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Rural Cult Centres in the Hauran: Part of the Broader Network of the Near East (100 BC–AD 300)

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Rural Cult Centres in the Hauran: Part of the Broader Network of the Near East (100 BC–AD 300)

By Francesca Mazzilli (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 51). Oxford: Archaeopress 2018. Pp. viii + 208. £32. ISBN 978-1-78491-954-2 (paper).

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This book on the cultic places of villages in southern Syria and northern Jordan, based partly on a doctoral thesis completed at Durham University (“Beyond Religion: Cultural Exchange and Economy in Northern Phoenicia and the Hauran, Syria,” 2014), aims to reconsider the impressive number of rural sanctuaries—57 of them—in the region of the Hauran from the first century BCE to the third century CE. The author’s term “cult centre” turns the reader’s attention to human activities in the ancient sanctuaries, perceived as vibrant places. Mazzilli’s goal is to analyze these complexes in the perspective of “a part of a broader network of the Near East” (14). The book opens a debate on the rituals and people connected to the sacral architecture, which is understood as a background or stage for all variety of cultic as well as economic activities.

The biggest strength of the book lies in the descriptions of architecture (see esp. 101–11, 126–28). Mazzilli points out that the layouts of the sanctuaries, using both Graeco-Roman elements and local features, means that these cult places differed largely from one another. At the same time, while the look of the sacral buildings, their plans and decoration, varies from one village to another, in general it corresponds to the trends observed in the entire Partho-Roman Near East, including such distant cities as Hatra, Dura-Europos, and Palmyra. On this basis emerges Mazzilli’s reasonable conclusion that the elements used in the external and internal appearance of the cultic centers did not come directly from Rome or Greece, but through Graeco-Roman influenced structures in the vast region of Asia Minor to Arabia (111). This observation is important in the context of seeing the layouts of these centers as conscious responses by local villagers to general fashions observed in the architecture of the Roman empire.

The adjustment of these architectonic trends to local needs and conceptions can be perceived in the link between the plan of the sanctuary in Si’ (Seeia) and the surrounding terrain (106). The architecture follows the natural background of the hill rather than the geometric form of the building. This can be seen in terms of the cultic complex innovatively adapting to the irregularities of the landscape.

The author successfully handles the difficult task of classifying the sanctuaries in a seven-tiered typology according to their different degrees of complexity (3–6). The process of classification reveals a typical but essential struggle for categorization that an archaeologist needs when working with material evidence dispersed within one subregion.

The use of the sanctuaries, the central point of the book, is discussed mostly in chapters 4 to 6, where Mazzilli deals with such matters as the identities of people who were frequenting sanctuaries, their rituals, the role of the sanctuaries in the economy, and the names and origins of the gods worshiped in these cultic centers. The focus on Roman elements in chapter 5 might give a distorted picture of this “rural religious cultural identity,” accentuating the “Romanized” identity of the inhabitants. It is not strange, however, that the rural sanctuaries were decorated in the same way as the great temples of Palmyra, Nabatean cities, or Jerash; or had statues or reliefs carved using the same motifs as elsewhere; or contained dedications to different Semitic and Graeco-Roman deities. This does not have to be simply a question of fascination with Roman culture, but rather of being up-to-date with what is happening in the region by observing fashions and staying in contact with the rest of the Near East. The interest in contributing to the construction of temples was not a particular feature of the elites—understood as rich and involved with political, military, or religious structures—but also of peasants, who lived in the villages. This is illustrated, for example, by dedications from Phrygia (T. Drew-Bear, C.M. Thomas, and M. Yildizturan, Phrygian Votive Steles, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 1999) and a Greek dedication to “Lady Artemis” (Artemis Kyria) by the gardeners from the surroundings of Gerasa (P.-L. Gatier, “Nouvelles inscriptions de Gérasa,” Syria 62, 1985, 310–12). It is stereotyping to think that “a peasant could not, or would not have been interested in having a ‘Roman’ name” (98), a matter of wealth and a high status in the society, and thus, according to the author, not appropriate to a peasant. Social dynamism reveals the free choice of naming, where a Semitic name does not have to be necessarily an indication of a lower status and a Roman or Greek name that of a noble position. Many Greek- and Roman-sounding names were adopted by, for example, slaves or freedmen (see J.-B. Yon, Les notables de Palmyre, BAHBeyrouth 163, Presses de l’Ifpo 2002). Furthermore, numerous examples from Gerasa show the interchangeability of Semitic, “Greek,” and “Roman” names within the generations. Regrettably, Semitic personal names such as Aumos, Thaimos, Soados, and others, are left without comment, which would indeed present links with Semitic cultural koine and other places of the Near East.

The author’s main goal of setting the villages of the Hauran in a wider cultural and religious network is achieved by comparisons and references and it would not need a frequent repetition of the formula “broader cultural network” as a proof throughout the book. Mazzilli defines network analysis in her introduction (9–10), showing in each chapter how ideas, patterns, and gods circulate around the region with people connected to commerce, politics, and the army, as well as people not implied in any of those structures. However, her description of network analysis would benefit greatly from a better graphic display. Some plans and maps appear unfinished (25, 49, 86), showing dots without labels and unexplained lines drawn from one point to another. Map 1 (16), for example, shows the Hauran and neighboring kingdoms without clearly drawn borders or reference to major cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, or Jerash, and no indication given as to the relationship between the villages and the metropoles, kingdoms, or provinces. This makes it difficult for a reader unfamiliar with the region to find a point of reference. The consistent use of names on the maps and plans would show how the villages of the Hauran communicated with the rest of the Near East, from the Mediterranean Sea on the west to the Tigris River on the east, and from Antiochene on the north to the kingdoms of southern Arabia. In the context of the network analysis it would be interesting to see the position of the Hauran within a clearly indicated road system with the names of all major points.

It is regrettable that the Greek and Semitic epigraphic material quoted in the appendix (162–200) is presented without any translations. Such a collection of inscriptions is useful only to those who can easily operate in the ancient languages of those texts.

Mazzilli’s book is addressed, then, to specialists rather than to a broader audience. The reader has to have a good knowledge of the Roman Near East and the Hauran region, as well as the ability to read the languages of the ancient texts quoted in the book. The large number of editorial errors (both typographical and grammatical) and factual inaccuracies—strange for a peer-reviewed series—should not have survived the processes of peer review and proofreading.

It is definitely not easy to deal with such a complex topic as that of this volume, and certainly the publishers have set strict limits on the number of pages and pictures. It is most unfortunate that there was not enough space for the impressive tables and discussions present in Mazzilli’s doctoral thesis (available online; e.g., 361, table 4.7). The tables there, in particular, display the differences between the sanctuaries in Hauranese villages and the gods worshiped within the precincts in a very precise way that often does not need to be expressed with text. However, despite its faults, Rural Cult Centres in the Hauran is an important contribution to the study of religious life in the eastern Roman empire. The volume is a good starting point for further research. Seeing the rural settlements and temples of the Hauran region in connection with the rest of the Near East adds to the emerging scholarly debate on the place of the countryside, its people, religious traditions, and local adaptations or interpretations in the imperial organization of the provinces.

Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider
Institute for Classical and Christian Archaeology
University of Münster
Münster, Germany

Book Review of Rural Cult Centres in the Hauran: Part of the Broader Network of the Near East (100 BC–AD 300), by Francesca Mazzilli
Reviewed by Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.KubiakSchneider

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