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Rebuilding Jerusalem

Gideon Avni researches around destruction

Posted on Nov 29, 2017 04:00 PM by Bailey Trela |
Rebuilding Jerusalem

Gideon Avni, the head of the Archaeological Division in the Israel Antiquities Authority and a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies. On October 30, he delivered his research report, “The Creation of a Multicultural City—Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the 4th–11th Centuries,” which considered the urban context of recent archaeological research.


Q&A with Gideon Avni

How does the Islamic center you mentioned develop around Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount?

It’s actually kind of a political decision. Following the Arab conquest, the first thing to do was stabilize the new Islamic government. They had to choose how to deal with the previous centers of power, meaning the religious center, which was of course Jerusalem, and the secular center, which was Caesarea. With Caesarea, they immediately transferred the center of administrative and political power. In Jerusalem, it was much more complicated, because it was a very strong Christian center—it was the main pilgrimage destination in the country, and drew interest from all over the Byzantine world. But at the same time, in the Quran, there are traditions linking the Old Testament to Islam, like the appreciation of the prophets, from Abraham onwards, and then early stories and legends about Muhammad traveling from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night, and his ascent to heaven from the old Jewish Temple Mount.

The Umayyad caliphs were the first to develop Jerusalem. The idea was first of all to create a religious center exactly on the location of the previous Jewish temple. A small and modest mosque was built there as early as ten years after the conquest, and then at the end of the 7th century, the monumental construction began—the Dome of the Rock. In conjunction with this, they build administrative centers around the Haram al-Sharif, these four massive buildings that are modeled on the so-called Umayyad castles or palaces found in the desert of Jordan. And that is the declaration, both religious and political, that the Islamic regime is looking at Jerusalem as a center. Of course, Mecca eventually took the lead, and the place of Jerusalem declined following the Umayyad dynasty, but the administrative and religious center continued to function. These buildings were only abandoned in the early to mid-11th century.


How are catastrophes and large-scale devastation helpful to archaeologists, when it might seem they’d make your work more difficult?

Well, there’s a saying, “archaeologists, more than anything, love destruction.” Whenever you face destruction, it can actually give you material evidence for everything that was there before. Whenever you burn a building or there’s a big war that destroys the whole city, archaeologists rejoice, because they have an event—they have site destruction that has preserved everything beneath the debris. The same goes for earthquakes and other natural events—the most well-known example is Pompeii, where the entire city and its population is preserved beneath volcanic ash.

This isn’t a rule, of course. Not every conquest is accompanied by large-scale destruction. Jerusalem was almost completely destroyed only twice, once in 586 BCE, and once in 70 CE with the Roman conquest. Most other political regime changes were hardly felt in the city over the long term.


You described how over time the Jewish community becomes more visible in Jerusalem, and you begin to see symbols cropping up. What are some of these symbols?

First of all: language, the use of Hebrew, which was totally nonexistent before. Whenever there was a Jewish community in other parts of the country in the diaspora, they used Hebrew, if not for their daily needs, then for burials and inscriptions. So you start finding these inscriptions, and then there is very clear Jewish symbolism, like the menorah and other symbols, that begins to appear in mosaic form, for instance. And of course, all of this is reflected in historical documents—letters sent from Egypt to Jerusalem, for instance, that mention issues of Jewish land ownership, and Jews donating money for the construction of a synagogue in the city. All these factors come together and contribute to this urban map showing a renewed Jewish presence.

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A Ninth-Century Greek-Arabic Palimpsest

An informal talk with Father Justin Sinaites and Professor Jack Tannous

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 03:13 PM by lisaw |
A Ninth-Century Greek-Arabic Palimpsest

