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”.

Religion and Urbanity at the EASR annual conference 2019 (part two of two)

After our first report on our project’s panels at the 17th annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions in the Estonian University town of Tartu, this blod post discusses the second series of panels organised by members of our research centre “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.

The session consisted of two panels organized by Emiliano Urciuoli and Cristiana Facchini and both of them treated the theme “Urban Religion and Religious Change. Intellectualization of Religion and Ritual Invention”. It asked ow and how far religious intellectualization and ritual invention are made possible by the engagement of religious communication “with the conditions of specific urban environments at particular moments in the environmental, political, and social histories of cities” (Orsi)?

Emiliano Urciuoli’s paper “Christian intellectuals in a heterarchical world: Religious changes in the ancient Mediterranean city fabric” discussed the relationship between three aspects connected to the state of early Christ religion in 2nd century Rome as urban religion. Fristly, the phenomenon that religious scholar Heidi Wendt has called the rise of “the freelance religious experts” in the Roman empire, referring to the Mediterranean-wide emergence of “self-authorized purveyor[s] of religious teachings and practices who drew upon such abilities in pursuit of various social benefits and often more transparent forms of profit” (Wendt 2016). Secondly, the reliance of these professionals on a specific kind of capital that the urban concentration of recognized assets was able to grant them in order to win and stabilized a religious clientele: high literacy, networks of literary exchange, and various textually oriented interpretive practices” (Stowers 2011). Lastly, the capacity of the urban space to function as a “heterarchical system” (Crumley 1995), where power can be ranked in a number of ways, shared, or checked. The more densely urban and heterogeneous is the context, the more heterarchical is the system of power distribution, that is, the more various the types of power and the ways of gaining authority over people, the more diverse the manners of ranking, un-ranking or re-ranking those powers, and the more extended the chances to get access to them. Trans-urban networks can be mobilized when power is locally counterpoised. As Allen Brent pointed out (Brent 2010), the events following the outburst of the “Novatianist crisis” in Rome (251 CE) – that is, in the midst of a highly fractionated theological metropolitan reality – show that spiritual leaders lacking of sufficient influence over the local population might try to gain international support via oversea sponsors. This was only made possible by the intellectualization of religious communication via the urban production and inter-urban circulation of doctrinally laden texts.

Harry O. Maier (Vancouver School of Theology), a fellow of the research group, presented on “Ritual and Urban Networking with Ignatius of Antioch“. The paper considered ritual as a means of the creation of networks of urban religion in second century Asia Minor. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written by the prisoner and martyr bishop journeying to Rome during the first half of the second century, express the desires of a religious leader to create and control city networks of affiliated assemblies of Jesus believers. Ignatius ritualizes his journey to Rome as a sacred urban procession and further ritualizes the audiences of his letters as participating with him in his journey toward an anticipated martyrdom. He uses ritual to create competition for urban space, which – with the help of modern urban studies — is best understood within the specular densely populated settings of the eastern Mediterranean urban face-block neighborhood. Ignatius is concerned that meetings only happen under the supervision or knowledge of particular elected officials of the Christ assemblies he endorses. By portraying these urban locations as places where correctly conceived ritual unfolds, Ignatius adds an orthodox valence to cityspaces that they arguably did not possess outside of his letters. Thus the urban and the written conspire to form a spatial and imagined network of urban spaces, complete with ritualized urban space-time configurations. As a point of comparison, the paper examined associations and their creations of networks and modalities of space and time to consider ways in which other groups were using ritual to engage in analogous neighbourhood practices and urban networking, thereby creating cityspaces of their own. By placing Ignatius within the context of such associations the paper argued that we are enabled to recognize emergent Christianity as an urban religion and to consider how belief and city were in a dynamic relation with one another in the creation of group definition, cooperation, competition, and rivalry.

Saint Ignatius of Antiouch, subject of Harry O. Maier’s paper (see here for details).

