The Voice of the Stones

No one is better qualified to instill in his readers the sense of wide horizons and of unexpected continuities between cultures that are usually held to be irrevocably divided than Glen Bowersock. His recent book, Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam, is an iridescent masterpiece. A vast weight of erudition, unflinchingly precise, is brought to bear on a few crucial (and hitherto unconsidered) problems to produce a book that has the sharpness and the shimmer of an industrial diamond. The clarity, economy, and charm of Bowersock’s writing make us forget the iron discipline on which his scrutiny of the evidence is based and the devastating effect of his conclusions on all kinds of conventional wisdom. It is the work of an urbane iconoclast.

In only 120 exquisitely produced and illustrated pages, we are swept from Christian Rome to the eastern end of the Mediterranean in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. We find ourselves standing on the pavements of the villas, the townhouses, the synagogues, and the churches of the gentry in a landscape now divided into five much-contested regions—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. We are in what is now called the Near East.

It is an altogether sunnier place than Rome. Indeed, we find ourselves transported to a world that is the exact opposite of the world we know today. To leave Rome and Western Europe in around the year 500 was to leave a war zone, whose prosperity (still evident in the year 400) had been ground thin, for a century, by rival militias (regional thugs, Roman and non-Roman, whom we tend, ill-advisedly, to dignify by the name of “Germanic settlers”). The West, indeed, had become a post-imperial world, studded with failed states. It had become the poor neighbor of the East. By contrast, the patrons of the mosaics to which Bowersock draws our attention continued to live, at just that time, in a long, hot afternoon of Hellenism, protected by the pax byzantina—the peace provided by the “Byzantine” Roman Empire of the East.

Of all the luxuries of the rich (golden ornaments, silverware, opulent silks, and marble statues), floor mosaics were the cheapest. In the fifth and sixth centuries, relatively humble believers could cover the floors of their churches and synagogues with panels of mosaic that cost around one gold coin for ten square feet. Such mosaics have come to light all over the Near East: seventy-seven churches with mosaic floors have been discovered and studied in Syria and Lebanon alone, and as many as a hundred such mosaics have appeared in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. What are now small villages in Jordan had more churches in them, their floors bright with images and mosaic patterns, than there were in the largest cities of the impoverished West.

These mosaics were the work of an aristocracy of labor who moved from place to place, cheerfully offering their services to synagogues and churches, to small country villas of the gentry and to the townhouses of the great. We can see the distinctive mark of their know-how in unexpected ways. Around Gaza, for instance, they produced mosaics that included, in their decoration, unmistakably realistic giraffes. These were real giraffes, giraffes observed and sketched (like Dürer’s drawing of the Indian rhinoceros sent by the Sultan Muzafar II of Gujarat to the king of Portugal in 1515) as they passed through Gaza on their way to Constantinople.

These exotic creatures came as diplomatic gifts from kingdoms as far away as the savannas of the Sudan and the Horn of Africa. They were a reminder of the worldwide prestige of the Roman Empire of the East. One such giraffe appeared in the port of Gaza in 496. Sure enough, only twelve years later, a realistic giraffe appeared on a mosaic in Gaza. With magnificent indifference to confessional boundaries, the mosaic showed King David (labeled in Hebrew) portrayed like Orpheus, charming exotic beasts (among which stood our giraffe) with the music of his harp.

Outside Gaza, by contrast, representations of these beautiful, slender beasts from the edge of the tropics never rose above fantasy. Moving across the Dead Sea to Mount Nebo, we find giraffes portrayed, as they were usually portrayed, like camels with measles. They were shown as “camelopards,” the “leopard-spotted camels” of classical folklore. For the team of mosaic artists around Mount Nebo, unlike their colleagues in Gaza, no window had suddenly opened up to real giraffes, brought from the edges of the world. The mosaics discussed by Bowersock represent the top end of a market served with blithe indifference to race and religion by teams of artisans whose ingenuity and openness to the world around them we should never overlook.
The owners of these mosaics were almost all either Jews (in the regions of Israel and Palestine) or Christians (both in those regions and elsewhere). Yet this was the last thing one could guess when looking at the robustly profane, indeed “pagan” scenes on the mosaic pavements on which they trod. All of them are scenes from the Greek classics. In many villas, Phaedra still sighs for Hippolytus. In the Jewish city of Sepphoris, topless Amazons cavort on the floors of the notables, a hefty centaur, Asbolos, rears up as the “escutcheon” of the owner of the house, Asbolius, and Dionysus drinks Heracles to the ground in what may have been the house of the Jewish Patriarch himself.

