Hypatia Biopic Upsets Spanish Catholic Organisation

From the Catholic News Agency:

Madrid, Spain, Oct 7, 2009 / 10:34 pm (CNA).- Just days before the release of the new movie “Agora” by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, civil rights organizations are denouncing the film for promoting hatred of Christians and reinforcing false clichés about the Catholic Church.

The president of the Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory, Antonio Alonso Marcos, has sent an open letter to Amenabar, also know for his pro-euthanasia film “The Sea Inside,” denouncing the film’s anti-Christian bias.

…”your film is going to awaken hatred against Christians in today’s society…”

The film is a biopic of Hypatia, the Alexandrian neo-Platonic philosopher who was famously scraped to death with shells by a Christian mob in the Fifth Century. Judging from the film’s trailer, Agora also takes in the destruction of pagan libraries (a loss later conflated with the earlier destruction of the Library of Alexandria and incorrectly ascribed to the Arab Muslim invaders of a later date).

The “Observatorio Antidifamación Religiosa” (OADIR) has a Spanish-language website here, with categories such as “Denuncias” and “Insultos” – the letter to Amenabar can be seen here. We’re told that the organisation was formed in 2007 by some university professors who are unhappy that the authorities do not enforce laws against offence to religious feeling:

El 9 de mayo de 2007 nos reunimos un grupo de profesores universitarios con el fin de poner freno a tanto escarnio y tanta mofa que padecemos los católicos en este país cuando se hace ofensa gratuita de los sentimientos religiosos.

Esa ofensa está contemplada en el art. 525 del Código Penal, pero los poderes públicos, por motivos que no logramos entender, nunca han intervenido.

Ante la inacción del Estado, la sociedad civil ha tomado la iniciativa y se ha puesto al frente de esta lucha por el respeto a nuestros sentimientos religiosos, que sin duda redundará en una convivencia más pacífica y un mayor logro del bien común.

Además de los miembros fundadores, forman parte de esta Asociación toda aquella persona que vea que esta es una causa justa y necesaria.

Antonio Alonso Marcos’ profile can be seen here; he is a political scientist based at San Pablo-CEU University, and a specialist on Hizb ut Tahrir in Central Asia.

Back in January, Marcos denounced the atheist bus advertisement campaign as illegal – then as now, he complained that the adverts would incite hatred.

In July, as I blogged here, a film which depicts Christians destroying pagan sculpture on the Parthenon provoked the ire of the Greek Orthodox Church.

(Hat tip: The Wild Hunt)

11 Responses

  1. The murder of Hypatia was politically important for the church: as a neo-Platonist she was seen by some, it appears, as one of the Gnostics. The traditional view of her murder is that it related to a desire for Christians to see a reconciliation – Edward Gibbon writes: “A rumour was spread by the Chrisians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect [Orestes] and the archbishop [Cyril]; and that obstacle was speedily removed.”

    The oyster shells (ostracoi) used to flay poor Hypatia appear to be a particular type of roof tile, which bore the same name.

    But I think it goes deeper. The Nag Hammadi texts were buried at around the same time – when Athanasius of Alexandria was purging the last remnants of Christian “heresy”. Gnostics included neo-Platonism in their world-view and Alexandria was the last centre of “alternative” versions of Christianity. An open Neo-Platonist, a woman, represented what the emerging Orthodox church could not countenance. Hypatia was – in the West at least – the last well-known Neo-Platonist of that era.

    Alexandria had too much information – in 391, Theophilus (Coptic Pope) would decree the destruction of part of the Great Library of Alexandria which housed the raw material that fuelled the imaginations of the nasty Gnostic heretics.

    Of course anything that revives interest in Hypatia is anathema to the Church even today – it shows the savagery of the early Church. Additionally, the Council of Nicea of 325 AD not only vilified Arius, but also vilified Jews as “disgusting”.

    Good luck to the movie makers.

