Medieval Studies Syria and Palestine in the Byzantine Empire
by
Emma Loosley Leeming
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0332

Introduction

While it makes sense to study the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and the region of Turkey known as Hatay around the city of Antakya—ancient Antioch) as one entity, the events of the twentieth century have made it difficult for scholars conducting fieldwork in Syria and Lebanon to then gain permission to work in Israel and the Palestinian territories and vice versa. Therefore, when approaching the subject of Syria and Palestine in the Byzantine Empire, it is important to remember that this approach tends to be from two perspectives; those who concentrate more on Syria/Lebanon and those who work more in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and/or Jordan. There are also arguments for including some of the eastern provinces of Anatolia (contemporary Turkey) within this category as they were also viewed as part of Greater Syria during the Byzantine period. However, within the context of this bibliography the decision has been made to include Antioch and the Hatay region, which have always been culturally allied to Syria, but to exclude northern regions such as Osrhoene, which form part of the related, but distinct, Mesopotamian culture. The rationale for this is that while all such designations are somewhat arbitrary, the decision was made in this case to leave aside a region that had its own distinct language, culture, and religious beliefs that do not map precisely onto those of greater Syria. While there are some survey volumes, all in the field acknowledge that contemporary politics makes it impossible for scholars to gain an overview of the material culture of the region, although it is possible to do this from an historical standpoint. Therefore in the bibliography below you will find that the material tends to offer a perspective on either the north or the south of the region in question, but it is relatively difficult to find academic studies that are able to do the entire region justice by including material that is finely balanced to encompass the entirety of Byzantine Syria and Palestine. The Levant has always stood at the crossroads of various world empires, and this was no less the case in the Byzantine period. When Constantine moved the axis of the Roman Empire eastwards toward his new capital city on the Bosphorus, it could have been expected that Syria and Palestine would become more closely integrated into this new formulation of the Roman Empire. However, the cultural, linguistic, and religious fault lines that historically ran through the region meant that the ‘Eastern Roman Empire’ encompassed a wide range of religious practices under the umbrella of imperial rule and this diversity extended to questions of early Christian theology and ritual practice. While those in urban areas were likely to hear homilies and attend theological debates that adhered to the standard beliefs of the Constantinopolitan ecclesiastical hierarchy, out in the provinces there was a wider range of opinions being expressed by itinerant preachers who addressed villagers, herders, and even the bedu in their native Aramaic and Syriac dialects. Therefore this bibliography is intended to highlight to the reader the fact that Byzantine Syria and Palestine was the heartland of the Christological controversies that fractured the oikoumene (this term designated ‘the inhabited world’ for the ancient Greeks but later came to be equated specifically with the Christian world) long before other more famous controversies. Finally the periodization of historical epochs is always complex and open to varying interpretations, but that for the purpose of this bibliography we will take the usual date of 324 CE and the foundation of Constantinople as the beginning of this period but be less dogmatic about the end of the epoch. Instead of accepting that the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 CE was the end of Byzantium in Syria, we will say instead that it meant the end of Byzantine rule but that Byzantine culture was to survive for some time longer.

General Overviews

Considering the fact that this region was the birthplace of the three monotheistic world religions, and that the period under consideration for this bibliography deals with the formative periods of two of those faiths, there is a surprising lack of easily accessible material available. However as a good point of entry Brown 1971 provides a clear overview, made indispensable by the inclusion of invaluable timelines of major events and a wealth of maps and color illustrations. In King and Cameron 2021 archaeology and history are linked to offer a comprehensive view of life in the wider region in this period; a similar approach is taken in Schick 2021 in the analysis of the end of Byzantine rule in Palestine, while Herrin 2021 melds the political with the religious to provide an overview of the formation of Christian society. Briquel Chatonnet and Debié 2017 offers an accessible introduction to the Syriac, rather than the Syrian, world (Syriac is a Christian Aramaic dialect spoken by people living in some of the territories covered by this article. The term is also used to denote certain Oriental Churches) by explaining the relationship between the wider region and its Indigenous variety of Christianity, while Harvey and Hunter 2008 and Wilken 2012 present the material through the lens of this newly dominant Christian religion and offer perspectives on the ideas and thinkers who shaped the time and place. Finally Tannous 2018 traces these movements forward and analyzes how doctrinal and political upheavals ultimately helped facilitate the rise of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

  • Briquel Chatonnet, Françoise, and Muriel Debié. Le monde Syriaque: Sur les routes d’un christianisme ignore. Paris: Belles-Lettres, 2017.

    Recently published in English as The Syriac World: In Search of a Forgotten Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023) this offers an excellent overview of the origins and spread of Syriac culture and the fact that it became synonymous with a particular kind of Christian identity. The book spans both Syria and Mesopotamia to give an introduction of the Syriac world from its origins in Mesopotamia until such time as it became synonymous with Syriac Christian culture.

  • Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity AD 150–750. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

    Although this brief history gives a panoramic view of the period, it devotes significant attention to Syria and Palestine and is particularly helpful for students seeking to understand this period for the first time due to its many color illustrations and clear timeline of events.

  • Harvey, Susan Ashbrook, and David G. Hunter, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This give a general overview of the entire Christian world and Syria and Palestine are mentioned throughout but chapter 17 by David Brakke specifically discusses Palestine and Lucas Van Rompay discusses Syria in chapter 18.

  • Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691220772

    Herrin is one of the most outward-looking historians of Byzantium who has done much to move beyond a purely Hellenocentric interpretation of the Byzantine Empire and situate provinces such as Syria and Palestine at the heart of her understanding of the period.

  • King, Geoffrey, and Averil Cameron. The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Vol. 2, Land Use and Settlement Patterns. Berlin & London: Gerlach Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1b9f5tr

    While this entire series is potentially useful for this bibliography, this volume offers a range of papers that give a detailed overview of daily life in Byzantine Syria and Palestine employing information from both historical and archaeological sources.

  • Schick, Robert. The Christian Communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule: An Historical and Archaeological Study. Berlin & London: Gerlach Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1b9f5q6

    This study concentrates on the later years of Byzantine rule, specifically from the Sasanian invasion onwards, and the final years before the region fell to Arab Islamic rule.

  • Tannous, Jack. The Making of the Medieval Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691179094.001.0001

    Tannous situates his work firmly within the religious controversies of the late antique Levant and explains how the ongoing ecclesiastical divisions and their impact on the ‘ordinary’ believers helped pave the way for the rise of Islam.

  • Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    In attempting to move away from a more Eurocentric understanding of early Christianity Wilken has situated this account firmly in the eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and north Africa in order to give a nuanced understanding of the development of Christianity; therefore this book includes a great deal of information on Byzantine Palestine and Syria.

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