BMCR 2007.07.09

Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam

, Mosaics as history : the Near East from late antiquity to Islam. Revealing antiquity ; 16. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. vi, 146 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0674022920 $22.95.

This is another of Bowersock’s books that derive from series of lectures. These lectures were delivered in March, 1997 at the Collège de France in Paris under the general title Le Mystère de Grégoria: Mosaïques du Proche-Orient dans l’Antiquité Tardive. The large quantity of polychrome, figured floor mosaics with Hellenizing forms and subject-matter recently discovered in the Near East, particularly in Jordan but also in Palestine, provides the physical evidence for Bowersock’s overarching theme that the thread of Hellenism continued in the lands of the eastern of the Roman Empire well beyond what conventional, segmented historical approaches suggest. This theme is a familiar one in Bowersock’s works.1 With the mosaics in question he is able to extend the argument for continuity based on a shared Greek culture through late antiquity well into the eighth century, that is, including the phase when the region had come under Islamic domination.

The book consists of five chapters preceded by a short preface. The first three chapters deal with specific types of subject-matter in the imagery of Near Eastern mosaics. Bowersock chooses to discuss the images of maps, myths and cities as representative of common themes in the regional repertoire. While he brings in a variety of examples from the region, his discussion centers mainly on mosaics from Jordan: the Madaba Map, the Room of Hippolytos under the Church of the Virgin in Madaba and the floor mosaic found in 1984 in the Church of St. Stephen at Umm er-Rasas.2 The last two chapters consist of discussions of broader issues. In one, Bowersock examines approaches to iconoclasm in its various manifestations, while in the last chapter he places the mosaics in their historical and cultural context. The intended audience is scholars of the Ancient Mediterranean, the Near East and early Islam. The book makes a significant contribution to the scholarly debate about the dynamics of cultural change in late antiquity in the Roman East. At the same time, it is immensely readable and attractively illustrated and is therefore accessible to an interested and knowledgeable general public.

The first chapter (Maps) deals with the images of maps in polychrome mosaic, the most famous and intriguing being the church floor fragment known as the Madaba Map, found in the late nineteenth century in a Byzantine basilica in Jordan. What is left of this mosaic includes the image of a body of water, a river, landscape elements, villages and a vignette of the city of Jerusalem with labels in Greek. Bowersock questions the traditional interpretation of this mosaic as an illustration of biblical sites based on the Onomasticon of Eusebius.3 Not surprisingly he finds a lack of correlation between textual and archaeological evidence. Using other topographic Near Eastern mosaics such as those in the Church of the Virgin at Madaba, or the church of St. Stephen at Umm er-Rasas, as well as referencing the late antique original for the twelfth-century Peutinger Table, Bowersock argues that such imagery had a geographic function. The geography is not that of the literal rendition of places and distances but rather, functioned as a topographical evocation of the world in which these communities found themselves. Bowersock argues that the relationships between the cities are depicted in a reasonably accurate configuration so they represent statements of cultural identity, not biblical toponyms. The commonalities of style and the desire to commemorate the regional landscape formed part of a tradition: a common Hellenic visual language among communities situated in an area within the sphere of the greater centers of Alexandria, Constantinople and Antioch. Antioch, an important center in late antiquity, is so far missing from the visual record of these mosaics. However, Bowersock goes to some length to prove that it is present in the form of one of three tyche figures that are rendered in the Hippolytos Room mosaic, the figure of Gregoria. This identification is important for Bowersock, who argues that the mosaic maps represent a regional world view. His hypothesis thar Antioch is Gregoria rests on indirect evidence that makes the identification tenuous, and the question remains open. Nevertheless, his overall argument, that the maps provide a contemporary topographic view that serves the needs of self-representation through combining the individualism of specific cities with a global perspective, is both topical and convincing.

