abstracts by author


abstracts by title


Ellen B. Aitken

Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

Bringing the Dead to Life: The Acts of Thomas and the Authority of the Hero

Of the apocryphal acts of the apostles, the Acts of Thomas, a third-century Syriac text, is most closely connected with Edessa and the veneration of Thomas’s relics there. Local veneration of saints has been shown to be shaped by the ritual practices and conceptualizations of hero cult throughout the Hellenistic world. This paper proposes that the Acts of Thomas as a whole, not only the account of his martyrdom and translation of his relics, is imbued with the practices and dynamics of hero cult. It examines the relation between Jesus, Thomas, and the devotees as expressed in ritual action, hymns, ethic, and the transmission of wisdom in terms of how a hero, in cult, functions authoritatively for a city. To define the context of discourse, the paper considers the distinctive shape of hero cult in the Syrian context and as refracted in the Syrian-affiliated literature of the Second Sophistic.


Amr Al-Azm

Faculty of Archaeology, University of Damascus, Syria; Visiting Professor, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

Conservation and Preservation of Mosaics in Syria: New Strategies for Old Problems

There are literally thousands of square meters of Classical and Byzantine-period mosaic pavements in Syria that come from public and private buildings. Many have been lifted but only a few are on public view. This corpus presents a daunting challenge in terms of conservation and preservation. Attempts are now underway to produce more effective means of dealing with the mosaics. An example is an ongoing joint project by the Centre for Archaeological Research, University of Damascus, and the European Centre for the Study of Byzantine and Post Byzantine Monuments to publish a working corpus of Syrian mosaics. This includes systematic study and documentation of all known mosaics in Syria with re-examination and updating of existing records and archives. The resulting comprehensive database is be made accessible by internet. It is hoped that this may promote new management policies aimed at encouraging and supporting in situ restoration and preservation.


Nicolas Beaudry

University of Quebec at Rimouski

Ras el Bassit and the late antique archaeological landscape of coastal North Syria

Excavations at Ras el Bassit in the 1970s and 1980s focused on its Iron Age occupation, but also revealed a last period of prosperity and intense activity during late antiquity, marked by a dense occupation, the refurbishment of the port and fortifications, an export-oriented pottery industry, a change to large-size masonry building techniques, and the enlargement of a synagogue. The recent excavation of a sixth-century church further confirmed the archaeological potential of the site. This paper presents a provisional portrait of late antique Bassit drawing from both recent and previous fieldwork and underlining its expected contribution to the coastal archaeological landscape.


Rebecca Coughlin

Department of Classics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Space and Ritual Action: The Construction of Sacred Place According to Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite

This paper which will explore the relation of space and ritual action with the development of the idea of place in the sixth-century Syrian Christian Neoplatonist Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. This exploration will involve a discussion of the construction of Syrian Churches during the fifth and sixth centuries; how was ritual space organized? What is the relation between Dionysius’ hierarchical ordering of the Church and the physical shape of the building? How does Dionysius propose to embody the cosmos in the microcosm of the building? The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, among his other works, will provide the basis for this discussion. Finally, I plan to show that the performative ritual action described by Dionysius is directly and necessarily linked to the physical place of ritual. In examining this statement I will also look at Dionysius’ notion of theurgy in relation to his somewhat distant predecessor Iamblichus’ presentation of ritual under the same term.


Christiane Delplace

CNRS: UMR 5607 Bordeaux, France

Palmyre, de la ville-centre commercial international à la ville-centre chrétien et militaire

Starting from the situation of Palmyra in the Early Empire, and taking as examples the agora (1st–2nd c.) and the suburban mart, excavated in 2001–2005 (3rd c. to the Arab era), we will show what was the evolution of the city, from its status as an international trading centre between the far East and Rome down to its being but a fortified town on the limes. We will start with the architectural study of the market, but also of its archaeological content which will help us get a glimpse of its ancient economic activity. By broadening this study to the whole of Palmyra, we will try to show what was the economic, architectural, military and religious importance of Palmyra in late antiquity. Inscriptions, architectural remains, pottery, coinage (there is little of it), anthropology and cartography will be used as data.


