Controlling Contested Places: Late Antique Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy

by Christine Shepardson

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

I don’t think that my parents imagined me traipsing around northern Syria when they taught me to read maps and love the outdoors on our summer canoe trips through the Canadian arctic. But then — arctic wilderness, two young children — it’s hard to say exactly what they were thinking. All I know is, I wouldn’t have written this book thirty years later without them.

When I started my research on the fourth-century city of Antioch (Antakya, Turkey), I had become increasingly aware that I had not been paying enough attention to “place” in my study of early Christianity. I started to wonder what it would look like to trace Christianity’s increasing visibility in the fourth century not through the history of a particular writer or theological argument, but through the ways in which people interpreted and interacted with the physical places around them. So I turned to the major metropolis of Antioch, home to a rich variety of religious communities, an imperial palace, and two prolific contemporaneous authors, Libanius and John Chrysostom.

My book uses cultural geography and memory studies to reveal the role that physical and rhetorical contests over places played in the complex religious and political controversies of the fourth century. It is largely a study of the textual rather than the material evidence, not least because the continuous habitation of the city has impeded excavations and a project to develop a new map of the Roman city and another to study its early church buildings (Mayer/Allen, The Churches of Syrian Antioch) were already underway. My readings of the texts are, however, influenced by my research trips to Turkey and Syria. Standing on the main Roman road through Antioch, for example, I was struck that I was so close to the caves and ancient tombs on Mt. Silpius that called to mind the stories of early Christian ascetics who populated its slopes. This suggested to me that the rhetoric of these ascetics’ “withdrawal” was not primarily about physical distance from the city, which in turn led me to think more carefully about how to interpret other narrative representations of Antioch’s places.

But one cannot visit Syria in 2010 to write a book called Controlling Contested Places and remain focused only on antiquity. Museums that my colleague and I visited have been looted; buildings we saw are piles of rubble; and the generous people we met face unimaginable atrocities. First and foremost, I hope that this book makes a significant contribution to the study of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity and demonstrates the advantages of engaging with the insights of cultural geography. I also, though, hope that the book will reveal some of the mechanisms by which powerful places have been constructed and controlled, and serve as a reminder of the role that such physical and rhetorical manipulations can play in religious and political conflicts in antiquity as well as today.

Christine Shepardson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

 

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