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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Byzantine Monastery with Colourful Mosaics Unearthed in Israel

The remains of a 1,500-year-old monastery and church, complete with a colorful mosaic floor, have been unearthed in Israel.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced that the Byzantine monastery (the complex where the church was located) was uncovered during salvage excavations taking place ahead of construction in Beit Shemesh, a city west of Jerusalem.

“During the excavation, we uncovered before our eyes the remains of walls built of large worked stone masonry and a number of architectural elements, including a marble pillar base decorated with crosses and marble window screens,” Benyamin Storchan, director of the excavations, said in a statement. [See Photos of the Byzantine Church Remains]

The marble was not from a local source, but rather it had been shipped from Turkey, Storchan explained. In one of the church rooms, the team revealed “a beautiful mosaic floor decorated with birds, leaves and pomegranates,” Storchan said in a statement. In a related IAA video, Storchan said that the church likely “enjoyed a great deal of wealth in ancient times.”

Among the artifacts found during the excavations were a small bronze cross that may have been part of jewelry and ceramic oil lamps blackened by ancient charring.

The church seems to have been abandoned in the seventh century during the early Islamic conquest, Storchan said, but the researchers are still trying to figure out why the church went out of use.

Compared with other churches found in the Judean Shephelah or Judean foothills, Storchan said “this one has outstanding preservation” and it is one of the largest found in the region. “Often we only find little pieces of it, and we’re uncovering it complete.”

Christianity spread throughout Israel after the Byzantine Empire formed in the fourth century, Storchan said, and those early churches were often associated with biblical sites, or tombs of saints and martyrs. Just south of the church is the Ella Valley, which, according to the bible, is the place where David fought Goliath.

“Maybe they had a notion that this is the valley,” Storchan said in the video. “All this is speculation, but it’s completely possible.”

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Saint Catherine’s Monastery library reopens

Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Egypt has reopened the ancient library at the famed St. Catherine’s Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in South Sinai, which holds thousands of centuries-old religious and historical manuscripts .

The inauguration ceremony was attended by Egyptian and western officials. It comes after three years of restoration work on the eastern side of the library that houses the world’s second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library, according to Monk Damyanos, the monastery’s archbishop.

“The library is now open to the public and scholars,” said Tony Kazamias, an adviser to the archbishop, adding that restoration work is still underway without specifying a completion date.

The ancient library holds around 3,300 manuscripts of mainly Christian texts in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, and Slavonic among other languages. It also contains thousands of books and scrolls dating to the 4th century.

At least 160 of the manuscripts include faint scratches and ink tints beneath more recent writing, according to Kazamias, who believes the palimpsests were likely scraped out by the monastery’s monks and reused sometime between the 8th- 12th centuries.

During the library’s renovation, archaeologists apparently found some of Hippocrates’ centuries-old medical recipes. The ancient Greek physician is widely regarded as the “father of western medicine.”

The officials also inaugurated the Mosaic of the Transfiguration in the basilica of the monastery. The mosaic features a rich chromatic range of glass paste, glass, stone, gold and silver tesserae. It was created in the 6th century at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who also requested building the monastery.

St. Catherine’s, where the monastery is located, is an area revered by followers of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like the Old City of Jerusalem, it has become a popular destination and an attraction not only for monks and pilgrims but also tourists from the world over.

The 6th century monastery, one of the oldest Christian Orthodox monasteries, is home to a small number of monks who observe rituals unchanged for centuries. Its well-preserved walls and buildings are of great significance to the studies Byzantine architecture. It’s situated at the foot of Mount Sinai, also known as Jebel Musa or Mount Horeb, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.

First published in Business Insider.

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UNESCO: Every Person Must Visit these 18 Greek Monuments

You can’t argue that this is indeed an impressive list. What would you add?

UNESCO advises travellers to Greece to visit 18 monuments that are an absolute must as World Heritage Monuments, out of a total 1,073 sites graded as World Heritage Monuments.

Read more here.

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Complete set of A Short History of Byzantium audio for sale

DSC06907There is a very rare opportunity to purchase the hugely enjoyable and authoritative  complete and unabridged audiobook of John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium”, brilliantly narrated by John McDonough. From its beginnings in A.D. 330, this audiobook provides listeners with a spirited, gripping, and original account of a great lost civilization and its magnificent artistic heritage. The audiobook consists of 16 cassettes in very good condition offering 23.5 hours listening time. I have listened to them and they are all in excellent order. This was a library copy, but clearly barely ever issued or played. If you love Byzantine history you will enjoy this.

The best way to preserve the audio is to convert to a MP3 format on your PC or Mac and retain it in your iTunes or similar to listen from iTunes etc. It is a very simple process. You can purchase converters for very modest cost on Amazon – see here.

I have searched around and not found this audio format anywhere else. This is very rare.

If you are interested in purchasing, please email me tsawford[at] with your best offer. It will be possible to post this to international locations with cost to be confirmed. Payment by PayPal.



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The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon – update

When it was announced that the small, but beautiful Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was to be turned back in to a mosque on 2013, there were fears that it’s many treasures of frescoes and mosaics may be destroyed.

This report in the Guardian, whilst confirming that some have been covered up, appears to confirm that no major damage has occurred to the Byzantine marvel.

If you have recently visited or know more, it would be great to hear you views.

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