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I begin this contribution on a personal note. I have been involved, as an academic and field archaeologist (there is something of a professional dichotomy, as I shall explain below), on excavations, survey and research of Christian remains in Egypt, Ethiopia and Syria. In addition, as a university lecturer, the material culture, the archaeology, architecture and artistic accomplishments of the churches, those which form the chapters of Aziz Atiyah’s classic work, have become the centre of my professional world. It is a happy situation to be paid to teach and research the art and archaeology of the Oriental Orthodox churches! In this paper I should like to highlight the thematic and theoretical potential for the archaeological study of eastern Christianity sensu lato and also to make a plea, an ethical and professional plea, for a concerted plan of action to help us record and even perhaps salvage some of this heritage which now, at the beginning of the 21 st century, often lays almost forgotten. The immense topical significance of this heritage, rooted as it is (for the most part) in the near and middle east, should not be lost on the policy makers of the west or east. For this reason, I believe that archaeology has a hugely important socio-political responsibility towards the sadly rapidly dwindling bands of Christians in the regions where Christianity was born and developed in its nascent years.

To begin, what do I mean by the Oriental Churches? Given the place of publication these criteria should be clear, but if I am allowed a theological indulgence, and remaining with the basic limits imposed by Atiyah, I also include in the following discussion the fascinating possibilities of archaeology in the areas covered in antiquity by the Church of the East–the misnomered Nestorians. These regions would include Iraq, Iran, Central Asia and western China. Then to the other thorny issue: what do we mean by archaeology? Archaeology is the study of the material remains of the past; when informed by historical sources we may talk of historical archaeology, and of course where no historical sources are present we talk of prehistoric archaeology. Both ‘types’ of archaeology use the same methods and same bodies of theory (epistemology) to arrive at their respective conclusions, but it is the presence of the written record that adds an extra layer of complexity and makes for an extra problematic dimension. All too often the archaeologist feels the pressure to ‘make’ the archaeological data–supposedly objective—fit the ‘subjective’ historical material. The implications of this, especially when we consider the nature of the sort of writings to which the historian of the oriental churches has access, are obviously important. Archaeology is a multi-facetted discipline, it is a science, which embraces the study of man-made (artefacts) and natural remains (ecofacts) as well as a host of other variables in order to construct, from the detritus of humanity, the most detailed picture of social, economic and cultural change in the past.

Moving onwards, what are the material culture implications for the study of the archaeology of the oriental churches? I offer below a few ideas which have primarily driven my research, but which, needless to say, may not be wholly applicable across the whole geographical or chronological scope of the subject.

1. Syncretism of material culture. The history of the development of the oriental churches has emphasised a very strong indigenous Christian material culture. For instance, when considering the artistic canon of the Coptic Church, strong Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian pagan influences survive to be recast in a Christian milieu. This syncretism is readily apparent in paintings and icons, the identification of St Michael with the ancient Egyptian God Thoth, for instance. Both figures carry scales to weigh souls in the afterlife. Depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary suckling Jesus (Maryam Lactans) are clearly distinctive and unusual within the broader canon of Christian art, yet within the Coptic context are eminently understandable with reference to both pharaonic and Graeco-Roman depictions of Isis suckling Horus. The ankh symbol, the looped cross, the pharaonic sign of life becomes transformed easily into a Christian cross. We may even see syncretism in the architecture of the Egyptian church, with its thick walls which recall Pharaonic temples, and also syncretism of space which saw, in late antique Alexandria after AD312 the transformation of pagan installations into churches, and also, down the Nile, the placement of chapels and monasteries within pharaonic temples. In other areas, strong ‘pagan’ Persian and Mesopotamian sculptural influence are visible within the Christian material culture of the Caucasus; in Ethiopia Aksumite-style pre-Christian building techniques were retained in churches of the medieval period, a persistence of memory and material culture. The question of the Syriac (west and east) Christian material culture of the Malabar coast of southern India remains opaque if only because it is so invisible from a popular and academic perspective. Here is an area which demands attention above all others.

