Bowersock and Late Antique Mosaics

The Princeton historian Glen Bowersock has recently published a book on late antique mosaics: “Mosaics as History. The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam” (Cambridge, MA 2006). It consists of a series of lectures given in Paris in 1997. As the title makes perfectly clear, he focuses on the historical rather than art historical or archaeological significance of mosaics. This is in itself important as mosaics and other artforms have too often been marginalized in historical studies of the late antique period. The lecture format partly limits the scope of the book, so it should be seen more as a preliminary study of what mosaics can contribute as primary sources to the history of the Levant.

What I found most interesting in Bowersock’s book was his argument for the similar and largely synchronic perception of mosaics by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the melting pot of the Near East. This shared cultural environment permitted that large-scale mosaics were still being produced in the 8th century under Umayyad rule at Umm er-Rasas and several other sites in Jordan. These mosaics are absolutely dated because of the inscriptions on them that give the year of production – just like the mosaics from Apamea – and interestingly, it’s the Roman chronology for the province of Arabia that’s still in use.

In a chapter devoted to ‘Iconoclasms’, Bowersock dates the ‘iconoclastic episode’ in the region to sometime after 720 following the Edict of Yazid, the Umayyad caliph af Damascus. He re-dates this edict to 723/724, and as Yazid died in 724, the destruction of mosaics (and religious icons) was a brief episode that only affected a relatively small number of churches (and, possibly, synagogues) in the region. Secular buildings were not affected and the Umayyads themselves decorated their palaces with figural art, for example in the magnificent bath house at Qusayr ‘Amra.

Bowersock further argues that the selective removal of depictions of living things on mosaics was carried out under orders from the Umayyed caliph but that it was the local congregations themselves that were responsible for the destruction. Why else would there have been taken such care to put in new tesserae and to make sure that inscriptions and non-figural motifs were avoided?

Bowersock also points out that even if it was the Umayyad calpih who ultimately gave the order to destroy the figural motifs, he may not have done so because of hostility towards Christianity. This argument is based on the sympathetic idea that Muslims in the 8th century still frequented Christian churches, something that is mentioned in early Islamic literary sources. So, perhaps, the order was given to bring the decoration of churches in line with that of mosques? This is, however, an area where there’s still a lot of unanswered questions and hopefully further archaeological investigations can provide some of the answers.

Lecture series don’t always make for interesting reading, but this book is certainly an exception. Yes, there are passages in this book that haven’t been transformed from lecture notes as smoothly as one could wish for, but this is a minor qualm. The book is also beautifully illustrated (and comes at a very reasonable price) – although, paradoxically, it lacks a map of the Near East. For an excellent internet resource on one of the interesting late antique mosaics in the Near East, check the website for the Madaba Mosaic Map

Glen Bowersock. 2006. Mosaics as History. The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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