Home > Books, Byzantium, Late Antiquity > Temples and Churches

Temples and Churches

image This past weekend, I read V.N. Makrides’ Hellenic Temples and Christian Churches: A Concise History of the Religious Cultures of Greece from Antiquity to the Present (New York 2009), and I did it graduate school style, cover-to-cover in a couple of days.  The book was pointed out to me by a colleague and I immediately saw how the diachronic scope of the work might resonate with my own diachronic study of dreams as a religious phenomenon.  The first part of the book is a pretty superficial survey of the interaction between Hellenic ideas and Christian ideas across the broad span of Greek history.  I wasn’t overly impressed with this survey which said little that was new, but it would be a nice complement to a Greek history class in that it touches on many of the key points of conflict.  In fact, class many years ago, when I taught my Greek history, which considered Greek history from the Neolithic to the Modern period, I was looking for exactly this kind of book to help me integrate and problematize the legacy of the ancient world within the modern, Christian nation.  The appearance of a book like this, in English, from an American press, suggests that there might be a growing market for not only the study of modern Greece, but also the an approach to the entire span of Greek history that views understanding the modern nation-state as an indispensable part of any study of the ancient world.

The real value in this book comes from the second part where Makrides addresses some of the same that I am dealing with in my dream project.  He had to find a way to explain clear parallels in religious expression overtime without falling back on tired arguments for the continuity of Greek culture.  To do this, he argues that Greeks over time consciously engaged in an intertextual reading of their religious past, selecting certain modes of expression (whether Hellenic or Christian) to suit particular strategic goals.  He presents these various strategies in a series of chapters which focus on the various strategies at play: Antithesis, Thesis, Conflict; Selection, Transformation, Synthesis; Symbiosis, Mixture, Fusion; Individuality, Distinctiveness, Idiosyncrasy.  This chapters demonstrate an impressive ability to understand a wide range of area of religious conflict ranging from clashes between Christians and Pagans in Late Antiquity to the politics of the Orthodox church under Ottoman rule to the church’s role in modern conflicts with secularizing forces within the Greek state and society.  The only thing that I really wished for was for Makrides to make more clear the link between a particular strategy and a particular situation.  In other words, were there patterns in how and when Greeks (broadly construed) deployed various religious strategies through time?  G. Jusdanis, Belated Modernity (Minneapolis 1991), for example, has made clear that modern Greece’s engagement with the modern was not random, but selective and strategic. 

The other curious weakness in the book is the lack of any sustained conversation about archaeology.  Archaeology in Greece has long played on both nationalist, but also religious impulses within Greek society.  Moreover, archaeologists often express the vocation of archaeology in religious terms.  Makrides acknowledges this with a quote from Yiannis Sakellarakis who considered his “higher calling ” to be “a hunter of the mystical continuity of place.” (229)  Y. Hamilakis recent work The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford 2007) dealt with some of these matters specifically. 

Preserving and producing the archaeology of the Hellenic past not infrequently involved overwriting the history of Byzantine and Christian Greece.  Foreign archaeologists destroyed numerous churches in search of inscriptions or Classical buildings. Major, recurring restoration projects like those on the Parthnon on the Athenian Acropolis have likewise eliminated traces of Christian antiquity in an effort to preserve an more authentic expression of a Classical ideal.  As a rule, Byzantine , Ottoman, and Early Modern (19th c.) monuments, many of which remain deeply embedded within the physical and ritual fabrics of communities have far less protection from the Greek state.  The physical manifestations of the conflict between Hellenic and Christian ideals within the Greek state is particularly crucial in an archaeological context because ancient, Hellenic monuments represent the most visible face of the nation to foreign visitors and in tourist, popular, and academic publications.  Historically Greece has catered to the interest of foreign visitors in this regard and suppressed or overlooked aspects of Greece’s Christian identity which nevertheless played a key role in its national development. 

Despite this missed opportunity, Makrides book is well worth reading! In particular, his emphasis on the persistent religious plurality in Greek society serves as a useful reminder to all states that romanticized and idealized images of a religious and culturally homogeneous past are almost always false.  Greece like so many Mediterranean countries has a long history of diverse forms of religious expression both within their Christian community, but also outside of it.  Thus, in his final analysis, part of the Christian and Hellenic legacy of Greece is the ability to respond to religious diversity through a variety of strategies and this is as good a thing for scholars of the past as it is for modern society.

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  1. Rangar Cline
    January 20, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Bill,
    I’m not sure if you are still blogging about winter break reading. But, in case you are, my reading included Kimberly Bowes, _Public Worship, Private Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity_, which (I think) provides a useful model for integrating textual sources and archaeological data in its analysis of religious change and authority in the late Roman countryside and urban center.
    -R

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