Online Review: Book

Sidi Jdidi II: Le groupe épiscopal

Guy P.R. Métraux


By Aïcha Ben Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, and Sylvestre Roucole (CÉFR 451). Pp. 393, figs. 232, color pls. 55. École Française de Rome, Rome 2011. €120. ISBN 978-2-7283-0895-8 (paper).

This is the second volume of a two-part account of three Christian churches and their contexts in a small town (or large village) south of Carthage on the east coast of modern Tunisia, 15 km inland from a larger Roman coastal center, that of Pupput. The first volume (Aïcha Ben Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, and Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I: La basilique sud [Rome 2005]) contained a complete description and analysis of the southernmost church (Basilica I) in the lower habitation area. This volume completes the work with the two churches (Basilicas II and III) at the town’s topographically highest position. The name and administrative purlieu of the town itself had been in doubt, but analyses by the authors (Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 24–34) of inscriptions and the lists of Donatist and Orthodox bishops present at African councils in the fifth century C.E. have identified it as Aradi in Africa Byzacena. The town was in an agriculturally rich area (producing cereals, olives, and sheep) athwart good transport by road and sea, large enough to have an impressive porticoed court devoted to the imperial cult, and with a population that, in the early fifth century, had included citizens rich enough to spend money on municipal improvements “for civic love of patria“(Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 26–9). Both volumes include accounts of the houses and neighborhoods in proximity to the churches that show that the ecclesiastical entities participated strongly in the agricultural organization of the region (milling, pressing) as well as in reception of and distributions to the poor (354); another building may have been a bishop’s residence (225–79, esp. 278, 355; see also Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 199–227).

The processes by which Roman contexts were Christianized has been an agenda of North African archaeologists for several years, coming from the work of Paul-Albert Février, Noel Duval, and others; there have been notable advances in knowledge about how grand theological and historical issues affected local changes while documenting how communities defined their own religious practices. The basilicas at Sidi Jdidi and their adjacent buildings are both typical and special, with repercussions of a larger history sharply delineated in the archaeological record but with local religious impulses in full view. The authors have presented very fine archaeological documentation, including exemplary accounts of the pottery and material finds (361–73; see also Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 229–329, 353–81) and have not flinched from subtle interpretation of complex material. All three basilicas had an up-and-down history of changes, and they may have fallen into desuetude even before the conquest of the area in the later seventh century C.E.

The “episcopal group” of buildings of the bishopric of Aradi consisted of two churches of almost equal size (Basilicas II and III, both ca. 20 x 12 m internally) oriented parallel to each other lengthwise on an approximate north–south axis, but separated by about 30 m with service and habitation quarters. Like the other basilica to the south (Basilica I), both were built over preexisting houses, indicating transfers of property from private to ecclesiastical ownership in the town. Basilicas II and III were started early in the second quarter of the fifth century, whereas Basilica I was a little smaller (16 x 11 m) and a little later in date, ca. 430 (Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 222–23). All three were of standard type: their apses had mosaic floors raised by steps above the nave floors, and their naves (wdth. ca. 4.60 m for Basilicas II and III, less for Basilica I) were flanked by single aisles (wdth. 2.70–2.90 m for Basilicas II and III, narrower for Basilica I). The two basilicas in the “episcopal group” were five bays deep (four bays for Basilica I), probably with lower roofs over the aisles and arcaded clerestory walls for the naves (probably a wooden roof for Basilica I). All three were small structures, which could accommodate 200–250 standing persons at the utmost, but probably fewer in actuality, given the normal African practice of setting the altars far down into the church, reserving the apses and much of the naves for the clergy with barriers of wood, metal, or stone; all three basilicas included these spatial measures, and they were simple affairs (352).

Over time, however, architectural changes, internal subdivisions, liturgical modifications, and new floor mosaics gave each basilica a special character; there may well have been competition among them and some one-upmanship between their construction on the eve of, and during, the Vandal presence, after ca. 439 C.E. (Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 122–23), and their later modifications after the Byzantine reconquest of Africa a century later, after 535 C.E.

The liturgical practice of setting altars far down the nave, combined with intense local devotion to the memory of martyrs, resulted in a double direction for many African churches. This was the case for Basilica I, where, as it developed in the later fifth century, the apse and the fourth nave bay reserved for the clergy were the equal in terms of mosaic decoration of a wide enclosed area in the second nave bay defined by a surface (a huge reused piece of sandstone) and inscriptions supporting an altar and an exhibition of important relics. The double direction of the space, and circulation into and within the church, separately accommodated both attendance at services and veneration of martyrs’ relics (Ben Abed-Ben Khader et al. 2005, 117–22, 333).

For Basilica II in the “episcopal group,” the martyriological aspect was even more accentuated. In the later fifth century, the original nave and aisles were shortened, with the first and second bays rebuilt on the cross axis with a raised pavement, possibly with a tower over the two bays of the nave (69–79, 283–305, 351, fig. 232): this new structure marked an adult’s sarcophagus on the south wall and provided for a convergence of spaces from the old aisle bays, architecturally marking a martyrium. The same convergence of spaces for veneration was applied to rooms east of the apse of the church: four rooms (one a new apse) converged on an impressive six-lobed immersion font with rich mosaic decoration and surrounded by burials marked by decoration and inscriptions in mosaic (it may have replaced an earlier, unexcavated font [figs. 28, 199–207]). The arrangement suggests that the baptisterium had taken on the aspect of martyrium, and other modifications (a long, narrow space with two burials at one end, a dense agglomeration of tombs in the east aisle) further emphasize Basilica II as a martyrs’ church. Private tombs abounded throughout, even in the courtyard, to be as close to the saints as possible.

In contrast, Basilica III remained virtually unchanged in plan. Its baptistery was unimpressive compared with that of Basilica II (170–72, 353–54). Instead, it became a burial church for clerics and laypersons, some privileged in the apse, others spread throughout the nave and aisles. By the Byzantine reconquest, the differences among the three churches had become marked: Basilicas I and II as church-martyria deploying architectural spaces and liturgical adaptations for important tombs and relics, Basilica III continuing as an ecclesia.

All three incorporated decorative floor mosaics, some with dedicatory inscriptions not naming (for humility) the donor, others covering tombs of clerics and laypersons, naming them with names, titles, death dates, and ages, forming a gazetteer of the town’s distinguished dead; Ben Abed-Ben Khader and Fixot’s fully illustrated analyses are a valuable (and touching) part of both volumes (81–144, 183–209; see also Ben Abed-Ben Khader 2005, 87–114, 142–55) and give life to these small local churches.

Guy P.R. Métraux
York University
1358 Adjala Fourth Concession
Loretto, Ontario L0G 1L0

Book Review of Sidi Jdidi II: Le groupe épiscopal, by Aïcha Ben Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, and Sylvestre Roucole

Reviewed by Guy P.R. Métraux

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Metraux

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