BMCR 2021.06.09

Africa – Ifrīqiya. Continuity and change in North Africa from the Byzantine to the early Islamic Age

, , , Africa - Ifrīqiya. Continuity and change in North Africa from the Byzantine to the early Islamic Age. Papers of a conference held in Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano - Terme di Diocleziano, 28 February - 2 March 2013. Palilia, 34. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019. Pp. viii, 322. ISBN 9783447113335 €58,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Byzantine rule in North Africa lasted a little more than a century and a half, from the overthrow of the Vandal kingdom in 533 CE to the fall of Carthage in 698 CE, but has rarely enjoyed extended scholarly attention. While Roman and Vandal Africa have been comparatively well-studied over the last twenty years, the most recent monograph solely dedicated to the later period remains Charles Diehl’s L’Afrique Byzantine which was published in 1896, and even that was written in the confident expectation that it would be superseded before too long. Nor is the situation much better for the early Islamic period. While recent work has transformed our understanding of the Aghlabid and Fatimid polities from the ninth century on, as well as the other dynastic foundations further west, the earliest decades of Islamic rule in Africa remain poorly understood. The present volume seeks to redress this imbalance and will serve as an essential contribution to ongoing discussion. Based around papers given in Rome in 2013, the volume is something of a pendant to a collection on the same topic edited by Jonathan Conant and Susan Stevens in 2016 and based on a Dumbarton Oaks Symposium of 2012.[1] Both of those editors are contributors to the present volume, which assembles many of the most important figures working on this topic from North Africa itself, Europe, North America and Australia. All of the contributions have been reworked in the light of recent publications, and although the collection betrays some of the weaknesses typical of such proceedings, the book is a very welcome one. A full list of authors and titles is provided at the end of the review.

The chief challenge for scholars of Byzantine and early Islamic North Africa has always been the fragmentary nature of the evidence. Beyond a handful of theological works, the later Byzantine textual record is exceptionally thin, and no sources in Arabic on the conquest period survive from earlier than the ninth century. Material remains could go some way towards filling in this gap, but there are challenges here too. Since the early colonial period North African archaeology was dominated by the study of the Roman occupation, at the expense of later (and earlier) periods, and detailed records of Byzantine and Islamic layers from these excavations are almost non-existent. More recent excavation and survey has redressed this somewhat, and promises to revolutionize understanding of this crucial period, but this too is hampered by a fractured ceramic record.[2] The detailed typologies of finewares and amphorae which have done so much to illuminate Roman and post-Roman chronologies sputter during the later sixth and seventh centuries and disappear almost entirely by the eighth. While there is reason to hope that this situation may improve in the future, for the time being archaeologists of the African transition are in a difficult position. The eighth century is “the obscurest of all medieval centuries,” as Chris Wickham puts it in his conclusion to this volume (p. 320). Nowhere is this more true than in North Africa.

Africa – Ifrīqiya is divided into four parts. The first ‘From Africa to Ifrīqyia: an Age of Transition’ introduces the volume from three different directions. Jonathan Conant outlines the transition itself, and lays the ground for many of the papers that follow. He briefly explains the broader economic questions to be considered within the volume, including changing patterns of landholding and tax, as well as trade. Here the question of archaeological invisibility is paramount – not simply the collapse of effective ceramic typologies from the seventh century on, but also the strong likelihood that African trade had been based as much on textiles and slaves as it had on olive oil, grain and luxury tablewares. Walter Kaegi complements this with a brisk series of observations about ongoing debates within the later Byzantine and early Islamic period, particularly on issues of military organization and the conduct of the conquest itself. Finally, Mohamed Ghodhbane reflects on the linguistic transition of the name ‘Africa’ to Ifriqiyah,’ noting that this was rather more gradual than has often been assumed, was marked by some regional variation, and can look rather different depending on the sources that we use. This paper serves well as a leitmotif for the collection as a whole.

