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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The Laconian plain viewed fron the fortress of Villehardouin

The city of Mystras, the historic place where the last Byzantine emperor was crowned, now sits abandoned on the steep slopes of the Taygetus Mountains that tower over the Laconian plain. The ruins that remain transport visitors through a breathtaking, finely preserved medieval Byzantine city.

The imposing fortress of Villehardouin crowns the highest point of the city and possesses the most fabulous views of the site. Its namesake, William II of Villehardouin, was Prince of Achaea, one of the anemic Latin crusader states established after France, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire carved up the Byzantine Empire after the tragic Fourth Crusade of 1204.

After the territory was reclaimed by the Byzantines in 1262, the site on which Villehardouin had built the fortress became the city of Mystras. Its strategic mountain location was increasingly more useful to the Byzantines, who were besieged on all sides by treacherous western adventurers and the seemingly unstoppable Ottoman Turks.

Connected to the fortress through a descending series of narrow staircases and decaying arches are seven medieval churches in various states of preservation. The Peribleptos Monastery contains rare, colorful frescoes which depict Gospel scenes as well as a gruesome illustration of the damned in hell. The Pantanassa Monastery is the only still-occupied building in the city—here lives a small group of nuns, who tend to the garden and feed a bustling local colony of feral cats.

Elsewhere on a steep rock face sits the magnificent Palace of the Despots, named for the peculiar title of the Byzantine royals who ruled the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. Located below the palace, the Metropolitan Church of St. Demetrius contains the colorful frescoes and a marble engraving of the crowned two-headed eagle of the coat of arms of the final emperors, the Palaiologos.

In addition to its role in the political world of medieval Greece, Mystras was a center of a late-Byzantine cultural and artistic flowering that influenced the Renaissance. Its most famous resident was the philosopher Gemistus Pletho, an iconoclastic scholar who studied Aristotle, Zoroastrianism, and Jewish Kabbalah under the Turks in Edirne. Plethon advocated (to a horrified Orthodox clergy) for a Byzantine revival of the Greek pantheon ruled by Zeus, and his 15th-century voyage to Florence reintroduced the works of Plato to the West.

Mystras fell to the Ottomans in 1460 and was inhabited until the 19th-century Greek War of Independence, after which it was abandoned. Travelers of that era ironically mistook its ruins for those of Sparta, another abandoned Peloponnesian city located just below Mystras on the Laconian plain.

Because Mystras is located on a mountainside, a visit to the city involves moderately strenuous hiking. The site has two entrances: one at the base of the site and another at the top (near the fortress). If arriving by taxi from Sparta, it is highly advised to be driven to the upper entrance and walk down, rather than entering below and climbing up. Public buses travel to the site from Sparta daily. Open year-round.

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Albania’s Voskopoja churches make it to Europe’s 7 most endangered heritage sites

Voskopoja church

Voskopoja church

Continuing the focus on endangered churches in Albania, there is good and bad news. The post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, southeastern Albania, have made it to Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites for 2018, in a ranking that helps mobilise support for one of Albania’s landmark heritage sites. However, how that support may materialise, and what can be done to prevent further damage and theft whilst conservation efforts are mobilised, is another question altogether. We can all help by visiting these 12 churches and joining groups that can help the protection and restoration.

From the Tirana Times

The post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, southeastern Albania, have made it to Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites for 2018, in a ranking that helps mobilize support for one of Albania’s landmark heritage sites.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Gjirokastra, southern Albania, was also shortlisted among the 12 most endangered sites but did not make it to the top seven.

Albania’s 17th and 18th century post-Byzantine churches made the list because of “war, plundering and natural disasters having seriously damaged this group of 12 churches,” says Netherlands-based Europa Nostra, a leading European heritage organization.

“The listed Church of Saint George in Voskopoja, which won a Europa Nostra Award in 2011 for its outstanding conservation, now faces the threat of theft and highlights the urgency with which these remarkable churches need to be protected,” the watchdog says.

The historic centre of Vienna, the Constanta Casino in Romania, the Prinkipo Greek orphanage on Princes’ Islands in Turkey, and the Grimsby ice factory in the United Kingdom were among the other sites to make it to the seven most endangered list.

The multidisciplinary Europa Nostra-led teams visiting the endangered sites are expected to provide technical advice, identify possible sources of funding and mobilise wide support to save these heritage landmarks as well as formulate feasible action plans for the listed sites by the end of the year.

“This newest list of 7 Most Endangered comprises rare treasures of Europe’s cultural heritage that are in danger of being lost. The local communities are deeply committed to preserving these important examples of our shared heritage but need broader European support. I therefore call on local, regional, national and European stakeholders, both public and private, to join forces to secure a viable future for these sites,” said Plácido Domingo, the President of Europa Nostra.

