Questions Beget Questions: An Example of Digital History Research

In working on the Historical Index of the Medieval Middle East (HIMME), questions often arise of the form whether something or someone mentioned in one source is the same place or person as mentioned with the same name in a different source.  I call this mini-research: usually all it requires is looking up the passage in each source and comparing what it says.  But sometimes it requires more, as I experienced today when I was led on a chase through four medieval sources in three different languages (five if you count modern translations!) by my attempt to determine whether a “chapel of St. John” mentioned by a thirteenth-century Latin pilgrim might be the same as a “church of St. John” mentioned by a twelfth-century Syriac historian-patriarch.


Burchard of Mount Sion wrote a “Description of the Holy Land” based on his travels through Palestine in the 1270s.  In it (VIII. 39, 41), he mentions a capella sancti Iohannis in these terms:

De Iericho duabus leucis ad Iordanem est capella in honore sancti Iohannis baptiste facta, ubi creditur Dominus baptizatus… De Iericho tribus leucis, id est una de capella sancti Iohannis ad Iordanem, est mare mortuum…

Two leagues from Jericho to the Jordan is a chapel constructed in honor of St. John the Baptist, where it is believed that the Lord was baptized…  Three leagues from Jericho, that is one from the chapel of St. John at the Jordan, is the Dead Sea…

That’s all he says about the subject, but it does tell us a more precise dedication (John the Baptist, not any other “St. John”) an approximate location (between Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea).  But the question arose whether this chapel was the same as the “Church of St. John” mentioned by Michael the Syrian in his history.

So I looked up the passage in Michael’s history that describes the church (Chabot‘s French Translation, II:432), and noted that a Muslim amir named ʿAmrū b. Saʿd (presumably the Syriac form of ʿAmr b. Saʿd, عمرو بن سعد) is said to prohibit the public display of Christian crosses, and an over-zealous citizen climbed atop the Church of John the Baptist to remove the cross, which occasioned a quarrel during which the amir reversed his decision.  So the church shares the dedication, but there is certainly more than one church dedicated to John the Baptist, so that is not enough.  Notably, Michael does not tell us where this church is located.  It might be located near Jericho, or it might not.  At this point, I had to consider whether the question I was asked could be answered at all, or whether I just had to insert “maybe” into the data.

It occurred to me that if I could discover where ʿAmr b. Saʿd was amir, that might tell me where the church was located, since it was presumably under his jurisdiction.  Looking more contextually, I did not find many additional details.  Michael mentions that the edict affected people in Damascus and Ḥimṣ differently than others (but how differently is not clear; two translators rendered it in opposite directions!).  The edict occurred “at this time,” not a very precise indication, but surrounding events mention dates between 951 AG and 961 AG (so the 640s CE).  The only other thing he mentions about this amir is that he commissioned an Arabic translation of the Gospels.  But amirs were often notable enough to be mentioned in other sources, so I turned to an additional source indexed for HIMME, the early thirteenth-century geographical dictionary of Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī, which is publicly available through the generous work of OpenITI.

The index of Yāqūt’s work mentions two people named ʿAmr b. Saʿd, one a poet and the other a mawlā of the caliph ʿUmar who is cited for transmitting hadith.  The latter was certainly the right period, and for all I know both of them might be in the right period, but neither of them is described in the text as an amir.  No additional certainty was obtained.

For governors and commanders in the early Islamic caliphate, I know of no better source than the history of al-Ṭabarī.  I own a physical copy of the index volume of the massive forty-tome English translation, but the only ʿAmr b. Saʿd listed in it belongs to a later period than the 640s.  No help there.

But it occurred to me that the work is organized by year, so I could simply see who the governors were in the 640s.  Perhaps the index is incomplete (indices usually are!).  Unfortunately, I do not own the translation volumes, only the index volume (because I’m weird, and working on this union index project called HIMME, which I may have mentioned).  My university library has the volumes, but of course the library is still under lockdown due to the pandemic (a very reasonable mitigation measure).  Then I remembered that HathiTrust announced that they are making the books that they have scanned under copyright temporarily available to researchers who log in, if those researchers’ institutional libraries have a copy of the work.  It turns out HathiTrust does have the volumes, and I was able to obtain access.

The work is organized by year, and governors are listed at the end, although often the note mentions that the governors were simply the same as the previous year.  So I started with year 19 AH / 640, then moved backward to 17, then forward.  But in year that ʿUmar died (23 AH), al-Ṭabarī lists all the governors explicitly, including a certain ʿUmayr b. Saʿd as governor of Ḥimṣ (ET XIV:164).  (Remember that the people of Damascus and Ḥimṣ were affected differently by the edict in some way.)  So it appears that Michael (or his source, or a later scribe) most likely misspelled the name of the relevant amir in the anecdote.  This same ʿUmayr b. Saʿd was mentioned earlier (ET XIV:15, year 21 AH/642 CE) as in charge of Damascus, al-Bathaniyya, Ḥawrān, Ḥimṣ, Qinnasrīn, and al-Jazīra (and under the name ʿUmayr b. Saʿd al-Anṣārī he is also mentioned by Yāqūt as governor of al-Jazīra), so it makes sense why Damascus and Ḥimṣ might receive special mention.

So I am mostly confident that I identified the relevant amir in the 640s.  And his jurisdiction extended from Damascus to Qinnasrīn in Syria and into Mesopotamia, but did not evidently include the Jordan River, Jericho, or the Dead Sea.  Therefore, four sources and three languages later, I conclude that the “church of St. John the Baptist” mentioned by Michael the Syrian is not in fact the same as the capella sancti Iohannis mentioned by Burchard of Mount Sion.  Questions beget questions, which sometimes, eventually, repay with (at least probable?) answers.

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