War and peace on the Byzantine-Islamic border

Given the current events on what was the much disputed border between Rome/Byzantium and the Sassanid/Persian empires this book may make interesting reading, but the sad fact is that visiting many of the areas under discussion is now impossible unless one is in the Turkish army or wanting to join ISIL.

A review by Marion James

First published in Sunday’s Zaman, 15 August 2015

Turkey’s southeastern border lands, which are sadly becoming the focus of world attention due to neighboring conflicts and a reawakening of internal violence, are not just of geopolitical importance; they are strikingly beautiful.

Two of the most famous rivers of the world — the Tigris and the Euphrates — flow through, their names conjuring up images of the Garden of Eden and a peaceful paradise on earth.

When the decades-long conflict between terrorists and the Turkish government found a lull in a cease-fire, many people took the opportunity to do a GAP tour, so named for the initials in Turkish of a major project to dam the rivers and bring hydro-electrical power and irrigation to the region.

Cities such as Gaziantep are famous for copper and baklava; Abraham’s city of Urfa and many more began to open up to tourists. Boutique hotels sprung up in converted stone houses and charming restaurants and world-class museums were opened. One small town that benefited from the rush of tourists — both locals and foreigners — is Mardin, whose terraced houses and sandy-golden stone became iconic once money had been spent on restoration.

But the real star of the area is the scenery. I can recall sitting on a terrace in the evening in Mardin looking out across the vast Mesopotamian plain that stretched out below us. The lights twinkling in the distance, our tour guide informed us, were in Syria. We could look out across fertile land and a peaceful, unprotected border.

Tragically, now looking at the plain you look across to towns and villages ravaged by war, some in the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), where horrific atrocities have occurred. You look across land which is crossed over by desperate refugees fleeing from ISIL fighters.

The plain and the border lands some thousand years ago were called the “thughur.” They broadly cover the stretch of lowlands to the south of the Taurus Mountains — from Tarsus at the western point, then via Antakya and Kahramanmaraş up to the plain just below Malatya in the east. It seems this whole frontier area has been fought over for centuries. Back in the seventh century the Emperor Heraclius uttered a famous lament when retreating from this plain across the Taurus Mountains near Tarsus:

“Peace unto thee, O Syria, and what an excellent country this is for the enemy… What a benefit you will be for the enemy because of all the pasturage, fertile soil and other amenities you provide.”

This quotation is chosen by Associate Professor Asa Eger as the starting point for his groundbreaking analysis of this borderland from the seventh to the 10th century in his book “The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier,” newly published by IB Tauris.

His basic premise, reached through reassessment of archaeological surveys in the area, is that the traditional view of this frontier as a no man’s land forming a physical and ideological frontier between the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs is too simplistic a bipolar description and is far from the truth.

Instead, for Eger, this is a frontier of settlement and interaction, and he develops this theory throughout this detailed academic work. In the past there were no borders, as we know them now; this concept came in with contemporary nationalism. Instead, traditional scholarship concerning this area cites a contested patch of empty land with annual border raids launched between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb.

At first sight this doesn’t look very relevant to understanding the world today and would appear to be a study of interest only to museum curators. But as we begin to examine this area with him, we come across places such as the Amuk Valley near Antakya and the town of Dabiq in Syria, north of Aleppo.

These two names suddenly rang bells of warning and of relevance. If we understand anything about why ISIL is focused on this particular patch of land rather than attacking and invading any other part of God’s earth, these two names will resonate with us. ISIL calls their English-language magazine Dabiq, and base their war on an eschatological theology built on a single hadith:

“The Last Hour will not come until the Romans land at al-A’muq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best [soldiers] of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina [to counteract them].”

More worrying for those of us in İstanbul, their literature also often contains another hadith attributed to the Son of Hibban, At-Tirmizi, Abuya’li, At-Tabarani, Al Bazaar, Abu Nuaym and Al Hakim: “The Romans will surround a leader from my children. His name will be the same as mine [i.e., the Mahdi]. They will fight each other at a place called al-Amaq and one-third, or thereabouts, of the Muslims will be killed. They will fight again on another day and again one-third or thereabouts of the Muslims will be killed. On the third day they will fight again and the Romans will be defeated. And they will remain there until they open Constantinople. It is whilst they are distributing the spoils of war that a messenger will come informing them that the false messiah is in their home town with their children.”

