The Netherlands Institute for the Near East

Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten  -  Institut nĂ©erlandais du Proche-Orient

15 Feb 2022

Report: Anchoring Innovation conference Rooted Cities, Wandering Gods


Cult, ritual and belief were crucial components of collective identities throughout the pre-modern world, and may be argued as fundamental to the self-image of cities. But how did religious practices foster relations between cities or other communities and at which scales? This was a driving question behind the University of Groningen and Anchoring Innovation conference Rooted Cities, Wandering Gods, held on 18-20 November 2021 in the Groningen Doopsgezinde Kerk.

The conference was organized by Tom Britton and Adam Wiznura within the framework of the project Connecting the Greeks: Multi-scalar festival networks in the Hellenistic world (Groningen) and by Robin van Vliet from Anchoring Empire (OIKOS Anchoring Innovation), in collaboration with the project Religion and Urbanity – reciprocal formations at the Max Weber Institute in Erfurt. Christina Williamson, Onno van Nijf, and Lidewijde de Jong had advisory roles in the organization.
Sponsoring the conference were the Anchoring Innovation project, the Cities and Settlements in the Ancient World research group, the Cultural Interactions in the Ancient World research group, the Culture, Religion and Society – Interdisciplinary Studies in the Ancient World (CRASIS) research institute, the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG), the Groningen University Fund and the Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO).

Sixteen historians and archaeologists participated from Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. Intentionally drawn from different backgrounds and career stages, these scholars addressed topics through a broad range of sources from across the Mediterranean, but also Mesopotamia and Syria, with a timespan that stretched from the Bronze Age to the early imperial era. The tightening restrictions related to COVID-19 led to a stronger online presence than was originally envisaged, but the discussions were nonetheless lively and engaging. Panels were organized along the themes of urban networks, building identities, shared cults, urban landscapes, and long-distance connections. Some concepts that emerged include the role of social actors at the local level, the difference between physical and social distance in religious networks, the importance of visuality and landmarking, the control of time, synchronicity and the deep past, ritual practices and place-making. The publication of the proceedings will make this available for a wider audience.

Recordings of the papers delivered at the conference are available at the conference website

We add a (lightly edited) summary of the conference presented by Christina Williamson at its conclusion on November 20th.

General aims

In these days of disconnected connectivity through social distancing, I’d like to bring us back to where we are, i.e. in a Mennonite church in Groningen. The Mennonites were one of the earliest Protestant movements in the Netherland, originating in the 16th century with Menno Simons, a Friesian Catholic priest who led the Anabaptist movement, and brought it into Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein. This religious community, though peaceful, was at times persecuted and excluded from public life. This church originated as a wooden ‘schuilkerk’ (hidden church) built behind the houses facing the Oude Boteringestraat – typical of Mennonite churches in the Netherlands. The current building was constructed in the mid-19th century, after the Mennonites had gained equal rights under the Batavian-French Republic. Despite its monumentality the church was only visible after the houses before it was demolished, and is just one of many examples of how religious places define the cityscape, even in negation. Of course in most cases the opposite is true, and Erfurt is a splendid example of this with its Domplatz and many churches and church towers punctuating street corners. One aim of our meeting was to tighten the interurban interactions between Groningen and Erfurt, but not through religion, but through our conference – now proving the multi-functionality of this religious space.

The aim of this ‘Rooted Cities, Wandering Gods’ conference was to get scholars together who focus on the entanglement of religious practices, urban networks, and institutions of mobility and communication – in short the importance of the dynamics of religion in creating connections between communities and cities – and to understand how these inter-urban connections further helped shape the sense of what a city ought to be, how it ought to function within its network, and its position.
We feel fortunate have gotten together such a diverse group of scholars to cover the Graeco-Roman world but also Mesopotamia and Syria, spanning the Bronze Age to the early imperial era.

