Launching Studies in Late Antiquity one year ago, we wanted to publish methodologically sophisticated and multidisciplinary scholarship that would de-center the study of Late Antiquity, engaging the Mediterranean with the wider late ancient world. This month's issue fulfuls that goal by presenting four articles from four disciplinary perspectives on the culture of Syria Palaestina. While each article makes an original and important contribution in its own right, the issue as a whole conveys an appreciation not just for the kaleidoscope of cultures that contributed to the region's heritage, but also for the centrality of its legacy—for Christianity and Judaism, for the Roman legal tradition, and for the wider world.
The topography of Syria Palaestina opened the region to diverse cultural expressions from all directions. Local artisans, receptive to new styles, rendered them in local materials using native techniques. When artists transform local stone, mixing their labor with imported styles, they create objects that speak in different registers to local residents or to travelers—familiar and strange in different ways to both groups. Itamar Taxel's article, “Late Antique Ionic Column Capitals in the Countryside of Central Palestine between Provincial Trends and Classical Traditions,” studies this process for the hill country of Palaestina Prima. Taxel analyzes how craftsmen in this region appropriated Ionic capitals, a style, originally from western Asia Minor, that had spread into the area as a result of Hellenistic conquest and the importation of Greek culture under the Seleucids. Over time, as these innovations persisted and became typical in the countryside while disappearing in the cities, Taxel argues that they are, by Late Antiquity, evidence for a unique cultural identity among the local rural population of Palaestina Prima.
Just as topography, trade and troops brought outside styles into Syria Palaestina, so Syrian missionaries spread their notions of Christianity and monasticism outward into Eurasia. Shota Matitashvili's article, “The Monasteries Founded by Thirteen Syrian Fathers in Iberia: The Rise of Monasticism in Sixth-Century Georgia,” analyses the stories of monks from Syria whose vitae Arsenius II (955–980) compiled. Matitashvili not only situates the rise of monasticism in Georgia within Syrian practices and the history of Georgia more broadly, but also provides an invaluable service in conveying to an English-reading audience important elements of these stories, preserved exclusively in Georgian, about the monks, their practices, their relationship with political and ecclesiastical power, and their efforts to convert “pagans” and Zoroastrians.
Where Syria Palaestina was the homeland for the monks who brought their unique expression of monasticism to late antique Georgia, this region also formed the cultural inheritance of Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century Christian who lived in Nisibis and Edessa. In “Late Antique Christian Law in the Eastern Roman Empire: Toward a New Paradigm,” Yifat Monnickendam's deft analysis of Ephrem's corpus undergirds an argument with significant implications for understanding the Christian contribution to late antique legal thinking. She observes that Ephrem's legal terminology is conceptually similar to Jewish legal terminology (but not to that found in Greek or Latin Christian writers). On the basis of this analysis, she first argues that reading early Christian non-legal texts in dialogue with the halakha in rabbinic literature and the halakhic traditions in the New Testatment can more richly inform our understanding of legal thinking in the works of Christian authors. Second, and even more importantly, Monnickendam argues that this more nuanced understanding of legal thought in Christian authors, aided by developments in legal theory, legal sociology, and legal anthropology, can revolutionize our understanding of late antique legal history and the role that Christianity played in shaping that tradition within the Eastern Roman Empire.
These three articles, taken together, attest to the complexity of late antique Syria's culture, the power of its diffusion, and its significance for our own global cultural inheritance. They are thus a fitting context for this issue's exhibit review, which considers contemporary Syria's staggering loss of life, patrimony, and culture. The significance of Syria's heritage and experience for the contemporary world is poignantly clear from Kostis Kourelis’ review of the exhibit, Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq, which the University of Pennsylvania is hosting through November 2018. In a thoughtful and moving review, Kourelis walks with the reader through the halls of the University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which currently houses seven installations by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj. Through displaying the artist's work, by juxtaposing it with the ancient artifacts from its own collections, and by posting panels describing efforts to protect and preserve endangered cultural heritage, the exhibit grapples with the struggle of Syrians to maintain their identity within a context of loss—as citizens become refugees, as warring factions destroy heritage, as a community's fabric frays, rends, and becomes ash.
As always, we are grateful to our authors for their contributions—especially so for this issue: its focus on Syria is not only timely, but also serendipitous. It thus seems appropriate now to ask our readers to continue sending us contributions that advance the journal's mission to engage the late ancient world, broadly speaking. We welcome both individual submissions and proposals for special issues (please see the website for guidelines).