2. Politics and ideology: an uneasy relationship. The reason why this syncretic thread in material culture is so distinctive is down to an accident of history and circumstance. The oriental churches grew largely beyond the direct control of a monolithic political power bloc, in this case Byzantium/eastern Roman empire; the Chalcedonian rupture thus had geopolitical implications, which of course had ramifications in material culture organisation. The Coptic and West Syriac rite churches, along with those of the Caucasus, existed mainly on the margins of the Byzantine empire and thus developed a very local and very strong flavour of social and cultural organisation. The Coptic Church in particular may, in the opinion of the late William Frend, have acted as a conduit for latent nationalist sentiment among the local Egyptians, a vehicle for socio-cultural resistance to colonialism and domination. This might go some way to explaining this very strong emphasis upon the social memory of ancient Egypt. The Ethiopian church, in contrast, was from the outset a truly national church, part and parcel of the governance and bureaucratic machinery of Aksum and then more so in the feudal medieval state after the 13 th century; here too we find a very distinctive set of material culture correlates between the semi-divine king and the system of religious patronage. Contrast this picture with the Church of the East, which existed not as a national church, but a Church which nevertheless effectively underpinned a mission process which transcended religious, ethnic and political boundaries. And then there is medieval Nubia. At around AD600, the historical picture as described by the non-Chalcedonian writer John of Ephesus presents a story of competing mission processes: Justinian’s—conventionally described in the literature as the ‘Orthodox’–evangelising the middle kingdom of Makhuria; his wife Theodora, a strongly anti-Chalcedonian figure, sponsoring a mission under Longinus to evangelise Nobadia and the southernmost state of Alwa. Can archaeology alone support these competing claims? It does appear that the churches and inscriptions of Makhuria are of a more Byzantine style, suggested by the strong architectural circularity of the churches at the capital of Old Dongola. And what of India? How was the Christian community there manipulated within the state framework? The meeting of political expediency and mission in this context is exceptionally intriguing from an archaeological perspective.

3. Monastic systems. Egypt was arguably the birthplace of the Christian monastic ideal and archaeologically the three main types of monasticism, the eremitic, the semi-eremitic, and the Pachomian cenobitic are all recognisable. Eremitic cells are often found in ancient pharaonic tombs or desert caves. Soon these places became centres of pilgrimage and the monastery grew to become a more integrated and ordered settlement. At Nitria and Kellia to the south of Alexandria, we find a different form of monasticism emerging, one which combines the solitary and the communal. The semi-eremitic cells of Kellia combined walled gardens and wells with small oratories, kitchens and works paces. An elder would have gathered two or three acolytes around him and they would have lived in these self-contained communities, venturing out at the weekends for communal meals and services at central churches. At the other end of the scale we find the vast enclosed cenobitic monasteries, best represented today by the four monasteries of the Wadi Natrun and the two monasteries on the Red Sea coast. Architecturally these are highly distinctive units, walled settlements enclosing churches, living spaces, kitchens, gardens storage rooms and refectories, often too with a keep or tower for refuge (a feature not unlike the medieval Irish monastic round tower). These monasteries became not only important ideological nodes in the landscape but also gradually took on a very strong economic significance too. In Ethiopia, the early monastic impulse in the Aksumite period was provided by the ‘nine saints’, holy men of Syrian origin who evangelised the countryside. Did they have, at the back of their minds when they selected high mountain pinnacles for their cells, the exploits of the stylites back home? In medieval times the Ethiopian monastery (which was never as integrated architecturally as its Egyptian counterpart) became a fixed political centre in the landscape, in an environment where permanent urban centres did not exist (medieval Ethiopia from the 13 th century until the 16 th century, and even as recently as the late 19 th century was run from a series of mobile, peripatetic imperial camps). Emperors awarded favoured monastic establishments with frescoes and furniture and also extensive tracts of land as tax breaks in the form of the Gult system. The Ethiopian holy man (most famously in the shape of St Tekla Haymanot) converted the middle and southern highlands of Ethiopia to Christianity in the same manner as Columbanus had done some six hundred years’ earlier in central Europe, and in doing so effectively won new tracts of land for the emperor. Contrast the politicised version of Ethiopian monasticism (which bears comparison with the early medieval Irish system) with that of the Church of the East; here distinctive cenobitic monastic sites cluster along the Silk Road and also dot the islands and coastlines of the Persian Gulf. Here the monastic impulse went hand in hand with mercantile activity, a scenario perfectly in keeping with the non-political status of the Patriarch at Seleucia-Ctesiphon; the monasteries were very much quasi-independent mission stations in the 19 th-century colonial sense. Here archaeologists should surely emphasise an approach based upon the study of the monastic landscape rather than the site itself (this verges too much on the perspective afforded by art-historical methodologies), seeking to understand the relationships between eremitic and cenobitic establishments, agricultural landsscapes and secular settlement. The monastic system is more important archaeologically speaking than the single site itself.

