Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.17

Walter D. Ward, The Mirage of the Saracen: Christians and Nomads in the Sinai Peninsula in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the classical heritage, 54.   Oakland, CA:  University of California Press, 2015.  Pp. xxiii, 193.  ISBN 9780520283770.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by E. J. Hutchinson, Hillsdale College (


With The Mirage of the Saracen,1 Walter D. Ward has written a fine study of Christian colonization, spatial and spiritual, of the Sinai Peninsula. The book consists of a clear and concise introduction followed six chapters covering topics such as etymology, economy, pilgrimage, martyrdom, imperial fortification, and the rise of Islam.

Ward makes explicit in his introductory remarks that he is not interested in whether the people whom late antique Christian monks referred to as “Saracens” were actually a threat to monastic life (4); rather, he is interested in the monks’ rhetorical construction of the Saracens in order to emphasize the complete difference of the latter, and the rhetorical construction of the Sinai as “Christian space” (the theme of chapter 3). There are two prongs to “colonization,” then: the portrayal of nomads as “bloodthirsty villains” (4) and the linkage of geographical topoi with places mentioned in the Old Testament (and especially in Exodus).

Given the foregoing, it will not be surprising that Ward claims to read his material “through the framework of postcolonial studies” (6). The book is not theoretically heavy-handed; instead, Ward’s generically postcolonial orientation comes out most prominently in his sympathetic treatment toward the nomads together with his skepticism toward the monks (for instance, he claims (11) that nomadic violence against unarmed monks put them “on a more equal footing” (!)).

The first chapter, “Saracens,” treats the relationship between nomads, sedentary populations, and economy. It is likely that neither a model of “mutual codependence” nor one of “outright hostility” is right (19). The truth is probably somewhere in between. This general background serves to set the stage for closer discussion: just who were these “Saracens,” anyway? As far as words are concerned, at least, it is difficult to tell. Though “Saracens” was a common term for nomads by the fourth century, its derivation is uncertain. Despite—or, perhaps better, because of—its murky origin, by this time and afterwards Christian sources attempted to link the word “Saracen” with Ishmael, Sarah, and Hagar: for them, “the name ‘Saracen’ was an attempt by the nomadic Arabs to link themselves to the Old Testament Sarah...instead of Hagar” (27), from whom they ought to have traced their descent.

As far as deeds are concerned, too, it is difficult to tell, for the tropes used for “Saracen” behavior are those used in classical tradition for all uncivilized groups, as Ward notes in the introduction (10). For instance, according to Jerome their religion was pagan and was centered on the worship of Aphrodite—a claim that goes back to Herodotus’ description of the Arabians (33)—together with worship of aniconic stones. In the Roman period, such a description had already been applied to the Nabateans before it was connected to Jerome’s Saracens; descriptions of the same kind were later used to characterize Muslims. Does this mean that our chief literary evidence for this region in late antiquity—for instance, the Sinai Martyr Narratives of Ammonius and Pseudo-Nilus—should be doubted? Ward thinks so, though it is hard to say how far this doubt should be extended. After all, it does not follow that simply because previous sources are used for the description of current events those later descriptions are therefore false (indeed, an untraditioned genre of reportage is impossible to conceive); but it is provocative that hostile depictions from late antiquity do seem to paper over the fact that many “Saracens” were in reality converting to Christianity.

The second chapter deals with pilgrimage in the Sinai and its symbiotic nature with monasticism: pilgrims needed monks as guides, and monks needed pilgrims in order to recruit new monks. It is telling that both practices rise to prominence in the fourth century, after the legalization of Christianity. Pilgrimage especially received a boost from the travels of Constantine’s mother Helena. The largest and most important community in the Sinai was at the putative site of the Burning Bush, later to be called Saint Catherine’s; other centers of significance were Pharan and Rhaithou on the Red Sea coast (52). Our two most important literary witnesses for Sinai pilgrimage are Egeria and the Piacenza pilgrim, from which it is clear that an important function of pilgrimage was to reinforce for oneself the truth of the biblical account: the actual existence of sites in the Holy Land showed that the Bible was true. This connection between topography and Scripture is closely related to the subject of the next chapter. The opportunity to visit contemporary holy men was the other key reason for going on pilgrimage (58). Thus past and present were linked in this activity. Archaeology tells us that the maximum occupation of monks around Mount Sinai (perhaps in the late sixth century) was around 400 (52), and it seems that a good number of pilgrims could be accommodated in addition—at certain times, as many as 600-800, if the sources do not exaggerate (61).

Chapter three, “The Sinai as Christian Space,” examines “how sites in the Sinai were identified and associated with biblical events and people” (67), with a focus on Elim, Pharan, and Mount Sinai. The actual locations to be associated with these names are often uncertain. For instance, Elim has a shifting position in the various sources, and different groups competed to lay claim to it, and thereby to access the holiness associated with particular places and people in the Old Testament. The fourth century is again key, because it was then that the region began to become a kind of Christian Disneyland.