Architect Kliti Kallamata, the managing director of the Korça-based “Past for the Future” foundation that submitted the nomination for the Voskopoja and Vithkuq post-Byzantine churches, southeastern Albania, has blamed decades-long neglect that the public administration has shown toward the monuments by carrying out only emergency interventions with no strategic multidisciplinary restoration project.

“These monuments face a lot of problems starting with moisture, the degradation of mural paintings, the static stabilization of complicated structures, the approach toward degraded and ruined architectural elements, lack of lighting and protection against theft and lots of other stuff,” Kallamata has earlier said, adding that the last interventions date back to the mid-1960s under communist just before Albania banned religion.

“If the post-Byzantine Voskopoja and Vithkuq churches are included in Europe’s 2018 seven most endangered programme, we will have the right assistance to conserve and restore them under contemporary professionalism and later introduce them to the public,” he said as the Voskopoja churches made it to the 12 most endangered sites last Janaury.

Back in 2013, the landmark ancient Roman amphitheater of Durres also made it to the Europa Nosta Seven Most Endangered List, mobilizing a rehabilitation project that involved the demolition of several residential structures and the complete uncovering of its arena.

Post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq

A number of Post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, situated in southeastern Albania, are the most representative monuments of 17th-18th century ecclesiastical art in the Balkans and are masterpieces of the post-Byzantine style. War, plundering and natural disasters have seriously damaged this group of 12 churches. The surrounding Christian population has greatly declined and a subsequent lack of clergy has resulted in the majority of the churches remaining unused for most of the year. The main threat now is the total negligence by those administratively responsible for the churches at the national level, namely the Institute of Cultural Monuments. The listed Church of Saint George in Voskopoja, which won a Europa Nostra Award in 2011 for its outstanding conservation, faces the threat of theft and highlights the urgency with which these remarkable churches need to be protected. The nomination for the 7 Most Endangered programme 2018 was submitted by “The Past for the Future” Foundation. (Description made on Europa Nostra list).

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A happy Easter

We here at the Byzantine blog would like to wish you and your family a happy and peaceful Easter. This year I would like to share with you the beautiful voice of Nektaria Karantzi, a Greek singer of traditional Byzantine and Orthodox chant.

Fine out more about Nektaria, her concerts and more video on her Facebook page.

Don’t forget to switch on the volume!

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Ruined Albanian churches could be tourist magnet if repaired

A man points out a damaged fresco in the Orthodox Church of Saint Athanasios in Leshnica, Albania

As someone who has made four visits to Albania (more than I have made to Spain!) this article was of great interest to me. Saving the many Byzantine churches of Albania would certainly be worthwhile, but as this article shows, it will be an uphill and mightily expensive battle, and one that is perhaps too late in many cases.

By Benet Koleka

First published by Reuters.

Many old Albanian Orthodox churches and the art they contain lie in ruins due to decades of neglect but they could attract tourists if they are repaired, according to experts.

The government and the Orthodox church itself have started restoring some of the structures that date from the Byzantine period or later in the south of the country.

The churches are often in picturesque locations and their fortunes reflect the twists of Albanian politics over the last century.

Albania became a functioning state after World War One after domination under the Ottoman Empire. It became communist after World War Two but embraced democracy in 1990 and aspires to join the European Union.

The post-Byzantine Saint Athanasius church in Leshnice is one example. Its frescoes have stared at the stars since last May when the roof caved in and its southern wall fell down.

The church has plastic sheets over its walls for protection while debris with parts of frescoes is piled to one side.

Jorgo Sheka said it was taken care as a cultural shrine under late dictator Enver Hoxha, who was a hardline Stalinist, but has been neglected since then.

“No one else lifted a finger but Hoxha cared for it,” he said, criticising the leaders who followed Hoxha for neglect.

Hoxha banned religion in the 1960s and destroyed many churches and mosques but he kept some for their art. More than 60 percent of Albanians are nominally Muslim and the rest are Christians.

The Leshnice church is decorated with figures of saints in golden halos and biblical scenes in dark blue and red. Saint Athanasius dates to 1797 but frescoes underneath suggested it was older.

Its fame and location in a village helped the Church at Labova of the Cross get a facelift. Its cross of solid gold weighing 0.8 kilos and carved wood from the cross Christ died on was a gift of Emperor Justinian I, two scholars said.

The cross went missing in 1989 and has not been found.

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Mark Whittow obituary

Mark Whittow in Romania. He could teach everything: the fall of the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, Carolingian Europe and the Crusades

The historian Mark Whittow, who has died aged 60 in a road accident, did much to encourage the teaching of his subject in universities from an increasingly global perspective. His book The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 examined the early history of the Byzantine empire, up to the death of Emperor Basil II, when its territories stretched from Armenia to southern Italy. It demonstrated to both students and general readers that medieval history might extend not only beyond the Seine, Rhine and Danube, but even beyond the Bosphorus into what is now Turkey and the Black Sea.

Eschewing a conventional narrative of political dynasties, and rejecting the usual view from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, Mark’s lucid text examined the people, geography and resources of what had started as the eastern continuation of the Roman empire, but which then became a multi-ethnic power in its own right.

