‘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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Days that live in Infamy: The Fall of Constantinople

Mehmet the Conqueror enters Constantinople

Faced with the certainty of death it is said that experienced soldiers are ready to make that last leap into the fray, knowing that they have only one fate. A man schooled in princely duties such as Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologos knew his duty and on this day, 29 May in 1453 he died fighting for his empire, his people, and his faith.

By Tom Sawford

After a series of unrelenting attacks by the Ottomans since 1.30 am, Constantine was at his post at the Lycus valley at aaround 7.00 am but it was clear that all seemed lost now. He gave final orders to his friends John Dalamata and Don Francisco de Toledo, and weighed in to fight hand to hand beside his troops fighting desperately in one last bid to throw back the enemy.

How tired he must have been. Covered in the blood of friend and foe alike, his sword arm feeling like a lead bar, slipping on mud and blood and tangled bodies he was now just another soldier fighting for this life and his country in the intense and frenzied conditions of hand to hand fighting where the only instincts are to kill, slash, stab, butt, kick, and scream, only thinking about the next blow and where the next enemy may come from.

Finally the last Emperor of the Romans realised that it was over. He flung off his imperial regalia, and with his friends made one last charge into the body of the enemy. He was never seen again.

The morning of 29 May was given over to rape, pillage and destruction. Those that could headed for the harbour where Genoese and Venetian ships were desperately preparing to leave the city. Hundreds of refugees joined the sailors and made their way down the Bosphorus.

Late in the afternoon the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet, entered the city and ordered the looting to stop. He headed straight for St Sophia, placed a handful of earth on his turban as a gesture of humility and entered the great church. The senior imam mounted the pulpit and proclaimed the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate, there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet. The Sultan knelt, his head to the ground in prayer and thanksgiving.

The city was his at the age of just twenty one. The Empire of the Romans was finished.

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The Final Hours of Constantinople: the funeral oration of the Roman Empire

A romanticised image of Constantine XI Palaeologos at the end of the siege

We come now to the last hours of Byzantium. The defenders were weary after defending the city since April 5th 1453. The Emperor’s hope lay with a relief fleet from Venice, but this had failed to appear. On 3 May a Venetian brigantine left the Golden Horn flying a Turkish standard, and carrying a crew of twelve volunteers. It slipped through the Turkish naval defence to go in search of the expected reinforcements.

We ponder the last hours before the final Ottoman assault, and I try to take some of it from the personal perspective of the last true Emperor of the Romans, Constantine XI Palaeologos, also called Dragases …

By Tom Sawford

As the end drew near all in the city must have thought that the ship would not return but on the night of 23rd of May it reappeared hotly pursued by a squadron of Turkish ships. Tacking furiously the superior seamanship of the Venetians resulted in them successfully outrunning the Turks. They reported that they had searched for three weeks throughout the Aegean with no success. The captain asked his men if they wished to return to Venice or to Constantinople. All bar one volunteered to return to the Emperor knowing full well that they would probably never leave the city alive (Note – The Venetian relief fleet sent by Pope Nicholas was on its way. It had anchored off Chios waiting for a favourable wind).

As weariness and hunger set in so did the level of superstition rise. Some spoke of the omens that forecast the last Emperor of the Romans would be a Constantine born of a Helena. On 24 May there was a lunar eclipse; two days later the most precious icon of the Virgin fell to the ground whilst being carried in a procession. It was picked up but then a huge thunderstorm burst over the city, more violent than any could remember. The next morning the whole city was shrouded in a thick fog, and later that night a red glow crept up the side of the Hagia Sophia to the summit and then disappeared. The Turks saw this also and interpreted it as a sign that the building would soon be illuminated by the one true faith. The Byzantines saw only the spirit of God leaving the city. The Emperor was encouraged by his friend George Sphrantzes to leave the city whilst there was still time, but Constantine would have none of it. This was his city; these were his people and he could not desert them.

Mehmet was now getting impatient. Some of his advisers said the siege had been going on too long and should be broken off. His younger generals however agreed with the Sultan who said that the time had come for the final assault and plans were made for an attack in the early hours of 29 May.

There was no attempt at secrecy by the Turks. Why should there be? The site of the preparations for battle of such a large, well equipped and well fed army would be enough to lower the morale of the defenders even more. Ditches were filled, cannon pulled into new positions, catapults ranged in place, food, water, scaling ladders, arrows, bandages, gunpowder and all other weapons and stores required by an army undertaking a frontal assault were prepared. At dawn on 28th May all work ceased. The Sultan wanted his men to rest. Mehmet spent the day inspecting and making final adjustments and giving his orders. All was ready.

That day was a Monday and within the walls the defenders prepared themselves but could get no rest. Imagine their tasks; making all ready at their positions; filling gaps in the walls; bringing up new supplies of arrows; sharpening swords; trying to eat what few rations they had; going back to their homes to see all was well, and then back to their stations on the walls. The most precious of icons processed around the streets in a spontaneous procession of Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic alike. The Emperor joined this procession and when it was over he called his captains and generals to him to give them his last instructions. He told them all that there were four great causes for which a man should be prepared to die: his faith; his country; his family and his Emperor. They must be prepared now to give their lives for all four. He said he was willing to die for his faith, his family, his city and its people. He then turned to them all, Greeks and Italians alike, and gave a speech which was effectively the funeral oration of the Roman Empire:

“Gentlemen, illustrious captains of the army, and our most Christian comrades in arms: we now see the hour of battle approaching. I have therefore elected to assemble you here to make it clear that you must stand together with firmer resolution than ever. You have always fought with glory against the enemies of Christ. Now the defence of your fatherland and of the city known the world over, which the infidel and evil Turks have been besieging for two and fifty days, is committed to your lofty spirits.

