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Institute of Advanced Study

Calendars and Festivals: Identity, Culture, and Experience

The conference was previously listed as 2 & 3 March in the IAS programme but is actually taking place on 3 & 4 March.

Our experience of time in the Western world is based on the interplay of a weekly structure and annual festivals. Its origins lie in religious traditions. Thus, the seven-day week featuring one day that is set apart is Judaism’s lasting contribution to time reckoning. Its ultimate success in the West was mediated through the adoption of the Hellenistic Planetary Week in Rome. Annual festivals are ‘appointed time’; borrowing the language of spatiality, they ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ (so e.g. in Hebrew, Latin or German), or, conversely, can be ‘entered’ (cf. German ‘ein Fest begehen’). Unlike Bank Holidays, each festival has its own particularity that differentiates it from the others.

The project Calendars and Festivals: Identity, Culture, and Experience has two legs. The first leg is aimed at the broader public and consists of a series of public lectures. Covering the major Western calendrical structures and landmarks (e.g. the Roman calendar, Christmas, and Easter), regional interest (e.g. the Venerable Bede’s contribution to time-reckoning), as well as related and alternative models (e.g. Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Chinese festivals), the series provides self-recognition, cultural comment, and cross-cultural awareness to a public that is ever more drawn into a 24/7 indistinctiveness of time, in which socially co-ordinated rituals have begun to lose their time and place. Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences has an important role here, with potential ‘impact’ on social and political praxis. These lectures will be delivered by some of the foremost specialists in their fields from the UK, the European continent, and overseas. We also plan co-operation on several events with the cultural programme Is It Time?

The second leg is a research programme on the construction of time in antiquity. Time as shaped by calendars and festivals is a culturally encoded entity that both defines, and participates in, the local manifestations of the culture that constructs it. As the example of the Jewish week culminating in the Sabbath shows, major landmarks of time as engendered in concrete historical circumstances develop into larger hubs of constructed time across wider historical and national circumstances. Other examples include the Olympic games or the ancient Mesopotamian akītu festivals. These landmarks of time often accumulate other rituals, leading to symbolic systems decoding the meaning of societies and validating their identity. The project continues recent interdisciplinary research into ancient calendars and festivals. In particular, the programme will ask for:

  • the determination of segments of time: beginnings and ends, ambiguity and transition, the completeness of months and years;
  • the political role of calendars, both as propaganda and as counter-culture;
  • the role rituals and liturgy play in the construction of time;
  • the function of narrative and / or scripture(s) in mapping time;
  • the development of calendar landmarks across different religious and cultural traditions.

The project team will be supported by the IAS Fellow Dr Jonathan Ben-Dov, a specialist in Ancient Near Eastern and Jewish calendars. The team is also fortunate to be able to interact with a further IAS Fellow, Professor Robert Hannah, an expert on Greek and Roman calendars. The programme will culminate in an international conference on the construction of time in antiquity on 2nd and 3rd March 2013; the publication of an edited volume is also planned.

Durham is well-suited to deliver such a project. Theology and Religion is the lead department here, with a strong research record in the area of calendars and festivals in the Bible, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, the Orthodox church, as well as shared interests with the Project on Spirituality, Theology, and Health, co-sponsored by the School of Medicine and Health. Other units involved are the departments of Classics and of History, as well as the Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

The lectures are open to the public and do not require registration. The international conference is open to students and academics; please contact Dr Lutz Doering ( for further information and registration.

Sunday Conference Details

Monday Conference Details

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