4. Relations with Islam and ‘de-Christianisation’ . From a material culture perspective this section does belong to some extent with the discussion about syncretism (above), but rather than dealing with the roots of material culture looks more at the impact upon the organisation of material culture and space of Islam upon a Christianised population. Within the regions of the Oriental Churches, it is arguably Islam that has and continues to be the major formative influence upon the Christian communities of Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria the Caucasus and those few remaining in northern and central Iraq (this does not of course apply to the west and east Syriac churches of Malabar where a different ideological background predominates). Inevitably the relationship between nascent Islam and the Christian churches of the east might be regarded in a negative light, yet this is not the case. In Egypt, the Coptic Christian community became well integrated in the bureaucratic machinery of the Umayyad and Abbasid Khalifs; in terms of material culture Christian artisans were much in demand, especially for wood carving. The finely-crafted iconostasis of a medieval Cairene church such as Al-Moallaqah (Sitt Maryam) has a very direct relationship to the similar adornment of the mosque, or the distinctive mashrabiyah wooden windows of the old houses of Islamic Cairo. The skill of the Christian artisan was appreciated even if the subject matter was not. In Alexandria, now relegated by Fustat (the future Cairo) as a political centre, Islamic concepts of space impinge upon the classical city in a phenomenon which is visible also in the great cities of the Levant. Distinctive architectural forms now appear; mosques often take over churches (a pattern recognisable in the 15 th century at the Haghia Sophia, Constantinople; in Damascus the Umayyad mosque sits atop the Church of John the Baptist, itself sited upon an old Roman temple). Elsewhere relations between the Christians and Muslims were harmonious to some extent, and this too is reflected in the patterning of material culture. The Aksumite state enjoyed excellent relations with Muslims from across the Red Sea, and an Ethiopian architect by the name of Baqum was said to have designed the Kabba (shrine) at Maqqa. Distinctive Muslim urban units, port towns, fringe the Red Sea littoral, providing an outlet to the sea for the medieval Christian state, centred upon the highlands. It is only in the 16 th century that a gradual deterioration of relations with the highland Christian kingdom and the sultanate of Adal climaxes in the jihad of the Harari warlord Gragn, a catalogue of destruction which has left clear archaeological traces: destroyed villages, monasteries and churches. The decline of the Church of the East in the face of Islam is well attested historically, yet would offer clear scope for a broad regional archaeological research programme, looking at changes in settlement patterning within landscapes, relating these to attested historical migrations and destruction episodes, attempting to understand how Christian monastic landscapes were ‘Islamicised’.

5. Community archaeology and cultural resource management . This is not so much a theme, more of an ethos, and an idea which brings us to the question of responsibility alluded to in the title of this paper. With the exception of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Caucasus, Christian monuments of the oriental churches exist within the framework of states which are overwhelmingly Islamic (I exclude, of course, the southern Indian material which as yet has yet to be suitably quantified from an art-historical or archaeological perspective). This might imply to the western observer that Christian antiquities are somehow relegated to second-class status, but this is not often the case. It is my experience that well balanced and mature state-level legislation exists for the protection of Christian sites in Egypt and in Syria, even also in Iran where the Armenian churches of Isfahan are regarded as an important component of Iranian heritage. Notoriously the Turkish government has signally failed to protect Armenian churches, a factor that mirrors historical deep-rooted antagonisms; the current situation in Iraq precludes the protection of even active Christian churches, let alone archaeological ones. All across central Asia and into China ruins of monastic communities from the zenith of the Church of the East await discovery, let alone conservation. This is a vast heritage with a global importance. Surely if western academics can take an interest in this heritage, help quantify it, excavate, protect and conserve then we might be able to foster a better interfaith dialogue between Muslim and Christian and also help give the Christian communities of the east a tangible sense of their rich and deep heritage.