This related hadith that mentions the fall of Constantinople, when linked to the fact that the Byzantines are the citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire, leads many Muslim scholars to disagree with the ISIL interpretation of these being end-times prophecies. Instead they see these prophecies of conflict in the Amak valley and Dabiq as being fulfilled in the eight centuries after the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

This modern jihadi rhetoric gives urgency to understanding the history of this region in the seventh to 12th centuries. Eger refutes a historical narrative of Holy War and re-analyzes archaeological evidence to recreate a frontier with mixed settlements, in a land which was fertile for crops and ideal for pastoral existence, where conflict was the expression of competition for scarce resources.

Given that the subject is so important in governing our current attitudes to the possibility for Islamists and non-Islamists or those of other religions to exist together in the region, it is a pity that the subject is treated in such an academic manner. The descriptions of the facts and figures of the archeological surveys are long; the passages describing daily life are short. Much evidence is given concerning buildings and objects left behind; few details are given as to how society functioned and how these buildings and objects would have been used. An opportunity to capture the imagination of the non-academic world has been sadly missed.

Nevertheless, Eger is to be credited with questioning previous assumptions, and introducing a sea-change in the way academics view this period. Hopefully future researchers and historians will build on this introduction and give us a more lively and exciting overview of life in this frontier.


Buy The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier: Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities (Library of Middle East History) here.

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Byzantine Istanbul in 10 iconic monuments

Long before it was Istanbul or even Constantinople, the great city that is now Turkey’s undisputed cultural capital was Byzantium, the city on the Bosporus founded by Megaran colonists in 637 B.C.

As the Roman Empire became larger and more unwieldy, it was on this eastern city that the eyes of Emperor Constantine alighted in 330. Given his stamp of approval, it was renamed Constantinopolis and went on to become the heart of the Byzantine Empire that evolved out of the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.

Today traces of the Byzantine era litter Old İstanbul inside the battered old land walls. The most conspicuous and most visited of those traces is, of course, the great church of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) that bestrides Sultanahmet Square. But with many of the old buildings given new uses (specifically the churches as mosques) and with no museum devoted to the city’s Byzantine history, it can be hard for the casual visitor to imagine how things once were. Click on http://www.byzantium1200.com to find out more about the Byzantine city, then head straight for these great sites to dream of the distant past.

Tour the ten iconic monuments here.

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What did those Byzantine Emperors look like?

Byzantine-largeI found a way of having images of all the emperors in one place!

Visit the Et Tu Antiquities website for a poster.

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Massive Underground City Found in Cappadocia Region of Turkey

Archaeologists are exploring a sprawling network of tunnels and underground rooms discovered beneath a Byzantine-era fortress in Nevşehir, Turkey. Photograph by Murat Kaya, Anadolu Agency/Getty

When the invaders came, Cappadocians knew where to hide: underground, in one of the 250 subterranean safe havens they had carved from pliable volcanic ash rock called tuff.

Now a housing construction project may have unearthed the biggest hiding place ever found in Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey famous for the otherworldly chimney houses, cave churches, and underground cities its residents carved for millennia.

Discovered beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nevşehir, the provincial capital, the site dates back at least to early Byzantine times. It is still largely unexplored, but initial studies suggest its size and features may rival those of Derinkuyu, the largest excavated underground city in Cappadocia, which could house 20,000 people.

By Jennifer Pinkowski

First published in National Geographic, March 26, 2015

In 2013, construction workers demolishing low-income homes ringing the castle discovered entrances to a network of rooms and tunnels. The city halted the housing project, called in archaeologists and geophysicists, and began investigating.

A 300-year-old paper trail between the local government and Ottoman officials suggested where to begin. “We found documents stating that there were close to 30 major water tunnels in this region,” says Nevşehir mayor Hasan Ünver.

In 2014, those tunnels led scientists to discover a multilevel settlement of living spaces, kitchens, wineries, chapels, staircases, and bezirhane—linseed presses for producing lamp oil to light the underground city. Artifacts including grindstones, stone crosses, and ceramics indicate the city was in use from the Byzantine era through the Ottoman conquest.

Like Derinkuyu, the site appears to have been a large, self-sustaining complex with air shafts and water channels. When danger loomed, Cappadocians retreated underground, blocked the access tunnels with round stone doors, and sealed themselves in with livestock and supplies until the threat passed.


