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.


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.

Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o