In mosaics of Cyprus, even the gods lived on, in an ancient majesty brought up to date by late Roman styles of presentation. At the Cypriot town of New Paphos, Hermes carries the infant Dionysus (Bacchus) on his lap, surrounded by reverent figures in a manner that “bears an uncanny resemblance to Christian mother-and-child imagery.”* The pagan and the Christian scenes did not necessarily borrow from each other, still less did they confront each other—as if the one was a defiant knockoff of the other. Rather, they converged. Each representation—both that of Hermes and Dionysus and that of the infant Christ and the Virgin—were made in a late Roman style, which expected important figures to adopt stiff poses and to be greeted by ceremonious gestures.

Convergence, not conflict, is the theme of Mosaics as History. Hence the importance of Bowersock’s book reaches far beyond the confines of art history. Looking at these mosaics, we are not only looking at a remarkably privileged region of the late antique world. (By the time that many of them were laid in the villas and townhouses of the Near East, such mosaics had vanished almost entirely from the floors of villas in the West.) We are looking at the secret of this prosperity. In each chapter, Bowersock takes us, stage by stage, into this secret. First, he reveals for us a region of the Near East covered with a network of small, proud cities. He points to the astonishing number of maps to be seen in the mosaics of the region. On these, each city is lovingly depicted.

Bowersock performs his accustomed feats of patient erudition in identifying so many hitherto unknown places. But he never misses the big wood for the trees. These maps are an extraordinary testimony to the cohesion of an urban network which once stretched right across the face of what are usually imagined to be (and sometimes are) dry, desert regions. Such maps were good for morale. They “would have served to remind the citizens of a place that they were not alone.”

And even when they were placed in churches, these maps were resolutely profane. In a robustly independent-minded discussion of the most famous map of all—the so-called “Map of the Holy Places” in the Christian Church of St. George at Madaba, west of the Dead Sea, in Jordan—Bowersock points out that the Madaba map was not originally a Christian map of the Holy Places. It was just a map. It had nothing whatsoever to do with “picturing the Bible.” Utterly profane in its origins, this map included Christian and Jewish holy places almost in an offhand manner, as a matter of course. Around the year 500, they also were “on the map.” They were included less because they were holy than because they formed part of an urban network shared by pagans, Jews, and Christians.

But the greatest surprise is that such maps continued to be made deep into the period of Arab Muslim rule. The pavement of the Church of St. Stephen at Umm er-Rasas in Jordan was probably laid as late as 718 or even 785. It was laid, that is, as late as the age of Charlemagne. By that time, Rome was a ghost town, a great empty city, dotted with shrines inherited from the grandiose days of Constantine—an Angkor Wat of the West, waiting for the jungle to move in. Not so at Umm er-Rasas. One hundred and fifty years into Muslim rule, its Christian inhabitants lined the edge of the nave of the Church of St. Stephen with cheerful, lovingly particular views of the cities of their region, such as Nablus and Jerusalem. The mosaic band spoke of “a kind of union of Hellenized centers inside the Umayyad world.” As Bowersock says, “the cities of the region clung to their independence and to one another at the same time.”

And their better-off inhabitants also clung to the Greek myths. What Bowersock reveals in a further chapter is the extraordinary role that was played by a shared Greek culture, based on shared knowledge of the stories of ancient Greece, in “pulling together the teeming societies of the widely dispersed cities of the early Byzantine Near East.” Skillfully interpreted and beautifully illustrated, Mosaics as History amounts to nothing less than a companion volume to Picturing the Bible, the catalog of the recent exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Here we are shown Jews and Christians, Greeks and Semites (for many of the inscriptions placed beside classical images are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac), busily engaged in “picturing the myths.” We are offered a glimpse of

a culture that coruscates…with a tantalizing radiance. [The myths…] demonstrate a shared enjoyment of the ancient and undying tradition of ancient myths.

And Bowersock goes on to say: “These myths did not constitute a burden inherited from the past or a guilt that had to be expiated.”

A visitor from the Kimbell exhibition must ask: Why was this so? Modern Christians have proved considerably less tolerant. When one such mosaic was discovered beneath a private dwelling in Madaba in the late 1890s, the local Orthodox Christians fell upon it. A panel that showed Ariadne on Naxos dancing with the nymphs was almost completely destroyed: only a nymph with a lone satyr was left. Looking at the pair one is tempted to think that the local zealots had a point. This was hot stuff to come out of the earth of a self-respecting village of the modern Near East.

These mosaics were challenging even to late antique persons. For the myths were made to seem so very up-to-date. They were not held at arm’s length by being expressed in a cool, reserved classicism (such as even Victorians could tolerate in their museums). Greece had “gone native.” The classical inheritance had become a form of folk art. As Bowersock rightly points out, these myths would still have circulated widely throughout the cities of the Near East in the form of pantomimes. Vitalis, the Christian Roman comedian from the glory days of Constantine’s Rome, would have found this entirely natural.

