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Enclosed beyond alexander's barrier: on the comparative study of abbasid culture.

Much has been written over the past two millennia about Gog and Magog, the northern barbarians to whom an important eschatological role was assigned by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Even more has been written about Alexander the Great, the celebrated "world conqueror" whose impact on the Mediterranean, Near East, and Central Asia has been appreciated (and very occasionally lamented) by inhabitants of these regions for just as long. At some point in the early Christian era, the growing literature on Alexander's exploits came to incorporate an episode in which he built a monumental barrier behind which the chaos-spreading nations of Gog and Magog would be contained (and civilization spared). It was an odd--but not unparalleled--marriage of the essentially profane cycle of the "Alexander Romance" with the scriptural traditions of the adherents of the Abrahamic religions. In the centuries preceding the rise of Islam, this version of the Alexander Romance became wildly popular, was translated into an impressive number of languages, and circulated among the peoples of Europe and the Near East. The array of languages and cultures that adopted the Alexander Romance in late antiquity and the middle ages, coupled with the fact that the cycle was popular among the general public as well as the elites and therefore often transmitted orally, meant that it is well nigh impossible to trace accurately the precise means by which the Alexander Romance was disseminated.

One of the many languages into which stories from the Alexander Romance were translated is Arabic, and one of the many Arabic stories about Alexander that has reached us concerns a mission that the (Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq (r. 842-847) despatched in the 840s to investigate Alexander's barrier, having seen in a dream that it had been breached. The account of this mission was preserved by Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 912), one of the earliest authors of an Arabic geographical work, who says that it was dictated to him by none other than the mission's leader, one Sallam the Interpreter (al-tarjuman). Sallam's account has generated controversy ever since, and some of the leading scholars of Near and Middle Eastern studies--including such heavyweights as J. T. Reinaud, V. MinorsIcy, Th. Noldeke, and M. J. de Goeje, among others--have studied the Arabic accounts of the barrier in general and Sallam's mission in particular. The basic questions that these authors raise is whether Sallarn's account is an accurate description of what he really experienced and saw, and if not, where he got the materials with which he embellished his report.

These questions are taken up in the two books under review, both of which seek to situate Sallam's account within a broader context. Both books make extensive use of sources from numerous genres and cultures in tracing the antecedents to and the reception history of Sallam's account. What is particularly interesting is how each book answers the same questions so differently. In the following I first assess the books individually and together; I then argue that our understanding of Sallam's account could be enhanced by reference to two further contexts, the one Mesopotamian and the other Jewish.


Gog and Magog by van Donzel and Schmidt seeks to make two main points: first, that Sallam did in fact embark on the journey that he describes and reach what he thought was Alexander's barrier; and second, that Sallam's description of the barrier was influenced by earlier Syriac accounts of it. Neither of these points is new, but the authors offer us the fullest presentation of the supporting arguments to date.

The book is divided into two parts, each comprising six chapters. Part one surveys sources that will allow us to read Sallam's account with an appreciation for the literary materials that shaped it. We thus find chapters on Gag and Magog in pre-Islamic sources (chapter one); Alexander the Great and Gog and Magog in pre-Islamic, eastern Christian sources (chapter two); Gog and Magog and Dhu l-Qarnayn (the latter clearly representing Alexander in this context) in the Quran (chapter three); Gog and Magog in Islamic tradition, mostly hadith literature and the like (chapter four); and two chapters on Gog and Magog in later Islamic (mostly Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) literature, including poetry, adab, and folklore (chapters five and six). While the authors do dedicate space to the reception history of Sallam's account (to which they return in part two), one gets the distinct impression that these materials are presented in the interest of thoroughness and they are really interested in a rather old-fashioned quest for the origins of Sallam's account, a quest that is resumed in the second part of the book.

Part two largely focuses on Sallam's journey itself, providing the reader with an abundance of materials that aim to demonstrate that Sallam's itinerary tallies remarkably well with the historical geography of the regions through which he traveled. We are given an Arabic text of the account and an English translation of it (on facing pages).(1) Chapters are devoted to versions of Sallam's journey in Arabic sources (chapter seven); to pre-Sallam Arabic and Syriac materials that might have shaped Sallam's account (chapter eight); to the historical-geographical background to al-Wathiq's despatching of a mission to the barrier (chapter nine); to an examination of "the outward journey" in detail (chapter ten); to a study of the Jade Gate of the Great Wall of China that Sallam is thought to have reached and equated with the barrier (chapter eleven); and to Sallam's "homeward journey" (chapter twelve). The main argument in part two appears to be that Sallam did indeed undertake the journey that he describes, even if the retelling of his experiences is colored (be it intentionally or otherwise) by Syriac and other accounts of the barrier.

The authors present their materials and make their points in an admirably direct manner--there is little jargon to speak of and helpful rubrics and sub-chapters are provided throughout. Thus, although there are typos, stylistic infelicities, or even mistakes on most pages,(2) one is never in doubt as to what the authors are arguing. That said, some of the arguments themselves can be disputed, and the authors' points about the Syriac origins of Sallam's account present a number of problems, as follows.

The book's presentation of pre-Islamic materials presupposes that the cultural repertoires of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and the users of different languages within these communities were distinct and easily separable. Accordingly, Christian materials could be neatly distinguished from Jewish ones in late antiquity. Many scholars would consider such an approach to be naive.(3)Moreover, the authors are inconsistent in assessing the endurance of a particular culture's influence; while they are happy to assume that Christian authors who use Jewish sources such as the Sybilline Oracles or the Book of Jubilees represent Christian tradition (p. 12), they refer to the Ottoman poet Ahmedi's (d. 1413) description of Alexander's barrier as evidence for "the ongoing influence of the Syriac tradition" (p. 116), even though--as they themselves demonstrate elsewhere in the book--the relevant materials had long been naturalized by Muslim authors.

On a related note, the authors' division of the materials along Jewish, Christian, and Muslim lines and their analyses of the transmission of these materials from one culture to the next are unconvincing. The implication is that the transmission of ideas between Jews, Christians, and Muslims followed the sequence of these religions' historical development. The problem with this, if it is not obvious already, is that the emergence of Christians and particularly Christian cultures and ideas did not spell the end of dynamic Jewish cultural activity (in fact, Jews were more culturally productive after the rise of Christianity than before it), just as the emergence of Islam did not spell the end of Christian cultural productivity. This issue is complicated moreover by the fact that some of the Syriac materials postdate the Quran and the rise of Islam: hence, an identifiable Syriac source may be the basis for the Quran's passage on Alexander's barrier, as Kevin van Blade] has shown,(4) but an early Islamic interpretation of this Quranic passage came to influence a later, eighth-century Syriac text on the same topic. Except in rare cases--of which this is not one--it is difficult to demonstrate direct, one-way influence when dealing with the reception of Biblical and other popular themes among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The authors' lack of a consistent methodology in accounting for the origins of Sallam's travelogue is evident throughout the book; they propose a number of means by which the Syriac materials could have made their way into Sallam's account without clearly stating how they imagine that this actually happened. Thus they argue separately and confusingly that (1) the Syriac materials had already long been incorporated into Arabo-Islamic culture, as evidenced by Q 18 and by early Arabic poetry that reflects such influence:(5) (2) that Sallam would have encountered Christians in Iraq who transmitted the Syriac materials to him:(6) and (3) that Syriac literature, including accounts from the Alexander Romance, was to be found all along the Silk Route, including places on Sallam's itinerary.(7) In short, the authors appear to be hedging their bets in suggesting that wherever he turned Sallam was likely to encounter the relevant Syriac materials.

