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Christianity: A historical atlas, edited by Alec Ryrie

27 November 2020

John Binns reviews a cartographical survey of church history

CHRISTIANITY is a faith of incarnation, so places matter. As God becomes present as a human, so he lives among us, walking along streets and paths, withdrawing into deserts and hills, and dying in a very real place of suffering. Then, later, as the Church takes shape, changes, and grows, it does so against a backdrop of specific places and in particular historical circumstances. The practice of pilgrimage is a reminder of the importance of holy places.

So, Christianity has a geography as well as a history, and this book embraces both. It consists of 132 maps and plans that show how and where events took place. Its long narrative begins with the foundation of the kingdom of Israel under King Solomon (970 BC), and ends with a glimpse into the future, with projected figures for global distribution of Christianity in the year 2050, suggesting that Nigeria will be the most populous Christian nation.

There are maps showing the boundaries of states and regions, with coloured shading showing ecclesiastical allegiance; arrows indicating movements of peoples, armies on campaign, and missionaries on preaching journeys; and places that were important centres, with relevant dates noted. These maps are full of detail and give a clear and integrated visual picture of the events described. They give greatest emphasis to times of change, growth, and disruption, such as the extension of the Church in the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the shifting allegiances in the European Reformation, and then the missionary movement around the world.

Alongside the general maps, there are also plans showing more detailed and specific moments, such as a street plan of the Roman Catholic missionary city of Manila, in the Philippines, in 1650, and the routes of the death marches of the Armenian genocide in 1915.

Alongside each map is a full commentary that describes the events marked on the map. These sections can be read as chapters of a history, and the combination of map and text makes the events described vivid and mobile.

There is a large amount of detail, and, within this, there are some odd emphases and errors, as when, in the map showing the location of early sects, the centre of Arianism is located in Antioch, where Arius briefly studied, rather than Alexandria, where he was presbyter and engaged in the bitter controversy.

These details should not detract from the strengths of the book, however, with its broad vision of the Church and the inclusion of a wide range of topics.

The atlas is elegantly produced on glossy pages that make it attractive and readable. It will be used as a valuable reference and resource. The maps give a fresh perspective, and the text makes it into a readable history.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.


Christianity: A historical atlas
Alec Ryrie, editor
Harvard University Press £28.95
Church Times Bookshop £26.10

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