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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness

Whatever the monk Zosimas expected to encounter when he [1]ventured into the Jordanian wilderness, what he discovered instead was something he could not have anticipated. There among the rocks and sand in front of him squatted a woman, emaciated and completely naked with dark leathery skin, her matted, straggling hair making her barely recognizable as anything human. Apparently reassured by the fact that her unexpected visitor was a monk, the woman gestured to Zosimas that she wished to use his cloak to cover herself. Then having wrapped herself in this makeshift garment, the woman asked the astonished monk to sit down with her, and she began to tell her story.

My painting of Mary portrays her as she might have appeared some ten years into her solitary retreat. Rather than portraying the Saint Mary of the Church, I wanted to be true to Mary’s humanity, to grant her the dignity of a very human soul living in harsh self-imposed exile from her own kind.
What we know of the woman’s story, and what she told to the monk Zosimas, we can learn in the account of her life written down by Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem during the 7th-century. Her name was Mary, and she had run away from her home in Egypt at the young age of twelve to journey to Alexandria. In the city she had lived a dissolute life, selling her sexual favours on the streets for the next seventeen years, or simply giving herself away for the sake of the experience. Apparently driven by a need to satisfy a carnal craving in new surroundings, she boarded a ship carrying pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. The pilgrims, both during the voyage and in Jerusalem itself, proved to be as willing as the residents of Alexandria, and she continued her wanton lifestyle within the city walls. Until the day that she found herself at the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sophronius’ account of Mary’s life does not provide us with the details of her journey, but using maps of the period it is possible to surmise that the ship on which she embarked from Alexandria would have sailed for the port of Joppa, which had a well-trodden connecting road to Jerusalem. The actual location of Zosimas’ monastery is unknown, but calculating its distance from Jerusalem and its location near the west bank of the River Jordan gives us its likely location. From the monastery Mary would have crossed the Jordan and travelled eastwards into the trans-Jordanian desert. 
Intending to enter in the hope of finding more clients among the congregation, she felt her way barred by some unseen force. Interpreting her impure lifestyle as the cause of her being unable to set foot in the church, she experienced a deep inner remorse. At this the withholding force seemed to vanish, and she entered the church and prayed by the relic of the [2]True Cross. Emerging once more into the sunlight, she felt that she heard a voice say to her: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Renouncing the life which she had led, she journeyed to a monastery by the Jordan to receive Holy Communion before crossing the river to begin the life of a [3]recluse – a life that she would follow for the rest of her days.

Having related her story to Zosimas, Mary asked the monk to meet her in a year’s time to give her Holy Communion. At the appointed time Zosimas arrived at the banks of the Jordan to see Mary walking towards him across the waters. A further meeting was arranged for the following year, and this time Zosimas returned to the place where he had first encountered Mary, only to find her dead. It is said that a lion helped him to bury her, digging with its claws into the dry desert earth which had been Mary’s home for so many years, and which now would be her last resting place.

Two traditional icons of Mary. An anonymous Russian artist has surrounded Mary with scenes from her life (left), beginning with her kneeling in prayer before the relic of the True Cross, and ending with her burial by the lion. Gregory of Sinai monastery has chosen to depict the moment (right) when Mary walks across the River Jordan to meet Zosimas.
This, briefly, is the story of Mary – Mary of Egypt as she became known. It was preserved as an oral tradition by the monks of Zosimas’ monastery before being recorded by Sophronius a century later. In it we recognize elements similar to the life of [4]Thecla: a remarkable life of a turn to faith interwoven with the supernatural elements of legend. For the orthodox faithful, it provides a textbook example of repentance and redemption, and the mercies of the Spirit which such redemption ensures. But because these aspects of her story are the focus for the faithful, what is glossed over in such orthodox accounts is another central aspect of Mary’s story. It is a story of astonishing practical survival.