That Syriac (among other) sources influenced Arabic versions of the Alexander Romance is beyond serious doubt, and it is very likely that such sources also influenced--in some way or another--Sallam's own travelogue. The authors have assembled a wide-ranging selection of Christian materials supporting the case for such influence but they have not, at least in my view, presented a clear and convincing argument as to how these materials were reworked by Sallam when he constructed his own account. More importantly, as I will argue below, focusing on the Christian (specifically Syriac) sources of Sallam's account is telling only part of the story.

The authors' reconstructions in part two of Sallam's itineraries to and from the barrier in the light of a wealth of historical-geographical materials, including numerous travelogues written by European, West Asian, and East Asian authors, are impressive: even scholars and students who are not specifically interested in Sallam's itinerary will find the information assembled in chapters nine to twelve useful. And although the authors' identification in chapter eleven of the edifice that Sallam describes as the Jade Gate as the Chinese Yumenguan was first made long ago (it was familiar already to de Goeje), their ingenuity in marshaling a large amount of otherwise disparate data on the stops along Sallam's journey is commendable.

There are, however, some caveats when using these materials. First, and most obviously, these chapters assume that Sallam's journey did take place. In fact, one of the main points of these chapters is to demonstrate that the journey is historical. Having been exposed in the foregoing chapters to the book's other main point--viz., that Sallam's travelogue was heavily influenced by earlier accounts--we have been conditioned not to take Sallam's testimony at face value. The authors want us to believe that Sallam did not necessarily see what he says he saw but that he did go where he said he went.

Second, it does seem odd to subject Sallam's travelogue to such intense scrutiny (the entire book is devoted to doing just that) while drawing on other premodern travelogues for evidence without stopping to consider whether their accounts, too, bear scrutiny or need to be filtered for hyperbole, embellishments, and fabrications. The authors recount Xuan-zang's seventh-century travelogue (pp. 230-33) without wondering whether Sinologists ask the same questions about it that they are asking about Sallam's account. Similarly, Faxian's journey from China to India in the early fifth century is used unhesitatingly (p. 234), side-by-side with a reference to Marco Polo's own (controversial) travels.(8) As with the Syriac sources one gets the impression here that the authors are happy to lower the bar of scepticism when a datum supports the thrust of their arguments.

Readers will be grateful to the authors for collating and presenting in so straightforward a manner a rich collection of materials on Gag and Magog and Alexander the Great in eastern Christian and Islamic sources and on the historical geography of the regions through which Sallam is said to have traveled. Those who believe that Syriac sources lurk beneath Islamic accounts of Alexander's barrier and that Sallam's journey to an edifice that he associated with the barrier is historical will find much in this book to support their convictions. Whether those who are sceptical of these points will be convinced is less certain.


Mapping Frontiers also seeks to situate Sallam's account within a broader context, but the context that Zadeh creates in this book is almost entirely an intellectual one. Understandably, therefore, this book has little to say about the particularities of Sallam's itinerary--Zadeh appears not to consider the journey to be historical at all(9)--and much to say about the intellectual environment into which the account was born.

The book is divided into three sections. Section one contains three chapters, the first on the genre of Arabic geographical writing and Ibn Khurradadhbih's contribution and the final two on aspects of translation, broadly conceived. The first of these is on travel literature and descriptions of marvels ('aja' ib), and the second is on the types of translation current around the time of al-Wathiq's reign--including everything from Bible translations to the Greco-Arabic translation movement and even dream interpretation.

Section two contains two chapters. Chapter four is on how caliphal lands were conceptualized by Arabo-Islamic authors and contextualized within the broader political landscape of the time, and on the many attitudes current at the time to the division of the world, to the boundaries of the caliph's lands, and to what lay beyond them. Here Zadeh also introduces the reader to comparable accounts in Arabic sources of earlier missions to the barrier. Chapter five skilfully analyses Sallam's travelogue and interprets the significance(s) of various aspects of the account. It is in this chapter, too, that we get Zadeh's take on the relationship between Sallam's description of the barrier and comparable accounts from Greek and Syriac sources.

Section three also contains two chapters--chapter six on the reception history of Sallam's account, from Ibn Khurradadhbih's original context to later Islamicate sources, primarily in Arabic and Persian; and chapter seven on modern "Orientalist" studies of the account, including a forceful rebuttal of the long-standing theory (upheld, as seen, by van Donzel and Schmidt) that Sallam reached the Great Wall of China.

These sections are followed by a concluding chapter as well as a postscript, the latter an interpretation of al-Wathiq's mission that could not easily be integrated into earlier chapters of the book, viz., al-Wahiq's attempt(s) to take credit for the achievements of others. There are four very useful appendices, one that graphically demonstrates Zadeh's theories on the dissemination of Sallam's account in its multiple recensions, and three that provide translations into English of the Vienna, Bodleian (and Paris), and al-Idrisi recensions of Sallam's account.

On the whole, Zadeh's approach is refreshing and in places his analyses are highly thought provoking, with new ground broken in many chapters. In the broadest of strokes, his approach involves applying techniques developed for the study of literature to a text (Ibn Khurradadhbih's Masalik) that is not normally read in this way.(10) The reader is thus frequently treated to novel interpretations of a wide range of topics that touch upon AbbAsid culture and history.

If there is a downside to this it is the feeling that at times Zadeh takes this approach too far. As Abraham Maslow memorably put it, "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."(11) To be sure, Zadeh's adab-perspective is far from being his only tool, and his forceful rebuttal of the de Goeje (and now, van Donzel and Schmidt) theory that Sallam was in fact describing the Jade Gate (pp. 157-58) attests to his uncompromising standards when he approaches questions of a historical nature, while his skills as a philologist are on display elsewhere in the book.(12) Nevertheless, Zadeh's adab-hammer seems on occasion to create more damage than it fixes for the simple reason that not everything is a nail. Thus Zadeh's skilful placing of Ibn Khurradadhbih's entire oeuvre within its Persian context (pp. 27-33) is one thing, but his reading of this book on roads and realms as if it was something other than a book on roads and realms--which, it should be added, is precisely what Ibn Ithurradiidhbih's contemporaries held it to be--leaves one wishing that the adab-approach was reined in on occasion. The extent to which the adab-approach is overused is. naturally, a matter of personal taste and in the wider scheme of things the numerous novel interpretations of the data that this approach affords us far outweigh the negatives. Whereas Gog and Magog represents solid Orientalism,(13) Mapping Frontiers demonstrates the benefits that new, imaginative readings of old sources can yield. For these reasons Zadeh's book is the more original contribution of the two.

It should also be noted that for a book that quotes terms and even passages in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, and even Chinese (including Chinese place-names given in Chinese characters), there are remarkably few typos or mistakes. Zadeh's attention to language and usage is laudable. As with the adab-hammer, however, it occasionally goes too far and his interpretative sophistication (in the best sense) often spills over into stylistic sophistication (in the worst sense). For instance, in his nuanced discussion of the idea of translation as it might apply to Sallam's role in the account (p. 58), Zadeh challenges his reader's own capacity for translation with the following statement: "The variegated hues of these figurative uses all silhouette the hermeneutic role of the tarjuman in communication, imagining both the dangerous and simultaneously divine potential that lies residually in the various substrata of significations buttressing this term.-

Were such riddles merely buried in the book one would be inclined to overlook them but even in the book's conclusion, which should have been the author's best chance to sum up his ideas, we are told in the opening paragraph (p. 179) that "While outwardly a physical barrier appears to be the focus of Sallam's mission, like descriptive geography, such semiotic emplotment serves to fashion existence within a discrete, manageable narrative, which, in this particular case, means grafting Abbasid dominion within the arc of salvation." Similarly, the conclusion ends (p. 187) with "The geographical rendering of the margins through the power of anecdotes hides the complex work inherent in the task of the translator, concealing the incongruous moments with diegetic continuity, emplotting narrative unity across the heterogeneity of existence." The reader who invests the required effort will discover that the foregoing sentences make sense but the book's style can sometimes obscure its points and messages rather than help share them with as wide an audience as possible.


