In 2004, a Member of the Classics section of the School of Historical Studies I was chatting with told me that some badly burnt papyri dating from the sixth century had been found in a church during excavations at Petra in Jordan. Modern technology made it possible to read them, their damaged state notwithstanding, and one of the persons involved in the project was my colleague, Glen Bowersock. It was the first I heard of it. Petra is located in a region involved in the rise of Islam, which began in the early seventh century, so I rushed off to Glen's office and asked for more information. I left with a stack of papers and books and an agreement that Glen would give a talk about these papyri in the Islamicist seminar. When he did so, he mentioned a papyrus that describes an estate divided among three brothers where the shares were assigned by lot. This intrigued me because this was also how shares were assigned in the ancient Near East (more precisely, ancient Iraq). I had come across a surprising number of references to lot-casting in similar situations in sources relating to the first fifty years of Islam. So I emailed an Oxford colleague, Adam Silverstein, who is also interested in the link between the ancient Near East and Islam, and he reminded me of another sixth-century papyrus, from Nessana in what is now the Negev, in which shares are also assigned by lot. The correspondence continued and eventually we decided to write an article about it together. We both had more pressing work to do, so we worked on it intermittently, with long periods of inactivity in between, and only finished it in 2008. (P. Crone and A. Silverstein, "The Ancient Near East and Islam: the Case of Lot-casting", forthcoming in Journal of Semitic Studies) 2010/12)
Lot-casting is perhaps not the most interesting subject in the world, but the practice was common in the ancient world (not just the Near East) in official contexts where we would now find it surprising. The attestations in the cuneiform literature, the Bible, the two papyri, and Islamic literature were suggestive of a pattern that could help us trace the threads between the ancient and Islamic periods of the Near or, as it is usually called today, the Middle East. This was where the excitement lay.
The Middle East is an odd region in that it does not have a single history, but rather three, studied in different university departments. The study of the ancient and by far the longest period, covering the period ca. 3000 to 330 BC, is called Assyriology and is usually treated as an adjunt of either Biblical studies or archaeology. The next thousand years, from the conquest of Alexander in the 330s BC to the Arab conquests in the 630s AD, form part of Classics. The rest is called Islamic or Middle Eastern history and is studied now as an adjunct of Arabic and in History departments. Until recently, these segments were seen as having little to do with each other. To Islamicists, the Near East outside of Arabia was a foreign territory made familiar by Arab settlement and Islamization. Some introductory courses did start with surveys of the Near East on the eve of Islam, but this was largely a formality, for with the exception of the conquests, the explanation of later developments never seemed to hinge on anything that happened there. Islam was seen as sufficiently developed by the time of the conquests to continue growing on the basis of its own internal resources, merely absorbing this or that "foreign element" in the process. The idea that there might be continuity all the way back to the ancient period seemed wildly implausible. A few echoes of ancient Near Eastern themes could indeed be seen here and there, but they came across as odd survivals inducing marvel at their longevity, but incapable of telling us anything significant.
Today all this has changed. The interaction between ancient Near Eastern and classical culture, both before and after Alexander, has become an exciting field of study, and it has also come to be widely recognized that Islamic culture is rooted in that of late antiquity, both Greco-Roman and Persian. If we still cannot trace the threads between the ancient and the Islamic periods, it is because practically all the evidence is lost. The inhabitants of the ancient Near East exchanged their ancient languages for Aramaic; it is the development of the Aramaic tradition that we need to follow. But it was not an imperial culture; its literature ceased to be copied when its bearers converted to other religions; and it was written on more perishable material than clay tablets. We do have some Jewish writings in Aramaic, and from the third century AD onward we also have Christian ones (in that branch of Aramaic called Syriac), but the pagans who formed the vast majority in the region for most of the period are almost invisible in the record. By and large, we have to study the Near East through the eyes of its conquerors, who remained outsiders to the region in the sense that they continued to be oriented toward their own cultural centers even after having made themselves at home in the Near East. The bulk of the Persian tradition is also lost, so that for practical purposes we only have one pair of foreign eyes, those of the Greeks and the Romans. It is only inscriptions and archaeology that allow us occasionally to see the Near Easterners directly before they became Muslims and started writing plenty about themselves that still survives.
This, of course, is one reason why the history of the region is divided into three segments: we do not have the tradition that connects them. But without putting the segments together again one cannot see some of the most striking facts about the region. Most obviously, the Near/Middle East is a cultural area marked by over a thousand years of colonial rule, with a bit more following at the hands of the Europeans after another twelve hundred years or so. This seems to be unparalleled in history. Other conquerors who managed to hold onto their possessions for as long as the Greeks and the Romans did between them absorb the peoples they had conquered (to use a dreadfully simplistic shorthand), but the Greeks and the Romans did not, nor of course did the Europeans. This is of major importance for the political evolution of the Islamic Middle East, but it is never taken into consideration. It is also impossible to understand the nature of Islamic culture without remembering that the same people continued to live in the region for all those millenia, passing on their own tradition is gradually changing forms from one generation to the next, so that the substratum of Islamic culture must be a remote descendant of that which prevailed in ancient times.
Adam Silverstein and I found that all the evidence for lot-casting as a live practice in official contexts had petered out by the second century AD, except on the Jewish side. Thereafter it reappeared in Arabic literature on the prophet and the early caliphs. Without the two papyri, it would have looked like a case of continuity between Judaism and Islam. The two papyri are Christian, however, produced in communities that were undoubtedly Arabic-speaking even though they wrote in Greek. What we had was a Near Eastern practice that had remained alive on the periphery of the Roman empire and also beyond it, in that part of Arabia that was never subjected to colonial rule. We would have been more excited by evidence throwing light on the gradual transformation of the Near Eastern tradition in Iraq itself (the undoubted home of Islamic culture). But the practice attested in the two papyri did gain acceptance in Islamic law, to be discussed along new lines, so it did add one thread to the many we need to sew the severed segments of Near/Middle Eastern history together.