Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I Have Decided to Edit My Second Article on the Throne of St. Mark Online [Part One]

I have decided to start work re-editing the article I submitted to the Harvard Theological Journal Review some months ago.  I will do so online owing to the fact that I have become something of an 'academic exhibitionist' over the last few months.  Any constructive criticism or suggestions are welcomed.  


It is among the most interesting and the most perplexing chapters in the history of Christianity.  In 829 CE a collection of relics associated with St. Mark were translated from Alexandria to Venice.  The objects were kept in Rialto, the former high embankment ('rivo alto') of mudflat islands that formed the heart of this emerging Italian world power, and a martyrium was built over them.  They were kept hidden from view, underground in a damp, subterranean crypt as personal possessions of the Doge who considered himself chief guardian of the relics.  Despite Venice rise as a world power, the seat of ecclesiastic authority in region had long been established at the nearby city of Grado.  From the time of the translatio until 1272 all the Patriarchs of Grado were Venetians but it was not until the middle of the eleventh century that Patriarch was allowed to take a place in the Basilica di San Maro next to the Doge. Yet it was only in 1451 the see of Grado was merged with Castello to form the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. By this time the Basilica di San Marco "had become a state Church and a national Church."[1]

It was in this new age of confidence for Venice that - sometime before 1534 - that an small, alabaster throne was brought up from the crypt and publicly identified as the episcopal throne of St Mark.  It was placed, with this title, behind the high altar of the basilica.[2]  It remained on the altar of the baptistery until shortly before 1758 when it was placed in the Treasury.  We hear of legends which point unsuccessful attempts to bring the relics out for public view.  One of the most famous was the so called 'apparatio' in 1094 when according to legend, the relics of the saint were miraculously discovered in the pillar or column of San Marco but subsequently hidden again shortly thereafter.

While the Venetians cultivated legendary details of a miraculous plunder of the relics right from under the nose of the Muslim officials in Alexandria, the story is utterly implausible from beginning to end. It would be unimaginable that a ship associated with a foreign power would manage to leave Alexandria with holy Christian relics without the direct knowledge of the regional authorities. A far more plausible scenario has been recently developed for me by Imad Boles, President of the British Coptic Society.  He theorizes that the relics were plundered by a group of Muslims from Andalusia and brought to Crete where the Venetians must have purchased the objects for a large sum of money.[3]

Whatever the case may be, it is impossible to imagine that the body of St. Mark could have been translated to the Venetians without some other piece of evidence proving that the original association with the Evangelist.  The corpse after all would never have been seen by any visitor's to the original martyrium in the Boucolia, just outside the eastern walls of Alexandria.  The only object which is ever mentioned in any of the accounts of pilgrims is the 'throne of squared marble' - our surviving throne of St. Mark.[4]

So it is that Huller in his 2010 monograph argues that the throne and the body of St. Mark must have been translated together, one confirming the identity of the other.[5]  However this only identifies the last and most recent function of the relic.  Secchi and van Lohuizen-Mulder have both pointed to the original use of object as a functioning Episcopal throne.[6]  The relic served as a symbol of the enduring authority of the Evangelist over his flock through an unbroken chain of earthly successors. Yet it will be argued here that because all previous studies have not properly translated its inscription nor accurately interpreted its iconography, they have fallen short of the mark in terms of understanding the original symbolism of this remarkable object.  

This is the first decipherment to take account of all strokes and lines; and the first to identify every stroke and line. This is also the first interpretation not to assume improbable or forced or impossible meanings for any word.  
For convenience of reference we give our reading of the inscription before discussing the previous readings. Our reading of the letters that follow is complete, and we think it to be the first complete and fully accurate transcription. We used multiple very detailed photographs with the light falling at different angles, and found that the details of faint lines could be distinguished from irregularities and blemishes in the stone. We also found that some lines invisible in the lighting where the throne is kept could be seen in some photographs with the light at the right angle.

The first thing that has to be noted is that there is a difference in quality between the two Samaritan letters on the leftmost portion of the front of the throne and the rest of the inscription.  These two letters - (reading right to left) shin aleph - are rendered with considerable care and great detail.  They are made up multiple strokes and appear as letters would on a written page.   The rest of the inscription by contrast is very inaccurate.  It is obviously a rushed attempt to render a whole phrase in crude mirror letters which becomes progressively more unrefined as it develops. 

