Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.


Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!


Some notes:

• The Muslim worship space, of course, is called a mosque. It is essentially an empty room, which can be as small as the living room in a suburban tract house, or as large as a minor-league hockey arena. The floor is usually carpeted, and larger mosques feature large chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling all the way down to about ten feet off the floor.

Interior, Prince’s Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

• Generally you’ll know it’s a mosque by the presence of one or more minarets – tall “steeples” that rise from the corners of the building. The number is significant, although I do not know the precise reason why some mosques warrant more minarets than others. Historically, the müezzin would climb up one of the minarets to issue the adhan – that is, the call to prayer, which is done five times a day. Nowadays, he gives the adhan over a PA system, connected to loudspeakers on the minarets. Turkish minarets are generally tall, round, and thin, while Egyptian ones tend to be squatter, and can be square or octagonal in shape.

Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, Istanbul.

Mosque, Necmettin Erbakan Square, Ankara.

Mosque of Qani-Bay, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Mosques can also be signified by the presence of a dome over the main structure. In Turkey, most mosques follow the pattern established by Hagia Sophia, where a large, central dome over the main room has a circle of windows along the base to let in light. Also like Hagia Sophia, several half-domes can “cascade” down from the central one.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul.

In Egypt, domes can be smaller, more vertical in shape and/or not centrally placed.

Mosque of Mahmoudiyah, Cairo.

Mosque of Umm Sultan Shaaban, Cairo.

• Usually there is some means of making ritual ablutions on the way in – in the grander mosques there is an entire front courtyard with an ablution block devoted to this function.

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Muhammad Ali Mosque, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Some mosques, however, consist of nothing more than large courtyards, with the “room” for prayer simply a deep colonnade on the far side as you walk in. I believe they are known as Persian style mosques. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo is one such.

Al-Hakim Mosque, Cairo.

• “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground,” God commands Moses in the Book of Exodus. Muslims retain this tradition; one must always remove one’s shoes before setting foot inside a mosque. (In fact, I would highly recommend wearing sandals or loafers if you are going to be visiting a number of mosques in a given day – constantly having to retie your shoes gets old rather quickly.) 

• But that’s not all: modest dress is required in other ways, too. (Not to worry, they’ll lend you a headscarf and/or a wrap-around skirt if you’re dressed immodestly.)

• In large mosques that tourists want to see, there is generally a viewing area at the back of the central room. Only men who wish to pray are allowed to go further. (Women who wish to pray are granted their own area, usually at the back of the mosque, and behind a screen.)

• On the opposite wall once you enter are two features you can’t miss: the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab is nothing more than a niche in the wall, indicating the qibla, that is, the direction towards Mecca and thus the direction one faces for prayer. The minbar, usually to the right of the mihrab, is a pulpit from which the imam gives a sermon following the Friday noon prayers. It consists of a staircase going straight up; it doesn’t look like your average church pulpit.

Mihrab and minbar, Elvançelebi mosque, Çorum Province, Turkey.

Mihrab, Vasat Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Molla Ferani Cami, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Sahib Ata Mosque, Konya.

Mihrab and minbar, Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.

Mihrab and minbar, mosque of Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun, Cairo.

• Mosques famously do not feature sculpture or (much) representational art, in keeping with the monotheistic prohibition of images. This means that their decoration consists of intricate designs or texts from the Koran. (In Turkey, these are often rendered on tiles.) I’m certain that there are art historians who would be able to delineate the history and meaning of all of these…

• As far as I can tell mosques do not have the same connection with burial that Christian churches have traditionally had, but some mosques do have cemeteries outside of them, or outbuildings that serve as mausolea for important people.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Sultan Süleyman Turbesi, outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Şehzadeler Türbesi (“Prince’s Tomb”), outside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

• But just as it was meritorious, in Catholic Europe, to sponsor the building of a church, so also it was meritorious to sponsor a mosque – thus the multiplicity of mosques in Istanbul and in Cairo, which may not have been justified by the population numbers. But as to who owns the title to the mosques, or who is responsible for their upkeep, or who appoints the imam… these things, at present, I do not know.


Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.


The usual case study to illustrate the Scientific Revolution is the triumph of heliocentrism. As you are no doubt aware, at one point learned opinion held that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe, with the Moon, the Sun, all the planets, and all the stars moving around it. This was a view endorsed by Aristotle, and by Ptolemy (AD 100-170), and it fit well with medieval theology: it’s not that we placed ourselves self-importantly at the center of all creation, but that we are sitting at the bottom of a sewer. We’re still one level up from Hell, but on Earth, the place where the four elements interact, things change and decay. One level up from the earth, the Lunar Sphere, is where things are perfect, formed as they are from the fifth element, quintessence. Keep on ascending and eventually you get to the realm of the angels and God himself. And anyway, the Earth appears immobile. There’s no great rushing wind, and no observable parallax either – if we were moving around the Sun, the stars would be moving in relation to each other (that they are so far away that there could be no observable parallax did not occur to anyone).

The trouble is that Ptolemy’s model didn’t quite work. The planets were never exactly where they should have been. Astronomers assumed that it was a result of faulty manuscript transmission but with the Renaissance and its mania for uncovering original texts, people discovered that Ptolemy was the originator of the bad data. (Another thing that they discovered is that not everyone was a geocentrist – the ancient Greek philosopher Aristarchus had proposed a heliocentric universe in the third century BC.) Finally, the discovery of the New World threw Ptolemy’s model even further into question. Ptolemy had proposed that the earthly realm consisted of four concentric spheres of earth, water, air, and fire. The first two weren’t quite aligned, however: the Earth should be completely covered by water, but part of it poked out above the water. This was the land – or rather, the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which themselves were in balance with each other. The discovery of the Americas illustrated that this theory was completely wrong. And if Ptolemy was wrong about that, what else was he wrong about?

Thus did the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus publish De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, proposing an immobile sun at the center of the universe, with the apparent daily rotation of the stars the product of the Earth’s own axial rotation. All the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun, with the Moon revolving around the Earth. De revolutionibus featured a preface claiming that it was “only a model,” but we now think that Copernicus himself was a genuine heliocentrist. This model didn’t quite work either, but it was simpler in many ways.

Heliocentrism thus became the scientific Big Idea of the sixteenth century, shared among certain scholars and derided as crazy by others – not only Catholics, but also Protestants like Luther and Calvin. After all, did Joshua not command the sun to stand still, and it stood still? Does not Chronicles state that “the world stands firm, never to be moved”? You can’t treat scripture as the foundation of your faith and not heed verses like these.

Galileo (1564-1642) wasn’t buying it. He was a heliocentrist anyway, and his use of the telescope to gaze at the heavens provided further evidence for a Sun-centered universe. Most famously, he discovered the four largest “Galilean” moons of Jupiter, proving that one could have “nested” revolutions (that the Moon went around the Earth, while the Earth itself went around the Sun, was a stumbling block to some people). He also observed sunspots on the Sun and craters on the Moon – in other words, “out there” was not perfect, but apparently made of the same stuff found “down here.” Galileo famously got into hot water with the Inquisition – no, he was not persecuted primarily for his belief in heliocentrism, but for his intemperate attacks on the Pope and the Church (which was rather touchy anyway on account of all the Protestants running around). But Galileo was forced to publicly recant his heliocentrism and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

This was not enough to discourage further investigation. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman who took detailed and accurate observations of the heavens over a twenty-year period, and his German student Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) used the data to formulate the laws of planetary motion. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits are elliptical (with the sun at one of the “foci”) and that planets vary in speed as they travel. Again, this violates the principle of the “perfect” heavens: orbits are supposed to be perfectly circular, and speeds uniform. Once Kepler accurately described planetary orbits, astronomers could get rid of the epicycle – an orbit within an orbit invented to describe the apparent backward motion of some planets at times. Now, they realized, it was merely a function of variable speeds as the Earth “overtook” some other planet.

The capstone of this narrative is Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who provided mathematical proof that gravity, the same force drawing things towards the Earth, is the exact same force keeping the planets going around the Sun. In one fell swoop, Newton explained all the motion in the universe, and got God out of it at the same time. Not that Newton was an atheist – he believed that only a divine mind could come up with something so elegant. But the planets no longer needed angels to make them move. Newton’s work was so culturally significant that it launched the Enlightenment – people believed that, using their reason, they could find other immutable laws that underlay other phenomena.

This, in a nutshell, is my lecture on the Scientific Revolution. Of course, I try to emphasize that it’s not a continuous narrative of Progress, that the whole thing was never foreordained, that there were all sorts of blind alleys to explore, that these scientists were human and prone to error and pettiness, etc. Furthermore, the heliocentric revolution did not even involve experimentation, an essential component of the scientific method, although it did involve accurate data collection and testable hypotheses. But one idea really did lead to another, and now we have a pretty accurate picture of the solar system (we can no longer claim that it is the entire universe). We can send spacecraft to explore these celestial bodies, and they seem to arrive and send useful data back to us.

I feel compelled to write this post today because this issue is still with us. We all hail Galileo as a martyr for the truth, and the whole episode remains deeply embarrassing for the RC Church. But the conflict between scripture and science remains when it comes to explaining the origins of life. The theory of evolution through natural selection, first formulated by Charles Darwin and refined ever since, is one of the great ideas that shaped the modern world – and unlike, say, Marxism and Freudianism, it retains its utility. It is, indeed, the foundation of the modern discipline of biology. Unfortunately, this theory’s explanation for the diversity of life on Earth contradicts the accounts given in Genesis 1 and 2, the opening chapters of the Jewish Torah, which Christians retain as part of their scriptures. Many Christians, especially around these parts, insist on the literal truth of scripture – certainly of the opening chapters, which explain the origin of everything, spelled out in a certain amount of detail. Thus has a certain type of Christian invested a great deal of mental energy in saving the appearances, of shoehorning all physical evidence into an explanatory theory that is in accord with the book of Genesis (including not only Creation, but also the idea that “in those days there were giants” and of the Flood – did you know that the Grand Canyon came about as a result of this?). The most recent example, and one that was breathlessly recommended to me by several people, is the movie Is Genesis History? which was shown last week in select cinemas. It was so successful that two more dates have been announced. Act now!

Part of me respects how Christians (and/or conservatives) have created this parallel media universe to get around the liberal possession of the commanding heights of culture. But I really wish they’d focus on stuff that’s true – or at least useful. Needless to say, this deliberate obtuseness is one of the worst advertisements for Christianity right now. One might understand evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion as matters of opinion – but to a falsifiable scientific theory, in accord with 150 years of data, in favor of some iron-age mythology? Is it any wonder that coastal Americans look down on the denizens of flyover country?

All I can say is that I’m really glad that the Bible does not overtly contradict other modern scientific discoveries, like the circulation of blood, the existence of microbes, Boyle’s Law, or the periodic table.


Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:

The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.

Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.

And so on.

I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.



A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

They did more than this, however:

Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.

As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.

If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.

Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.

And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.

As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.

Another RU Blog

My colleague across the hall, Aquiles Martinez, has publicly unveiled Encounters with the Sacred, a blog for Reinhardt’s religion program (he has been authoring it since last August). A sample post:

Any formal study of religion or religions must begin with a clear understanding of the subject matter, namely, what religion is.  And and yet this task is not as easy as it seems because in any society the meaning of words is not absolute or fixed; it is as fluid as its interpretations and applications.

Although the majority of the population of the world continues to identify themselves with a religion, on the basis of some implicit and unmeasured understandings of religion, especially when it comes to answering polls, over the years religious scholars have struggled with the meaning of the term religion, or even with the essential, common traits that would lead them to classify individuals or groups under that label.

Adopting different points of view and using methodologies of analysis that embody different human experiences, many scholars have concluded that a single, definitive definition of religion is neither possible nor advisable.  Since it is a social construct that reflects diversity of perceptions and thoughts, it is up to any person to decide what it means and for others to try to understand these definitions in their corresponding contexts.  And yet a work-in-progress definition of religion is possible, necessary, and desirable, at least to name the subject matter and start a conversation that would elicit a wide range of qualifications, exceptions to the rule, and even critiques.

Recognizing that there is no such a thing as value-free, final definition and that, at the same time, religion is something that average people primarily experience or live and hardly ever stop to formally define it, much less to take into account the ideas of others to see where they all coincide, how could we, then, define religion?

Read on at the link.

