Denise O’Hagan reviews: From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium by Mario Baghos
As its title suggests, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities traces the history of Christian Byzantium through a meticulous examination of the origins of specific ancient cities, and the symbolic import of their art and monuments as perceived by their rulers or kings. To this end, Dr Baghos takes us on a detailed and highly evocative journey through the ancient cities, beginning in Mesopotamia, reputedly seat of the oldest cultures in the world, then travelling through Egypt, Greece, Israel and ultimately to Rome and Constantinople (or ‘new Rome’, as it was called).
Various texts, both popular and academic, have of course been written on the history of these famous places, as well as on the function and nature of religious art in history. What distinguishes this book, however, is first its insistence on the innate religiosity of these early civilisations as revealed by their symbolism; and second how the gradually evolving nature of that symbolism mirrored the transformation of the ancient, pagan world away from the worship of multiple gods and notions of divine kingship towards Christianity, culminating in the image of Christ as Pantokrator (or ‘Master of All’), analysed and set in context in the concluding chapters.
The concept of the ancient city being seen as intersecting three realms – the celestial realm, the earthly realm and the underworld – and being built with the express purpose of reflecting this, is explored; so too is the desire of ancient rulers to create centres and images of the world (axes mundi and imagines mundi) and surround their citizens by a vision of the cosmos in which, amongst other things, the sacred was revealed. Parallels emerge not only between the creation stories spanning the various cultures and eras, but also in the concept of axes mundi as exemplified in the city of Eridu in Mesopotamia, the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Mount Helicon and Delphi in Greece, the Roman Forum, Horeb/Sinai in Israel, and ultimately Christ Himself in Rome and Constantinople.
The tendency of ancient rulers to identify themselves as divine is teased out. Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, as well as some Roman rulers, such as Augustus, designated themselves as embodiments of the gods, much like the earlier Akkadian kings. We learn how a leaning towards idolatry was gradually displaced by Christianity which placed Christ and the Saints firmly in the forefront of worship and veneration, as well as many intriguing insights such as how early Christians appropriated aspects of sun worship by depicting Him in a crown associated with the sun god, Sol Invictus.
Particularly fascinating is the careful peeling back of contextualised historical layers and comparisons drawn between ancient cities, designed by their rulers to express a religious view of the cosmos and provide focus and inspiration for its citizens, and our modern cities, whose most prominent and significant buildings symbolise a primarily materialistic purpose, one of the less attractive legacies of the capitalist system. I cannot help but make the stark comparison between James Packer’s hugely expensive glassy edifice which punctures the Sydney skyline – a monument to commercialism (and even more contentiously, gambling) – with the domes defining the horizon of Rome, or the soaring spires of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Such speculations ensure that this is not a book we simply read and put down; to the contrary, it stays with us and challenges us existentially, inviting us to turn the spotlight on our own more secular era and most deeply held values, including our relationship with Nature.
Critically, the original meaning of the word ‘symbol’ is explained as ‘to throw together’ and become ‘inseparable’ (Definitions, p. xxvi). Thus, in the ancient world a symbol was not an empty sign of something else, but an actual participant in what it signified. This is important, because in our modern world symbolism has, with notable exceptions (such as the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation), been largely stripped of its active function. Grasping the origins of the concept of symbolism is essential to a full appreciation of how the ancients thought.
A decade’s worth of immaculate research is complemented by a section on definitions used throughout and which begins, fittingly, with Vitruvius’ distinction between the ‘signified’ and the ‘signifier’; copious and clear footnotes; and a bibliography that could double up as a superior list of recommended reading for the scholar of ancient history or religion. Dr Baghos’ extensive knowledge of, and feeling for, Church history, world religions and biblical studies shines through and makes this book nothing less than an act of scholarly devotion. While he frequently speaks from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity, readers do not have to be Orthodox, or indeed Christian, to find something to respond to in this work.
The bibliographical aspects of the publication also deserve mention. In the age of the paperback, a hardcover book is a treat, and this one especially so! From the exquisitely detailed front cover showing the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, to the attractive internal design and choice of typeface, to the abundant photographs, many of which are taken by the author, this book is an absolute delight to hold and read.
Clearly, this ‘history of civilisations’ (Preface, p. ix) would be invaluable to many on many levels, despite Dr Baghos running a small risk, in my opinion, of distancing those readers who may take issue with his assertion of the ‘inherent religiosity of human beings’ (Introduction, p. xiii) or his premise that these ancient cities were conditioned principally by the main religious trends examined here. Some may question the motivation of rulers (or the people behind the rulers) who may not have been above adopting a religious attitude to cloak personal ambition or garner political advantage. Be this as it may, any reader, religiously inclined or not, would do well to be reminded that any consideration of ancient cities must necessarily include their pivotal religious aspect.
In considering any text, we cannot separate what is said from the manner of its expression. In this case, the writing style is lucid and lively and has none of the dryness so often associated with academic texts. Scrupulous research and an interdisciplinary approach is couched in clear language, and complex interpretations are expressed fluidly and persuasively, ensuring this book’s appeal not only to those with a religious or historical focus, but also the general interested reader.
In summary, this is a uniquely informative, inspiring and captivating book that you will treasure for years to come. I recommend it unreservedly to both academics and the general reader, all of whom will find themselves the richer for reading it.