Repost – The must-see art museums of Athens

23-hamish-bowles-guide-to-art-in-athens-greeceVogue’s Hamish Bowles visits the Must-See art museums of Athens.

This year I sandwiched a blissful break on a remote Greek island in between trips to Athens—a city that, although beleaguered by the country’s economic travails, remains a hotbed of creative activity and cultural excitement.

As ever, it is the pluperfect place in which to explore millennia of creative achievement. My first stop was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and its embarrassment of treasures, along with the Acropolis Museum (with a surprising and stirring exhibition, “εmotions”). I also explored the fascinating Byzantine and Christian Museum for the first time—and found it to be still further testament to Greece’s many layerings of cultural influences.

Hidden away in the basement galleries, I might almost have missed the Techni Group exhibition, a tribute to the centenary of the group show of artists led by Nikolaos Lytras and his friends (among whom I particularly admired the work of Pavlos Mathiopoulos, Konstantinos Parthenis, and Lykourgos Kogevinas) that established modernism in Greece under the patronage of the visionary prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Thank goodness I managed to see it, because the work of the artists—evoking by turns the fashionable swagger portraits of Boldini and Sargent, the theatrical drama of Bakst, and the charm of the plein air painters of late-19th-century France—comes together as a powerful statement for a new national identity through art.

Onward to the Benaki Museum—one of my favorite museums not only in Athens but in the world. After my first visit a decade or so ago, I was so inspired by its beautifully displayed collections of vernacular Greek costumes (among many other treasures that span the millennia) that I raced to Paris to tell John Galliano about it. He sent a posse from his design team to research—and subsequently based one of his eponymous collections on the pieces (think: stiff wool dirndl skirts and rich embroideries). The museum has recently expanded its displays, so there are even more treasures to admire in its intimate rooms, and on this latest visit I was also lucky to catch the exhibition “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece,” which is centered around the friendship of the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, whose spiky, highly colored works exemplify mid-century style, and the brilliant travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who met one another in the 1940s after the war and were drawn together not least by their love of Greece.

The show, elegantly curated by Evita Arapoglou, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ian Collins, and Ioanna Moraiti (and in collaboration with the Leventis Gallery and the Craxton Estate), brings together not only their work but also images of the remarkable houses that they created: Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s Baroque colonial finca on Corfu and Neoclassical mansion on Hydra; the ineffably stylish stone house that Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor built above the craggy coastline of Kardamyli in their beloved Mani region of mainland Greece; and Craxton’s modest fisherman’s house on the Venetian harbor of Chania in Crete. Video—along with still images of these enduringly inspiring places and interviews with friends of the late artists—brought their worlds of fecund imagination brilliantly to life and created a moving tribute.

Thence to the truly astonishing Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the inspiring new home to the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Difficult as it is to imagine without the photographic evidence, the original site was apparently grim—a flat expanse of wasteland and concrete latterly used as parking for several of the stadiums built for the 2004 Athens Olympics and hemmed in by motorways that blocked the view of the Bay of Phalerum and the sea beyond. With a flourish of his pen and a giant bound of his imagination, master architect Renzo Piano envisaged the plot as a verdantly planted hill rising in a gentle slope the length of the site, and at its 33-meter peak it now soars far above the choking Athenian traffic below and offers heart-stopping views not only of the Aegean waters but a panorama of the city itself, along with its famed hills and the Parthenon. Beneath the slope, Piano placed the National Library of Greece and a sprawling, soaring cultural complex of performance and concert, dance, and operatic rehearsal spaces to house the Greek National Opera. (The ensemble that Piano has planned is meant to evoke the cultural meeting place of an ancient Greek agora.) The heart of the opera house is the 1,400-seat Stavros Niarchos Hall. The theater’s cherrywood and its scarlet fabrics evoke a classic 19th-century theater, but its state-of-the-art acoustics and Platinum LEED rating, along with Susumu Shingu’s mobile (which rises before performances much like the Swarovski Sputnik chandeliers at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera), place it firmly in the 21st century.

Social spaces and terraces on the upper floors, meanwhile, provide breathtaking panoramic views of the sprawling city itself and of the newly created park, the work of landscape architect Deborah Nevins, whose spectacular plantings of Mediterranean cypress, olive, almond, and pomegranate trees and stalwart maquis vegetation—including the sage, laurel, and rosemary that give the Greek islands and mainland landscapes their unique fragrance—have created a throbbing green heart in the city. I cannot wait to see a performance here.

Read the full article and look at the lovely images here.