3.1. The Mesopotamian tradition

The story of the barrier fuses two sub-plots, each of which could (and often did) stand alone: one is the fabled exploits of Alexander the Great, whose career was in many ways unprecedented but whose depiction in the Alexander Romance was unmistakably indebted to Mesopotamian precedents, primarily the epic of Gilgamesh;(14) the other is the threat that the chaos-peoples of Gog and Magog pose to civilization, a theme familiar to readers of the Bible or Quran. Unlike the fruits of the Greco-Arabic translation movement or the particulars of Sasanid bureaucracy, the stories about a hero who travels to the ends of the earth (whether he is Alexander or Gilgamesh) and about the peoples of Gog and Magog would have been shared by the cultural elite and the general public alike. In fact, one is tempted to conclude that the fusion of a popular epic with scriptural traditions has "popular" fingerprints all over it (as intellectual elites would have known better than to allow Alexander to intrude upon sacred history). It is surely of relevance that those who have studied the Alexander Romance in its various ancient and medieval manifestations have stressed that the story shows signs of having been transmitted orally (accruing extraneous materials along the way while shedding others).(15)

Stories about heroes and villains were recounted in the region for millennia, even as the ruling authorities (and their languages and religions) came and went, and it is not surprising that scholars have identified the Mesopotamian literary influence on medieval and even modem Arabic literature.(16) Although an enormous gulf of time separates ancient from Abbasid Iraq, there are sources produced at various points along the timeline that demonstrate how popular culture was being recycled and recast, albeit in a different language and/or within a different religious framework. The Babylonian Talmud, for instance, has been the subject of recent studies by Judaicists and Iranianists aiming to show the Sasanid influence on the contents and contours of this work.(17) And although that line of investigation has proved in many ways to be fruitful, one cannot ignore the fact that this enormous work was the product of Iraq-based rabbis. As much as it is "Iranian." the Babylonian Talmud is also Babylonian. Scholars are beginning to accept this point (18) and some recent research has begun to identify elements of ancient Near Eastern culture in this source. (19) Vestiges of ancient Near Eastern culture have also been identified in Qumran and in pre-Islamic Arabia, among other places, providing yet further links in what is increasingly looking like a robust chain that binds the ancient to the early Islamic Near East. (20)

Does any of this relate to the barrier by the time the story reaches the Islamic period? Might Sallam's account benefit from a Mesopotamian approach to the materials? In addition to Gilgamesh's influence on the Alexander Romance, (21) scholars have noted that Gog and Magog can be related to pre-Biblical Near Eastern agents of chaos. (22) Similarly, late antique retellings of the Alexander Romance, including the Syriac Alexander Legend on which (among other Syriac sources) the two books under review draw in tracing the roots of Sallam's account, have also been shown to have been shaped--to some extent or other--by Gilgamesh. (23) More controversially, some have argued that the Quran's account of Dhu 1-Qar-nayn/Alexander is indebted to ancient Near Eastern materials, though others have argued that these materials influenced not the Quran but rather the (Iraq-based) Quranic exegetes whose readings of the Quran were shaped by ancient Near Eastern sources. (24) Either way, we find ourselves in a very Mesopotamian landscape and the thought that Syriac literary antecedents alone can elucidate Islamicate materials--and particularly those that originate in Iraq, such as Ibn Khurradadhbih's work or Sallam's account within it--seems unconvincing. (25)

In some ways, this lack of engagement with ancient Near Eastern materials in analysing Islamic-era descriptions of Gog and Magog, Alexander, the barrier, or Sallam's account itself appears entirely excusable. Not only is there a daunting temporal gap between ancient and (AbbAsid Iraq, but the authors of these books have provided answers to their questions on the basis of more immediate contexts and materials. Why even bother looking beyond the eastern Christian sources in this context?

The two case-studies that follow are merely to demonstrate the potential of ancient Near Eastern materials to shed light on Abbasid ones, and a fuller treatment by Assyriologists is very likely to produce far more detailed results.(26) But even a passing familiarity with ancient Near Eastern materials is sufficient to see some of the topics under discussion in a new (or, strictly speaking, old) light.

* First case-study, "Gog and Magog's Diet." It is to be expected that in describing the peculiar (and threatening) habits of villains such as Gog and Magog, ancient, late antique, and medieval authors would make reference to their eating habits. Strange and specifically chaotic peoples are often associated with cannibalism and other practices that shock. We thus hear in Pseudo-Methodius's Syriac account of the barrier--a text that both books deem relevain to Sallam's account--that Gog and Magog eat human flesh, drink blood, feast on mice, snakes, and other reptiles, as well as dogs and kittens (Gog and Magog, p. 29). In Armenian sources (Gog and Magog, p. 39), however, Gog and Magog "do not eat bread at all," suggesting that other than this their diet is not especially objectionable or noteworthy.

Pivotal in this context is that alongside the expected cannibalism and kitten eating Arabic sources preserve details about Gog and Magog's diet that are tantalizingly suggestive of ancient Near Eastern culture. According to al-Tabari, "their food consists of the sea-monsters called tinnin [tananin]. In spring it falls down from heaven. If they do not get it, they become barren" (Gog and Magog, p. 64). A slightly more elaborate account, preserved by al-Masudi, has "some people think that the sea monster [tinnin] is thrown into the land of Gog and Magog. It there causes a hail to come down, which kills the monster. Its chair [flesh, AS] then serves as food for Gog and Magog. [...] when 'the two-horned one' asked about the food of Gog and Magog, he was told that [...AS] In spring their food is the sea monster which, at its season, is prayed for in the same way people pray for abundant rain at its season."(27) Such passages should resonate with anyone who has even only a vague acquaintance with ancient Near Eastern mythology. A sea-creature of chaos--such as Yam in Ugaritic mythology or Illuyanka in Hittite sources (though the Tannin of the Hebrew Bible that is reflected here in the Arabic tinnin is more frequently associated with the Mesopotamian Tiamat)--causes infertility during the seasons in which its presence is felt, and when the god of order defeats it--in spring and autumn--fertility is restored.(28)

Apparently, during the two millennia that separate the ancient from the Abbasid Near East, stories about the chaos-monster came to focus on the idea that the monster would be eaten. Links in the chain include the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b), where Gog and Magog are mentioned alongside tannin chaos-monsters, and the Syriac 2 Baruch (chap. 29), in which the description of the messianic age includes the fact that (the chaos-monsters) Behemoth and Leviathan will be killed and eaten. These ancient Near Eastern associations do not appear in van Donzel/Schmidt and Zadeh.

* Second case-study, "The Wise Architect." Much to his credit Zadeh is aware of Alexander's role as a "master builder" (p. 109) who constructs an edifice described along the lines recalling Near Eastern accounts of sacred architecture; with this in mind he compares descriptions of the barrier to those of the KaTha (p. 115). It is only in a Mesopotamian context, however, that Alexander's building activities can be fully appreciated. Simply put, there was a close association in the ancient Near East between wisdom and building, an association that was popularized with the widely circulated tales of Ahiqar the Sage (if not earlier) and one that is probably intended when stories about Alexander's heroics came to include his construction of the barrier.

