Greg Fisher has travelled the world searching for missing puzzle pieces in the history of the pre-Islamic Middle East. As a historian and associate professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Carleton, he knows a great deal of the ancient past has already been revealed.
But a chapter in his latest book Arabs and Empires before Islam describes an incredible find. Released at the end of July, it highlights the re-discovery of an ancient inscription from Saudi Arabia that was thought to be lost for more than 60 years.
“It was very satisfying, especially because you tend to think in ancient history, there’s not a lot left to be discovered,” Fisher says of the inscription, which was uncovered by his student Anik Laferriere during their research trip for Arabs and Empires in 2011.
Laferriere tripped over the inscription while at an excavation site with Fisher in the northwestern desert of Saudi Arabia, at a temple in al-Ruwafa. Created before 169 A.D. and written in Greek and Aramaic, it records an agreement between Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, and a group of local people.
“There’s this whole thing in Roman history that’s not well understood, where the Romans are playing a kind of game if you will – a diplomatic and political game with the Persians for competition and influence in the Arabian Peninsula,” Fisher says. “This set of inscriptions is interpreted as part of this extension of Roman influence.”
While the Roman impact on people at the western edge of their empire has been well-documented, Fisher says their influence in Arabia is not as well understood. The re-discovered inscription shows how the Romans extended their reach to people on the edges of the Roman and Persian Empires – through diplomatic agents, by co-opting people or buying off chiefs.
Fisher says his book allows readers to see “the influences that came into play in the development of early Islam in the seventh century that drew on this very complex cultural and political world that was framed by Rome and Persia.”
With the Middle East’s cultural heritage facing destruction by groups like the Islamic State, understanding the region’s vast cultural influences is more important than ever.
Unfortunately, current events mean fewer people have a chance to research and make historical discoveries like that of the inscriptions at al-Ruwafa. As someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia for part of his childhood and researched his doctoral thesis in Syria and Jordan, it’s a saddening reality for Fisher.
“Few of my students have been and now none of us will go,” he says of historically rich countries like Syria and Iraq. “So one compelling reason to keep the research alive is to keep the knowledge of these places alive too.”
He hopes his book and its chapter on the rediscovered inscription will be a way to pass on the historical knowledge about the Middle East to future generations.
“Scholars have both the ability and the duty to fight back against what is happening with the means at their disposal.”