Robin Yassin-Kassab

At The Empire’s Edge

with 15 comments

Here’s a piece I wrote for the National about Arabs on Hadrian’s Wall.

late 2008 584Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the Wall at black cloud building over the ruins of Housesteads fort. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly towards my heart. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one come here from warmer climes to serve his empire, and I shivered to my frozen toes. Then my son grinned, turned towards the fort, and with a delighted scream charged downwards, slaying imagined barbarians as he went.

We had set out early in the brisk morning from our home in south west Scotland, over bridges and past floods in low-lying fields. Streams gurgled in roadside ditches; pond-sized puddles occupied town centres. There’s enough water here to produce the illusion of hopping island to island through a vast archipelago.

We crossed the invisible border into England near Carlisle, and drove east through the county of Cumbria, the Lake District to the south, into Northumberland. At Greenhead we left the main road and joined the old Stangate, originally a Roman road, running alongside the Wall as it rises and falls over crags. Livestock is more suited to this rugged, sunless landscape than crops, and we progressed through field after field of fat sheep and lazing oblivious cows. We continued until our well-signposted destination on the mid-point of the wall.

What remains of Housesteads, one of 12 permanent fortifications built to guard the furthest frontier of the Roman empire, are the foundations and drainage systems of baths, granaries, a hospital and a commanding officer’s house, all surrounded by a wall which in turn meets the great Wall constructed by order of the emperor in 122AD. Hadrian’s Wall was Rome’s most heavily fortified border, garrisoned by up to 10,000 soldiers from Germany, Spain, and even further afield. (The empire’s eastern border, contested by the Persians, was in the unwalled deserts of Arabia.) The Wall’s purpose was to guard against raids from the unconquered Pictish north, to tax goods passing through the frontier, and to symbolise imperial power. It stretched for 73 miles, from the mouth of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, and today it is the largest ancient site in northern Europe, dotted with forts, museums, youth hostels and country hotels. The Wall is an easy day trip from Newcastle, Edinburgh or Manchester.

The Housesteads visitor centre has a basket full of imitation Roman clothing to help children imagine themselves back through the millenia, and Ibrahim had soon transformed himself into a particularly excited legionnaire. His costume, and perhaps something in the blustery wind, made play-fighting with ghosts and even slipping repeatedly in the mud seem like sensible things for me to be doing. Housesteads is built on a sweeping escarpment which offers a typically extensive view of raw, weather-bitten countryside: coal-coloured earth, sinewy grass clumps, brief patches of forest. Walking out along the Wall stirred the imagination.

I was walking in the steps of ancient Syrians. A tombstone found at Housesteads depicts an archer armed with an oriental-style recurved bow. Texts found elsewhere show that a cohort of 500 bowmen from the Syrian city of Hama served in Britain, and spent some of their time on the Wall, perhaps shooting game for the garrison to eat.

To me, this was of more than academic interest. We moved only recently to this area from Oman, and we still lack a sense of belonging. Castle Douglas, our damp little town, seems very monocultural, and my family, being multicultural – my wife is Syrian, from Damascus and perhaps originally Palmyra, and I am an Anglo-Syrian mix – seem correspondingly out of place. Yet all those centuries ago there had been Syrians here, and north Africans, and Europeans of all descriptions. I wanted to learn more, so after crisps and coffee at the Housesteads café we drove on to visit the Roman ruins at Corbridge, where Barathes died.

Before my grandfather died he told me that a Syrian soldier was buried on the Wall. Clutching at straws in my Scottish isolation, I trawled the internet for information on this lost countryman. I didn’t find a soldier but an itinerant Syrian merchant, Barathes, entombed just south of the Wall in Corbridge. My wife was particularly pleased with my discovery, for Barathes was, like her, originally from Palmyra. The presence of a Palmyran at this northern fort means the Syrian archers were not alone; there were Syrian businessmen and even Syrian religious officials in Roman Britain. An altar dedicated to Syrian Goddesses has been excavated at Catterick in Yorkshire, bearing the inscription: “For the Goddesses of the city of Hama, Sabinus has made this.” And in some strange way in cold Castle Douglas, Barathes’s proximity made us feel that we too were not alone.