In the second chapter (Myths) Bowersock discusses the classical myths that are often depicted, and he again departs from and critiques the established scholarly approach. Mythological scenes are widely diffused in the mosaics of the fifth and sixth centuries in the Near East, found in both Christian and Jewish contexts. Favorite topics included scenes from the lives of Dionysos, Herakles and Achilles. The story of Phaedra and Hippolytos also appeared frequently. Knowledge and consumption of classical literature was widespread and deep. Yet in some cases the repertoire becomes problematic because of the inclusion of obscure scenes or unexpected deviations from the standard narratives. For Bowersock, these idiosyncracies disprove the traditional position established by Kurt Weitzmann, that the sources for such mosaics were illustrated manuscripts.4 Using evidence from several ancient writers, including Procopius, John Malalas, Choricus of Gaza and Libanius, Bowersock is able to show that the popularity of certain mythological figures as well as the deviant scenes derive from popular theatrical performances. Performances of classical pantomimes and mimes continued well into the sixth century and people attended them despite the polemics against them and Christian attitudes towards the pagan past. Literary sources suggest that the people went to the theater to laugh. The myths were performed as pure entertainment, not as a source of belief. The practice ensured the survival of mythological narratives as part of a common culture.

The third chapter (Cities) deals with the images of individual cities that appear in the floor mosaics. Bowersock begins with a discussion of the city vignettes on the floor of the Church of St. Stephen at Umm er-Rasas, the ancient Kastron Mefaa. Images of cities appear in two sections of the floor. Around the central carpet structures appear at regular intervals dividing elements within a Nilotic border. Larger and more detailed views of various cities are arranged in two bands that flank this border. Bowersock distinguishes between the more detailed style of the outer vignettes and the simplified abstraction of the cities in the Nilotic border. For him, the difference in style also represents a difference in function, the Nilotic border being more vague and decorative. The cities on the outer border, Bowersock argues, are differentiated through building types and topography and are further visually identified through the insertion of recognizable landmarks such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem or the open space with a column that re-appears in two different depictions of Kastron Mefaa. Bowersock concludes that the cities on the left border are those that lie to the west of the river Jordan; those on the right side are the cities that lie to the east of that river. Excluded are important cities of the interior, and what this means to Bowersock is the tendency for the Jordan valley communities to look north, south and west rather than east, in this period. Like the maps, these depictions of cities are about place in the physical and cultural geography of the area, a regional view that tends to look outwards towards the Mediterranean rather than inland.

In reaching his conclusions about the geographic, self-representational meaning of the city vignettes, Bowersock has to deal with the issues of source and style. He again disagrees with Weitzmann’s theory that manuscript illustrations and pattern-books were used as models because the same city is not depicted in exactly the same manner each time. Bowersock also disagrees with the view that the rendition of the cities is purely symbolic. Bowersock rightly recognizes that conventions existed in antiquity for depicting certain scenes, and that at the same time there was always room for individualizing stock images with specific details. This is what occurs in Umm er-Rasas and in the Madaba map. Another interesting point is that the floor at Umm er-Rasas was created in the eighth century, when the area was under the rule of the Umayyads in Damascus, yet the pictorial tradition and the inscriptions are Greek. This confirms the persistence of the Hellenic tradition into the Islamic period, especially considering that the Great Mosque of Damascus also had a set of its own vignettes of cities evoking the whole world. The Hellenic tradition and its visual language were adopted by Christian, Jewish and Islamic patrons in the Near East of late antiquity.

In the latter part of this chapter, Bowersock returns to the issue of personifications of cities and the identification of Gregoria with Antioch in the Hippolytos Room. He begins with the premise that since Antioch’s name changed under Justinian to Theoupolis, it could have been known by several names, a common practice in antiquity. In the sixth century, Gregorius was the patriarch of Antioch, and because of his charisma and great fame, Bowersock suggests, Antioch could have been the known as the city of Gregorius, and hence was personified as such in Madaba. Again, this hypothesis is enticing but does require further confirmation. Nevertheless, Bowersock’s general view that the topographical and cultural environment of the Near East in late antiquity was probably anchored by the Graeco-Roman centers of Alexandria, Constantinople and Antioch is credible.

Chapter four (Iconoclasm) delves into the long-standing controversy surrounding the iconoclastic fervor of the early eighth century. Numerous scholars have tackled the issue, each hoping to have put the subject to rest. Recent discoveries of many more mosaics in the Near East and the ensuing questions raised by Schick’s archaeological studies warrant a new look at the problem. Bowersock methodically tackles the issues of evidence and the literary tradition pertaining to the destruction of images at this time. Perhaps the most important result ensuing from the increased body of evidence is that iconoclasm can no longer be seen as a single movement of wholesale destruction of images. Recent finds have revealed that out of about seventy floor mosaics in churches and synagogues, fifty have been defaced. The destruction, where it occurred, was selective and deliberate, carefully done so as not to damage the whole floor. In many cases, images of living things, either human or animal, were removed and then the tesserae re-used to repair the damaged section in an aniconic mode. More often than not, the original image was discernible. Bowersock agrees with Schick that this type of meticulous destruction may have been done by the congregations themselves hoping to inflict a minimum amount of damage on their expensive decoration.

