On the strength of a BMCR review, I spent the last few days reading Laura Salah Nasrallah’s Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture. (Cambridge 2010). The book juxtaposes the works of several 2nd c. Christian “apologists” (Tatian, Justin, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria) and the space of the Roman empire. To do this, she parallels the texts with specific places within the Roman world (e.g. the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias or the Trajans forum) or specific works of art (e.g. statues of Commodus as Herakles or the Aphrodite of Knidos). Both the texts, the space, and the works of art themselves fall significantly outside my area of expertise. The approach, on the other hand, which assumes that texts are no more or nor less products of the same culture that produced understandable spaces and statues within the Roman world represents a significant interest to me.
In particular, I was intrigued by how Nasrallah used these texts as evidence for Christian response to the built environment of the Roman world. Of course, this response was, to a certain extent, constructed by the author’s decision to juxtapose particular texts with particular environments (see the BMCR review for this observation), but, at the same time, the move to compare texts and monuments in a way that shed light on critical readings of built space was, to me at least, novel. The alienated (or at least conflicted) posture of figures like Tatian when positioned opposite the imperial rhetoric of the Sebasteion is particular striking and reminds me of John Clarke’s more speculative approach to the reading of Trajan’s column in his Art in the lives of Ordinary Romans (Berkeley 2003) or some of the essays in J. Elsner’s Roman Eyes (Princeton 2007).
My impression is that Nasrallah’s use of texts was a convenient concession to traditional practices in art and architectural history and archaeology of the Classical World that continues to imagine texts as the point of departure for rigorous analysis of meaning and space. When pushed a step further to deal exclusively with built environments in places uninformed by robust textual sources, the assumption that spaces can accommodate a wide range of viewers (including those bent on resisting, subverting, or even co-opting “intended messages”) becomes decidedly more foggy. As the BMCR review noted, even Nasrallah moves cautiously in many cases when she enters into relationship between the act of reading a text and the act of reading a space or monument; the author is more willing to leave the texts juxtaposed than to bring out opportunities for mutual critique.
In my recent work on the monumental spaces of Justinianic Corinth (it is, on my blog, all about me, of course), I’ve had to confront a similar tension not between texts, but between monuments. I shared Nasrallah’s assumption that it is possible to recover the resistance and critique of the built environment through juxtaposing different types of texts; for Corinth, however, these texts are not the literary (or even really epigraphical kind), but other roughly contemporary monuments. Like Nasrallah and her authors, I have done what I can to understand the act of building as a response to particular (and maybe recoverable) activities within the physical environment. But this reading of the relationship between buildings captures only one response within a monumentalized discourse in the landscape. The ongoing dialog between experiences across the landscape continuously reinscribed monumental places with meanings and presented opportunities for resistance. The decision whether to resist, to critique, or to accept the meanings produced through the productive juxtaposition of places in the landscape returns agency to the viewer and undermines the power traditionally located in imperialist policies.
Nasrallah’s book provides a model for discerning the act of viewing within the Roman empire by expanding the notion of place to include texts which she demonstrates function according to a similar logic as monuments in the landscape. By resisting the urge to offer definitive or rigid relationships between various more or less contemporary spaces within the ancient world, she resists the temptation to extend a valuable analysis of ways of viewing to specific acts of viewing. In doing so, she both unpacks the act of viewing (and responding to) ancient art and architecture, and allows it to persist as an essentially ambiguous phenomenon resistant to even our most deeply positivist desire to essentialize.
On the recommendation of Phyllis Graham (archaeological librarian/archaeologist extraordinary), I picked up Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism. It was officially the last book of my summer reading season, and it left me with much food for thought.
In particular, the book brought into focus the influence of modernism on archaeological practice outside of the context of the archaeology of nationalism where the most pronounced tendencies of modernist paradigms tend to appear. This was useful to me in three ways. First, it helped me understand what I meant when I quipped that the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis might be one of the most modern archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. In saying this, I didn’t simply mean that the temple set atop the “sacred rock” lacked obvious ties to the past (they had been stripped away gradually over the course of numerous intellectual, archaeological, and architectural reconstructions), but that it forms the center point of a whole range of irrational feelings ranging from expressions of passionate nationalism to transferred affections of poets and thinkers ranging from Henry Miller to Freud. Gere makes a compelling case for the place of Arthur Evans’ Knossos in the modernist imagination by going well beyond the excavator’s fantastic reconstructions to the sometimes dizzying thought-world that the palace and its Minoan inhabitants evoked across Europe.