To this end, we will propose that there were two stages to the inscription.  The first stage is represented by the two well defined Samaritan letters read right to left as an expression of the phrase 'year one' (ש׳א׳ = sh[enat] a[lef]) a standard expression on Jewish coinage from the period. Then at a later date, for reasons that are no longer clear an attempt was made to read the two letters as the beginning of a new inscription, a series of mirror letters meant to be read:

Ṧ B M R Q ' W N G L S T S ' L K S N D R Y H 
Eshel Mark(os) Evangelist Alexandria

Even though we are certain about the two stage process of the expansion of original inscription it will be easier for us to begin our exposition concentrating on the 'full' twenty three letter phrase written in mirror letters as most of what has been written about the inscription has treated it as if it were written out only once.

It should be remembered the Hebrew letters go from left to right. We will consistently use Romanisation to avoid confusion over the direction. The apostrophe represents a glottal stop in the International Phonetic Alphabet. We use it to transcribe Alef for the sake of clarity.

The inscription across the front of the miniature throne, just below the level of the seat, has been investigated five times. No-one has ever noticed the Old Hebrew (Samaritan) letters. The reason will become clear after we describe the rest of the inscription. There is universal agreement that there is an inscription in Hebrew using the Aramaic or square script, the script commonly but improperly called Hebrew script. The inscription is in mirror-writing. The letters are to be read from left to right and are reversed as in a mirror. The middle part of the inscription seems not to have been engraved deeply enough, and it is hard to read. There have been decipherments, by Secchi, Le Hir, Bargès, Grabar and Février, and Lohuizen-Mulder’s informant.

There has been general agreement that the letters at the left are MWṦBMRQ. Février found the letter W after this and read the Italian name Marco or Marcu. Everyone has found the Hebrew word moshav meaning a seat or sitting or session here, but everyone has wrongly taken the word to mean chair or throne, which is impossible. We maintain that the letters MWṦB are not there, and that three Samaritan letters ʔṦL are there. This point is developed below. Everyone has agreed that the letters MRQ are the name of Mark, correctly in our view. Février found letters after this making up a Hebrew word 'WNGELSṬS “evangelistes”, borrowed from Greek. We largely agree, except that we disagree on the second-to-last letter and find T instead of Ṭ. Le Hir found a verb meaning “evangelised” and Bargès found a Hebrew noun derived from the Greek Euangelion. Both readings assume unattested verb forms and can be disregarded for this reason alone.

Our reading of the last letters in this group also makes both these readings impossible. Secchi’s reading can be disregarded as impossible on too many grounds to list. Two early attempts, first by Secchi and then by Le Hir, found the letters RMH on the extreme right. These two authors both read this as Roma. This is impossible. First, on the grounds of spelling, the word must have the first vowel letter representing the [o] sound. Second, the form of the name in ancient Hebrew is the Greek name Rōmē, not Roma. The expected spelling would be RWMY. When the object was taken from Alexandria, this would have been the spelling and pronunciation. In mediaeval Hebrew the form Roma can occur, but it still must have the first vowel letter and be spelt RWMH. Third, Alexandrians would be the last to associate Mark with Rome. They regard the claim of the Roman Church that Mark worked in Rome under the direction of Peter to be an implausible lie. Mark is the founder of the Egyptian Church. No-one in Byzantium would have found a reason to put the name of Rome on the throne. The Venetians acquired the relics of Mark so as to make themselves legally independent of the Pope. They would not have mentioned Rome either. Bargès and Lohuizen-Mulder have made out the last three letters as RYH, correctly in our view, and have then read the last four letters as DRYH and taken them to be the ending of the name of Alexandria, again correctly in our view. Thus, with the three words “Mark Evangelist Alexandria” our reading is not unexpected.

We ask the reader to bear with us here as we go through the reading and interpretation by J.-G. Février. The tedium is unavoidable because Février’s interpretation has influenced all later work. Its inadequacy by any canon of academic integrity or even sanity must be demonstrated so it can be forgotten. A large part of Février’s justification of a late dating was the bizarreness of his reconstruction. He assumed a bizarre reading because he thought the inscription to be a mediaeval attempt at giving a false impression of antiquity. This circular thinking has infected all later work, including the catalogues. André Grabar, an expert in Byzantine religious artefacts, tells us he happened to ask Février to translate the text because he had an office just down the passage-way at the Sorbonne. Février’s specialisation was Punic epigraphy. Neither Grabar nor Février took the presence of Hebrew letters seriously and so the Punic epigraphist came up with this: “The Throne of Marco Evangelist, and donkeys [!!] have dedicated it.”

