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Religions and societies in the Mediterranean: a Labex with high stakes for society

Created at the initiative of the Eastern and Mediterranean Mixed Research Unit and supervised mainly by Paris-Sorbonne University, the Resmed Labex brings together more than 100 researchers from different laboratories, all of them developing top-notch expertise on religious practices in the Mediterranean. Of the 15 Labex units sponsored by Sorbonne University, this one is probably the most relevant to current events.

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In April 2016, as soon as Palmyra was recaptured from ISIS, a postdoc in archeology at the Resmed Labex – Houmam Saad – traveled there with a French start-up called Iconem. Their aim was to assess exactly how much damage had been wreaked by the jihadist group. Thousands of photos of the mine-riddled city were taken using a drone and compared against the backgrounds of previous photographs to develop 3D reconstructions of the monuments before and after their destruction. This effort will help preserve the memory of the site and provide invaluable assistance for any reconstruction work.

In December 2015, Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, another Resmed postdoc, launched an Islamic studies program within the Labex. Its intent is to stimulate university research on Islamic dogma and practices in all their diversity, including the status of the Koran and the figure of Mohammed. The project, supported by a grant from the French Ministry of the Interior, is part of the plan adopted by the French government after the 2015 terrorist attacks to foster Islamic studies in the country’s universities.

“Resmed brings together researchers from different disciplines (history, art history, history of medicine and science, archeology, philosophy, and musicology) with the primary aim of studying the social impact of religions within the geographical area of the world that is in contact with the Mediterranean, from antiquity to modern times,” explains Béatrice Caseau, director of the Labex. “But current events have brought the contemporary world into its sphere of research. Our researchers have had to leave Syria and Libya, and dig sites like Palmyra have suffered serious damage. At the same time, the issues created by the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and by debates about religions in general, have given the Labex a societal role in identifying the keys to understanding religion today, based on a scientific approach that goes beyond constructs developed in the 19th and 20th centuries related to the origins of religions.” Resmed is particularly well-placed to achieve this goal, since its work is shedding new light on the history of the three monotheistic religions born in the Middle East and the influence of the polytheistic and philosophical ground upon which they put down roots. 

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The Byzantine Church of Saint Simeon Stylites (shown here in 2008), one of Syria’s most emblematic sites, was excavated by a team from the Eastern and Mediterranean Mixed Research Unit. It is assumed to have been partially destroyed by airstrikes in the spring of 2016. Credit to: Béatrice Caseau, Resmed.
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In the center of the enclosed area, all that remains is the main entrance to the Temple of Bel, one of the jewels of Palmyra destroyed by ISIS. The photo was taken by a drone during a mission to Palmyra, in April 2016, in which Resmed Labex researcher Houmam Saad participated. Credit to: DGAM/Iconem.

An innovative approach to religions

Aside from a few specific programs like Islamic studies, the Labex focuses its research in three areas:

  • Conflicts between religions, including the destruction of religious buildings, which is unfortunately not a new phenomenon;
  • Relationships between religions, science, and reason, particularly the connections between magic and medicine, and healing cults, as well as the role of Christian monasteries and Jewish and Muslim institutions in handing down scientific texts; and
  • Relationships between religions and social practices, that is, how they relate to the law, money, and food, and all the sensory aspects of religion (music, dance, perfumes, etc.).

“What makes the Labex unique is its interdisciplinary approach,” explains Stavros Lazaris, secretary-general of Resmed. “On each of these topics, researchers specializing in different religions are working together. This is a completely novel approach, at least in France, which offers a fresh perspective on religion.” Adds Caseau, “For example, we have a program on the money of the gods (how religions are financed) that looks at the pagan and monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean from 3,000 BC through the 15th century AD: how were certain uses of money made sacred, how it was hoarded in prestigious religious buildings, how was charity elicited, and so on. This type of interdisciplinary research over a long period provides us with an anthropological perspective. You begin to realize that, across different periods and different religions, communities have taken the same approaches to meet certain needs, such as financing sacred places and redistributing money to the poor.” 

Publicizing the Labex’s research

Given the importance of religions as a topic, Resmed has made it a priority to publicize its work as broadly as possible, both within and beyond the scientific community. The Labex has held many symposia since its creation, inviting specialists in different religions to weigh in on such topics as the philosophy of religious myths, religions and food taboos, magic and animals, religions and taxes, and so forth. Several more events are already in the works for the next few years, including a symposium on religions and law and another on the Labex’s archeological digs in the Middle East, to be held in Abu Dhabi in 2018. These scientific discussions are open to researchers, students, and anyone else who is interested. “For the money of the gods, we had bankers registering,” recalls Julie Masquelier-Loorius, secretary-general of Resmed. “In addition, we produce publications for all our symposia.” To expand its audience, the Labex intents to record future events and post them online.

Similarly, Resmed is developing multiple, freely-accessible databases. One that is already up and running focuses on the words of peace: How is this concept expressed in different religions, and what exactly does it cover – the mere absence of war, or harmony between different communities? Another database, still in the project phase, will be devoted to religious monuments in the eastern and western Mediterranean: geolocation of sites, photo libraries going back to the 19th century and, if possible, 3D reconstructions of the most emblematic monuments.

Finally, the Labex plans to disseminate its work via more consumer-oriented media as well, including exhibits and films. For example, it is helping to finance a documentary on the Mor Gabriel Syriac monastery near Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey, where it funded a mission. The monastery features an exceptional 6th-century mosaic. 

Stimulating research on religion

Another priority is to train young researchers. Since 2011, Resmed has hosted 16 PhD students and 39 postdocs from abroad. “The number and quality of applications for postdoc positions continues to increase, proof of the Labex’s growing reputation,” observes Lazaris. “And these applicants are coming from around the world, including Europe, the United States, and Latin America.” “Most importantly, we see that young researchers who have done postdocs with us are finding jobs,” notes Masquelier-Loorius.

In 2016, for the first time, the Labex even ran two summer school programs for master’s 2 and PhD students. The first, supported by Sorbonne University, was held at Oxford University and covered recent research on the Late Antique period. The second, on Byzantine studies, took place in Kavala, Greece.

In yet another effort to fulfill its societal role, the Labex management team is currently finalizing a project to offer introductory MOOCs on religions, targeting high school and university teachers but open to the general public. 

Related to the article 

For reference

The Resmed Labex website

The Iconem website, a Resmed partner start-up

To watch

The Wondrous Waters of Constantinople: a 3D reconstruction of the channeling of water through Constantinople, produced with help from Resmed researcher Brigitte Pitarakis and funded by the Labex.

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