From ancient to early Islamic times we find cases in which a character of exceeding wisdom is associated with a major building project. Atrakhasis ("the ultra wise") himself builds the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah's ark, while Abiqar's wisdom is tested by a pharaoh who challenges the Assyrian ruler at the time to find someone who could build a tower to the heavens, a challenge that Ahiqar meets successfully. Jesus himself is referred to as "the wise" in Josephus's Antiquities (18: 63), while he is also described in Syriac sources as "the architect" (ardekhla) and in Manichaean Psalms as ban rabba ("the great builder").(29) What will the wise Jesus build? In Ephrem the Syrian's hymn De Nativitate we are told that he is expected to descend to earth and build a tower to the heavens, bringing to mind the Tower of Babel which Jesus will "correct" by replacing it with a church. In the Quran, it is sarh-building that is the test of wisdom: while Pharaoh and Haman fail at this (Q 40:36-37; 28:38), it is the wise Solomon who succeeds (Q 27:23-44),(30) just as Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. Alexander, the builder of a monumental barrier, is a Mesopotamian master-builder-sage.(31)

These examples are meant to demonstrate that even a basic familiarity with these sources can contribute to our understanding of Mesopotamian culture that endured into Abbasid times and shaped Abbasid literature, especially when dealing with popular stories such as Sallam's account.

3.2. The Jewish substrate of Sallam's account

While the Mesopotamian materials can contribute to our understanding of aspects of Sallam's travelogue, these materials are not crucial to an investigation of "immediate" sources of the account. Van Donzel/Schmidt (and to a lesser extent Zadeh)(32) have attempted to demonstrate that eastern Christian materials contain enough parallels with Sallam's account to suggest that it was in some ways indebted to such sources. In what follows I argue that in addition to the Christian materials adduced in these books there are numerous Jewish(33) sources of direct relevance to Sallam's account in showing us both the provenance of some of its information and the general literary context to which it belongs.

In the preface to Gog and Magog (p. xix) the authors speak of the topic's contribution to "Christian-Muslim relations"; in the conclusion (p. 245) we are told of the "Greco-Syriac-Arabic milieu" of the early ninth century C.E. Nowhere is there mention of Hebrew or Jewish Aramaic. In justifying the omission van Donzel and Schmidt explain that from the third or fourth centuries onward the Christian community recast the relevant materials in a form that is recognizable in Sallam's account and that the later Jewish sources are "bewilderingly diverse" and "complex" (p. 8 and n. 8). The complexity of the sources would be beside the point if the first explanation was correct and the relevant materials were indeed found only in Christian sources.

Aside from a single reference in a footnote 34 to the Babylonian Talmud recording Alexander as having used geometric calculations on his travels (as he does in the Syriac sources that are adduced), one might conclude that the Talmudic rabbis active in Mesopotamia during late antiquity had nothing else to say of consequence to our topic. One would thus be unaware that the Talmud preserves numerous stories about Alexander the Great and about the people of Gog and Magog, including close to four pages dedicated to recounting a series of tales about Alexander's exploits, which taken together represent a sort of Talmudic version of the Alexander Romance. The account begins with a journey Alexander made to Africa.35 Along the way he encounters the Gymnosophists (or the "Sages of the South"),(36) reaches the Mountains of Darkness, uses ropes to help trace his route (recalling, perhaps, the Quranic asbab), and encounters a land inhabited only by women (the Amazons in the Greek version of the Alexander Romance). On leaving this land he inscribes a gate. He then reaches the gate of paradise, which itself is inscribed with a Biblical verse (Ps 1 1 8:20).(37) Alexander departs from the gate of paradise with a souvenir (recall Sallam's scrapings from the barrier; in the Talmud it is a small metal ball).(38) We are then told that, according to some, hell (gehinom) rather than Gog and Magog lies beyond the Mountains of Darkness, a point to which we will return below.(39)

Talmudic materials aside, van Donzel and Schmidt present data throughout their book that recommend pursuing Jewish leads more fully than they do. To begin with, their survey of materials in chapter one ("Gog and Magog in Pre-Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Sources") makes it clear that Jewish sources had a formative role not only--as expected--on early interpretations of the Biblical Gog and Magog passages, but also on the Christian sources that are taken by the authors to be at the core of Islamic-era accounts of the barrier. Thus the Book of Jubilees "may be singled out for its considerable influence on the development of the motif" (p. 6); and it was in "Jewish Hellenistic circles in Alexandria" (p. 9) during the early Christian era that sources began to combine Alexander's exploits with stories about Gog and Magog. Furthermore, the New Testament's only reference to Gog and Magog is in St. John's revelation, which--according to Gog and Magog--"stands close to rabbinical ideas [...]. St. John probably knew the Sibylline Oracles and the Book of Jubilees, both of which were very influential in late antiquity. His narrative combines rabbinical traditions with the new theme of the messianic kingdom of a Thousand Years" (p. 12). Even if we limit our focus to the Jewish materials of which van Donzel and Schmidt are aware, we are left with the impression that such materials played an influential role during antiquity and beyond. Sources from the seventh and eighth centuries (of which they are not aware) indicate that Jews in the Near East continued to write about both Gog and Magog and Alexander the Great in terms that resonate with eastern Christian and early Islamic writings on these themes.(40)

Additionally, the Islamic texts that van Donzel and Schmidt present confirm that Jews and Jewish sources were indeed associated with the materials that were circulating in Abbasid lands. In one case, an account of Gog and Magog's origins is quoted, an account rejected by the transmitter--al-Nawawi--because it is on the authority "of someone from the ahl al-kitab." While this authority could be either a Christian (or Sabian) or a Jew, al-Majlisi quotes the same tradition and ascribes it to Kab al-Ahbar (pp. 60-61). A reference is made (p. 99) to E Doufikar-Aerts's identification of "four types of barrier described in the Arabic texts," three of which, the authors note, are based on stories that go back to Wahb b. Munabbih; although probably not of Jewish descent himself, Wahb was widely associated with the circulation of midrashic materials. Still other Arabic materials quoted in Gog and Magog are transmitted on the authority of (Abd Allah b. Salam (p. 64), a Jewish convert to Islam.(41) And as if this were not enough,(42) in the authors' view Sallam himself was Jewish.(43)

Thus the implication that we can disentangle what are said to be Jewish, Christian (also eastern Christian), and Islamic sources from one another in studying popular stories and folklore is invalidated by Gog and Magog's reconstruction of the sources for Sallam's account: after all, it posits that a Jew (Sallam) transmitted Christian (Syriac) materials into a Muslim (Ibn Khuaadadhbih's Masalik) source. It is probably more profitable to regard these Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources as being equal contributors to a common Near Eastern (perhaps specifically "Mesopotamian") repository of materials, a repository that is like a broth whose ingredients can no longer be neatly separated.

In an earlier version of their research Van Donzel and Schmidt(44) correctly linked the account of the barrier with Jewish legends about the lost tribes of Israel. The importance of these legends for our understanding of Sallam's account will be discussed below. The eventual decision to backtrack from the Israelite connection does little damage to their arguments since they are more concerned with the antecedents to Sallam's account than with medieval interpretations of the barrier; it is from Zadeh's work, however, that the absence of legends about the lost tribes is most keenly felt as his adab-hammer could have chiseled an impressive argument out of the similarities between journeys to the barrier and journeys to the lost Israelite tribes. In order to achieve a nuanced literary analysis of Sallam's account it pays to consider it in the context of structurally similar legends about the lost Israelite tribes, some of which were circulating at precisely the same time as Sallam was composing his travelogue.

Ostensibly Sallam' s account is about such topics as Alexander's exploits, the threat posed by the peoples of Gog and Magog, al-Wathicrs anxieties about this threat, Sallam's own experiences, and other such details. Beneath these details, however, lies a literary framework based on a paradoxical truth known to all Jews, Christians, and Muslims: through God's messengers and scripture certain figures are known to exist, but they cannot ordinarily be encountered, such as the Messiah,(45) the Mahdi, Satan, Dajjal, the lost tribes of Israel, the peoples of Gog and Magog, etc.(46) Why, if these figures exist, do we not ever meet them?

