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History and Hagiography from the Late Antique Sinai

Author(s):   Kevin van Bladel
Publisher:   Liverpool University Press (2010)
Format:   Paperback
Copies:   1 copy available
Product Info:   Editorial Reviews

This is a very welcome book. In the last few decades, a spate of scholarly literature on Christian monasticism and asceticism in the Ancient Near East has seen the light, and the desert areas of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria have certainly received their share of the attention, but not so the Sinai desert. In the present work, Caner, professor of history and classics at the University of Connecticut, wants to redress this situation by collecting all of the important texts from the fourth through seventh centuries CE that deal with the Sinai in Late Antiquity, especially with the monastic settlements there. All texts are presented here in fresh translations (with assistance of Brock and van Bladel for the texts in Syriac and Arabic, and of Price for one of the Greek texts), and provided with critical introductions and extensive explanatory notes. The texts translated are Ps.-Nilus, Narrations Concerning the Slaughter of the Monks of Sinai (and an early medieval excerpt from Ps.-Nilus); Nilus of Ancyra, Letter to Heliodorus (ep. 4.62); Ammonius, Report Concerning the Slaughter of the Monks of Sinai and Rhaithou; Anastasius Sinaita, Tales of the Sinai Fathers; Ephraim Syrus, Hymns 19 and 20; Egeria, Travelogue 1-9 (and the abridgements by Peter the Deacon); Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Religious History 2.13 and 6.7-13; Emperor Marcian, Letter to Bishop Macarius and the Monks of Sinai; Jacob of Serug, Letter to the Monks of Sinai (ep. 7); Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography 5 (selections); the Piacenza Pilgrim, Travelogue 33-42; Gregory the Great, Letters 4.44 and 11.2; selections from three papyri from Nessana in the Negev ( P.Colt 72, 73, 89); Procopius from Caesarea, On Buildings 5.8.1-9; Theophanes Confessor, Chronographia AM 6123 and 6124; and Eutychius of Alexandria, Annals (selections). Plans, maps, bibliography, and index conclude this volume. This rich anthology of texts, taken together, provides "material for a late antique micro-history" (vii). They paint a vivid picture of life (not only monastic) and its hazards in the Sinai in the period between Constantine and Mohammed. As far as I have been able to check them, the translations are reliable and the annotations to the point and very helpful. Occasionally one would have liked to have more annotation, but on the whole the notes serve the reader very well. Caner has the translated texts preceded by an elaborate introduction (of some 70 pages), the over-arching theme of which is the Christianization of the Sinai and its Old Testament geography (before the fourth century CE, the Sinai was virtually terra incognita to Greeks, Romans, and others; note that ca. 330 bishop Eusebius did not yet include the Sinai peninsula in his Onomasticon ). Caner shows how "this desolate corner of the Roman Empire only rose to prominence through the shifting military and cultural concerns of later antiquity, 300-700 CE" (1) and came to be a prominent part of Palaestina Tertia . The formation of Third Palestine (now divided over the states of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt) is dealt with in some detail (4-17) and the reader is informed about the importance of the Nessana papyri for the reconstruction of this history. Next the Christian development of the Sinai is discussed, with special attention to the founding and growth of the monastery, church(es), and hermitages on top of and around Mount Sinai. Caner well describes how in spite of the strong Old Testament associations of this and other places, they all got a relentlessly Christian overlay and thus became an ever more attractive destination for hermits and pilgrims, so much so that "by the mid-sixth century the southern Sinai ranked beside Palestine's Judaean desert and Egypt's Thebaid as the premier centre for anchoretic monasticism in the Roman Empire" (24). The constant threat of attacks on monasteries and hermitages by Saracens, pre-Islamic Arab Bedouins, looms large in many of the hagiographic stories in this volume. Caner assesses this menace in detail (39-51) and elucidates the dynamics of the interactions between monks and desert fighters. In this connection, he also shows how the Sinai martyr traditions (Ps.-Nilus, Ammonius, Anastasius), in spite of all their hagiographic embellishments and exaggerations, provide us with rare but precious glimpses into the historical realities of this world. Caner's close attention to the results of archaeological work on the Sinai peninsula makes this well-written introduction all the more valuable. Of what little there is to quibble about I mention only the fact that Caner consistently misspells Hans Lietzmann's name as Leitzmann; for that reason this scholar ends up in the wrong place in the bibliography. Moreover, Lietzmann's book on ancient chronology, revised by Kurt Aland ( Zeitrechnung der romischen Kaiserzeit, des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit fur die Jahre 1-2000 n.Chr. , Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1956, 4th ed. 1984), is listed in the bibliography as a book by D.H. Leitzmann and D.H. Aland, but 'D.H.' stands here for 'doctor honoris (causa)'. The references to Thummel 1978 at p. 138-9 remain unclear because the book is not listed in the bibliography. But these minor details do not detract from the great value of a book that fills a real gap in the knowledge of most of us. I wish it into many hands. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 20100803 These three books offer rnuch for scholars of Late Antiquity, including archaeologists. The LUP Translated Texts for Historians series is long established and continues to bring to attention lesser works by well-known sources like Bede or Gregory of' Tours, or little known works by little known scholars, clerics, rnonks or court politicians. Whether chronicles, letters, hagiographies or poetry, many off insights into their contemporary (or past) towns, countrysides, beliefs, lives and deaths and help contextualise some of the archaeologies being explored. In Three Political Voices Bell skilfully dissects three 6th-century Byzantine sources which, with their 'particularly abstruse' Greek, consider, advise and promote the rule and role of the emperor, and demonstrate the sizeable 'range of literary material available to the elite of Constantinople, in Latin as well as Greek' (p56). Book IV of the anonymous Dialogues identifies aspects of military practice (eg cavalry roles, use of mock-battles, defences), while Paul the Silentiary's poem waxes at length on the restored Justinianie Hagia Sophia church (though the actual description of decoration, lights, galleries, porticoes, etc is only summarised by Bell- p207). Justinianic work in the Sinai, specifically the construction of the extant church and fortified monastery of St Catherine's is just one component of a wide set (the majority not previously translated into English) of Christian texts and extracts belonging to the 5th-7th centuries, describing the lands and its religious beacons and narrating events, both inspiring and dangerous (three texts deal with same 'Slaughter of the Monks' by Saracens). Caner shows these texts were crafted 'to edify as much as to inform' (p2), in combination establishing a powerful Christian tradition and holy landscape, with Biblical roots and martyrs 'blood. Caner's Introduction provides an excellent contextualisation of these sources, which also include pilgrim accounts (these featuring two Syriac hymns, a late 4th-century travelogue by a Spanish nun, and three papyri from the Negev which include an Arab governor's request for guides and a trading company account detailing costs for camels, asses, guides, food as well as donations to the monastic destinations). In contrast to the above, Readings in Late Antiquity (a sizeable re-edition of an already substantial volume) is a veritable mine of bite-size and more chunky passages and extracts from a wide 'range of sources, whether histories, letters, sermons, laws, panegyrics, inscriptions, monastic codes or council canons, and running from Eumenius of Autunin 290 requesting a painted map of the Empire in the school of rhetoric, to Libanius denouncing angry mobs of destructive monks in late 4tth-century Antioch, enforced conversion of Jewson Minorca in 418, and Pope Gregory I bemoaning continued idol-worship by peasants on Church lands in Sicily at the close of the 6th century. Maas offers 15 sections, including the thernes of' 'Cities', 'Law', 'Women', but with a strong emphasis on religion; the four end section streat with Sassanians, Invaders, Steppe peoples and Islam. -- Neil Christie The purpose of this book is to present the first English translations of some important texts that together form a dossier "illustrating the ideals and dangers associated with life on a late Roman frontier" (p. 1) and, more particularly, on Sinai during late antiquity. According to the translator, the texts in question were created in a conscious effort to transform Sinai "into a kind of palimpsest, where zealots of the New Dispensation might glimpse or settle over traces of the Old" (p. 2), so that the peninsula could emerge as an important place of asceticism and martyrdom and be integrated into the itinerary of the Christian Holy Lands. The texts that constitute the dossier are Pseudo-Nilus's Narrations (accompanied by a ninth-century excerpt from a Syrian translation of the work and Nilus of Ancyra's Letter to Heliodorus), Ammonius's Report on the Slaughter of the Monks of Sinai and Rhaithou, and selections from the Tales of the Sinai Fathers of Anastasius of Sinai. The book also contains two appendices. The first includes pilgrimage accounts and travel documents written on or concerning Sinai: Ephraim the Syrian's Hymns 19 and 20, Emperor Marcian's Letter to Bishop Macarius and the Monks of Sinai, Jacob of Serug's Letter 7, Gregory the Great's Letters 4.44 and 11.2, and selections from Egeria's Travelogue, Theodoret of Cyrrhus's Religious History, Cosmas Indicopleustes' Christian Topography, the Piacenza Pilgrim, and the Nessana Papyri. The second appendix includes historical texts concerning the construction of Christian monuments in the region and the first Arab raids: fragments of Procopius of Caesarea's On Buildings, Eutychius of Alexandria's Annals, and Theop...

Product Description

This volume collects a number of important texts that have never before been translated into a modern language, each of which describes the late antique conditions and experiences on the Sinai peninsula. The texts in translation include Pseudo-Nilus's Narrationes, Nilus of Ancyrus's Epistula, and fifty tales attributed to Anastasius of Sinai. All remain important for late antique history, literature, and religion, as well as for their special focus on developments in the Sinai region prior to the Islamic period.
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