Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.16

Thilo Ulbert (ed.), Forschungen in Resafa-Sergiupolis: Al-Munḏir-Bau und Nekropole vor dem Nordtor; Basilika C. Resafa 7.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter,, 2016.  Pp. x, 154; 95 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783110467468.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Anderson, Cornell University (

The Syrian site of Rusafa, located 25 km south of the Euphrates and 50 km south-west of Raqqa, experienced a boom in masonry construction from the fifth through the eighth centuries, as the local cult of the warrior saint Sergios grew to trans-imperial significance. Since 1975, Thilo Ulbert has directed the documentation of the monumental structures under the aegis of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. The book under review, dedicated to a church and to a structure whose function remains controversial, concludes this project, even as archaeological investigation continues under the direction of Michaela Konrad (naturally not, given present conditions, on-site). It is also the first of the Resafa series to be published by De Gruyter. The folio volume is beautifully produced, with crisply reproduced line drawings and black-and-white photographs (plus a few color photos of landscapes, fragments of wall-paintings, and mosaics). In addition to a “Tafelteil” comprising 95 plates, it includes one bound folding plate and six loose sheets housed in a pocket at back.

The first of the book’s three sections is dedicated to the “al-Mundhir building,” which is situated outside the north gate of the city. Its conventional name derives from an acclamation, prominently inscribed in the interior of the apse, wishing victory to the τύχη of the eponymous Ghassanid phylarch, who held office from ca. 570 to 581. The building’s original function—whether a church, an audience hall, or both—has long been debated by scholars.1

Viewed in plan, the al-Mundhir building comprises two parts: first, a square of roughly seventeen meters on each side, which is divided by four pillars into a central bay (likewise square) and eight peripheral bays (domed in the corners and barrel-vaulted on the sides), and entered by one centrally positioned door each at west, north, and south; second, a shallow east end, roughly three meters deep, with central apse and two flanking rectangular chambers. Ulbert’s analyses of the standing walls, based on a photogrammetric campaign carried out in 1980, reveal irregularities in the original construction together with later instances of partial collapse and subsequent reconstruction. Indeed, the building offers a remarkably long record of occupation: the apse served during the French mandate as a base for the desert police, the southern flanking chamber at some undefined time as a residence. In the medieval period two substantial courtyard structures were built against the south wall: probably khans, or perhaps elements of a monastic complex.

Evidence for the building’s original function arises from Ulbert’s analysis of the interior surfaces, where, in contrast to all churches inside Rusafa’s walls, no evidence of marble cladding is preserved. (A geometric construction lightly engraved on an engaged pillar does suggest that such a veneer might originally have been planned.) Ulbert understands all traces of sacral use—such as niches carved into the pillars and apse—as secondary interventions. At some later phase, too, the acclamation of al-Mundhir and surrounding vine scroll were covered by a thick layer of plaster. Ulbert concludes that the inscription belongs to the original structure, which was never finished as planned, and was only later converted to ecclesiastical use.

Ulbert’s architectural analysis is supplemented by three additional contributions. Pierre-Louis Gatier publishes and comments upon the four Greek inscriptions, remarking that the acclamation “serait étonnante dans une église et particulièrement dans l’abside” (20). Among three graffiti, one names an ἐργολάβος, or contractor. Felix Arnold offers reconstructions of the original structure, with two possible solutions for the roofing of the central bay: wooden pyramid or masonry dome. Due to the massive walls, he prefers the latter, which would in his view bring the elevation close to that of Islamic reception halls. Finally, an extended contribution by Gunnar Brands addresses the architectural sculpture, which presents multiple puzzles. The first relates to technique and organization: not only are some capitals unfinished, but high-quality pieces are set in obscure positions, while lower-quality work is prominently displayed. The variation could reflect a change in plan during construction (or indeed a rush to finish). The second relates to period style: were it not for the acclamation of al-Mundhir, Brands would date the capitals to ca. 520-550. The third puzzle, finally, relates to the iconography of the impost cornice in the apse, which in addition to acclamation and vine scroll carries a frieze composed of affronted pairs of sea creatures. Brands sees in the latter evidence for an ecclesiastical or sepulchral function, and suggests that the building may have been conceived as a burial chapel for al-Mundhir on the site of an earlier memorial to Sergios.

The book’s second section, authored almost entirely by Konrad, presents the excavation of the necropolis beside and on top of which the al-Mundhir building sits. Of the ca. 25-27 graves excavated, most were unobtrusive burials: only “Grab 4” was marked by a prominent aboveground structure and, unusually for the region, wall paintings. This structure had burned prior to construction of the al-Mundhir building, in preparation for which its remains were leveled. Konrad advances the hypothesis that the necropolis was patronized by a Roman cavalry unit composed of local, Arabic troops (equites promoti indigenae). Before the concluding catalog of finds, which incorporates a list of coins by Hans Roland Balus, Konrad offers an evaluation of the relationship of the necropolis to the al-Mundhir building. The later structure betrays no sign of an intentional connection to an earlier funerary monument, and the site’s natural elevation and proximity to road and gate suffice to explain its selection. Konrad presents historical, architectural-typological, epigraphic, and iconographic arguments for viewing it as a “principia cum praetorio” (66).