The second and third parts both deal in different ways with the urban fabric of Byzantine and early Islamic Africa, and represent the heart of the collection. Part 2, ‘Urbanism, Religion and Power,’ looks first at the fate of the provincial capitals of Byzantine Africa. Richard Miles explores the religious transformation of the Carthaginian cityscape during the Justinianic period, with particular reference to his own excavations at the Bir Messaouda basilica in the heart of the city. Ralf Bockmann takes a further look at the same city from the other end of the imperial occupation. He examines the fate of Carthage following the expansion of nearby Tunis in the early Islamic period and the establishment of Kairouan as the regional capital from the mid-seventh century. His account explains that Carthage was bypassed in part because of the emergence of other ideological foci, but also because its precarious position on the coast – and gradual loss of its harbours – made it something of a liability in a period of Byzantine naval dominance. Faouzi Mahfoudh and Stefan Altekamp complement this with a discussion of the accounts of Carthage in the Arabic texts, both as a cityscape and as a historical remnant. This is a genuinely fascinating contribution, which brings together a range of textual fragments very effectively. Later commentators were frequently entranced by the standing remains in Carthage, and reflections on the history of the city were widespread, many of them drawn from Arabic translations of Orosius. Conspicuously, however, these tended to focus on the earliest Punic history of the city, rather than on Roman or Byzantine occupation. Hafed Abdouli moves south to look at the changing political geography of Tripolitania on the Libyan coast. Following the Arab occupation, the administrative focus of the region was known as Tripolis: it has conventionally been assumed that this indicated a shift from Lepcis Magna to Oea, the city which was known by this name in later accounts. It is clearly demonstrated here, however, that Lepcis retained its political status well into the eighth century.

In the last paper in this section, Corisande Fenwick provides an overall survey of the fate of towns across North Africa. Her work challenges many long-standing assumptions about widespread ruralization or urban fragmentation, and suggests that cities which survived as population centres into the modern period may have been more typical of the urban history of the region than exceptional (but well known) sites like Carthage or Sbeïtla which experienced more disrupted trajectories. This is not to say that things continued happily without any change: urban life often seems to have been restricted to within Byzantine wall circuits, and many smaller towns, especially in the north of Tunisia and along the coasts, clearly fell by the wayside. This paper, and the assumptions which underpin it, complement the discussion of Susan T. Stevens in the last section of the volume very well. In her contribution, Stevens adopts a similar focus on the urban settlements along the Tunisian Sahel – approximately 120 km of coast between Horrea Caelia (Hergla) in the north and Caput Vada (Qabbudiya) in the south, with particular focus on the contrasting fates of Hadrumetum (Sousse) and Leptiminus (Lamta). Like Fenwick, Stevens proposes that urban successes in this region may have been more common than is frequently assumed, and may be explained by a variety of political and economic factors, even if there were urban failures too. Both papers will become essential points of departure for future work.

The third part is devoted to ‘Case Studies of Individual Cities’, many of which draw upon recent excavation. Moheddine Chaouali draws upon recent work west of the Byzantine fort in Bulla Regia and the newly discovered Christian quarter of that city. This work uncovered a funerary chapel and Christian cemetery, as well as two funerary epitaphs of otherwise unknown bishops of the city, which are published here for the first time. Close to Bulla Regia in the Upper Medjerda valley is the city of Chemtou (anc. Simitthus), which has been the object of extensive multi-period excavation by the DAI since the 1980s. Philipp von Rummel and Heike Möller discuss the evidence for the early Islamic phases of occupation, particularly from the Forum area and around the Imperial Temple complex. That there was continued occupation in Chimtou from the ninth to the eleventh century seems clear, but the city fabric had changed substantially since the Byzantine period, and ceramic use also seems to have become profoundly localized. In his contribution, François Baratte summarises extensive work on the Byzantine fortifications at Ammaedara (Haïdra), one of the best-excavated sixth-century sites in Africa. Baratte provides a clear overview of this work, and the impact that new wall circuits (and particularly narrow gates) would have had on movement through and within the city. In the final paper in the section, Fathi Bahri and Mouna Taâmallah explore the earliest phases of Kairouan, a city which has had almost no extensive excavation. Their discussion draws upon aerial photographs, colonial period maps and GIS to sketch out the possible layout of the earliest city.

