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Getty Villa Moves ‘Heaven and Earth’ for Byzantine Art Exhibition

April 7, 2014
Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958

Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958


The Getty Villa in Los Angeles presents Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections from April 9 through August 25, 2014. This major loan exhibition surveys the artistic, spiritual and cultural splendor of the Byzantine Empire.

By Dawn Levesque, 21 March 2014.

The Byzantine art exhibition highlights 167 items that include painted icons, frescoes, sculptures, mosaics and ceramics, illuminated books and other objects. Spanning more than 1,300 years, the art and antiquities are on loan from 34 Greek archaeological and art museums like Athen’s Benaki Museum, creating the largest and most significant Byzantine collection from Greece ever assembled and presented in Southern California.

The display of Byzantium art outlines the progression of Byzantine culture. It starts in the fourth century from its Greco-Roman beginnings and progresses to the 15th century and the “ancient pagan world of the late Roman Empire” through the profoundly spiritual realm of the new Christian Byzantine Empire.

Emperor Constantine the Great relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Rechristened Constantinople, it became the new capital of the Roman Empire, and one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the Christian World. The empire spread and receded throughout its history, but remained infamous for the grandeur of its art and architecture. The ancient name, Byzantium now signifies the empire, culture and period when the rulers of Constantinople created.

Five key thematic sections comprise the Byzantine Art exhibit. It begins with the early adoption of Christianity as the state religion in late antiquity when it infused and influenced all aspects of life including the architecture and the arts. The exhibit follows to the pluralistic nature of the empire and its reflection of the arts of the West, most notably in Italy.

The first section entitled, From the Ancient to the Byzantine World highlights the fourth through the sixth century, and illustrates the classical influence. During the time, paganism and Christianity coexisted in a “hybrid culture.” Visitors can study the principal figures of classical antiquity from the early centuries and their role in providing a foundation for Early Christian visual culture.

In the second section, The Christian Empire: Spiritual Life explores the sixth through the 14th century, and works created exclusively for the church or private worship. Here, visitors can view Byzantine mosaics and emblematic icons, with most painted in tempera on wood. An example from the exhibit is the 12th century double-sided icon with Virgin Hodegetria and The Man of Sorrows.

Visitors will next study The Pleasures of Life that studies the secular works of art in the home. Items include silver flatware, floor mosaics, ceramic plates, jewelry, and perfume flasks. Also on display is the sumptuously illustrated copy of Romance of Alexander, a fictional account of Alexander the Great’s adventures.

The Intellectual Life section displays illustrated manuscripts such as theology, liturgy, scripture and other topics that directed intellectual life in the Christian empire. Also on view are copies of manuscripts that cover the Byzantines ancient Greek heritage such as texts by Socrates and Euripides. These and other similar works demonstrate the importance that scribes in the Byzantine empire had in passing down the tradition of classical learning and literature.

The last section of the Byzantine art exhibition is The Last Phase: Crosscurrents, which explores 14th and 15th century art of the Byzantine Empire under the rulers of the Palaiologan dynasty. Works feature naturalism and narrative detail as seen in the 15th century icon, Volpi Nativity (Nativity of the Virgin). This section shows the cross over between the Byzantines and Western crusaders that occupied Byzantine territories in the 13th century. At this time, artists worked for both Greek and Italian patrons, producing paintings in a “fusion style.”

Byzantine artists made use of pagan and early Christian fundamentals to form an opulent and spiritual Byzantium world. With Christianity as the state religion, resplendent icons, sculptures, textiles and frescos ornamented cathedrals and churches throughout the empire. Illuminated manuscripts sustained ancient Greek literature, and privileged individuals promoted the beautification of daily life. Objects from the Byzantine art exhibition exemplify Byzantine beauty that impelled artistic traditions of cultures for over a millennium.