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Over 60 pristine shipwrecks, many Byzantine, found in Black Sea

1506544911-screen-shot-2017-09-27-at-44113-pmWhat claims to be the biggest ever maritime expedition, led by British Professor Jon Adams of the University of Southampton, set off to investigate climate change in the Black Sea three years ago, but found many ancient shipwrecks as well.

The project originally set out to investigate the changes in the ancient environment of the Black Sea region including the impact of sea level change during the last glacial cycle. During the three year-long expedition, the team discovered century’s old shipwrecks by chance, including vessels from the Byzantine era, Middle Ages and the Ottoman Empire.

Watch to video to find out more.

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Nine things you didn’t know about love and marriage in Byzantium

dhxmqswajd4-178x266Byzantine civilization has long been regarded by many as one big curiosity. Often associated with treachery and superstition, their traditions and contributions to the ancient world are often overlooked. Referencing A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, we’ve pulled together nine lesser known facts about love and marriage in Byzantium.

By Anthony Kaldellis

First published in the Oxford University Press Blog

Beauty pageants

The imperial court would often organize bride shows, basically beauty pageants, to find a wife for the heir to the throne, who would give the winner a golden apple. The most famous show was for the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. He was allegedly smitten by the beautiful but sharp-tongued Kasia, and tested her by saying, “the worst evil came into the world through woman,” referring to the temptation of Eve. To this she responded, “And so did the best of the best,” referring to the promise of salvation, Jesus, born of Mary. Theophilos didn’t like the riposte and chose Theodora instead, giving her the golden apple.

Rules and restrictions

By the eleventh century, the Church had put in place a complicated set of restrictions on marriage. Among other rules, marriage was forbidden between two persons who were connected by up to seven degrees of genealogical relation, counting inclusively. Additional rules prohibited marriage between persons related via spiritual kin­ship, especially that established by baptism, or by the prior marriage of mutual relatives. It was a complicated enough business that special treatises were required to sort it all out.

A Cinderella story

Court officials touring the provinces in search of suitable brides for the imperial prince were apparently given a painting of what a perfect or ideal match should look like, and they tried to match it to the candidates they met. They also carried an impe­rial shoe of the right length for the ideal bride and tested it on their feet.

Men and divorce

By law, a man could ask for divorce if his wife had questioned his mas­culine honor—say, through infidelity or immoral behavior; caused him bodily harm by attempts on his life through magic or physi­cal violence, or jeopardized his attempts to procreate. He could also demand divorce if his wife was incapable of fulfilling her conjugal duties due to an incur­able illness— say, madness or leprosy. Madness was sometimes distin­guished from demonic possession, which did not constitute grounds for divorce.

Women and divorce

Women could demand divorce if the marriage threatened their chastity— say, through incitement to prostitution or accusations of infidelity; or their bodily integrity by attempts on their life through magic or physical violence; or if the man could not fulfill his duties because of an illness (again, madness or leprosy), was implicated in serious crimes, or was sexually impotent for more than three years or absent for more than five. A woman could also ask for divorce if her husband was convinced that she was cheating on him and persisted in this belief even after discovering that he was wrong.


Ecclesiastical writer and priest Anastasios of Sinai used soil as an analogy to explain why some rich people desire to have children but cannot, whereas many poor people can easily have many children: soil that has received too much water is not fertile, whereas soil that has been watered mod­erately is.


There was a statue of Aphrodite near the hospital of Theophilos in Constantinople which was said to have the following power: if a woman was a virgin or a chaste wife, it would allow her to pass unmolested, but if she had been naughty or adulterous, it would cause her to lift up her dress and expose the shame of her privates for all to see. It was, accordingly, used to perform chastity tests. But the sister-in- law of the emperor Justin II had the statue destroyed because it did this to her when she was passing by on other business.

Dream interpretations

According to a book of dream-prediction attributed to Ahmet, if you dream that you have relations with

a classy escort, it means that you will become rich
a nun, it means that grief is in store for you
a common whore, your wealth will grow, but by unjust means
a beautiful woman, you will find joy and wealth within a year
an old woman, you will obtain power from an ancient source

Anthony Kaldellis is Professor of Classics at The Ohio State University, and the author of Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade, and most recently A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from History’s Most Orthodox Empire

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How Turks Came To Anatolia: The Battle Of Manzikert

20170825_2_25419361_25236138_1The Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army in 1071 Manzikert Battle and opened up Anatolia for Turkish rule. This is how the seeds of the Ottoman Empire were planted.


First published in TRT World

The Battle of Manzikert was fought in Turkey’s eastern province of Mus, on August 26, 1071 between the Byzantine Empire and the Great Seljuk Empire.

