NEW YORK – Today, many people see Christianity and Islam as two opposite worlds, often in conflict with each other. However, there exists a common history which unites these two different cultures and resembles a more continuous movement of tides than a clear chasm.
In an effort to offer a window onto this historical truth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, is hosting an enlightening exhibition: Byzantium and Islam – Age of Transition.
As declared by the curator at the Metropolitan Museum: ‘The exhibition follows the artistic traditions of the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire from the seventh century to the ninth, as they were transformed from being central to the Byzantine tradition to being a critical part of the Islamic world.’
To create such a display of culture, a hight number of artefacts arrived in New York from many countries, and several flew in from Greece. Among these precious items are several beautiful 8th century carved ivory plaques, and golden earrings, decorated with vine scroll, birds and rabbits; treasures that tourists can usually admire at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece.
As to the thread connecting each artefact of the exhibition, it takes the visitor in territories extending from Syria to Egypt and across north Africa; directly in the heart of the world once ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital, Constantinople (today Istanbul). Much of the wealth of the Byzantine Empire came from these southern provinces. Trade routes moved silks, spices of the east and local products, to the west and the north. What is more, the state religion was Orthodox Christianity, as defined by the patriarch in Constantinople, but other forms of Christianity and Judaism flourished. As a result, these southern provinces, long influenced by Greco-Roman traditions, were home to Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac Christians, Jewish communities, and more.
These lands were dear to Constantinople, and commerce continued to flourish when the Sassanian Empire occupied much of Syria and Egypt from 614 to 629. In 630, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius regained these territories and celebrations were held in every city. As homage to the reacquired lands he offered the ‘True Cross’ to Jerusalem, and it remained in the city even when the Byzantine provinces were incorporated in the lands belonging to the Umayyad Dynasty, which lasted until 750.
Through time, and in spite of political changes, major cities were made wealthy by commerce. Trade routes reached eastward down the Red Sea, past Jordan, and entered India; other trades headed north to Constantinople and along the Mediterranean coastline. Commerce carried goods but also ideas, and they flowed freely throughout the whole region.
Islam, as the new religion and philosophy that emerged from Mecca and Medina, started to reach the empire’s southern provinces via the Red Sea trade route. In many cases political and religious authority was transferred from the established Christian Byzantine Empire to the newly established Umayyad Muslim dynasties – and later Abbasid dynasties. As natural in these cases, these new powers rooted their secular and religious identities onto the existing tradition, bending and transforming it. They gave shape and life to marvellous expression of faith and art, several of which we are able to admire today.
During the rise of the Umayyads and the transition of rule in the eastern Mediterranean, the text of the Qur’an, originally recited from memory, came to be written in Arabic, inspiring religious devotion and creativity. Verses from the Qur’an became standard decoration for mosques, funerary monuments, and other works. Calligraphy, evolved to present the teachings of the Qur’an, became a major artistic tradition. Mosques were erected in cities under Muslim rule and they would function as religious centres, but also as evidence of the authority in power. As speculated by scholars working on the exhibition, the new rulers might have hired Byzantine artisans to render the elaborate mosaic decoration of the Great Mosque in Damascus, the Umayyad capital, built between 705 and 715.
It would be naive to believe that when Islam became the dominant belief in the region, everything came to a stand still; fortunately, commerce and the flow of ideas continued, and evolved. Proof of it can be found in the history of many traded goods. Textiles are often taken into account, but they were only one of the many goods which were traded along the old routes, and brought valuables from the east to Byzantium, and later to the western Islamic world.
Several of these goods were decorated with popular motifs that remained in use when the Byzantine empire’s southern provinces became part of the Islamic world. Examples are found on silk, openwork censers, jewellery, and clay lamps. They vary from animal motifs, vine motifs and depictions of courtly pleasures – including female acrobats, dancers, and musicians.
Vine patterns were a favourite; however, as they passed from the classical period through the Byzantine era, and arrived in the Islamic period, they evolved into more stylized forms. Interesting enough, this decorative pattern would leave space for an increasing number of inscriptions, which will become a decorative motif – beautiful in themselves but also useful because they could identifying the donor, and offer auspicious wishes to the owner.
Further on, one of the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition is its ability to bring to life ways in which in the Arabic peninsula Christianity was able to live side by side with Islam.
To find out that Christians speaking Syriac trace their origins back to Saint Peter, and according to tradition he established a church in Antioch in the first century, is truly enlightening. To learn how the apostle Thomas spread the Gospel to the Syriac cities of Edessa and Nisibis (now in Turkey), helps the visitor to grasp the complexity and beauty of this philosophically intertwined society.
Following the exhibition, I learn that the Syriac Bible, known as the Peshitta, is based on the Hebrew Bible, which was translated into Syriac in the second century. In the same period, the Church of the East (once called the Nestorian Church) developed further east in the Sasanian Empire; another Syriac-speaking Christian community, it was active far into the Arabian Peninsula.
I am deeply grateful to the major support to the exhibition provided by Mary and Michael Jaharis, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation and The Hagop Kevorkian Fund; the exhibition is simply mesmerizing the visitor. Hopefully, many people will visit this display of culture, this window into one of the most fascinating and shrouded periods of Medieval history. To say they will learn how we can live side by side, in peace and mutual admiration and respect, might be naïve; however, if our ancestors were able in the past, we need to find a way to make it happen today as well.
Romana Turina is a lecturer in Communication at the University of Indianapolis. She works as screenwriter and research thematics concerning dramaturgy, memory studies, and animation as applied to the divulgation of knowledge.