Five questions on an Irish poet’s famous paean to Byzantium

April 2, 2014
William Butler Yeats (Photo: Library of Congress, Wikimedia)

William Butler Yeats (Photo: Library of Congress, Wikimedia)

Istanbul has arguably inspired more poetry, novels, travel accounts and essays than any other city. But the world’s most widely read depiction of the city came from a man who never set foot in it: the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

This leaves us to wonder: How did Yeats’s famous poem “Sailing to Byzantium” come about? In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we shed some light on the matter. From Today’s Zaman.

So what exactly did Yeats write about Byzantium?

Yeats wrote two poems about İstanbul that have become classics in the Western literary canon: “Sailing to Byzantium” and the later “Byzantium.” The first poem uses an imagined journey to Byzantium to meditate on mortality, spirituality and artistic legacy, among other themes. The poet escapes a country of youth neglecting the “monuments of unageing intellect” around them and travels to Byzantium, seeking some form of eternal paradise.

The second, lesser-known poem, “Byzantium,” is a nighttime portrait of the city populated by classical Greek symbols — the figure of Hades, the golden bough, dolphins carrying people to the underworld. While “Sailing to Byzantium” invokes a journey, the second poem paints a picture that is complex and dizzying.

How famous are these poems, really?

As far as poetry goes, “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of the most commonly referenced poems ever put to paper. It begins with the line “That is no country for old men,” famously adapted as the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel that later became an Oscar-winning Coen brothers movie. Another line describing a human as a soul “fastened to a dying animal” has become a oft-quoted vision of mortality. Beyond these are countless references in novels, films and other works.

“Byzantium” is cited less often, but its final line describing “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is well known.

So if he never visited the city, where did Yeats get his inspiration to write about Byzantium?

Yeats was a student of classical life, mythology and art, basing his understanding on works such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also viewed Byzantine art during a trip to Italy and heard further accounts from his friend Oscar Wilde. In terms of personal inspiration, he is famous for practicing “automatic writing,” which meant opening his mind to divine inspiration and simply acting as a scribe for the words and images that came to him.

That all sounds extremely unreliable. Was his description of the city accurate?

The answer to that is subjective, of course, and critics have made a small industry out of pointing out the discrepancies between Yeats’s vision and the historical reality. On the other hand, the sense of dizzying imagery blending the ancient and the modern he evokes in “Byzantium” is a pretty resonant account of what it’s like to be in İstanbul. But accuracy was far from the writer’s goal. The poem is most often understood as using a physical journey as a metaphor for a spiritual one.

So should I read the poems to understand historic İstanbul?

Indirectly, sure. While it would be foolish to take the poems as informative accounts of Byzantium, they say a lot about how it existed (and still exists) in the popular Western imagination as a near-mythical place on Earth preserving our inheritance of ancient wisdom. And anyone planning a first encounter with İstanbul would do well to take a practice run reading “Byzantium,” with its disorientating array of images blending the mythical and the political, the archaic and the new.

Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats


That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

–Those dying generations–at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The Byzantine Scribe

March 26, 2014

My thanks to Geoffrey for giving me permission to post this article.

By Geoffrey Clarfield

First published in the New English Review, August 2010.

Many years ago, while walking through the grounds of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s greatest temple, the Hagia Sophia, in what is now the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, I marveled at how it is that some great civilizations decline, disappear and are renewed from the outside.

Since the rise of agriculture and the subsequent emergence of the Biblically inspired empires of the Near East, with their distinctive forms of world religion, it is clear that the decline of these civilizations was often completed by invasions or migrations and penetrations of barbarian chieftains and their hordes, who, after having pierced the empire’s borders and sometimes sacked the capital, would then take over whatever remained of the apparatus of the state. Gibbon’s classic study The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is replete with examples.

These new barbarians would then, by necessity, and in order to consolidate their conquest, set up a new, rougher state, but with the minimum trappings of the old one, and which often, like the Holy Roman Empire, pathetically aspired to the greatness of that which they had destroyed or overtook.

As a boy, I often wondered what life was like for the worldly and well educated Byzantine refugees, after the Ottoman Turks finally breached the walls of Constantinople on that fatal day of May 29, 1453. What became of these final exiles from Constantinople, whose only asset was their sophistication? They arrived in Italy, in the Slavic lands and in Europe’s far west, selling their skills to the more simple societies at the courts of semi barbarian kingdoms, for Byzantium was the light of the middle ages and the spark of the Renaissance.