Arkadiy Avdokhin (Higher School or Economics (Moscow) delivered a paper on Inventing Prayer, Enforcing Orthodoxy: Athanasios of Alexandria’s Project of Bible-Based Devotion. The paper approached a set of Athanasios of Alexandria’s writings about prayer and hymn-singing as a project of inventing ritual orthopraxy in fourth-century urban and rural Christian communities, as well as in individual Devotion. The paper discussed Athanasios’ Festal Letters, epostolographic output (primarily the Letter to Markellinos), and the Life of Antony from the perspective of the bishop‘s concerns about the contemporaneous diversity of devotional and liturgical practices of praying and hymn-singing and his attempt to bring a unifying change. It argued that Athanasios had a coherent vision of the ideal Christian prayer and hymnody. For Athanasios, ‘orthodox’ Christians—lay and ascetics, educated devotees and common believers alike—should derive their practices of devotion and liturgy from the Bible—the Psalter and the Biblical odes—rather than other sources. Athanasios‘ programme of devotional and liturgical orthopraxy centred around the Biblical ideal is part of his broader project of bringing unity to the division-riddled church of Egypt. The bishop conceived of the Scripturally-cued shared patterns of praying and hymn-singing as one of the means to unify scattered Christian communities. Although not as self-consciously formulated as e.g. his polemic against the ‘Arians’ or Meletians, Athanasios pastoral programme of a uniform Biblical devotion surfaces across his writings with consistency. A further Suggestion was that Athanasios’ project of promoting standardized, Bible-based ritual practices of prayer and hymn-singing was an individually conceived regulatory programme that wasenforced through episcopal frameworks of power. This project was targeted against the diversity of modes of prayer and hymn-singing practiced across a variety of doctrinally, ecclesially, and socially different communities. The paper also explored the impact of the divide between urban (Alexandria-based) and rural (chōra-based) networks of parishes and ascetical communities in both promoting and subverting communication of episcopal regulations regarding prayer and liturgy.

The second panel began with Cristiana Facchini, from the University of Bologna and a fellow in Erfurt, and her paper “Utopias and urban imagination in the early modern period”. The paper argued that utopian literature has been generally placed against the backdrop of different Christian undercurrents, and consequently it has been treated as a genre that both speaks about politics and religion. Rooted in ancient Greek thought, this genre became particularly relevant in the early modern period, as one of the consequences of the discovery of new continents. Fuelled by disappointment or sarcasm about political and religious warfare and strife, the idea of utopia unleashed European imagination about ideally planned communities which were parallel to the concrete founding of new urban environments. The paper explored a set of interrelated questions, both from a theoretical and a historical perspective. On the one hand, it investigated what kind of religious environment utopian thought was likely to imagine, especially against the backdrop of increasing religious strife. On the other one, it analysed how utopian thought might have influenced urban projects that were enhanced in new environments, either as idealized utopian polities or new urban projects, mostly visible in some American areas. Finally, some theoretical reflections were formulated in reference to the striking relevance ‘utopian imagination’ played in urban thought, up to the point where it overlapped with dystopian delusion.

Finally, Martin Christ, a post-doctoral fellow of the Project, considered “Rituals of Death in Early Modern German Cities”. The paper considered the ways in which rituals connected to dying and death were invented, performed and perceived by a range of actors living and working in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The paper concentrated on important German towns and cities in the early modern period to assess how rituals of death changed in this tumultuous period of European history. The religious, political and cultural changes of the early modern period had a profound impact on the ways in which men and women died and were commemorated and remembered. The paper took these big changes as a starting point and explored what processes like the Reformation and Catholic/Counter Reformation, changing discourses around medicine and hygiene or the European expansions in the New World did to rituals of death. It conceived of dying and death as a process with many actors and spaces, all of which have to be considered. They included private spaces, like the bedchamber, but also churches or graveyards which shaped the look of a town. The paper illustrated how rituals of death were in a reciprocal relationship with urban spaces, affected by these spaces and influencing them in turn. In this way, the paper asked about the specific ways in which urbanity influenced dying, death and commemoration in a range of German cities and argued that understanding how someone died is a crucial aspect of early modernity.

