As the seventh century began, vast territories extending from Syria to Egypt and across North Africa were ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Critical to the wealth and power of the empire, these southern provinces, long influenced by Greco-Roman traditions, were home to Orthodox, Coptic, and Syriac Christians, Jewish communities, and others. Great pilgrimage centers attracted the faithful from as far away as Yemen in the east and Scandinavia in the west. Major trade routes reached eastward down the Red Sea past Jordan to India in the south, bringing silks and ivories to the imperial territories. Major cities made wealthy by commerce extended along inland trade routes north to Constantinople and along the Mediterranean coastline. Commerce carried images and ideas freely throughout the region.
In the same century, the newly established faith of Islam emerged from Mecca and Medina along the Red Sea trade route and reached westward into the empire's southern provinces. Political and religious authority was transferred from the long established Christian Byzantine Empire to the newly established Umayyad and later Abbasid Muslim dynasties. The new powers took advantage of existing traditions of the region in developing their compelling secular and religious visual identities. This 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.
As the seventh century began, much of the wealth of the Byzantine Empire came from its southern provinces, which extended from Syria to Egypt and across North Africa. Affluent cities dotted the trade routes that moved the silks and spices of the east as well as local products throughout the region and beyond. Local officials were appointed from the imperial capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The state religion of the region was Orthodox Christianity, as defined by the patriarch in Constantinople. Although proscribed, other forms of Christianity as well as Judaism flourished. As heir to the Greco-Roman tradition, the empire promoted classical academic training, including scientific learning. In the arts, well-established motifs, especially themes associated with Dionysos, the god of wine, were joined by subjects related to Christianity and Judaism. Although the Sasanian Empire occupied much of Syria and Egypt from 614 to 629, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius would celebrate regaining those territories by returning the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630. Late in his life, adversaries from the Arabian Peninsula advanced into the region, taking the Byzantine provinces and ultimately establishing Damascus as the capital of the Umayyad Dynasty, which lasted until 750.
The official religion of the Byzantine Empire was Christianity, as defined by the patriarch and the church hierarchy in Constantinople and by the emperor. In the sixth and seventh centuries, efforts to enforce loyalty to the Orthodox faith met with resistance from Christian communities in the empire's southern provinces. Central to these debates was the acceptance or the rejection of the official definition of the person of Christ as having two natures—human and divine—as formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The efforts of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–41) to promote a compromise only intensified the debates. With the shift of authority to Islamic rule, Christians loyal to Constantinople's church generally remained in the eastern Mediterranean, as far south as the Sinai Peninsula. Sites such as the patriarchate of Jerusalem and the monasteries of Mar Saba near Jerusalem and Saint Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula remained important intellectual centers for these communities, whose people wrote in Greek, Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, and ultimately Arabic. Because of their loyalty to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, these Christians were known as Melkites ("royalists"). During the first centuries of Islamic rule, Orthodox and other Christians held important posts in the Islamic administration and played a vital role in the intellectual life of the major cities.
Christians speaking Syriac (a form of Aramaic) trace their origins back to Saint Peter, who, according to tradition, established a church in Antioch in the first century. The apostle Thomas is said to have spread the Gospel to the Syriac cities of Edessa and Nisibis (now in Turkey). The Syriac Bible, known as the Peshitta, is based on the Hebrew Bible, which was translated into Syriac in the second century. The Gospel texts were codified in Syriac in the fifth century. The Syriac Church chose to follow the Miaphysite teaching of Saint Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412–44), that Christ's humanity and divinity were combined in one nature, rather than the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (451) that Christ had two natures (human and divine). As a result, the Syriac Church became increasingly independent of the authority of the Church of Constantinople and Rome. In the same period, another Syriac-speaking Christian community developed farther east in the Sasanian Empire. Known as the Church of the East (once called the Nestorian Church), it was active far into the Arabian Peninsula.
By the early fourth century, the large Christian population of Egypt was making significant cultural and intellectual contributions to the Byzantine world. Coptic, the Egyptian language written with modified Greek letters, was used alongside Greek for liturgical and administrative purposes. Tradition identifies the first patriarch of the Coptic Church as Saint Mark the Evangelist, also the first patriarch of Alexandria. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many in Egypt rejected its decision that Christ had two natures and accepted instead the teaching of Saint Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412–44), that Christ's humanity and divinity were united in one nature (Miaphysitism). As a result, in the sixth century there came to be a pro-Chalcedonian ecclesiastical hierarchy in Egypt appointed from Constantinople that sought to suppress the local authority of the Coptic Church. Later, under Arab rule, the legitimacy of the Coptic Church was recognized. Monasticism, always important to Egyptian Christianity, came to shape Coptic liturgy and visual culture. Major monasteries such as those at Bawit and Sohag thrived in the early Islamic era. The church retained Coptic as its primary language until the tenth century, considerably longer than most other non-Muslim communities.