These are just some of the themes that can provide a framework for the archaeological study of the eastern Christian heritage. The first four points emphasise perhaps an ‘academic’ orientation, a need to answer specific research-led questions which have in reality a relevance for perhaps a very small minority of people. The last point, above, emphasises the human side of archaeology, the question of responsibility and letting communities have their voice; this is where archaeology becomes very relevant indeed to a range of peoples. This is essentially a race against time to rescue a diverse and rich heritage, a heritage of immense global significance, this is where archaeology is best placed to help and where it unashamedly acquires very overt ideological motivation. Archaeologists as scientists are meant to be objective, or at least try to be seen to be objective in the interpretation of their data, but this is too idealistic a statement; surely a Christian archaeologist possesses innately a different sense of priorities and weakness than, say a Sikh, Buddhist or Atheistic scholar? More practically, such a programme of archaeological rescue work would require both a great deal of money and also active and concerted international co-ordination. One might approach the problem through the creation of an international charity, perhaps affiliated with UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Conservation Organisation) and the World Council of Churches as well as the Patriarchates of all the interested Church bodies. This hypothetical charity would have an archaeology panel at its disposal, a panel made up of varied field, architectural and conservation specialists who could effectively prioritise and co-ordinate action, proactively assessing threats to heritage as well as reactively engaging in emergency excavation and conservation of at risk buildings.

Education too is of prime importance; education among all interested ‘stakeholders’. If we are to be serious about tackling the large project that I outline here, then we must be sure that we can put in place a concerted programme of tuition and education in the countries where we are working. We would be working, effectively in many places, among small communities often on the margins of the society. This is a hugely important practical consideration, and, to be blunt, one that will require a huge structural investment. Thus far, then, I have attempted to outline the methodological and practical limits of what archaeology can do. Archaeology, in its many and varied forms (excavation, buildings’ recording, environmental archaeology, object conservation) can help us describe, quantify, conserve and manage a Christian heritage of immense global importance. Too much of the study of the archaeology of the oriental Christian past is in the hands of small-scale, mostly academic concerns, uncoordinated, each with their own research or personal agendas. This is the problem with research-led archaeology which I alluded to at the top of the paper. What I am outlining her is a manifesto for a more integrated approach to the study and conservation of this past. The issue cuts across boundaries, the past is multivocal and the implications of our work have immense geopolitical implications. What better way to build ecumenical dialogue for the present and future than by grounding it in the material remains of this past?


Department of Art History and Archaeology
of Oriental and African Studies

Aziz Atiyah (1968) A History of Eastern Christianity ( Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press) remains for me one of the most accessible introductions for students of archaeology and art history. I cannot speak for theologians or church historians. I have recently tried to draw a more integrated and admittedly shallower picture together in a chapter for a forthcoming book by E. James (ed.) Blackwell Companion to Byzantium (Oxford: Blackwell); the chapter was originally planned to have been called by the editors ‘the monophysites’. It has been changed now, for obvious reasons!

There are many useful introductions to archaeology which disabuse the reader that it all involves digging things up. The most useful tool is not a trowel, in my experience, but a critical eye and a bit of imagination. I would recommend as a useful introduction: C. Gamble 2001 Archaeology: the Basics ( London:Routledge). The problematics of the relationship between Christianity and archaeology are explicitly dealt with by P. Lane (2001) ‘The Archaeology of Christianity in global perspective’, in T. Insoll (ed.) Archaeology and World Religion, London: Routledge, pp. 148-181.

This is not a term upon which archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians would agree. In fact many scholars doubt that such a specific idea as syncretism exists, and is actually a natural outcome of all material culture evolution. I use it here, with reservations, to mean the mixing or amalgamation of cultural traits from different traditions. The case of Voodoo, which mixes a variety of west African belief systems with Roman Catholicism is a textbook example of religious syncretism. See N. Finneran (2002) The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa (Stroud: Tempus) pp. 17-18.

See for example: Rassart-Debergh, M. (1990) ‘De l’Icône Païenne à l’Icône Chrétienne’, Le Monde Copte 18: 39-69; for spatial syncretism in Alexandria: N. Finneran (2005) Alexandria: a city and myth (Stroud: Tempus), pp. 100ff.

Frend, W. (1982) ‘Nationalism as a factor in anti-Chalcedonian feeling in Egypt’ Studies in Church History 18: 21-38.

This is hugely problematic. See Edwards, D. 2001. ‘The Christianisation of Nubia: some pointers’ Sudan and Nubia 5: 89-96. For a broader discussion of the recognition of theological positioning reflected in the organisation of material culture see also: Mundell, M. (1977) ‘Monophysite Church Decoration’, in Bryer, A. and J. Herrin (eds.), Iconoclasm, Birmingham,pp.62-63; Crossley, P. (1988) Medieval architecture and meaning: the limits of iconography Burlington Magazine 130: 116-121.

