BMCR 2005.09.42

Provincial Cilicia and the Archaeology of Temple Conversion. BAR International Series 1281

, Provincial Cilicia and the archaeology of temple conversion. BAR international series ; 1281. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004. xiv, 243 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 30 cm.. ISBN 1841716340 £35.00.

Over the last couple of decades, a continuous flow of publications has appeared that demonstrate the complexity of Late Antique society. An increasing tendency in these studies has been to reconsider the changing landscape of Late Antiquity. The mass of new archaeological data has resulted in new studies on such topics as land-use and settlement patterns. Another important aspect of the changing Late Antique landscape that has emerged is the transformation of the sacred landscape. Churches and monasteries filled the landscape, whereas ancient temples were left languishing. Some temples ended up as quarries for building material, others were reused as secular buildings. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of change is the transformation of temples into churches. The book under review studies this phenomenon, which is better known under the term temple conversion.

Richard Bayliss’ (henceforth B.) Provincial Cilicia and the Archaeology of Temple Conversion, a revised version of his 2001 doctoral thesis, is a book with a mission. B. wants to reassess ‘the fate of the temples … by supplementing and questioning the historical record through reference to the wealth of available archaeological evidence’ (p. i). He does this by first studying the phenomenon of temple conversion, mainly from an archaeological point of view (Part ἰ, and then by comparing this general picture to a regional case study, the churches of Cilicia (Part II). The first part consists of five chapters, the second part of a chapter on the field work conducted by B. in Cilicia between 1993 and 1997 and a chapter with general considerations and conclusions. After an overview of these seven chapters, I will make some observations on the book’s use of evidence and argument, as well as its place within recent scholarship.

In Chapter 1 (‘Introduction’) B. introduces his theme: the Christianisation of the built environment. In 1939, Friedrich Deichmann published a seminal article containing a catalogue and description of temples reused as churches. However, since then more and more archaeological studies have added new material and produced an increasingly complex view of the conversion of temples, in which a variety of possibilities of reuse existed. B. has updated the list of temple conversions to over 250 entries and uses this database as the basis of his study. Moreover, in order to account for the complexity and variability of temple conversions, he studies the phenomenon in a regional context. Thus, B. focuses on the practicability and historical context of temple conversions, the how and when rather than the why. By “temple conversion” B. mostly means the conversion of temples into churches or the reuse of parts of temples in churches. He then sets out a terminology for the different cases of these temple to church conversions.

Chapter 2 (‘The Fate of the Temples’) gives an overview of the historical evidence for the fate of the temples. B. does more than just summarise the historical sources; he focuses on what happened to the temples themselves. He shows that the fate of the temples was deconsecration rather than destruction. When Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire of the fourth century, temples were increasingly neglected. Thus, the dilapidation of the temples was not so much a matter of violent Christianisation as it was a simple matter of a lack of resources available to restore them. The best part of this overview is B.’s discussion of how temple destruction worked. Often the destruction of temples is seen as a result of Christian acts of aggression, but B. convincingly argues on the basis of several archaeological examples that destruction could as well have been caused by natural disasters. If human “destruction” took place, it more often involved a systematic dismantling of the building. In the light of this evidence the imperial law of AD 435 ( Cod. Theod. 16.10.25), which has often been taken as an Empire-wide order to destroy all temples, cannot have had the impact that has been ascribed to it. The fate of temples varied from time to time and place to place, and did not directly depend on the imperial laws.

In Chapter 3 (‘The Mechanics of Conversion’), B. sets out his typology of temple to church conversions. First, there are direct conversions, also called temple-churches, in which the standing material from the temple was directly reused in the church. Subtypes include the use of the cella of an ancient temple, the internalisation of the cella, and the internalisation of the peripteros, the latter two types involving considerable modifications to the building, making them less popular options. Secondly, there are indirect conversions in which no standing material from the temple was reused. Subtypes are the construction of churches within the temenos wall of a temple, often reusing building material from the temple (temenos-churches), and the reuse of parts of temples (spolia) in churches (temple-spolia-churches), in which it is often difficult to reconstruct the sources of these parts. The result of the typology is that certain general patterns can be discerned in temple conversions, which B. calls their “architectural vocabulary”. This was not a universal language, however, and different temple conversions were determined by different times and places.

Chapter 4 (‘The Chronology of Conversion’) concentrates on the aspect of time. The dating of temple conversions is often based on a few, problematic historical sources on which in turn are based several undated cases. Reconsidering the archaeological and historical sources, B. concludes that indirect conversions took place throughout Late Antiquity, a phenomenon that he associates with the generally increasing construction of churches. Direct conversions are almost exclusively attested after the middle of the fifth century. A similar conclusion was reached by R.P.C. Hanson in 1978, except that he depended on the imperial law of AD 435 mentioned above. B. shows, however, that the lack of direct temple conversions before the middle of the fifth century can more probably be ascribed to specific regional or local circumstances. Exactly why direct temple conversions are almost non-existent before that time is a more difficult question. At least part of the answer seems to lie in the period of time that elapsed between the abandonment of the temple and its conversion into a church.

Chapter 5 (‘Between Temple and Church’) discusses this misty period. B. shows that, contrary to some Christian sources that seem to suggest temples were to be avoided, they were often repaired, reused for building material, put to secular use or even used for the gathering of a Christian community (the so-called ‘transitory church’). These different functions could have contributed to the conservation of the temple, yet they are hardly detectable in the archaeological record. Thus, the fact that temples were converted into churches only after the middle of the fifth century does not mean that it was inappropriate to do so before that date; the late date of direct temple conversions means rather that by that time an “architectural vocabulary” had emerged which favoured this particular kind of reuse for temples that had survived the period of transition and were still in a reasonable state of preservation.

In Chapter 6 (‘Temple Conversions in Cilicia’) B. gives an overview of fifteen churches in Cilicia that have in the past been interpreted as temple conversions. Besides providing a detailed overview of the archaeological record, this chapter also re-examines its interpretation. In addition to several new observations and interpretations, the most interesting result of B.’s case study is that he ends up with fewer cases of reused temples than previously thought. For example, he starts his study with six direct temple conversions, but he is left with only three. Similarly, of the three temenos-churches, two could be reinterpreted as fortified churches that did not contain any reused parts of temples. In the end, of the fifteen churches formerly thought to have been fashioned from reused temples, in whatever way, only seven cases remain. The obvious conclusion B. draws is that temples were apparently not as significant for the construction of Cilician churches as had been presumed.

B. uses the results of his case study to state his overall results in Chapter 7 (‘General Considerations and Conclusions’). The main conclusion is that temple conversions were sporadic and regional and did not play a significant role in the development of early Christian architecture. There follow two appendices. In the first appendix the use of the Theodosian Code for the study of the fate of the temples is questioned. The second appendix contains a database of all temple conversions known to B. The book concludes with primary source abbreviations, a bibliography and a wealth of illustrations.

Despite the enormous amount of material brought together here and an overall convincing argument, I still have a few reservations about this book. Whereas Part II and the sections of Part I in which B. uses archaeological sources are fine, his treatment of the historical sources in Part I is less impressive and makes his ‘questioning the historical record’ less compelling. To start with, there are a surprising number of distracting mistakes in this part of the book. These range from errors of presentation (e.g. the font of the footnotes changes suddenly on p. 50) to wrong references in the text (e.g. a reference to ‘the chart below’ [p. 17], whereas the chart is above) to inconsistencies in the text (e.g. cf. ‘Lepcis Magna’ [p. 62] with ‘Leptis Magna’ [p. 128]) to typing errors (to consider only p. 3, the first page of Chapter 1: ‘Macmullen’ instead of MacMullen, a mistake made throughout; ‘Antiken’ instead of antiken, though rightly spelled in the bibliography; ‘by’ omitted in n. 1; full stop omitted in n. 6, and so on) to errors of English spelling (e.g. ‘past’ instead of passed [p. 20]). More surprisingly, many of these mistakes concern the misspelling or inconsistent use of historical names or places. See for example his spelling of Pollux (‘Pollox’ [p. 12]), John Chrysostom (‘Chrysostum’ [e.g. pp. 19, 20, 22, 28]), Zacharias/Zachariah (‘Zacharius’ [p. 21]), the Asklepieion (‘Asklepeion’ [e.g. p. 5, n. 19]) and the Erechtheion (‘Erectheion’ [e.g. pp. 36, 59]). On p. 52 he refers to both ‘Sozomen’ and ‘Sozomenus’.

The primary source abbreviations (on pp. 130-1), which mostly refer to translations on websites, are also full of mistakes. For example, the 1989 translation of the Chronicon Paschale by M. and M. Whitby is not an ‘edition’ of the work, it is a translation and commentary (the same mistake is made throughout); for John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History he refers to E.W. Brook’s edition and translation of another work by John, The Lives of the Eastern Saints, which was first published in PO 17-9 between 1923 and 1925, not in 1974; the Loeb translations by Dewing of Procopius’ works were published between 1914 and 1940 (not ‘1914-‘); and the translation by Hamilton and Brooks of Pseudo-Zachariah of Mytilene was published in 1899 (not 1979) and was a translation of his Ecclesiastical History, not of the Life of Severus, which was actually edited and translated by Kugener in PO 2.

Even more disturbing is B.’s interpretation of historical sources, which often fails to be properly objective: for example when he rejects Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History as ‘one of the least reliable of late antique sources’ (p. 52). We all know, of course, that the interpreation of literary sources is beset with difficulties, but the same is true of the interpretation of archaeological sources, as B.’s own analysis of Cilician churches shows. B.’s plea for the use of archaeological rather than historical sources for the study of temple conversions (e.g. on p. 5) therefore does not convince. This feeling is supported by the lack of recent secondary literature in B.’s analysis of historical texts. For example, on pp. 51-2, where B. refers to an important literary work regarding a temple conversion, the Life of Porphyry, he does not take into account the important recent debate about the transmission of its text.1

The omission of recent publications also has important implications for the general argument of the book. For example, the limited usefulness of the Theodosian Code for the study of temple conversions has already been recognised in several recent publications.2 B. could therefore better have started with this now evident status quaestionis instead of devoting a whole appendix to arguing against the use of the Theodosian Code. As it stands his argument sometimes seems redundant, since it has already been maintained elsewhere that, for example, temple conversions were not as frequent as had previously been supposed or that the fate of the temples depended on time and space.3 Unfortunately, it seems that this book is an unrevised version of B.’s 2001 thesis, as also appears from the most recent literature quoted (all from 2000).

A final reservation concerns the database (pp. 121-9). Although B. has added new data to the known cases of temple conversion, especially from Cilicia, it is far from complete. Not only is the column with degrees of ‘integrity’ of the sources often problematic, there are many mistakes in the list. To concentrate just on the temple conversions in Egypt, when B. mentions Dendur, which is according to the text situated ‘in Thebais’ (e.g. p. 54; B. probably means ‘in the Thebaid’), he is in fact referring to a Nubian site; and B. refers to the church of St Stephen at Philae as that of ‘St Etienne’, which he probably took directly from Nautin’s well-known 1967 French article (p. 128). B. has also missed an overview of temple conversions in Egypt, published by Peter Grossmann in 1994, which could have enriched his database with several more examples.4

B. expressly limited his study only to temple to church conversions. In this respect, an observation made by Bryan Ward-Perkins in an article published in 2003 is particularly revealing. He states that when a new catalogue and analysis of temple conversions is made, attention should also be paid to negative evidence, i.e. temples that did not become churches.5 Based on recent field work in the First Cataract region of Southern Egypt, it is my impression that there is more evidence for the reuse of temples for other purposes, e.g. for the construction of houses or public building projects, than B. takes into account.6 True, B. states several times that temples were often reused for other purposes (e.g. p. 4), but he mainly concentrates on the temple to church conversions ‘given that we know of relatively few temples that were converted into anything other than churches’ (p. 7). I doubt that this statement is correct and think it would be worthwhile to include this aspect of reuse more prominently in the future temple conversion debate.

Despite these reservations, this book is an important contribution to the study of the phenomenon of temple conversion. Although it would have benefited from the assistance of an editor, it still has a large amount of new material to add to our knowledge of the reuse of temples. Part II especially contains several new observations and interpretations, and his discussion of the archaeological material in Part I, B. has some interesting ideas to add from an archaeological point of view. Also his methodology is innovative and will be found useful for further research on this topic. It is to be hoped that more regional case studies will give us a better insight into the phenomenon of temple reuse, the complexity of which scholars have only just begun to realise.


1. E.g. J. Hahn, Gewalt und religiöser Konflikt (Berlin, 2004), 203 n. 57.

2. E.g. by B. Caseau, ‘ ΠΟΛΕΜΕΙΝ ΛΙΘΟΙΣ. La désacralisation des espaces et des objets religieux païens durant l’Antiquité Tardive’, in M. Kaplan (ed.), Le sacré et son inscription dans l’espace à Byzance et en Occident (Paris, 2001), 61-123 at 70-2.

3. I mention here only J. Hahn, ‘Tempelzerstörung und Tempelreinigung in der Spätantike’, in R. Albertz (ed.), Kult, Konflikt und Versöhnung (Münster, 2001), 269-86; B. Caseau, ‘The Fate of Rural Temples in Late Antiquity and the Christianisation of the Countryside’, in W. Bowden, L. Lavan, C. Machado (eds), Recent Research on the Late Antique Countryside (Leiden/Boston, 2004), 105-44.

4. P. Grossmann, ‘Tempel als Ort des Konflikts in christlicher Zeit’, in P. Borgeaud et al. (eds), Le temple, lieu de conflit (Louvain, 1994), 181-201.

5. B. Ward-Perkins, ‘Reconfiguring Sacred Space: from Pagan Shrines to Christian Churches’, in G. Brands, H.-G. Severin (eds), Die spätantike Stadt und ihre Christianisierung (Wiesbaden, 2003), 285-90 at 286. The author also announces there that he will attempt to undertake the new catalogue. Unfortunately, however, he is no longer working on it at the moment (personal communication).

6. J.H.F. Dijkstra, Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity (AD 298-642) (PhD thesis Groningen, 2005), 151-71, 180-91.