St. Andrew’s In Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art

Tangier
Being in Morocco, Tangier is a mostly Muslim city. Being a port, it’s also a mixed city with a long history of Christian and Jewish influence. That interesting blend comes out in the language, music, art and cooking. You can see Tangier’s mix of cultures everywhere.

Even in the churches.

The Church of St. Andrew is an Anglican congregation close to the Place du Grand Socco. The first thing you’ll notice is the church tower shaped like the square, Moorish-style minarets so common in the mosques here. The only difference is the English flag flying from the top and the lack of a loudspeaker to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

Entering the churchyard, you’ll find a shady oasis of trees, shrubs and a well-manicured garden. Cats lounge amid the headstones, which include several for the fallen from various Allied armies during World War II. This part of the property looks like a regular English churchyard except for the palm trees and lack of moss on the headstones. Go inside, however, and you’ll see something quite different.

The interior has several Islamic touches. The doors have rounded arches and elaborate carvings. The carved and painted wood ceiling looks like something from a Moorish palace. The arch just before the altar is the most elaborate and looks like it came from a Muslim palace. Arabic calligraphy spells out the words “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm” (In the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful), which is the first line of each Surah (chapter) of the Koran.

%Gallery-175720%So how did a verse from the Koran end up decorating an Anglican church in a Muslim country? The story starts in 1880, when the Sultan, Hassan I, gave land to the British expat community in Tangier so they could build a church. One was built but soon proved too small for the growing Christian community and so the present church was built in 1894. It was consecrated in 1905.

The design includes Islamic styles as a way of recognizing the friendly relations between the UK and Morocco and to honor the memory of the Sultan’s donation. The work was done by Moroccan craftsmen.

St. Andrew’s is by no means unique. During the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, European art and architecture borrowed frequently from Muslim styles. European artists copied Islamic styles and even included Arabic calligraphy in Christian works of art. Check out the gallery for a couple of surprising examples.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: The Anatomy Of A Perfect Hotel!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Visiting The Christian Community In Iraq

Christian Community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Before Iraq was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, it was one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world. Even after the Arab conquest, Christians made up a sizable minority of the population – sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, but always surviving.

Now it’s facing its biggest threat in centuries.

The Christian Community in Iraq is a lot smaller than it was in 2003 when the Coalition invaded. During the occupation, radical Muslims claimed the Christians were helping the invaders and used this as an excuse to attack them. Churches and shops were bombed and individual Christians were murdered or told to leave on pain of death.

In an interview with the BBC, the priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Baghdad said that in the past nine years his parish has shrunk from 1,200 families to 300. The New York Times reports that before the war the Christian population was estimated to be as high as 1.4 million, and has now dropped to less than 500,000.

I met few Christians in my 17 days in Iraq other than some shopkeepers and the owners of a liquor store when I went on a beer run in Basra. I was anxious to see some of the early medieval centers of Christianity that make the country so important to Church history. The Christian community in Iraq is splintered into more than a dozen different churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and many more. Many of their rites and beliefs are from a markedly different religious tradition than what we are familiar with in the West.

Above is a photo of the entrance to Mar Mattai monastery, run by the Syrian Orthodox Church. Located in Kurdistan in the far north of the country, it sits on the slopes of Mt. Maqloub. It was founded in 363 A.D. by the Saint Mar Mattai and is thus one of the oldest monasteries in existence.

Much of the monastery is modern, with a few crumbling ruins dotting the slopes to hint at its long history. The assistant abbot welcomed us in careful, practiced English and told us how the saint converted Prince Behnam and Princess Sarah from paganism to Christianity. Sarah had been suffering from leprosy and was miraculously cured after her conversion.

%Gallery-172437%When their father King Senchareb found out, he had them put to death. He soon regretted his act, became a Christian himself, and as penance built Mar Behnam Monastery.

This monastery is much better preserved. Its stone interior is intricately carved in the style of the Atabek Emirate, which lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries before being wiped out by the Mongols. The style is a strange one: a sort of mix of Turkish design with Christian symbolism and elements from ancient Assyrian art. See the gallery for some images, and there are more at this site. St. Behnam monastery survived the Mongol invasion and even managed to make a few converts. Some of the inscriptions in the crypt are in Mongolian.