The Jews of the West, educated professionals, carrying a plethora of degrees and diplomas and who have immigrated to the Land of Israel since its rebirth in 1948, are in a sense akin to those wandering Byzantine refugees and who have found a new home and market for their skills.

What I am saying, very simply, is that so many Western Jews who live in Israel have functioned and continue to function like Byzantine scribes – as administrators and advisors to the no nonsense, pragmatic and tough talking pioneers and patriots who created the State of Israel. What do I mean by this? I mean that in subtle and often unconscious ways aspects of history recur in new contexts.

The late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and his generation of Sabras (native born Israelis) were partially justified in rejecting the refinement and manners of the Jews and Gentiles of the Diaspora, claiming that such “bourgeois manners” covered up both the denial of anti-Semitism by the Jewish middle classes of Europe and the hypocrisy of their anti-Semitic host societies.

The Sabras substitute was what in the end turned out to be an equally arbitrary culture of directness – no shaking hands, no polite elections, passionate ideology and personal vendetta (however, substituting character assassination for the vendetta based murder that is common in more traditional surrounding Mediterranean cultures) instead of dispassionate public debate, and, at least in the early days of the state, a denigration of corrupting luxury.

These were, in the time of the Zionist pioneers, fine and true virtues and perhaps even necessary, especially when building an egalitarian state amidst a sea of authoritarian regimes and kingdoms who sympathized with the Axis powers of the nineteen thirties and who have yet to admit that they did. But, and this but has enormous consequences, for once Israel joined the family of nations its rough hewn new leaders, of a sudden, found that they had to deal with all that hypocrisy and sophistication that they had left behind in the Diaspora.

Sabra leaders and diplomats became like the later Kikuyu tribe of Kenya after the Mau Mau revolt-“we have defeated British Imperialism, grown our hair long and taken oaths, it is time once again to put on suits, learn English and beat the white man at his own game.”

Once a cultural form is imprinted it takes generations to change and the norms of modern Israeli behavior, from a European or North American perspective, are still direct and lacking subtlety. There is a certain charm to it, once you have mastered the language and the local Mediterranean life style, but most foreigners just don’t get it. The late Prime Minister Rabin was hardly eloquent and Shamir before him was close to mute. Luckily, by 1948 there existed a growing minority of Western Jews, who with visions of a Third Jewish Commonwealth, had returned to the land of their forefathers.

Once these men and women entered Israeli society they often found, on the whole, that they were not the best kibbutzniks, farmers and soldiers, although many made noble attempts, but that on the whole they were better writers, administrators and advisors than their Eastern European, and Sabra employers, since they had come from precisely the world of the Gentiles of the West and which Israel was now so desirous of joining.

Behind the early rulers of Europe, after the fall of the Western Empire, there was many a Byzantine scribe. And so, with the fall of the British Empire and the establishment of the State of Israel the Western Jewish immigrant fulfills the role of these Byzantine scribes of bygone times.

In cultures established by new and vigorous “barbarian elites,” either tribal as with the Vandals or Visigoths after the fall of Rome, or self proclaimed like the early Zionists with their cult of the “natural,” we find that behind many great Israeli leaders, there have been a plethora of subdued Central European, English and North American Jews quietly preparing letters, speeches and analyses. Examples of these scribes are the Canadian secretary to the late David Ben Gurion and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s former American born spokesperson, David Bar Ilan. There are and were many, many others.

As the conquering Turks ravaged the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire, as the Slavic tribes pushed down from the north, as the rough, first pagan and then marginally Christian tribes of Vandals and Goths destroyed and then occupied the lands of the Roman Empire, each of these tribes established their newly established authority over the dead carcass of effete and often corrupt civilization that they had overcome. Once on their new thrones, chieftains, soon to be tribal kings, would turn to the wandering Byzantine scribe in order to administer their domains and communicate with the other, as yet unconquered powers on their newly acquired borders.