Collectively, the anels showed that many features of past and present religions were the outcome of specific effects and uses of city-space and their social and cognitive bases rather than as inherent characteristics of a specific ‘religion’. Many religious phenomena, and especially major religious changes, can be better understood by viewing them in spatial terms, that is, as a result of a dialectic of “co-production” (Day) of city-space and urban life, on the one side, and religious representations and practices, on the other. Therefore, change is not conceptualized by presupposing religion and the city as two static entities, but rather implying a “continual process in which the urban and the religious reciprocally interact, mutually interlace, producing, defining, and transforming each other” (Lanz). Designating a process in which religion and the urban are involved, ‘urban religion’ is the formula that defines the state of a religion which is shaped by the interaction with the urban spatial environment and which can periodically crystallize into major changes whose assessment and naming is a responsibility of the scholar. Focusing on changing urban environments against the backdrop of long-term periodizations such as the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, and the European age of explorations (with the Reformation and the development of colonial empires), this panels reflected on forms of connectivity (cooperative or/and conflictual) and targeted religious dynamism through the lenses of religious intellectualization and ritual invention. These are two kinds of religious changes that appear recurrently in the cross-culturally entangled, world-wide history of religion and urbanism.

Asuman Lätzer-Lasar to Deliver Paper on Religious Ancient Place Making

On Tuesday, 9 July 2019, KFG post-doctoral fellow and steering group member Asuman Lätzer-Lasar will present a paper as part of the colloquia held at the Max Weber Centre. The paper considers the concept of “place making” in antiquity and combines insights from archaeology, urban planning, history and religious studies to explore the ways in which religious space was shaped.

The choice of location of a sanctuary was mainly dependent on its sacred geomancy, recognized, for instance, through an augurium during the Roman period. However, in dense and crowded places such as a city, there were also other needs and requirements that had to be respected, such as urban topography, infrastructure and accessibility, as well as policy, economy, local legislation, or even traditions. Establishing a place for religious communication, be it a sanctuary, a grave or the erection of a dedication to a deity therefore had to be a negotiation between the religious communicator and the physical and non-physical pre-existing environment.

However, even in antiquity the establishment of places of religious communication in dense and diversely crowded cities cannot have been taken place as mere top-down processes decided only by elite, ruling actors without taking any significant and urban-related factors into account. Lätzer-Lasar argues that the decision-making process, when creating a place for religious communication, was an interplay of spaces, objects, actors, practices and imagination (, i.e. aspirations and semantics) that lead involuntarily to reciprocity.

The paper describes the term “placemaking”, which derives from the disciplines of urban planning and geography, in order to elucidate its advantages and disadvantages for the research of ancient cities and religions. The cocnept is developed into a specific form, “Religious Ancient Placemaking”. The paper is a first attempt to make the concept suitable for the discipline of archaeology and enrich it with examples from the ancient city of Rome – because it is an exceptional city that provides a plethora of material and written sources and therefore guarantees a qualitatively broad variety of phenomena – and then to apply the conceptual framework on a specific case study, which will be the Provincia Hispania.

The paper takes place from 10 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. on Tuesaday 09 July at the Max Weber Centre, Erfurt.

Stadt und Religion: Internationale Tagung im Augustinerkloster, Erfurt

Wie wichtig ist Religion für das Entstehen und Bestehen von Städten? Wie tragen Rituale dazu bei, dass aus Dörflern nun Städter werden? Diesen Fragen stellt sich eine internationale Konferenz, die von der Forschungsgruppe „Religion und Urbanität“ organisiert wird, welche seit Herbst 2018 am Max-Weber-Kolleg der Universität Erfurt unter der Leitung von Susanne Rau und Jörg Rüpke von der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft gefördert wird. Die Konferenz wurde in Kooperation mit der schottischen University of St. Andrews (Christopher Smith) organisiert. Die Organisatoren haben Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler aus ganz Europa und den USA vom 12. bis 14. Juni in das historische Augustinerkloster eingeladen um den Fragestellungen anhand von Fallbeispielen und typischen Konstellationen aus dem Mittelmeerraum von der Späten Bronzezeit bis in die Spätantike nachzugehen.

