The Early Christian Bema Churches of Syria Revisited

By Loosley, Emma | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Early Christian Bema Churches of Syria Revisited


Loosley, Emma, Antiquity


The Limestone Massif of northwest Syria has the largest concentration of late antique churches in the world. All date from between the second half of the 4th century and the first decade of the 7th century and are remarkably consistent in their conformity to a recognizably `Syrian' architectural style. Almost without exception they are apsed basilicas varying only in terms of size and the quality of decoration.

This region was extensively surveyed in the 1950s by Georges Tchalenko, whose monumental three-volume study Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord remains the definitive work on the area. Of the many ecclesiastical buildings included in this survey Tchalenko identified a group of approximately 45 churches possessing a bema. The bema is a horseshoe-shaped structure in the nave that mirrors the curve of the apse. Entered via steps at the east end, it provided benches for the clergy and a pulpit at the west end that was used for scriptural expositions and homilies.

In spite of the interest of both archaeologists and liturgiologists (see especially Renhart 1995, also Loosley 2000) there has been no convincing explanation as to why only a handful of churches possessed a bema and no theory to account for their occurrence in particular churches. The aim of the present survey has been to evaluate the current state of preservation of the sites and the extent of any deterioration since Tchalenko's seminal work and in addition to investigate the possibility that visiting the villages would clarify any patterns in bemata locations.

Although many sites had generally fared well in the 50 years since Tchalenko's survey, four had deteriorated dramatically. The stones of three had largely been removed for building purposes and the buildings had almost completely vanished. At the fourth site the church interior had been destroyed and the exterior wails were used as the boundary for a field with the apse acting as a pigsty. This represents almost 10% of the total bema churches in the region and even more sites are likely to be threatened in future as the rural population continues to expand.

The most illuminating outcome of the present survey was the emergence of a cluster pattern in the distribution of the bemata. Whilst it was established early on in the study of the bema that only one church per village possessed a bema and that bemata were never employed in a monastic context, other patterns have now emerged. …

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