A few years ago, at a meeting of Victorian Christian leaders in Parliament, the then premier Ted Baillieu, an architect by training, commented on just how intrinsic churches are to the skyscape and streetscape of Melbourne.

“Wherever you stand, it is the spires of churches that you can see. These are the major landmarks of our city,” he observed.

“It is from these that Melbourne takes its shape.”

In his recently published study, titled “From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities”, Lecturer in Theology (Patristics) and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Doctor Mario Baghos, takes up Mr Baillieu’s observation seeking to trace and analyse the manner in which the architecture of the Near East sought to establish, or reflect an axis mundi, that is, the line or stem through the earth’s centre connecting its surface to the underworld and the heavens and around which the universe revolves and an imago mundi, an image of the world.

According to Mircea Eliade’s opinion: “Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all.”

For the Greeks, the classic navel gazers of all time, this was the omphalos, the navel or centre of the world, but the need to establish such a place precedes this civilisation. Dr Baghos takes us back to the earliest Near Eastern civilisations, those of Mesopotamia, then Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome. He aims to show how the idea of the Axis Mundi, expressed variously through ziggurats, pyramids, natural features such as Mount Ararat, the walled Garden of Paradise and beyond, permeates, informs and influences their understanding of urban planning and bolsters the claim to leadership of the ruling class over the rest of society, permitting such rulers to identify themselves with the axis mundi and, vested with such transcendental powers, to legitimise their supremacy.

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The enumeration of the elements of the title is thus intrinsic to an understanding of the author’s main contention. In relation to the loaded term King, the author suggests the evolution of a man into a symbol, a compound word comprised of the Greek from σύν “together” and βάλλω “I throw,” denoting a “throwing of things together,” and thus an outward sign of meaning. Through this, a transcendent reality is mirrored, reflecting and implying the ineffable and the inscrutable. In turn, those visual indicators of deeper and universal truths are embodied in the structures of the fundamental component of civilisation: the structures of a city.

An evolution of symbols

It is no coincidence that the author has chosen to focus exclusively upon the ancient civilisations of the Near East. Arguably, the author could convincingly reinforce his point about the interdependency between power, faith and civic architecture, by also conducting an overview of similar conceptions of axis mundi existing in such disparate loci as the ancient architecture of the Mesoamerican civilisations, the temples of the Hindu world and Buddhist pagodas. However, in choosing to treat solely analysis the Near Eastern civilisations that have, owing to their geographical and cultural proximity, communicated with each other, borrowed from and influenced each other, the author is able to postulate an almost linear evolution in the manner in which power is interpreted as a symbol and then depicted in architecture. A “grouping” of those civilisations facilitates an analysis of their symbols as revelations of their innate religiosity. Having established this, the author can then proceed to elucidate his main contention: that through the evolution of those symbols, one can trace the gradual progression of the ancient civilisations away from polytheism and concepts of the divine ruler, towards Christianity.

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The evolutionary chain in the paradigm shift having been thus demonstrated, the author is then able to posit that this shift, through a thorough, erudite and refreshingly novel analysis of representations of Christ, as the “Master of All” (Παντοκράτωρ) culminates inexorably, in Byzantium, in the gradual replacement of the pagan ruler cult, inherent to city-building in antiquity, with the ruler becoming subordinate to Christ. The author thus provides an assessment of Christian Rome and Constantinople as typifying the evolution from the ancient and classical world to Christendom. Extending the author’s contention further, the reader is then able to surmise that the relationship between Emperor, Symbols and the city of Constantinople comprise the foundation of modern conceptions of urban architecture and planning and offer a coherent framework for the interpretation of the evolution of cities throughout the ages, accounting for changing values and shifts in dogma, of whatever nature.

Dr Baghos’ analysis is thus not only novel but also historically important. The relationship he painstakingly and cogently delineates as existing between Kings, Symbols and Cities in Byzantium, endured in various forms and permutations in Europe and in all lands dominated by Europeans, up to the end of the First World War. The appropriation of Byzantine conceptions of the relationship between the temporal and the sacred underlie the fundamentals of Soviet architecture and Fascist architecture, with the Deity replaced by the absolute power of the State, while even seemingly disparate architectural philosophies such as Brutalism whose relationship with power is underlain by requirements of formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities and coherence of the building as a visual entity, can also be said to ultimately derive from the Byzantine approach.

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As such, in his polyvalent exposition, Dr Baghos brilliantly opens up a whole new field for research and analysis. How were the Byzantine conceptions of Kings, Symbols and Cities appropriated by European civilisations and subsequently employed to support a discourse of colonialism and imperialism? How did such conceptions disrupt, alter or influence the native understanding of the axis mundi in Africa, Asia and America? Considering that Sassanid Persia was the main rival of early Byzantium, how did the evolving Persian conception of kingship and power under a supreme deity, specifically, Ahura Mazda in the monotheistic Zoroastrian tradition, influence or mirror that of Byzantium? Significantly, to what extent can a connection be identified between Byzantine kingship and architecture, and the Islamic conception of the caliph as lieutenant or successor of the messenger of God. How is this relationship or conflicts arising from the interpretation of such a relationship reflected in Islamic architecture?

Finally, in an age where in the West, the churches that according to “Kings, Symbols and Cities” establish Christ as axis mundi, are increasingly being demolished, or converted to high-ceilinged accommodation and the urban streetscapes are converted into windswept wastelands dominated by ever taller skyscrapers, how do our new axes mundi and images mundi, surround their citizens by a vision of the cosmos in which, the sacred is revealed and exactly what does that revelation comprise? Does this axis continue to intersect the ancient three realms: the celestial realm, the earthly realm and the underworld, understood these days as the penthouse, the commercial retail space and the underground car park?

An erudite and scholarly appraisal of the diachronic evolution of sacred architecture, “Kings, Symbols and Cities,” remains eminently approachable and digestible. It is a must read for all of those who seek to comprehend the complex relationship civilisations have to architecture and the celestial.

“From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium” is available to purchase direct from the publishers, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, as well as general online retailers.