Kings, Symbols and Cities: Building the Divine

A few years ago, at a meeting of Victorian Christian leaders in Parliament, then Prime Minister Ted Baillieu, an architect by training, commented on how churches are intrinsic to Melbourne’s skyline and cityscape.

“Wherever you are standing, these are the arrows of the churches that you can see. These are the major landmarks of our city, ”he observed.

“It is from these that Melbourne takes shape.

In his recently published study, titled “From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities,” Senior Lecturer in (Patristic) Theology and Church History at the Greek Orthodox Theological College of St Andrew, the Doctor Mario Baghos, takes up the observation seeking to trace and analyze the way in which the architecture of the Near East sought to establish or reflect a mundi axis, that is to say the line or rod passing through the center of the earth connecting its surface to the underworld and to the sky and around which the universe revolves and an imago mundi, an image of the world.

According to Mircea Eliade: “Every Microcosm, every inhabited region has a Center; that is to say, a place which is above all sacred.

For the Greeks, the classic navel lovers of all time, it was the omphalos, the navel or the center of the world, but the need to establish such a place precedes this civilization. Dr Baghos takes us back to the first civilizations of the Near East, those of Mesopotamia, then Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome. It aims to show how the idea of ​​Axis Mundi, expressed in various ways through ziggurats, pyramids, natural elements such as Mount Ararat, the walled garden of paradise and beyond, permeates, shapes and influences their understanding of urban planning and reinforces the claim of leadership. of the ruling class over the rest of society, allowing these rulers to identify with the axis mundi and, invested with such transcendent powers, to legitimize their supremacy.

READ MORE: Mysteries of the Medieval Mystras, the Indian Summer of Byzantium, and the Cradle of Modern Greece

The enumeration of the elements of the title is thus intrinsic to the comprehension of the principal affirmation of the author. Regarding the term charged with king, the author suggests the evolution of a man into a symbol, a compound word composed of the Greek of σύν “together” and “I throw”, denoting a “to throw things together”, and thus an outward sign of meaning. Through it, a transcendent reality is reflected, reflecting and involving the ineffable and the impenetrable. In turn, these visual indicators of deeper and universal truths are incorporated into the structures of the foundational component of civilization: the structures of a city.

An evolution of symbols

It is no coincidence that the author has chosen to focus exclusively on the ancient civilizations of the Near East. Arguably, the author could convincingly reinforce his take on the interdependence between power, faith, and civic architecture, also performing an overview of similar conceptions of the axis mundi existing in loci as well. disparate as the ancient architecture of Mesoamerican civilizations, the temples of the Hinduism world and Buddhist pagodas. However, by choosing to treat only the analysis of the civilizations of the Near East which, because of their geographical and cultural proximity, communicated with each other, borrowed and influenced each other, the author is able to postulate an evolution almost linear in the way power is interpreted as a symbol and then represented in architecture. A “regrouping” of these civilizations facilitates the analysis of their symbols as revelations of their innate religiosity. Having established this, the author can then proceed to elucidate his main claim: that through the evolution of these symbols, we can trace the progressive progression of ancient civilizations away from polytheism and the concepts of the divine sovereign, towards Christianity. .

READ MORE: Danubian Byzantium: Greece in Belgrade

The evolutionary chain of the paradigm shift having thus been demonstrated, the author is then able to postulate that this change, through an in-depth, erudite and refreshing analysis of the representations of Christ, as “Master of everything” (Παντοκράτωρ) inexorably culminates, in Byzantium, in the gradual replacement of the cult of the pagan sovereign, inherent in the construction of the city in Antiquity, the sovereign becoming subordinate to Christ. The author thus offers an assessment of Christian Rome and Constantinople as characterizing the evolution of the ancient and classical world towards Christianity. Pushing the author’s claim further, the reader can then assume that the relationship between the emperor, the symbols and the city of Constantinople forms the basis of modern conceptions of urban architecture and planning and provides a framework consistent for interpreting the evolution of cities through the ages, explaining shifting values ​​and shifts in dogma of any kind.

Dr. Baghos’ analysis is therefore not only new, but also historically important. The relationship he carefully and convincingly delineates as existing between kings, symbols and cities in Byzantium, endured in various forms and permutations in Europe and all European-dominated countries, until the end. of the First World War. The appropriation of Byzantine conceptions of the relationship between the temporal and the sacred underpins the foundations of Soviet architecture and Fascist architecture, with Divinity replaced by the absolute power of the state, while even philosophies apparently disparate architectural features such as brutalism whose relationship to power is underpinned by requirements of formal legibility of the plan, clear exposure of the structure, evaluation of materials for their intrinsic qualities and coherence of the building as a visual entity, can also be considered ultimately derived from the Byzantine approach.

READ MORE: Istanbul’s Christmas past: Memories of Constantinople

Thus, in his versatile exhibition, Dr Baghos brilliantly opens up a whole new field of research and analysis. How were Byzantine conceptions of kings, symbols and cities appropriated by European civilizations and subsequently used to support a discourse of colonialism and imperialism? How have such views disrupted, altered, or influenced the indigenous understanding of Axis Mundi in Africa, Asia, and America? Considering that Sassanid Persia was the main rival of early Byzantium, how did the evolutionary Persian conception of royalty and power under a supreme deity, especially Ahura Mazda in the monotheistic Zoroastrian tradition, influence or reflect that of Byzantium? Significantly, to what extent can a link be identified between Byzantine kingship and architecture, and the Islamic conception of the caliph as lieutenant or successor of the messenger of God. How is this relationship or these conflicts resulting from the interpretation of such a relationship reflected in Islamic architecture?

Finally, at a time when, in the West, the churches which, according to “Kings, symbols and cities” establish Christ as the mundi axis, are more and more demolished or converted into high-ceiling housing and the urban streets are converted into wasteland. windswept dominated by the wind. through increasingly tall skyscrapers, how do our new mundi axes and mundi images surround their citizens with a vision of the cosmos in which the sacred is revealed and what exactly does this revelation consist of? Does this axis continue to cross the three ancient kingdoms: the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom and the underworld, understood today as the penthouse, the commercial space and the underground parking?

A scholarly and scholarly assessment of the diachronic evolution of sacred architecture, “Kings, Symbols and Cities”, remains eminently accessible and digestible. It’s a must read for anyone looking to understand the complex relationship that civilizations have with architecture and the celestial.

“From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium” is available for purchase direct from publishers, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, as well as general online retailers.

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