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E06092: Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, reports the recent visit of the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf to Damascus, where a great church had been built in honour of *John the Baptist (S00020), and another church had been built by the Saracens. Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/689.

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posted on 05.08.2018, 00:00 by bsavill
Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book Two

XXVIII. DE DAMASCO
1. Damascus ciuitas regalis magna, ut Arculfus refert, qui Arculfus refert, qui in illa per aliquot hospitatus dies, in campo posita lato, amplo murorum ambitu circumcincta, insuper etiam et crebris turribus communita, plurima extra muros in circuitu habens oliueta [...] 2. In qua Saracinorum rex adeptus eius principatum regnat. Et in honore sancti Iohannis Baptistae ibidem grandis fundata est, et quaedam etiam Saracinnorum eclesia incredulorum et ipsa in eadem ciuitate quam ipsi frequentant fabricata est.

'(28) CONCERNING DAMASCUS
The great royal city of Damascus, as Arculf relates, who lodged for some days in it, is situated on a broad plain, surrounded by an ample circuit of walls, and fortified moreover by several towers, with several olive orchards in the territory surrounding the walls ... The king of the Saracens holds the principality there, and in the same place a great church has been raised in honour of the holy John the Baptist. In this city too, which they frequent, even the unbelieving Saracens have constructed a church.'

Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 98-9.

History

Evidence ID

E06092

Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020

Saint Name in Source

Iohannes Baptista

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries

Language

Latin

Evidence not before

683

Evidence not after

689

Activity not before

679

Activity not after

689

Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Iona

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Iona St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work

Adomnán

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Pilgrimage

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Muslims Monarchs and their family

Source

On the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703. On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful. This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not. Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.

Discussion

The site described is now that of the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus. This had originally been a shrine to the god Hadad-Ramman, before becoming a temple of Jupiter and, in the late 4th century, a Christian church. From 635 until the construction of the Great Mosque under the Caliph al-Walid (705-715), it was shared by the city's Christian and Muslim communities, with the Christians occupying the west end of the building: it is perhaps to this arrangement that Adomnán/Arculf slightly confusingly refers (Meehan 1958, 28-9), unless he is referring to the church of John and to another 'church' (i.e. mosque) of the Muslims. Today the Great Mosque still contains a shrine purporting to hold the head of John the Baptist.

Bibliography

Editions: Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation. Bieler, L., Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version). Further reading: Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2. Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807. Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/110 O’Loughlin, T., Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007).

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