The author of The Road from Damascus visits Hadrian's Wall for an encounter with Britain's Middle Eastern history.
On the empire's edge
Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian's Wall is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the wall at black clouds building over the ruins of Housesteads Fort, which lies at its midpoint. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly upwards. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one who came 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 from 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, and into Northumberland. At Greenhead we left the main road and joined the old Stanegate, 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 midpoint 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 AD122. 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 more than 117km, 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. Visiting the wall is an easy day trip from Newcastle, Edinburgh or Manchester. The Housesteads visitor centre has imitation Roman clothing to help children imagine themselves back through the millennia, and Ibrahim had soon transformed 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 cafe 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 Barathes, an itinerant Syrian merchant, 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 to get from Housesteads to Corbridge. The old Stanegate road used to end here, at the fort built in AD79 when Emperor Agricola was campaigning into Scotland. But Corbridge was more town than fort; there were temples, markets and an aqueduct 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 cafe 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 - 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 al-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 1,800 years. But I can't claim that Regina was an Englishwoman 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 Catuvellauni, 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.