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 glass walkway allows you to get inside the temple without touching it. You are then treated to a rather cheesy sound and light show.
London is a massive city with 2,000 years of history behind it. It’s hard to tell these days, but the banking and financial center of it all, with its frantic building, insider wheeling and dealing, and massive cocaine consumption, is actually the oldest neighborhood. This center of commerce is called “the City”, and its area corresponds to the Roman city of Londinium, founded around 43 AD.
Not much has survived the centuries, just a section of the original city wall and a few traces in the cellars of later buildings. In 1954, however, a subterranean temple was found that belongs to one of the ancient empire’s foremost mystery religions — Mithraism. Little is known for certain about this religion since its rites were private and most written accounts are by early Christians seeking to destroy the faith.
The cult centered around worship of the god Mithras, who originated in Persia. One common scene in Mithraic iconography shows Mithras being born out of a rock, and this may be why his temple, called a mithraeum, is generally located underground. It was a secretive religion that only accepted men, and this is one of the reasons it eventually lost out to the more inclusive Christianity.
Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns as a protection against witches. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, date unknown (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum showcases 180 real-life magical items.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft explores the history of magic from the early modern era to the present day through objects ranging from Renaissance crystal balls to folk charms against witchcraft. It looks at basic human needs such as fear of death and desire for love, and how people have used magic to try to get what they need.
The exhibition also turns the question of magic and superstition back on the viewer. In the entrance hallway, you are invited to step under a ladder or go around it. The museum is counting how many people dare to tempt fate. I did, and I hope they post the statistics when the exhibition is over!
Some very bling shabtis from the 18th dynasty tomb of Yuya and Thuya
We all know the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death. What with their elaborate spells, mummification, and tomb preparations, you’d think that the Egyptian afterlife would be one big vacation. After all that preparation they deserved a bit of rest.
Not so. The gods subjected the deceased to all sorts of jobs and obligations. The afterlife was just like our world, where all the usual cultivation and manufacturing had to be done. If you didn’t want to spend eternity doing manual labor, you needed to have some hired help.
Phoenician bling.Jewelry found in the Phoenician cemetery dating from the 5th to 2nd centuries BC. The finds include many imports, even amulets of Horus and Sekhmet from as far away as Egypt
Europe is known for its ancient cities, with many dating to Roman or even pre-Roman times. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe is Cádiz, on the southwestern coast of Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar. It has been a city since at least Phoenician times and has been of crucial importance to the region ever since.
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.”
This week’s destruction of the temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, has brought the Islamic State’s brutality into the international spotlight once again, just like they wanted it to. I’m grateful that at least I got to see the place before it was destroyed. I’ve written about it in my post Memories of Palmyra before ISIS.
Palmyra isn’t just a unique archaeological site, it’s strategically important too. Located at a crossroads in eastern Syria, from there it’s possible for ISIS to supply all their operations in that sector, including their push for the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Oxford is a popular destination in England thanks to its famous university and fine architecture, which includes a rare Saxon tower. What’s less well-known is the pleasant stroll along the River Isis two miles down to Iffley village. The walk will take you past the university boathouses, a pasture, an excellent pub, and some fine river views. Just past the pub, you’ll come across a lock and bridge taking you to a small village that contains one of the best-preserved Norman churches anywhere.
St. Mary’s Iffley Church was built c.1170-80 in the High Romanesque style. Early in its history, ownership passed from the local lord to an absentee lord. This distant owner continued to maintain the church, but did little to “improve” it, thus leaving it in much its original state.