Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East: Cultural Identities and Classical Heritage

Judith McKenzie

This project will analyse the monumental art (large decorative programmes on buildings) of two areas of the former eastern Roman Empire which came under Islamic rule but which have never been the subject of an integrated comprehensive study: Egypt and Syro-Palestine (modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine). It will determine systematically how the strength and nature of the local ‘classical’ (Greco-Roman) traditions and expressions of identities influenced monumental art in these regions during Late Antiquity (AD 250–750), the period of transition from paganism to Christianity and, in turn, to Islam. To achieve these objectives, this study will define and distinguish between the different strands of classical influence, both local and external (from the centres of Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria), and investigate the roles of local artists and artisans as creators rather than imitators. The results will transform our understanding of the artistic culture of the late antique Middle East because monumental art (large decorative programmes of paintings, mosaics, or relief sculptures on buildings) provides glimpses of other aspects of identity for which less evidence has survived.