Event – Building God’s Empire: Archaeology, religion and the Byzantine conquest of Africa

The Emporer Justinian and courtiers – Basilica of San Vitale

This looks like an interesting event to attend for those who can make it. The combination of Justinian, Belisarius, and the idea of rebuilding the western Roman empire is an intoxicating mix, and a great story. To be held at King’s College London. Open to all and free entry.

The Byzantine conquest of Africa in the 530s is often portrayed as the simple, if contested, liberation of the region from heretical barbarian rule, but rarely as an episode of imperialism. Yet Justinian’s self-proclaimed aim went beyond restoring Rome’s former territories to the far-reaching ambition of uniting a doctrinally divided Christian world under one empire, one God and one Church. During his reign, the Church grew in importance as an imperial agent in other ways, collecting taxes, owning and administering large rural estates, building town defences and organising civic life. Paradoxically, the best evidence for the period – the churches themselves– have played very little part in recent scholarship which has rather approached these problems through image and text. Yet in a society where few could read, claims to authority were asserted and disputed through architecture and place. Church buildings not only embodied complex theological and political concepts from the nature of the Trinity to the relationship between Church and state, but also reordered local identities, memories and experiences of place. This paper will examine the central role played by churches in the construction of new networks of political, religious and economic power in North Africa.

Corisande Fenwick is Lecturer in Mediterranean Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. After receiving a PhD from Stanford University, she held postdoctoral fellowships at Brown University and the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the archaeology and history of the late antique and Islamic West and comparative approaches to empire. Her publications include Early Islamic North Africa (Bloomsbury, in press) and the co-edited Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology (OUP, in press) and Aghlabids and their Neighbours (Brill, 2017). She co-directs excavations at the late antique church of Bulla Regia (Tunisia) and the medieval quarter of Volubilis (Morocco).

When? 26 November 2019, 18:00 to 20:00

Where? Kings’ College London, Bush House Room S2.03, Strand Campus, London

Contact: chs@kcl.ac.uk

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Oxford Announces SNF Director of Centre for Byzantine Research as Part of Broader Expansion

Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan, the historian known for making the discipline accessible and relevant to a general public, has been named the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.

Frankopan’s new appointment is one element of a recent SNF grant made to bolster Late Antique and Byzantine studies at the university.

With the support from SNF, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research will add three new graduate scholarships and an administrative staff role in addition to the new directorship held by Frankopan. SNF has also endowed two professorships: the SNF Associate Professorship of Byzantine Archaeology and Visual Culture is held by scholar Ine Jacobs and the SNF Bywater & Sotheby Professorship of Byzantine and Modern Greek Language and Literature is held by scholar Marc Lauxtermann. Oxford provided matching funding for both the endowed professorships and the graduate scholarships.

When the SNF grant supporting Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford was announced, SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos commented, “Understanding today’s world requires tracing the dots of history and connecting them through to the present. The Byzantine Empire sat at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa for over a thousand years. As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, global empire, its legacy on our modern world remains far-reaching and continues to influence cultural and religious practices in Europe, Russia, and beyond. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is proud to help Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford, and the field as a whole, grow and flourish in the years to come.”

Drawing these historical through lines for the public in articles for publications like The New York Times and The Guardian, as well as in TV documentaries, Frankopan’s scholarship focuses on the 11th-century Byzantine Empire and the history of Southeast Europe, Russia, and Asia Minor. He is author of the popular The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, among other books. Before appointment as the SNF Director of Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, he had served as Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research since 2010, the year it was established, and is Professor of Global History and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College.

Few academic institutions, if any, have expertise and intellectual resources in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies to rival those of Oxford University, and fewer still have a history that extends back to existing concurrently with the Byzantine Empire. SNF has previously provided support for the construction of Oxford’s Stelios Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies and for endowment of the SNF Clarendon Associate Professor and Fellow of Ancient Greek Philosophy.

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Thessaloniki metro construction reveals Byzantine treasures

Hellenistic era building foundations, found at Agia Sophia Station, Thessaloniki CREDIT: GREEK MINISTRY OF CULTURE

The construction of a metro network beneath the Greek city of Thessaloniki has unearthed an extraordinary treasure trove of ancient artefacts, from gold wreaths and rings to statues of the goddess Aphrodite. The progress of the metro system has been delayed because of the sheer number of items that have been found beneath the streets of Greece’s second city.

By Nick Squires

First published in the Telegraph.

Archeologists have dug up more than 300,000 artefacts, from coins and jewellery to marble statues, amphorae, oil lamps and perfume vases.

