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Palestine in Late Antiquity.

Palestine in Late Antiquity, by Hagith Sivan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 429 pp. $120.00.

Between the dedication of Jerusalem's church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 C.E. and the erection of the Dome of the Rock in 692 C.E., the Roman province of Palaestina was the scene of coexistence, confrontations, and accommodations among its population of Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and pagans. Sivan's book covers this momentous period, tracing the expansion and ultimate triumph of Christianity, until the Islamic conquest of 638.

Sivan (Introduction) sets out the theme of competition and conflict among these groups, reflecting the differing histories and the religious, cultural, and topographical variety of Palestine (p. 10). She also employs the notion of landscapes, real, imagined or desired, as an investigative tool.

Chapter One presents the landscape that Constantine (ca. 320) might have seen from Mount Hermon, when imperial power shifted behind Christianity. The landscape of Anastasius (491-518) depicted Christianity firmly entrenched, though divided between the orthodox and Monophysites. However, towns like Nazareth and Scythopolis allowed a certain community between Jews and Christians.

In Chapter Two Sivan understands the dreams of Christian ascetics and Jewish rabbis as "mindscapes" (p. 57), exploring this idea in the Sinai, Negev, and Golan. Rabbinic Sinai was the place of revelation, hence their distrust of dreams; Christians absorbed it into the Palestinian Christian monastic landscape. A Golan settlement contained Jews, Arabs, and Monophysite Christians, each group constructing its own religious and cultural landscape.

Samaritans (Chapter Three) had a continuing presence in Palestine, notably a revival in the fourth century expressed in the building of new synagogues. They are the underdogs of the period. Their rebellions of 484 and 529 recapitulated the Jewish ones of 66 and 135, and were as brutally suppressed. In a final irony the emperor Justinian lumped Jews and Samaritans together as "Hebrews" (p. 138).

The contest for sacred festivals is shown in the Jewish Purim, whose incitement to violence against oppressors likened the hanging of Haman (Esther) with the crucifixion, thus prompting imperial prohibition (Chapter Four). In Scythopolis Jews, Samaritans, pagans, and Christians had co-existed in their overlapping sacred spaces. The prohibition led to a sharpening of divisions. The Samaritans suffered most at the hand of the Christians, but, Sivan argues, this was emblematic of the Christian desire to appropriate all the sacred spaces of the Holy Land.

The sacred cityscape of Jerusalem, with its competing religious traditions, is addressed in Chapter Five. Sivan selects seven periods: after the failure of the Second Jewish Revolt in 138 when the Rabbis still understood the city as the cosmic omphalos (navel); the foundation of the church of the Holy Sepulchre (335), effectively ending the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina; bishop Cyril (ca, 350) who gave Jerusalem its Christian omphalos in the Holy Sepulchre; the failed attempt by the emperor Julian (355-363) to allow a return to a Jewish city; the conflicted visit of the empress Eudocia in 438; Jerusalem of the emperor Justinian (483-565), who elevated the see to the fifth imperial patriarchate; finally the brier hectic period of Persian conquest, Christian re-appropriation, and Muslim triumph (614-638). Christianized Jerusalem never shook itself free of its Jewish past (p. 229).

The feast of the Dormition of Mary (15th August) was established in the mid sixth century as the Christian response to and replacement of the Jewish Tisha B'av (Chapter Six). Studies of the village of Zoar and the mosaic map in the church of Madaba, south and north of the Dead Sea, show a Christian annexation of the geography of the biblical past.

Chapter Seven considers the place of women in Palestinian societies. Jews and Christians proffered examples of the ideal woman: both emphasized virginity and the well-defined role of wife and mother, based on the subordination of women (p. 295)--a rare moment of Jewish and Christian agreement.

A final chapter (Eight) focuses on the religious landscapes of three cities, Caesarea, Sepphoris, and Gaza. The "weeping" pillars of Caesarea commemorate both Christian martyrdom and the death of a Jewish rabbi. The Samaritans noted that the pillars were merely seeping moisture. Despite this, the city remained curiously secular in nature until the end of the period. At Sepphoris in the Galilee, the gutters ran red when a prominent rabbi died. This city continued predominantly Jewish, and the red-running gutters provoked no corresponding Christian claim. By the end of the period, however, imperial support of Christians had weakened the essentially Jewish nature of the town (p. 326). In Gaza the shift from a pagan to a Christian city between the fourth and sixth centuries began with the gift of green marble pillars for a church by the empress Aelia Eudoxia (d. 404). These pillars did not weep, but presaged the triumph of Christianity, although two centuries later the winter solstice festival of Dionysos continued and a Jewish synagogue existed. Gaza was an educated city, which recalled a pagan and classical past overlaid with Christian piety (p. 347). A concluding Epilogue shows how the Muslim conquest forced Jews and Christians to alter their relations with each other and with the dominant Islam. For centuries Jews, Samaritans, Christians and pagans had existed together in suspicious isolation, uneasy community or open conflict. Ultimately weakened by these tensions, they proved no match for a confident and uncompromising Islam (p. 361).

Sivan's undertaking is an ambitious one: her book demonstrates a sure mastery of the subject and an original approach. However, to appreciate this book fully the reader must already possess a familiarity with the general history, culture, and religion in the Byzantine Empire of late antiquity. The concept of religious landscapes is a novel and successful way of understanding the complexities of the period. At times, this leads to rather abrupt shifts in subject matter, which might daunt the general reader. Occasionally the mass of sheer detail threatens to overwhelm. It is also an expensive volume. That said, this is a contribution of immense and certainly lasting scholarly value on an extraordinarily consequential period in this Holy Land.

John Barclay Burns

George Mason University
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Author:Burns, John Barclay
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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