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Book review: Africa and Byzantium, edited by Andrea Myers Achi

by
23 February 2024

Nicholas Cranfield finds out more about Africa and Byzantium from the book of the exhibition

See gallery for more images in the exhibition currently at The Met, New York

See gallery for more images in the exhibition currently at The Met, New York

IN 416, the theologian St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, asked: “Who now knows which peoples in the Roman Empire were what, since all have become Roman and all are named Romans?” He was reflecting on the diversity of culture, colour, and creed of his contemporary world.

Two illustrations in this book answer this rhetorical question. A Tunisian mosaic from Carthage (late second century) has slaves of a range of readily identifiable national identities preparing for a banquet. A much later wall painting, of Bishop Petros (974-997) from Faras in Nubia, depicts a very black bishop, being protected by a very white Apostle, his namesake the Apostle Peter.

Augustine had picked up from the listeners to St Peter’s first sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 2.5-12), recognising the rapid spread of Christianity in its competing forms of Donatist versus Catholic across the vastly different landscapes and communities of North and East Africa. As Peter Brown memorably traced in Through the Eye of the Needle (Princeton, 2012), African Christianity is only now beginning to reveal its secrets through archaeology and redrawn post-colonial geography.

Whereas Brown examined the making of Western Christianity from 350 to 550, Dr Andrea Achi takes the story into the heart of the empire after the fall of Rome, concentrating on the new capital of Byzantium. The essays explore language, trade, art, and Christianity, with chapters on Egypt, Nubia, and the Aksumite empire, to the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the critical effect of the brief later intrusion of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, 1626-32.

The book concludes by looking at the legacy of Byzantium further afield in Black Africa and in contemporary discussions over the restitution of artefacts and the rewriting of history to provide a critical geography.

© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY. Photo Hervé LewandowskiMosaic panel of preparations for a feast (late second century CE), from Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, on loan from the Department of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Antiquities of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.  Like the images in the gallery, it is in the exhibition currently at The Met, New York

The collection of 40 short essays is beautifully illustrated, as one would hope of a book that has been produced to accompany a major American exhibition*.

We learn, for instance, how the Egyptian cult of Isis informed the image of the breastfeeding Madonna of familiar Orthodox icons and how Coptic derived from written forms of Greek.

For Western readers, the ground-breaking scholarship will provoke a new evaluation for what we thought we knew of Christianity in the pre-Islamic world of the Mediterranean basin and about “Eastern” Christianity after the Great Schism of 1054.

Finally, the book overthrows the view of Byzantine history espoused by Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-78) as “a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”. Both “Africa” and “Byzantium” may be shaped by imperial and colonial histories, but this book and exhibition explore how in Christ all are one.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

*The exhibition “Africa and Byzantium” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue, New York, until 3 March, and then at The Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, Ohio, from 14 April until 21 July. The photos here are of works on show in the Met’s exhibition.

www.metmuseum.org
www.clevelandart.org


Africa and Byzantium
Andrea Myers Achi, editor
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale £50
(978-1-58839-771-3)
Church Times Bookshop £45

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