Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Byzantium

The world would have been different had it fallen. If the Arab assault had succeeded in the seventh century and the city of Constantinople had fallen, Europe may have surrendered to Islam and taken a very different course in its development. There is a novel of virtual history there to be written!

This is a central thesis of Judith Herrin's excellent book on the history of Byzantium: because it survived 'we' the reader is shaped in a particular way (either in 'the West' or in ' Rest of the World') both through the fact of its survival and by what it offered, as a culture, to the world around it.

It offered a great deal not least I think the veneration of the image. Had it fallen - a narrower perception of the image would have prevailed - the Islamic view accentuating the Hebraic commandment against graven images would have dominated (and Byzantium itself, in the Iconoclastic controversy, wavered towards this perspective). Instead a complex and compelling theology of the image was worked out that anchored and justified common practice - images spoke and participated in the reality which they showed forth and a culture was woven whose underlying reality we inherit today. Our visually dominant culture was secured against an aural alternative.

What struck me too is the allure of Constantinople - for eight hundred years every competitor wanted to conqueror it and when it finally fell in 1453, Byzantine Christendom wanted it back (Catherine the Great even schemed of it as the capital of a renewed empire - now that would have been interesting). In the meanwhile it was transformed as the heart of yet another, shorter lived, imperial project.

It is an extraordinary city that I first saw at sixteen approaching it, as you should, from the sea - in this case in the rain of a sodden and cold April day. I fell in love with it - I am afraid it was for me the 'Oriental exotic' and though my view of it was subsequently heavily nuanced more than a touch of that romanticism remains.

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