Pauline Donceel-Voute

Department of Archaeology and Art History, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium

Conservation and Preservation of Mosaics in Syria: New Strategies for Old Problems

Houses, palaces, tombs, streets, bath buildings, churches, synagogues and other public buildings have included in their decorative programme motifs and words whose function it is to ward off negative forces that are evil and envious of our life and its riches. The iconological problems that are posed by these signs and images, of which most are to be found near an entrance or around a corner, on the ceiling or floor, are due to their great variety, both formal (knots and interlace, crosses and chrisms, Medusa’s head, the attacked Evil-Eye, complex inscriptions, crenelations, weapons etc.) and functional, be it as to their effect (sorting, warding off, stopping, trapping, rebounding) or as to how they function (addressing the incomer, standing guard, waging a battle for us, etc.). They are often “helped” by positive forces in the shape of images of luck, opulence and blessing. Examples will cover the whole Levant from Late Roman to Umayyad times.


Greg Fisher

Keble College, Oxford University

Mechanisms of power in the borderlands: Rome and the Ghassanids in the Fifth- and Sixth-Century C.E. Near East

Recent works by Elizabeth Fowden, Robert Hoyland and others have underlined the importance of several key issues to the broad questions of the role and identity of the Arabs before the arrival of Islam. Often considered separately, the far-reaching effects of imperial confrontation and the need to address the middle ground between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles are now both recognized as crucial points of analysis. Furthermore, Hoyland, in particular, has suggested the potential worth of comparisons with ‘barbarians’ elsewhere in the Late Roman Empire. With due emphasis on these points, and by placing the argument within the framework of the ‘borderlands’ school of thought, this paper will discuss the role of the Ghassan—one of the most prominent Arab groups of the period—in negotiating positions of power within the Late Roman Empire. Drawing on archaeological and literary sources, it will demonstrate that the Ghassan occupied a highly flexible place within the complex relationship between nomadic and sedentary peoples. Using appropriate comparisons from other historical contexts, it will also discuss how the Ghassan manipulated their identification with different modes of living, as well as their related participation in different types of linguistic, religious and ethnic identities, to leverage power from their imperial neighbours within the context of the Roman-Persian confrontation. The paper will conclude with some observations about continuity and discontinuity between Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic period.


John M. Fossey

Emeritus Professor of Art History, McGill University; Curator of Archaeology, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Montreal Paleochristian Mosaic Project (full-length lecture)

Pierre-Louis Gatier

CNRS: UMR 5189, Lyon, France

La christianisation de l’Antiochène dans l’antiquité tardive

The Massif Calcaire of northern Syria, especially the Antiochene region, provides a good basis for investigating late-antique rural life. Studies concerning the Christianization of this region, however, particularly the most recent ones, require a thorough critical review. This paper will focus on three points: the meaning of monotheistic inscriptions of “the one God only” type; the value of isolated Christian traces; the system for dating ruined churches and the use of archaeological data for religious history. We will discuss how historians make use of poorly established inscriptions or often obsolete archaeological publications. What indeed is the meaning, in a village, of a single late Christian inscription, when several ancient Christian inscriptions are found in a neighbouring village? Recent archaeological research shows that the Antiochene region was Christianized earlier and more completely than previously believed. We will consider how these conclusions apply to Syria at large.


Geoffrey Greatrex

Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Canada

The eastern frontier in the period of the Book of Steps

This paper will seek to set the Syriac Liber Graduum in its fourth/fifth century context. The work itself is primarily of a spiritual nature and has received relatively little attention in scholarly literature so far; it was only recently translated into English for the first time. This paper will place the work in the broader context of life on the eastern frontier of the Roman empire and the Syriac culture of the time.