Jewish communities were among the religious groups indigenous to the Byzantine Empire's southern provinces. Archaeological evidence reveals traces of affluent synagogues from Tunisia to Syria, often decorated with mosaics of menorahs, Torah arks, and figurative depictions that became increasingly abstract under Islamic rule. Inscriptions from these sites and texts written for Jewish use in Latin, Greek, Jewish Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic provide evidence of the diversity of the region and its Jewish and Samaritan (another Abrahamic community) populations. While there were restrictions on Jewish activities under Byzantine rule, they were not universally enforced. Under Islamic control, fewer strictures were placed on Jewish communities, often making life more comfortable. The most extensively documented Jewish community is that of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, founded in 882 in the Muslim capital at Fustat (now part of Cairo). Study of the diverse documents from its repository, the Cairo Genizah, has allowed the reconstruction of daily life among the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Byzantium's southern provinces, especially as they became part of the Islamic world.
Holy sites commemorating the life of Christ, sacred places, and people of the Bible, and tombs of martyrs and saints were spread across Byzantium's southern provinces. Pilgrims, motivated by the belief that the power of a holy person, relic, or location could be transferred through contact, traveled to these sites and to monastic communities and ascetics. They went to touch, kiss, pray, and, in many cases, collect blessings (Greek eulogiai) such as earth taken from the tomb of Christ or oil from the lamp in which it burned. When brought home, these treasures allowed their owners to revisit the sites of their pilgrimage, to be protected by them, and to occasion miracles. Among the major pilgrimage sites identified by texts and portable mementos are Jerusalem and its surrounding monasteries; the monasteries in the Sinai, especially that of Saint Catherine; the stylite (column) saints of northwestern Syria, as at Qa‘lat Sem‘an; and the tomb of Saint Sergios at Rusafa (in present-day Syria). Large pilgrimage shrines, such as those in Jerusalem, drew crowds from far beyond Byzantium's borders; local pilgrims visited other shrines as well. Pilgrimage continued after the Arab occupation of the region, though on a reduced scale. Muslim pilgrims also may have visited Christian sites such as Rusafa and the Church of the Kathisma in Jerusalem.
The reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717–41) marked the beginning of a century-long debate over the appropriateness of religious imagery in the empire. Known as the Iconoclastic controversy (726–74, 813–42), this movement, closely linked to the emperor and the church hierarchy in Constantinople, was largely confined to the capital and its environs. In 842 Iconoclasm was officially repelled. A contemporary debate focusing on the use of figural imagery took place in the Christian communities of Byzantium's recently lost southern provinces. In a number of churches and synagogues in the Transjordan between the 720s and 760s, the tesserae in mosaic floors with figurative depictions were carefully removed and reassembled in a scrambled or transformed manner. The alterations were undertaken with such care as to suggest that the faithful did the work perhaps in response to aniconism in Muslim places of worship. Supporting this understanding are accounts by the Melkite theologian Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca. 777–ca. 830) of Christians refusing to venerate icons in response to Jewish and Muslim polemics. In contrast, in Egypt the vibrant frescoes of the Red Monastery and the icons of the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai attest to continued respect for figurative images in other areas under Muslim rule.
Trade routes extended throughout Byzantium's southern provinces carrying rare goods and daily necessities throughout the region and across the Mediterranean. Silks and spices from the Far East, thought to be the last lands before Paradise, traveled up the Red Sea past Mecca and Medina to Alexandria, with its world-famous lighthouse, and then north by land and sea to Constantinople. Textiles were produced throughout the southern provinces, with silk being the luxury good of the era. Egyptian wheat was sent to feed the poor of Constantinople. To ensure fair trade and the payment of taxes, the Byzantine Empire and subsequent Islamic states established standard weights and measures. Byzantine coinage, with its figurative imagery, set the standard for the world to such an extent that the initial efforts by the new rulers of the region, the Umayyads, to establish a new system of coinage were rejected by the local population. Subsequently, Muslim coins, with their standard weights and handsome calligraphic inscriptions, were widely accepted.
