Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam
by G.W. Bowersock
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 146 pp., $22.95
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 …