Amir Harrak

Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto, Ontario

Was Edessa or Arbela the Gateway for the Christianization of Mesopotamia?

The early history of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia is shrouded in mystery, because no early literary sources pertaining to this subject exist and because archaeology has not yet provided relevant information. Scholars disagree on how Christianity entered Mesopotamia, the land that witnessed a highly organized and particularly active Church by the beginning of the fourth century. In his excellent Edessa “the Blessed City,” J. B. Segal argued that the new religion was first established in Arbela, an important Parthian province located in Upper Mesopotamia, and among the local Jewish community mentioned by Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities. Other scholars, relying on later sources, including Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, argue that Christianity entered Mesopotamia directly from Antioch via the small kingdom of Edessa located near the upper Euphrates. The present paper will support the latter view. The Aramaic dialect of Edessa became the language of the new faith, and Edessa was the gate to Mesopotamia and the rest of the East, in terms of trade, travel, and the circulation of ideas and doctrines.


Ian Henderson

Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

The Varieties of Religious Communication in Lucian of Samosata

The Romano-Greek cultural renewal movement of the Second Sophistic had a profound impact on the communicability of the gospel in middle and late antiquity: early Christian public discourse was fashioned in conscious and recognizable antithesis to rhetorical wisdom. The new sophists in turn took a programmatic interest in religion as oracular speech and performance by charlatans and saints alike. The sophistic investigation of religious language and manners is nowhere more evident than in the oeuvre of the Hellenized Syrian, Lucian of Samosata. Lucian’s often satiric representation of oracle and cultus is widely mined in support of history of religions typologies of the second century (Peregrinus; Alexander of Abonoteichos). Here instead we explore Lucian as an observer of the conditions of religious communication at the beginning of the third century.


Rafah Jwejati

Department of Art History and Communications, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

Church Mosaics of Maarret-en-Noman: Contribution to Early Christian Iconography

With road construction and various haphazard discoveries in the area of modern-day Hama Epiphania, ancient mosaics were uncovered in the nineteen eighties, lifted from their place of origin and sent for display to the Museum of Maarret en-Noman. An Ottoman caravanserail, this monument was restored and inaugurated in 1987 to house all the mosaics and other archaeological finds of the region.Although they are mentioned in the concise museum catalogue done by the then museum director, Kamel Chehadeh, the church mosaics have not been properly studied nor been included in the vast church pavement corpus of Syrian mosaics. The aim of this paper is to present them in a scholarly study, to analyze their compositions, their repertory of ornamental motifs and their structural organization, to the extent that that is possible. Along with the epigraphic content of their inscriptions, the dating and analysis of their iconography shall shed light on the function and role of floor decoration in the development of early Christian modes of thinking and church rituals.


Jeffrey Keiser

Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

‘My Eros is Crucified’: Some Remarks on the Spiritual Legacy of Ignatius of Antioch

In his letter to Christians in Rome, begging that they not to prevent his impending martyrdom, Ignatius of Antioch famously proclaimed that his erõs had been crucified. Over a century later, Origen understood this short phrase as a referring to the crucifixion of Christ. Modern scholarly consensus has been that the late-fifth-century monk who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite unwittingly followed Origen’s misinterpretation of Ignatius. This paper concerns the remarkable history of a seemingly simple phrase about desire, death, and the space between. Using principles drawn from theories of mimesis and intertextuality, I will follow its traces on a journey from the pen of the bishop of Antioch, through the mind of one of the greatest and most controversial exegetes in Christian history, and into the work of a profoundly enigmatic Syrian monk.


