Africa & Byzantium
An Exploration Of The Artistic And Cultural Intersections Of The African Continent And The Byzantine World

An exploration of the artistic and cultural intersections of the African continent and the Byzantine world, Byzantium recounts Africa’s centrality in transcontinental networks of trade and cultural exchange.
With incisive scholarship and new photography of works rarely or never before seen in public, this long- overdue publication sheds new light on the staggering artistic achievements of late antique Africa. It reconsiders northern and eastern Africa’s contributions to the development of the premodern world and offers a more complete history of the region as a vibrant, multiethnic society of diverse languages and faiths that played a crucial role in the artistic, economic, and cultural life of Byzantium and beyond.

Africa in Late Antiquity

Despite its being a vast and historically significant empire that spanned parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, Byzantium’s extensive connections to Africa have thus far been understudied. This book explores these connections and draws a new critical geography that shifts preconceived perceptions of Africa’s position within the cultural, economic, and sociopolitical life of the Byzantine world. Inherently interdisciplinary, this project weaves together art, religion, literature, history, and archaeology while surveying and, at times, interrogating the tradition of Byzantine art and culture in Africa from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries and beyond.

The book’s three key components offer original ways of framing African and Byzantine art and culture. The first section, “From Carthage to Aksum: Africa in Late Antiquity”, explores the significant role played by wealthy patrons, artists, and religious leaders in north- ern Africa in shaping late antique visual and intellectual culture, with a particular focus on the art of the fourth to the seventh centuries, when much of the region was under the rule of the Byzantine Empire from its capital at Constantinople.

The following two sections address the distinctive religious and artistic traditions that subsequently flourished in African kingdoms as Islam replaced Christianity as the dominant faith of the region after the seventh century. “Bright as the Sun: Africa after Byzantium” reflects on systems of periodization and investigates the question of where and when Byzantium “ends.” “Legacies: Black Byzantium” considers the arts of Ethiopia from the fourth century into the present day, concluding with a look at how artists of African descent continue to find inspiration in Ro- man and Byzantine traditions. Faith, politics, and commerce across land and sea linked all these traditions to Byzantium, resulting in a lively interchange of arts and beliefs.


Whether from within the Byzantine Empire, in the flourishing urban centers of Carthage and Alexandria, or beyond its southern frontiers in the kingdoms of Nubia and the Aksumite Empire, African elites in Late Antiquity forged a shared identity around their common affinities for prestige goods, education, and the presentation of wealth. At this time, traditional cultural identity related to spheres of personhood, family, and society. Later, communities across North Africa and modern-day Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia formed new connections around distinct regional expressions of the Christian faith. These identities were shaped by North and East Africa’s visual and material culture.

Northern Africa included some of the wealthiest provinces of the late Roman and early Byzantine empires. Monumental mosaics, jewelry, and luxury ceramics were just some of the means by which Mediterranean Africa’s economic prosperity found visual expression. The pinnacle of African mosaic production occurred in the Byzantine period (534–698 CE), when Tunisian mosaicists merged traditional African styles with Byzantine iconography to create exquisite mosaics that rivaled those from other major centers of production throughout the empire. The region’s artists developed original themes that were adapted from Greek traditions but catered to unique regional tastes. Rock crystal and African red slip ware were exported from Africa and circulated along complex trade networks throughout the Byzantine Mediterranean sphere.

Egypt was of strategic importance to the Byzantine world owing to its location at the nexus of western Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea. It was a religious center and the breadbasket for Byzantium. The cult of the Virgin is thought to have originated there, closely linked to that of the goddess Isis. Simultaneously combining references to Greco-Roman and Egyptian motifs, figures wearing feathered crowns with cows’ horns evoke the iconography of Isis found in early Byzan-