Byzantine Period of Pakistan


By Agha Iqrar Haroon

Agha Iqrar Haroon is a Development Observer. His area of work includes Central Asia, South Asia and Eastern European regions . He is also Chief Editor of DND News Agency
Agha Iqrar Haroon is a senior journalist a Development Observer.
He is also Chief Editor of DND News Agency.

In the late 1st century BC, Roman culture had entered a phase of decline, at least as far as traditional drama (tragedy, comedy), paintings, literature, and philosophy were concerned.

Roman Comedy that was ruling the Theatre had come to be associated with licentiousness, vulgarity, and the loss of valuable time by the first century AD. As the Western Roman Empire fell into severe decay through the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire.

In this period power of the State was slowly but surely encroached by Church. Archbishop of Constantinople John I Chrysostom became a prominent critic of theater. According to the Church circles, songs, music, and theatrical happenings aroused lust and posed dangers to peaceful family life.

While surviving evidence about Byzantine theatre is slight, existing records show that mime, pantomime, scenes, or recitations from tragedies and comedies, dances, and other entertainments were very popular. Research and study of the Byzantine theatre is problematic, as the available information and data on this topic are rare but one thing is almost clear that visual art (Sculpture, Theatre, Drama, Painting, etc) under the Byzantine era survived when it became a tool of religious promotional activities.

In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian permanently closed the theatres but theater didn’t die off and survived in literary clubs where poetry and orations were read aloud.

The Church regarded the theatre as a residual of the pagan world and strongly and considerably fought against it. This hostile attitude and approach had a negative impact on the evolution of the visual arts.

Church fathers such as Tatian, Tertullian, and Augustine of Hippo (354 AD—August 28, 430 AD) branded the stage as an instrument of moral corruption, while acting was considered sinful because its imitation of life was considered a mockery of God’s creation.

Roman Theatre actors were forbidden to have contact with Christian women, own slaves, or wear gold. They were officially excommunicated, denied the sacraments, including marriage and burial, and were defamed throughout Europe. For many centuries thereafter, clerics were cautioned to not allow travelling actors to perform in their jurisdiction.

From the 7th century on the course of mime becomes blurred. Certain priest “dramatic” texts do exist but we do not know whether they were ever performed or not. Furthermore, certain parts of Christian Liturgy (Rites) were acted out in church but we do not know if they were ever developed as to form proper theatrical performances staged independently from the Church.

Hrosvitha (c. 935-973AD), an aristocratic canoness and historian in northern Germany, wrote six plays modeled on Terence’s comedies but using religious subjects in the 10th century. In order to preempt criticism from the Church, Hrosvitha declared that she sought to imitate the “laudable” deeds of women in Terence’s plays and discard the “shameless” ones. They were first published in 1501AD and had considerable influence in the sixteenth century. Another nun who wrote plays was the abbess Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179 AD), who wrote a drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155 AD.

Interestingly, Emperor Justinian who banned theatre fell in love with a female performer Theodora who became his Empress. This development helped theatre to continue and they reopened and survived in the Western Empire by nearly two hundred years until finally swept away in the Saracen invasions (Saracens were primarily Arab Muslims and Turks referred to as Saracens by Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages) of the seventh and eighth centuries.

This history indicates that religious control over State has always discouraged performing arts due to differences of opinion towards social norms and sets of morals. Nudity of sculptures was forbidden under the Byzantine era and every human figure crafted thereafter had clothing, subjects in paintings had clothing and connotation and denotation of “vulgarity” were changed and a new definition of vulgarity was introduced according to teachings of Christianity.

Whenever students of performing arts, philosophy, and anthropology of Pakistan read the history of Pakistan’s visual arts and literature, they can find the Byzantine Period of Pakistan that started with 1977 martial law after that all subjects of visual arts and literature including philosophical and political thought had to survive by linking themselves with State requirements (of being religious) otherwise they were ceased to survive. Though Pakistan had been an Islamic country since its inception (1947) but its visual arts and literature including philosophical and political thoughts kept flourishing without being under the immediate command of religion.

In the first phase, Philosophical and Political thoughts were controlled by State and they became subject to State’s demand and its approval. Literature (poetry, short stories, novel, etc) had to be written according to the demands of a religious society while theatres, films, dramas, paintings had to represent a religious society.

Like Byzantine Period, nothing could be produced unless it was according to the demand of religion. So-called liberal poets and writers who according to the State were dangerous for society were banned and had an option to flee Pakistan. Painters whose school of paintings was “figurine” first tried to cover their paintings under clothing then most of them left the country because their genre of paintings could not fix in new norms and rules and non-figurative Art and calligraphy became the dominant ideological style.

In an article titled “Mughal Mania under Zia ul Haq, Christele Dedebant writes that during the Zia years, the social and cultural scenes of Pakistan went through a tremendous change.

Sari (saree) (the sari being seen as Hindu and non-Islamic in origin), as well as Western dress, were not allowed in films and television dramas (same as in the Byzantine period a new code of costumes was introduced for theatres).

Islamic calligraphy was the regime’s motto in the art scene. Popular subcontinental outfits of women–Sari as well as Western dress, were not allowed in films and television dramas. Sari (saree) was tagged as Hindu and non-Islamic outfit because it had origin with pre-partitioned subcontinent.

An article titled “The fall and rise of Pakistani film” published in Economist on April 25, 2018 says:

The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age of Pakistani cinema. Hundreds of popular films were produced yearly by Lollywood, the Lahore-based entertainment industry. The era’s stars included Waheed Murad, a heartthrob, and Sabiha Khanoum, known as the first lady of Pakistani screens. Both continue to be revered today. Murad’s 1966 film “Armaan” (“Desire”) introduced audiences to the first South Asian pop song, creating a new genre of Pakistani music.

But for all its former glory, production in Lollywood collapsed by the end of the 1990s. By 2005, barely 20 local films were released annually. Political turmoil triggered the decline. General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in 1977 in a military coup. The new president proceeded to enforce an Islamisation agenda, under which filmmakers were forced to comply with strict censorship. Projects could be banned if deemed prejudicial to all manner of interests, including decency, morality, and the public good. With little to screen and unable to compete with home entertainment, hundreds of cinemas were shuttered.

Societies represent a cluster of activities and go through Thesis — Antithesis – Synthesis progression but sometimes, some societies clog in any of these three above-mention processes.

German philosopher, Georg W.F. Hegel (early 19th century) introduced the method (concept) of Thesis — Antithesis – Synthesis, and his theory is called the dialectic theory. The dialectical method involves the belief that the form of historical movement (process or progress), is the result of conflicting opposites.

This area of Hegel’s thought has been broken down in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hegel believes that a conflict of opposites is a struggle between actual and potential worlds.

Some anthologists look towards the progression of societies through the Hegelian theory that indicates that every action/thought actually brings its own Opposite otherwise societies become stagnant.

Greek era lured Romans to conquer the land and introduced their own era but the Roman era brought the Byzantine era out of its own but contrary to its norms. We know that the Greek, Hellenistic and Roman eras brought liberal thoughts, liberal art, liberal theatre, liberal drama, and academic debates but everything of liberal eras became Christianized under the Byzantine period. Every wall of thought was painted with religious colour or was erased.

Zia’s ruled was over with his death on August 17, 1988, but Pakistan visual arts and literature is yet to come out of its Byzantine Period although over three decades have passed.

Will there be a Renaissance for Pakistan’s cultural scene or will the Pakistani social scene come out of the clog of 1977 social tragedy?


The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.

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