CODEX Entry 1022: The destruction of temples
Saint Shenoute – ‘There is no crime for those who have Christ’
International outrage greeted the news that ISIS fighters had demolished the Temple of Baal in Palmyra in August 2015. However, their destruction pales against that wrought by Christians zealots for two centuries between 320AD and 520AD. The Dark Ages, later reframed as the early Middle Ages, were born in the cultural vandalism carried out in Jesus’ name in this period. For every pseudo-Christian martyr, there were a dozen classic intellectuals lynched, burned, or beheaded.
So many early vandals and murderers were canonized by the early church. Perhaps most symbolic of all was, in 392AD, the destruction instigated by the Bishop of Alexandria, Saint Theophilos, canonized for his vandalism. Saint Theophilos declared temples the homes of demons. While he pillaged ruthlessly from the Mithraeum and paraded, mockingly, the penis of the God through the street of Alexandria, he focused his wrath on one of the greatest monuments in the ancient world, the Temple of Serapis. Saint Theophilus led a mob of monks and thugs into the temple and, having mutilated the statues, destroyed the building stone by stone. The stones were either sold or used to build small churches across the city. The attached library and University buildings received similar treatment. All books taken away or burned, leaving empty shelves. Poets and philosophers fled.
His nephew Cyril, who grabbed the bishopric on his uncle’s death, was likewise canonized for his vandalism and persecution of Christian minorities as well as Jews. He closed all the Novatian churches and stole their assets, before expelling almost 100,000 Jews from the city, acquiring all of their assets as well. He led a surprise mob attack at dawn on the synagogues, levelling them to the ground, sharing the plunder amongst the thugs. The Roman prefect Orestes complained to Rome that the bishop was usurping the functions of his administration, even of the police. But the Regent Empress Pulcheria, later also canonized by the church as a saint, was a fanatical Christian herself, busy converting Rome’s imperial palace into a monastery. Cyril was thus rewarded with greater power. He demonized traditional Alexandrian learning and science as devil worship. The ‘Republic of Plato’ was declared a bed of sorcery and treason.
Hypatia, was a leading mathematician and astronomer. Rising to become head of the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy in Alexandria. Her fame attracted students from across the Mediterranean. Saint Cyril was incensed by Hypatia’s reputation and talents, and felt they were preventing the ‘progress of the Faith’. From his pulpit Cyril poured venom on the ‘whore’ and, in response to his call, more Christian fanatics swarmed in from the desert. In 415AD, Hypatia was set upon by these thugs, dragged to a nearby church, stripped, beaten, skinned alive with broken porcelain, blinded and then hacked to pieces. When the Roman Prefect Orestes tried to investigate her disappearance he was also murdered. Saint Cyril announced that Hypatia had moved to Athens and Orestes had resigned, nominating a puppet prefect in his stead. He then secured approval from Saint Pulcheria to increase his private bodyguard of thugs, the infamous Parabalani, from 500 to 600. Following the murder of Hypatia, scholars began to leave the city. Her death marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major centre of ancient learning. Saint Cyril exiled all scholars, poets, and philosophers.
As demons were thought to live within the statues, the first act was usually to cut off the nose, so they could not breath and would flee the statue. Where possible this was followed by the beheading of the statue and the removal of the hands and genitals. This desecration was the ‘signature’ of the Christian vandals and is why we see this on all pre-4th Century statues. The destruction was particularly severe in Egypt and Palestine. 19th century Christians, now ardent scientists and historians did their best to ignore this mutilation at the hands of their early saints. Even the removal of the Sphinx’s nose was first blamed on Napoleon, and then later, the muslims.
There were many great collections of books in the ancient world. Most were open to any scholar from anywhere in the world. None of them survived the Christian Dark Age, an estimated 90% of classical texts were destroyed. The most famous was the Library at Alexandria, which was housed at three separate sites. The main or ‘Royal Library’ was close to the palace grounds and formed part of the Museum, a ‘temple’ dedicated to the nine Muses. Demetrius had begun selecting and buying books on Ptolemy’s behalf in 304 BC. Most works were then translated into Greek, including the Septuagint, the founding document of the Christian Bible, translated by 72 rabbis. Ptolemy’s ambition had been to possess all known world literature.