A popular 13th-century account of the lives of the saints apparently confused Mary’s story with that of Mary Magdalene. The story that Mary Magdalene spent her final years as a solitary naked penitent is wholly erroneous, but it nevertheless was seized upon by artists who were willing enough to portray the penitent naked Magdalene, as in this romanticised 19th-century version by Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma, which depicts an improbably healthy-looking Magdalene swooning before the cave in which she was supposed to have lived.
We do not know the exact years of Mary’s life, but if we assume that she must have been almost thirty when she crossed the Jordan, then her death in her late seventies means that she still must have lived for some forty-seven years in the wilderness. The legend relates that when she left for the desert she took only three loaves of bread with her. For the rest, she lived on whatever her unforgiving surroundings provided her with. This is a feat of endurance which leaves the achievements of even the most radical hard-core survivalists looking like a Sunday afternoon picnic. Given that the basic practical events of Mary’s story actually happened, we must marvel at the survival skills which she must have developed just to stay alive, and with them the mental and emotional commitment needed to sustain her existence of utter solitude. Zosimas mentions that she prayed in a near-unintelligible whisper, with all her words running together. And yet she apparently retained enough of her language skills to communicate her story to the monk.

The unforgiving harshness and haunting grandeur of the Jordanian desert. Mary somehow managed not only to survive, but to live in this hostile landscape, and not just for months or for years, but for several decades. Faith is a wondrous thing in itself. To add miracles to her story perhaps diminishes what she achieved on a human level.
We might or might not accept the supernatural elements of the story – the unseen force at the doors of the church, Mary walking on the waters of the Jordan, and the [5]helpful lion – for such elements remain a matter for individual faith. Such miraculous occurrences were needed to confirm Mary’s sainthood by the Church, and in any case remain a distant and unverifiable hearsay. My painting of Mary which heads this post does not need them: I find Mary’s commitment of faith and feat of survival sufficient marvels in themselves. The Church might have need of such miracles and mysteries, but there in the wilderness beyond the Jordan beat a heart in quiet solitude, and the human heart holds mysteries far greater than these.

Between Truth and Legend: Is Mary's story true? The circumstances of her life existed as an oral tradition before being set down in writing a century after the events. Faith is the criterion for us accepting the supernatural elements of her story, but what of the story itself? We know from documented examples that ten years is enough time for a human to revert to a feral state and lose the faculty of speech. And yet after some forty-seven years Mary was articulate enough to relate her story to Zosimus, even though the monk described her manner of praying as near-incoherent. I personally believe the substance of Mary's story, although that substance might have been embroidered upon over the years, as stories typically are.

[1] It was expected of each monk at the monastery that he should make an annual sojourn into the desert to fast in prayerful contemplation.

[2] Please see my post Helena and the True Cross to read more about the veracity of this holy relic.

[3] A medieval tradition seems to have confused Mary Magdalene with Mary’s story. This tradition has a post-Resurrection Magdalene also living for many years as a repentant naked recluse, for which there is no evidence whatever. The source of this erroneous tradition was The Golden Legend, a 13th-century compilation of the lives of saints. The Legend freely mixed historical facts with fanciful fiction and hearsay miracles: a dubious literary cocktail which only increased its popularity. Later scholasticism treated the Legend more critically – although even up to the 19th-century artists were still portraying Mary Magdalene as a naked recluse (left, by Hans Olaf Heyerdahl) in the style of Mary of Egypt. Please see my post The Gospel of Mary.   

[4] Please see my post Thecla: A Woman between Rain and Fire to read Thecla’s remarkable story.

[5] Whether the intervention of the helpful lion could be considered as miraculous is perhaps questionable. I tend to think of it as a typical storybook element: unlikely and improbable, but not actually defying the laws of physics and nature, as miracles appear to do. 

The original account by Sophronius on which my post is based can be read here. My post necessarily condenses or omits many of the details purportedly related by Mary to Zosimas, including the fact that she prostituted herself on board the vessel bound for the Holy Land specifically as a way of paying for her passage, and also includes an extended and detailed account of her first meeting with Zosimas, which is moving in itself.

Jordanian desert adapted from a photo by criscris1. Map and portrayal of Mary created for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Empires of Sand, Empires of Dust

Her wrists are shackled, not with iron, but with a chain of gold: an acknowledgement by her captors of her high status. The golden chains are perhaps a mixture both of respect and of irony: respect for this woman’s considerable achievements, and the underlying irony that chains are still chains, whether of [1]gold or of unyielding Roman iron. Queen Zenobia of Palmyra gazes for the last time over her beloved city before being escorted to Rome to be paraded through the streets prior to her [2]execution. The establishing of her own Palmyrene Empire and the revolt which she has led against the might of Rome has at last been crushed, and the sun will surely continue to shed its light upon the eternal empire of the Caesars for as long as the world lasts.