Mit Blick auf die Geschichte kann man ohne Zweifel behaupten, dass Religion ein bedeutender Faktor bei dramatischen Entwicklungen in Städten war, beispielsweise bei der Gründung von Städten über Einwanderungswellen, tiefen Umbrüchen bis hin zu sogar Völkermord. Religiöse Rituale dienten hierbei um Gemeinsamkeiten zu stiften wie auch Rückzugsräume für die Stadtbewohner zu schaffen und Abgeschiedenheit von einzelnen oder Gruppen zu ermöglichen. Umgekehrt hat das räumliche, soziale und politische Umfeld von Städten, ob klein oder groß, religiöse Ideen und Praktiken geprägt. Vorstellungen von „Göttern“ und verstorbenen „Ahnen“, vom Ort der Verehrung, von der Zugänglichkeit zu Göttern und deren Tempeln, sowie die Vorstellungen über ihre Wirkweisen, aber auch, wie man sein eigenes Leben vor den Göttern lebt, wurden dabei nachhaltig beeinflusst. Das Erfurter Forschungsprojekt „Religion und Urbanität“ widmet sich der Untersuchung dieser wechselseitigen Beeinflussungen in historischen und zeitgenössischen Kontexten und bezieht die Ergebnisse auf das Zusammenleben in Städten.

Die jetzige Tagung beschäftigt sich mit den Anfängen dieser Wechselbeziehung, als sich Städte bilden. Dafür ist der Mittelmeerraum im Übergang von der Bronze- zur Eisenzeit besonders spannend. Hier gab es starke Umgestaltungen der Umwelt, neue soziale und wirtschaftliche Beziehungen und Herrschaftsformen. Welche Bedeutung hatte Religion in solch einem kritischen Moment? Und wie wirkten sich Veränderungen auf nachfolgende Epochen aus? Bisher wurde die zunehmende Gründung von Städten nur einseitig mit dem Verweis auf Handelsplätze und Transportwege erklärt. Gerade die Verbindung von archäologischer und religionsgeschichtlicher Forschung, erklärt Dr. Asuman Lätzer-Lasar als Organisatorin, verspricht neue Aufschlüsse darüber, wie eng die Entwicklungen von Religionen und die Entstehungen von Städten tatsächlich miteinander verflochten waren. Der Tagungsort in Erfurt mit seiner eigenen reichen Geschichte ist dafür sehr passend gewählt.

 Kontakt:; Programm

Article Announcement: A New Perspective on Urban Religion

In the light of present-day urbanization a paper published by core group member Jörg Rüpke takes a fresh look at religion in the cities of the ancient Mediterranean. The widespread model of “polis” or “civic religion” is checked against its origins in Numa Fustel de Coulange’s La Cité Antique of 1864. The re-reading of this work lays open the deficit in the widespread model of coextension of political dominion and identity with religious practices and identity. De Coulanges’ insight is formulated in his idea of “two religions”, both equally relevant for the building up of “societies” of growing complexity – and the downfall of the ancient city: The belief in universal gods and a universal god brings along the end of the ancient Greco-Roman city. This end is helped on the political side by the growing number of people who are outside of the ultra-dense structure of the ancient city and state (which cannot by its very genesis expand beyond the city) and fighting (without knowing) for a wider and more universal structure than the city can offer. Thus, the beginning of the end of the ancient city is dated by Fustel to the seventh century BCE, that is, immediately after the start of Greco-Roman urbanization. In the end, however, it is not the historically contingent, even if fairly uniform, series of social and political revolutions of patricians and plebeians and the like, but the transformation of Rome into an empire (again led by a change in thinking) that led to the demise of the “municipal regime”. The growing distance between concepts of the divine and divine intelligence and the dead, the growing distance between cult without adequate concepts and the birth of philosophy had undermined the principles of polis religion. The critical review is then extended to concepts of the relationship between city and religion in other periods and areas. Only against that backdrop, a new concept of “urbanized religion” is proposed.

The article is published in German language: „Religion als Urbanität: Ein anderer Blick auf Stadtreligion“,  Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 27,1 (2019). 174-195. DOI: 10.1515/zfr-2018-0018.