On November 16 Father Justin Sinaites and Professor Jack Tannous gave an informal talk at Dumbarton Oaks. They spoke to a capacity crowd in the Founders’ Room, and were still fielding questions two and a half hours after the talk began. Father Justin has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times and the National Geographic as "the icon of the icons" and "a rock-star monk"; he is a very familiar figure in the American and European Byzantine community because of his frequent visits as courier to major exhibitions, but also because of his learned and helpful hospitality at the monastery of St. Catherine’s, where he is librarian. He was brought up in El Paso, educated at the University of Texas at Austin, and entered the monastery of the holy Transfiguration at Brookline before entering St. Catherine’s in 1996. He is now deeply involved in a five-year project, the Sinai Palimpsest Project, to bring multi-spectral imaging to bear on 125 palimpsest manuscripts. Jack Tannous, another Texan, was brought up in Houston, was also educated at Austin, Texas, then completed his MPhil in Eastern Christian Studies at Oxford, and moved to History at Princeton to work on his PhD under Peter Brown. He held the Dumbarton Oaks Teaching Fellowship in Byzantine History at George Washington University, creating with Scott Johnson the DO Syriac Resources web page, before moving back to succeed Peter Brown at Princeton. Their paper concerned a manuscript from the New Finds (discovered in 1975) at Sinai, a ninth-century bilingual Greek-Arabic Lectionary, written in uncials over an erased lower layer, which has only recently been made legible. This includes an as yet unidentified text concerning John Chrysostom, thePandects of Antiochos, and text from prophetic books including Jeremiah. Father Justin began by discussing the Greek text of the epistles, which contains non-standard Byzantine readings. Jack Tannous then spoke about the Arabic New Testament and the social context for bilingual copying in the early centuries of Islam, establishing that the Arabic version of the epistles was translated from Syriac rather than from Greek. Finally, Father Justin showed what can now be seen of the under-layer, and identified the texts concerned. Some members of the audience working on Chrysostom were directly affected by the discovery; Syriac and Arabic scholars found another piece in the story of the languages of the eastern Mediterranean; everyone, including undergraduates from Georgetown, realized how privileged we were to share in this spectacular scholarly advance.

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Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

A summary of the proceedings of the Sign and Design Symposium

Posted on Nov 07, 2012 02:36 PM by lisaw |
Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

Organized by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak (New York University) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Harvard University), the symposium placed the phenomenon of script as image (as opposed to text and image) in a cross-cultural perspective. Participants presented research on the medieval Latin West, the Byzantine East, the Islamic world, Jewish manuscript illumination, and both Pre-Columbian and post-colonial Latin America.

Our age, in which computers have taken over all forms of textual production and promise to give new meaning to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of “automatic writing,” has witnessed a widespread nostalgia for, or at least sympathetic interest in, older, more personalized forms of writing, such as calligraphy, glyphs, and graffiti. The relationship between word and image has long been a staple of scholarship. Of these, ut pictura poesis is only the most familiar. Ekphrasis is another. Variations on the text-image paradigm include oppositions between oral and written, hearing and seeing, and, in the medieval West, Latin and the vernaculars -- a hierarchy of languages, both spoken and written, that varies in its relationship to visual forms of expression. Whereas semiotics insisted on the linguistic nature of all systems of representation, and Derrida’s deconstruction, building on Saussurian linguistics, emphasized the logocentricity of Western thought, the anthropological turn in the Humanities has redirected attention to the ways in which images and imagistic modes of presentation augment and enhance the primacy, presence, and power of speech. The symposium sought to tap into and interrogate the newfound interest in presence, or in the production of effects of presence; in issues of agency -- the agency, not only of human actors, but also of objects; and in the role of materiality in the production of meaning.

Contributors explored ways in various cultural traditions have organized the relationship between image and letter, whether in terms of equivalency, complementarity, or polarity. Papers explored those situations in which letter and image were fused, forming hybrid signs that had no vocal equivalent and were not necessarily bound to any specific language. It emerged that while imagistic scripts work on the visible, troubling representation, they also challenge the legible in terms of linguistic signification. The incorporation of figures, objects, colors, even events, within the letter insists on the material dimension of the sign. As the iconicity of the letter transforms reading into gazing, the script-like character of the image compels consideration of the co-signification of sign forms. In mediating each other into altered formats, the script-image disrupts a-priori models and ideas and thus redefines both text and image in terms of their signifying and representational processes. The disruptive effect of imagistic script inheres in a suspension of meaning that defamiliarizes the system of representation and signification in which it was produced and circulated.

Looking at the material and visual dimensions of script, including pictographic, ideographic and logographic writing systems, as well as alphabetic scripts, the contributors offered a variety of ways to consider this entire nexus of issues. Are the visual dimensions of script essential or extraneous? Do they merely shape expression or are they constitutive of meaning? Such questions go to the heart of the relationship between representation and reality.

Participants pictured above are (back row) Irvin Cemil Schick, Ivan Drpić, Cynthia Hahn, Didier Méhu, Ghislain Brunel, Elizabeth Boone, Tom Cummins, Anne-Marie Christin, Beatrice Fraenkel, Antony Eastmond, Vincent Debiais, Herbert Kessler, Irene Winter, (front row) Katrin Kogman-Appel, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and Jeffrey Hamburger.

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