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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Gog and Magog

Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources by Emeri van Donzel and Andrea Schmidt. With a contribution by Claudia Ott (Brill's Inner Asian Library: Brill Academic) Alexander's alleged Wall against Gog and Magog, often connected with the enclosure of the apocalyptic people, was a widespread theme among Syriac Christians in Mesopotamia. In the ninth century Sallam the Interpreter dictated an account of his search for the barrier to the Arab geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih. The reliability of Sallam's journey from Samarra to Western China and back (842-45), however, has always been a highly contested issue. Van Donzel and Schmidt consider the travel account as historical.
This volume presents a translation of the source while at the same time it carefully looks into other Eastern Christian and Muslim traditions of the famous lore. A comprehensive survey reconstructs the political and topographical data. As so many other examples, also this story pays witness to the influence of the Syriac Christian tradition on Koran and Muslim Traditions.

Excerpt: The peoples Gog and Magog, known to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, were believed to live in the extreme north. In late Jewish, Early Christian and in Tslamic tradition it is also believed that they were enclosed behind a barrier or gate or wall built by Alexander the Great—in Tslam known as Tskandar 'the two-horned'—, until, prior to the Last Days, God will permit them to break out.

The joined themes of Alexander's barrier and of Gog and Magog led to a story which became quite popular among Christians and Muslims. In a great variety of texts, Alexander is seen as a saviour sent by God to protect the believers from these apocalyptic hordes. The origin of the narrative goes back to Late Jewish and Early Eastern Christian tradition. Later, the motif became an essential part of Islamic eschatology, as expressed in the Koran, in early Arabic poetry and Tslamic tradition.

It is not our intention to give an overall survey of the Gog and Magog lore. We rather concentrate on the the influence experienced by Eastern Christian, more particularly Syriac, sources which have strongly influenced the subsequent Tslamic stories in Early Islam (Chapters 1-6). The few Koranic verses and the numerous Islamic traditions on the motif, we are convinced, are directly related to Syriac Christian tradition. The data available do not seem to leave room for reasonable doubt about the dependence of Tslamic ideas in this respect from Syriac.

Tn a second part (Chapters 7-12) we focus our research on Sallam's quest for Alexander's wall. In 842 the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Wathiq bi-llah ordered Sallam, probably a Khazarian Jew from Samarra, to investigate the barrier. After his return in 844 to the court, Sallam dictated a report of his journey. Of particular interest regarding the Syro-Arabian and Christian-Muslim relations is the evident link between Sallam's description of the barrier built by the 'two-horned one' and that found in Syriac sources.

The analysis of the travel account necessarily required a survey of the political situation in the first half of the 9th century in Central Asia. The report itself gives only two topographical data and no eth-nological or political information at all. Therefore the question had

to be asked whether Sallam's journey did take place. Muslim and non-Muslim authors indeed have contested the authenticity of the account. Yet, it does not seem doubtful that the journey is historical, and that Sallam reached a Chinese custom post, perhaps Yumenguan or Jade Gate in Western China, apparently considered as the aim of the journey. The Syriac-inspired description of the barrier may well be based on information received from Syrian Christians from Mesopotamia living in Baghdad and Samarra as well as from Syrians present on the Silk Road. The Syriac traditions may well have been a god-speed for Sallam.

The purpose of the present work is to contribute to a better under-standing of one of the oldest travel accounts in Muslim literature. Like so many other examples, the present work testifies to the impor-tance of Syriac Christian tradition for Early Islam.

Sallam's travel account poses a number of problems which are not easily explained away, and so a number of presumptions had to be made. Historical sources dating from the 6th through the 10th cen-turies enable us to verify a great deal of data in his text. Other details found in the account such as the "fetid land", and the town of Igu are equally historical. Occasionally, like in the case of the "ruined towns", Sallam links reality to fantasy: he declares the ruin to be caused by Gog and Magog. Like the fanciful description of Alexander's wall itself, the interpretation of facts by fiction was probably meant to meet the caliph's intentions. Notwithstanding these and other objections that can be made, no reasonable doubt can be raised against the historicity of the travel account nor, in view of Sallam's position, against its reliability at large. The sources available provide enough converging probabilities to convince the reader that Sallam did undertake the journey he describes. The historical account of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, as well as the reports of such modern trav-ellers, archaeologists and explorers as Charles-Eudes Bonin, Sir Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Paul Pelliot, Edouard Chavannes, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, seem to confirm that Sallam did travel along the northern branch of the Silk Road to Igu, Lop Nor, Yumenguan and returned to Samarra via the Taklamakan desert. At some point beyond Lop Nor, he saw an imposing building which he presents as Alexander's rampart. The building was the turning point of his jour-ney. Whether he himself believed that he had reached his aim, is impossible to decide. Sallam had set out with the explicit caliphal order to find the barrier. He could not possibly come home empty-handed. He must have considered his foremost wish fulfilled when he saw the impressive Chinese limes and some of its fortresses, among which Yumenguan, the Jade Gate. This is what he wants us to believe that it was the answer to the caliph's request: the two-horned's protective rampart.

One can imagine that such imposing landmarks as the Great Wall of China struck the imagination of the surrounding nomads and of the foreign travellers and merchants journeying up and down the Silk Road. The Great Wall, an object of admiration and awe, may soon have developed into a wondrous thing when descriptions of it began to travel far and wide over the steppes. In the process, the walls or gates grew in height, width and thus in impressiveness. One might suppose that Sallam related to the caliph not only what his eyes saw, but also what his imagination wanted to see, inspired, as he was, directly by Koran and Islamic tradition, indirectly by Syriac tradition. His description of the barrier-gate evidently reflects the way in which the Greco-Syriac-Arabic milieu of the first half of the 9th century was influenced by the Gog and Magog lore. In Sallam's travel account these elements are mixed with some historical practices around gates and fortresses, such as the hereditary function of the guardian, the striking against the gate, the use of keys and inscriptions, and the presence of heavy tools, bolts and thresholds. Sallam may have seen in them a confirmation of what he knew before setting out on his journey.

The fascination which Eastern Christianity and Islam had once developed for Alexander in his role of divine tool against apocalyptic peoples may have receded in our time into the background. Yet, Gog and Magog have not disappeared. They continue to be symbols of dreadful enemies as long as chiliastic and apocalyptic fears remain.



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