— Jörg Rüpke

keywords: urban religion – Fustel de Coulanges – diversity – heterarchy – urbanized religion

Article Announcement: Relocating Religious Change

A new approach to religious change has been taken by Emiliano Urciuoli and Jörg Rüpke (in collaboration with Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, Harry O. Maier and Maik Patzelt) in an article that just appeared in the international journal for the history of religion, Mythos. The claim formulated in “Urban Religion in Mediterranean Antiquity” is that city-space and interaction with city-space engineered the major changes that revolutionised ancient Mediterranean religions. Whereas previous research on ancient religion has stressed the role of religion for cities and urban topography, we are suggesting a new focus on the impact of cities on religion and on how the interaction with city-space changed religion. This side of the dialectic is what we call urban religion. This concept is paramount, since it encompasses the development of specific religious agencies and practices (e.g. neighbourhood shrines; theatrical processions; authors and entrepreneurs), specific forms of religious knowledge and imaginaries (imaginative places; imagined communities; heavenly cities) and societal phenomena such as civic rituals or religious communities in the appropriation (and hence modification and formation) of urban space in cities of different size and character. The major Questions we propose are: how and to what extent is religion shaped by density, urban aspirations, diversity and conflict, city governance, heterarchy and division of labour, and urban identity, that is urbanity? The basic assumption is that religious change needs to be investigated in terms of the ongoing interaction between space and a variety of different agents, including residents, immigrants, and people who live from religion.

The article is published in Mythos 12 (2018), pp. 117-135.

Panel Report: “Urban Religion in Historical Perspective” at the European Academy of Religion Annual Conference Bologna, March 4, 2019

Organizers: Jörg Rüpke, Cristiana Facchini

The panel, organised by Cristiana Facchini and Jörg Rüpke, explored perspectives on urban religion in different epochs. The Lived Religion approach to premodern religion, as developed at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, has highlighted the importance of different types of self-world-relations as defined by local spatial and social contexts, specified through materiality and communication and framed by social imaginaries and knowledge. These contexts range from domestic to imperial and global contexts. One of the most important aspects on this scale is the urban, which has proven to be of paramount importance for the past century and today’s world, in which for the first time the majority of humans are seen as living in cities.

The role of religion in creating spatial, temporal and social order in cities has been an important topic in research from ceremonial centres and cities of Meso- and South America to Near Eastern and ancient Mediterranean, but also Chinese, Indian and medieval European cities. A growing number of inhabitants and the increased density of interaction seem to have prompted (and enabled) processes of institutionalisation and the formulation of norms. Referring to non-human agents beyond the human agents in a given situation contributed to organise economic exchange and redistribution. Furthermore, it has been functional in defining property rights as well as rights of political participation. Vice versa, citizenship could regulate access to gods, as shown by the choice of words like “synagogue” and “ekklesia”, which refer first of all to voting assemblies. Historical research has reconstructed such functions for many instances and recent sociological research, above all research on migration, has consequently inquired into processes of inclusion and exclusion, tolerance and competition caused or experienced by immigrating minorities proffering different or identical religious identities.

The papers in this panel supposed that any modelling that is limiting religion to a tool of government and administration on the one side and marginal groups on the other is mistaken. For the individual actor urban settlements present an enormously complex environment of constraints and affordances. Previous sacralisations and contemporary religious practices are part of that. It is the interplay of such acting and aspiring within urban space and as creating urban space that was addressed. The contributions included:

  1. Jörg Rüpke (Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt): Religion and urban space
  2. Cristiana Facchini (Alma mater studiorum, Università di Bologna): The city and the sea: Remarks on religious diversity, port cities, and the sea
  3. Emiliano Urciuoli (Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt): Citifying Jesus in Imperial Rome (2nd-5th CE)
  4. Margret Helen Freeman (University of Copenhagen): “A saintly place for the education of scholars:” The Changing Face of Islamic Identity & Architecture in Mamluk Cairo
  5. Vincenzo Lavenia (Alma mater studiorum, Università di Bologna): Religion(s) in the port city of the Popes: Ancona in the early modern age
  6. Nimrod Luz (Western Galilee College, Akko): Lived Religion as Urban Citizenship: A View from Acre
  7. Carmen González Guttiérez (Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt): Islam encounters Late Antiquity: Urban religious spaces in al-Andalus in the Early Middle Ages
  8. Miriam Benfatto (Universita’ di Bologna): Shaping the sacred and the profane: The Council of Trent on cityscape and sacred spaces

