Cities Make Martyrs

Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (oil on canvas, 1863-1883; see here for copyright).
Photo of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation (takne by Malcolm Browne, 1963; see here for copyright).
The northeast face of Two World Trade Center (see here for copyright).

What do these three images have in common? Violent deaths apart, it seems nothing. The first one is a 1883-canvas by French painter Jean-Léon Gérome, which represents a group of early Christians praying before being devoured by lions in a Roman-styled circus. The second is the Pulitzer-winning photo that captures the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức on a busy road intersection in 1963 in Saigon. The third, dated 9/11 2001, is simply too famous to require any further comment.

The first and the third image show killings. The second reports a suicide, that is, a self-destructive act, also like like that of the Twin Tower attackers, which is, however, unphotographed because the self-produced death of the ten hijackers melts away with the collapse of the buildings and the simultaneous extermination of thousands of passengers, crew members, workers, and visitors. Albeit coupled with aggression and murder of unarmed people, such “suicide attackers” committ suicide nevertheless, like the burning monk and contrary to the sentenced Christians. Moreover, only the Buddhist monk and the Twin Towers’ attackers planned their death. For the early Christians, their cruel killing came as no surprise, as they were sentenced to death before, but it was designed and choreographed by powerful others, while the people murdered on 9/11 had very different plans for that day. They were as unaware of their impending fate as us spectators.

Although none of these features (killing, suicide, premeditation, agency) is shared by all three scenes, I guess our brains still resist considering this juxtaposition meaningless. There is something that links the pictures. Let us continue then.

A more in-depth analysis of the three scenes is likely to increase their dissimilarity on several levels of interpretation. Take, for example, a political code. Would we agree that the ‘last prayer’ performed by the early Christian prisoners in an arena filled with pagan onlookers express a protest against oppression in the same way the theatrical self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức does with regard to the religious policies of the Vietnamese government? Would we feel comfortable in applying to the Muslim hijackers crashing two American airplanes against the ‘temple of American capitalism’ the same label of resistance we would attach to the Buddhist monk torching himself against the establishment of Catholicism in his country? Do we think that the concepts of empire or imperialism fit both the ancient Roman state executing Christians, the 1960s Kennedy administration backing the Vietnamese regime in a cold war scenario, and the post-cold war United States facing the international terrorist guerrilla of al Qaeda? I sincerely doubt it.

Looking at conclusive analogies with psychiatric lenses is probably the least recommendable approach. Behind any display of murderous and/or self-annihilating radicalism, the hostile counterpart and the appalled audience tend to see a fanatic in action; in any fanatic a psychopath potentially lurks. Put differently, the if a death-seeker is insane, and the extent of such insanity, lies in the eye of the beholder. As a rule of thumb, the greater the distance from the world-view, the agenda, and the stated motivations of the self-destructive actor, the easier it is to believe his or her brain “cracked”.

Economic and cultural explanations are of no more help in finding more analogies than differences in the three scenes. So I will explore two interpretive paths the relation of which I consider most promising for making sense of the unity of this triptych of violent deaths. To turn back to our initial question, ‘what do these three images have in common?’, a good answer could be: in all three cases, there are martyrs dying in a city. Fed by a number of figures, stories, photos, and videos, our imagination of martyrdom is largely urban. Martyrdom and the city link together the early Christian prisoners, the Buddhist monk, and the 9/11 massacre. I deliberately say ‘9/11 massacre’ without  specifically referring either to the armed hijackers or their unharmed human targets, for, as we will see, the question as to who are the martyrs in this scene is debatable.