They were found in what would have been the thriving commercial centre of the ancient city, which was the second most important conurbation in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople.

During the construction of the metro network, archeologists found a stone-paved road, the Decumanus Maximus, which would have run through the heart of Thessaloniki in the sixth century AD, as well as the remains of villas, shops, workshops and an early Christian church.

More than 5,000 tombs and graves were uncovered, some of them containing exquisite golden wreaths.

“The excavations are the biggest archaeological project of recent years in Greece,” Yannis Mylopoulos, the chairman of Attiko Metro, the company building the network, told The Telegraph.

“The quality and the quantity of the findings is really impressive. They reveal the continuity of the history of Thessaloniki and Macedonia.”

Gold crown from a burial dating to the late 4th – early 3rd century. BC found at Syntrivani Station, Thessaloniki CREDIT: GREEK MINISTRY OF CULTURE

Several statues of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, were discovered, and she was also depicted in mosaics, with one showing her lying back on a couch in front of Eros. “A large number of statues depicting Aphrodite have been found in the city centre, while several more came to light in the area around the Church of the Acheiropoietos (a fifth century AD Byzantine church),” Dr Polyxeni Adam-Veleni, the head of the antiquities department in Thessaloniki, told a recent conference on the discoveries.

The fact that statues of Aphrodite dating from as late as the fourth century AD were found shows that “Thessaloniki served as a powerful bastion of the old religions until late antiquity,” said Prof Adam-Veleni.

Thessaloniki was established in the fourth century BC and became an important trading and military hub of the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire.

It remained a powerful city into the medieval era, with a population of more than 100,000 in the 14th century – greater than that of London.

Work on the new metro system, which is designed to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution in the city, began in 2006.

The network of 18 stations was supposed to have been finished in 2012, but progress was stalled by the discovery of so many antiquities. It is now due to be operational next year.

The 100 yard-long paved road – the Decumanus Maximus – will remain in situ and will be incorporated into one of the network’s stations, Eleftherios Venizelos, named after a prominent politician and national hero from the early 20th century.

“People will be able to see it when they enter and exit the metro station and can even go down and walk on it if they want,” said Prof Mylopoulos.

The station of Hagia Sophia, named after the city’s Byzantine church, will also feature a permanent exhibition of archeological discoveries, including funerary monuments. Incorporating ancient archeological sites into an underground rail network was a huge challenge in terms of both engineering and expense – the cost of the archeological excavations ran to 130 million.

Rome unveiled a similar initiative two years ago – a brand new metro station in the city centre in which ancient artefacts found during its construction are on display in glass cases.

The items on display at San Giovanni metro station include bronze fish hooks from an ancient Roman fish farm, iron spearheads, gold coins decorated with emperors’ heads and marble statues of scantily-clad nymphs.

As passengers descend the station’s escalators, they travel back in time, from the Middle Ages to Imperial Rome and right back to Republican Rome. The deeper they go, the further back in history they find themselves.

The rest of the findings from the metro excavation will be displayed in various museums in Thessaloniki.

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The Seljuks: Nomads Who Built an Empire and Took On Byzantine Power

Malik-Shah I, ruler of the Seljuks, seated on his throne.

I thought this an interesting little piece about the Seljuks who I could do with knowing more about. It was they who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Manzikert, capturing Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV. It was a defeat that the empire really never recovered from.

First published in Ancient Origins.

The Seljuk Empire was a medieval empire that existed between the 11th and 12th centuries. They are most famous for their invasions and battles against the Byzantine Empire and later their role in the First Crusade. Although the Seljuks were originally a Turkic people, they intermarried with the Persians and adopted much of their culture and language.

At its most extent, the Seljuk (Seljuq) Empire stretched from Central Asia in the east all the way to Anatolia in the west. By the end of the 12th century, however, the Seljuk Empire had fragmented into a number of smaller states which were ruled by other dynasties. Nevertheless, the Seljuks continued to rule over Anatolia as the Sultanate of Rum.

The Seljuks were originally Turkic nomads who inhabited the steppes of Central Asia and Southeast Russia. The name of this people is taken from their traditional ancestor, Seljuk, who was a chief of the Qinik, a branch of the Oghuz Turks . Around 950 AD, Seljuk migrated to Khwarezm while serving in the Khazar army. Later on, around 985, Seljuk led a confederation of nine Turkic tribes to Persia, where they settled down and converted to Sunni Islam .