Broadly speaking, the answer that has been proposed over the millennia is that we do not meet them because they are located in an inaccessible part of the world--either they reside at the edges of the earth or they are separated from the rest of humanity by some sort of supernatural barrier, be it a magic mountain, an impregnable, self-healing wall, or a sabbatical river.(47) And yet, while they are not (normally, see below) accessible to ordinary people, from time to time extraordinary people (i.e., those divinely favored) get to see them and an account of the encounter is made available to the rest of us. These accounts also serve to furnish believers with details about the fabled peoples or places that are mentioned in insufficient detail in scripture.

To an extent this literary framework exists already in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian literature, where, for instance, a semi-divine Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to regions that were otherwise inaccessible.(48) However, it is the dispersal of the Israelite tribes after 720-1 B.C.E. that generated the literary framework that deserves our attention here.

The key characteristics of the lost tribes in pre-Islamic sources are the following six:

1. The tribes are living separately from descendants of the other two tribes that make up the Jewish population at the time an account is written. Ordinary Jews cannot encounter them.

2. As the lost tribes have been isolated from other Jews (and from other people more generally), they have not been tainted by the events that have transpired since their seclusion in the eight century B.C.E. Therefore they speak Hebrew (rather than Greek, Persian, Aramaic, Arabic, or any of the other languages that have since been adopted by Jews) and their practice of Judaism is often described as purer than that of their co-religionists, whose rituals and beliefs have become the subject of internal debates and discord. Similarly, they are sometimes said to possess only the written Torah (or, if they possess an oral law it is an ancient, pre-rabbinic version of it).

3. These tribes live in idyllic conditions. Often this pertains only to a portion of the lost tribes, specifically to those who belong to the tribe (or descendants) of Moses. In some cases, the lost tribes or the people of Moses are replaced with the Rekabites, who, the Bible tells us (Jer 35:1-19), abstained from the creature comforts of sedentary or city life, this being behavior that Jeremiah deemed to be worthy of emulation.

4. The tribes (or, in some cases, the people of Moses or Rekabites specifically) are separated from the rest of the world by a magical river that flows on weekdays but rests on the sabbath (hence it is known as the Sambatyon, or sabbatical river). The river is usually said to consist of flowing stones (rather than waters), which create a rustling sound.

5. In some accounts the sons (or people) of Moses live beyond the Sambatyon while (some of) the other lost tribes live near them, albeit on the other side of the river (the same side as the rest of the world's population). What separates these tribes from other people is their existence at the edges of the known world.

6. Eventually, the descendants of the lost tribes will be reunited with the other Israelites, which is usually expected to happen as part of an eschatological drama.

It is likely that ancient descriptions of the lost tribes in Jewish sources are indebted to stories from the epic of Gilgamesh; and it also apparent that this Jewish lore developed in parallel to, and in conversation with, ancient versions of the Alexander Romance.(49) True though these points may be, it is important to remember that from a Jewish perspective the resulting legends about the lost Israelite tribes living an idyllic life beyond a special river, speaking only Hebrew, practicing an unadulterated form of Judaism, and becoming eventually reunited with the other Jews in a messianic era are entirely consistent with scripture's message, particularly as it was interpreted at the end of the first century C.E., that is to say, before the earliest version of the Alexander Romance (the Greek version attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes) was committed to writing.

At some point, only a few decades after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., three Jewish works of direct importance to us were composed: 2 Baruch (esp. 77:17-26); 4 Ezra (esp. 13:34-51); and Josephus's Antiquities (esp. 11.5). These works contain passages that are thought to have influenced the writings of the third-century Christian author Commodian, the slightly later Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew, and the late antique History of the Rechabites, attributed to a holy man by the name of Zosimus.(50) These sources describe the living conditions of the ten (or nine and a half) lost Israelite tribes, including such details as that they live beyond a sabbatical river, they can only be communicated with through birds, they speak only Hebrew, they fulfil the Torah impeccably, they live in idyllic conditions (including the detail that no son predeceases his father), and they will return to the land of Israel in the fullness of time to rescue Jerusalem from her captors. (51)

In some of these sources, the lost tribes' living conditions are revealed in a vision that the (pseudepigraphal) author had in a dream. Such is the case with 4 Ezra, where we are told of a superhuman being who erects "a mountain that would become the staging-ground of a battle with an immense horde of warring peoples."Near these warring peoples lived another group of people who lived in idyllic, peaceful conditions. This latter group is identified as the nine and one-half tribes who were led away captive from their land. ... They formed a plan among themselves ... that they would depart from the multitude of nations and travel to a remote country where none of the human race had lived since time began, for there they might even observe their laws which they neglected to observe in their homeland ... The place where they dwell is called Arzaf, at the edge of the world. They live there until the final age and then they are destined to come here again ....(52)

Note in particular that the superhuman being encounters not only a horde of warring peoples near a mountain but also the righteous lost tribes, who are living at the ends of the earth.

An actual journey to the lost tribes or to the Rekabites is made by some, such as Zosimus and the eighth-century Jewish messianic pretender Abu Isa al-Isfahani, who claimed to have visited the righteous "people of Moses" who live beyond the "river of sand."(53) Traditions about these people (or sons) of Moses who practice a pristine, unadulterated form of God's religion are subsequently taken in two directions: on the one hand, the theme is Islamicized with references to the righteous people (qawm) of Moses in the Quran itself (7:159) and in exegesis of this verse and of Q 17:104;(54) on the other hand, Jewish sources from the travelogue of Eldad ha-Dani (second half of the ninth century) onward include accounts of these pristine Jews (the sons of Moses) within more general descriptions of the lost tribes.

From the eighth century onward Muslim authors located the people of Moses sometimes at (or beyond) the fabled mountains of Jabal Qaf (cf. Q 50:1) or Jabal Sin and other times beyond the Sambatyon river.(55) Uri Rubin quotes the early exegete Amir al-Shabi (d. A.H. 103) as saying that the people of Moses live in the extreme west of the earth, are totally loyal to God, and live in idyllic conditions; also, Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. A.H. 150) knew these people of Moses to be living beyond a river of sand called al-Ardaf, which freezes (yajmud) every sabbath.(56) The latter tradition is particularly important since, by referring to the river Ardaf (Arzaf) by name, it demonstrates knowledge--be it direct or otherwise--of the 4 Ezra passage discussed above, a point to which we will return.

Eldad ha-Dani's account(57) is significant for two reasons. First, unlike the extraordinary Gilgamesh, Alexander, Abu (isa aI-Isfahani, etc., Eldad was an ordinary person who managed to reach and describe the sons of Moses. If nothing else, this suggests that at some point before the ninth century those hitherto deemed to be inaccessible had been seen by ordinary humans, such as--I will argue--Sallam.(58) Second, Eldad's account combines elements that are both undoubtedly Islamic(59) and clearly indebted to the pre-Islamic sources from the late first century C.E. (and the other, pre-Islamic materials based on these sources), such as the following details in the description of the sons of Moses: they live beyond the Sambatyon; communication with them is through birds; they do not predecease their parents; they speak only Hebrew; they live idyllic, pious lifestyles; and they live in proximity to (but still isolated from) a group of four tribes (including Eldad's own tribe of Dan) that also display signs of being "special," e.g., by leading nomadic lives (cf. the Rekabites) and having a Talmud that is only in Hebrew (and which does not refer to the known Talmudic authorities, relying instead on an isnad that includes only Moses and Joshua).