It took half an hour from Housesteads to Corbridge. The old Stanegate road used to end here, at the fort built in 79AD when Emperor Agricola was campaigning into Scotland. But Corbridge was more town than fort; there were temples, markets and an acqueduct as well as a barracks.

And Barathes the Palmyran would have been here for trade, even if his white hair (he was 68 when he died – a venerable age in Roman times) qualified him for a restful retirement. He was a trader of ensigns, a flag salesman, and apparently a wealthy man. A fragment of his gravestone, enough to tell his name, age, origin and occupation, was found recycled as building material in the wall of a nearby house. Today it’s on show in Corbridge’s museum.

I pitied this lonely Arab who had so narrowly escaped historical oblivion. What must it have been like for Levantine men to work at what was then the remotest edge of the earth? Although Phoenicians from Carthage (in modern Tunisia) had come to buy British tin in the fourth century BC, until the Roman invasion many in the ancient world refused to believe that the misty isles of the far north west even existed. I remembered standing on the Wall beyond Housesteads, looking into the raw, dark moorscape of crag and rock and black water, and feeling to my bones how the British frontier was a bad luck posting. The kind of fabled land a Syrian would have used to scare his children into obedience. Finish your soup or we’ll send you to northern Britain!

After exploring the ruins we sat in a café in modern Corbridge and looked through the window onto the elegant village houses, wondering how many chunks of Roman masonry had gone into their construction. As I drank my soup (tomato, and tasty) I read the Corbridge guidebook, and learnt there had been more to Barathes’s old age than icy winds. He had commissioned the tombstone of a British woman called Regina, who was buried at Arbeia, the easternmost fort on the Wall.

This was too good to be true. I had to visit Arbeia.

So we drove on, past farmhouses and walls whose stones I now suspected had been plundered. But the traffic thickened after Corbridge, and soon we weren’t any longer in the wild countryside. Our route took us into the high stone centre of Newcastle, bridged the River Tyne to Gateshead, and then led all the way to the sea at South Shields. Along the road are signs of a more contemporary Arab presence: halal butchers, kebab restaurants, women in hijab. There’s been a community of Yemenis in South Shields since sailors recruited from British Aden started settling here in the 1890s. In 1977 the American boxer Muhammad Ali Clay – he had come to raise money for a boys boxing club – had his third marriage blessed in a local mosque.

And here, overlooking the mouth of the Tyne, stood Arbeia. The low, bare ruins of the fort are bordered by redbrick terraced houses and a school. There is an impressively reconstructed Roman gateway, and down the road a little is a view of the sea.

The name Arbeia means ‘place of the Arabs’. In the site museum I was surprised to discover that these Arabs weren’t Syrian but Iraqi – “boatmen of the Tigris” to be precise. In a strange historical reversal, Iraqis serving a global empire once helped to police North Sea shipping, as the British Navy patrols the Shatt el-Arab today. The Iraqis were in charge of sea supplies for the garrisons stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. The Semitic goddess Astarte (or Ishtar) was worshipped here, beside the gods of Spanish soldiers. There was even a maghrebi presence: the museum contains the tomb of 20-year-old Victor, a freed slave “of the Moorish nation”.

But it was Regina’s story that crowned the visit. At a very young age Regina became a slave, and at some point she was purchased by Barathes. Later he declared her a freedwoman, and then married her. Regina died at the age of 30, and her grieving Palmyran husband spared no expense on her tombstone. She is sculpted holding her spinning and a jewellery box, and wearing a Romano-British dress. As well as the Latin, there is an inscription in Aramaic, the language of Barathes which is still spoken in a few Syrian villages today. It reads, simply and poignantly: “Regina, the freedwoman of Barathes, alas.” The tombstone is in fine condition except for Regina’s head, which has fallen away; she has a name and a sketchy biography, but no face.

I was delighted by this: a multicultural romance predating that of my parents by eighteen hundred years. But I can’t claim that Regina was an English woman like my mother; she lived centuries before the Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded from Germany, driving the British natives into the highlands of Wales and Scotland. She was a member of the Cattuvellauni, a tribe of southern Britain and of similar stock to all the Celtic tribes of north west Europe.