The final part,Changing Landscapes and Economies,’ considers the shifting economic structures in which these cities flourished, and explores particularly the regional variety across North Africa. Following the Stevens chapter discussed above, Anna Leone provides separate surveys of first Tripolitania, and then Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena. As is typical of Leone’s work, both chapters provide rich overviews of recent work, and will be helpful resources for future studies of this material. Again, the predominant theme here is extraordinary variation, on a micro-regional as well as provincial level. Finally, Michel Bonifay addresses the early medieval ‘ceramic gap’ which haunts so much of the preceding discussion. With typical clarity Bonifay provides a crisp survey of seventh-century ceramic types, and outlines some of the challenges in developing further diagnostic taxonomies, particularly for the later periods. The volume as a whole is concluded with some final observations of Chris Wickham.

This is an enormously rewarding volume, and is generously illustrated throughout. In one or two cases, contributors succinctly articulate arguments and ideas that they have developed elsewhere: the collection includes some greatest hits alongside the new material. Other chapters are better read as ‘thoughts for further development,’ rather than definitive statements in their own right. These are some of the perils of a volume of this kind, and are particularly understandable in view of the gap between the original conference and eventual publication. Nevertheless, as a gathering together of many of the most important voices in current studies of late Byzantine and early Islamic North Africa, this will remain an essential point of reference.

Authors and titles

Anna Leone, Ralf Bockmann and Philipp von Rummel, ‘From Africa to Ifrīqiya. The Transition from Byzantine to Islamic North Africa: an Introduction’.
Jonathan P. Conant, ‘The Forgotten Transition. North Africa between Byzantium and Islam, ca. 550–750‘.
Walter E. Kaegi, ‘Seventh-Century North Africa. Military and Political Convergences and Divergences’.
Mohamed Ghodhbane, ‘L’Africa à l’époque transitoire (Ier siècle H./VIIe siècle). Contribution à l’étude du toponyme, son évolution et de ses significations à la lumière des données numismatiques et textuelles’.

Richard Miles, ‘Rebuilding Christian Carthage after the Byzantine Conquest’.
Ralf Bockmann, ‘Late Byzantine and Early Islamic Carthage and the Transition of Power to Tunis and Kairouan’.
Faouzi Mahfoudh and Stefan Altekamp, ‘Carthage vue par les auteurs arabes’.
Hafed Abdouli, ‘Le déplacement de la capitale provinciale de la Tripolitaine de Leptis Magna à Tripoli. Modalités et datation’.
Corisande Fenwick, ‘The Fate of the Classical Cities of Ifrīqiya in the Early Middle Ages’.
Anis Mkacher, ‘Construire, récupérer et inventer. Les mosquées en Afrique du Nord au VIIe siècle d’apres les sources arabes’.

Moheddine Chaouali, ‘La nouvelle église ouest de Bulla Regia et les évêques Armonius et Procesius’.
Philipp von Rummel and Heike Möller, ‘Chimtou médiévale. Les derniers niveaux d’occupation de la ville de Simitthus (Tunisie)‘.
François Baratte, ‘Ammaedara, une cité d’Afrique Proconsulaire entre Antiquité tardive et Moyen âge, à la lumière des recherches récentes’.
Fathi Bahri and Mouna Taâmallah, ‘L’apport de l’archéogéographie à la restitution du plan ancien de Kairouan’.

Susan T. Stevens, ‘Not Just a Tale of Two Cities. Settlements in a Northern Coastal Area of the Tunisian Sahel (Late 7th–Late 8th c.)’.
Anna Leone, ‘Cultural Transitions in Archaeology. From Byzantine to Islamic Tripolitania’.
Anna Leone, ‘Land, Forts and Harbours. An Inside-Out View of North Africa to the Mediterranean between the Byzantine and Early Islamic Period’.
Michel Bonifay, ‘Marqueurs céramiques de l’Afrique byzantine tardive’.
Chris Wickham, ‘Africa – Ifrīqiya, Conclusions’.


[1] Susan T. Stevens and Jonathan P. Conant (eds.) 2016. North Africa under Byzantium and Early Islam. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

[2] See now Corisande Fenwick, 2020. Early Islamic North Africa: A New Perspective. London: Duckworth.