Sacred Spaces

From the Comforts of Home to the Public Square

Sometime around the third century CE, in the city of Rome, at the top of the refurbished staircase of an estate on the Caelian Hill, from the alcove, the saints of the martyrium beckon the worshipper to communion and offer their heavenly intercession. The estate had been converted from an insula into an aristocratic dwelling at the turn of the third century. The landing had been added most likely sometime in the late-fourth century by an extraordinarily wealthy Christian couple, Pammachius and Paulina, both from senatorial families and members of a small, erudite Christian aristocracy.

Staircase Martyrium in Ss. Giovanni e Paolo

Such figures were the lifeline of the learned, vociferous Christian intelligentsia of their time. And they worshipped at home, outside public purview of the episcopal structure. Even post-Constantine, amidst the great public structures of devotionchurches, temples, synagogues, late antique religion and devotion remained an intensely private and domestic affair, echoing, in some ways, the household religion of the ancestral lares. That world of worship had existed for centuries, at shrines in houses and at temples in public, until Christian politicians closed them. All the while, emperors, bishops, and wealthy donors would commission their own places for worship, churches of varying quality and size.

Yet with Pammachius and Paulina in their staircase, we see some of the everyday intimacy of the sacred that continued beyond these official acts and the work of public institutions. The everyday lives of people in Late Antiquity, from the city on the Tiber to the cities on the Euphrates and beyond, was positively awash in these kinds of moments: sacred encounters that took place in both private and public spaces.

"Pagan" Votive Shrine of Hortensius at Ostia Granary

Sacred spaces of all devotions dotted even the most intimately familiar Roman landscapes, both public and, indeed, private. Otherworldly patrons awaited the offering of paradisal perfumes poured out by Pammachius, an image captured in the household fresco for observers several hundred years later, along with the other worshippers in his family. Private devotion intensified as especially ascetical Christians retreated from what they deemed to be the pollution of public life, even many of its Christian churches, into the supposed purer sanctuaries of their homes. Everyday objects, from frescoed walls to re-worked bones and amulets filled this world.

And yet, public sacred spaces, commissioned by emperors and churchmen, remained important. Increasingly, they were used either to assert the triumph of a certain “religion,” as we would call it, or to create a conciliatory message. Indeed, the public face of the old cults, manifested in the everyday conception of time, persisted through the early centuries CE, often in hindsight erroneously associated with increasing Christian presence, and even after the fourth century, after the age of Constantine.

In third-century Ostia, for example, the common solar imagery within the imperial cult found ready resonance with the solar imagery of the mystery cult of Mithras. Many halls for Mithras’ worshippers looked and functioned like Roman collegia, or guilds, where traditional cults were worshipped, too. These similarities attest to the creative ways that members of a smaller group could find common bond with the people around them, without having to leave their own traditions behind. The Ostian synagogue housed a Torah ark dedicated to the health of the Roman emperor, and the building itself was inserted into civic life; in this case, the synagogue wa situated across from a late antique bath and an earlier villa, even as the Jewish community maintained their own set of scriptures and their own sense of sacred time. The Christian community showed a similar desire to integrate into cities. Constantine himself, in a more deliberate, physical expression of his legal policy of toleration, built in Constantinople both the Christian Hagia Eirene and a traditional Capitoliumdedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. 

The Hagia Eirene, Constantinople

These urban transformations were not all peaceful or harmonious. Transformation, to one, could mean radical change, to another. And the construction and destruction of sacred architecture,  backed by varying parties of elites, was often seen as an unwanted effort to mark one group’s arrival and dominance over the public sphere and its spiritual discourse. After years of episcopally endorsed coexistence, the destruction of the Serapeum in 392 CE, the prominent temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and ridicule of its images spearheaded by Bishop Theophilus marked the ritual cleansing of polytheistic “error.”  In Aphrodisias, Christian workmen defused the power of the “pagan” gods, perceived as demons, by scratching crosses before dismantling them. Thus, as in the private domain, public sacred spaces became the arena for attitudes of coexistence and confrontation across the late antique world.

Those two values, confrontation and coexistence, which had defined life for many Jews, Christians, and non-Christians throughout the Roman Empire, would remain important to urban histories throughout later antiquity.

Four years after the death of Muhammad, in 632 CE, the dominion of the Islamic world was increasing exponentially, as Muslim forces readied a siege of yet another city that stood within their path. Just as so many others before them, the besieged residents would relent, but the Greek Patriarch Sophronius made a request to turn his city over to the supreme leader of this army, Caliph ‘Umar. The two formally met for the surrender a year later, as the city of Jerusalem was transferred over to the Rashidun Caliphate in 637 CE, marking the holiest conquest of the entire Muslim campaign of expansion. As with any other urban center placed under Islamic control in this period, an independent place of worship had to be established for Muslims, ultimately resulting in the Dome of the Rock.

