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Redefining the Sacred: Religious Architecture and Text in the Near East and Egypt 1000 BC–AD 300

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Redefining the Sacred: Religious Architecture and Text in the Near East and Egypt 1000 BC–AD 300

Edited by Elizabeth Frood and Rubina Raja (Contextualizing the Sacred 1). Pp. xx + 260, figs. 48, color pls. 9, maps 4. Brepols, Turnhout 2014. €80. ISBN 978-2-503-54104-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume is a collection of papers from a European Science Foundation workshop at the University of Oxford in March 2009. It offers a multidisciplinary look at the role of temples in creating elite identity in the Near East and Egypt from the Early Iron Age to the Roman period. Frood and Raja consider these spatial and temporal boundaries to be fluid, however, and some of the papers transcend them, focusing on the Bronze Age or the central Mediterranean (5; cf. 32). The collection proceeds from broad topics to more specific ones. It serves as the foundation for a Brepols series titled Contextualizing the Sacred, the second volume of which, Religious Identities in the Levant from Alexander to Muhammed: Continuity and Change, appeared under the editorship of Blömer, Lichtenberger, and Raja in 2015 (Turnhout).

Ganzert’s opening essay establishes the book’s theoretical backdrop. He stresses the difference between ancient and modern religious architecture, contrasting the lush and colorful temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri with the Heroic and Functional churches of 20th-century Europe, noting the danger of anachronism (21–5). Ganzert also presents the idea of “healing sovereignty,” whereby ancient structures were settings for the realization of the hierarchy between the divine and earthly spheres (29). This notion was not confined to centers of worship but extended to palaces and even private homes (30; cf. 41).

The volume’s first section, “Regional Perspectives,” features papers on the relationships between rulers, temples, and communities. Pongratz-Leisten examines the Mesopotamian use of religion to fabricate urban identities and economically link cities (49–53; cf. 70). By way of example, she compares Naram Sin’s combination of divine status, elite consensus, and cultic ranking (59–64) with Gudea’s transmission of divine commands to a horizontal social web (66–7). Next, Morstadt investigates religion in Phoenician colonies such as Nora, where temples demarcated urban space (87), and Carthage, which incorporated Phoenician, Greek, and Egyptian deities without a discernable order of precedence (93–4). Concluding the section, Coppens considers tradition and innovation in Egyptian temple building during Dynasty 30 and the Ptolemaic era. He concentrates on the Wabet substructure, an open court with an elevated chapel that was incorporated with remarkable consistency into temple architecture (116).

The second section, “Places, Communities, and Individuals,” includes essays dealing with smaller timescales and areas. Rimmer Herrmann analyzes the stele of KTMW, an official of Panamuwa II in the eighth century B.C.E., from Zincirli. Based on the monument’s archaeological context, she argues that an urban clan or elite association maintained a mortuary cult to KTMW analogous to royal foundations, albeit on a diminished scale (168, 173–75). Baker investigates the decline of Ishtar’s Eanna temple and the rise of Anu’s Reš and Enlil’s Ešgal in fifth-century B.C.E. Uruk. She traces these developments to Persian reorganization after Babylonian revolts (191–94), also theorizing that the Reš and Ešgal districts eventually received perimeter walls (202–4). Lichtenberger reflects in turn on religious continuity and change in Roman Syria. The horned Zeus of Dion, which appears to revive Late Bronze Age iconography, illustrates the situation’s complexity. This deity attests not to continuity, but rather to discontinuity and later redefinition (219–20; cf. 210). Finally, Menze describes Ephrem the Syrian’s worldview in Roman Nisibis. Unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, who promoted imperial participation in church affairs, Ephrem deemed the emperor’s duty to be simply the protection of Christians (239), leaving the problem of heresy to bishops (241), and all affairs ultimately to God (243–47). Menze finds the origin of Eusebius and Ephrem’s divergence in their experiences of Constantine and Julian the Apostate, respectively, as well as in their location vis-à-vis the imperial court (233).

The book is an impressive achievement in the realm of academic proceedings in that it escapes the flaw of uneven quality. In general, its essays have compelling arguments and robust bibliographies, with the contributions of Coppens and Rimmer Hermann standing out as particularly solid. Moreover, the authors exhibit a reassuring modesty, recognizing the limits of their data and terminology. It is thus surprising that the volume is also peppered with curious asides. Discussing Ramesses III’s vision of Medinet Habu, for instance, Ganzert cites the translation “City of Habu” as evidence that it “was comprehended as an urban entity” (38). The toponym is Arabic, however, and quite different from the complex’s Egyptian designation, Djamet. A second example is Morstadt’s remark that the Tophet “has been misunderstood from the Old Testament (beginning of the twentieth century BC)” as a place of child sacrifice (96). No part of the Hebrew Bible can be dated so early, and even if the text is a misprint, the author meaning that the modern confusion goes back to the early 20th century C.E., that statement is inaccurate as well.                                                                                 

Beyond such relatively trivial issues, readers may question the workshop’s parameters, which embrace more than three millennia of history, from the Carthaginian empire to the Zagros Mountains. This concern is magnified by Ganzert’s conviction that ancient people “did not divide the sacred and the profane” (41; cf. 30), so that all topics ostensibly merit inclusion. To be fair, Frood and Raja do express specific interest in the use of space over the longue durée (5; cf. 32). But while all of the papers transcend l’histoire événementielle, they are just as often alignments of archaeology with intermediate-term conjonctures as they are Annales School studies of “structures.”

Perhaps the chief weakness of the book is that its target audience is difficult to pinpoint. A scholar researching early Christianity in the Near East, for instance, will want to read Menze’s essay, but will that reader go any deeper into the volume? Subsequent publications in the series will of course determine whether it is a loose aggregation of interesting papers or a true “transdisciplinary discourse” that “enable[s] new collaborations,” as the editors hope (12). For the moment, however, the former description seems more appropriate.

Steven M. Stannish
Department of History
State University of New York at Potsdam

Book Review of Redefining the Sacred: Religious Architecture and Text in the Near East and Egypt 1000 BC–AD 300, edited by Elizabeth Frood and Rubina Raja

Reviewed by Steven M. Stannish

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Stannish

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