Though Eldad's journey probably postdates that of Sallam,(60) it is worth mentioning that the midrashic source Pesiqta Rabbati--which discusses the lost tribes, their role in the eschatological drama, and the existence alongside them of the Rekabites who lead an idyllic life--was composed in 845 C.E., or precisely when Sallam was said to have made his journey.(61)

The persistence of 4 Ezra's influence into the ninth century cannot be ignored in interpreting Sallam's account; both sources describe two peoples living at the ends of the earth--one group, beyond a mountain or wall, consisting of warring hordes, the other consisting of peaceful, pristine Jews or Muslims. Neither Gog and Magog nor Mapping Frontiers appears aware of the Jewish literary antecedents to Sallam's description of Muslims who live near the barrier, who "speak Arabic and Persian," who -read the Quran and have Quran schools and mosques," and who were astonished to hear about the Commander of the Faithful at Samarra, as they had heard of neither.(62)

Taking Sallam's description of these Muslims on its own deprives the passage of significance; situating the description in the context of Jewish materials on the lost tribes, however, unveils the passage's literary role and suggests that at least in this part of Sallam's account we are dealing with a literary model that is familiar from such Jewish sources as 4 Ezra, the Pesiqta Rabbati, and Eldad ha-Dani's travelogue. The first source is a direct parallel for Sallam's passage on the pristine Muslims in that both mention a group of "ideal" believers living in proximity to (yet isolated from) the warring hordes. The latter two sources by contrast speak of the isolated group as not warring but idyllic, with the nearby, slightly less-special group living a nomadic, pure lifestyle that is nonetheless not as wonderful (in every sense) as that of the sons of Moses or lost tribes more generally.

Neither Zadeh nor van Donzel and Schmidt attribute much importance to the description of pristine Muslims. Zadeh, who is generally more likely to uncover the literary significance of a passage in Sallam's account, sees this part of the account simply as evidence for "the presence of Muslim merchants and missionaries among Turkic tribes along the Volga and in part of the Central Asian Steppe ... Such accounts of conversion, while stylized, nonetheless echo historical missions beyond the frontiers" (p. 100). I am arguing, however, that these pristine Muslims are rather -literary converts," who began their life as lost Jews speaking Hebrew (which they spoke at the time of their exile and subsequent isolation) and are now Muslims speaking Arabic and Persian. The lost (and pristine) Jews, moreover, have managed to avoid the legal debates with which the Talmud is replete and other controversies about the oral law dividing the Jewish community, and they preserve a Hebrew Talmud on the authority of Moses and Joshua; in their Muslim guise the group likewise displays total ignorance about the existence of the caliph--the caliphate being Islam's equivalent of a divi-sive,fitna-generating institution and, at the time of al-Wathiq's reign, a source of theological controversy.(63) Similarly, the buzzing sound that the whirling of the Sambatyon's rocks and sands creates is converted into the buzzing that the peoples of Gog and Magog make beyond the barrier in Sallam's account.

None of the foregoing denies the central importance of Syriac versions of the Alexander Romance and other Christian sources to our understanding of Sallam's account and its provenance. It is meant to demonstrate that a consideration of Jewish materials can enrich our understanding of specimens from Abbasid culture that have roots in the Hebrew Bible. Jews continued to read, discuss, interpret, and recast the Bible's stories long after the emergence of Christianity and Islam, and the center of this activity--from late antiquity to the early middle ages--was the same Mesopotamia from which Sallam set off.

In seeking to uncover the antecedents to a story of certain personages it is not enough to look only to other stories about the same. Whether the villain is Nimrod, Pharaoh, or the peoples of Gog and Magog, accounts about villainous characters seeking to shoot God with arrows that then return bloodied are related to each other, just as others about tyrants meeting their deaths in relatively similar fashion--through a mosquito in the nose or a worm in the ear--are typologically related. Sallam's account is superficially about a journey to the people of Gog and Magog whom Alexander the Great is said to have contained behind a monumental barrier. The literary structure of this account, however, takes us sideways--away from the Alexander Romance and toward the equally ancient complex of traditions dealing with the location of the lost Israelite tribes, their seclusion, their living conditions, and the quests of even ordinary people to find them. As the Pesiqta Rabbati and account of Eldad ha-Dani show, these traditions were circulating widely in Abbasid lands when Sallam's journey is said to have taken place and Ibn Khurradadhbih composed his geographical work.


It would be unfair to suggest that in overlooking Mesopotamian and Jewish materials in their investigation of Sallam's account of Alexander's barrier, van Donzel/Schmidt and Zadeh erect their own barrier, behind which these materials have been contained. These authors represent some of the very best of solid, twentieth-century Orientalism on the one hand (van Donzel/Schmidt) and imaginative, twenty-first-century adab-based scholarship on the other (Zadeh); it is precisely because both books under discussion have on the whole achieved their aims so successfully that they can be taken as representatives of their respective approaches. If such thorough and careful studies of the materials deemed relevant still managed to overlook, omit, or even exclude certain materials and approaches, then this can be taken as a sign that such materials and approaches might benefit from a measure of affirmative action. For this reason, if this review has by necessity focused on shortcomings it is only because the books are otherwise so comprehensive that these shortcomings stand out.

It is likely that the exclusion of the Mesopotamian and Jewish voices in recent scholarship is due in each case to separate processes and forces. In the case of the Mesopotamian materials it is less that they have been excluded than that they have not been included (at least not in any systematic way). This may be because, unlike Alexander, scholars nowadays no longer master all of the Near East, and it is rare to find a single scholar who can use ancient Near Eastern materials alongside Islamic ones (let alone one whose arsenal also includes eastern Christian and Jewish languages).(64) Scholars engaging in comparative work are thus restricted by their own training to specific corners of a prohibitively broad field. In the case of the Jewish materials, it is less that they have gone unnoticed in studies of Abbasid civilization and culture than that they are deemed to have been overused and should be contained. Jewish materials are moreover associated with the discredited trend in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find the Jewish origins of Islamic institutions and culture.(65) As demonstrated above, Jewish sources can attest to the broader, Mesopotamian culture that was shared among the region's inhabitants and, in the case of popular culture at least, perpetuated for millennia. This is not a call to resurrect the pan-Babylonian trends that have been largely abandoned in Assyriology and Biblical Studies; it is rather a reminder of the existence of an Abbasid cultural repository that contains elements from a number of cultures, Mesopotamian elements that are beyond retrieval as being uniquely Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.

This is a review article of Gog and Magog in Early Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander's Wall. By EMERI VAN DONZEL and ANDREA SCHMIDT. Brill's Inner Asian Library, vol. 22. Leiden: BRILL 2010. Pp. xx + 271. $147; and Mapping Frontiers across Medieval Islam: Geography, Translation and the 'Abbasid Empire. By TRAVIS ZADEH. Library of Middle East History, vol. 27. London: I. B. TAURIS, 2011. Pp. xiv + 316. [pounds sterling]59.50, $99. I would like to thank Patricia Crone and Uri Rubin for reading and commenting on this article as a whole and section three in particular.


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I. The Arabic text is from de Goeje's 1889 Leiden edition of Ibn Khurradadhbih's Kitab al-Masalik wa-l-mamalik, with footnotes providing the variants in al-Idrisi's version of the account.

2. To give but one example of the deficiencies in proofreading, in chapter eight Gog and Magog are repeatedly referred to as "Gog und Magog." All direct quotations from the book below have been reproduced verbatim.

3. This is all the more inexplicable when the authors themselves (pp. 12-13) draw on St. Jerome's commentary on Ezekiel as evidence for a Christian perspective on Gog and Magog, only to say that Jerome "explicitly refers to Jewish tradition when he combines it with the messianic age of St. John's Apocalypse."

4. Van Bladel 2007a. Van Donzel and Schmidt do not appear to be aware of van Bladel's important work, including 2007b, on this subject.

