With the lovely fall weather, I’ve been taking the dogs on some long walks lately. This has not only given me the headspace to solve the world’s problems (if I only had a pen to write down the solutions before I forgot them all) and to work on a few papers that are looming in the near future.
The one paper that has troubled me the most is one on the archaeology of Byzantine islands that I’m scheduled to give at a conference called “The Insular World of Byzantium” at Dumbarton Oaks in November. The question that I keep circling back to is whether it makes sense to think about Cyprus as an island during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period. In other words, I’m thinking more and more about insularity as a historical situation rather than a geographic reality.
This is not some kind of massive mental leap. After all, since the 1980s, folks have referred to Cyprus as a “matchbox continent” (Held in the 1989 RDAC seems to be the first use of this term in this context; it seems to be used to describe Madagascar as well) as a way to challenge its insularity and, instead, see it as a more or less self-sustaining entity. In this context, it might even be desirable to see the cities on Cyprus as a kind of archipelago gracefully defined by the regular distribution of cities along the southern coast. In the kind of connected world proposed by Horden and Purcell, for example, insularity may best define the microregion that could be more or less autonymous parts of proper islands or even represent groups of closely interdependent islands or units of islands and the mainland (in the case of near coastal islands in, say, the Peloponnesus).
On the other hand, places like the Peloponnesus could be easily seen in many periods as an island (as its name implies!). Watford City, North Dakota, was once known as the “Island Empire” (defined evidently by the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers) despite its location near the geographic center of North America. Likewise, Cold War-era West Berlin was sometimes thought of as “an island of freedom” surrounded by “the sea” of the DDR.
These observations are not meant to diminish the significance of islands as an interpretative category, but to suggest that the concept of insularity is only as useful for any particular situation (whether formally an island or not) as it serves an interpretative function. For a place like Cyprus, this means thinking seriously about what aspects of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine history and archaeology of the island (or matchbox continent) would benefit from an approach that emphasizes their insularity and which do not. For example, understanding the claims of Cypriot ecclesiastical autonomy benefit from understanding the insularity and particular history of the island and its relationship to the Holy Land and the Levant in Antiquity. Insularity also plays a obvious role in considering the arrival of bishops on the island. Barnabas and Lazarus, to the most important and apostolic bishops on Cyprus, hail from the Levant. The 4th century bishop, St. Epiphanius of Salamis died on a sea journal as he was returning to Cyprus from Constantinople. St. John the Almsgiver, retreated to Cyprus across the sea, when his See of Alexandria was lost to the Persians in the 7th century. The sea both defined the island’s autonomy and became a medium through which the island received sanctifying visitors.
If one was to consider the material culture of Cyprus on a more granular level, however, insularity feels less compelling. For example, the ceramic artifacts preserved the sherds scattered in the plow zone or in buried strata produce assemblages that appear to vary as much across the island as between the island and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Does thinking about Cyprus as an island help us understand this variation any more than thinking of a coastal site as part of a larger landmass or as a node in a dense network of connections?
In the end, the concept of insularity is only as good as the questions that it helps to answer. This then brings me back to the basic struggle that I have with this paper: how does the concept of the insular help me understand Early Byzantine Cyprus?