Ironically, the very fact of a Syrian-British marriage on Hadrian’s Wall shows walls and frontiers to be infinitely malleable things, and national definitions to be partial at best. It’s reasonable to imagine Barathes and Regina having children; in which case, some little quantity of Palmyran blood may run in the veins of northern Britons today. Arbeia is next to Gateshead, where my mother’s family are from. Perhaps my ancestors on that side too have a touch of Syria.

So I have had to revisit my description of our adoptive home as monocultural. My neighbours are the descendants of Picts and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and of the hidden progeny of Barathes and Regina too. British multiculturalism clearly isn’t as shockingly recent as some believe. In Newcastle and South Shields today mosques coexist with churches, the English language with Bengali and Urdu. And two thousand years ago, Celtic languages babbled alongside Latin, German, and Aramaic.

Many British people are surprised to learn that Syria was ever part of the Roman empire, and many Arabs have no idea that Rome’s influence stretched this far west. Perhaps this matters, because to know yourself you have to know the other. As we drove back west and north through the long autumnal evening, into the Pictish lands, with dusk slowly turning the high trees at the roadside into ghosts, I considered this.

I tend to assume that my multicultural family is unusual, at least up here in our northern exile, but of course it’s not as simple as that. Everywhere there are secret histories and strange ancestries to be uncovered, if only you sniff about enough. Put in historical context, my family isn’t unusual at all. I wish somebody would tell this to the people who think my wife’s features and hijab are too foreign for Scotland.

As strategists trumpet the clash of civilisations – as if a civilisation is something which grows in a box – as Europe bristles against immigrants, as new walls are built between Baghdad neighbourhoods or to separate Palestinians from ‘Jews-only’ roads, it’s good to remember that barriers always fail in the end. Hadrian’s Wall was never impermeable. And today the Picts visit it for a pleasant day out with their families, in whose veins runs the blood of all the world.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 22, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in Culture, History, Iraq, Syria, Travel, UK

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15 Responses

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  1. Wow! Wonderful article, I’m definitely going to have to come up there soon my friend!!


    November 22, 2008 at 10:32 am

  2. Wassim – We’re waiting for you.


    November 22, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  3. Such a great article qunfuz…Why qunfuz? Interesting choice of a name 🙂

    Shaza Shannan

    November 22, 2008 at 6:16 pm

  4. Is that the Shazza I think it is? How are you? Good to hear from you.


    November 22, 2008 at 6:21 pm

  5. Barathes is probably the Aramaic word Barotha, which means Cypress or Fir.

    Who looms larger in mythic British heritage than Arthur Pendragon?

    Pendragon is probably the the Sarmatian word pan-turkan meaning commander of the brigade. Some of the current ideas about the Arthurian legends connect Arthur to Sarmatian (Iranian nomadic) soldiers serving in the Roman Army.

    Joachim Martillo

    November 22, 2008 at 8:46 pm

  6. Joachim – that’s fascinating. thanks for it.

    Shazza – if you send another comment with your email I won’t of course post it here, but I will get in touch with you.


    November 22, 2008 at 11:49 pm

  7. I.m English and married to a Syrian , but living in Damascus . I was fascinated by your article especially the reference to archers from Hama. My son in law is Hamwi and I,m going to surprise him with the 500 archers! Of course Hama is famous for the waterwheels made by the Romans and tourists go there to see them in particular ..wouldn,t it be interesting for the tourists to know that Hamwis were in northern Britain ?Great article, thankyou


    November 23, 2008 at 11:38 am

  8. qunfuz – may i visit as well ?



    December 10, 2008 at 9:48 am

  9. Lirun – Of course you may. I might be a little slow with my response – a lot of writing to do – but please do.


    December 10, 2008 at 10:20 am

  10. […] few months ago I visited Hadrian’s Wall, once garrisoned by soldiers from as far afield as Spain and Iraq. The Romans allowed freedom of […]

    Culture of Fear « Qunfuz

    August 20, 2009 at 11:50 am

  11. And… the Roman Army Museum on the wall has a statue dedicated to the goddess Syria. There were also Algerians at Carlisle…

    The fact that Iraqis – probably from near Basra – patrolled the Tyne has always struck me as a delicious historical irony…


    October 5, 2009 at 3:00 pm

  12. Brilliant essay, thank you very much indeed. Yes, of course there were Syrians (and also Nubians – people from what is now Libya and Morocco) on the wall. And we know that at the end of their service, they were not sent home: instead, they were given grants of land locally to where they were stationed at the end of their service. So there were certainly Syrians and Nubians settled on what is now Northumberland and Cumbria.

    Closer to home, the Romans established a harbour in Orchardton Bay, and a road – most of which is still used today – from there, through what is now Gelston and Threave, to their fort at Glenlochar. The fort at Glenlochar was not garrisoned for very long – from 81 AD, but probably for only about twenty years – and as far as I know we don’t know which legions garrisoned it. So I don’t know whether there were Syrian archers at Glenlochar, but it’s by no means impossible.

    Furthermore, if your merchant Barathes was trading from Corstopitum, he was probably trading across the wall; in which case it’s quite likely that he visited the Kelton Hill Fair, which was an important trading fair from the Bronze Age until the enclosures of the eighteenth century. So Barathes very likely knew the landscapes we’re familiar with – with Screel, with Bengairn, with the road up past Taliesin.

    But the very name ‘Cumbria’ – land of the Comry, the people, in modern terms the Welsh – reflects what happened after the legions were recalled in AD 383. The Brythonic kingdom of Rheged, whose caput was at Dunragit in Wigtownshire (shown on Ptolemy’s map as Rerigonium), expanded south to include lands at least as far south as Penrith. So at that point, the settled legionaries became citizens of the same state that contained what is now Castle Douglas.

    Rheged was heavily defeated at the Battle of Catraeth (what is now Catterick, in Yorkshire. where the Syrian Goddesses you mention were found) in about AD 600 – at more or less the same time as Muhammad started to pray in his cave on Mount Hira – and Northumbrian Angles spread into what is now Galloway, establishing their own villages of Kelton and Gelston close to the long-established Brythonic village of Threave.

    Simon Brooke

    August 17, 2014 at 10:12 pm

  13. Hay I knew Scots like me were descended from an Egyptian Princess Scota-who may been King Tut’s sister, Vikings and Italians, but I had no idea that some Romans in Scotland were Syrians, I could be descended from Hama! This has to be one of the most interesting posts I have ever read. Robin do you know if these Syrians worshiped the Roman Gods or El-Gabal the Syrian Sun God who was worshiped by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus aka Heliogabalus?


    February 4, 2015 at 12:46 am

  14. As a Scot I knew that we are all descended from the Pharaohs, an Egyptian Princess called Scotha to where the word Scot come from and that most Brits are related to King Tut http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2022313/Up-70-British-men-related-Egyptian-Pharaoh-Tutankhamun.html.
    I also knew about Viking and Italian blood being in the gene pool but no idea my ancestors could be archers from Hama, yet another reason for me to love Syria! This has to be one of the most interesting pieces I have ever read.
    Robin just two questions 1) do you know if the Hawians archers worshiped the Roman Gods or El-Gabal -the Syrian Sun God worshiped by Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus aka Heliogabalus/Elagabalus?
    and 2) you called Barathes an Arab is that not an anachronism? Since isn’t an Arab someone who speaks Arabic and don’t Syrians spoke Arabic at that time?


    February 4, 2015 at 1:05 am

  15. It’s interesting that the fort at South Shields is called ‘place of the Arabs’ – even though the ‘boat men from the tigris’ based there probably didn’t speak arabic. ‘arab’ has various meanings. according to the arab nationalist definition, perhaps barathes was a ‘proto-arab’. he did speak aramaic, which is a semitic language so close to arabic it could even be thought of as a dialect. (the dialect of this language spoken by the quraish tribe in mecca, because the quran is written in it, became the standard, known as ‘arabic’)

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    February 4, 2015 at 11:56 am

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