George Kellaris

Department of Art History and Communications, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

The Mosaics of the Montreal Project

This paper will take the form of a commented photo-exhibit containing most if not all of the two lots of Syrian Palaeochristian floor mosaics seized by Canada Customs in Montreal in 1996 and 1998. It will, thus dovetail with the presentation(s) of Professor Fossey and contribute to the expected extensive discussions of this rich assemblage of material. The exhibition will be oprganised in such a way as to highlight in particular the wide range of iconography in the decoration of the mosaics. The presenter, together with Prof. Fossey, hope that the resulting discussions will add considerably to the monograph which they are currently preparing on these mosaics


E. Nicole Kelley

Department of Religion, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida

Jews and Christians and Pagans - Oh My! The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and the Negotiation of Religious Identity in Fourth-Century Syria

The Pseudo-Clementines are perhaps best known for preserving early “Jewish Christian” traditions, but they have not been appreciated adequately as a resource for understanding the struggles over identity and orthodoxy among fourth-century Christians, Jews, and pagans. This paper attempts to read the Recognitions as a response to a specific set of religious and cultural challenges that emerged most clearly during the reign of the emperor Julian (361–363 CE). Though the Recognitions is largely composed of earlier source materials, few scholars have focused on how these source materials may have continued to be relevant to fourth-century readers and hearers of the text. The paper looks at the Recognitions’ use of religious debates from earlier centuries (especially those involving Bardaisan and Marcion) and argues that these older materials proved to be rhetorically effective ways of addressing challenges to fourth century Syrian Christians brought on by Julian’s political and religious program.


Christine Kondoleon

George and Margo Behrakis Curator of Greek and Roman Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

From House to Church: recontextualizing floor mosaics in the Levant

The paper will examine the evidence in floor mosaics for the continuity between pagan and Christian cultures and communities. There are thematic and stylistic similarities between mosaics found in houses of the Levant and those found in the religious structures. For example, the mosaics at Antioch are particularly rich in their offerings of secular evidence that can be closely compared with ecclesiastical decorations in Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus etc. Pagan themes such as race horses are examples of the imagery that crossed over from the domestic into the religious sphere.


Brent Landau

Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Star and the Apostle: Mission, Christology, and Geography in the Syriac Revelation of the Magi

The “Magi from the East,” mentioned only in Matt. 2:1–12 among the canonical gospels, were the subjects of much speculation within the literature and art of ancient Christianity. The most substantial narrative composition from antiquity devoted to these enigmatic figures is the Syriac Revelation of the Magi, ostensibly written from the perspective of the Magi themselves. This paper explores a tension expressed throughout the Revelation of the Magi’s narrative—the extremely robust view of Christ’s ability to reveal his Gospel to individuals in the far reaches of the earth without any human mediation, contrasted with the more traditional conception of mission, which depends upon human agents for the process of evangelization. The Magi receive polymorphic visions of Christ, speak authoritatively about their journey with the inhabitants of their country, and even facilitate the means by which these people can also receive visions of Christ. Indeed, Christ’s power to manifest himself is so vast in the Revelation of the Magi that the lines separating the categories of “general revelation” and “special revelation” blur markedly. Nevertheless, the story does not end until the Apostle Judas Thomas arrives in the Magi’s homeland, baptizes them, and commissions them to preach throughout the entire land. While this tension may potentially derive from an ecclesiastical redaction of the work that appended the Judas Thomas material, my primary intention here is to locate this text’s received form within a larger early Christian conversation centered on the twin poles of missiology and christology.


Marcie Lenk

Committee for the Study of Religion, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Apostolic Constitutions and the Law

The fourth-century Syrian church manual, the Apostolic Constitutions, is often listed as an anti-Jewish document. Indeed, the compiler argues against Judaism as a particularly dangerous heresy, and he insists that Christians desist from following the deuterosis (“second law”) which Jews follow. Scholars have long disagreed about the meaning of deuterosis. Is it law after Sinai? Law after the Pentateuch? Oral Law? While rejecting deuterosis, the Apostolic Constitutions include many laws incumbent upon Christians. Why are Christians still bound to any part of the law? This paper will examine the rejected and accepted laws in AC, suggesting that some of the Christian practices in the Apostolic Constitutions is more “Jewish“ than previously noticed.