A Zusammenfassung, to which three authors contribute, concludes discussion of the al-Mundhir building. Ulbert refrains from a final judgment on function, while Brands and Konrad concisely re-state their opposing positions. Although this leaves the impression of a draw, the cumulative weight of the evidence gives cause to prefer a primarily secular-political function. Brands presents plausible iconographic arguments for an original ecclesiastical-sepulchral function, but all elements in the decoration of the interior would be equally at home in a reception hall.2 Moreover, the apparent haste with which the building was completed, and its overall lack of finish, find no obvious explanation if the building were intended to serve as a church. By contrast, both Gatier (20) and Konrad (68) note the unprecedented honors granted by the emperor Tiberios to al-Mundhir in 580, a plausible occasion for the construction of a pretentious praetorium, one year before the phylarch’s fall from grace.3

The book’s third section, primarily authored by Ulbert with a brief contribution by Dietmar Kurapkat, is dedicated to “Basilica C,” the smallest of the four monumental ecclesiastical complexes located inside the city walls. The simplicity of the plan (three-aisled basilica with narthex; rectangular chambers to either side of the central, elevated apse; podium extending westward and southward to support a flanking portico) conceals a long history of occupation, here expertly reconstructed on the basis of architectural analysis and targeted sondages. Original liturgical use is attested by synthronon and ambo. The walls of the church were revetted in marble, the apse faced with mosaic whose preserved fragments, if not sufficient to reconstruct motifs, exhibit a variety of color unique within the churches of Rusafa. Sondages to the south of the podium have clarified the relation between building and street, whose divergent axes were reconciled by means of an irregularly shaped courtyard. Noteworthy among small finds are fragments of a cage cup, to be published in another venue (127).

If an absolute date remains elusive, limited remains of architectural sculpture suggest construction in the first half of the sixth century. In the earliest changes to the structure, the presbytery was extended out to the first intercolumniation of the nave and delimited by a chancel screen. In the early middle ages—not before the rise of the ʿAbbasids, according to numismatic evidence—the structure was badly damaged, presumably in an earthquake. While the east end was largely spared, substantial portions of the nave and aisles were rebuilt from the ground up. Only later was the building quarried for stone; if some areas were completely robbed out, others were converted to residential use and occupied until the thirteenth century.

The volume under review testifies to the intrinsic worth of collaborative, long-term investigation of complex monuments; it is furthermore exemplary in its inclusion of multiple, sometimes conflicting, interpretations. Editor, authors, and all collaborators are to be congratulated for enriching our understanding of an exceptionally consequential site for the study of late antique Syria. The most fitting conclusion is supplied by Ulbert’s own words: “Wir können nur hoffen, daß es für die Forschungen in Resafa, besonders aber für die dort lebenden Menschen bald wieder eine Zukunft in Frieden geben möge” (x).


1.   The case for an audience hall was first made by Jean Sauvaget, “Les Ghassanides et Sergiopolis,” Byzantion 14 (1939), 115-30; the most comprehensive case for a church by Gunnar Brands, “Der sogennante Audienzsaal des al-Munḏir in Resafa,” Damaszener Mitteilungen 10 (1998), 211-35, who admits a possible secondary role as “Ort der herrscherlichen Repräsentation” (234). A robustly multi-functional hypothesis was presented in two publications by Elizabeth Key Fowden: The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius Between Rome and Iran (Berkeley, 1999), 149-73, e.g. at 168 (“to discuss the al-Mundhir building as if in late antique Syria and Mesopotamia church and audience hall were mutually exclusive categories is simply to miss the point”); and “An Arab Building at al-Ruṣāfa-Sergiopolis,” Damaszener Mitteilungen 12 (2000), 303-24. Irfan Shahîd, by contrast, repeatedly defended exclusive interpretation of the structure as a “praetorium”: Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century (Washington, 2002), II.1.129-33 and II.2.279; and “The Ghassanid Structure Outside Sergiopolis/Rusafa: Church or Praetorium?,” in Joseph D. Alchermes, ed., ΑΝΑΘΗΜΑΤΑ ΕΟΡΤΙΚΑ: Studies in Honor of Thomas F. Mathews (Mainz am Rhein, 2009), 283-87 (this last essay not cited in the volume under review).
2.   Note the comparanda cited by Konrad at pp. 69-70; to which add the frescoed maritime frieze (including a very similar sea creature) in the throne niche of an Umayyad audience hall: Claude Vibert-Guigue and Ghazi Bisheh, Les peintures de Qusayr ʿAmra (Beirut, 2007), Pl. 15c.
3.   For the honors, which included a diadem, see John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History, IV.42.

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