To the modern mind, the world of Byzantium is by turns fascinating, disturbing and puzzling. The eastern Roman empire and the culture it spawned were a powerful presence in global history for more than a thousand years, roughly from the fourth to the 15th centuries. Even in the final period, when the Byzantine empire’s political power waned and its territory shrank to a tiny patch of land at the intersection between Europe and Asia, the cultural influence of its artists, architects and craftsmen remained undiminished.
First published in The Economist, 17 February 2012
Museum exhibitions with a Byzantine theme tend to be hugely popular. There is something about the mosaics, icons, wood carvings and embroidery of Byzantium that can fire the imagination of people who otherwise have little interest in the subtle theological disputes and murderous palace intrigues of emperors with confusingly similar names. Big crowds attended an exhibition on Byzantium at London’s Royal Academy in 2008-09, as well as the magnificent Byzantine shows at New York’s Metropolitan Museum over the years. The Met’s forthcoming exhibition on Byzantium and Islam—a bold choice of subject-matter—will doubtless cause a comparable sensation when it opens on March 14th.
But for people at the coal-face of Byzantine studies—the professors, students, curators and conservators who devote their lives to this field—there is little time to bask in reflected glory. The global community of Byzantinists is large, diverse and quarrelsome. They come from the expected places—Greece, the Balkans, Russia, Georgia—and some unexpected places, like Japan, Argentina, Brazil and even Tajikistan. The great universities of North America and Western Europe are present in force. Every five years up to a thousand of these scholars assemble in some city or other to spend a week sharing their latest research, networking and perhaps conspiring. These gatherings are a good opportunity to stage public exhibitions, concerts and lectures, and the competition to host them can be hot.
London played host in 2006, and last August it was the turn of Sofia in Bulgaria. Where next? The burgeoning community of Byzantium scholars in Turkey were optimistic that Istanbul would have its turn in 2016. So it was a big upset at the last congress when participants decided instead to hold the next gathering in Belgrade.
Judith Herrin, the British president of the International Association of Byzantine Studies (known by its French acronym as AIEB) resigned in protest. She argued that the vote was flawed because too few national delegations were present. Many reasoned that holding the next congress in Istanbul would have given proper recognition to the now flourishing field of Byzantine studies in Turkey, where private donors such as the Koc Foundation are doling out grants for conservation and research. This is a welcome turn in a country that has long been accused of neglecting—and often despoiling—the legacy of Greek and Christian civilisation that once flourished on its soil.
With the Byzantine academic community in a state of turmoil, the AIEB held a crisis meeting on February 11th to fill the post left vacant by Ms Herrin. Many found it auspicious that the process involved an orderly open-ballot vote. Johannes Koder, a professor at the University of Vienna, prevailed over Michel Kaplan, a Frenchman and former president of the University of Paris. Mr Koder has been quick to urge his fellow Byzantinists to avoid complacency or introspection, the failings which spelled doom for Byzantium itself.
Despite all the razzamatazz of exhibitions at prestigious venues, the field has been facing serious problems since the 1980s, Mr Koder says. In most Western countries, the number of people who study Latin and Greek at school or university has plunged. It used to be that a classical education was a basic precursor for the study of the later medieval period. For Byzantinology to survive, Mr Koder reckons it will have to be better integrated into the broader field of Mediterranean studies, to illustrate the relationship between Byzantium and the rise of Islam and later of Renaissance Europe. Perhaps the first step in that direction will be the Met’s forthcoming exhibition, which will concentrate on the early Muslim centuries: a time when, in between fighting, the Byzantines and Muslims were exchanging artistic techniques.