    According to Wm Smith’s Classical Dictionary (1891) – the books of the Great Library were so many, some had to be moved to the Serapeum (Temple of Serapis) – it was this building that was destroyed by Theophilus, “at the time of the general overthrow of the heathen temples under Theodosius (AD 389). The Great Library sufferd severely by fire when Julius Caesar was besieged by Julius Caesar in Alexandria, and was finally destroyed by Amrou, the lieutenant of the Caliph Omar, in AD 651.”

    That was the view current a century ago. So if this account is “incorrectly ascribed ” – I am wondering where the “correct” ascription is documented?

    • I remember Julius Caesar burning it in the movie Cleopatra, prompting a lament from Hume Cronyn about “Aristotle’s manuscripts… the Testament of the Hebrew god!”

      Bernard Lewis has a good short discussion of the problem of the library’s later destruction here.

      • Thanks Richard, for the link.

        However, I believe Bernard Lewis has made an error (brilliant scholar though he may be, it wouldn’t be the first time.).

        Lewis writes: “in 1663, when Edward Pococke, the Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, published an edition of the Arabic text, with Latin translation, of part of the History of the Dynasties of the Syrian-Christian author Barhebraeus, otherwise known as Ibn al-‘Ibri. According to this story, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the commander of the Arab conquerors, was inclined to accept the pleas of John the Grammarian and spare the library, but the Caliph decreed otherwise: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”

        He apparently confuses two separate entities into one.

        Bar-Hebraeus – 1226 to 1286
        Now I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source to quote, but it is pertinent to note the distinctions here.


        Now Abd-el Latif (1162–1231) apparently was the original author of the manuscript which Lewis describes above. And he certainly is an entirely different entity to Bar-Hebraeus:


        “The Arabic manuscript was discovered in 1665 by Edward Pococke the orientalist, and preserved in the Bodleian Library. He then published the Arabic manuscript in the 1680s. His son, Edward Pococke the Younger, translated the work into Latin, though he was only able to publish less than half of his work. Thomas Hunt attempted to publish Pococke’s complete translation in 1746, though his attempt was unsuccessful.[6] Pococke’s complete Latin translation was eventually published by Joseph White of Oxford in 1800. The work was then translated into French, with valuable notes, by Silvestre de Sacy in 1810.[7]”

  2. The Great Library sufferd severely by fire when Julius Caesar was besieged by Julius Caesar in Alexandria

    How can Julius Ceasar besiege himself? Did he lock himself into a closet?

    The final individual to get blamed for the destruction is the Moslem Caliph Omar. In 640 AD the Moslems took the city of Alexandria. Upon learning of “a great library containing all the knowledge of the world” the conquering general supposedly asked Caliph Omar for instructions. The Caliph has been quoted as saying of the Library’s holdings, “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” So, allegedly, all the texts were destroyed by using them as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even then it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents. But these details, from the Caliph’s quote to the incredulous six months it supposedly took to burn all the books, weren’t written down until 300 years after the fact. These facts condemning Omar were written by Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, a Christian who spent a great deal of time writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation.

    So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it.


  3. How can Julius Ceasar besiege himself?

    Good point – my poor typing to blame here. My eyes are not so good at comprehending small type any more. My bad – and apologies.

    Wm Smith’s dictionary states merely: “The Great Library suffered severely by fire when Julius Caesar was besieged in Alexandria.”

    The besieging was done, according to Plutarch, by Achillas the general and Photinus the eunuch:

    “The first difficulty he met with was the want of water, the Egyptians having stopped up the aqueducts that supplied his quarter. The second was, the loss of ships in harbour, which he was forced to burn himself, to prevent their falling into the enemy’s hands.; when the flames unfortunately spreading from the dock to the palace, burned the great Alexandrian library.” (Langhorne’s translation)

    This specific event is not mentioned by Suetonius, nor by Appian.

    But if the library had been fully destroyed by Caesar, by accident or design, it would not have been ordered to be destroyed by Theophilus.

    Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus may have spent much time “writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation,” but because he does not give his sources, is not enough reason to totally dismiss his account.