In parallel fashion, during late antiquity when the untutored and illiterate Bedouin camel nomads waged their holy war, emerging from the Arabian wastes as conquerors of the lands of the middle east in the name of a new monotheism, later to be called Islam, the administration of these lands was immediately put back into the hands of its former Byzantine subjects, Greek speaking administrators, many of whom eventually joined the religious community of their conquerors.

It has been argued that Islamic civilization, as opposed to Islam itself, was due to the followers of Mohammed’s speedy adoption of Greek Byzantine philosophy, literature, science, technology and forms of administration. There are many modern theorists who would argue that this was and remains Islamic civilization’s saving grace and this argument is the essence of the late historian Gustave von Grunebaum’s once classic, but now little read historical study, Medieval Islam.

The Byzantine scribe was a man of letters, of general cultivation and wide horizons, well read in the classics, conversant with geography, medicine and statecraft and often multi lingual. Since he was cut off from his own social origins by the conditions of his emigration after the fall of Constantinople, he had little or no local family or social network which would otherwise be the engine that could drive the hidden agenda of an extended kin group on the way up a social hierarchy of privilege and power. Such is the status of the skilled Western immigrant to Israel. His loyalty is unquestioned, because he (or she) chose to emigrate. He is unhindered by conflict of interest, since he does not live and work among neighbors and family from childhood.

The more he learns about Israel and Israelis, especially the Sabras (and formerly the Eastern European elite network who dominated the country for years) the more he is valued by them; because he has more knowledge of the culture, language and thought patterns of Israel’s allies and trading partners in the West, than do those that employ him, for in reality he comes from their cultural world.

The Byzantine scribe advises the young statesmen. In Israel he feels uncomfortable posing in the limelight for a state, where he has, even after ten or twenty years, spent less than half or a quarter of his life. He is all too happy to be invisible but effective.

In the end, he is the quiet power behind the throne, transferring the accumulated lore of centuries of complex settled societies to late coming modernizers and by doing so, equalizing the balance between young and old cultures. Eventually there will be little need for him as more and more native born Israelis study and live abroad and come home again to positions of influence and power, having “tasted the West” and learnt its complex ways.

Scribal migration in the service of new political elites, has been one of the hidden patterns of history in this region for millennia, or at least since the rise of the agricultural and hierarchical civilizations of the ancient Near East and their periodic transformation by robust immigrants. It is a pattern that did not die out when the British, themselves masters of a waning empire, one whose proponents had boldly declared that it was greater than Rome and Constantinople, marched into Jerusalem in 1917 and like the Byzantines before them, who had unwittingly allowed the Slavs to settle their Balkan frontiers, by the stroke of a pen in the exchange of a letter from Lord Balfour, established the foundation of a new and vigorous Jewish democracy.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.

Podcast: A Sinai Illuminated Manuscript of the Heavenly Ladder – Spiritual Ascents through Art

March 17, 2014

Icon of the heavenly ladder of St John Klimakos

I am reposting this as it is one of the best talks you can find about one of the greatest of icons. Father Justin, Librarian of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, discusses how the illuminated manuscript of The Ladder of Divine Ascent provides insights into the spirituality of Sinai and the theology of art in the Orthodox Church.

Supported by The Hellenic Foundation, this is an audio recording from the concurrent lectures with the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition. Listen here. You will have to download but it is only 26 Mb.

Related articles:

A Beautiful Song and a Beautiful Voice
Icons and Iconoclasm: Religious Imagery in Christianity, Judaism and Islam

Podcast: Syria’s art heritage – Forgotten victims of the conflict

March 11, 2014

The ancient city of Ebla near Aleppo by Klaus Wagensonner, Flickr

A discussion about the ongoing and deliberate destruction of the historical heritage of Syria. Download the podcast here or go to the VoR site using the link below. Is this the new iconoclasm?

From Voice of Russia UK hosted by Brendan Cole

With more than 100,000 people now dead, the lines have become more blurred between insurgents fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Islamic fundamentalists who have started to destroy some of the country’s greatest treasures. These include archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues. Brendan Cole hosts a discussion.

Syria’s cultural treasures – gallery

Last month the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qaeda-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates.

Brendan is joined by:

Malu Halasa, an editor and writer in London, author of ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’

Dr Halla Diyab, Syrian writer and journalist

Dr Richard Clay, senior lecturer in History of Art at the University of Birmingham and expert in iconoclasm

Dr Emma Cunliffe of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield


Malu Halasa: “I think people should realise that Syria, Damascus and Aleppo are both considered the oldest inhabited cities in the world, so the archaeological treasures, the architectural treasures are ancient and ageless. People don’t realise that the conflict that’s going on there has destroyed quite a lot, and that there’s also been a lot of looting of these sites. Specific sites have been targeted also by various extremist groups. Whatever their reasons are for doing that, or that they are doing this because it happened in Afghanistan also by various Islamic groups, remains to be seen. It is a great loss what is going on in Syria at the moment.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “In general, in the Middle East and even in Syria, if we look at a decade or so ago, there was not a lot of awareness among Arabs or Syrians about the importance of cultural heritage, especially the culture of museums, of visitor centres and attractions. Because of this kind of relationship between the citizens and the government, when it came to dependency, as the citizens of Syria used to be more dependent on the government for protection, electricity, water and protection of their culture, they were not raised on the awareness that it is the responsibility of the individual to protect their cultural heritage.”

“When the conflict happened, the turmoil that’s happening in Syria, especially all this militia, armed forces, thugs, hijackers of the Syrian revolution, targeted a lot cultural sites mainly because of al Qaeda groups or fundamentalist Muslims who believe in Salafi, Wahhabi Islamic ideology, who do not believe in statues that portray humans – also monuments or even archaeological sites. We saw this in Afghanistan, and Syria, before the revolution, had a majority of Sufi Muslims. What happened is not only that there was a revolution against a dictator, it is also the Talibanisation and a sectarian war. The Salafi group want to supress this mosaic of diverse culture in Syria.”

Malu Halasa: “These various sites and monuments existed for so long because Syria is like the birthplace of civilisation! Various groups have always lived together quite peacefully. We’re talking about ancient Christian groups, ancient Muslim groups – they’ve always been there and they’ve always protected those sites – they’ve co-existed, appreciated the culture. The Salafi view is that they think of Islam as being quite separate. Really, if you look at the Sufi influences over Syria, but also what they call ‘Shami’ Islam, it is much more moderate Islam where everyone’s included. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Syria and I was never looked upon or treated any differently, so I think those attitudes also go towards cultural heritage.”

“Cultural heritage is not something that belongs to one group or another, it belongs to the people.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “I think there is a kind of spatial dynamic happening in Syria in relation to the regime and the main cities. The Syrian regime always focused on the big cities, especially Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus. In Hama there was bitterness because of the massacre that happened in the 1980’s and all this ambiguity, mystery can be seen through a mysterious dynamic between the people of Hama and the regime. Also, there was not a lot of focus on the North East of Syria: Raqqa, even Deir ez-Zor or Daraa, and I remember, when I lived in Syria there was no easy transportation, even if you wanted to go from Damascus into the North cities. Looking at the dynamic of spatial domination by Islamic states or the Salafis, or the extremists, they went to the North East of Syria. In Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, the regime didn’t focus on these cities before the revolution and there were a lot of archaeological sites there, which have not been kept or protected.”

“Even Asma al-Assad, when she built the Children Discovery Centre in Damascus – Massar Museum, was concentrating more on the big cities, and there was little consideration for the remote cities of Syria.”

Dr Richard Clay: “It [iconoclasm] is a super-complicated term and is used by some people to mean really only the destruction of religious objects, but actually it’s got much-much wider usage nowadays. We talk about people attacking the opinion of the Prime Minister and say they’re an iconoclast. It’s a 17th-century term and it comes from the Ancient Greek – it just means ‘image breaking’. So, is destroying a building – an act of iconoclasm? Some people would say no, and some historians won’t write about breaking buildings because it isn’t iconoclasm. I’m comfortable to say that all of the kinds of activities that we’re talking about, which are symbolic ‘breakings’ are iconoclasm. It just makes sense to talk about them in relation to each other.”

“It seems to me, like many westerners become more familiar with Syria as a culture because of this awful disaster that it’s living through – it’s been brought to my attention. Syria has always been a diverse culture, but the big difference today, is there’s mass availability of weapons that can damage buildings – that changed in the twentieth century, that industrialises iconoclasm. There’s also mass media and I think that some of the iconoclasm that’s been carried out by extreme Muslims is actually partly driven by their doctrine, but partly, by an awareness of the fact that if you cut somebody’s head off, you’re not going to get on the news; if you cut the head off a statue, you will.”

Dr Emma Cunliffe: “Just a couple of days ago one of the radical extremist groups placed a new video online threatening the Citadel in the centre of Aleppo, which is part of the World Heritage Site, and parts of that Citadel are about five thousand years old. Now, the only reason to do that – partly it might be a factor of religious beliefs, but it’s not a particularly religiously symbolic site, there are far more religiously symbolic sites around there, and at the end of the day, it is just attention seeking.”

“There are also a lot of communities fundamentally involved in religious wars, so we’ve seen at Ma’loula for example, which is a Tentative World Heritage Site, some of the oldest Christian sites in the world and Aramaic is still spoken there, which is the language of Jesus. It’s not until we’ve seen this very strong increase in the number of extremists pouring into Syria that we’ve started to see sites like that targeted. It’s actually stayed out of the conflict and only, really since last September, we’re now seeing it targeted very heavily. The churches are being destroyed, the nuns have been kidnapped, and the items are for sale on the international market – not, I should add, legally. But it’s also a time sequence that’s come into Syria – the rise of these attacks increase, which is a terrible thing to witness, but so incredibly hard to stop.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “What’s happening in Syria is a sectarian war and they want the future Syria to be either Shia or Sunni. That is why the Salafi extremists try to dispose of any variety or mosaic in Syria, whether it is the minorities with Christian representation in Syria, even the Sufi and Shia symbols. It’s about the future Syria becoming Salafi – like Afghanistan, and about deleting Syria’s past, its’ diversity.”

Malu Halasa:“I was thinking of the Umayyad Mosque – one of the oldest mosques, where Muslims have been praying for time immemorial. Within the setting, the mosque itself is quite ornate and beautiful. I think Muslims would be very upset [to see it destroyed]. “

“This idea that somehow, and yes, the Salafi, definitely have a very stark view of Islam, but if you look at the representation and the art that’s come out of Iran, the history and visual culture in, for example, the Shia religion – there’s a lot of representation, there is human form, they have a long tradition of murals; so this idea that, somehow, across the board, Islam doesn’t like representation is wrong. I think that the people who are destroying these objects, these mosaics, these monuments in Syria, definitely have a very narrow view of Islam.”

“I’m also wondering if it’s not just that the destruction comes from a religious view point. It also comes from the view point that these people are completely divorced from what cultural heritage means.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “There were quite a few assassinations of Sufi scholars in Syria. If you look at the dynamic of the Middle East, there is always a conflict between Sufi and Salafi Islam. Salafis look at Sufis as being non-Islamic, because Sufism is about singing, self-development, spirituality, about visiting monuments of Ahl al-Bayt, those who come from Prophet Muhammad.”

“However, having said this, there are some people who are destroying places in Syria because they are just thugs, traffickers, thieves. They just want money. All these fractions on the ground in Syria make it very difficult to understand the future vision for the country.”

Dr Richard Clay: “How do we measure value? You and I, I would hope, would be interested in these objects because they’re aesthetically attractive and historically valuable. For these people [thugs], they’re privileging overall other value of the fact that they can exchange these goods in a global art market.”

“They are thieves, but they’re also extremely well organised, and they’re selling this art. So, there’s a whole network of blame here, and if we point the figure at these people, we have to ask who’s buying this stuff. From the reports I’ve been reading, it’s actually often being stolen to order, effectively; and you’ve got thefts going on not just at religious sites but at museums too, and then you’ve also got unlicensed archaeology taking place, where the thieves are discovering new things by digging recklessly in historically significant sites. Do they value the objects? Yes, they do.”

Dr Emma Cunliffe: “You can, but it’s extremely difficult [to combat trafficking of precious art objects], partly because, when you say – what is something worth, it’s worth what someone is willing to pay for it.”

“In Iraq, for example, cylinder seals were being taken, which are about the size of your thumb, and can sell from anything from 1000 pounds to 250,000 thousand pounds. So, if you think of how many of those would go through the market, catching them, when they’re so tiny, is incredibly difficult. When you look at where you would actually have to focus your energy – we need tighter laws. I would definitely agree that the international antiquities market is not as tightly regulated as it needs to be, to deal with this trade; although, it would actually have to be practically draconian to achieve something. How do you balance that in a country with decreased security, where the looters can access sites quite easily? Some sites have been 80% destroyed and these are hugely significant sites, but we can’t get to them to stop them.”

“It’s not enough just to rescue these items once they’ve reached the international market, and reclaim them, because once they’ve been ripped out of their context, you don’t actually know what was taken and where it was from – you can’t even trace the information about that object. It just becomes an object of art. Whereas once it might have been part of the earliest library in the world, suddenly it just becomes text.”

“A lot of recommendations were made following Iraq. Not all of them were enforced, unfortunately. The illegal antiquities market follows many of the same paths as illegal trade in drugs and arms, and there are very strong connections between the three of them. Antiquities are being traded for the same reason guns are being smuggled in and out of the country.”

Malu Halasa: “One of the reasons why these places are being destroyed is to strike terror into the hearts of the civilians. For example, in Raqqa, Isis took down a crucifix that was on a church and in the middle of the night non-violent activists, young men, stole the crucifix back and they put it back on the church; then Isis blew up the church the next day. It really is about striking terror, about what the future Syria will be, what form this Islamic state will take.”

“What is being destroyed is the heritage of all of us.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “It’s the cultural values, it’s the historical values – it’s rewriting the history of that part of the world. People during a civil war become very vulnerable and they become engaged in violence as a way of expressing their resistance, a kind of rejection to what they witness; the loss of their families pushes them to violence.”

“It will take time for the rehabilitation of human souls from destruction, but I think that it’s not without the support of the international community, which has a big responsibility towards preserving the national heritage and culture of Syria.”

Irony And Humor In The Semantically Subversive Byzantine Empire

March 7, 2014

The Byzantine Empire arose after the death of the Roman Emperor Constantine. To make the empire more manageable, it was split into eastern and western halves, with Rome as the seat of the west and Constantinople as the capitol of the east. Unlike Rome of the time, the Byzantine Empire coupled military might and the religious authority of the Church.

When the Roman Empire collapsed and led Europe into the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire continued on and it continued to modernize. You don’t last for a thousand years, including holding off Muslim invaders for much of that time, without doing some things right. They finally collapsed in 1453, when Constantinople was captured by Turks. It is known as Istanbul today.

But much of the literature and works of art that hadn’t already been captured (including by Christian crusaders in 1204) or purchased made their way into Western Europe at the time, including a substantial literary heritage. We can thank artwork and artisans from the Byzantine Empire for a large part of the European Renaissance that happened in the following generations but the literature gets far less attention.

Two projects at the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna have been conducting a detailed analysis of written sources as a door to understanding the social framework and the mentality of the mainstream Byzantine culture. The texts offer insights into this long-standing, rich and widely influential cultural epoch.

The initial research findings were presented at the “Coming of Age – Adolescence and Society in Medieval Byzantium” symposium in Vienna. The symposium offered international experts (Byzantinists, Medievalists, art historians, legal scholars and psychologists) a stage for the lively exchange of thoughts from various disciplines on the adolescent life stage of “homo byzantinus”.

