Photo of archaeological site with irregular grid pattern of low walls and a circular structure

Looking south towards eastern end of monastery excavated on Siniya Island (credit: Robert Hoyland)

The Monasteries of East Arabia Between the Persian and Islamic Empires (600-800 CE)

Robert Hoyland


This lecture will take place in person at ISAW.

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This talk will first present the findings from recent excavations on Siniya Island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which have revealed a monastery and an associated settlement. This is now the fourth monastery to be found in the Gulf, all belonging to the same period (late 6th to late 8th century), and a second aim of this talk will be to discuss what factors might underlie the establishment of these monasteries. It will also explore their connection to contemporary Christian foundations along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, and then consider to what degree all these littoral Christian communities were involved in the Indian Ocean trade between Arabia, Iran and India and whether the Sasanian Persian and Islamic Empires sought to influence this trade.

Robert Hoyland is Professor of Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at ISAW. He read Oriental Studies at Oxford University, where he subsequently wrote a doctoral thesis on non-Muslim accounts of the rise of Islam (Seeing Islam as Others saw it, 1997). The emergence of Islamic civilization has remained a key focus of his research and is the subject of his book (In God’s Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, 2014). The desire to better understand this phenomenon has led him down many different avenues of study: pre-Islamic Arabia (Arabia and the Arabs, 2001), epigraphy (“The Content and Context of Early Arabic Inscriptions”, 1997), papyrology (in particular, publishing a number of seventh-century Arabic papyri from Nessana that had languished in obscurity since their discovery in 1935), transmission of knowledge from the late antique Greco-Syriac world ([with Simon Swain et al.] Polemon’s Physiognomy, 2007), and historiography (Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle, 2011 and The 'History of the Kings of the Persians', 2018). One avenue, archaeology, has become a passion for him in its own right and he has been involved in excavations in Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine and Azerbaijan. Most recently, he has turned to social history, looking at the plight of the unfree in the early Islamic Middle East, those who, though theoretically 'free', were compelled by straitened circumstances to sell themselves or their family or in some other way to subjugate themselves to a wealthy patron or institution.

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