The Dome of the Rock

This building is often seen as the pinnacle of Umayyad architectural and artistic achievement, but before its foundation, a more modest mosque is attested to have been constructed in the city of Jerusalem. That hidden history offers an important reminder about the study of late antique cities.

Many of the first generation of mosques were later expanded or reconstructed to the point that the original construction is no longer visible—further complicated by restrictions on excavations in holy cities such as Mecca and Medina—and textual evidence allows for a limited reconstruction of what these mosques looked like. Muhammad’s house in Medina, for example, was one of the first mosques in Islam and, although Muhammad never specifically stated the form that places of worship should take, his residence may have served as the framework for future mosque constructions across the early Islamic world. Mosques would go on to feature a space for prayer, a symbol that indicated the direction of Mecca where worshippers would pray towards (known as the qibla), and some sort of covering to protect the congregation from the elements. These locations were known as congregational mosques (al-masajid al-jami) and served as social and political centers of urban areas, with smaller tribal mosques existing in the quarters of large cities.

The Dome of the Rock itself was completed in 691 on the Temple Mount, and the significance of its location above the remains of the Second Temple is still debated. Some scholars suggest that its builders saw the construction as an outright successor to the Second Temple, while others maintain that its location was chosen to emphasize the domination of Islam over Christianity and Judaism. The dimensions of its titular dome virtually match that of the one located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and are perhaps another intentional symbol of both the continuity and supremacy of Islam. The Foundation Stone at the center of the complex remains significant to Muslims for being the site of Muhammad’s two-part Night Journey where he ascended to Heaven (al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi‘rāj), although scholars now debate whether this was an association only made by Muslims in the years after its construction. Whatever the initial purpose of the Dome of the Rock was, it was certainly not a congregational mosque; the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque served this purpose and acted as a more utilitarian space for daily usage, along with accommodations for the large crowds present for weekly worship.  

Damascus tells one such story. Most of the major mosques of the Umayyad era operated under the prototype of Muhammad’s home in Medina, although individual buildings had certain regional influences or devised their own innovations to add to the Medinan model. The Great Mosque of Damascus was constructed in 715 and was built on the framework of an ancient temenos that had served as the boundaries of a Roman temple and later a Christian church. Major innovations that would later be copied by other mosques included facing the façade of the building towards the interior court and the presence of a niche in the qibla wall known as a mihrab, to commemorate where Muhammad would place his lance while leading prayers in Medina. Many of these mosques would have minarets. While its exact origins are unknown, the minaret emerged in mosque complexes within Syria and Egypt as a way to not only summon daily calls for prayer across newly occupied towns, but serve as potent symbols of the presence of these Islamic centers in conquered urban centers, as individual cities began to create their own sacred sites of Islam into their existing urban framework.  

Soon, caliphs, too, like the Caesars before them, were entering the urban competition. Beyond the construction of mosques, the realm of the sacred began to extend to the palaces of the caliphs, often both physically and spiritually linking the residence of the caliphate’s leaders to the major mosques of the empire. The earliest example was constructed by Mu’awiya in the mid-seventh century, which was conjoined to the central congregational mosque in Damascus by a door leading to the enclosed maqsura of the mosque, located near the qibla. This tendency was continued by the Umayyads, and with both the direct association of the caliphate and the major regional mosques, these palaces served as one of the major forms of sacred spaces that could be created in cities that did not expressly serve as houses of worship in and of themselves. The most famous example of these early Islamic palaces came after the fall of the Umayyads, with the creation of the City of Peace, better known as Baghdad.

A depiction of Baghdad shortly after its foundation in the eighth century CE

The planning of Baghdad, constructed in 762, is in many ways a fitting end to a long, late antique story of cities, power, and empire. The city was built on a perfectly circular design that featured a diameter of around 2000 meters, with homes and markets built within its outer walls. In the center of a largely unpopulated interior laid the palace of the Abbasid Caliphate and an attached mosque. At the very center of the palace was a dome that extended some sixty meters from the second floor, featuring a mounted warrior with a lance that served as a weathervane; a representation of the power and authority that the caliph held in all directions of Baghdad. The dome came from a tradition known as qubbat al-khadra, or the Dome of Heaven, which was present in a number of Islamic palaces that mixed artistic influences from pre-Islamic Arabia, the Sassanians, Byzantines, and Roman traditions.

Further Readings:


Joel Cerimele and Alaric Powell