As a result, the figures of myth came into the present. Adonis sits at ease on a Madaba mosaic in stylish late-Roman hunting dress, with a tunic decorated with strips and roundels of expensive embroidery, such as we see in Coptic textiles of this time. He was a disturbingly real presence to have on one’s floor, as was Aphrodite with her long, narrow torso, heavy breasts, and her neck encircled with precious Byzantine jewelry.

For this was the art of local notables. Compared with the truly great of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, they were almost local squires. But in their own region, they were little lords among lords. Such men and women needed the myths. They did so not only to show that they shared a common culture with their peers (as Bowersock makes plain). They also needed the myths to walk tall. They wished to be myths in their own time: to be great beauties, great lovers, great hunters, men of skillful words and memorable deeds. The mosaics radiated, from beneath their feet, a sense of heroic démesure, of life larger than life, lived, as it were, in a fourth dimension, in the dream time of ancient Greece. They imparted a tingle of energy and romance to the scenes of provincial life—much of it dull and not infrequently tinged with hatred and danger—that must have been played out above them.

It is particularly difficult for modern persons to catch the quality of this tingle. It was certainly not crudely “pagan.” Nor were the mosaics mere ornaments. In late antiquity, the myths continued to carry their own diffuse numinosity. Their “tantalizing radiance” communicated, with almost sinister good cheer, the vast, insouciant smile of “the world.” They were signs of success. They spoke of the confidence of a ruling class. Delicious, erudite, and shared by their equals, they spoke with the heavy voice of power. Those who trod on them (Jews, Christians, and pagans alike) intended to control their own corner of a vibrant Near East.

And the greatest surprise of all is that, by and large, they succeeded. The second-to-last chapter of Mosaics as History—entitled “Iconoclasms”—shows that their descendants were still there after well over a century of Muslim rule. Only in the year 723 did the local Christians find themselves forced to remove some of the figures from the exuberant mosaics in their churches, at the bidding of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II. They did so with care. As Bowersock shows, this first premonitory tremor of Muslim iconophobia was limited in its extent, and it was Christians themselves who undertook to respond to it.

Far from showing a Muslim fundamentalist state flexing its muscles against religious minorities, the decree of Yazid II arose from a surprising situation. Up to that time, Muslims had often worshiped in Christian churches. They did not like all that they saw there. Some found themselves increasingly disquieted by the exuberant animal and human life that they saw on the pavements. (Put briefly: to attempt to create living beings through art began to awake fears in them that were like those stirred up, in recent years, by experiments in cloning.) But they did not descend upon the Christians from outside, to inflict random destruction on all Christian images. Rather, the Muslims who advised Yazid II seem to have acted like partners who had already been taken into a firm. They slowly bought out their colleagues and imposed their own policies, by tweaking the image that the company was supposed to project. Eventually (as we all know) the policy of avoiding images would win out. But it only did so (and only to a certain degree) in Muslim circles, and never among the large Christian populations of the Near East, many of whose images have survived (icons, frescoes, mosaics, and all) up to this day.

With this, Bowersock has brought us to the edge of a yet further reschooling of the visual imagination that would take place in large segments of the Islamic Near East in medieval times. But viewed from the churches of Jordan in the 720s, this process could not have been foreseen. It was a victory as unimaginable as the slow, three-century-long victory of “Christian visuality” in the West would have been to those who, in the 220s, first filled the catacombs of Rome with the bright, frail paintings with which we entered the splendid rooms of the Kimbell’s exhibition “Picturing the Bible.”

Altogether, Mosaics as History offers little support to inert stereotypes. Here is no abrupt end of the ancient world, brought about by Arab invaders from the desert. Here are no Christians trembling under the shadow of an intolerant Muslim empire. It is not as we had been told. But then, we are seldom told as much as we should be told about the non-Western shores of the Mediterranean and even less about the complex strands that linked the world of late antiquity to that of early Islam. We need to listen to Bowersock:

Late antiquity and early Islam are full of challenges to old easy dichotomies, such as Orient oder Rom [East or Rome—with nothing in between], that have so long dominated historical interpretation.

Those who wish to understand more about the deep and complex history of the Near East in all ages, our own included, would be well advised to read Bowersock’s book. They might conclude, with him, that “the late antique Near East was a kind of miracle, and its like has never been seen in that region again.”

These are wistful words. They were first spoken in 1997, when Mosaics as History was delivered as a course of lectures at the Collège de France in Paris. They have, alas, become yet more true in the course of a further terrible decade. Only the sharp tang of scholarship like Bowersock’s, devoted to a seemingly distant past, can clean our eyes, a little, of the itch of modern pseudohistory, of modern stereotypes, and of modern hatreds, so that we can view the present, if not with comfort, then at least with clarity.

—This is the second of two articles.

  1. *

    One should compare this to the adoration of the Magi on a sarcophagus recently on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. See Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (Yale University Press/ Kimbell Art Museum, 2007), p. 209, and my review of the exhibition and catalog in these pages, March 20, 2008.