Byzantium is not so much a place as a concept. Long after the political structures of this civilization collapsed, the spirit of Byzantium remained alive in Orthodox monasteries and humble parish churches throughout the eastern Mediterranean and as far north as Russia. There the tsars inherited Byzantium’s self-appointed role as the link between the divine and the mundane. And while traces of Byzantium may still be found throughout the Orthodox world, not much remains in the city that defines it.
Other than its strategic stance straddling Asia and Europe, the modern city of Istanbul (from the Greek, eis tin poli, meaning “to the city”) shares little with its Byzantine or, for that matter, even its Ottoman Turkish predecessor, Constantinople. No longer the cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean world, Istanbul is a homogeneous metropolis of 15 million people, 97 percent of whom are Turks or Kurds and nearly all of whom are Muslim. The once-thriving Armenian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Slav and Syrian communities have all but evaporated, their churches and synagogues ghostly reminders of ages past.
This begins in the early fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine, recognizing the ascendance of the empires eastern provinces, moved the empire’s political capital to ancient Byzantion, a Greek port on the European banks of the Bosporus, a narrow strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Renaming his capital New Rome, Constantine ordered old Rome’s elite to move there. In addition to the usual civic structures and monuments, he built elaborate houses of worship for the followers of Jesus Christ, who just decades earlier were hunted and killed for their beliefs.
Called Constantinople (or, the city of Constantine) by the locals, the city grew in size and wealth, soon surpassing the great cities of the Mediterranean world, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. While Latin at first functioned as the language of government and law, Greek, the language of the church and the tongue of the educated elite, eventually usurped Latin as the language of the court. While proudly, in Greek, declaring themselves Romans, the people of Byzantium were a diverse lot — Arabs, Armenians, Bulgars, Georgians, Greeks, Italians, Jews and Slavs — who regarded themselves as subjects of the Emperor of the Romans.
The fortunes of this complex civilization vacillated for more than a millennium. Concurrent civil strife, economic decline and territorial disintegration did not prevent cultural explosions, which spawned the great renaissance in art, architecture, literature and philosophy in Europe.
The recent surge of archaeological activity in Istanbul has unearthed more remnants of Byzantium. The removal of whitewash from the walls of former churches has, from centuries of obscurity, revealed the faces of a people and the personality of their society. Yet only the surface has been scratched. Much remains to be done to learn more about this society, a civilization that links our modern world to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, a Hellenized Christian civilization that, in encountering the Muslim East and the Catholic West, enriched both and was eventually extinguished by both.
What remains offers but glimmers of what was once Byzantium.
Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of ONE magazine.