29th April 2021

Book in Focus

From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium

Kings, Symbols, and Cities

By Mario Baghos

By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. Our modern metropolises are filled with spiralling skyscrapers brandishing corporate logos and signs, demonstrating rather palpably that free market economics is the main preoccupation of modern civilisation. Technocratic and commerce-driven, the business districts at the centre of most city spaces are materialistic and utilitarian, and are connected to similar hubs worldwide, facilitating globalisation in an unprecedented manner. Cities of this sort, which can be found across the globe, are a product of the Industrial Revolution, which is, in turn, a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Such cities betray a certain mentality, a self-confidence in the human being as capitalist and enterprising, concerned very much with material gain through commerce—or even just commerce itself—often without regard for nature, and certainly without regard for God or the sacred.

For ancient and medieval people, cities were very different. They also had material concerns, but for them the city space was conditioned by religious belief and worship. More specifically, what can be discerned from the earliest urban settlements in Mesopotamia is that the inhabitants’ vision of the cosmos, usually ordered out of chaos by a demiurgic deity, was made tangible in an architectonic way at the centre of their settlement. Since the demiurge was usually a god, and the creation of the cosmos involved forces from the spiritual realm, the representation of the creation myth in city-centres gave the inhabitants a sense of participation in the heavenly realm—ordered and perennial—which was in stark contrast to the world of chaos inferable from the vicissitudes of life, and often construed as a dragon entity or a demon. Similar visions of the city as a recapitulation of the inhabitants’ vision of the cosmos can be discerned throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, and, whether we are addressing Mesopotamian or Egyptian cultures, it was the ruler or the king who, as the one responsible for shaping the city space, was considered an embodiment of that demiurge, what we now know as the ruler cult.

One can debate the utility of such beliefs anachronistically; that the king was palpably not a god, and that his use of religious symbolism to undertake due diligence in relation to the gods in which everyone believed, and to pacify his subjects, dramatically cuts against the grain of modern sensibilities, especially in light of the popular—and often reductionist and simplistic—habit of us moderns to interpret the entire human story in terms of a series of power struggles. However, perhaps this was the best system for those times; who knows? What is a truism is that this vision gave meaning and purpose to persons who lived in times that were exceptionally difficult and dramatically different to ours, and that it was a vision that can be discerned both diachronically and cross-culturally. To make sense of it, in my book, I deferred to the renowned historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who described the concrete examples of ‘bringing heaven down to earth’ in the city space as axes mundi, or centres of the world. In other words, temples in cities were considered intersections of reality usually conceived as comprising three cosmic layers; heaven, earth, and the underworld. These were also imagines mundi, or images of the world, holistically reflecting a civilisation’s view of the cosmos and ensconcing its inhabitants. More than that, because of the serious manner with which symbolism was treated, symbols were seen as initiating—according to the word’s etymology—a participation in the reality they signified, which means that, at least from an epistemological perspective, these buildings really did—for their inhabitants—initiate them into their cosmogonic myths.

There were, of course, instances where this vision of the cosmos was mitigated, where it did not prevail. Ancient Greece is a good example in this regard, as the suspicion regarding kingship that had set in from the eighth century BC led to the rise of democracy and the curtailing of the ruler cult—the belief in the ruler as a world-shaper (or ecosystemic agent) in imitation of the demiurge. Despite this, however, the Greeks in the classical period still built temples in Delphi and Athens that were considered imagines et axes mundi, and ultimately Alexander the Great re-vivified the ruler cult that would become paradigmatic not just for his successors, but for the Roman Empire as well.

The difficulty one has when trying to analyse similarities in religious thought and experience among various civilisations is to simultaneously account for their differences by addressing these civilisations on their own merits. Further problems arise when the similarities in terms of, say, form—such as viewing temples and, by extension, cities as imagines et axis mundi—contrast with content, that is, the actual beliefs that the inhabitants of these civilisations had. Among the polytheists, these beliefs were often similar, but a radical departure from paganism can be discerned in the monotheistic beliefs of the people of Israel. This departure is even more striking in relation to Christianity—seen by its adherents as the fulfilment of the religion of the Israelites—where the multivalent symbolism regarding the reconciliation between heaven and earth in temples and cities is transferred to a person, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and is galvanised in such a way as to bestow upon Christians immediate participation in divine, eternal life.