B. Barry Levy

Dean, Faculty of Religious Studies; Professor of Jewish Studies; McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

Syria’s Linguistic Contribution to the World: The Aramaic Language and Its Manifold Literatures

Syria’s role as one of the major cultural, economic, and intellectual crossroads of the ancient world is often acknowledged if understated. And when it is explored more fully, the emphasis tends to be on the influx of Akkadian, Anatolian, Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, and other external forces, and on their individual and collective influences on the Syrian landscape. But when we ask how and to what extent Syria contributed to these and the many other ancient societies from which it borrowed, its indigenous language, known as Aramaic or Syriac, deserves nothing less than top billing. In fact, Aramaic/Syriac– also know by numerous dialectical labels– spread from the Levant to England in the west and to China in the east, and to many areas of Africa as well. Between the rise of the Persian Empire (which adopted Aramaic as its official language and thereby replaced the much more complex Akkadian language that held that position for many centuries) and the rise of Islam (which propelled Arabic into the role of East-Asian lingua franca), Aramaic ruled supreme from India to Europe. Even today, we find an active Syriac church in many far-flung locations, extensive use of Aramaic by Jews around the world, and the available corpus of Aramaic/Syriac scripts and texts grows continually. This presentation will explore the extraordinary contributions this Syrian language has made to world culture, to the literary heritages of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious traditions, and to the evolving trajectories of the societies that long ago adopted it as a primary language of discourse and literary creativity.


Felicia Meynersen

German Archaeological Institute, Damascus, Syria, and Mainz, Germany

Eagle, Lion and Wolf in Ancient Animal Sculpture in Syria and Jordan between ‘Independence’ and ‘External Influence’

This paper presents a part of the first comprehensive study on Roman animal sculpture in Syria and Jordan that brings the aspects of independence and outside influence into focus. One conspicuous finding seems to be that this sculpture witnessed a high degree of independence during the Roman period. On the other hand, according to the ongoing study, the iconographic repertoire of the animal sculpture probably was partially by outside influences, e.g. shown by rare examples of “alien” subjects such as the lupa romana. This paper will also address questions relating to the history of reception of ancient animal sculpture with special attention being paid to public places in urban settings.


Catherine Playoust

Department of Theology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

The Beauty of Jesus and His Twin: Redirected Erotics in the Acts of Thomas

The third-century Syrian text known as the Acts of Thomas places great emphasis on sexual continence, even within marriage. However, it does not relinquish the conventional pairing of ugliness with evil and beauty with goodness. Instead, human beauty is trumped by that of Jesus, with whom both women and men fall in love. Such features are not unusual in Early Christianity, but this paper will examine how they are modulated by a distinctive feature of the text, that Saint Thomas is Jesus’ twin, with beauty of his own. Firstly, Thomas’s beauty enhances his drawing power as a missionary, since the desire of new converts seems often to be directed toward him as much as Jesus. Secondly, Jesus’ change to an unsightly form in the incarnation paves the way for the heavenly destiny of believers, represented by the beautiful Thomas, with their brother, lord, and bridegroom.


Rachel Smith

Committee for the Study of Religion, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

You Built a Temple Deep Inside Their Hearing: Invocation and Apophasis in Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology

In what is a seemingly odd move, Pseudo-Dionysius opens The Mystical Theology, a treatise in which the agalmata of the divine names are undone and transcended through negations, with an invocation of the Trinity. Such a framing has puzzled some, including Jacques Derrida, who argues that this invocation fundamentally undermines the apophatic thrust of the text. This paper will examine the relationship between the apophatic and the invocational, looking closely at the opening passage, which has been called a ‘hymn’ or prayer in the manuscript tradition. The paper will ask how such a cataphatic naming functions in relation to the apophatic treatise, exploring the poetic dynamics of both the opening invocation and the movement through denial in the rest of the text. It will then briefly consider the relationship between these forms of utterance in light of Pseudo-Dionysius adaptation of Iamblichus of Syria’s theurgy.