5. P. 166: "As we shall see, an uninterrupted line of transmission links the 6th/7th-century Syriac tradition of Gog und Magog and the barrier with the times of Sallam. Two important groups witness to this phenomenon: Arab poets and transmitters of Islamic traditions."

6. P. 169: "On the basis of this data it is clear that there existed an uninterrupted line of transmitters and poets who, from the very beginning of Islam down to the 9th century, wrote about Gog und Magog and the barrier of Alexander 'the two-horned one'. It is important to note that the aforementioned towns, Basra. Kufa, and al-Hira, and above all Baghdad, had been centres of Arabic and Syriac-speaking Christians."

7. P. 206:"... it would have been virtually impossible for Sallam, during his long journey in Central Asia and West China, not to encounter a range of Syrian Christian lore, with its repertoire of stories about Gog and Magog and the barrier. While in search for the wall, Sallam doubtless regarded these Syriac traditions as a god-speed for his enterprise. His idea of the barrier may well have been based on information received from Christians, which would explain its Syriac-inspired character. In his encounters along the road with Christian and early Islamic communities, Sallam almost certainly encountered versions of a story already familiar to him from Mesopotamian Christians in Samarra."

8. The use of Abu Dulaf's Risala as confirmation for elements of Sallam's itinerary (pp. 223-26) is likely to raise eyebrows among scholars familiar with this controversial text as well.

9. In fact, at one point he even goes so far as to question whether Sallam actually existed: "His identity, for the most part, has escaped us. We know nothing of where he came from, where he was born, when he died, or if he really existed at all" (p. 16).

10. The great exception to this being Montgomery 2005.

11. Maslow 1966: 15.

12. See, e.g., his very clever comments on the morphological equivalence of muayana and mughayaba (p. 40) and a similar point about tarjuman and brahman (p. 120). He also makes use of numerous unpublished mss, as well as published sources in a number of languages.

13. Note, for instance, that K. Lewinstein's entry "Gog and Magog" in Encyclopaedia of the Quran covers, in a few short pages, most of the main points about eastern Christian sources made in Gog and Magog. The relationship between Syriac versions of the Alexander Romance and early Islamic ones has become so well known that it appears repeatedly in a recent popular book on late antiquity written by a non-specialist (T. Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World [London, 20121, esp. 279, 311).

14. It is old news in scholarly circles that the Alexander Romance is indebted to (even, in parts, based on) the epic of Gilgamesh. For an overview (and further bibliography), see Dalley 1998: 170-72; for an early statement of the case, see Meissner 1894.

15. See the masterly analysis of Yassif 2006: 364: cf. van Bekkum 1986: 219.

16. Dailey 1991; Vanstiphout 2001. Even Mesopotamian geographical notions may have found their way into early (AbbAsid geographies. including that of Ibn Khurradadhbih. On this, see Silverstein 2010.

17. See, for instance, Herman 2010, esp. the bibliography in nn. 9, 10. The title of this volume (which is the title of the 2007 conference to which it refers) is yet further evidence for this trend in Talmudic studies. See also Secunda 2010 and the scholarship cited therein.

18. See. e.g., Herman 2005: 287 n. 25: "[The Babylonian Talmud's] debt to pagan Babylonian legal traditions should also not be ignored.- Herman does not, however, pursue this point further.

19. See, for instance, the important contributions of Mark Geller (1998, 2000a, 2000b, 2004) to the field of ancient Babylonian medical practices in the Talmud.

20. On ancient Near Eastern culture at Qumran, see Reeves 1993; Geller 1998. On pre-Islamic Arabia, see Crone and Silverstein 2010.

21. For the possibility that Gilgamesh's impact on the Alexander Romance can be felt even in relatively late versions of the Alexander cycle, note van Bekkum (1986: 226 n. 92) regarding the medieval Hebrew Alexander Romance cycle: "A comparison with Akkadian mythology shows striking similarity of some of the motifs. Mesopotamian literature, in particular the Gilgamesh epic, can shed light on the question of the origins of Alexander legends."

22. Cf. Cohn 2001: 161.

23. For a succinct and convincing comparison between the two sources, see van Bladel 2007a: 197 n. 6.

24. The issues are so well known that it has been taken up in debates on the Internet raging between anti-Islamic polemicists and Islamic apologists. See (last accessed August 6, 2012). For scholarly discussions of the topic, see the writings by Brannon Wheeler, esp. 2002: 10-37 (and the endnotes thereto).

25. Zadeh teases us with references to al-Mansur's having patterned his empire along the lines of "cosmopolitan empires of Mesopotamia" (p. 21), and to the fact that the Syriac "Triumph of Alexander" was produced in "Mesopotamia" (p. 108); and he speaks of the "Near Eastern temple registers" (p. 115) that foreshadow descriptions of Alexander's barrier, but in none of these cases are any pre-Christian, Mesopotamian avenues pursued.

26. I am neither an Assyriologist nor have I devoted serious time and effort to the topic.

27. Gog and Magog, p. 86. Comparable accounts can be found in al-Qazwini (p. 64) and Ibn al-Faqih (p. 86).

28. In some mythological cycles the vanquished god descends to the underworld. In our case we can imagine that the chaos-creature that Tannin represents descends to Cog and Magog, who are in a sort of underworld--note that in Sumerian the underworld could be referred to euphemistically as "mountainous country" (kur)--at which point fertility is restored elsewhere, which is why this happens in spring.

29. Murray 2004: 223-24.

30. For a detailed exploration of the foregoing ideas, see Silverstein 2011: 475-76.

31. In late antique and early medieval Jewish sources Alexander is explicitly compared to Solomon and associated with exceptional wisdom (on which, see van Bekkum 1986: 220-21,224-26: Yassif 2006: 384ff.

32. As Zadeh (p. 112) puts it: "The Syriac versions of the Alexander cycle contain many similar details, lending credence to the notion that Sallam's text was in dialogue with pre-existing material in Arabic and Persian that was evidently shaped by early Syriac sources on Alexander's barrier."

33. By Jewish I mean materials authored by Jews even though the materials themselves may be of a non-Jewish origin. The point is that these materials were circulating (also) among Jews, who committed them to writing.

34. P. 52 n. 7. quoting from a secondary source.

35. According to an alternate reading, "Africa" is to be read as Phrygia, which would take us in the direction of Derbent, where Alexander's barrier (i.e., the Caspian Gates) was often said to have been located.

36. On this topic, see Wallach 1941.

37. In medieval Hebrew versions of the Alexander Romance this account is elaborated upon along lines similar to those found in Sallam's account; see Yassif (2006: 388), who appears unaware of the similarities with Sallam's version of the story.

38. The parallel is not unproblematic since although Alexander plays a role in both stories, in the Talmudic case it is he who acquires the souvenir, while in Sallam's account it is Sallam who does so. This imprecision applies to most of the Greek and Syriac sources that are meant to have contributed to Sallam's account--in the former we get the Alexander Romance, whereas in the latter we get the Sallam Romance, as it were.

39. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Tatmid, 31a-32b. Many other stories of Alexander or Gog and Magog are scattered throughout the Talmud (and, of course, elsewhere in rabbinic literature), including inter alia the discovery of a scroll in the primordial language, which contains details about future apocalyptic wars with tannin sea-monsters and with Gog and Magog (Tractate Sanhedrin, 97b). For a fifth-century C.E. Jewish Alexander Romance from Palestine, see Svedlund 1974: 65 (IL 148-49).

40. For an apocalyptic Jewish ply vat on Gog and Magog from the Persian occupation of Egypt and Syria in the early seventh century, see SiVan 2000. For an Umayyad-era source on Alexander as a world-conqueror who traveled to the ends of the earth and whose reign is associated with the end of time, see Friedlander 1971: 82-83.