Second, the book pushed me again to return to my rather unformed work on Dream Archaeology. In particular, Gere’s arguments has encouraged me to return to some of my episodes of Dream Archaeology in the 20th century and consider their relationship to the modernist moment in archaeology (for more on Dream Archaeology see here and here). This will likely go back to Freud and also to the modernist movement in Greece, since some of my Dream Archaeologists are Greek. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Gere’s book deals very little with modernism in a Greek context — outside the almost requisite reference to Kazantzakis — and it would have been interesting to see how Greek intellectuals engaged Evans’ work on Knossos.) I will certainly have to press Kostis Kourelis to read Gere’s book and chat with him at the Modern Greek Studies Association meeting this fall about how Angellos Tanagras fits into a broader modernist movement which sought to bridge the gap between the rational and irrational and, in the process, validate the experience of a distinctly Greek past in the language of an pan-European intellectual movement. Tanagras work to understand the power of seemingly “supernatural” Greek folk practices, like the evil eye or malevolent dreams, within a psychoanalytical perspective represents a kind of Greek counterpoint to Evans’ mystical engagement with the site of Knossos.
Finally, Gere’s work is going to take me back to Kourelis’ “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth 1920s-1930s” to explore again how the broader modernist movement made room for the emergence of Byzantine and Early Christian archaeology within Greece. Modernisms rejection of the overly-rationalistic Christianity of Western Protestantism must have led some to seek spiritual satisfaction in the familiar, yet challenging experiences of mystical Byzantine and Early Christian thought just as Evans took refuge in the world of the ancient Minoans.
In the context of Gere’s work, A. Orlandos, perhaps the most important archaeologist of the Athenian Acropolis and a scholar who reported without comment on an episode of Dream archaeology, makes a little more sense.
A second post today, but be sure to read today’s main post. I was chatting with our Department Chair, Kim Porter, in her former office and couldn’t help but notice this on the back of a bookshelf:
She had asked Gordon Iseminger about it and he suggested that it might have been done by Charles Carter. His speciality was Near Eastern Languages, with a particular focus on the Hittites, but he worked to identify and translate the fragmentary hieroglyphics inscription held by the University Archives. It could have also been done by either of the subsequent ancient historians at the University of North Dakota: Linda Ricketts who wrote her dissertation on Ptolemaic Egypt or Walter Ellis, my immediate predecessor, who also worked on the same period.
So what does it say?
Is it a curse on anyone who dares to move the Department of History?
Chuck Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, Near Easternist, and digital librarian extraordinary, identified the drawing as “a sketch of one of the reliefs at Yazilikayathis which depicted Tudhalyia IV in the embrace of his god”:
And thought that it was likely to be Charles Carter’s work.
Every couple of years, I get asked to talk about the historical Jesus. While this falls toward the ragged fringes of my expertise, in most communities where I have lived, there simply aren’t very many historians who think about the pre-modern Mediterranean. Consequently, for some folks, the 5th century AD (or so) looks about a good as 1st century BC/AD. Today, I am talking in the Joint Campus Ministry Association’s Theology for Lunch series. Apparently, there will a free lunch (soup!!) on offer.
I’ll have 20 minutes to present something, and after that there will be about 20 minutes for conversation. Since I don’t know the group, I am going to try to present a fairly broad perspective on the topic hoping that the discussion will lead to specific areas of interest to the group. The basic argument that I’ll make is that the “historical” Jesus has meant different things to different people through time. In fact, the historical Jesus could as easily mean the view of Jesus using any number of historical methods and epistemological perspectives as the view of Jesus as a unified “historical” artifact with well-defined features derived from some kind of “scientific” study. This will lead me to focus, then, on the key role of context — both ancient and modern — in understanding how various historical (and other interpretive) regimes generated a Jesus who was meaningful to specific groups, situations, and individuals, but nevertheless sufficiently coherent to be enduring and recognizable.
To reinforce this somewhat, I’ll spend the second 10 minutes of the talk preparing a (very) basic sketch of the cultural, political, and religious life Roman Mediterranean in order to provide at least one perspective on the context for the New Testament texts. But I will emphasize that simply placing Jesus in his ancient context does not necessarily produce a more “historically accurate” depiction of Jesus “the man”. In fact, placing Jesus in an ancient context runs the risk of impoverishing the great diversity and brilliance of the Christian traditions which created meaningful images of Jesus throughout the ages. Just as the ancient writers created a Jesus that was meaningful in their context, subsequent generations have contributed their own perspectives on the founder of Christianity.
