Issue Number: 101
Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes returns to Istanbul only to discover afresh that you need more than a map to appreciate its colourful history
Downtown Istanbul is – excuse the phrase – byzantine. The backstreets have always baffled me, and this summer as I investigated the latest archaeological investigations for my recent BBC radio series was no exception. Wandering around the upper Fener district in search of the church of St Mary of the Mongols, I found my street map bore little resemblance to the area’s steep alleyways (Constantinople – the second Rome – was built, like the first, on seven hills).
I was lost, but not alone. Around one corner appeared a mildly desperate young Hungarian woman. She had been searching for three hours, she told me, for the Orthodox Church of Hungary. And then Stamboul, as the city is also known, worked its usual magic. Street children, escaping from their mother’s burqa-framed eyes, led me to a modest, high-walled basilica. A mustachioed Arab Christian, peering out from the adjacent apartment building, scurried down with a huge medieval key. The church door creaked open to reveal its treasures: a copy of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror’s signature allowing St Mary’s to remain a Christian place of worship; time-worn icons of the Virgin and Child; an escape tunnel, said to stretch the two miles to the famous Hagia Sophia.
St Mary of the Mongols, a Christian foundation since the seventh century, is one of those places that epitomises the idea that is Byzantium – it is cosmopolitan, antique and intriguing. Byzantium is not a simple concept, rather it is a Rosetta Stone for understanding world affairs. It is the missing link that explains the geopolitical and religious format of East and West.
For over 1,000 years, Byzantines inhabited the rich, middle ground – a culture that jangled with Muslims to the South, Catholics to the West and Slavs in the North. St Mary’s (Kanli Kilise, which is Turkish for the Bloody Church) was developed by Maria Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII. She was also the widow of Abaqa of the Mongolian Il-Khanate. The church was the last bastion for Christians as Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. With its beeswax candles and Damascene swags, the basilica incarnates a sensuous Christian civilisation whose territory was politically complex.
Byzantium comprised citizens who called themselves Romans (Romoi) yet spoke no Latin. They lived cheek by jowl with Muslims who – at least up until 900AD – communicated mainly in Greek. Here was an eastern court where 72 diplomatic languages were traded and where the top henchmen, the Varangians, came (in part) from England: Harald Hardrada flexed his muscles as bodyguard to the Byzantine Emperor, before his abortive career as ruler of Albion.
Evidence of a polyglot, multicultural empire – stretching over a million square miles – can still be traced. Byzantine bishops scratched their names into the columns of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, for example. Byzantine coins still emerge from as far apart as the Danube’s river bed and the sands of Alexandria. When, in the sixth century AD, Constantinople’s hippodrome was also established as the world’s largest open-air museum with its serpent columns from Delphi and obelisks from Egypt, the city wasn’t bringing exotica to an ingénue capital – it was reflecting the elastic reach of its dominions.
Byzantine boundaries shifted like an amoeba and colouring Byzantine territories on any world map is a complicated task. At its height the Empire stretched from Antioch to Vienna and grazed Tripoli and Uzbekistan. But the cartographers have to look lively with their colour keys – in the fourteenth century the empire shrunk to inhabit modern-day Turkey and parts of Greece.
Constantinople itself was rainbow-hued in another sense. In the Imperial Court, rival factions, predominantly the ‘Greens’ and the ‘Blues’, dominated political life (they actually took their names from the colours of the hippodrome’s teams of rival charioteers).
Byzantine papyri, dyed purple, were inked in silver with Homeric verses. Entire rooms were colour-coded with aubergine-coloured hangings and porphyry stone, so imperial heirs were literally porphyrogennetos or ‘born into purple’. Empresses wore green cloaks, while only the emperor could sport red buskins (boots). As funds come through for more Byzantine archaeological research, new finds – both sacred and secular – add to the picture. In Istanbul itself, the construction of the massive underwater tunnel linking Asia and Europe has turned up Constantine’s own boatyard. In Jordan at Qusayr Amra, the lavish bathhouse complex, Byzantine-influenced figures apparently of the defeated enemies of Islam, are being re-examined. The monks of Mount Athos, who still live by the Julian Calendar, won’t allow women on their peninsula – and why break a 1000-year-old tradition? Yet they are slowly allowing some of their great textual treasures to see the light of day.
So to be truly Byzantine, don’t simply marvel at those exquisite, glittering icons. Spread out a map of Europe, the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa; appreciate the civic achievements of that second Rome, as well as its geographical reach and its crucial role in contemporary world order. Only then can we begin to understand the vision of Osman, the father of the Ottomans, who in 1280AD dreamed of Constantinople, as ‘a diamond mounted between two sapphires and two emeralds… the precious stone in the ring of a vast dominion which embraced the entire world.’