One hundred scholars were invited to paid residencies at the Museum and studied documents from around the world on mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and geometry. They were fed and funded initially by the royal family, and later, during the Roman period, by public money. Most of the western world’s discoveries were recorded and debated there for the next 500 years. The Royal Library had suffered fire damage when Julius Caesar torched the fleet of Cleopatra’s brother and the fire spread to the harbour buildings. Mark Anthony, as compensation, gave Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls from the Pergamon library as a gift. A Library annex was created near the temple of Serapis with 19 study chambers. The Serapeum, in honour of the new god, had been built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and completed by his son. A second annex exclusively for history was set up by the Emperor Claudius, in the mid-1st century. A third was funded by Hadrian, following a visit to Alexandria in 130, housed in the Caesareum.
However when the Baal worshipping Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire captured Alexandria in 270 she transferred many of the scrolls to her own libraries. Further revolts, battles, a lack of funding, along with pilfering, further reduced the libraries’ 700,000 scrolls. But certainly, the death knell, if not the ultimate destruction, lies squarely at the door of Saint Theophilus. To put the scale into perspective, the famous Christian library of the Sorbonne in Paris in 1338 boasted 1,728 works.
“The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.” Gibbon
These acts of violence were, to some extent, acts of disproportionate revenge. Over the prior centuries, when anyone refused to offer sacrifice to the Roman Emperor, there were intermittent regional periods of retribution. These laws were not specific to Christians and were seen as an oath of loyalty and obeisance. However, Christians were amongst the executions that occurred as a result of these laws for a decade under Nero, fifteen years under Marcus Aurelius, and a year each under Decius and Trebonianus Gallus. The last serious persecution was in 303AD, where Christians and Persian Manichaeism were the prime focus. Martyrdom and desecration however occurred chiefly in the East under Galerius. Christians by this stage represented a sizabe 10% of the Empires populace. The newly built Christian church at Nicomedia was razed, its scriptures burned, and its treasures seized. The church was not large or significant, but sat on a hill above the Imperial offices. Christians were purged from the army. Records have been found confirming an estimated 103 Christians executions, doubtless there were many more, but certainly far less than the future church suggested.
The response, when the boot was on the other foot, however, was dramatic. Fifty years after Constantine, the Christians reversed the law. Now the same death penalty was threatened for anyone who performed the sacrifice. The wheel had turned full circle. The century-long destruction of temples, libraries, and learning had begun in 330AD. Constantine ordered statues to be removed and gold, silver, and jewels sold with the cash being transferred to the church. Roofs were dismantled and sold. Attacks spread. But in AD 382 Emperor Gratean ordered the altar out of the Senate, and the next 50 years represented the peak of the cultural genocide of the old religions. In 408 a law was passed to deal with whatever had survived the opening onslaught.
‘If any images stand even now in the temples and shrines, they shall be torn from their foundations. The buildings of the temples which are situated in cities or towns or outside the towns shall be vindicated to public use. Altars shall be destroyed in all places.’
‘Search out the books of the heretics in every place. wherever you can, bring them to us or burn them in the fire’
Philosophers were tortured, burned alive, or beheaded. Therefore many chose to burn their own libraries to avoid the same fate. Saint Shenoute stated that ‘Because you are christian you are obliged to burn them.’ Books were inspected and burned. Saint Simeon joined the long list of canonized book burners, stating, ‘Collect all their books and burn these in the fire.’ As the destruction neared its end, in 529 AD Saint Benedict destroyed the shrine to Apollo in Monte Cassino, and a law was past stating that anyone worshipping a statue would be executed. Everyone had to be baptized. Anyone who refused would lose all his property. Law 126.96.36.199 forbade the teaching of any philosophy or science. Atomism and geometry were considered heresy.
As old scrolls deteriorated rapidly with age, the ban on copying classic texts from 550AD to 750AD ensured that time did the rest of the damage. Ancient polytheism essentially vanished, only continuing in small secretive groups, labelled devil or satan worshippers.
Saint John Chrysostom ‘texts of the Greeks have all perished and are obliterated.’