In numerous articles he continued to make important contributions to Byzantine social history, keen to explore how Byzantium, like the world of Latin Christendom, underwent a transformative change in the 11th century. This was the so-called “feudal revolution”, the moment at which peasant labour was suddenly and systematically conscripted to produce the agricultural surplus that was to make possible the flourishing of medieval cities.

As both a medieval historian and a Byzantinist, Mark was fully equipped to produce a book that will not now see the light of day: his proposed volume for the Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 1000-1100. This was to have begun with stories from seven centres – Conques, in southern France, on the pilgrim route to Compostela; Córdoba, in Andalucía; Dandanaqan, the site of a great battle, in Turkmenistan; York; Canossa, in northern Italy; Constantinople; and Jerusalem. It would have dealt with climate change and the violent, transformative effects of the rise and fall of a slaving economy stretching from Scandinavia to the Black Sea. Those taught by Mark will have grasped the vision he had in mind for the book, and certainly disseminate it further.

He could teach everything: the fall of the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, Carolingian Europe – the region whose greatest ruler was Charlemagne – and the Crusades. These were but the starting points for explorations further east, of medieval Persia, India, China, and 16th-century Japan. His last course of lectures was on medieval global history.

Scrupulously fair over admissions, he made dedicated medievalists of first-year undergraduates who had never studied anything before 1800. There were many excursions beyond Oxford to look at landscapes, explore churches, follow a medieval city wall, or assess the defensibility of an iron age fort. Mark demonstrated that history was more than books and essays.

Born in Cambridge, he was the son of John, a chartered accountant, and his wife, Joan. His father died when Mark was 10 years old, and he won a scholarship for boys who had lost a parent to Lord Wandsworth college, near Hook, in Hampshire, from where in 1976 he went to study history at Trinity College, Oxford.

He took a first-class degree in history, and stayed on for a doctorate on Byzantine history and archaeology supervised by James Howard-Johnston. At Oriel College from 1984 his mentor for a junior research fellowship was the medievalist Jeremy Catto. Since the written sources from Byzantium are limited, its history also has to be studied through its material cultures, and Mark went on expeditions in order to be able to use archaeology and social anthropology in his research and teaching.

After short-term positions at Reading University and King’s College London, in 1998 Mark was elected to a teaching fellowship at St Peter’s College, Oxford. He drove around the city in a battered, rusting, double-sized Land Rover that looked as if it had just emerged from the desert, and hosted memorable student parties, to him a key component of a broad liberal education. He was hard-working but always relentlessly cheerful.

In 2010 Mark left St Peter’s to take up the lectureship in Byzantine studies, located in Corpus Christi College. At the start of his career, Byzantine history held a small place in the Oxford faculty. He built the subject into a major component of the undergraduate curriculum and developed the master’s course in Byzantine studies into one of the most notable of its type anywhere.

Mark enjoyed serving in 2016-17 as the university’s senior proctor, an ancient position that combines the roles of university policeman, ombudsman and counsellor. He had been due the to take up the headship of Oriel as provost in September this year.

He is survived by his wife, Helen, a barrister and deputy high court judge, and their three children, George, Mary and Flossy.

• Mark Whittow, historian, born 24 August 1957; died 23 December 2017

First published in The Guardian

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Leading Oxford professor of Byzantine Studies, Dr Mark Whittow, killed in car crash

Dr Mark Whittow

Leading academics and the president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, have paid tribute to Oxford University lecturer Dr Mark Whittow after he died before Christmas.

Dr Whittow is believed to have died in a collision on the M40 motorway on 23 December, in which a 29-year-old man from Warwickshire was also killed.

The 60-year-old medieval historian and archaeologist was last month appointed the next Provost of Oriel College – a role he was due to take on from September next year.

Oriel College’s flag was flown at half mast following the news and the college also paid tribute to the man who began his academic teaching there and was due to return next year.

It said: “Mark taught generations of Oriel students and we were looking forward to welcoming him as the College’s next Provost in September 2018.

“A huge loss, and our thoughts are with his family.”

Academics from around the country and across the world, as well as former students, paid tribute to the Corpus Christi College professor of Byzantine Studies.

Corpus Christi president Steve Cowley said “Corpus has taken the news of Mark’s death very hard.

“Mark was a deeply likable man, someone who was generous with his time and concern for other people – one of those rare individuals who plays such a large part in conjuring that mysterious alchemy that helps complicated communities like ours to work.

“Selfishly, we were not looking forward to the time when he was to move to Oriel, but now ours is a much deeper sorrow, rooted in the knowledge that we shall never again have the pleasure of spending time in Mark’s company.

“We send our deepest condolences to his wife Helen and his family, as well as those many people around Oxford and beyond into whose lives Mark brought such enormous pleasure as well as sharing with them his deep understanding of the Byzantine world. We are all going to miss him terribly.”

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