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‘Building Wonders’: Haghia Sophia

Robert Ousterhout

Readers in the US, a treat is coming to your TV screens this Wednesday (February 25). Providence Pictures is releasing the third installment in its Building Wonders series. The first, on the Colosseum, aired on February 11, the second on Petra aired on February 18, and the third, entitled Hagia Sophia – Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery, will premiere at 9pm on WGBH Channel 2 and PBS on Wednesday (with re-runs at 2am, 5am and 1pm on Thursday, on WGBX 44). The programme features Robert Ousterhout, author and a recognised specialist in Byzantine architecture.

In this series, ancient writings and technology, along with expert opinions from historians, scientists, architects and engineers, are used to explore how the Colosseum, Petra and Haghia Sophia actually worked, architecturally speaking. For the Haghia Sophia part, Providence Pictures worked with earthquake engineers in Istanbul to build an eight-tonne brick-and-mortar model of the 1,500-year-old building, placed it on a seismic shake table and pushed it to collapse. The experiment was designed to investigate how Haghia Sophia has been able to withstand centuries of earthquakes while buildings around it collapsed.

If you’re not in the US, chances are the programme will be available on YouTube in the coming weeks. French speakers, there is already a version dubbed in your language that you can watch below.

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MyByzantine Blog 2014 in review

Thank you for your continued support in 2014. I was busy with many other projects but have some interesting material in the archives so hope to post more in 2015. A Happy New Year to you all.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys have prepared a 2014 annual report which you may find amusing.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 47,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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“Better Turks than Latins!” – The Aftermath and the New City

So the end of the Roman Empire and of its Emperors had come at last. The Roman Empire of the East, which we now call Byzantium had lasted (if you start at the founding of Constantinople) for one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years and eighteen days. Its contributions to Western culture and history would last: the Orthodox church; wonderful art; superb architecture; and checking the Ottoman advance into Europe. Perhaps most of all a myth emerged which like so many may be romanticised and idealised, but nevertheless can provide an inspiration for many. It has for me and this is why I started this blog.

Recently, Mizar, a cult rock band that uses Macedonian traditional music and Orthodox Christian chant in much of its work, released a new single, “Konstantinopol,” featuring Harmosini Choir. A video clip using a number of depictions of the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, including a modern romanticist, kitschy image of Constantine XI riding a horse on the battlements (minute 0:16) is on You Tube. It continues the romanticist theme and of course, Byzantium still has a powerful draw for the Greeks.

Let’s continue with the story of the Fall, as it did not end with the capture of the City. In fact you can see how Mehmet attempted to claim legitimacy as a continuation of the Roman Emperors.

Mehmet had now achieved the goal that for centuries had been the sacred duty of the faithful to capture the Christian capital. Born during a plague that had killed two of his brothers, he was the third son of a father, Sultan Murad, whopreferred his two brothers. They both died prematurely. Murad became closer to his older son and took him on campaigns. Most notably Mehmet commanded the Anatolian troops at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448 where the Albanian Christian patriot George Kastriota, better known as Skanderbeg, and the Hungarian prince John Hunyadi were soundly defeated.

When he seized the throne after his father’s death in 1451 the Western princes had formed no opinion of Mehmet and judged him by the failures of his youth. However, as we saw during the siege, he was quick to learn and the West badly misjudged the young Sultan thinking he would not add to his father’s conquests. As Gibbon wrote “Peace was on his lips, but war was in his heart.” He took his time receiving envoys and confirming previous treaties, biding his time until he was ready to continue the expansion of the Empire.

Mehmet had a fierce temper and did not lack courage. During the siege of Constantinople and the final assault, he had been at the head of his advancing troops, encouraging with promises of great prizes and with his heavy mace.

After the capture of the city, those in the West realised too late that leaving Constantinople to its fate had been a mistake. For many centuries it has acted as a bulwark against invasion from the east. In recent times, much weakened it had been a rump empire, surrounded by the Turks, but nevertheless it was a bastion drawing in Turkish time, energy and resources. Now the Turks were entirely free to face the West. There was much shock in the West. This was the end of the ancient Roman Empire and there was genuine sorrow and mourning for its Fall. Anthems were written and services held to mourn the loss. (the video below features the music of Cappella Romana from their album “The Fall of Constantinople”.

