*** DEBUG END ***

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

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.


Africa and Byzantium
Andrea Myers Achi, editor
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale £50
Church Times Bookshop £45

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)