Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).

***

Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Pyramid

Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.

Reuse of Religious Sites

Another nice thing about traveling to so many places, especially within a reasonably condensed timeframe, is that you can easily recognize phenomena that recur in diverse settings and compare their manifestations. One such common phenomenon is the co-opting of places of worship for one religion by another (usually newer) religion, or, more simply put, the reuse of religious sites.

Examples are legion. Among the most famous that you may be aware of is the Pantheon in Rome, a Roman pagan temple that was turned into a Christian church in the 7th century, one of several such conversions in Rome. One of the single most contentious pieces of real estate in the world is Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the site of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and formerly the site of the First and Second Temples of the Jewish faith. The most holy site of Islamic worship, the Kaaba in Mecca, used to be an ancient pagan shrine (and is believed to be built around a meteorite rock). An example familiar to the New Yorkers among you may be the Christian use of the Temple of Dendur, a Roman-era Egyptian temple which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when its home on the Nile was to be flooded by a new dam. An Asian example would be the temples of Angkor, which were alternatively Buddhist and Hindu depending on the religion of the reigning power.

Why were all of these sites and buildings, and so many others, reused? Well, the sites were probably reused because places of worship are often built at meaningful or strategic locations, such as city centers and hilltops. After a conquest or upon conversion of a population, the powers that be of the ascendant religion probably felt that the location occupied by the older faith was too prime, and that to establish the prestige of the newer faith it must take up that particular space. Or, even if location was not a consideration, perhaps the new religion reused the site because it wanted to reuse the building. Why adopt an existing building instead of building something new? I suppose there are two main reasons for this. The first is simply pragmatic. Places of worship are often built with heavy stones at enormous cost. To destroy an existing edifice and to rebuild in even a shade of its former self (certainly it would not do to have the new structure, presumably for a religion that is coming into greater favor, pale in comparison to the old) may be beyond the financial or technological means of those of the newer faith. Second, and perhaps a more generous reading, is that the newer religion views the old site and structure as having some sort of special, mystical quality to it. In some cases, as with the transition from Judaism to Christianity or either to Islam, sites retain their significance because the newer religion incorporates, to a certain extent, existing stories and beliefs. But even in other cases, such as the leap from the Roman pagan religion to Christianity, there is superstitious value, credibility and prestige attached to existing places of worship. Even if the talismanic value is simply limited to the reminder that the new religion defeated the old, the purported reason that an obelisk stands in the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the reuse has purpose and value.

Whatever the reasons, reused religious sites are incredibly helpful to an understanding of the history of a place because they establish, visually, the pattern of conquest of a given location, or the adoption of faith and conversion of a given population. The reused religious sites become tangible markers of some of the greatest conflicts or social transformations in history, whether, in the case of the Pantheon, the adoption of the Christian faith by the Roman Empire or, in the case of the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the many changes of hands of the city of Jerusalem.

Our trip this year could be said to be a celebration or study of a single historical movement, the spread of Islam from the time of Mohammed to the present. Traveling through so much of the Islamic world has given us an experience mirroring in some ways the journey of the religion itself, from the Arabian desert outward. One common observation on the expansion of Islam is that it happened incredibly rapidly. Compared to, say, Christianity, which had to survive in secret for hundreds of years after the death of Christ before official recognition by the Roman Empire, the military conquests of the just-enlightened Arabs came extremely quickly, streaming out of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century to spread from Andalusia to Afghanistan by the eighth century. As quick as the Arab conquests were, however, the actual spread of Arab culture among and adoption of the Islamic faith by the peoples living in those territories, as well as the spread of the religion beyond those lands, has been a gradual process that is ongoing today. The religion’s expansion is still very much active, the Islamic faith having traveled deeper west into Europe, further south in West and East Africa, and outward east in Indonesia, since the travels of ibn Battuta in the 14th century.

Islam’s expansion has not come at no cost to other religions, given that currently Islamic societies previously had other beliefs, just as the Roman empire was pagan before it was Christian. In the Middle East, the arrival of Islam has largely meant a transformation from Christian into Muslim. The Levant, Jesus’s home and a homeland for the Christian church itself (see posts of 4.21 and 4.23), is now largely Muslim, save certain enclaves (see, e.g., post of 5.22). Coptic Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism, has faded to a small minority in an increasingly Islamic population, though in the case of Nubia Christianity was dominant as recently as the 14th century (see post of 10.01). The capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire itself, Constantinople, was conquered by the Turks in 1453 to become an Islamic city and for centuries served as the great capital of the Ottoman Empire, which reached even further into Christian southeastern Europe before its collapse in the early twentieth century.

As with other religions before it, Islam too has reused existing religious sites, and, for the Middle East portion of our trip, the three most memorable reused religious sites are churches-turned-mosques, reflecting the religious history of the region: the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Ayasofya of Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque of Cyprus.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

During the expansion of the Christian faith, it was of course the Christians who were adopting existing (pagan) religious sites for their own use. The list of such reused buildings and sites are too numerous to list, but include the Pantheon in Rome, and temples at Baalbek and Palmyra among the sites we have visited this year. In some cases, such as at Baalbek, the Christians used the existing pagan structures as a sort of quarry and foundation, rebuilding on the site using the pre-fabricated masonry at hand; in others, such as the Pantheon, things were pretty much left in place, a new altar and cross to designate the new faith.