Christian community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWalking through these two monasteries I could feel the absence left by the departure of so many from the community. We saw almost no one, and the monasteries felt more like museums than places of worship. Perhaps we just went on quiet days. Both are centers for pilgrimage, though, so I was hoping to meet and talk with pilgrims like I had at the Shia holy places. But it was not to be.

While the situation for Christians, indeed all Iraqis, has calmed down considerably in the past couple of years, the persecutions continue. Iraq has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting it out and Christians being targeted by radical Muslims.

Being such a small minority, it’s difficult for the Christian community to defend itself. Government soldiers and police guard churches and monasteries, and man checkpoints at the edges of Christian neighborhoods, but as with sectarian attacks against Muslims, the terrorists often find a way to hit their targets.

There’s hope, though. As we studied the inscriptions in the crypt of St. Behnam’s monastery, I noticed our guide and one of our guards, both Muslims, lighting candles. I went over to the guide, who I knew to be a devout Shia, and asked him why he was lighting candles in a Christian holy spot.

“In my office there are a lot of Christian women. They asked me to light candles for them,” he replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

This man, who went off to pray every time we visited a mosque, saw no conflict with his faith in doing this or with working with Christian women. If his tolerance can become common enough to push out the intolerant radicals, the Christian community in Iraq may survive after all.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilpeck_Sheelagh_na_Gig.jpg
Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”

New trail for medieval church paintings in England

medieval church paintingsThe church of St Mary the Virgin in the little village of Lakenheath, Suffolk, England, contains a treasure trove of medieval church paintings. They were discovered 130 years ago when Victorian workmen were cleaning off centuries of grime and lime wash from the walls.

What they found was a series of detailed paintings of religious subjects painted from c.1220-c.1610. The church was repainted five times in that period.

A few years ago it was noticed that exposure to air, light, and moisture was destroying the paintings, and a painstaking restoration project was launched. The Lakenheath Wall Paintings Project has since restored the paintings and interpreted all five periods. Reconstructions of how the church looked during these periods can be seen on the website, as well as a rich gallery of closeup shots of the paintings.

They’ve also designed a cool Suffolk Wall Painting Trail that you can download for free. Suffolk is especially rich in wall paintings with several churches clustered together, making them easy to visit.

To learn more about this style of art, check out my review and photo gallery of the book Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches.

It was not possible to obtain permission to use one of the Lakenheath photos at press time. The above photo, of souls sheltering under the cloak of the Virgin Mary, is from the church of St John the Baptist, Byford. It’s similar in style to the paintings at Lakenheath.

Archaeologists in Syria discover Byzantine mosaic

ByzantineJust when you thought all news coming out of Syria was bad, an archaeology team has discovered a Byzantine mosaic in a medieval church.

The mosaic was discovered last week at the Deir Sounbol Church on al-Zawieh Mountain. Syrian investigators say the mosaic measures 4×5 meters (13×16 ft.). While portions are damaged or missing, floral and geometric shapes are clearly visible and there are inscriptions in Greek. These are prayers that include the names of the owner of the church and the person who supervised the creation of the mosaic.

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Long after the Western Empire collapsed, the Byzantines continued Roman culture with a distinctive Greek flair. Syria was Byzantine territory and was the battlefront in the Empire’s grueling war with Persia.

The war weakened both sides so much that they were easy pickings when the followers of Mohammed burst out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Persia quickly fell, but Byzantium held on, shrinking gradually until the end came in 1453. In that year the capital Constantinople, modern Istanbul, fell to the Ottoman Turks.

One of Byzantium’s greatest achievements were its sumptuous mosaics. Made of little colored tiles called tesserae, they depict elaborate scenes and some have tesserae made of gold. A copyright-free image of the Syrian mosaics was not available. You can see them here. This picture, courtesy of Berthold Werner, shows a mosaic floor in Jerash, Jordan. It’s interesting in that it contains swastikas, a symbol of peace and harmony for centuries before the Nazis twisted its meaning.

I love the fact that Syrian archaeologists are continuing to dig despite the chaos and repression going on in their country. These guys obviously love their work and won’t let anything stop them from doing what they feel is important. It reminds me of a literary journal that was published in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. The offices were right next to the no-man’s land between two factions, and yet they still managed to publish literature on a regular basis. The name of the journal escapes me. Any Lebanese out there remember it?