Throughout history, people have sought to die violently for many reasons and for the sake of many causes (kinship, love, their companions, fellow-citizens, philosophical ideas, religious creeds, political allegiances). However, the word ‘martyr’ began to apply to death seekers only when, in the 2nd century CE, a tiny selection of the population of the Roman Empire started being sentenced in city tribunals and murdered in city venues for a specific reason: religious commitment to the Christian god. Yet, if you need Christianity to rise for having death seekers to be technically called ‘martyrs’, the original meaning of the word is not religious but juridical: martys, in ancient Greek (μάρτυς), the first literary language of the early Christians, means ‘witness’. This etymological remark already suggests that, in order to start a history of martyrdom, three geographies must be factored in: 1) Greece provided the language; 2) Palestine supplied both the initial environment of the religion of Christ, as well as the supreme example of Christian martyrs of all time, i.e., Jesus himself; last but not least, 3) Rome furnished the city-based political apparatus in whose courtrooms the Christian martyrs displayed their testimony, that is, their confession of adherence to Christianity before judges of different minds and audiences of different sizes. Rome also supplied the large-sized urban architecture that broadcast the martyrdom phenomenon via eventually transferring the location of the witness from relatively small juridical settings to mass entertainment venues: circuses and amphitheatres. By coordinating and urbanizing this triple geography of martyrdom, the Roman superpower launched the scattered and occasional phenomenon of early Christian martyrdom into history: without the Roman colonization of the ancient Mediterranean urban world, the trope of the Christians being publicly tortured and awfully butchered would not have colonized the Western imagination of what a violent death for god looks like. As shown, for example, by Martin Scorsese’s recent movie on early modern Jesuit missionaries in early modern rural Japan, this model feeds into a long-lived apologetic imagery of persecution.  

Over the last decades, due to the statistic escalation, murderous efficacy, and – above all – media explosion of Islamic terrorism, modern suicide attackers (especially bombers) and their targets (especially civilians) have unseated the ancient Christians and their oppressors from the centre of the martyrdom imaginary. Yet the city as prime martyrdom scenery has remained. Four notable differences between the old and the new urban prototype of martyrdom must be stressed. First, once associated with a specific spatial context (Roman tribunals and arenas), the new prototype has no fixed background. The spatial coordinates are unpredictable, the practice visually ubiquitous. Second, the broadcast coverage of the globalized world creates a planetary amphitheatre with billions of seats. Third, the difference between the audience and the scene is circumstantial: victims and publics are unaware of their roles until the attack divides the world population into murdered, injured, bystanders, and spectators. Fourth, the public itself negotiates and decides whether the role of ‘martyr’ should be ascribed to the perpetrator or the victim. As a rule of thumb, homegrown and international sympathizers of the attackers, foreign patrons of the cause, and scholars specialized on the topic usually call the perpetrators ‘martyrs’; conversely, for shocked laypersons, Western conservative politicians, Christian bloggers, and the mainstream press ‘martyrs’ are generally the victims. Both options are somehow right: on the one hand, the history of so-called ‘Abrahamic religions’ bespeaks a clear semantic confluence between the ancient Christian model of martyrdom (in Greek: martys) and the Muslim martyr (in Arabic: shahid), both being technically authors of a ‘witnessing’ (martyria, shahadat); on the other, the harmless quality of the original martyrs and their supreme model, Christ, allows for the commonsense identification of martyrdom with the victims’ side. The semantics of ‘sacrifice’, overlapping since millennia with that of martyrdom, follows the same rule: the hermeneutic pendulum oscillates between the martyr-perpetrator sacrificing him/herself and the martyr-victims being sacrificed.

In-between the ancient prototype of the persecuted Christian and the modern prototype of the suicide attacker lies the icon of the self-immolating protester, like the aforementioned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức. His most famous secular counterpars are: the Czech student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 in Prague after the Soviet army had invaded his country to suppress the Prague Spring, and the Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2011 in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid thereby catalyzing the revolution against the regime of long-time president Zine Ben Ali.

A suicide performer exerts the maximum of violence upon him/herself, creating a figure that combines the self-destructive attitude of an extremist Christian tradition of ‘voluntary martyrs’ with the performative effects sought after by the suicide attacker. The self-immolating protester kills only him/herself in order to change the state of affairs by rousing people to action: either via sensitizing “Outgroups” or encouraging a disheartened “Ingroup”, or both. When widely publicized, a spike of “copycat suicides“, also known as “Werther effect”, can follow up. The BBC reported that no less than 107 Tunisians tried to self-immolate in the wake of Bouazizi’s act, ‘mostly young unmarried men from poor, rural areas, and had only basic education’.This last episode, happening in a small town and copied in rural areas, breaks the previously established visual connection between martyrdom and cities. Put differently, one does not necessarily need a full-fledged urban setting like 20th-century Saigon to self-immolate in protest. Effective communication pathways between cities, small towns and the countryside, past and present, may well broadcast a spectacular event far beyond its original location and generate emulation episodes that can be broadcast back. Couched in religious language or not, martyrdom per se is not an urban phenomenon. Nor are cities distinctively conducive to martyrdom simply because, as classic sociological studies have shown, suicide is more urban than rural. Psychic aggravations of urban livings that are traditionally held to induce city-dwellers to suicide, namely social disorganization (Émile Durkheim) and social alienation (Maurice Halbwachs), are not a sufficient cause for the framing and coding of self-destructive tendencies as martyrial resolutions. The same holds true for other eminently urban characteristics enabling martyrdoms, such as:

