Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Divine kings and sacred spaces: power and religion in Hellenistic Syria (301-64 BC)

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While this blog normally concentrates on matters archaeological and Irish, I do welcome the opportunity to do something different from time to time. In 2010, my good friend Nick Wright completed his PhD, “Religion in Seleukid Syria: gods at the crossroads (301-64 BC)”, at the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University. Last year a revised version of the thesis was accepted by Archaeopress for publication in BAR’s International Series. Nick has a provided this extended abstract as an introduction to the book. He skilfully weaves together the disparate strands of the surviving evidence to produce a thoughtful, nuanced, synthesis of the place of religious practice within the Seleukid dynasty. If you like this synopsis, please go and check out the book itself at the BAR website.

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Nicholas L. Wright Divine kings and sacred spaces: power and religion in Hellenistic Syria (301-64 BC). Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series 2450 (2012). Pp. xi + 167. ISBN 978-1-4073-1054-1. £32.00.

The volume takes an integrative approach to the study of Hellenistic cult and cultic practices across the Levant during the period of domination by the Seleukid dynasty (i.e. 301-64 BC). At its height, the empire of the Seleukid dynasty controlled a vast territory stretching from the Aegean Sea to beyond the Oxus River and from Armenia to the Sinai Peninsula. The heart of the empire, if not its centre, was the Syrian littoral, the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates which connected its eastern domain with the wider Hellenistic world. For 250 years, the Seleukid kings and their Greco-Macedonian elite built cities and fortresses, raised massive armies and patronised temples but, with the exception of a handful of sites, there is little archaeological evidence to show for this once mighty empire. The scant literary references are generally hostile, painting the Seleukid regime as everything from xenophobic Hellenes, effeminate eastern barbarians or cruel and impious tyrants. The kings were shown as easily outwitted and their servants cowardly. This bias has naturally found its way into much of the modern literature regarding the Seleukid state. Substantially based on my PhD research, Religion in Hellenistic Syria will approach one of the most prominent aspects of the Seleukid state: the interplay between the state and different religious groups, from a post-colonial perspective.

The monograph employs a synthesis of archaeological, numismatic, and historical evidence in order to establish an overview of ‘religion’ in a period which is often under-represented in standard historical accounts, both ancient and modern. The volume discusses religious beliefs and practices on two principal levels, that of the state, and that of the individual communities which made up the state. The investigation of state attitudes towards religion investigates the manipulation of both Hellenic and indigenous beliefs by the king and his court in order to secure support among the military and the wider populace. It also places the establishment of the royal cult within this framework and illustrates how and why members of the royal family attained godhead in their own lifetime. With respect to individual communities, the volume presents a series of case studies that explore the evidence for religious activity at a local and regional level. Principally taking the form of the specific buildings studies, it also encompassing issues of religious festivals and ritual activity where the evidence allows.

The investigation of Syrian cult under the Seleukids has three principal outcomes: it documents one of the most significant aspects within the fabric of past communities; it outlines the development of religious practices and expression in the region which was the birthplace of the modern world’s three most influential monotheistic religions; and the research methodology allows religion to be used as a lens through which the wider processes of acculturation and rejection within a colonial context may be explored – processes which continue to effect our own increasingly cosmopolitan world.

Divine kings and sacred spaces is divided into three unequal parts dealing with the historical and cultural environment of Hellenistic Syria based largely on historical accounts (chapter 1), an assessment of the Seleukid state’s attitude towards religion and its uses as seen through the numismatic and epigraphic record (chapters 2-3) and a discussion of cultic practice and belief using archaeological evidence from identifiable cult sites from the Hellenistic period.

The introduction provides a brief overview of the state of Seleukid studies, highlighting the theoretical differences between colonial and post-colonial approaches to the study of an imperial system.

Chapter 1: A Macedonian hegemony
Chapter 1 outlines the geography of greater Syria in the Hellenistic period, discussing briefly the settlement patterns that existed prior to the Macedonian conquest. It then provides a historical narrative of the Hellenistic occupation of, and the continued Seleukid control over, Syria. It includes a brief enquiry into the nature of the perceived ethnic groupings within the region in the Hellenistic period and how these may have influenced the assimilation or rejection of religious beliefs.

