comes to an end at this point in the Roman domain. And there is a city called Aelas [Aila] on its shore, where the sea comes to an end, as I have said, and becomes a very narrow gulf. And as one sails into the sea from there, the Egyptian mountains lie on the right, extending toward the south; on the other side a country deserted by men extends northward to an indefinite distance; and the land on both sides is visible as one sails in as far as the island called Iotabe, not less than one thousand stades distant from the city of Aelas. On this island Hebrews had lived from of old in autonomy, but in the reign of this Justinian they have become subject to the Romans. From there on there comes a great open sea. And those who sail into this part of it no longer see the land on the right, but they always anchor along the left coast when night comes on. For it is impossible to navigate in the darkness on this sea, since it is everywhere full of shoals. But there are harbours there and great numbers of them, not made by the hand of man, but by the natural contour of the land, and for this reason it is not difficult for mariners to find anchorage wherever they happen to be.
Now Procopius neither says nor implies that he has been to Iotabe himself, but the description clearly seems to come from someone who has. It is where the Gulf (of ‘Aqaba) widens out into the broader Red Sea, after which the Egyptian (Sinai) mountains are no longer on thr right, but with the Saudi coast continuing on the left. If the description were not clear enough, he says that Iotabe lies 1,000 stades from Aila. The Greek stadion could vary in length depending on the period but a common value was around 185 meters; 1000 stades would be 185 kilometers.

Google maps gives the air distance from Aqaba to Tiran as 183 kilometers.

So it seems clear that Procopius is describing an island exactly matching the location of Tiran.

The majority of Classical and Byzantine historians accept the identity of Tiran and Iotabe, but not unanimously. Procopius seems unimpeachable, but...

Tiran (and the smaller Sanafir) today are waterless, without any watercourses. Though Tiran has never been explored archaeologically, there are no surface indications of substantial occupation, no foundations, ruins, or pottery scattered on the surface. How could Tiran have supported a permanent population worthy of a bishopric? Or sustained a customs station? Absent excavation on the island, there is no clear answer.

But the suggested alternatives are weak. One argument advocates Jazirat Fir‘awn (Pharaoh's island), which lies just off the Sinai resort of Taba. It has plenty of evidence of past occupation, but is essentially in sight of Eilat and ‘Aqaba, and at the head of the Gulf, not its mouth. Other suggestions point to some island off the Saudi coast or port on the mainland. But none of these appear to fit with Procopius' description. Until archaeology proves otherwise, Tiran seems to be the likeliest site for Iotabe.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Monday Nostalgia: Iraq in the 1950s

Let's start the week with some nostalgia: a two-part Pathe travelogue about Iraq from the 1950s, likely under the monarchy: beware a fair dose of Orientalist stereotypes: