The Forgotten Byzantine Era

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The lamentably
maligned Byzantine period. It lasted a tumultuous 1000 years yet
is barely acknowledged and so poorly understood. I have taken many
history courses and the Western take on European history is something
like this: there was Antiquity (Greeks, then the Romans), Rome festered
and eventually fell to the barbarians, then came the Dark Ages.
Meanwhile, some strange and forgettable stuff was going on somewhere
in the east. Then, like a glorious sunrise, civilization spontaneously
lurches forward with the Renaissance. Adding insult to injury, "byzantine"
has become a pejorative term as well as an example of a society
in stagnation and decline.

Nothing could
be further from the truth. Byzantium was a very vibrant, adaptive
society and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) was the greatest
city of its time, the New York City of its day and the center of
the Mediterranean world. It was a sophisticated society with a codified
legal system, a bustling commercial hub and influential religious
center. Arts flourished. Even the cuisine was dazzling as chefs
incorporated new ingredients from the far reaches of the empire.
The spectacularly stunning Hagia Sophia is only one testament to
the outstanding creativity and ingenuity of the Byzantines.

What is even
more fascinating is that all this was achieved despite the fact
that Byzantium was under constant attack from all sides; among others,
from the west: Franks and Venetians; the north: Bulgars and Varangians
(Vikings;) and the east: Arabs, Persians and Seljuk and Ottoman
Turks. At the time, Europe feared (still does) encroaching Islam
(this was the period of the Crusades) and Byzantium served as a
valuable, but unappreciated bulwark against this threat. The Byzantine
navy ruled the waves helped by its secret weapon, the still largely
unknown and mysterious Greek Fire. Yet, the death knell sounded
in 1204. Many are unaware of the sacking and plundering Constantinople
suffered that year at the hands of fellow Christian Crusaders. The
looted bronze horses from the hippodrome still adorn Venice's St.
Mark's Square. Regrettably, Constantinople never really recovered
and the endless Ottoman attacks were just too much to endure. To
his credit, the late Pope John Paul II apologized to Orthodox Christians
during his visit to the Polis (city.)

As keepers
of ancient Greek and Latin texts, it is no coincidence that the
Renaissance blossomed soon after 1453. It could have been more brilliant,
but many irreplaceable texts were forever destroyed in the tragedy
of 1204. Nevertheless, Greece's loss was the West's gain as the
professional and educated classes fled to safety. The City was also
the western terminus of the spice trade right up to the catastrophe
of 1453. Consequently, a new western sea-route had to be found and
in the process, the great explorers stumbled upon the New World
(although already known to the Vikings.)

The Renaissance
and the Age of Discovery owe much to that "unremarkable, atrophied"
society far to the east.

Fortunately,
I've noticed that there has been a renewed interest in this period
including a refreshing objective approach. Greece's contribution
to the world is not limited to 500 BC Athens.

February
16, 2006

Themistocles
Evangelakos [send him mail]
is a small business owner from Montreal, Canada.

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