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KU historian part of project examining complex history of Jerusalem in late antiquity

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


LAWRENCE — For many centuries Jerusalem has been an important holy site. In the context of Mediterranean urbanism in antiquity, however, Jerusalem can be viewed as something of an underdog, according to a University of Kansas historian of Jewish and Roman antiquity.

"Jerusalem was considerably smaller in size than many other cities around the Mediterranean and tiny by comparison with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. Its exceptional significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam should not obscure the fact that Jerusalem was never, physically, a big city," said Hagith Sivan, professor of history. "Jerusalem is truly a stunning example of the staying power of religious piety and biblical associations."

Sivan was the only scholar from North America invited earlier this year to participate in Civitatum Orbis Mediterranei Studia, or the COMES research symposium on urban life in the ancient Mediterranean at the University of Bern in Switzerland at Münchenwiler Castle. The series on Mediterranean urban life research began in 2013, and the German publishing house Mohr Siebeck organizes it.

The interdisciplinary workshop brings together international experts and younger researchers of various disciplines such as archaeology, ancient history, classics, religious sciences, Jewish studies, Islamic studies and Christian theology.

The workshop focusing on Jerusalem in late antiquity, which is roughly between CE 250 and 650. Today both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.

"While there have been many collective publications on Jerusalem, the focus on late antiquity invariably involves a focus on Christianity in the Holy Land. But the expected outcome of this workshop will also a focus on the complex relationship between Palestinian Jews and Jerusalem during the long centuries of no access to the city," Sivan said.

Sivan's previous publications on Jerusalem include articles dealing with the Persian-Sasanid conquest of the city in the early seventh century CE, only a few years before the Islamic conquest that changed Jerusalem for centuries to come.

"In spite of the fact that Jews were banned from Jerusalem for 500 years, the connection with the city and the Temple was maintained in countless ways," she said. "Synagogues throughout Palestine depicted the Temple on mosaics. The liturgy of the synagogue incorporated countless elements of Temple liturgy. Rabbinic literature dealt with the catastrophe of the destroyed Temple in many ways, all geared to perpetuate its memory. Above all, messianic hopes invariably focused on the revival of city and Temple."

Sivan, who also has recently launched an oral history project on the experiences of international students, said this type of antiquity research fosters an important commitment in higher education to studying international cultures.

"I see my work, and particularly the opportunity to present it in a truly international forum," she said, "as an extension of my own commitment to internationalization."

Photo: The Madaba map, which is a beautiful mosaic-map of the Holy Land with Jerusalem at its center, is completely out of proportion to its real dimensions but clearly a reflection of its overwhelming sanctity. Image by Jean Housen, via Wikicommons.

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