Panels and themes

Our panels were organized along different main themes. The first focused on Urban Networks. In this session Dafni Maikidou-Poutrino emphasized the importance and interests of local actors in spreading the cult of Isis along the river and road systems of Thessalonike, showing how this ‘Egyptian’ cult became embedded in the landscape and eventually used to negotiate Italic and Greek communities. Space and time were clearly important in Jörg Rüpke’s analyse of the Fasti that were displayed in Italic towns, clustered around Rome. These billboard-sized texts were located in nodes along the major roads to Rome, and repeat the festival calendar of the megalopolis, with some minor but not insignificant local variations that surely also reflect the interests of local actors. Center and periphery are also at the core of Ian Rutherford’s approach as he applies de Polignac’s bi-polar model, drawn from the Greek world, to the ancient Near East. In his comparative analyses of the establishment of cult places at strategic locations in the landscape, he drew a typology that extends this approach from bi-polar, to multi-polar (Amphictyonies), to serial nodes, moving us well beyond the simple dichotomy of urban/extra-urban cult places.

In the second session, Building Identities, Roy van Wijk elucidated the many religious uses of the Persian Wars as a historical memory through the Eleutheria festival at Plataia, showing us how a possibly local festival was revived under Macedonian influence, only to be turned against the Macedonians by the Plataians a few generations later. The importance of the past as a tool in the present was also clear from Meagan Mangum’s analyses of Aisyme, in which the Homeric past was cultivated as the acropolis of the Thasian settlement negotiated local and micro-regional identities between Thracian and Greek influences. My own contribution (Christina Williamson) focused on the shape of sanctuaries and the formative power of their festivals in inter-urban connections.

Myth played a central role in inter-urban connections in the third session on Shared Cults. Thomas Husøy highlights ways that cities understood their connections with each other and with their landscapes through myth. His main case study held up the Asopus river as a trans-regional connector, bringing together cities along its course in a sister-relationship. Cities located on islands are a special case, and Erika Angliker’s study of Kea shows how the cults of Apollo helped unify but also distinguish its cities, while the cult of Dionysos at Aya Irini served as a common and central place of cult for the different island communities. The role of shared cult practices as a means of solidifying a micro-region was also evident from the concentration of cult for Phrygian Athena in the area of the Gulf of Naples, as Tommasina Matrone argued. Situated on sea-facing promontories, this Athena cult clearly had a maritime dimension, but its Trojan connotations certainly factor into the relationships not only between Italic communities and the early Greek settlers, but also the later Roman conquerors, who had incorporated the same Trojan past.

In the fourth session on Urban landscapes, Sjoukje Kamphorst focused on mirrored cities in Hellenistic Asia Minor, showing us how ritual was used to collapse distances while reinforcing civic bonds, through practices intended to take place simultaneously and couched in intimate and emotional language. Emily Hurt demonstrated that cult was a double-edged tool in Republican Italy, when Rome ingested the local cults of cities that it razed, such as Falerii and Volsinii, which as new, removed cities remained nonetheless anchored to the old cult places. Aphroditi Vlachou took us back to early Iron Age Greece and Sparta, examining cultic ties in the region of Laconia through material culture and the rituals that it implies.

In the fifth session, on Long Distance Connections, Robin van Vliet made the case that religion anchored Roman hegemony in Boiotia, through a close examination of the agency of Epameinondas in ‘reviving’ the Great Ptoia and Kaisareia festival in Akraiphia – showing clearly that he acted as a broker at the local, regional and trans-regional levels. Sebastian Scharff examined the increasing standardization of oath gods in inter-civic treaties in the Hellenistic world, and the special appearance of the goddess Tauropolos as a connector of royal power with cities. Matthias Haake examines the role of sanctuaries as nodes in multiple and overlapping networks, and illustrating how sanctuaries – from a philosopher’s perspective – were typically seen as abuzz with crowds, most marked by their decline in late antiquity. Attachment to place is central to Anna Collar’s examination of how Syrians outside of Syria, specifically in Puteoli, created cultic environments of their own in their new cities, but also engaged with networks spanning the Mediterranean – to create a sense of permanence, however tenuous this might have been in reality.

We will be drawing up a prospectus for an edited volume, with the publisher to be decided. This will include papers presented at the conference as well as, potentially, papers from those speakers who were unable to participate directly. Given the success of Rooted Cities and the discussion it has provoked, we hope that this will prove an important addition to the developing study of inter-urban religion in the ancient world.