This slim book, a mere 140 small-format pages of text, has heroic aims. Its author wishes not only to disentangle the vicissitudes over two centuries of the wartorn, relatively fertile southwestern portion of the Arabian peninsula (the Himyar of antiquity, today’s Yemen), but also to reconstruct the political and religious circumstances from which Muhammad’s creed emerged to transform the adjacent world. In sharp contrast to these vast ambitions, the evidence – in Ge’ez, Greek, Hebrew and Sabaic inscriptions and texts – is scant and fragmentary. Yet G W Bowersock amply achieves his aims in a most elegant fashion. He starts with the discoveries at Adulis, a port city on the Gulf of Zula in Eritrea that served Axum, capital of the Ethiopian kingdom, which was the southern outpost of Christianity (and, at various times, of the Greek-language world, as its coins and inscriptions attest). Excavations at Adulis have uncovered a variety of structures and artefacts but not the throne of the book’s title, which was not actually a seat but rather a votive monument – some thirty others have survived – on which a text was inscribed to record a ruler’s achievements and victories.
The text of the throne’s inscription survived in Christian Topography, a sixth-century travelogue and survey of the trade routes and ports of the Indian Ocean and much else, all remarkably reliable. Conventionally attributed to Cosmas Indicopleustes (the equivalent of Joe the Indian traveller), its author was a Nestorian Christian educated