The Seljuks allied themselves with the Persian Samanid Empire and intermarried with the local Persian population. As a result, many aspects of Persian culture and language were adopted by the newcomers. The alliance with the Samanids did not last for long, however, as they were destroyed by the Qarakhanids in 999. The Samanids were replaced by the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks were at war with them.

It was two of Seljuk’s grandsons, Tughril Beg and Chaghri Beg, who fought against the Ghaznavids. Although the Ghaznavids had the upper hand initially, they were decisively defeated by the Seljuks in 1039 at the Battle of Dandanaqan. As a consequence, most of the western territories of the Ghaznavids were handed over to the Seljuks. This marked the establishment of the Seljuk Empire, and the two grandsons of Seljuk are credited with its foundation.

Tughril died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew, Alp Arslan, who continued the expansion of the empire. It was during the reign of Alp Arslan and his successor, Malik Shah I, that the Seljuk Empire reached its height of power. Alp Arslan expanded into Armenia and Georgia and fought against the Byzantine Empire .

In 1071, Alp Arslan won a decisive victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert . The Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV, was taken prisoner by the Seljuks and Byzantine control over Anatolia weakened considerably. Nevertheless, Alp Arslan did not live long enough to conquer Anatolia, as he died in the following year.

Alp Arslan was succeeded by his son, Malik Shah I, who continued his father’s military campaigns. It was during his reign that Anatolia was conquered by the Seljuks. In the east, the Seljuks fought against the Qarakhanids and were able to expand into Central Asia all the way to the western borders of China.

When Malik Shah died in 1092, the Seljuk Empire lost its unity, as his brother and four sons fought for power. Although Malik Shah’s son, Mahmud I became the new ruler of the Seljuk Empire, he was not able to hold the empire together.

His claim to the throne was contested by his three brothers, Barkiyaruq, Muhammad I, and Ahmad Sanjar, who had established themselves in Iraq, Baghdad, and Khorasan respectively. Additionally, a distant relative, Kilij Arslan I, had founded the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia, while Syria came under the rule of Tutush I, one of Kilij Arslan’s brothers.

While this fragmentation was going on, the Seljuks faced a new enemy from the west in the form of the First Crusade . The Seljuks were unable to unite against the Crusaders and the various Seljuk rulers allied themselves with or fought against the invaders as they saw fit. Although the Seljuk rulers dreamt of reunifying their empire, this was never achieved.

The Seljuk Empire continued its existence in the century that followed, though it no longer wielded the power it once enjoyed under Alp Arslan and Malik Shah I. In 1194, the Seljuk Empire lost much of its eastern territories to the Khwarazmians and the last Seljuk ruler of Iran, Tughril III, was killed in a battle against them. Seljuk power survived in Anatolia as the Sultanate of Rum , until it was vassalized by the Mongols following the Battle of Kose Dag in 1243.

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Ancient Garbage Heaps Show Fading Byzantine Empire Was ‘Plagued’ By Disease and Climate Change

About a century before the fall of the Byzantine Empire — the eastern portion of the vast Roman Empire — signs of its impending doom were written in garbage. Reports Mindy Weisberger in Live Science.

Archaeologists recently investigated accumulated refuse in trash mounds at a Byzantine settlement called Elusa in Israel’s Negev Desert. They found that the age of the trash introduced an intriguing new timeline for the Byzantine decline, scientists reported in a new study. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

The researchers discovered that trash disposal — once a well-organized and reliable service in outpost cities like Elusa — ceased around the middle of the sixth century, about 100 years prior to the empire’s collapse. At that time, a climate event known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age was taking hold in the Northern Hemisphere, and an epidemic known as the Justinian plague raged through the Roman Empire, eventually killing over 100 million people.

Together, disease and climate change took a devastating economic toll and loosened Rome’s grip on its lands to the east a century earlier than once thought, according to the study.

Elusa was already partly excavated, but the new investigation was the first to explore the site’s long-ignored trash heaps, lead study author Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of archaeology at the University of Haifa in Israel, told Live Science in an email.

Unlike the architecture of an ancient city, which could be repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, landfills steadily accumulated over time, creating continuous records of human activity. Clues found in preserved garbage dumps could thereby reveal if a city was thriving or in trouble.

“For me, it was clear that the true gold mine of data about daily life and what urban existence in the past really looked like was in the garbage,” Bar-Oz said.

