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 ( 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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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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