In creating a Christian topography in the Sinai desert, Christian monks were in fact making a number of claims: literary and theological, against the Jews (not discussed in detail by Ward)—that is, “the Old Testament is our book”; topographical and possessive, against the nomads—that is, “the Book is holy and talks about these places; it is our Book; therefore these are our places.” Thus it is not so much that monks claimed to be the “original inhabitants” of the area, as Ward phrases it (91), as that they claimed to be its rightful possessors hic et nunc because of their spiritual ancestors. For monks in the fourth century and afterwards, the late antique world was spiritually (and therefore really) connected with world of the Old Testament. It is unclear why Ward calls this spiritual “colonization” “unconscious” (91), for it is part of a program of appropriation (if one is skeptical and considers such Christian moves as pure retrojection) or of explication and defense of a rightful claim (if one is not and does not) for dealing with the Old Testament found across Christian literature in antiquity and late antiquity. One might take Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho as an early non-canonical example.

Chapter four, “Martyrdom in the Sinai,” deals with a second imagined past—here, that of early Christian persecution and martyrdom: “The Sinai monks shifted the rhetoric of martyrdom, which had originally been directed against their2 imperial persecutors, onto the nomads by continuing to emphasize violence and a pagan persecutor but dropping the coercive, apostatizing nature of the imperial persecutions” (94). There are two literary sources for martyrdom in the Sinai, Ammonius’s Relatio and Pseudo-Nilus’s Narrationes. The modern consensus seems to be that the martyr tradition is “an invention of the sixth century,” though the sources claim to be earlier (97); it is significant in this respect that Egeria does not mention any martyrdoms (108). Ward is most interested in the literary creation of two completely opposed groups (the holy and victimized monks and the violent, subhuman “Saracens/Blemmyes”), rather than the historicity of the accounts, and he sees them as another aspect of “cognitive Christianization” of the Sinai (108). But he also admits that it “seems likely that the martyrdom accounts reflect a threat truly observed” (109). Still, he hedges later in the same paragraph with a reference to “a threat accepted as real.” (emph. mine)—why not simply “a real threat”? But the fortification of Saint Catherine’s (to be discussed in the next chapter) would seem to indicate that there was more to the monks’ portrayals of nomadic violence than runaway imagination. Thus one needs to be careful not to let concerns about rhetorical construction carry too much weight, and Ward perhaps goes too far with his investment in subjectivizing language (“seemed”; “perception,” 110). Indeed, in chapter five, “Imperial Response to the Saracen Threat,” Ward makes it clear that attacks did happen, as, for instance, in the siege of Mount Sinai sometime between 565-9—and that the imperial fortifications at Saint Catherine’s built in response to a perceived threat enabled the monks to withstand an actual attack.

I note in passing that Ward himself seems to find the prospect of nomadic violence unsurprising, because, as was noted above, the monks are read through the lens of colonial oppression. Violent nomads are taken simply as reacting (the word is mine, but it summarizes the force of Ward’s remarks on 109). But I wonder what difference it makes that the monks were unarmed: to be sure, there was a kind of cultural-spiritual “colonizing” that occurred in the Sinai, but there were doubtless some significant differences from colonization-by-the-sword in the early modern and modern periods. It is the scholarly paradigms for understanding these later forms of colonization that inform Ward’s book, but historians ought to be sensitive to salient differences as well between those episodes and what occurred in the Sinai, lest we be too nonchalant in excusing anti-monastic violence as a corrective to history written from the perspective of the victors.

The final chapter, “The Murderous Sword of the Saracen,” treats the Muslim Conquest of the Sinai. When Muhammad’s followers suddenly appeared in the seventh century, the nexus of associations surrounding “Saracens” was easily and quickly transferred to them—doubly interesting because many of the (previous) “Saracens” were now Christians (140-1), and so many converts to Islam would have been converting from Christianity. In accounts of the Conquest, moreover, many tropes from what one might call the (pre-Islamic) “Saracen discourse” resurface. Sophronius, for instance, who saw the Muslim invasion as a divine judgment for heresy, referred to the Muslims’ “Ishmaelite sword” and “Hagarene bow” (131), and the worship of Aphrodite appears again in John of Damascus as a criticism of Muslims.

The foregoing brings me to some concluding remarks to correspond to Ward’s own. He sees his book as having contemporary relevance for Christian-Muslim dialogue (see esp. 137, 145), and so it does; but there are some imbalanced tensions in Ward’s handling of Christian and Muslim colonization and intolerance that the book leaves unexposed. For even when he acknowledges that the problem of tolerance was real for both Christian and Muslim rulers, he sometimes obscures the issue: “The Muslim Caliphate slowly developed prohibitions against Christians and Jews over the first century of Islamic rule and codified these restrictions into law in the early eighth century” (152, emph. mine). Notice the work that the adverb “slowly” is required to do; notice, secondly, how uneasily it sits with the expression of time “over the first century.” That is enough to show the inconcinnity in his comparison with Christian intolerance, which took much longer to emerge. My point is not to say that one side was “better” than the other; my point is that, given Ward’s desire to contribute to current rapprochement between the remains of Christendom and the world of Islam, scholars and historians must face all the issues squarely.

These questions regarding aspects of the book’s conclusion should not be taken to indicate that The Mirage of the Saracen is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a very good book, and those questions should be read as a tribute to the importance of its provocations and (if I may close with a metaphor of colonization) an attempt to further extend the borders of its discursive space.


1.   The book’s cover and spine omit the definite article.
2.   As the Sinai monks were not persecuted by imperial officials, the pronoun must refer to their spiritual forebears.

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