If post-modern approaches to the past have taught us anything, it is to celebrate the plurality of meaning in the historical record. In the context of the historical Jesus, this opens the door to finding significance in a aspects of the historical figure of Jesus that might have been obscured by accretions of time, scholarly or popular neglect, or the overwhelming pressure of contemporary approaches and concerns. In fact, Christians often observe that Jesus is a figure who transcends time and context. By looking at Jesus historically — that is through the eyes of history as a dynamic discipline as well as through time — we have the chance to recognize Jesus in ways that destabilize our expectations, challenge our assumptions, and renews faith.
But I am an amateur. For a professional, check out Phil Harland’s awesome blog: Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. It’s the Bentley of Ancient Christianity Blogs with a spec-ta-cu-lar series of podcasts on The Historical Jesus in Context.
The regular readers of this blog know that I have an emerging interest in dreams with a focus on the relationship between religion (particularly the phenomenon of inventio) and archaeology in Greece. Even more specifically, I’ve thought a bit about the different (but related) roles that predictive dreams played in disciplines influenced by the early 20th century modernist discourse. For example, religiously inspired dreams appear occasionally in otherwise highly “scientific” archaeological reports and seem to have led the discovery of specific artifacts (relics!), buildings, or features. This intersection of religious dream and scientific archaeology allowed the scientific discourse of archaeology to bridge the gap, if just momentarily, and create a space where it was possible to reconcile long standing religious phenomenon and “empirical” arguments. This space, in turn, played a part in the creation of nationalist discourses which typically accommodated by mystical and scientific bases for national identities.
I’ve also suggested that the role of predictive dreams in anthropological discourse (as well as the scientific discipline of laography (or folklore studies)) was similar, although these dreams tended to be stripped of religious power and transformed into artifacts of continuity between Greek folk and their ancient and Byzantine predecessors.
Finally, I have noted that dreams have a significant place in the field of psychoanalysis and in Freud’s works, most notably his Interpretation of Dreams. Freudian thought was, of course, characteristic of modernism and sought to place the unconscious mind of firmer “scientific” footing. It appears that Freudian ideas first circulated in Greece during the third decade of the 20th century and among the first generation of Greeks to explore Freud’s ideas was Angelos Tanagras (P. Hartocolis, “A Letter from Greece,” Journal of American Pschoanalytic Association 48 (2000), 675).
I spent yesterday afternoon reading through A. Tanagras, Psychophysical Elements in Parapsychological Traditions (New York 1967) on the recommendation of a colleague. Originally published as La Destin et la Change in 1930, this book sought to integrate Freudian psychological analysis and research into the parapsychological phenomenon ranging from telekinetics to telepathy and clairvoyance. Dreams feature prominently in his book — including dreams that lead to the discovery of lost objects. Tanagras, following much early 20th century parapsychological research, attempts to argue that the mind can control the material world through not only the power of suggestion but also the manipulation of subatomic particles. His arguments are based upon numerous interviews and sworn testimony of members of the Greek bourgeoisie (doctors, lawyers, newspaper editors, bankers and the like) and interlaced with a strongly Freudian understanding of mind. In fact, it appears that the unconscious was every bit as powerful — if not more so — as the conscious mind in its ability to manipulate and influence the material world. It is worth noting that Tanagras makes an effort to apply the principles of parapsychology to “evil eye” — the practice of cursing an individual through a jealous gaze and a common phenomenon in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean folk traditions.
While Tanagras does not deal with archaeological dreams specifically, his research follows a now well-trod path of attempting to explain and accommodate “supernatural” or even religious phenomena within the emerging (and expanding) scientific discourse. Efforts to validate scientifically the “folk” traditions in a Greek context — whether by categorizing them as persistent remnants of ancient practices or through juxtaposing religiously inspired dreams and empirical discoveries or establishing a scientific basis for supernatural phenomenon — worked to create the foundation for a modern society which stood close to the center of the emerging discourse of nationalism in a Greek context (for a more subtle reading of this complex process see : J. Faubion, Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism. (Princeton 1993).)
For more on Tanagras, check out Kostis Kourelis excellent post!
Kostis has contributed more to the link between Tanagras and archaeology including the relationship between the renowned archaeologist A. Philadelpheus and Tanagras. Philadelpheus apparently dedicated his Monuments of Athens to Tanagras. Even more interesting is that Tanagras has an autobiography with a copy at the Elliot Garrett Parapsychology Foundation Library.
