The Spaces Between The Teeth: Environment, Settlement, And Interaction On The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By A. Asa Eger
© 2008 All Rights Reserved
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: Donald Whitcomb, Fred Donner, Walter Kaegi


The Islamic-Byzantine frontier (al-thughūr) traditionally has been described either as a "no-man’s land" or as a closed fortified border dominated by a line of castles. Such perceptions convey a sense of propaganda and hyperbole, as the frontier was neither an empty wilderness nor a delineated boundary. These views have become particularly intransigent in scholarship due to a disciplinary frontier that separates history from archaeology which hinders the use of archaeological evidence in historical inquiry. Through an interdisciplinary approach that combines landscape archaeology with frontier theory, the dissertation re-examines the frontier by looking at its environment and settlement. More specifically, the study examines how anthropogenic manipulations affected the environment and how subsequent environmental change led to settlement adaptation. These processes help to dictate the nature of interaction of groups across the frontier. Using data from three surveys and two excavations undertaken by the author in the Amuq Valley, Kahramanmaras, Valley, and the Plain of Issos in Turkey, the study builds a diachronic narrative of environment, settlement, and interaction in the Early Islamic period (seventh-tenth centuries). Furthermore, the narrative analyzes these processes with earlier and later evidence from the Byzantine and Middle Islamic periods, respectively. The narrative produced three layers of frontier interaction: external, internal, and ideological. External interaction was an annual competition for grazing lands and other resources by pastoralist tribes that shared the pasture rich marshland plains in the winter and migrated seasonally to the Byzantine controlled uplands in the summer. Internal interaction occurred between the central state and the desire to control frontier societies, often the home of local powers and political outlaws in inaccessible marshlands or mountains. Transhumance interaction and core-periphery relations are not unique to the Islamic-Byzantine frontier or frontiers in general but part of upland-lowland environmental frontiers that occur throughout history. However, a third layer, the political-religious ideology of holy war (jihād) to justify the back and forth annual raids between Muslims and Christians was imposed from central lands to internally control the mixed frontier societies; galvanizing them towards an external threat. This ideological interaction gives the Islamic-Byzantine frontier a historical poignancy. The dissertation contributes to the fields of Islamic archaeology and Islamic history in three ways. The ambiguous Byzantine-Islamic transition is partially untangled through close study of its ceramics and settlement patterns. The focus on rural and peripheral settlements expands on the entrenched assumption of Islam as an urban religion emanating from a central core. Finally, the dissertation attempts to bridge the disciplinary frontier between archaeology and history by using landscape archaeology to view the frontier not solely through historical events but in layered frameworks that better accommodate the various perceptions and processes that comprised the frontier.

A. Asa Eger © 2008

Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations