Bernard Mulholland, Nazareth Quest (2022).
Author's comment: This is the first in what is hoped to be a series of explanatory notes providing readers with more insight into the novel, writing of the novel, its content, the research underpinning the content, and perhaps also some information about the author from time to time as well. This particular note was in the form of an email sent to the Oxford University Byzantine Society in January 2023.
If you can spare a few moments, I would like to introduce you to my novel Nazareth Quest (2022). The novel is actually nonfiction, but, because it hasn’t happened yet, it is labelled as fiction.
Background: about a decade ago, Ken Dark invited me to work on his Nazareth project due my research into the archaeology of the Early Byzantine Christian Church, and his own work at this site has also now been published as The Sisters of Nazareth Convent (2021).
After my first year working at the Convent, I wrote up a half-dozen suggestions for follow-up investigative work based upon my observations, and explained the reasoning behind these in preparation for my return the following year.
However events conspired to prevent me returning, and, as Ken concluded his project that year, this further work was not carried out.
A few years later, I decided that, as it seemed unlikely I would again get to work at the Convent, I would transform this report into a novel in which this archaeological work formed the focus.
And so to the purpose of my email.
There are at least two areas of research described in the novel that I think are on a scale worthy of Oxford University, and I’d like to briefly outline these so that you might share them, if you want to, with other members of the Oxford University Byzantine Society to see whether they, or their peers, might want to conduct this research.
1. The Cave. The Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth appears to be constructed over the remains of an Early Byzantine triapsidal church. There is a schematic of the Convent overlaid across a drawing of the original 5th-6th century church in the covered walkway leading from the Convent’s courtyard to the garden at the rear of the Convent. The modern Convent church is aligned north-south, but the original church was aligned roughly east-west with the remains of the three apses now beneath the new church, although little remains of that original church.
After the nuns bought the site they conducted intermittent excavation before constructing the Convent. A thick concrete platform was placed to protect the underlying archaeology, and the Convent constructed on top of the platform.
The surviving archaeology can be divided into two parts; (i) the remains of a circa 1st century dwelling and Second Temple tomb that lie directly beneath the Convent buildings, and (ii) a large cave that lies beneath the garden to the rear of the Convent and that has a hole in its roof allowing light in from the garden area.
It is the cave that I would like to draw to your attention.
There is evidence that the cave was in use during both the Crusader and Byzantine periods. After the church was destroyed and the site abandoned, however, it seems that the cave was subject to regular flooding events, and there is evidence around the walls that the cave had been filled up to a height of some three metres with lime run-off and debris from the surrounding limestone countryside. There is a strong likelihood that this periodic flooding resulted in the walls and floor of the cave adding a layer of hardened lime scale year-on-year such that the original surface is now concealed beneath a hardened layering or accretion.
If this analysis is correct, then there is a strong possibility that original wall paintings and/or a mosaic pavement are preserved beneath this accretion waiting to be rediscovered and revealed.
My novel describes how to test the floor of the cave for a concealed mosaic pavement, but, for wall paintings, one suspects art historians might like to apply other methods.
Also, the age of the cave is not known, and so, if the cave underwent periodic inhabitation and use, it is entirely possible that there is concealed pre-Christian wall art beneath the accumulated layering of lime scale.
I would argue that this cave is worth a further visit.
2. Demons. It is important here to differentiate between fiction and scientific observation. The novel explains much of the rationale for this research, but I can outline some key points here.
For ease of access, Francis Barrett’s The Magus provides an introduction to this topic.
Barrett describes two main categories of ‘demon’.
He provides illustrations of the first category, and it is almost certain he is alluding to comets and/or meteors. His tome was published about a decade after a large number of comets had visited the inner solar system and, as described by Mike Baillie in Exodus to Arthur and McCafferty and Baillie in The Celtic Gods, Medieval observers drew these visitors as bearded men. Of interest here is that around this time a fleet of some 400 fishing boats disappeared off the Co. Down coast to cause a significant economic impact, and the cause is almost certainly due to a meteorite strike in the Irish Sea.
However, it is the second category that the novel addresses, and describes an avenue of potential research. Barrett describes good and bad demons, and refers to ‘genius’ being due to interaction with the former. For Byzantinists the interest here comes from ‘demon traps’ in the form of intercolumniation panels set into the pavement of Early Christian churches between columns that separate the nave from the side aisles. These panels often depicted three-dimensional patterns that were said to confuse and trap ‘demons’ so as to protect the sanctity of the church sanctuary.
The question arising is whether these ‘demon traps’ were introduced as a result of scientific observations made by clergy over many years, or whether the concept just falls into the category of old wives tales? And then, if these clergy have observed ‘demons’, what are they? We have evidence that these same clergy did not seem overly concerned about these ‘demons’, otherwise they would have placed these ‘demon traps’ at the entrance to the church premises to prevent these ‘demons’ from entering the building or the atrium in front of the church entrance. In fact, the location of these ‘demon traps’ as intercolumniations placed between each row of columns separating the side aisles from the church nave indicates that the clergy were prepared to allow these ‘demons’ to access the atrium and enter the church building to stand in each of the side aisles together with other congregants. What does that say about these ‘demons’? The only area of the church prohibited to ‘demons’ was the nave and church sanctuary. This information flies in the face of modern interpretations of demons in the media and the horror genre.
We might ask whether these ‘demons’, as observed by Christian clergy, are humans, a sub-category of humans, a new species of Homo Sapiens, or just a category of normal humanity with some psychological or mental health issues.
Either way, in the modern era it is entirely possible to conduct research of the type described in the novel to test the whole concept of ‘demons’.
Having said that, it would make sense, as observed in the novel, to maintain a degree of separation between those conducting the research and those controlling it, i.e. it’s best not to fraternise with demons at this point as you don’t know where they’ve been!
I hope this hasn’t put you off considering the other research referenced in the novel? And, as a bonus, here’s a third avenue of potential research.
3. There is a third area of research, and not unrelated, that is also worthy of consideration. You can access and read more about this on my Academia profile here:
Mulholland, B. (2021). 'Can archaeology inform the climate change debate?' Academia Letters, Article4385. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL4385
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Available to purchase from good book stores, and also:
Bernard Mulholland, Nazareth Quest (2022).