More brilliant blogging by Kostis Kourelis on Tanagras, parapsychology, and archaeology.
By chance, I stumbled upon a rather recent article by Kim Bowes in a relatively new journal called Religion Compass: “Early Christian Archaeology: A State of the Field“. It just so happened that I was looking (weakly) for just such an article to frame an informal reading that I plan to conduct this spring on “Space, Ritual, and Text in Late Antiquity” (or some variation). It’s a nice survey of the odd beast that is Early Christian Archaeology. Bowes concludes that the field is becoming increasingly attuned to he relationship between text and archaeology (although not attuned enough to delve very deeply or confidently with the standard tools of textual interpretation used by scholars elsewhere in the humanities (p. 578-579)). At the same time she also detects a growing interest in the economies of Early Christian material culture especially the influence of Christian ways of thinking on practices of euergetism in the Mediterranean world. I devoted a substantial part of a chapter to this in my dissertation, so it was nice to see that my ideas fell within general trends in the field.
This article has much to recommend it as a broad overview of the discipline. There are, however, several areas where Bowes missed an interesting chance to consider the broader significance of the field of Early Christian Archaeology. After all, it is relatively unusual that a field exists that studies a particular type of archaeological material, Christian material, in the context of a master narrative (presumably the development and spread of Christianity) that no longer asserts an exclusively “totalizing” discourse. That is to say, most scholars who study Early Christian material do not necessarily regard the spread of Christianity or its development to be the central narrative to their own research, much less the study of the past more broadly. While one could point out that archaeologist who study the Classical period rarely make explicit claim to the narrative assumptions implicit in the notion of a Classical period (right?), this term has become somewhat (if not problematically) generic in defining a particular date range (say 480-338 BC) of material.
The term Early Christian, however, does not stake as strong a claim to particular date range and, in fact, represents just one of any number of overlapping terms to describe the 3rd-8th centuries A.D. (Although it is worth pointing out that in some circles the notion of Early Christianity can extend back to the 1st century AD. This, I think, genuinely reflects differing interpretations of the origins and development of Christianity. As far as I know, no one pushes the Classical period back to 7th century (which is different from saying that developments in the 7th century did not influence institutions of the Classical period).) I tend to tell people that I study Late Antiquity or the Late Roman period, although my dissertation title refers to “Early Christian Greece”. In some quarters I might even refer to some Early Christian material as Early Byzantine. There is even the shifty and confusing term “Dark Ages” which refers to the 7th and 8th centuries that could also be Late Antique or (and I am making this up to some degree) Late Early Christian.
Silliness aside, each of these terms imply master narratives that exert a lingering influence on the perception, overarching questions, and basic organization of the fields. For example, Early Christian archaeology clearly assumes that the religious development of Christianity can be extracted, to some extent, as an independent variable from its broader historical and archaeological context. While one can hardly dispute the significance of Christianity in the history of the west, one wonders whether the notion of a specific Early Christian archaeology remains a viable approach to understanding the past.
These comments should not be regarded as a critique of Bowes fine article. In fact, she demonstrates that the field of Early Christian archaeology is far from isolated or parochial in its approach to the past and, moreover, quite aware of its baggage as a field. What was a bit striking, however, is that she did not really engage much with the sticky question of the archaeology of religion in a general sense. The material culture of ritual activities, iconography, holy places, much less belief itself have a far more contested discourse both within the specific field of Early Christian archaeology (how can you be sure that the people were Christian?) and within the field of archaeology more broadly. One of the key powers of an Early Christian archaeology is its ability to force archaeologists to problematize religion (and its myriad manifestations) as a category of archaeological analysis in general. Bowes touches upon some of these things in her article — noting the difficulty in identifying monastic establishments (598-602), the archaeological ephemeral nature of of house churches (579-582), and the religious ambiguity of the catacombs (582-586) — but does not really engage the significance of this debate. If Christianity (and religion more generally) ends up being a relatively unimportant (or invisible) component in the material assemblage marking individual identity in Late Antiquity, where does that leave the discipline of Early Christian archaeology?
