Byzantine mosaic from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Philanthropy Report 2019/20

Exploring the vast world of Eastern Christianity


Professor Phil Booth’s work in the field of Eastern Christianity is making its mark in teaching, in research and in its relevance to millions of people shaped by their communities’ lived histories.

Stretching from the life of Jesus into the modern period, Eastern Christianity is a field that not only examines diverse Eastern Christian communities, but also embraces a wide range of disciplines, from history and theology to art and architecture. Professor Phil Booth, originally a classicist, vividly recalls the moment when his passion for the subject was ignited: ‘It was the pure intellectual excitement of discovering this vast world that was under-researched. There was an opportunity to make a real academic contribution.’

As A. G. Leventis Associate Professor in Eastern Christianity, his passion, unsurprisingly, is undiminished. ‘I am interested in narratives about Christian communities that are placed very firmly in historical contexts in the period from around the 3rd to 10th centuries,’ he says. ‘I work at the intersection between theology and history, for which basic research tools – such as editions of major texts in languages like Syriac, Coptic and Arabic – have never been published. This presents possibilities for powerful academic impact.’

Phil Booth stand outside smiling to the camera
 Professor Phil Booth

Oxford is one of the most important centres in the world for Eastern Christian studies, with specialist postholders in all of its related subfields; scholars can be trained in Syriac, Greek, Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, and even Pahlavi, a form of Persian. This is highly unusual but also very enabling as, with no single dominant language, narratives can be fragmented in this area.

Undergraduate teaching at Oxford has already benefited enormously from the associate professorship held by Professor Booth. He says: ‘Previously, there was a big gap in the syllabus on Byzantine ecclesiastical history between the years 451 and 1000. As associate professor, I have redesigned the Eastern Christianities course to cover not only the Byzantine Empire, but also Armenia, Persia, Ethiopia, central Asia and China from 451 to 900.’

Significant progress has been made at graduate level too. Professor Booth forms part of a cross-faculty team – drawn from subject areas including Classics, theology, history, archaeology and medieval and modern languages – teaching a master’s degree in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, which is offered by the Faculty of History. It is a unique forum for training in this discipline and the study of theology and religion is now, for the first time, part of the permanent syllabus of that course. ‘It’s a major change that really stamps the importance of theological texts onto the cohort,’ says Professor Booth.

‘The undergraduate Eastern Christianities course now offers an obvious route through the theology syllabus. Student numbers have been very good, so I’m delighted’

Professor Phil Booth

‘We have already seen graduates of those seminars move on to work at doctoral level,’ he continues. ‘And our graduate students are so important to our community: they are the next generation of scholars who will go on to write the great books. A. G. Leventis’s fantastic generosity and foresight in the provision of scholarships for them has been remarkable.’

Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research since its foundation in 2010, adds: ‘This wonderful and generous gift is already having a significant impact at the University. Late Antique and Byzantine Studies is a real jewel in Oxford’s crown, with scholars at all levels here making extraordinary and revolutionary contributions to this subject. Phil Booth is an integral part of the scholarly community here and it is amazing to have been able to secure this position for the long term.

‘We have been enormously grateful to the A. G. Leventis Foundation for their support over many years. This is a golden age for our subject, and a reminder that the humanities are at the forefront of cutting-edge research in Oxford.’

Professor Booth is keen to emphasise the enduring relevance of Eastern Christianity: ‘You need only follow debates – for example, around the recent reconsecration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque in Istanbul – to understand the importance of history and the emotions it evokes. The language used, the arguments made, the recourse to historical documents… those earlier periods are not abstract, but part of communities’ lived histories. They shape how people perceive the present.’

‘It’s really striking that there is no book on Eastern Christianity in the Middle Ages, although there are many comparable books on Western Christianity’

Professor Phil Booth

The themes of the two projects that Professor Booth is currently working on could easily be plucked from modern times. One – a collaboration with a colleague in Cambridge – is based on the effect of the environment on medieval Christians, looking in particular at a series of rebellions in the eighth century led by Christians and Muslims against the regime in Egypt. The other examines processes of community formation, in particular Egyptian Christian communities in the transition from the Roman Empire to the Islamic Empire. ‘That is very relevant for modern Egyptian Christians, where relations between the Christian and Muslim communities have often been strained, particularly in the last 20 years,’ he says.

It is his next project, however, that has the potential to reach a wider audience. ‘The working title for the book is Eastern Christianity: from Constantine to the Crusades, covering the early 4th century to the 11th,’ he says. ‘What a post like mine enables me to do is to bring all those different traditions together into a larger narrative. I think there is a great appetite among the reading public for things like that. But they simply don’t exist.’


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