Sacred Cities

Within the larger Mediterranean world of antiquity and the Middle Ages, issues of religious pluralism come into sharp relief in urban contexts. Evidence is abundant from the literary, epigraphical, and archaeological record. Especially fruitful sites for such inquiry are “sacred cities” that on the one hand symbolize a religion (or more than one) and at the same time, as cosmopolitan centers, teem with religious diversity. The driving force behind the pluralistic dynamics may be conquest, evolution, or an ethos embedded in the dominant religious system. Among various locales that would repay study in this context, we propose to focus our investigation on three salient examples, namely Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Rome. In Alexandria, the distinctions maintained by Ptolemaic rulers among Greeks, Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians had consequences for religious centers and observances, while the diversity reflected later under Muslim rule included different strands of Christianity. Jerusalem becomes a virtual religious palimpsest with its numerous hegemonic successions during our time period—the abiding heart of Judaism successively transformed in various ways by “pagan” Romans, Christians, Muslims, and then again by Christian Crusaders. Rome from the earliest times absorbed religious traditions into its system, while at the same time it continued to mark conspicuously some largely integrated imports as foreign and occasionally scapegoated certain religions like Judaism and the worship of Isis. In these cases we will ask first of all what defines the sacral character of the city as a symbolic religious center—sacred boundaries, sacral itineraries like processions, and sight lines prescribed by religious tradition (on the two lattermost recent digital reconstructions have shed much new light). We further wish to trace patterns of toleration, integration, conflict, erasure, and revival in each of the three case studies and in comparing them with one another.

Another, more broadly comparative inquiry in this research cluster will address pilgrimage or travel to sacred locales. Purposes for such trips varied widely from one tradition to the next, and often within a single tradition or from one era to another. Many traveled as individual pilgrims, while others visited holy cities in groups—sometimes as a state-sponsored delegation. Motives included healing, attendance at festivals, sacrifices, consultation of oracles, and personal confirmation or enlightenment. As a means to shed mutual light on each tradition, we will explore the diverse meanings and different contours of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Greek and Roman “paganism” during antiquity and the medieval period in the Mediterranean world.