To make the reconstruction, the wrong Hebrew word for donkeys was assumed, showing absence of feeling for the language and just as little feel for context. The object pronoun suffix had to be assumed to be feminine gender, even though moshav is a masculine noun, a fact Février didn’t notice. Grabar and Février developed a scenario whereby the Venetians authorities decided to add something in order to give the throne a mystical aura, so they asked local Jews to write something in Hebrew. The Jews took the opportunity to write something disparaging about the throne and its owners, but thought they had better put the words in mirror-writing so no-one could read what they had written. We’re not making this up. Février’s further argument for a mediaeval dating for the inscription from its spelling of Mark’s name as Mem Resh Qof Vav, as if it were the Italian Marco, is recklessly careless. The actual letters are clearly MRCAO [Mem Resh Qof Alef Vav]. For this purpose, Février ignored the Alef, even though it is one of the clearest letters in the inscription. The Alef and the Vav are the beginning of the next word, ‘Evangelistes.’ Yet Février found the word Evangelistes in the inscription, starting with the letters Alef Vav. So first the Alef had to vanish so the Vav could be read as the end of the name Marco. Then the Alef that had been made to vanish had to come back and become the first letter of Evangelistes, and the Vav that had been at the end of Marco had to be used again as the second letter of Evangelistes, after the Alef that had vanished before and was back again. In the catalogues, the reading “donkeys” is dropped, but Février’s misreading of Alexandria as “they dedicated it” has been kept, along with the mutually incompatible Marco and Evangelistes. This reading “they dedicated it” is NDRWH. The spelling of Alexandria is 'LKSNDRYH. Février has read the second-last letter, Yod, as Vav. He has done this because he had no experience in Hebrew epigraphy. Punic epigraphy, yes. If Février had had extensive acquaintance with old inscriptions or mss., he would have known that the form of Yod was once bigger, so that it looked very much like a printed Vav. This is why Secchi and Le Hir took the Yod as part of a Mem. Now this apparently minor mistake leads to the removal of the word Alexandria from the inscription, and the inscription becomes pointless, regardless of whether the donkeys are brought in or not(!).

Linguistic argument for our reading. The translation of ‘moshav’ as meaning ‘throne’ or ‘seat’ as in a physical object which someone could sit on demonstrates absence of Sprachgefühl. This word does not mean a throne or chair, as everyone has thought. The natural Hebrew word for either a chair or a throne is kisse כסא with a qualifier if needed. The word moshav has a range of meanings similar to the French words séance and siège, but it does not mean chaise, chaire, or trône. Moshav can mean a session (of a court of law and so on) and in the right context, the hearing and judgment. This is its most common usage. Even this meaning is limited, since a routine sitting of a committee would be termed a yeshiva. Moshav would also be applicable to the act of enthronement. The word moshav is not the designation of the object. If the word were here, then it could have only two meanings. It might have been copied from some banner at the time of inauguration of St. Mark himself, and might mean the inauguration or enthronement of Mark. The circumstances of such copying are unlikely. Or otherwise it might refer to the word Alexandria. This is difficult. The meaning would be “The seat of Mark the Evangelist is Alexandria” or perhaps even "The See of Mark the Evangelist of Alexandria."

The script is at least as old as the 6th century. This is being conservative. For the moment it is enough to say that a mediaeval date is ruled out. The spelling of Evangelistes with Tav instead of Ḥet and Aleksandriya with Kaf instead of Qof would be archaic in Jewish spelling, and agrees with the known standard Samaritan system. The spelling is either Jewish and archaic, or Samaritan, or both. Hebrew mirror-writing is in itself an ancient practice. Lohuizen-Mulder’s informant’s statement that Hebrew has never been written in mirror-writing is only a layman’s confession of ignorance. It is seen in some mss. from Qumrân Cave 4 from the Herodian period.