In the dump sites, the scientists found a variety of objects: ceramic pot sherds, seeds, olive pits, charcoal from burned wood and even evidence of discarded “gourmet foods” imported from the Red Sea and the Nile, the study authors reported.

The scientists carbon-dated organic material such as seeds and charcoal in layers of trash mounds located near the city. They found that trash had built up in that location over a period of about 150 years and that the accumulation terminated in the middle of the sixth century. This suggested there was a failure of infrastructure, which happens when a city is about to collapse, the researchers noted.

Based on the new evidence, researchers concluded that Elusa’s decline began at least a century before Islamic rule wrested control of the region from the Romans. In fact, Elusa was struggling during a period that was relatively peaceful and stable; it was during this time that the Roman Emperor Justinian was expanding the empire’s boundaries across Europe, Africa and Asia, Bar-Oz said.

With the empire enjoying “a period of glorious success,” it would seem logical to expect that its outposts would be financially secure, Bar-Oz said. Yet the data the researchers collected suggested the opposite.

“Instead, we are seeing a signal for what was really going on at that time and which has long been nearly invisible to most archaeologists — that the empire was being plagued by climatic disaster and disease,” Bar-Oz explained.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Museum Of Russian Icons Announces Partnership With The British Museum

It is a great shame that the British Museum has so few icons in its collection, but those that it does have are of major significance, and can now be viewed in the online catalogue of the Museum of Russian Icons in collaboration with the British Museum and curated by the world renowned Professor Robin Cormack with Professor Maria Vassilaki.

You can view the British Museum contribution here.

The Museum of Russian Icons (MoRI) has been selected by The British Museum to host their online catalogue for Byzantine and Greek icons, featuring 32 historically significant works created between the 13th and 19th centuries. The catalogue (www.museumofrussianicons.org/british-museum-catalogue/) features photos and object entries generated directly from the collection database, reflecting the most current research and study of these important works.

The only museum in the U.S. dedicated to Russian icons, MoRI holds the largest collection of icons outside of Russia; and serves as a leading international centre for research and scholarship through the Center for Icon Studies (CIS). This partnership is the result of a long-term relationship which started in 2010 with the collaborative exhibition Saints and Dragons: Icons from Byzantium to Russia, that featured works from the British Museum’s and MoRI’s collections.

According to MoRI CEO and Curator Kent Russell, “The Museum of Russian Icons, while only a decade old, has forged this amazing partnership with the renowned British Museum in record time. We have secured our own international reputation as a research center for the study of icons-representing the Russian, Slavonic, Greek and Byzantine cultures-with this cataloguing joint venture.”

The British Museum’s entire collection of icons, numbering just over 100 items, constitutes the largest public collection of icons in the United Kingdom. The collection falls into three discrete areas: Byzantine icons, dating from between the mid-13th to the late 14th century and Greek (mainly Cretan) icons, ranging in date from the 14th through to the 19th century; and Russian icons. Their subjects show the narratives of the Christian story, of the saints and predominantly of the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Well represented in the collections is art created in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 AD); and important icons produced by the artists of the island of Crete, distinctive for their synthesis of traditional Byzantine forms with the new ideas of painting in Renaissance Italy, which was under Venetian control from the early 13th century up to 1669.

The majority of the icons in the British Museum are gifts or bequests, and in this respect, they reflect the tastes and interests of the various donors. One, the icon with St. Jerome, has a fascinating modern history. It was acquired by the famous Victorian connoisseur John Ruskin (1819-1900) in the 19th century, was later donated to the National Gallery in 1922, and subsequently was transferred to the British Museum in 1994. It has only recently been identified as a work by a 15th-century Cretan-trained artist, who may have painted it in Venice.

The curators of the web catalogue are Professor Robin Cormack; Professor Maria Vassilaki; Dr. Eleni Dimitriadou; and (in one entry) Dr. Dimitra Kotoula; with contributions from Christopher Entwistle, and special thanks to Professor Wendy Salmond (editor, Journal of Icons Studies, Chapman University).

Learn more about Museum of Russian Icons here.

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Celebrating Orthodox Christmas with Cappella Romana

Dear Friends,

Another year has passed, and another year when I was too distracted to post much on here for which I apologise. I could not let Orthodox Christmas pass without wishing you all the very best wishes and a happy Christmas, with wishes for good health in 2019.

Please enjoy some splendid music by Cappella Romana who never disappoint!


“Secretly you were born in a cave, but heaven proclaimed you to all, using the star as its mouth, O Saviour. It brought you Magi, who worshipped you in faith. Have mercy on them and on us.”

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