Queen Zenobia gazes for the last time upon her beloved city of Palmyra, as portrayed by Herbert Schmalz in the 19th-century. Her declaration of independence from Rome and the expansion of her empire as far north as Asia Minor and as far south as Egypt became a threat to Rome which could not be ignored.
Well, as we know, Roman rule proved to be rather less eternal than any Caesar preferred to imagine. Less than a century and a half after Zenobia was defeated, the [3]Christian Visigoth Alaric rode with his army into the forum of Rome and put an end to imperial Roman domination forever. The events of history should chasten us. In history, nothing is less certain than the status quo: change is always coming, and history contains constant reminders of the folly of imagining that things will simply go on being the way they are. The truth is of course that, human pride being what it is, we usually prefer to imagine (and probably firmly believe that) our values will endure, whether those values come in the form of political power, empire building, or a particular religious belief – or a mix of all three.

Palmyra in the last half of the 3rd-century. Zenobia extends her Palmyrene empire to become a serious rival to Roman rule. Palmyra occupied a privileged location at the junction of major trade routes connecting to the silk road eastward (shown above in red). These connections made the city affluent, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, with the harmonious blending of different cultures being reflected in the city’s art and architecture.
As recently as the end of last [4]month Islamic State militants continued their destruction of Zenobia’s Palmyra. Having already demolished with explosives the beautiful Baalshamin temple, the city’s elegant Roman arch and other sculptures and monuments, the militants switched to a new tactic by combining their two crimes – the one cultural, the other humanitarian – into one, by tying their captives to the city’s columns and then blowing up the columns. As with their destruction of other irreplaceable cultural treasures, IS justify their actions by claiming that such artefacts are ‘idolatrous’, and therefore an affront to their Islamic beliefs. It is an easy option to dismiss such a hollow justification with contempt and revulsion, but if such a course is taken, what tends to get overlooked in the heat of negative emotions is what ‘idolatrous’ actually means in practice.

The Baalshamin temple, the principal temple in Palmyra. Baalshamin was the principal deity of Palmyrene beliefs. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
In the context of religious belief we tend to think of ‘idols’ as being of carved wood and stone: actual objects of worship that we either bow down to or seek to destroy, depending upon the fervour of our own beliefs. But is an idol always a thing of stone or wood? Religious idols can take other forms. Consider a Christian Fundamentalist who believes unquestioningly that everything in scripture is the direct revealed word of God, and therefore is flawless and final. Scripture has in such a case shifted from being a thing of spiritual revelation to being uncritically and blindly accepted en bloc, with any scholarly assessment of such texts’ editorial compilation within a historical context being roundly disregarded or – perhaps even worse – dismissed as a subject of mere irrelevance. In such a blindly uncritical situation such texts have become an idol in themselves, with such fatuous fundamentalism becoming degraded from sincere religious belief to the level of mere idol worship, the idol in this case being, not of wood or stone, but of words.

The lion of Al-Lat, the most massive and imposing sculpture in Palmyra shown in its restored state. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
When seen in this light, Islamic militants are themselves idolatrous: the Quran, rather than being perceived as a religious text, has been degraded to the form of an idol that is blindly and uncritically glorified at the expense of their own humanity. For such militants, the Quran has been ‘idolized’. We might commonly refer to the religious extremists who carry out such inhuman acts as mass rape and beheadings as ‘barbarians’, but they have made themselves barbarians in a literal as well as in a metaphorical sense. There can be no such thing as ‘religious extremism’, because when religion takes such extreme forms it follows a darker god to become something other than religion – even when it is done in religion’s name. Religion without humanity is barbarism, and if you follow your religion to the point where you lose your humanity, then by default you also have lost your religion.