At the time, the Seljuks governed a medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire founded by Tughril Beg in 1037.

It controlled a vast territory stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Arabian Gulf.

The battle started after Seljuk leader Alp Arslan learned that the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, with a large army of 30,000, was planning to attack his rear army along what is today’s border with Armenia.

Arslan marched quickly with around 15,000 soldiers and reached Manzikert.

He first proposed terms of peace. But Romanos rejected the offer and the two forces went on to wage the Battle of Manzikert.

The Seljuks won the war.

Anatolian advance


Seljuks controlled a vast territory stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Arabian Gulf. (TRTWorld)

The Byzantine empire ruled Anatolia for hundreds of years. This peninsula was strategically the most important region to the Byzantine Empire as it was the commercial center.

The Manzikert battle led to the opening of Anatolia to Turkish penetration and the gradual Turkification and Islamisation of the peninsula.

The decisive defeat of a Byzantine field army and capture of the Eastern Roman emperor sent shockwaves across the Christian and Islamic worlds.

A decade of civil war further weakened the Roman Empire, forcing emperor Alexius I Comnenus to ask for military assistance from Pope Urban II.

Manzikert is widely seen as the beginning of a series of events that eventually led to the origins of the First Crusade and the Catholic occupation of the Levant.

The birth of the Ottoman Empire

The Great Seljuk Empire declined as decades passed and a new administration was founded.

This new administration consisted of a number of Anatolian beyliks, small principalities governed by Beys.

Bey is equivalent to a “Lord” in some European societies.

The beylik of Osmanogullari, or the “Sons of Osman” was founded in Bursa, Turkey’s northwestern province.

It conquered the other Anatolian beyliks by the late 15th century, and this evolved into the Ottoman Empire.

Nearly four centuries after the Manzikert battle, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and led the demise of the Byzantine empire the longest lasting empire in recorded history.

Turkey commemorates the battle’s anniversary

The battle is commemorated every year in Malazgirt. But this year, the occasion was marked by the attendance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

“The Manzikert victory for a long time was unacknowledged. The Battle of Manzikert is the most concrete manifestation of unity and pluralism in Anatolia. As 80 million people, we stand as one. One flag,” Erdogan said during his speech.

Along with Erdogan and Yildirim, the ceremony was also attended by Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.

Atilla Ulas, a 28-year-old man from Mus, told TRT World that these kind of commemorative ceremonies are important because they remind people where their ancestors came from.

“These events symbolise the sacrifices our grandfathers made in the past to leave us a homeland. I think the new generation doesn’t really know about it. If these events commemorating our history continue to take place, today’s generation would learn their values,” he said.

Neslihan Ciplak, 14-year-old student from the Malazgirt district said: “In the past, we [locals] used to come here to celebrate it, we were alone as the Malazgirt locals here. We are happy today, because people from around Turkey came here and have acknowledged that Manzikert battle is also important for Turkey.”

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A Byzantine ancestor to same-sex marriage?


Hailed as ”Mother of the Emperor”, Danelis goes to Constantinople to meet with Emperor Basil I.

You might think same-sex marriage is something completely new. You would be mostly right, but history has other things to show us. History is not as familiar as we sometimes think it is.

by Mark Masterson

First published in The Conversation

Spiritual brotherhood in the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages is an ancestor to our same-sex marriage. In the Byzantine Empire men became spiritual brothers and some scholars believe that sexual intimacy did or could occur. There is some controversy about this. For some it is a bridge too far to speak of sex, for we cannot know for sure. My position is that it was a possibility at all times and the Byzantines were aware of this.

Brothers for life

First, how did men become spiritual brothers? In church two men would be blessed by a priest who would say a prayer over them. Many of these prayers survive and more are being located all the time. Spiritual brotherhood was popular.

Here is a portion of a prayer from the 800s:

… these your servants who love one another with spiritual love have come to your holy church to be blessed by you: grant them faith without shame, love without suspicion (Rapp, pg. 294)

After this blessing from the priest, the men were brothers for life. The Orthodox Church and Byzantine writers on law were nervous about the rite. There were questions about men’s motives for entering into these spiritual brotherhoods. Was it for sex with each other, easy access to each others’ households and women, or for criminal purposes (see Rapp, pg. 235)?

Experts have been divided about the question of sex between brothers joined in the rite. While there is not a lot of evidence and the rite was clearly not meant to allow men to have sex with each other, there is enough evidence to suggest that Byzantines thought affection and sexual feelings were possible.

