The publication of the book Landscapes of the Islamic World sheds much-needed light on the development of Islamic civilization in rural areas, which have long remained understudied compared to Islamic urban centers, despite the fact that, historically, most of the Muslim population has resided there.
As the editors of this volume emphasize, demographic growth in countries across the Middle East has led to rapid urbanization and intensive agricultural development of the land, often with little regard for the preservation of monuments – lending particular urgency to the study of landscape archaeology. In recent years, war and vandalism have further threatened archaeological sites in the Middle East, placing many of them under the category of rescue archaeology. Given this multiplicity of threats, archaeologists and historians should once again accelerate the pace of research of new monuments and comprehension and publication of the existing data.
The articles featured in this volume are divided into four parts: hydroeconomies (the efficient management of finite water resources); agriculture, pastoralism, and subsistence; landscape of commerce and production; and transience and permanence (movement of peoples and historical memory in the landscape). Editors Stephen McPhillips and Paul D. Wordsworth preface the book with an article and the late Tony J. Wilkinson provides the introduction. Alan Warmsley's “Conclusion: Some Reflections on Rural Islamic Landscapes” rounds off the volume.
What binds the articles in this volume is the interdisciplinary research of rural communities in various predominantly Muslim countries. This research helps to fill a significant gap in our knowledge, seeing as how prior research projects have primarily studied Islamic urbanism. Interdisciplinarity, according to the book's foreword, consists of a combination of narrative, archaeological, and ethnographic data.
With abundant factual details, the studies featured in this volume cover various spheres of life in Islamic rural communities: from livestock breeding to water distribution in the desert, and from burial practices to grain milling. The range of topics in this volume draws broadly from regions that span the entirety of the Islamic world and from historical periods extending from the religion's inception in the seventh century to the present day. It does not, however, provide an opportunity for comparative analysis either temporally or spatially, due to profound geographic differences. Some regions, like Syria and Jordan, belong to the core of Islamic civilization, while others, such as Qatar, were on the periphery of the development of Islam in the period analyzed. Furthermore, the group of topics suffers from some important lacunae: one can hardly consider the task of studying the Islamic landscape done without including materials from Egypt, the Maghreb, Iraq, or the Iberian Peninsula.
The editors limit the broad scope of this publication thematically to examine rural life in the Islamic period. Yet the shortcoming of this structure is obvious to the authors themselves: despite the advent of Islam, rural areas did not change for centuries when it came to irrigation, agriculture, and livestock, that is, in those areas of life which form the focus of the authors’ studies. Formal signs of Islamic practice, such as the presence of religious buildings and institutions (waqfs) or changes in the burial customs are not always visible through archaeological findings. As it stands, we have no documentary evidence to confirm that a particular landscape type is “Islamic.” Thus the main question of how much an “Islamic” landscape differs from a “non-Islamic” or pre-Islamic one remains unanswered. In fact, specifications of such differences between “Islamic” and, for example, “Christian” landscapes in adjacent territories and neighboring villages (as in Upper Egypt, where Christian settlements alternate with Muslim ones) are often impossible to delineate.
A diachronic approach, which traces the development a particular region from the earliest period of human occupation to modern time (similar to that conducted by Robert McAdams in the book Land Behind Baghdad: A History of Settlement on the Diyala Plains) seems to have greater heuristic potential for discovering patterns and developing new methods. A regional study, incorporating a wide range of additional sources from modern hydrological, demographic, agricultural, and traditional history, would allow the reader to understand what specific changes were brought into various aspects of life of this region's population with the advent of Islam. To be sure, such studies result from long and well-funded projects, which have become a luxury for research in the Middle East.
The volume also lacks an even structure: the articles do not share a single common methodological basis. The editors’ reflections on the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach, combining data from written sources, archaeological excavations, ethnographic studies, and the results of scientific investigations of archeological sites, have long sounded like a truism. Moreover, the authors missed an opportunity by not using any modern technologies, such as 3D modeling of historical landscapes.
Although the articles differ in form and quality, most are solidly constructed case studies – reports on seasons-long survey projects or reconnaissance missions, where the goals and results of the project are viewed in a broad historical context and thoroughly substantiated. For example, in the article The Architectural Legacy of the Seasonally Nomadic Ghurids, authors David C. Thomas and Alison L. Gascoigne publish the results of the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project, and consider them in the context of a broader scientific problem that can be summed up as “nomads in archaeology.” Another similar article titled Presencing the Past presents a study of rural burial practices in the Homs region in Syria. The article is a loose response to T. Insoll's thesis about the existence of a kind of ideal “universal and archaeologically recognizable” Muslim burial. The article demonstrates the influence that “folk” Islam had on funeral rites even in the core regions of Islam and calls to focus research on local features of Islamic burials.
The volume also features exemplary historical research of independent scientific importance. The highlight of the collection is Bethrany J. Walker's study of the Northern Jordan Project and the “liquid landscapes” of the Late Islamic Bilad al-Sham. The author sets out to explain the causes of widespread abandonment of villages from the late Mamluk period on the basis of a comprehensive analysis of archaeological data and written evidence. Incidentally, by combining written and archaeological sources, Walker's study seems to be the only one in the volume that fully realizes the principle of interdisciplinarity proclaimed in the preface.
Overall, the book provides a large amount of data for researchers of particular regions, but fails to offer a synthetic analysis of this information. The heterogeneity of topics is such that even the combination of two introductions and a conclusion ultimately does not succeed in fulfilling this task. We must agree with one of the editors who in the foreword wrote that the studies featured in this volume “must be seen as forming essential building blocks for broader synthetic studies.”