Chapter 2: State patronage of religion
A more comprehensive consideration of religion under the Seleukids follows in chapter 2 which begins with a review of the various Greek and non-Greek deities patronised by the Seleukid kings. The evidence for this chapter is heavily numismatic and so it includes a discussion on the impact of numismatic iconography. Finally, the relationship between the Seleukid administration and religious groups and centres in Syria and the level of state control are considered.

Chapter 3: Divine kings
In chapter 3 the analysis of the relationship between religion and state continues with a discussion of the development of the royal cult in which the kings initially received posthumous deification but which, over the course of the dynasty’s history, grew to include the worship of the living king along with his queen and their living children. As part of the investigation, both the royal titulature and officially ordained iconography are discussed.

Chapter 4: Sacred spaces – north Syria
Devolving from a state to a regional level, the ‘popular’ worship conducted at various northern Levantine sites, both civic and rural, will be investigated in chapter 4. The depth of the discussion necessarily varies from site to site in accordance with the quality and quantity of the evidence. At most sites, a combination of archaeological and other evidence is available which enables a synthetic reconstruction of the nature of the cult. However, no sites allow an unhindered view of religious activity as it occurred on a day-to-day basis and the sites must be used to complement one another. The sites discussed in these terms are the ‘Charonion’ at Antioch, the Doric temple at Seleukeia-Pieria, the temple complex of Zeus at Baitokaike, the Jebel Khalid Area B temple and the sanctuary of the Syrian Gods at Hierapolis-Bambyke.

Chapter 5: Sacred spaces – Phoenicia and Koile-Syria
Chapter 5 follows the same format as the preceding chapter, discussing worship conducted at sites in central and southern Levant. The sites which form the basis of this discussion are Umm el-Amed, Damascus, the Panion on Mount Hermon, Gadara, Gerasa and Tel Beersheba. As in chapter 4, the evidence is synthesised to provide an overview of religious practice and belief in the region.

Chapter 6: Cultic administration
The relationship between the Seleukid administration and the variegated religious groups and centres in Syria and the differing levels of state control are considered in chapter 6 along with an overview of sacrificial ritual and sacred dining.

Concluding thoughts
The concluding chapter evaluates the available evidence and attempts to determine the nature of religious belief and practice in Syria during the period of Seleukid control.

In writing Divine kings and sacred spaces, I have compiled a body of research that will benefit the wider community of scholars interested in aspects of the Hellenistic world. The book synthesises evidence drawn from different aspects of ancient world studies, principally archaeology, numismatics and ancient history. However, in order to cater for a multidisciplinary readership I have avoided, where possible, the overuse of specialised terminology or jargon while trying not to undermine the complex issues discussed. The book is written in such a way as to provide an accessible, regional and cultural study for an undergraduate audience with enough detail to prove useful for postgraduate studies and professional academics. By bridging the gap between archaeology, numismatics and ancient history, this book provides both an archaeological and historical analysis of the subject matter.

No other books deal with the subject of Hellenistic Syrian religion in a comparable manner. The two most relevant volumes are Susan Downey’s Mesopotamian religious architecture: Alexander through the Parthians (1988, Princeton University Press – out of print) and Per Bilde et al. (eds.) Religion and religious practice in the Seleucid kingdom (1990, Aarhus University Press). The Downey monograph, although dealing with comparable evidence, concentrates on the neighbouring region of Mesopotamia and there is no overlap in material. The two volumes are therefore complementary rather than in competition. The collection of essays edited by Bilde et al. exists as the only focused study of Seleukid religion. However, the evidence employed throughout the volume is heavy weighed towards literary sources rather than material culture. The compilation fails to fully divulge a proper understanding of the role of religion at its numerous social or political levels under the Seleukid kings and only deals with the region of Syria in a peripheral manner.

There are several other volumes which deal more broadly with the subject of Hellenistic religion, see for example Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman age (2002, Eedermans Publishing), Miller et al., Hellenistic Religion (2009, VDM), or Martin, Hellenistic religions: an introduction (1987, Oxford University Press). Where these volumes deal with religion in Syria at all, they suffer for the same problems stated above – the discussions of the Syrian region, with the exception of Judaea, are treated as a periphery of the Hellenistic world and are largely based on literary evidence. The discussions are therefore coloured by the inherent bias of the ancient sources. None of these volumes provide a comprehensive overview of religious belief or practice in Hellenistic Syria.

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