In order to tackle the puzzle of what might have led to this partial destruction, Bowersock deconstructs the literary tradition pertaining to iconoclasm. This tradition, established by Greek Christian authors hostile to both Jews and Muslims, states that the Byzantine edict against icons promulgated by Leo III was inspired by the edict of the Umayyad ruler Yazid who himself had been influenced by a Jewish magician. Bowersock compares the differing approaches to images among the three religions. He questions the common view that Judaism and Islam had a total ban on images. He also distinguishes between the Islamic iconoclasm of Yazid and the Christian iconoclasm of Leo III, finding that they differ in kind. He is doubtful that they are the result of a single source even though the proscriptions occurred within the same decade. Byzantine iconoclasm involved the destruction of holy images; the Islamic ban was on living things in holy places. The defaced mosaics in the churches and synagogues in the Near East appear to be responses to the Islamic ban. Yet some communities responded while others did not. This Bowersock attributes first to the fact that early Islam, still free of later interpretations, did not prohibit imagery; and second, to the fact that Yazid’s ban was a short-lived personal injunction that was reversed by his successors. The uneven evidence for destruction shows that this prohibition did not reach all communities. It also indicates that the Christian communities in the region were influenced more by Damascus than Constantinople. The fifth chapter (Context) is a synthesis of the arguments presented in the first four, re-iterating Bowersock’s overall thesis and his concern with finding an image of Antioch in these mosaics. Bowersock reminds the reader that the context for these mosaics has always been an area of diverse populations all of whom accommodated and absorbed Greek culture in the Hellenistic period and then negotiated their relationship with Rome through their Hellenism. Although the population was diverse, Bowersock suggests that a degree of homogeneity was possible because of the relative peace in the area from the Hadrianic period to the seventh century. Constantine’s conversion, the subsequent imposition of Christianity as the state religion and the shift of power to the east in Constantinople, or the “New Rome,” all served to reinforce a common cultural identity among the communities of the region. In this concluding chapter Bowersock reiterates the identification of Antioch as Gregoria. Unfortunately he falls into the same trap as the one he himself complains about, that is, the adoption of a reasoned but unproved hypothesis as fact. The subtext of the book is this attempt to identify Gregoria with Antioch. Even without this identification, however, the overall thrust of the book, in which Greek culture is seen as a unifying element in a region of great diversity remains valid. Equally valid, as well as valuable, is the concomitant view that the categorization of the artistic and literary production of the region into separate and discrete segments such as Christian Art, Judaic Art or Islamic Art, is ultimately misleading.5 Bowersock’s study of these mosaics reveals the palimpsest of societies in the Near East in late antiquity and the way their artistic output expressed their shared values, their individuality and their cultural conflicts.

In spite of his insistence to the contrary, Bowersock’s book can be considered an art historical enterprise insofar as he places the mosaics within their historical and social context. Most studies of the area are archaeological, so this book is a useful interpretative approach to works that are not widely known. At only 122 pages of actual text within which are interspersed fifty high quality color illustrations, it is a short but richly rewarding read. The bibliography is neither too general nor too detailed and provides a solid resource for beginning and advanced students embarking on art historical studies of the area. Given its high quality, the price is extremely reasonable.


1. G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Ann Arbor and Cambridge: University of Michigan Press and Cambridge University Press, 1990.

2. Bowersock relies heavily on the archaeological studies of Piccirillo and Schick: Michele Piccirillo, “The Mosaics at Um er-Rasas in Jordan,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Dec. 1988):208-213 +227-231; Robert Schick, “Palestine in the Early Islamic Period: Luxuriant Legacy,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 61, No. 2, (Jun., 1998):74-108.

3. M. Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1954.

4. Kurt Weitzmann, The Place of Book Illustration in Byzantine Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975.

5. Jas Elsner, “Archaeologies and Agendas: Reflections on Late Ancient Jewish Art and Early Christian Art,” Journal of Roman Studies, 93 (2003):114-128.