Damascus was always a great city, going back far earlier than the life of St. Paul, and when the Christian faith came into power, the Christians converted the principal religious site of the city, the Temple of Jupiter, into their own house of worship. The Church of St. John the Baptist in the heart of the Old City of Damascus was probably among the greatest of these “new” churches of the Byzantine Empire.

The Roman colonnade leading to the old temple, still very much in place

The Christians reused not only the site itself, but many of the stones and columns of the old temple.

But the Christians were not to have the last word. After the Arab conquest swept through Damascus in the seventh century, and the new Umayyad caliphs wanted to make their architectural statement on their new capital of the Arab empire, they chose the most obvious site in the city, the site of the old Temple of Jupiter and the Church of St. John the Baptist, for their great mosque. It is said that the rights to the site were negotiated with the Christians of the city; no doubt the parties’ relative positions of power factored heavily into the balance. It is disputed to what extent the Umayyads kept the structure of the Christian church and to what extent the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was itself largely a new construction on the same site. However, all concede that the new mosque, if not a strict conversion of an existing building, was built with a great deal of influence from Byzantine Christian religious architecture, and certainly reused some of the very pieces of the old church. The Umayyad Mosque was one of the first great architectural statements of the Islamic faith, and so it might be said that through this building Islamic architecture as a whole owes quite a debt to Christian religious architecture (which in turn owes a debt to pagan religious architecture).

Main prayer hall, which resembles the nave of a church. The shrine in the middle is said to house the head of John the Baptist, the namesake of the old church. Muslims, who accept to an extent the stories and teachings of the New Testament, believe in the holiness of both John the Baptist and Jesus (for whom a minaret at the Umayyad Mosque is named).

In Greek, the language of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, an inscription of Psalm 145 reads, ironically, “Your Kingdom, Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” This doorway is on the south side of the mosque, the side on which the Umayyads built their (non-extant) palace.

Byzantine statuary incorporated into the outside wall of the mosque. One Damascus resident whom we met suggested that this was a statue of Christ–likely not, but it was certainly part of the former Christian church (and in turn possibly lifted from its pagan predecessor).

Ayasofya, Istanbul

Although the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus may be the earliest great example of a Christian church to Islamic mosque conversion, it is by no means the most famous: that title certainly goes to the Haghia Sophia or Ayasofya in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Church of Holy Wisdom or Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th c. AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who remarked at its completion that he had in fact constructed the greatest building ever built. And even today, his statement seems a plausible boast–in the sheer scale of its massive dome, not to mention the art that remains on its walls even today, the Ayasofya is with few equals, anywhere in the world, for houses of worship or for buildings of any kind.

Justinian presents the Haghia Sophia to the Virgin Mary, left.

The Haghia Sophia suffered much damage over the years, including in the Fourth Crusade, a savage looting of Constantinople by Western Europeans, but finally met its greatest transformation after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, after which Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer ordered the conversion of the Haghia Sophia into a mosque, making modifications such as the addition of minarets and a mihrab.

Quranic script medallions inside the great dome

But the conversion was far from a stripping of the building’s Christian history. The new inhabitants generally covered up rather than destroyed much of the great Christian art within the church, and even left some of it in plain sight. Twentieth century restorations have brought some of the covered art back into light.

Crosses are still very much visible, erased but not all that effectively or wholeheartedly.

Virgin Mary with Christ on upper left, Arabic script on lower right.

Just as the pagan Roman basilica became a model for Christian churches to come, the Ayasofya became a model for Turkish mosques, with many Istanbul structures mimicking the Ayasofya. Given the centrality of Istanbul and Turkey to Islamic architecture generally, and the construction of Turkish-style mosques in other parts of the world, the Ayasofya, like the Umayyad Mosque, can be said to have acted as a conduit for bringing Byzantine Christian architectural traditions into the Islamic world.

The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, on right, Ayasofya on left

The Ayasofya, converted into a museum by Ataturk, still draws Christian pilgrims.

Selimiye Mosque, Cyprus

As significant as the Haghia Sophia/Ayasofya is in the history of the Byzantine Empire and Istanbul, and its status as perhaps the most historically monumental reuse of a religious building, it is not the most striking mosque-to-church conversion that we ran across on our trip. For sheer transparency of conversion, the Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia, North Cyprus, is hard to beat–no other place of worship I have ever seen looks so much like the very form of a place of worship of another faith.

The building now known as the Selimiye Mosque started its life, as is quite obviously apparent, as a Christian church, more specifically a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral during the 13th-15th century Lusignan reign of Cyprus. After the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in the 16th century, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. But, as you can see, apparently little other than construction of minarets, a paint job and the addition of a mihrab were effected–the building is very much a Gothic cathedral in form.




At the lower left, note the “re-orienting” of the church toward Mecca, effected by the construction of somewhat odd raised, offset platforms. While the nave still stubbornly points east, worshippers face south-southeast, the direction of Mecca, or qibla, from Cyprus.

Mosaics

Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.

Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.

From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus

Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:

The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.


From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.

The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.

Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.

Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:

These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.

The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.

This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.

Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.

From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)

I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.

Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan