Global and local culture intermingled in the Middle East in Antiquity

30.11.2017
Nordic research funding brings researchers of antiquity together. Their shared research topic is the interaction of international and local culture and urban religiosity.

The research project Globalization, Urbanization and Urban Religion in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Roman and Early Islamic Periods studies the urbanisation, urban culture and the interactions between cities and their surrounding rural areas in the Eastern Mediterranean during antiquity.

The project combines the research interests of classical historians, scholars of Islam, archaeologists and theologians. The Nordic funding will be used to arrange three interconnected multidisciplinary workshops.

The time span of the research is extensive, stretching from the Roman until the early Islamic period.

 “Our goal is to track the long-term historical developments relating to globalisation, urbanisation and urban religion. We also want to find out whether we will be able to uncover similar phenomena and overarching themes from different time periods and areas,” says Academy Research Fellow Raimo Hakola, docent of New Testament studies.

Significant religious interaction in the cities of antiquity

According to Hakola, research on antiquity has previously relied primarily on literary sources. This is not without its problems.

 “The remaining literary sources were mainly intended for the immediate social group of the authors. Consequently, the material emphasises the identity building of the groups and their efforts to distinguish themselves from others.”

Now the literary sources are being supplemented with archaeological research, which highlights the coexistence of various communities.

 “Archaeology has uncovered cultural interaction between the Jewish, early Christian, Roman paganist and early Islamic communities.”

The research topic also has a great deal of potential to help us rethink the present-day Middle East.

 “The understanding our current national and religious groups have of their own past is often simplified. In identity construction, groups will cherry-pick the elements from history that support the desired narrative,” Hakola points out.

However, the historical study of the material world proves that the identities were not given, they were constructed from a variety of different elements.

Archaeological excavations change the history of Galilee

Hakola is one of the leaders of the excavation project of a late-Antiquity synagogue in Horvat Kur, Israel, and the results have already provided a broader perspective on the history of the Eastern Mediterranean in Galilee. In addition to the Horvat Kur site, other recent archaeological excavations in the area have further changed the image of the region as a distant backwater. The research has established how local communities were influenced by the global trends of their time.

 “Even the inhabitants of the rural villages in Galilee were part of international trade networks. For example, the roof of the synagogue in the village of Horvat Kur was partially built with tiles made in Asia Minor,” says Hakola. 

The coming series of workshops will bring researchers from different areas of antiquity research and universities closer together. The first workshop, Global and Local Cultures in the Roman East: From Domination to Interaction, will be held during the autumn term 2018 in the Faculty of Theology of the University of Helsinki. The following workshops will be organised in 2019 in Aarhus and Bergen.