We arrive here at a seeming contradiction, for above I mentioned that the temples and cities of the pagan world offered participation in their respective creation myths. This they did, but they did not guarantee a permanent dwelling in the habitation of the gods, with most ancient religions, with the exception of ancient Egypt having a negative disposition towards the afterlife. Christianity, instead, offered participation in the kingdom of heaven, not just in the afterlife, but within the Church itself, which was considered mystically as always connected to Christ; his very body.

Christianity also offered something more tangible in the person of Jesus, who was entirely unlike the demiurges believed in by the pagans. Insofar as he is the eternal Son of God the Father, Christ transcends the world and—in stark contrast to the pagan demiurges who were described as posterior to the material world that they were believed to have shaped into cosmic order—the Christian God, the Trinity, is anterior to the cosmos. In other words, Jesus—the second person of the Trinity—overshadows the pagan demiurges with his absolute transcendence; a transcendence emphasised by the doctrine that he created the cosmos ex nihilo, out of nothing (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit). At the same time, the belief that the Son of God the Father assumed human nature as Christ was remarkably different to the belief in rulers who were considered as consecutively inhabited or indwelled by demiurges. Christ, in fact, overturns the ruler cult both in the permanent and once-and-for-all identification of the Son of God assuming flesh (what is known as the ‘incarnation’) while remaining fully God, and by his opening up of participation in the life of the heavenly realm from which he came not just to rulers and kings, but to all human beings in whose nature he participates, especially those who become members of his Church.

In all these ways, Christianity was, and remains, revolutionary: it overturned the hubris of the ruler cult and made the life of heaven available to all people. However, kings still continued to govern nations and empires, and, at least until the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century AD, continued to represent themselves as demiurges. While this led to the persecution of the Church in the first few centuries AD, after Christianity had won the hearts of Roman sovereigns (and not without hardship) we see the rise of monumental Christian architecture which continued imago et axis mundi symbolism. However, now it was Christ who was displayed in the centres of domes representing the cosmos; domes that encompassed churches filled with representations of Christ’s saints, those within whom he dwelt while they struggled ascetically within his Church to come closer to him, and who are now forever in his presence in the kingdom of heaven. This symbolism—which was perfected in Byzantine Rome and Constantinople and spread throughout the Orthodox Christian world—was clear: Christ as Pantokrator or ‘Master of all’ governs the universe and offers eternal life to all those who belong to his Church, in order to make them just like his saints. However, to access, by Christ’s grace, this eternal life, believers had to participate in the blessing of peace, a gesture given by Christ in the centre of the dome and also by all his saints; they had to imitate both the dispassion of Christ and his saints, but also his (and their) compassion, manifested in the death of Christ on the cross for the life of the world, and in his defeat of death through his resurrection on the third day.

These are the general themes addressed by my book, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities. It is hoped that the reader will enjoy this journey from the earliest cities in history to the heights of Byzantine Christendom, and to perhaps contemplate if the imagines et axes mundi represented in this volume—exemplified especially by Christ Pantokrator, the ‘Master of all’—are relevant and beneficial to our modern civilisation and city spaces, which, despite all their technological efficiency, often do more to generate stress than engender peace.

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Dr Mario Baghos is Lecturer in Theology (Patristics) and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Australia, and Chief Publishing Officer of St Andrew’s Orthodox Press. He is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology and Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Theology in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He holds a PhD in Studies in Religion from the University of Sydney, and has taught at various tertiary institutions in the areas of patristics, Church history, world religions, and biblical studies. He has also published extensively on the topics of patristic eschatology, the lives of Orthodox Christian saints, and Byzantine art and architecture.

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