In the most recent fascicule of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies Nassos Papalexandrou offers a short study on the mosque of Hala Sultan Tekke outside of Larnaka (N. Papalexandrou, ” Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus: An Elusive Landscape of Sacredness in a Liminal Context,” JMGS 26 (2008) 251–281). Our team at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project visits the site every year, and I was regularly embarrassed by how little I knew of this impressive, picturesque, and curious site. Papalexandrou’s article includes many interesting observations on the site, particularly from the perspective of early travelers, and I was vaguely heartened to learn how little people actually know. His article sought to contextualize the monument within the dynamic religious landscape of the Larnaka area in the early modern period. This is a valuable addition to our understanding of the religious landscape of Larnaka as well as a valuable methodological experiment as Papalexandrou sought to imagine a past for the mosque as a counterpoint to potentially simplistic observations made largely by non-local travelers or visitors with particular ideological or religious perspectives. Papalexandrou captures the ambivalence of sites like Hala Sultan Tekke by placing them within the shifting context of historical change, religious attitudes, and varying perspectives of textual sources.
This article will definitely appear among our regular reading for PKAP, in part because it offers a nice method for reading the dynamic religious landscape of Larnaka today. To Papalexandrou’s thorough reading, I can add five additional observations:
1) Papalexandrou rightly highlighted the various polarities that enveloped the mosque of Hala Sultan Teke. The main polarity in the context of this mosque was the distinct Christian and Muslim religious places. But his resistance to polarities could be extended to very notion of well defined sacred and profane places within the landscape. It may be that the concept of “holiness” works better in a pre-modern world. It is clear, for example, that Hala Sultan Tekke was a holy spot in a very rich sacred landscape. The Larnaka Salt Lake itself, for example, formed part of a sacred landscape as it origins were deeply embedded in Christian miracle stories. The nearby Stavrovouni, “Cross Mountain”, amplified the sanctity of the monastery on its peak which held the fragment of the True Cross given by St. Helena. So, as Papalexandrou demonstrates, the mosque itself is not just a sacred place (in a profane world) but a holy place in a landscape where the profane was not only absent, but unlike to exist at all.
2) Papalexandrou brings out the liminal nature of the mosque. One of the standard stories told at the mosque today is how Muslim ship captains would fire off their cannons when they came in sight of the mosque as a sign of respect. Today, the mosque is situated on the main road from the Larnanka airport (the main airport in the Republic of Cyprus) to the city of Larnaka. Thus the mosque continues to stand in a liminal place as it appears not only on the outskirts of the city of Larnaka but between the city and the airport (a site often reserved in other places for all kinds of transient and marginal activities: storage, traveler’s hotels, duty-free zones, maintenance, et c.). The liminality of the site is further echoed by the nearby Bronze Age site of the same name which has been regarded as an important ancient harbor. Thus, the more recent mosque is situated within a landscape of liminality that stretches from antiquity to the modern period.
3) Papalexandrou did not mention that behind the mosque and its elaborate grave is a tree bedecked with strips of cloth (these are sometimes called “Wishing Trees”). This traditional Eastern Mediterranean practice dates to antiquity and is exactly the kind of religious practice that transcends simple polarities between Christian and Muslim, sacred and profane, formal ritual and informal practices. In fact, the same practice occurs at the site of Throni tis Panayia in the Troodos mountains and is sometimes associated with the grave of the Archbishop Makarios (a polarizing figure).
4) In the city of Larnaka, the church of Ay. Lazaros and the nearby mosque of Büyük Cami both have interesting relationships with the kinds of polarities that Papalexandrou sought to explore in the narrative of Hala Sultan Tekke. In the case of Ay. Lazaros, the church functioned as a Catholic monastery during the Frankish rule on the island (another tradition has that it was used by the local Armenian Uniate population) before functioning perhaps only briefly as a mosque and then being returned to Orthodox population. Even then, the Orthodox and local Catholic population had an agreement to share the building during various times of the month (this phenomenon is recorded by various travelers). Less than 200 m toward the coast the Büyük Cami mosque preserves a tradition of similar religious ambiguity. Several guides claim that the building was the former church of the Holy Cross. While this is possible, there is no obvious evidence of this transformation form the architecture of the building. A guess would be that this story developed as much from the traditions of religious ambivalence characteristic of holy sites within Larnaka as any real evidence for the building’s transformation. Similar stories occur regularly for the location of Early Christian churches on former pagan holy sites.
5) The final, interesting aspect of the Hala Sultan Tekke site is that its restoration was funded by USAID and UNDP. The funding of projects like the restoration of the mosque is not without political overtones. The careful preservation and restoration of a Muslim site in the Republic of Cyprus could easily be read in contrast to the reported looting and destruction of Christian churches in the north. It serves as a useful reminder that polarities of the type described by Papalexandrou are, indeed, politically constructed.