There are many useful references for a general background to monastic archaeology ref. Egypt, a form of archaeology which has become very highly specialised. Rassert-Debergh, M. (1993) ‘Monastères coptes anciens: organisation et décoration’, Le Monde Copte 21-22: 71-93; Wipszycka, E. (1998) ‘Archaeology and monasticism’ Coptic Church Review 19/4 (online version); Gabra, G. (2002) Coptic Monasteries: Egypt’s Monastic Art and Architecture Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Material culture (as opposed to ecclesiastical) relationships between the Oriental Churches have surprisingly yet to be looked into in detail beyond the standard art-historical descriptive approach. These references look at one facet: Ethiopia and Syria. Whilst historical links are attested between Egypt and Ethiopia, the archaeological picture remains opaque. Marassini, P. (1990) ‘Some considerations on the problem of Syriac influences on Aksumite Ethiopia’ Journal of Ethiopian Studies 23: 35-46; Finneran, N. (forthcoming) ‘Ethiopian Christian material culture: an international context. Aksum, the Mediterranean and the Syriac worlds in the 5 th-7 th centuries’, in A. Harris (ed.) Globalising Late Antiquity, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Finneran, N. and T. Tribe (2003). ‘Towards an archaeology of kingship and monasticism in medieval Ethiopia’ in T. Insoll (ed.) Belief in the Past. The Proceedings of the Manchester Conference on Archaeology and Religion, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1212, pp. 63-74. The Ethiopian monastery stands apart from the other monastic systems of the western, eastern orthodox and oriental orthodox churches in terms of its organisation of space and architecture.

See Abba Seraphim ‘Return to Tur Abdin’ Glastonbury Review 112: 158-174; here surely is a monastic landscape crying out for a concerted recording and conservation effort…if political circumstances permit. The loss to the global Christian heritage of these communities would be immense.

Lezine, A. (1972) ‘Persistance des traditions pré-Islamiques dans l’architecture domestique de l’Égypte musulmane’, Annales Islamologiques, XI: 1-22; Hunt, L. (1985) ‘Christian-Muslim Relations in Painting in Egypt of the Twelfth to mid-Thirteenth Centuries: Sources of the Wall-paintings at Deir es-Suriani and the Illustrations of the New Testament MS Copte-Arabe 1/Cairo, bibl. 94’ Cahiers Archéologiques XXXIII:111-155.

Abba Seraphim 2003. ‘Historic Christian monument facing destruction’ Glastonbury Review 108: 229-231; N. Finneran (forthcoming) ‘Protecting Egypt’s Christian Heritage’ in G. Tassie (ed.) Proceedings of the First International Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation Conference, London 2004, London: ECHO. Two major threats face Coptic antiquities: natural and man made. Sadly the latter is symptomatic of a general loss of tolerance among some areas of the Egyptian Islamic community. The site of Abu Mena is a signal example of the fact that UNESCO World Heritage Site status is practically meaningless. Here rising groundwaters threaten the site; if the problem could be shown to be linked with irrigation, then it is reversible. If a subterranean watercourse has shifted position, however, the outlook is very grave.

See ICOMOS bulletin ‘Azerbaijan: destruction of Armenian cemetery at Djulfa’ available online at: (accessed 25th September 2006); also Dickran Kouymjian ‘ Confiscation of Armenian Property and the Destruction of Armenian Historical Monuments as a Manifestation of the Genocidal Process’ available online at: (accessed 25th September 2006).

Assyrian Academic Society Position Paper (2004) ‘ChaldoAssyrian Churches in Iraq’ available online at: (accessed 25th September 2006.). For many the heritage of Iraq means sites such as Babylon, or Samarra. Christian antiquities have been ignored. Dr Erica Hunter of the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS, has done much to try to raise the visibility of the problem. This contrasts, as noted above, with the situation in Iran. One suspects though, that while willing to help conserve extant Christian remains, the authorities in Teheran might not be so keen to assist archaeologists in discovering new ones! Further research on the Church of the East could focus more easily upon the former Soviet Republics of central Asia, or even China. I am grateful to my SOAS colleague Ms. Qing Chen for showing me pictures she had taken in Canton of Christian gravestones with Syriac-Chinese inscriptions and very distinctive ‘Nestorian’ crosses; the families buried here are long forgotten, yet happily the cemetery is still well tended.

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