Conference Announcement: “Protective Mother or Fertile Woman? The Polyvalences of Mother Deities” (Univ. of Graz, 28.-29. 03. 2019)

“Mother goddess, any of a variety of feminine deities and maternal symbols of creativity, birth, fertility, sexual union, nurturing, and the cycle of growth.” [1]

In antiquity, mother deities tend to integrate a multitude of different meanings and values that can hardly be differentiated or even distinguished from each other in their materialization in iconographies, as well as in their conceptualization in literary sources. The specific divine figure gains a status of a fluid and contingent figuration that varies in relation to the social and spatial context.

The aim of the conference is to sharpen the different layers of meaning and symbolism that stand behind the shapes of mother deities as they appear in the archaeological and epigraphic material. Additionally, a focus will be laid on the dynamics and changes in practice and appearance that derive from the fluidity. Our interest is to discuss in how far the veneration practices of deities, such as Cybele/Mater Magna, Fortuna or the Germanic-Celtic Matronae in the Northwest provinces negotiated or blurred these semantic and symbolic boundaries. What new distinctive presentation parameters were created, for instance in cities where religious groups needed to demarcate themselves from other groups in order to achieve particularity and finally to survive?

The main questions to be explored are:

  • differences and similarities in iconography and cult
  • epigraphic evidences on mother deities
  • rural vs. urban sanctuaries (urban religion)

The conference will take place between 28 – 30 March 2019 at the University of Graz and is organized in collaboration between the Institute for Ancient History at the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz together with the FERCAN project (Fontes Epigraphici Religionum Celticarum Antiquarum), and the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt. Our aim is to bring together researchers not only from the disciplines of archaeology, but also from ancient history und linguistics in order to gain diverse perspectives on the topic from different sides.

We intend to encourage a fruitful exchange, this is why presentations of 20 min. will be followed by a 20/30 min. long discussion. The conference languages are English and German.

Please send your abstract of ca. one page (max. 500 words) to


Dr. Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies

Astrid Schmölzer, University of Graz


Thursday, 28. 3. 2019
SZ 01.18



Asuman Lätzer-Lasar and Astrid Schmölzer, organizers


Univ.Prof. Dr. Peter Scherrer, Vice-Rector for Research and Junior Researchers’
Promotion, Head of Department of Archaeology
Univ.Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Spickermann, Head of Department of Classics


Asuman Lätzer-Lasar and Astrid Schmölzer

13:30 Mother godesses: A philological approach Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel (Vitoria-Gasteiz)
14:00 Kulthandlungen im Heiligtum der Magna Mater in Kempraten (RapperswilJona, Schweiz) Pirmin Koch (München)

14:30 Coffee break

14:45 The cult of the Suleviae in the Western Empire Cristina Girardi (München)
15:15 Die Matronenkulte in Niedergermanien als religionshistorisches Phänomen
Wolfgang Spickermann (Graz)
15:45 Zu den Anfängen des Matronenkults in der römischen Provinz Niedergermanien. Das Heiligtum der Aufanischen Matronen in Nettersheim
Salvatore Ortisi (München)

16:15 Coffee break

16:30 Die Nutrices im Südosten Noricums. Die Muttergöttinnen vom Frauenberg
bei Leibnitz Bernhard Schrettle (Graz)
17:00 From nurturing wine to nurturing ‘Wealth’. The evolution of Eirene in 5th and
4th century Athens Isabell Wagener (Graz/Erfurt)

18:30 Keynote: Mater Matuta and her ‘sisters’: Re-examining mother deities
and the votive phenomenon (HS 01.15)
Maureen Carroll (Sheffield)

