Friday, September 26, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Roger S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World 300-700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 464; figs. 74. ISBN 978-0-521-87137-2. $99.00.
Reviewed by Shawn W.J. Keough, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Table of Contents

This book's genesis lies in the annual Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium in Byzantine Studies, which in 2004 was dedicated to the theme 'Egypt in the Byzantine World, 450-700'. Roger Bagnall subsequently expanded the focus of the symposium and invited further contributions from notable specialists, so that the resultant volume represents a valuable and timely collection of essays which not only outlines the state of the very best contemporary scholarship on late antique Egypt, but also demonstrates the extent to which further work is necessary and indicates what directions may be most fruitful for such future research.

The first part of the volume is devoted to 'The Culture of Byzantine Egypt', which opens following a wide-ranging introduction by Roger Bagnall, which wears its immense learning very lightly. After highlighting the pivotal events of the period, Bagnall discusses themes related to the historiography of Byzantine Egypt, emphasizing problems in both the sources and their interpretation. Alan Cameron leads the way with the first thematic contribution devoted to 'Poets and pagans in Byzantine Egypt' (p. 21-46), in which he examines the secular ('pagan') literary culture of an educated elite in a largely Christian world, arguing that the persistence of mythological and classicizing poetry was largely due to Christians unwilling to abandon the literature of a pagan past. Raffaella Cribiore follows with a contribution focused upon 'Higher education in early Byzantine Egypt' (p. 47-66), which examines the fragmentary evidence for patterns of education and changes in reading Greek and Latin. Leslie S.B. MacCoull discusses the social context of philosophy in Byzantine Egypt (p. 67-82), emphasizing the extent to which Christian theology and even liturgy had begun to influence and shape the work of Egyptian philosophers, who often were distanced from the wider Byzantine world by being either non-Christian or anti-Chalcedonian. The current state of scholarship on 'Coptic literature in the Byzantine and early Islamic world' (p. 83-102) is outlined by Stephen Emmel, who emphasizes the need for continued research in a field that, thirty years ago, Tito Orlandi famously compared to the level of advancement attained by classical philology in the fifteenth century (a situation Emmel does not find much improved). Peter Grossman discusses 'Early Christian architecture in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the Byzantine world' (p. 103-136); this essay, along with the following two essays by Thelma K. Thomas, 'Coptic and Byzantine textiles found in Egypt' (p. 137-162) and Fran�oise Dunand on Byzantine Egyptian funerary practices (p. 163-184), provides a fascinating glimpse into the material culture of the Byzantine Egyptian world (each essay is accompanied by many photos).

The volume's second part is entitled 'Governments, environments, society and economy', which opens with an essay by Zsolt Kiss providing an overview of 'Alexandria in the fourth to seventh centuries' (p. 187-206), focusing especially upon political and ecclesiastical matters, as well as upon evidence from the archeological record for the period. Peter van Minnen takes up the theme of 'The other cities in later Roman Egypt' (p. 207-225), in which he focuses especially upon cities in the Nile Valley. James G. Keenan moves the focus toward 'Byzantine Egyptian villages' (p. 226-243), engaging the thesis of Richard Alston's 2002 monograph on Egyptian cities, which argued against the dominant presumption that Egyptian peasant and village life had changed little (if at all) in the millennia intervening between the pharaohs and the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The presence and activity of both government and army in Byzantine Egypt is taken up by Bernhard Palme (p. 244-270), who emphasizes the efficiency of an early Byzantine provincial administration that not only succeeded in raising sufficient taxes for Constantinople and the army, but whose model was adopted by the Arabs for several generations following their conquest of Egypt in the mid-seventh century. Joëlle Beaucamp argues in her essay 'Byzantine Egypt and imperial law' (p. 271-285) that there was no general, religiously motivated opposition to Justinian's legislation in Egypt and that Egypt was no more distinct in the field of law than any other province in the empire; her argument relies mainly on documentary evidence (mostly papyri). 'Aristocratic landholding and the economy of Byzantine Egypt' is discussed by Todd M. Hickey, who notes that the historiography of the economy of Byzantine Egypt has undergone a radical shift from its previous advocacy of a proto-feudal regressive state to that of a province experiencing a wave of economic expansion, and emphasizes the need for fundamental research in the field, especially with regard to the vast papyrological evidence. Finally, T.G. Wilfong surveys previous scholarship and outlines a program for future research synthesizing evidence from archeological and textual sources on the topic of 'Gender and society in Byzantine Egypt' (p. 309-327).

The final part of the book is dedicated to 'Christianity: The church and monasticism', and the section opens with an essay by Ewa Wipszycka on 'The institutional church' (p. 331-349), in which matters related to the administration and functioning of the church and its clergy in Byzantine Egypt are outlined. Arietta Papaconstantinou's essay on 'The cult of saints' (p. 350-367) articulates the subtle tension between continuity and change in the rise and development of the Egyptian martyr cult. Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom analyzes the archeological remains of Egyptian monasticism in a discussion of the importance of monastic space for both monks and non-monastics (p. 368-389), while James E. Goehring provides a discerning analysis of 'the myth and the movement' in his essay on 'Monasticism in Byzantine Egypt' (p. 390-407). Elisabeth S. Bolman demonstrates the significance of the many paintings still decorating monastic sites from Byzantine Egypt for a fuller understanding of monastic practice (p. 408-433), while the epilogue provided by Petra M. Sijpesteijn transitions the focus of the book toward 'The Arab conquest of Egypt and the beginning of Muslim rule' (p. 437-459).

Each essay is followed by a bibliography, and the volume as a whole is rounded off by an index; indices are often lacking in edited volumes of this kind, and its inclusion here will certainly be appreciated by readers seeking references to specific topics addressed across the broad spectrum of the volume's essays.

This is an excellent collection of essays, each of which deserves much more comment than can be reasonably expected here. As a whole the volume covers an extremely wide range of topics across the entire scholarly spectrum of research into Byzantine Egypt, while each contribution successfully offers lucid and penetrating analyses of specific topics. This book will quickly and deservedly find a wide readership among all those interested in Egypt in the Byzantine world, and will no doubt serve as a helpful spur to future research.

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