Prof. Johannes Koder, project leader from the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna, said about the significance of the event, “This symposium successfully presented the Institute´s extensive and complex fields of work to an international audience of experts, in developing a more refined picture of adolescence in Byzantium, and in demonstrating important guidelines for future research projects.”

The project is dedicated to analyzing the “discharge” of youth from the family in the period from the 6th to the 11th century.

“At that time, the reasons for this discharge were for general or professional education, marriage, and entering a monastery. These form the starting point of our study of extensive written sources, such as legal documents, hagiographies, chronicles and letters,” explains project member Dr. Despoina Ariantzi.

One of the aims here is to clarify to what extent not only parental influence was significant for this discharge from adolescence, in contrast to childhood, but also the wishes of the youngsters. This offers insights into the role of the family in society, in the expectations of the two or three familial generations involved with respect to the future, and in the change in these expectations on the part of society for each subsequent generation.


Another project at the Institute, dealing with the cultural phenomenon of irony, offers insights into the Byzantine mentality. Substantially more multifaceted than humor, to which it is related, irony can be systematically used for various purposes, especially for calling one´s opponent or specific issues into question, creating distance, and demonstrating one´s intellectual superiority.

The playful, humorous element of irony was thus only superficially about amusement, as project leader Claudia Rapp of the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, explains. “The authors used rhetorical devices to produce subversive effects like irony. This enabled them to express critical opinions in a hidden manner.”

Project member Dr. Efthymia Braounou undertook the pioneering work to trace the conceptual history of irony from classical (Greek-speaking) antiquity into the Byzantine era, which allowed her to show the continuities of literary customs and usage. The next step will be to undertake a semantic analysis of works by Byzantine historians of the 11th and 12th centuries, the height of Byzantine literature, to uncover authors´ ironic intentions and the effect on their audience.

The aim is to gain a better understanding of the “poetry of subversion” (the title of the project) in Byzantine literature, thus contributing to the latter´s appreciation as an independent phenomenon in its socio-cultural context, and not just as a conveyor of the literary heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity.

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Are the crowds in Ukraine reviving an ancient Roman tradition?

March 6, 2014

The emperor Constantine, portrayed by David Threlfall in a BBC drama

In an extraordinary ceremony in Ukraine, potential cabinet members are to be paraded in front of crowds of protesters to seek their approval, it’s been reported. It has strange echoes of Ancient Roman practices, writes Finlo Rohrer on BBC News Blog.

Apart from the X Factor, it’s hard to think of a modern parallel for the event planned in Independence Square, at the heart of anti-government protests in Ukraine. Candidates for the new cabinet of ministers are to be paraded and – only if approved by the crowds – formally confirmed later.

It has, one assumes, unintentional echoes of the tradition of acclamation in later Roman times and particularly in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire. A candidate for the imperial throne would present themselves in front of a crowd of soldiers, or even ordinary people, lap up the adulation, and then go on to overcome their rivals aided by a handy sheen of legitimacy.

“The emperor Constantine was acclaimed by his father’s soldiers in Britain – that didn’t guarantee the role. He then had to battle with several rivals,” says Prof Dame Averil Cameron, of Oxford University.

Then there was regular contact with large crowds who had a chance to voice disapproval. “Among the early Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, they appeared in the Circus. That is where you met the people. There might be shouts or demonstrations,” says Cameron.

What happened was not necessarily always a reflection of the real will of the people. Even Rome in the republic was not any kind of modern-style democracy. “The Romans got really good at orchestrating it [acceptance by the crowd],” says Byzantinist Prof Charlotte Roueche, of King’s College London. “In Kiev, the main cathedral actually has wall paintings showing activities in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, where the emperors were acclaimed.”

In many societies throughout history it was seen as a mark almost of divine inspiration to have a unanimous shout from a crowd. But even with bribery and cajoling, unanimity isn’t always easy to come by. “If the [Roman or Byzantine] people were feeling grumpy they would shout out that they wanted more bread,” says Roueche.


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