20:00 Conference Dinner

Friday, 29. 3. 2019

HS 15.14

10:00 Demeter and Kore: A re-lecture of the Eleusinian Myth through the lens of
Maternal Theory Giulia Pedrucci (Erfurt)
10:30 Einige weniger bekannte weibliche Gottheiten der Germania Inferior
Werner Petermandl (Graz)

11:00 Coffee break

11:15 Neue archäologische Untersuchungen zu den Matronen der Germania
Inferior. Eine erste Auswertung des Dissertationsprojektes Astrid Schmölzer (Graz)
11:45 Beyond mother goddesses and women’s goddesses: Conceptualizing
divine femininity in ancient Italy Daniele Miano (Erfurt/Sheffield)

12:15 Lunch break

14:00 Feminine deities in the sanctuary of the Roman settlement of Aquae Iasae
Dora Kušan Špalj (Zagreb)
14:30 Matres und Matronae. Eine epigraphische Gegenüberstellung
Manfred Hainzmann (Graz)

15:00 Coffee break

15:45 Final discussion

[1] see, (22/10/2018). 

Workshop Report on “Social Network Analysis and its Uses in History and Archaeology” (10 January 2019)

The word “Network” has become a term commonly used in disciplines dealing with the ancient world. Some scholars use it merely as a metaphor for describing geographical connections. Others, such as myself, use networks in order to examine relational constellations of people, places and objects. And there are also scholars who investigate networks and their structural formations in order to understand the causal as well as consecutive dynamics of such relations.

On 10 January 2019 the workshop on Social Netwotk Analysis (SNA), held at the Max Weber Kolleg, Erfurt, intended to unfold the diverse uses of the term “network”, as well as its advantages and disadvantages as analytical tool for the historical and archaeological disciplines. The speakers gave an overview of SNA, introduced new research tools and discussed the cultural turn in network research more broadly. During the workshop, we experimented with material we had collected from our own research and discussed with the other participants in how far it would serve as a sufficient basis for qualitative SNA. The participants felt that the qualitative approach is particularly useful in order to understand the structural similarities of different social relations.

Dr. Markus Gamper, sociologist (of religion) from Cologne, delivered the keynote and provided a broad outline of the most recent developments in SNA in the cultural studies, as well as the latest visualization techniques for qualitative analyses. 

After that Dr. Elena Köstner (University of Regensburg) discussed her linguistic analysis and graphic visualization of the network of people that appear in the ancient text source “The Feast of Trimalchio” by the Roman courtier Titus Petronius Arbiter (c. 27-66 CE). Finally, Dr. Maik Patzelt from the University of Osnabrück presented the diverse identities and agencies of late antique widows via a theoretical network approach, and described how the women used their relations to empower themselves.

The workshop made clear that we have to define more precisely what the relation between the actors in the network is. Individuals only “knowing of each other” is not always sufficient for a fruitful SNA. It should rather include interactions which have to be identified clearly and determined as relational. Overall, the workshop provided a fascinating forum for discussions and all participants felt that many more avenues can be explored when it comes to SNA in the humanities.  

— Asuman Lätzer-Lasar

Religion and Urbanity: A Brief Introduction

Religion has led to dramatic developments in the history of cities, such as foundations, waves of immigration, transformations, (re-) ghettoization and genocide. But what is the specific urban quality of religious ideas, practices and institutions? What was their role in the production of urban space? More than half of the world’s population is living in cities and urbanization affects even the most distant corners of the world. The result is that the social and ecological problems of urban density accompanying the productive and innovative roles of metropolises become ever more evident. Yet the interest in religion and city remains concentrated on contemporary issues, especially  in the “global South.”

Against this background the DFG-funded Research Group “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779) investigates the historical contribution of religion to urbanization and the long-term evolution of religion and the urban. What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another? By focusing on religion, our goal is to gain insights into the formation of human settlements and thereby to describe different paths of urbanization and their inter-relationships with the development of religion.