[3] The reigns of the Abbasid Al-Amin (809-813) and Al-Mamun (813-833), brothers who bitterly fought each other and whose struggle reflecting a wider conflict between Muslim Arabs and Muslim Turks. Absolute chaos ruled Egypt, and the country was divided between two major Muslim contenders, Al-Siri Abdel Hakam and Abdel Aziz Algirwi whose battles were mainly fought in the Nile Delta.  The instability, terrorism and financial mismanagement that resulted destroyed Egypt. The situation was further compounded by the advent of fanatic Arabs from Andalusia and other areas, who seized Alexandria between 815 and 827, and persecuted the Copts and their Church. Abdullahi ibn Tahir, dispatched by Al-Mamun in 826 CE, was able eventually, to conclude an agreement with the Andalusians to evacuate Alexandria and go to wherever they wanted outside Al-Mamun’s territory. They sailed out of Alexandria, and went to Crete, where they wrestled Crete from the Byzantines. We know that Ibn Tahir left Egypt to Baghdad, the Caliphs city, on 20 October 827 CE. Eutychius’ sentence, “Abdallah ibn Daher returned to al-Ma`mun and reported about Egypt and on what he had undertaken (there),” relates to his expulsion of the Andulesians from Alexandria. I think we can tentatively assume that it was in this period that relics of St. Mark were actually removed from Alexandria, that they were brought by the Andalusians to Crete and it was there that Venetians must have purchased the relics in 828 CE. Later reports from Coptic and Melkite sources reference only the loss of the body of St. Mark.  Nevertheless, Eutychius, immediately after the last quoted sentence seems to make reference to a party upset with the loss of the throne (βῆμα) when we read “Then the (supporters of the) Emma (Yma) revolted. Al-’Emma is a coptic word and means 'forty,'” The Coptic Revolt of 831/832 AD was mainly undertaken by the Bashmurites/Pashurites (as Coptic resources, particularly History of the Patriarchs of Coptic Church, calls them), residents of Bashmur/Pashmur in the coastal areas of the Delta.[9]  It is important to note that these were followers of the Coptic Church.  As such given the fact that the throne of St. Mark was traditionally associated with the Church of St. Mark in the Nile Delta (Boucolia) it seems plausible, when all sources are reconciled with another, to identify the cause of the revolt as the Coptic fury over losing the relic which represented the traditional authority of their beloved apostle and the founder of their Patriarchal line.  There is evidence to suggest contact between Byzantines and the Cretan Arabs in later periods. Niketas Magistros in his Life of St. Theokt mentions a Byzantine mission to Arab rulers of Crete in the first years of the tenth century (cf. R. Jenkins "The Date of Leo VI's Cretan Expedition," Hellenika, supp. 4 (1953), 277-81), D. Tsougarakis, Byzantine Crete, From the 5th century to the Venetian Conquest (Athens, 1988)). Venice took an active interest in Crete and eventually ruled the island in the thirteenth century  Eutychius in his Annals (written in Arabic) calls them البيما او اهل البيما, which could be translated “the Bima (or the Pima) or the people of the Bima/Pima." ( ) He says the word name البيما/Bima/Pima comes from a Coptic word that means “ نسل الاربعين “ , i.e. “the descendants of the forty”. The Latin translation (1658) renders the translation: “quadraginia virorum progenies." ( )  St Michael the Syrian in his Chronicle (which is absolutely important in this history) calls the them Biamaye as Bat Ye’or in her The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam spells it.( )  It seems plausible that Biamaye is the Syriac form of the Arabic Bima but as we do not know the original Coptic word which Eutychius alludes to, it is difficult to study this word further. The B/Pashmurites had their special dialect of Coptic, and it is possible that B/Pima in their dialect meant what Eutychius says (the dialect is largely unknown now); however, the meaning given by him cannot be derived from any of the other major Coptic dialects known to us. I think (Yma) is the same as Eutichius B/Pima. If we return to the original account in Eutychius, the jump between the two sentences represents a time span of over three years. In June 831 AD, during the Patriarchate of Anba Yousab, the 52nd Coptic Patriarch (830-849), the Copts of the coastal areas of the Nile Delta revolted against the oppression of the Arabs. The B/Pashmurites also rose against their Arab oppressors in 750 AD during the reign of the last Umayyad Caliph, Marwan II (744-750), and the Patriarchate of Michael I (743-767). However, their last uprising was in 831/2 AD. That was a major rebellion and involved several thousands of the Copts who managed initially to overthrow the yoke of the Muslims, but later, when Caliph Al-Mamiun mobilised the Empire’s resources and army, and came in person leading in army, managed to suppress the last major Coptic uprising in February/March 832 AD with grave consequences to the Coptic nation.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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