41. At least two quotations in Gog and Magog from Arabo-Islamic authors reflect midrashic traditions, such as the narrative by al-Qazwini that the people of Gog and Magog shot arrows into the heavens, which returned to them covered in blood, from which they deduced that they had killed God (p. 65)--there are numerous comparable midrashim about other Biblical villains (e.g., Nimrod). The other example concerns the means by which God will kill Gog and Magog, which al-Qazwini and others (pp. 65-66) tell us will be through worms that enter Gog and Magog's ears--similar stories are associated in the Jewish tradition with other villains, e.g., in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megilla, 11a, it is the Roman emperor Titus who is killed when God sends a mosquito into his nose. To bring things full circle, Muslim traditions relate the latter story to yet another villain, Nebuchadnezzar. On this motif, see most recently Nissan 2009: 66 n. 53.

42. My point is not that these "Jews" actually did transmit the materials attributed to them but that the Islamic tradition associated such materials with Jewish sources in general, which are often represented by these three figures.

43. "Sallam [was] probably a Khazarian Jew" (p. xix; on p. 190, "probably" is replaced by "perhaps"); "He may even have been a Jew, as such having easier access to Khazar authorities who were Jews themselves. Even the name Sallam is an indication for this, for it was usually carried by Jews" (p. 121). Zadeh (p. 166) rejects the identification of Sallam as a Jew on the grounds that there is no evidence for it, though the idea has been accepted by some leading scholars such as D. M. Dunlop and S. W. Baron. It is worth pointing out, however, that no other religious identity has been argued for Sallam and that the only other famed globe-trotting polyglots whom Ibn Khurradadhbih describes (Masalik, p. 153) are the Radhanite Jews. It is less important here whether Sallam was Jewish than that van Donzel and Schmidt think he was and yet still do not consider that Jewish lore could have played a role in shaping his account.

44. In the Google Books online version of Gog and Magog the reference to the Israelite tribes is found, but in the published print version it has been removed. The rest of the footnote is otherwise retained word for word: p. 19 n. 12 (cf. p. 46 n. 92 for the online version, last accessed August 3, 2012).

45. This holds true for (some) Jewish conceptions of the Messiah, according to which every generation has a Messiah living among it whom God can mobilize if the generation is deserving.

46. Reeves (2005: 23) views traditions about the Dajal being quarantined on a distant island as being "strikingly reminiscent of the legendary episode about the 'gates' constructed by Alexander in the far north which effectively confine the barbarous hordes of Gog and Magog. ..." He continues: "Moreover, this distinctive story about an enchained eschatological actor is surely a dark parody of the odd Jewish traditions about an Imprisoned Messiah' who currently bides his time in a secluded chamber within Gan Eden." We will see below that the inaccessible destination can be positive in one account, in which the sons of Moses live in a utopia; and negative in another, such as stories about Gog and Magog beyond the barrier or the Talmudic account referred to above in which it is gehinom that is beyond the Mountains of Darkness encountered by Alexander.

47. In some cases they are said to be roaming around but their identities are no longer clear to us, which is why we have (until this day) people claiming to be descended from the lost tribes of Israel and Jews branding enemy-nations as Amalekites. The age-old phenomenon of identifying enemy hordes with Gog and Magog is not quite the same, as these identifications are often apocalyptic in nature.

48. In tablet nine of the epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, the hero reaches the two mountains of Meshu, where the scorpion men guarding the area tell him that no mortal has reached this place before and explain to him that the way to get to Utnapishtim is via an underground route that leads him to a paradisiacal region. Later accounts of secluded peoples describe them as having reached their special destination by way of an underground route. For Muslim accounts of the sons of Moses being transported via tunnels, see Wheeler 2002: 94; for a Jewish source from the ninth century, see Braude 1968, 2: 617.

49. On this point, see Friedlander 1911: 254.

50. Charlesworth (1992a) writes: "It is conceivable that the original Jewish document, without the redactional and Christian alterations, antedates the second century CE."Nikolsky (2002) argues, however, that this work is "a Christian composition from the fourth century CE. It originated in a monastic milieu."

51. See. e.g., Charlesworth 1992b: and the references in Wheeler 2002: 176-77 nn. 150-52.

52. 4 Ezra 13:1-13 (the vision), 13:39-47 (its interpretation): translation taken from Reeves 2005: 201-2.

53. The account is recorded in al-ShahrastinI, Kitab al-Milal wa-l-nihal (Cairo, 1951-1955), 1: 507. On this passage's context, see Reeves 2005: 207-8.

54. For an excellent discussion of these materials in context, see Reeves 2005: 200-24.

55. Some of these accounts are discussed in Wheeler 2002: 93-117, esp. 95-101 and the notes thereto. In this chapter Wheeler also discusses accounts of Muhammad having visited the people of Moses at the ends of the earth (who, rather than being Jews or Israelites. are pre-Islamic Muslims) during his night journey and ascension, and suggests that these accounts might be related to the descriptions of Alexander's journeys in the Quran and tafsir (pp. 94ff.). From a Muslim perspective, the theological impetus for dwelling on the people of Moses probably comes from the fact that they are pre-tahrif Jews. To the extent that Islam is deemed to be a re-sending of the original religion of God that was corrupted along the way, it is understandable that qawm Musa in Muslim descriptions are Muslim.

56. Rubin 1999: 26ff. See also Rubin, s.v. Children of Israel, in E13, where he adds Q 10:83 to the list of references to the righteous sons of Moses in the Quran (drawn to my attention by Uri Rubin).

57. For Eldad's account, see Esptein 1891.

58. Zadeh (pp. 78-82) brings accounts preserved in 'Abbasid sources from no earlier than the ninth century of missions to the barrier by ordinary people, viz., the envoy of the late Sasanid general Sharbaraz in the seventh century and the team of twenty-five men despatched by Mucawiya in the eighth.

59. Cf. Rubin 1999: 26-27; Silverstein 2007.

60. This statement is made on the (debatable) assumption that whereas Eldad's account dates from the 880s, Sallam's is from the 840s and is already recorded in the early recension of Ibn Khurradadhbih's Masalik (thought to date in its earliest form from 846). As Zadeh and Montgomery (2005) have shown, the textual history of Ibn Khurradadhbih's work is complex and beyond simple solutions. Zadeh (p. 259 n. 153) quotes modern scholars who argue for a single recension of the work from ca. 885, which would make Sallam's account no earlier than that of Eldad.

61. On this source's relevance, see Reeves 2005: 204; Braude 1968, 2: 617.

62. Ibn Khurradadhbih, Masalik, 164.

63. This period witnessed a rivalry between Rabbanite and Qaraite Jews, which pivoted around the sources of extra-Biblical tradition, just as the caliph himself was associated with the mihna. Thus knowing nothing of the debated Talmud is comparable to knowing nothing of the theologically controversial caliph.

64. Moreover, those who do have knowledge of these diverse traditions tend to concern themselves with issues relating to linguistics and philology. It should be stressed that all the above points about excluding Jewish materials from the comparative study of early Islamic civilization apply in reverse to those who focus on Jewish materials in this context to the exclusion of Christian ones.

65. The parallel trend of identifying the Christian background of the Quran and Islam is also of significance, but I suspect that the seemingly intractable political conflict of the Palestinian question has added a layer of inhibition to comparisons between Jewish and Islamic institutions. The dedication of Gog and Magog "to the unjustly enclosed" perhaps tellingly demonstrates that even when writing on a ninth-century account scholars cannot quite dissociate their work from modem politics.

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Title Annotation:Alexander the Grea; Gog and Magog in Early Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander's Wall; Mapping Frontiers across Medieval Islam: Geography, Translation and the 'Abbasid Empire
Author:Silverstein, Adam
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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