Silk, a luxury good reserved for the wealthiest members of society, possessed a shimmering, light-reflecting surface so admired that it was called "the work of angels." Purple silk was popular among the elite, and the rarest purple was restricted for imperial use. Many silks were made in relatively simple lattice patterns. Finer ones, possibly woven at Panopolis (Akhmim) in Egypt, displayed detailed, animated figures from classical mythology often worked in two colors. The finest silks were elaborately woven in many colors to display exquisitely detailed figures. Patterns popular during the Byzantine era remained in use in the early Islamic period, as proven by scientific tests such as Carbon-14 dating. Silk originally came to the Mediterranean from China. Even in the seventh century, when silk was also produced in Byzantium, trade routes running past Samarkand in the north to Mecca along the Red Sea continued to carry it and other rare goods to the west. The Byzantines so valued the Red Sea trade route that the state aided the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum in its invasion of modern Yemen in the sixth century to ensure continued access.
Both Roman-style tunics and Central Asian–inspired tailored garments were worn in Byzantium's southern provinces from late antiquity into the early Islamic era, as proven by scientific testing of burial finds. Roman tunics were usually made of linen or wool and could be long or short, with or without sleeves. Simple tunics were generally layered under more elaborate ones decorated with symmetrical ornaments on the shoulders and at the knees, including ornamental bands (clavi), roundels (orbiculi), and squares (tabulae). Tunics were shaped by belts and draping. Men and women wore cloaks; women wore scarves and veils as well. During the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, tunics of brightly colored fabrics, with separately woven and applied elaborate decorative elements, were widely popular. Central Asian–inspired Sasanian tailored garments consisted of a shirt, caftan, coat, trousers, gaiters, boots, and headgear. The shirts and coats had flared sides cut to shape, with decoration down the center and at the neckline, cuffs, and hemline. Men and women wore similar tailored garments, and women added shawls and veils. Children wore clothes similar to those of adults. Over time, the styles mingled, producing increasingly colorful decoration and elaborate ornament.
Textiles were only one of the many goods that moved along the trade routes that brought valuables from the east to Byzantium and later to the western Islamic world. Ivory from Africa and India was transported as tusks or carved luxury goods. In Byzantium's southern provinces and possibly elsewhere, ivory was carved into small boxes or plaques to decorate furniture; less expensive versions were made from bone. Various trade goods such as textiles, openwork censers, gold jewelry, and small clay lamps were decorated with popular motifs that remained in use as the Byzantine empire's southern provinces became part of the Islamic world. Animal motifs, often associated with the hunt, continued to encourage recognition of the common pursuits of the elite of the Byzantine and Islamic periods. Vine patterns—favored from the classical past through the Byzantine era—appeared, often in more stylized forms, in the Islamic period. Inscriptions became an increasingly prominent decorative motif, at times identifying the donor or providing auspicious wishes for the owner. Depictions of courtly pleasures, including female acrobats, dancers, and musicians, popular under Byzantine rule, were also popular during the Umayyad era.
With the arrival of the Umayyads in Byzantium's southern provinces, the artistic traditions of the region began to be transformed by their taste. The transformation, which extended over centuries, included both the survival of existing concepts and the creation of new ones. The first generation of Umayyad rulers built palaces along the border between the cultivated lands and the desert. Originally located on intensely irrigated and richly green sites, these palaces survive now largely as desert locations. The elaborate walls enclosing most of the sites suggest fortresses, though they were rarely built to be effective defensive structures. The complexes usually included audience halls, mosques, residential areas, and baths similar to those of Byzantine and earlier era. The audience halls and the baths were often decorated with images of courtly pleasure in the tradition of the region's elite. Textiles called tiraz, inscribed with the name of the ruler and the workshop where they were made, were presented as gifts of honor. As Umayyad rule from its capital, Damascus, was replaced by that of the Abbasids from Baghdad, decorative motifs increasingly reflected the taste of the Sasanian Empire, which, unlike the Byzantine state, had fallen in its entirety to Arab expansion.
The Qur’an, the religious text central to Islam, is a series of revelations from God transmitted by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina between about 610 and the Prophet's death in 632. 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 not only religious devotion but also the creativity of craftsmen. Elaborately worked verses from the Qur’an became standard decoration for mosques, funerary monuments, and other works. Calligraphy as it evolved to present the teachings of the Qur’an became a major artistic tradition of the Islamic world. Mosques were erected in cities now under Muslim rule. The most important were the Friday mosques built to hold all the faithful for prayer and also functioned as evidence of the authority of the ruler. Byzantine artisans may have done the elaborate mosaic decoration of the Great Mosque in Damascus, the Umayyad capital, built between 705 and 715. In Egypt in the ninth century, as Ibn Tulun (r. 868–84) established his quasi-independent state, he would model his great mosque on the one in the Abbasid capital at Samarra.
Major support has been provided by Mary and Michael Jaharis, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.
Additional support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.