Like so many other European churches, it’s built on the remains of an old pagan temple from the Roman times. The first Christian building on the site was founded by James I of Aragon (ruled 1213-1276) and donated to the Dominicans.
In the 15th century, the church was greatly refurbished, taking on a Gothic style and the addition of a rose window.
When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I barely noticed those medieval elements. They’re almost invisible next to the flamboyant Baroque frescoes covering the entire vault. Painted between 1690 and 1693 by Juan Pérez Castiel, these frescoes have been brilliantly restored in recent years.
The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.
Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.
It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.
In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.
All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.
A stained glass window using small bits of colored glass in a plaster
framework. Mosques and private houses also use this style of
decoration, although the mosques don’t include crosses, of course
While Egypt’s ancient civilization is the main draw for visiting the country, I find its medieval and modern history equally fascinating. Cairo is full of historic monuments. Minarets built a thousand years ago rise above the honking traffic, old houses from the Ottoman period are nestled in quiet back alleys, and a medieval citadel looks out over the city.
Many of Cairo’s most interesting historic sites are Christian. Early in Christian history, Egypt started a distinct tradition of worship that developed into what is now known as Coptic Christianity. The Coptic church traces its origins back to 50 AD, when Saint Mark visited the country and established the Church of Alexandria. The word “Copt” comes from the ancient Greek word for Egypt, “Aigyptos.”
The apse dome of the Basilica of San Vitale shows Christ enthroned, and looking very much like a Byzantine emperor
I’ve been posting a lot lately about my recent trip to Italy. The high point of the trip for me, indeed the travel high point of the year, was visiting Ravenna.
Ravenna has the best collection of Late Antique church art in the world. As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, Ravenna became the refuge for the last emperors and acted as the capital from 402 to 476 AD. Unlike the more exposed city of Rome, Ravenna was protected on all sides by swamps and was also a base for the Roman navy, making it easy to defend. It eventually fell into Germanic hands but became Roman once again when it served as the Exarchate for the Byzantine Empire from 540 to 751 AD. The Exarch was the representative of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and ruled over portions of Italy. Ravenna has a rich collection of religious buildings constructed by the Romans, Christian Ostrogoths, and Byzantines.
The Church of St. George, cut into the bedrock at Lalibela
Last week I discussed the unique blend of Baroque and Abyssinian styles that created the Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia. I’ve also written on the splendid ancient civilization of Axum in the same country. But Ethiopia has a lot more to offer than that. The most famous historic sites, and certainly the most impressive, are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
In the late 12th century, much of what is now northern and central Ethiopia was under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. Ethiopia had been Christian since 330 AD and had developed its own liturgy, practices, and traditions. Like with all other Christian lands, many Ethiopians dreamed of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For some time this was possible, although it involved a long trek overland to catch a boat on the Red Sea, then another trek across the desert to get to the holy cities. But as the Crusades turned the Holy Land into a battleground, it turned a difficult journey into an impossible one. The rulers of the Zagwe dynasty came up with a unique solution.
The building in this photo looks a bit strange. It appears European but also has a style uniquely its own. One might be excused for thinking that this is European Colonial architecture in some far-off colony, but in fact it was built by one of Ethiopia’s most anti-colonial emperors.
The Emperor Fasiladas reigned from 1632 to 1667 and was a strong ruler right from the start. Like the Merovingian kings and the Moroccan sultans, Fasiladas had to contend with powerful noble families who had close connections to their local tribes and clans. Ethiopian emperors would spend much of their time in the saddle, going on “visits” to their provinces with large armies in tow.
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.
As Tartary Burns is the debut novel by Riley Hogan and is newly published by Airship 27. Calling the novel pulp fiction isn’t completely accurate. Hogan finds himself in the same position as the standout talents of the pulp world of the 1920s and 1930s who were published in the pulps, but whose prose was more polished and literate than most of their peers to the degree that it seems an oversight they were passed up by the slicks. Many of those talents today are recognized as having lasting literary value. So it is with As Tartary Burns, an ambitious fast-paced historical adventure that presents an alternate history of the Cossacks, Ottomans, and Crimeans.
Hogan’s book has been likened to Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. One reviewer suggests comparison to the film Braveheart. I felt it read like a stream-lined Game of Thrones with the explicit sex and language excised. Hogan is possessed not only of an obvious passion for history, but a pride in the culture, folklore, and religion of these people to the degree that one wonders if it is his own heritage. His reshaping of world events makes one curious if he plans not so much a conventional follow-up, but rather an expanding alternate history of the world set in different epochs.