  1. the production and dissemination of radical ideas related to high-risk behaviors;
  2. the assortment of networks of recruitment, socialization, indoctrination, cultural breeding and training;
  3. the variety of high-visibility places and events;
  4. the substantial presence of receptive publics and counterparts (friends, competitors, and foes);
  5. the large supply of incentives and rewards that also work as means to amplify the value of the act, engender identification, and foster imitation (e.g., accumulation of public and private settings, rituals, and strategies of commemoration and historicization).

Yet the more urban the environment that forms and/or annihilates the martyr is, the more these factors are expected to find their way into a martyrial mode of seeking death. This is why martyrdom is to be considered a relevant subject matter for the cross-cultural and cross-temporal investigation of the relationships between religion and urbanity as pursued by our overall research project.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli is a Junior Fellow in the “Religion and Urbanity” Project. He is a specialist of early Christianity and currently works on the concept of “citification”.

Call for Applications: Fellowships in Humanities Centre “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”

The Kollegforschungsgruppe (KFG, “Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies”) „Religion and Urbanity. Reciprocal Formations” at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt (Max-Weber-Kolleg) invites applications for fellowships for the time period between winter semester and summer semester 2020/2021. Fellowships are granted for a period of 3 to 6 months. Fellows must reside in Erfurt during the fellowship period.

To be eligible for a fellowship, the candidate must propose a research project to be conducted during the fellowship within the framework of the KFG and have an outstanding academic record, at least one published monograph and a minimum of three years of postdoc research experience. Fellows are required to participate actively in the interdisciplinary and intercultural life of the Centre and to contribute to the weekly colloquia of the KFG.

Please submit your application with a cover letter that indicates the preferred period for your stay at Erfurt, an outline of the research project you would like to pursue addressing the KFG´s research focus (2,000-4,000 words) with a stringent discussion of your a) research questions, b) the state of research on the topic, c) the methodological approach and the leading hypotheses as well as d) a working schedule with a projected date of completion and publications of results, a curriculum vitae, copies of your last university Degrees, llist of publications and electronic copies of up to three of your monographs or articles relevant for the research focus as a combined pdf-file (maximum of 15 MB, publications may be presented in separate files) until 12 January 2020 to

For further details, please see the full call for applications and our homepage. Informal enquiries may be addressed to Dr. Elisa Iori (

Annual Conference: Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities

The KFG’s annual conference on Urban Heterarchies will take place from 11 to 13 December 2019. It is organised by Emiliano Urciuoli, Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. To register, pelase contact Valeria Wahl.

According to archaeologist Carole L. Crumley, heterarchies are systems in which the component elements have ‘the potential of being unranked (relative to other elements)’ and/or the potential of being ‘ranked in a number of ways, depending on systemic requirements’. In contrast, explains archaeologist Alison E. Rautman, the concept of a ‘hierarchy’ ‘involves three assumptions regarding the organization of the constituent elements of a system: that a lineal ranking of constituent elements is in fact present; that this ranking is permanent (that is, the system of ranking has temporal stability); and the ranking of elements according to different criteria will result in the same overall ranking (that is, the relationships of elements is pervasive and integral to the system, and not situational)’.

For the issue of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, ‘heterarchies’ open up diverse directions of analysis within cities as well as with regard to interurban networks. In both fields, the conference papers will deal with institutional arrangements as much as media of representation, narratives of legitimation, practices of comparison, strategies of mutual recognition or critique and interference up to the point of violence.

As a result, we will try to develop more complex models of constellations and paths of development that will help us to better understand and explain religious change and changes of urbanity. The conference will bring together leading experts focusing on empirical and theoretical questions and representing multiple disciplines, such as religious studies, Asian studies, history, classics, archaeology, geography, and sociology, in order to bring the heuristically promising concept of heterarchy to bear on the study of the cross-cultural and cross-temporal entanglements of religion and urbanity.

For the programme and further Information, see here.