Marlena Whiting

Anchoring Religious Innovation in Urban Space: Christianization and Urban life in the Hellenized cities of the Southern Levant

Home > Projects > Anchoring Religious Innovation in Urban Space: Christianization and Urban life in the Hellenized cities of the Southern Levant

How do the religious innovations brought about by Christianity - especially the building of new churches and abandonment of temples - impact the experience of urban space? The Anchoring Innovation framework challenges old narratives about violent destruction of pagan monuments by Christian zealots, or about the decline of the Classical city, by focusing on the lived experience of city dwellers and considering churches as responses to, rather than causes of, changes in the use of urban space.

Was the Christianization of urban space in the Hellenistic Near East exclusively the result of innovation? Were the new types of architecture, the new identities based on a universal creed, holy text and widespread cults of new saints, and the new cultural values - particularly regarding euergetism - responsible for shaping the city? Or were aspects of urban life anchored in local practices or regional cults, the pragmatism of propitiating the divine for worldly assistance?

The urban environment of these cities served as a means of structuring civic and political life in part through religious buildings and associated ceremonies and public offices. Religious change, especially the rise of Christianity from the fourth century, becomes a lens for viewing the ways in which the city community understood its past and its relationship to the environment, both built and natural. In the Nabataean capital of Petra, instead of converting the remains of the urban temples into churches, the inhabitants built new churches in a different location of the city. The cathedral at the Decapolis city of Jerash, by contrast, was built directly over a late Hellenistic temple which was demolished to make way for it, while the 2nd-c. CE Temple of Artemis immediately next to it remained standing throughout antiquity. This decision had considerable influence on the urban function of this particular city district – with several churches as well as a communal bathhouse coming to exist in the shadow of the ancient temple.

I will investigate these processes of urban transformation and religious change in a comparative perspective, by studying cities of the Decapolis and the Nabataean of the Southern Levant. It is in these spaces that innovation in religious identity is clearly expressed as a marker of separation, but also where methods of anchoring can be observed, as populations attempt to absorb and accept change into their day-to-day lives and sense of local identity.