Martin Luther

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish:

How Martin Luther has shaped Germany for half a millennium

The 500th anniversary of the 95 theses finds a country as moralistic as ever

SET foot in Germany this year and you are likely to encounter the jowly, dour portrait of Martin Luther. With more than 1,000 events in 100 locations, the whole nation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk issuing his 95 theses and (perhaps apocryphally) pinning them to the church door at Wittenberg. He set in motion a split in Christianity that would forever change not just Germany, but the world.

At home, Luther’s significance is no longer primarily theological. After generations of secularisation, not to mention decades of official atheism in the formerly communist east (which includes Wittenberg), Germans are not particularly religious. But the Reformation was not just about God. It shaped the German language, mentality and way of life. For centuries the country was riven by bloody confessional strife; today Protestants and Catholics are each about 30% of the population. But after German unification in the 19th century, Lutheranism won the culture wars. “Much of what used to be typically Protestant we today perceive as typically German,” says Christine Eichel, author of “Deutschland, Lutherland”, a book about Luther’s influence.

Click on the link to see if you agree.


To mark the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the Christian liturgical year, a post about crosses. I’ve often thought that Christianity was lucky in that Jesus was crucified (as opposed to guillotined, hanged, shot by firing squad, killed by lethal injection, etc.) because it has provided the religion with a simple and instantly recognizable symbol: the cross, two line segments intersecting at ninety degrees. At the same time, one can do endless artistic variations on this theme, some of which acquire local, ethnic or sectarian significance. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, we have:


A cross of Jerusalem, a product of the Crusades, and perhaps representing the five wounds of Christ (Wikipedia).


A cross of Toulouse – now a symbol of Occitania (Wikipedia).


A cross of Canterbury, based on a bronze brooch unearthed at Canterbury in the nineteenth century. It’s now a symbol of Anglicanism (Wikipedia).


A Greek cross (Wikipedia).


A cross used by Slavs, particularly the Russian Orthodox church. The top crossbar represents the INRI sign, the bottom a footrest (Wikipedia).


This is a cross used by crusading orders, particularly the Knights of St. John. This group was headquartered on the island of Malta for many years, thus the designation of this device as a Maltese Cross (Wikipedia).


A Coptic cross (Wikipedia).


A cross of Lorraine, famous for being a symbol of the French resistance during World War II (Wikipedia).


A Celtic Cross. The interlaced pattern is decorative, but the halo around the arms marks this as having Irish origins (Pinterest).


Again, one can do infinite variations on this. Ethiopian crosses are famous for their complexity (Pinterest).


Book Review

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish, a review of Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.

IN THE early years of the Enlightenment, a few brave philosophers challenged the Christian order—an apparently hopeless task. But their efforts paid off, and tomes have since been written, by authors from Diderot to Richard Dawkins, about the triumph of secular man. What, after all, has Christianity ever done for us?

Rather a lot, argues Nick Spencer in an excellent new book, “The Evolution of the West”. Mr Spencer, who is research director at Theos, a religious think-tank in London, picks up from Larry Siedentop’s epic work from 2014, “Inventing the Individual”—a reassertion of how much the Western world owes to Christianity. It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.

Starting with the ancient world, he takes the reader on an extravagant journey to meet, among many others, Augustine of Hippo and John Locke as well as Thomas Piketty. The author believes that the fact that Christianity became the religion of the European establishment has blinded people to what a revolutionary doctrine it was (and is). And he clearly believes it can still play a role. The Christianisation of Europe, he says, was not a bunch of reactionary clerics trying to shut down a noble, free, secular ancient world, but a new idea of “a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives”. Christianity declared that humans “have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group”.

Out of this, with a reinjection at the Reformation, came the origins of the modern world: a belief in equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system and the assertion of natural rights leading to individual liberty, as well as the notion that a society built on the assumption of moral equality should have a representative form of government.

More at the link.


While in DC, I was surprised to find actual members of the Westboro Baptist Church across from my hotel, practicing their peculiar ministry. They normally picket events like funerals; I do not know what in particular they were protesting here.

Everyone knows about their tagline “God Hates Fags,” but I did not know about their anti-Jewish/anti-Zionist animus. This is in contrast to the pro-Zionist dispensationalism prevalent in American Evangelical circles (although note that they believe that 144,000 Jews will be saved, per Revelation 7).

Seems they hate everyone! (As a friend said, wouldn’t it just be easier to list the things they don’t hate?)


img_3608 img_3607