    He was writing in the 13th century, which does not bode well. Abd al Latif (1162 – 1231) wrote about the Serapeum in his “Account of Egypt”, produced before Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus.

    There are many contradictions in the accounts – but these contradictions mainly derive from assumptions on whether the library was burned in part or completely. It would have been possible to start a new library, even after a devastating fire.

    Some of the historical accounts are listed here:

    But I still need to feel that a convincing account needs to be presented. Doubts exist, to be sure, but doubts do not have the finality and assuredness of statements like “incorrectly ascribed to the Arab Muslim invaders of a later date” still need proper authentication and documentary support.

  4. Lovely apologetics! Lovely attempt at equivalence! However, had this film-maker insulted the religion of you-know-who he’d already be dead or at least livin’ the life of Rushdie!

    Do people here know that twice as many people were murdered on 911 than during the ENTIRE Inquisition?

    And as for Omar’s destruction of the great library? There is no tangible proof he ordered it done, but seeings Islam’s history of ofcultrual destruction( in The Sind, for example) it is certainly possible the act was committed by invading Arabs.

    These days one is almost oblidged to ratchet up the demonisation of Christianity and its violent ‘intolerance’ as a kind of bromide permitting and promoting the comfortable denial of religious dangers far, far worse in nature

    I can’t wait for a piece expounding on Mother Teresa’s carbuncles!

    But alas! We must await the next jihadist attack for that one, right?

    • “Do people here know that twice as many people were murdered on 911 than during the ENTIRE Inquisition?”

      This is patently untrue. First, there was not just one, ENTIRE Inquisition, but many. I can count at least the Roman, Spanish, and Portugese inquisitions that replaced the medieval inquisition. Second, we know that at the very least, 3500 people were executed. The known and documented cases, alone, outnumber the deaths of 9/11. That is without counting the others that might have been undocumented, or which we have lost proof of.

  5. If Amenabar wants to make a film about Hypatia, and chooses to follow Gibbon’s notoriously anti-Christian version of her death, he’s free to do so. But let’s not be so naive as to deny that he’s stereotyping Christianity, and both cashing in on and reinforcing a lot of people’s prejudices.

    Were there some bad Christians then? Yes. Were there political intrigues and factions? Yes. But it’s absurd to jump from this to a sweeping generalization that Christianity per se not only was, but continues to be, opposed to Neoplatonist or other ancient philosophical ideas. At the same time all this was happening there were thousands of Christian monks — and not just Gnostics — in the deserts south of Alexandria studying Origen and who knows what else. Their ideas became assimilated into the Christian contemplative and monastic tradition, which continues to this day. Also note that St. Augustine, a contemporary of Hypatia, wrote in generally positive terms about Neoplatonists.

    Here is the problem: people take the bad examples and say, “this defines Christianity”, while entirely ignoring the good examples. That is prejudice.

    The historical record is also likely tainted by the equivalent of what we now call “media bias”. There are and have always been many open-minded and tolerant Christians. They potentially constitute the majority, but one doesn’t hear about them.

    If a few Muslims are terrorists, one doesn’t condemn the entire religion. Yet people are quite willing to apply that faulty logic in the case of Christianity. One should consider why the double standard exists.

  6. […] Glauben verteidigt – nicht irgendwelche Bürgerrechte, im Gegenteil. Präsident Marcos bezeichnete die spanische Atheisten-Buskampagne als „illegal“ und fordert Gesetze gegen die […]

  7. It’s not surprising that Christians can not admit their religion’s sordid past, constantly whining about “media bias”, “anti-Christian this, anti-Christian that” and “but..but.. what about Islam?” It seems the persecution complex is still going strong.

    Newsflash: Outside of your little subjective world there are people who can assess history unburdened by your self-imposed denial attitude. Sorry, but the good old times where you could dictate what people may think, are over. Get used to it.

  8. […] Bartholemew has more on both OADIR and Marcos, but the shorter version is that the organisation exists to press the authorities to enforce laws against offence to religious feeling – that’s their religious feelings, not yours. var addthis_language = 'en'; […]

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