We proceed from the assumption that religious practices and conceptions together with their expressions in institutions, texts (narratives) and objects have been of great importance in the formation of urbanity. Religion and urbanity have continually shaped each other – and continue to do so to this day. In order to help meet the challenges of living in situations of urban density, religion has developed and continues to develop practices, conceptions and institutions both to connect individuals with space as well as to help shape and appropriate it. The complexity of overlapping spaces means that varying temporal orders can be present in differing rituals. The circulation of objects has created and continues to produce spatiotemporal modalities (see also: ) . At the same time, reference to (divine) power extending beyond its respective space furnishes spaces and temporal practices with an agency which requires cohesiveness or coordination of rulers and turns sacralisation into long-term and persistent topographical elements which produce and maintain historical identity. Conversely, the localization in the city, the communicative and ritual production of urban centers as well as the appropriation of urban aspirations and ways of life have had a significant influence on the formation of religion and religious traditions.

Erfurt viewed from the Petersberg (2010)

Consequences include small-scale spatialization of rituals, such as conceptions of the divine (and thus stabilization of polytheism), professionalization in condensed division of labor and self-historization through the above-mentioned long-lived spatialization, specific architectures and the taking up of urban imaginaries (for example, “the heavenly Jerusalem”).

With Max Weber, we are looking at the city and religion for actors and groups of actors (S. Rau, J. Rüpke ). But this cocnept also extends beyond human agency (B. Latour). With more recent social geography and spatial sociology (for example H. Lefebvre, E. Soja, M. Löw, B. Werlen and F. de Boeck), we see that urbanity is chractertized by spatiality, practices, representations, atmospheric affects, as well as practices of time (S. Rau et al.).

In light of these considerations, the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity can not be described by way of the classical parameters of city types such as the sacred center, the city of exiles, the harbor or the agricultural city, or as instances of “Christianization” or “Islamization”. The variety of paths to urbanization must be examined through reconstructing constellations of space, time and practice and by offering a nuanced description of incremental changes in practices, conceptions, architectures, and institutions.

This also requires new concepts.

So our starting points pose research questions concerning the formation of different forms as well as changes in and new constitutions of urbanity and religion in all their diversity in different epochs and spaces. We ask:

  1.  What role does religion play for urbanization?
  2. How does urbanity affect religion? 
  3. What influence does the continuous interaction and the consolidation of heterogeneous practices have on the formation of Religion and urbanity?

Interesting phenomena include the production and alteration of space (topography, buildings, theaters, memorials), changes in spatial and temporal practices (rhythms, cycles, calendar and clock usage, rituals, processions) as well as changes in society (shifts of power, migration, formation of expertise). People migrating to a city have a means to “arrive” in a new urban community by joining a religious group, for example. Some religious experts, to name another example, aim to instiutionalise certain social milieus and try to anchor religious hopes and norms in the forms of immigration. Spaces formed by sanctuary or cemetery architecture become elements of urban religion and change the urban topography and its user flows. The establishment of central sanctuaries, the closure of neighbourhoods by the formation of dead-ends in ancient or Islamic cities or the presence of rulers in temples or cathedrals are all examples.

Hindutempel and market in Chennai (India)

The formation of new forms of the urban public changes or evokes religious spatial practices, for example the establishment of theaters in antiquity, the conversion of churchyards into squares in the 16th century and the uses of cinemas and other spaces of entertainment in North American evangelical churches in the 21st century. The appropriation of spaces by different groups of actors (political, economic, religious, spatial builders/observers) reveal specific regulations: not everywhere is prayer or sacrifice legitimate. We refer to religious practices and notions not primarily to marginal or subcultural “heterotopias” (M. Foucault) and “Thirdspaces” (Ed. Soja), but to the goal of building urban spaces with its growing contact surfaces (H. Berking) in order to live and to realize urbanity.

Many of the processes we are interested in, are particularly visible during phases of changes, such as contractions of cities in Mediterranean late antiquity, the wave of European-medieval urban creations, demographic changes in 18th-century Europe or the rise of colonial-era urban foundations in the Indian area. In addition, expansion of individual cities or networks of cities, shrinkage processes including those leading to the extinction of people and the erasure of spaces, phases of religious pluralization will form a Focus of our research. By investigatign the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, our research addresses a central issue which also has important consequences for today’s world.  

— Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke

The Roman Forum