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The Victorians having a dig

21 March 2014

Bernard Palmer reads how excavation and execration coincided in the 19th century


Cities of God: The Bible and archaeology in nineteenth-century Britain
David Gange and Michael Ledger-Lomas, editors
Cambridge University Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code CT477 )

PRESENT-DAY travellers to the Holy Land and to neighbouring countries who are willing to fork out £65 for a copy of this book, or who can borrow it from a library, will certainly be able to broaden their knowledge. For the book's essential message is the connection between nine archaeological sites in the Middle East and their counterparts among the cities of the West.

The volume is made up of articles by academics expert in their field and is not an easy read for the non-specialist. But its subject was certainly worth exploring. The nine sites chosen are those of Troy, Jerusalem, Nineveh, Pithom, Babylon, Sodom, Bethlehem, Ephesus, and Rome. The book is the outcome of work undertaken by the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group. The editors are both lecturers in history: David Gange at Birmingham University and Michael Ledger-Lomas at King's College, London.

The objects of the book are set out in a 38-page editorial introduction. Its related themes are to explore the presence of the biblical city in 19th-century British culture; to spotlight the connection between the ancient city and understandings of biblical authority; to describe the crucial contribution made by scientific travellers and archaeologists to the "apologetic discourse"; and to draw attention to the reli-gious and urban context in which these debates took place. This last theme, the editors say, is the one that distinguishes their book from existing surveys of biblical archaeology.

Simon Goldhill's essay on Jerusalem will perhaps attract the most interest, not least because the city houses "holy places" belonging to three world religions within its context. But the tiny size of the old city often came as a surprise: it could have fitted easily into Hyde Park, and its walls could be walked round in only an hour. British philanthropists, however, installed drains in Jerusalem and planned suburbs in an effort to create the sort of city for which they yearned at home - and which had led Ephesus to be christened the "Liverpool of Asia".

The modest "store city" of Pithom in Egypt will be the least familiar to most British readers. But it proved as influential and evocative, Gange says in an essay of his own, as better-known sites such as Memphis or Thebes. Back in 1883, it was the site that opened Egyptology to a broad new public, and estab-lished the biblical tone of mainstream British Egyptology for the remainder of the century.

Much attention will inevitably be devoted to Astrid Swenson's essay on Sodom. Few biblical cities, she says, had such an evocative power as Sodom and Gomorrah. Many a place in the West was identified as a modern "city of the plain" deserving destruction by "fire and brimstone".

Even good Queen Victoria equated Paris with Sodom and Gomorrah, while London became "Sodom-on-Thames" in the time of Oscar Wilde, and humble Barking in Essex was castigated by Hensley Henson as another Sodom. Admittedly, Henson's attack was greeted with laughter; he might fittingly have been dismissed as a "poor sod". The word was (and, of course, still is) a constant presence in the language.

Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the  Church Times.

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