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.
Last week I blogged about the fantastic Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy. That’s only one of several fine examples of Late Antique art in the city and only one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites there.
Another is the Arian Baptistry, built by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great at the end of the 5th century. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, following a creed that believed that Christ was distinct from, and subordinate to, God the Father. This is because Christ did not always exist but was created by God the Father. More orthodox Christians at the time believed that Christ was both human and divine but was one and equal to God the Father. Theodoric had both types of Christians in his kingdom and to avoid trouble, kept them in separate neighborhoods with separate houses of worship
Ancient Egypt is famous for its elaborate religion with a multitude of deities and an obsession with the afterlife. While there have been many exhibitions on ancient Egyptian religion, it’s rare to see one that traces Egypt’s transformation from a land that was mostly pagan to one that was mostly Christian, then mostly Muslim, with a strong tradition of Judaism running through it.
Now a major exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, uses about 200 objects to explore the history of religion in this fascinating country. The first gallery emphasizes that Egypt still has a sizeable Christian community. While that community has been targeted by extremists in recent years, there is also a large amount of cooperation between the two faiths. Photos from the Arab Spring show Christians making a protective ring around Muslims as they pray, and the Muslims returning the favor around churches on Sunday. The Western media tend to skip these stories of tolerance for more ratings-friendly tales of bloodshed, thus giving a skewed picture of the situation. As one of my old newspaper editors said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”