Mehmet did not waste time. With the capture of the city he saw himself as the heir of the Caesars. His city would be Byzantium reborn in a new image; an Islamic city and the centre of his Empire. He had big ideas and he was flattered by those he conquered. The Cretan historian George Trapezountios assured him when summoned to his court: “No one doubts that you are the Emperor of the Romans. Whoever is legally master of the capital of the Empire is the Emperor, and Constantinople is the capital of the Roman Empire.” Mehmet was Kaiser- i – Rum, Roman Emperor in succession to Augustus and Constantine the Great, and Padishah, Vice Regent of God. He now personified Turkish, Islamic and Byzantine traditions.

Therefore he had no desire or reason to destroy the city or the Empire, but to bring new life to it under an Ottoman pattern. He saw it remaining as a cosmopolitan empire, with all races and creeds living together in harmony. Whilst the Church was subordinate to the State and paid tribute, its members enjoyed freedom of worship and retained their own customs. Against Islamic law he retained the figurative mosaics in Hagia Sophia (many of which can still be seen today), which as a Mosque retained its name in Islamic form as Aya Sofya.

Mehmet decided the role of Patriarch should be retained and chose the monk Gennadius who has opposed union with the Roman church. In January 1454 Gennadius was enthroned as Greek Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Apostles (where Constantine the Great’s body lay). The Sultan himself personally invested the Patriarch with the insignia of his office. The role included complete authority of the Greek community in the Phanar quarter of the City, even having his own prison. His authority extended over all Greek Christians in the Empire. The Sultan positioned himself as the protector and benefactor of the Orthodox Church, cutting off any further influence from Rome. Furthermore Mehmet decided that his new city of Istanbul should be the seat of the Armenian Patriarch, and the Jewish Chief Rabbi. This tolerance may not be universally acknowledged but it was to give strength to the Ottoman Empire as it grew; the Christians provided merchants and administrators and proved very successful, enjoying privileges over many Muslims.

The view in the West at this time was that Mehmet was a possible convert to Christianity such was his tolerance of the Church and his general interest in Orthodox Christianity, even asking for Gennadius to write a statement of Orthodox beliefs in Turkish so that he might understand more. However, such a conversion was extremely unlikely. Mehmet was probably ensuring he understood all he needed to about such an important group of his subjects. His support and influence ensures the survival of the Orthodox Church, something that perhaps may not be universally acknowledged in the West. In fact his support added weight to the cries of “Better Turks than Latins!” which were to be heard during the interminable debates about the joining of the two churches over the years.

Besides settling the position of the Church, the Sultan worked fast on the literal rebuilding of the city – the walls, the buildings destroyed in the siege – and also rebuilding it as a great city. The population had fallen to less than forty thousand by the time of the siege. The Sultan urged Christians to return and they were exempted from taxation. Around thirty thousand peasants were moved into the surrounding areas as farmers to provide food for the city. Merchants, craftsmen and artisans were moved from all corners of the Ottoman Empire to the city to work on its rebirth as a trading centre and a capital fit for the vision of empire that Mehmet was now developing. The cultural and commercial growth of the city started to attract Greek merchants and others as they saw that Istanbul would offer opportunities for wealth such as they had not seen for a long time. Within one hundred years of the conquest, Istanbul had a population of nearly 500,000, of whom only around 50 per cent were Turkish.

Mosque of the Conqueror, built by Mehmet II

Mehmet was a great builder. He rebuilt palaces and extended them for himself and his family. Most notably he built the Mosque of Faith, known as the Mosque of the Conqueror. For this work he chose a Greek architect, and probably used Greek craftsmen for the many mosaics. This fusion of Islamic money, faith and design, with the skills of the Greeks was to be seen in many places, most notably in the work of the great Mosque on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Whilst the day of the Fall was bloody, it was no worse than can have been expected in any medieval siege. Mehmet had a vision for his city and he wanted it to flourish. He recognised that this could only be achieved through a tolerant, cosmopolitan approach. The success of this can be seen in the great building which followed and the growth in both population and wealth of the city in just a few short years. That may be relatively well known, but perhaps not enough credit is given to the judgements and wise rule of Sultan Mehmet “The Conqueror”.

Related articles:

The Fall of Constantinople 1453

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