Be not afraid because its walls have been worn down by the enemy’s battering. For your strength lies in the protection of God and you must show it with your arms quivering and your swords brandished against the enemy. I know that this undisciplined mob will, as is their custom, rush upon you with loud cries and ceaseless volleys of arrows. These will do you no bodily harm, for I see that you are well covered in armour. They will strike the walls, our breastplates and our shields. So do not imitate the Romans who, when the Carthaginians went into battle against them, allowed their cavalry to be terrified by the fearsome sight and sound of elephants.

In this battle you must stand firm and have no fear, no thought of flight, but be inspired to resist with ever more herculean strength. Animals may run away from animals. But you are men, men of stout heart, and you will hold at bay these dumb brutes, thrusting your spears and swords into them, so that they will know that they are fighting not against their own kind but against the masters of animals.

You are aware that the impious and infidel enemy has disturbed the peace unjustly. He has violated the oath and treaty that he made with us; he has slaughtered our farmers at harvest time; he has erected a fortress on the Propontis as it were to devour the Christians; he has encircled Galata under a pretence of peace.

Now he threatens to capture the city of Constantine the Great, your fatherland, the place of ready refuge for all Christians, the guardian of all Greeks, and to profane its holy shrines of God by turning them into stables for his horses. Oh my lords, my brothers, my sons, the everlasting honour of Christians is in your hands.

You men of Genoa, men of courage and famous for your infinite victories, you who have always protected this city, your mother, in many a conflict with the Turks, show now your prowess and your aggressive spirit toward them with manly vigour.

You men of Venice, most valiant heroes, whose swords have many a time made Turkish blood to flow and who in our time have sent so many ships, so many infidel souls to the depths under the command of Loredano, the most excellent captain of our fleet, you who have adorned this city as if it were your own with fine, outstanding men, lift high your spirits now for battle.

You, my comrades in arms, obey the commands of your leaders in the knowledge that this is the day of your glory — a day on which, if you shed but a drop of blood, you will win for yourselves crowns of martyrdom and eternal fame.”

Once over he shook their hands asking for forgiveness for any wrongs he had committed against them and moved to the Church of the Holy Wisdom where for one last time vespers were held in the great church built by Justinian nearly nine hundred years previously. Virtually everyone who did not have pressing duties is said to have come to take the Eucharist one last time. Cardinal Isidore, former Metropolitan of Kiev took the service, uniting Orthodox and Catholic as he dispensed the Holy Sacrament. The Emperor took communion and then returned to Blachernae Palace for a last supper with his household. Around midnight he rode the length of the land walls with his friend George Sphrantzes to convince himself that all that could be done had been done for the defence of his city. They talked together for an hour on top of a tower near the palace and then said their goodbyes, knowing that they would never see each other again.

Related articles:

Weather Eye: explaining bizarre events in the Byzantine Empire

The Siege of Constantinople One Month On

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Turkey’s Great Musical Gamble

Another article from the New English Review on an interesting subject. I can only imagine that the situation has got worse sincein the middle east in general since this was first written.

By Geoffrey Clarfield.

First published in the New English Review, February 2010.

Today the status of music and musicians in the Islamic world is grim. In Europe and North America, municipal, regional and national authorities compete with each other to support the arts-music, theatre, dance, sculpture, film and architecture. With few restrictions artists and musicians are free to express themselves. What was considered obscene twenty years ago, today gets broadcast with barely the blink of an eye. And, in the West the Internet remains completely uncensored.

The religious right maintains a steady criticism of the lascivious hedonism and violent sentiments that so much modern music expresses, but the law and the courts uphold freedom of expression, the market supports it and public funding for the arts is rarely withheld on moral grounds. It would be fair to say that in the Western democracies musicians are free to express themselves in any way possible.

Not so in the contemporary Islamic world. During the 1950s Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice banned singing and music. In those days, if you were caught at a musical gathering the religious police had the right to beat you up. It was a time when musical instruments as well as records and record players could be seized and destroyed by the authorities.

During the last fifty years the Saudis have liberalized their approach to music and it is now broadcast on their TV and radio stations. But the state still monitors and screens recordings and live performances. Licenses for recording go mainly to male singers. Yet in contemporary Saudi Arabia there are still a significant number of hard line religious teachers who encourage young people to burn musical instruments in public places. Such a situation creates a climate of fear and no doubt, Saudi or visiting musicians and song writers self edit to an extraordinary degree.

Despite the relatively tolerant nature of Egyptian society and their interpretation of Islam, music and musicians there also live in fear. Every piece of music needs a recording license issued by the government in order to be published. Often the censors ask the artists to change the lyrics. The government gives much authority to the Islamic Research Council of the religiously based Al Azhar University which is active in the censorship of music. They often contact publishers and ask them to change, or hold back a piece of music from the public for religious reasons. Members of the Egyptian Assembly representing the radical Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood regularly criticize pop music and musicians during parliamentary sessions.

In relatively tolerant and multi cultural Lebanon the musician and singer Marcel Khalife barely escaped the wrath of Islamic authorities there who managed to have him tried in a high court for blasphemy, for the content of a song which used a line from the Quran. After numerous hearings he was acquitted, not because the court agreed that in that barely secular republic, as a songwriter he had the right to freedom of expression, but because in their eyes, “the defendant has chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase.” Imagine what his prison sentence might have been if he had been using the phrase ironically.

Similarly, a recent hip hop concert in Gaza was violently broken up by Hamas supporters. Even though the contents of the lyrics were stridently anti Israel, the followers of Hamas took exception to the fact that the rappers were using a form of music that came from the West. The content was the least important issue. And, that did not stop radical Islamic clerics around the world from threatening former Beatle Paul McCarthy with death for performing in Israel. Continue reading

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

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.

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