The Roman triumphal arch in Palmyra, an elegant example of Roman secular architecture. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
The recent destruction of the buildings in Palmyra by Islamic State is hardly the first time in history that opposing forces have targeted architecture. The invading Persians sacked the Acropolis in Athens. Under the political will of Pericles it was rebuilt the following generation, but when Alexander with his conquering army reached the beautiful Persian capital of Persepolis he exacted a terrible [5]retribution for the destruction of the Acropolis, ordering his troops to raze the city to the ground. They did, and one of the most treasured and comprehensive – and irreplaceable – libraries of that time was consigned to the flames. Unlike Persepolis, the Acropolis rose phoenix-like from the ashes – only to be sacked once more seven centuries later by [6]Christians who were all-too-eager to dismantle this seat of pagan worship.

Palmyra’s magnificent amphitheatre would have been used for staging oratory performances. Current status: now used as an execution ground by Islamic State militants. 
Palmyra itself, known as the Venice of the Sands, represented a perfect flowering of different cultures, with an aesthetically successful and unique blending both of Roman, Palmyrene and Persian influences in its architecture. What makes its destruction different is that almost two thousand years later, up until earlier this year, it existed as a partial yet still magnificent ruin in our contemporary world. Its special status as a UNESCO World Heritage site effectively means that it was being preserved in trust, as the collective cultural heritage of you who are reading this, and of future generations to come. But it is always so much easier to destroy something than to build it, and in this sense Islamic State has squarely chosen for the easy option.

Originally sculpted as a funerary bust, this carved limestone portrait of a Palmyrene noblewoman speaks of all the refinement and sophistication of Palmyrene arts and the citizens who created them. Current status: in the collection of the British Museum, London.
So what happens now? Having survived for almost two thousand years, the most beautiful buildings of Zenobia’s beloved Palmyra have been reduced to dust and rubble, and the sand of its [7]amphitheatre is stained with the blood of those executed by the will of IS extremists. IS might rise further in its own brutalising attempt at empire building, or it could collapse internally, with no stable political or bureaucratic infrastructure in place to consolidate what has been gained by blood and terror. History can at times seem very impatient to introduce change, with rapidly-moving events appearing to happen at whirlwind speed – and it also can bide its time, and change can seem slow in coming. But change will come eventually as day follows night. In a hundred, or a thousand, or [8]six thousand years, historians will record the dim memory of half-forgotten and long-obsolete beliefs, and the pages of the Quran will have long blown away on the indifferent desert winds.

Khaled Asaad and Kayla Mueller
THE HUMANITARIAN CRIMES OF ISLAMIC STATE: This post focuses generally upon the cultural crimes of Islamic State with relation to the buildings in Palmyra, but mention must also be made of its humanitarian crimes. Khaled Asaad, the 82 year-old Director of Antiquities at Palmyra, was tortured for several weeks in an attempt by IS to force him to reveal the whereabouts of cultural treasures hidden at the site. He refused and was subsequently beheaded, after which his body was hung from the ruins which he had spent a lifetime’s career preserving. The selling of such cultural artefacts on the black market has been a way for IS to fund its operations. IS treats systematic rape almost as a doctrine, the captured U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller being just one of many such victims of the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before he murdered her. The Palmyra amphitheatre has since May of this year been used as a place of execution by IS. Shortly after they overran Palmyra IS executed three hundred local men whom they considered to be ‘pro-government’. This mass execution was followed by a second: the massacre of another four hundred local residents, most of them women and children. With the exception of the murder in Iraq of Ms Mueller, all of the above atrocities by Islamic State took place in Palmyra. Similar atrocities have taken place in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the Palmyra amphitheatre teenage members of Islamic State stand behind soldiers of the Syrian army who were executed by them moments after this photo was taken.
A QUESTION OF RESPECT: A bizarre echo of what is happening in Palmyra is taking place right now in the very heart of the Muslim world. Since the mid-1980’s the Saudi authorities have seen fit to destroy some 95% of all historic buildings in Mecca (including several important mosques) dating from the time of the prophet Muhammad to make way for new hotels, apartments, shopping malls and parking lots. The question has to be asked: how can a religious culture be expected to respect the historic value of other cultures when it clearly does not even respect its own?