Frank Trombley

School of Religious and Theological Studies, University of Wales, Cardiff

Interregional influences on the village landscapes of Late Roman Near East (Syria, Phoenice Libanensis, Palaestina III and Arabia): epigraphic and papyrological evidence from ca. 284–750 C.E.

The paper will discuss the village communities in the territories of the towns of the Roman Near East in the long transitional period between the Tetrarchy (284–305 C.E.) and the Umayyad caliphate (660–750 C.E.). The emphasis will be on the impact of the Late Roman and Umayyad administrative apparatus, and of external cultural influences such as Christian monotheism, Islamic monotheism and architectural conceptions. Much of the evidence lies in epigraphic and papyrological collections, and in cognate hagiographic and legal texts. The hagiographic sources include the Syriac life of St. Symeon Stylites the Elder and the Greek one of Symeon Stylites the Younger, Cyril of Scythopolis’s lives of the Palestinian monks, and the anonymous life of St. Symeon the Fool of Hims-Emesa. Documentary sources include the Nessana papyri (both literary and non-literary) and the recently edited Petra papyri. Epigraphic and architectural evidence will be drawn from IGLS, SEG, the Publications of the Princeton University Expeditions to Syria of 1899,1904–5 and 1909 (AAES I–III and PAES I–IV), along with the more recent studies of Tchalenko and Tate.Where relevant, this will be assessed in light of the surveys conducted by Ignazio Pena and his associates in Jabal Barisha, Jabal Duwayli, Jabal al-A’la and Jabal Wastani. Important demographic data is now found in the recently edited corpus of inscriptions from Ghor es-Safi (Byzantine Zoora). Legal sources like the Codex Iustinianus and Novellae will play a part in the analysis, as will relevant regulations found in A. Voobus’ editions of Syriac canon law collections pertaining to ascetics.

My analysis will note traces of the original Aramaic culture of villages and their Hellenization, and the successive impact of the land reforms of the Tetrarchy, the growth of the olive oil export economy in the Massif Calcaire in the territories of Antioch and Apamea, the symbiosis and synoikism of pastoralists with sedentaries, the routes of economic and cultural penetration into the Syro-Arabo-Palestinian steppe, and the intervention of central political and administrative authorities through taxation, corvees and other measures. In the realm of cultural evolution, refinements to existing theses about the expansion of Christianity and the later introduction of Islam will be proposed. Limited attention will also be given to linguistic issues, such as the existence of Greek-Syriac and Greek-Arabic bilingualism. Indigenous and external influences will be sought in architectural style, use of secular and religious symbols and the development of interior space in village settlements. Existing theses about negative phenomena such as the 6th c. bubonic plague, natural disasters and the impact of war on Near Eastern society and landscapes will be explored and refined. This discussion will be a continuation of the author’s previous publications as part of an ongoing research effort to clarify the history of administrative, cultural, economic, religious and social life of the region in the first millenium C.E.


John Wortley

Professor Emeritus of History, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg

Crossroads in the Desert: The Role of the Monasteries in Late Antiquity

In the centuries between the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the explosion of Islam a surprising number of monastic communities came into existence, many of them located in the remote and desolate corners of the Levant. The new religion being quasi-universal, people of diverse regions and languages came to those monasteries, some as visitors, some to spend the rest of their lives there. A small number of those visitors wrote accounts (in Greek) of their experiences (e.g. Historia Monachorum in ģgypto at the end of the 4th century, Pratum Spirituale at the beginning of the seventh) while, for the monks, elaborate collections of apophthegmata patrum were assembled in the sixth. These sources suggest that remote monasteries were not only havens of silence, but also loci of encounter where important social and political contacts could be made.