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Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late…

Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam (Revealing…

by G. W. Bowersock

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This is a slim, attractive, and eye-opening book that interprets recently discovered mosaics in the Near East in terms of what these floor decorations can tell us of the culture and history of late antiquity.

The author assumes the reader is familiar with the history of the eastern Mediterranean, especially from the years 300 to 700 CE, plus classical and medieval history of the Mediterranean in general. In that sense the book is meant for the serious amateur as well as specialists.

The author notes that until recently, mosaics were not treated by professionals as much other than art or building decoration. However, studies of the impressive number of recent discoveries of mosaics in the Eastern Mediterranean can now tell us much about the culture and history of the peoples who created them in late antiquity, meaning the period just before and while Christian and Jewish peoples passed under Islamic rule.

The mosaics portray a late Hellenistic culture subsumed by Jewish and Christian peoples, all of which was absorbed by the new Muslim rulers. Interpretations of this cultural situation derive not only from a study of the mosaics themselves but also from the archaeological context in which they were unearthed, such as in churches, synagogues, houses, and so on.

The jacket cover shows a remarkable example of this book's treasures. It depicts a mosaic from Edessa (modern day Urfa, in Turkey), from the time when the city was largely Syrian Christian. Greek mythological figures are portrayed and captioned with Syriac letters. The speculation is that local Christians enjoyed and appreciated Hellenistic culture as part of their daily life.

The writing in this book is clear, but rather often technical, and the text is rather brief. The intent varies between summarizing and integrating recent discoveries into a larger, coherent pattern on the one hand, and arguing academic points of interpretation with fellow scholars on the other hand.

Nearly all of the author's claims are backed up with lush and detailed reproductions of the mosaics concerned. These reproductions alone are almost worth the price of the book. Collected as they are in one place, they more compellingly back up the book's theses. However, the author also regrets that in some instances he has referred to mosaics or artwork that are not shown in this book.

A major flaw in this book is the lack of maps that would indicate the large number of locations referred to in the text.

Along with ancient texts, coins, inscriptions, and so forth, mosaics and their messages can now be added to this reader's mix of possible ways to read the past. ( )
  Wheatland | Aug 8, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674022920, Hardcover)

Over the past century, exploration and serendipity have uncovered mosaic after mosaic in the Near East--maps, historical images, mythical figures, and religious scenes that constitute an immense treasure of new testimony from antiquity. The stories these mosaics tell unfold in this brief, richly informed book by a preeminent scholar of the classical world.

G. W. Bowersock considers these mosaics a critical part of the documentation of the region's ancient culture, as expressive as texts, inscriptions on stone, and architectural remains. In their complex language, often marred by time, neglect, and deliberate defacement, he finds historical evidence, illustrations of literary and mythological tradition, religious icons, and monuments to civic pride. Eloquently evoking a shared vision of a world beyond the boundaries of individual cities, the mosaics attest to a persistent tradition of Greek taste that could embrace Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a fundamentally Semitic land, and they suggest the extent to which these three monotheistic religions could themselves embrace Hellenism.

With copious color illustrations, Bowersock's efforts return us to Syrian Antioch, Arabia, Jewish and Samaritan settlements in Palestine, the Palmyrene empire in Syria, and the Nabataean kingdom in Jordan, and show us the overlay of Hellenism introduced by Alexander the Great as well as Roman customs imported by the imperial legions and governors. Attending to one of the most evocative languages of the ages, his work reveals a complex fusion of cultures and religions that speaks to us across time.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:19 -0400)

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