The most holy place in all of Islam is now dominated by a colossal brooding hotel.
PALMYRA AND ECONOMIC REALITY: In terms of the tourist economy of the country, Palmyra was a golden egg for the Syrian government and a local source of income. But for the future to come, in whatever form it takes, who is going to want to visit a sad and bloodstained pile of rubble? Even given a worst-case scenario in which Islamic State actually introduces its ruling caliphate in the region, it has now effectively cut itself off from this lucrative source of income. It does not take an economic genius to figure out that alienating governments, both regional and beyond, is a short-term road to long-term economic disaster. Religious fundamentalism and myopic idiocy are horns on the same goat: a lesson of history which fortunately seems to be lost on the militants of Islamic State.

[1] Zenobia’s gold shackles are not a fictional fancy: a contemporary account mentions her wearing such chains when she was paraded through Rome.

[2] Zenobia’s fate in Rome is uncertain, with one account having her marry a Roman senator and becoming a familial matriarch. But Roman punishment for insurrection and the need to set an example to others being the ruthless beast that it was, it does seem more likely that she was executed. Unlike the political puppet masters of our own world, Zenobia belonged to an age when the person who opened hostilities was the same person who led the troops into battle. Zenobia seems to have been a true amazon, accompanying her troops on foot during marathon marches.

[3] Alaric seems to have kept a foot in both camps, adopting Christian practices while still finding room to follow pagan beliefs.

[4] BBC News report of 27 October, 2015: ‘IS blows up Palmyra columns to kill three captives’.

[5] Alexander’s ruthless destruction of the Persian capital would seem to be the very definition of the ‘what goes around comes around’ dictum. It could be that in an indeterminate future some new fanatical religious sect will desecrate the Kaaba in a long-deserted Mecca. The famous Black Stone set into the Kaaba already has been smashed to pieces in medieval times, which is why it is now encased in a silver mount (right). Not unsurprisingly, those who carried out this destruction were members of an extreme Muslim sect. Also unsurprisingly, IS have threatened to destroy the Kaaba as an 'idol of stone'.

[6] I have no illusions about this incident in history. Had explosives been available at that time the Parthenon would have been reduced to dust and rubble indistinguishable from the dust and rubble that once was the Baalshamin temple in Palmyra. 

[7] Teenage boys belonging to IS execute prisoners in the Palmyra amphitheatre.

[8] This time frame of 6,000 years in the future I have borrowed from my post All Things Must Pass (left). I have chosen this specific time frame because it is as distant from our own time as we are from the beginnings of civilization in Sumer. Such a span of time is clearly beyond our imagination. What once were living religions (the gods of Olympus, Odin and Valhalla, etc.) are now seen by us as mythologies, so it is only reasonable to presume that the religions of our own world will become the mythologies of an unimaginable distant future.

New York Times, 14 August, 2015: ISIS Held Kayla Mueller, U.S. Aid Worker, as Sex Slave Before Fatal Air Strike, by Rukmini Callimachi. Retrieved 3 November, 2015. (IS had previously claimed that Ms Mueller had been killed in an allied air strike, before the truth of what had happened was learned from two other young women who had managed to escape.)

The Independent, 19 August 2015: Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief and hangs him from ruins he spent a lifetime restoring, by Adam Withnall. Retrieved 3 November, 2015.

BBC News, 5 October, 2015: Islamic State ‘blows up Palmyra Arch’. Retrieved 1 November, 2015.

BBC News, 27 October, 2015: IS ‘blows up three columns to kill three captives’. Retrieved 29 October, 2015.

Mail Online, 24 May 2015: ISIS slaughters 400 mostly women and children in ancient Syria city of Palmyra where hundreds of bodies line the streets, by Kate Pickles. Retrieved 4 November 2015.

The Independent, 17 February 2014: Mecca for the Rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’, by Jerome Taylor. Retrieved 4 November, 2015.

Photo of the Palmyrene funerary bust by PHGCOM. Photo of Kayla Mueller by Matt Hinshaw for the Daily Courier via Associated Press. Photo of Khaled Asaad, the lion of Al-Lat and executions in the amphitheatre from Getty Images. Other photos from uncredited sources. Map prepared for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

For an excellent virtual tour of Palmyra you can visit Tito Dupret's site here and wander around the city as it was before Islamic State occupation. Such comprehensive documentation of these monuments which no longer exist has now become doubly valuable, and historic in itself.