Daniel F. Caner, History and Hagiography from the Late Antique Sinai (with contributions by Sebastian Brock, Richard M. Price and Kevin van Bladel). Translated Texts for Historians. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 346. ISBN 9781846312168. £19.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University
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 römischen Kaiserzeit, des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit für 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 Thümmel 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.