A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

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.

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