It was well known that Emperor Basil I (mid-800s), who rose to the throne from modest circumstances, had a series of spiritual brotherhoods that were advantageous for him. The Byzantine historians writing in the mid-900s are not shy about noting that his good looks caught other men’s eyes:

Having gazed upon him, Theophilitzes [a member of the imperial court who was going to enrol Basil in his circle momentarily] desired Basil. (Pseudo-Symeon, Chronographia 656/11)

[Emperor Michael] was loving [Basil], gazing upon those [physical] qualities of his that surpassed all the others. (Anon., Life of Basil 13)

In the case of his first brotherhood, after Basil and the other man got back from the church, they “rejoiced in one another”. It is what it sounds like, especially as this rejoicing recalls Proverbs 5:18: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth”.

Beneficial liaisons

Prior to becoming emperor, Basil joined himself as brother to John who was the son of the fabulously rich widow, Danelis. This was Danelis’ idea. Basil benefited from Danelis’ resources and she later benefited from having her son associated with the emperor.

Later when Basil was emperor, Danelis visited the imperial court and was treated with great honour including being called “mother of the emperor”.

But that is not all. Just as we see in the histories, surviving letters that men wrote to each other show a culture of great warmth between men. The old language of male love that goes back to the ancient Greeks was used constantly. A handsome physique could inspire male desire.

Culture of male love

Another story will demonstrate this warmth. Here is the tale of four men around St. Mary the Younger. The Life of St. Mary the Younger, an anonymous text, was written probably in the 900s or 1000s.

St. Mary, who lived in the 800s, had a son, Vaanes. Vaanes, a soldier, was loved by the other soldiers. He was also particularly close to his friend Theodoros:

Vaanes had a certain Theodoros as … helper in all his excellent exploits … a man brave and strong in military matters but braver still in conducting his life for God. Yoked to him, like a bull of good lineage and strong, they were plowing in one another as though into rich farmland, and they were sowing the seeds of excellence, as though the best of farmers. (Life of St. Mary the Younger, pg. 279)
They are conducting their lives for god, but more is going on than that. “Yoked” is often used to refer to married couples and it is difficult to suppress thoughts of anal sex as they plow in one another. A spiritual life can be pretty bodily, it seems.

But it is not only Mary’s son. Her husband Nikephoros had a close relation with another man, named Vardas.

Vardas was married to Mary’s sister and he suggested to his friend Nikephoros that he marry Mary. A marriage connection would bring them closer together:

Since, O dearest of men to me, we have become deeply involved with each other and are bound by our intimate relationship. I think it right to make this, our bond of love, stronger and more perfect and to apply the ties of kinship to it, so that we may be joined in two ways, forging a family connection along with our intimate relationship. (Life of St. Mary the Younger, pg. 256)

When Vardas describes their relationship as intimate, again it is what it sounds like. If you ask, “intimate how?” you are asking the right question.

They could be and sometimes were

The take away is that two generations of men in the life of a saint had strong relationships with other men. The anonymous writer is not shy about making us think about sex either.

I also think it likely the writer of Mary’s life is signalling that these men were spiritual brothers as well as saying they were intimate with one another, just as Emperor Basil I was with his first brother.

A spiritual brotherhood was not same-sex marriage but it is an ancestor to it. It has a number of things in common with same-sex marriage. The relation is blessed by a priest (as a same-sex marriage can be). An intensity of emotion can be present, as well as desire and sex.

The great medieval empire was surprisingly unfussed.

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Eastern Roman gold coins found in 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Xian, Shaanxi Province. (Photo: China News Service)

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Xian, Shaanxi Province. (Photo: China News Service)

Continuing the theme of the trade between the eastern Roman empire and China, this report points towards active trade and travel between Constantinople and China in the 6th Century.

First published in the GB Times 7 July 2017

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Northwest China’s Xian City, the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (SPIA) said on Thursday.

Chinese archaeologists believe that one of the gold coins was minted during the reign of Anastasius I who was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 491 to 518.

The other gold coin however is a more rare one and bears stylistic similarities to coins minted during the reigns of both Anastasius I and Justinian I, who ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565.

The Chinese tomb also included a silver coin minted during reign of Peroz I, who was the king of the Sasanian Empire between 459 and 484.

“The discovery of Eastern Roman gold coins and the Sasanian silver coin proves the long history of international trade on the Silk Road,” said Xu Weihong, a researcher at SPIA.

According to the inscription on the memorial tablet, the tomb belonged to Lu Chou who died in 538. Lu was a nobility in the Western Wei Dynasty (535-557).

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Good Friday in Medieval Jerusalem

Dear Readers, I wish you all, wherever you may be, a happy and peaceful Easter. Please enjoy this beautiful spiritual music from Cappella Romana on this special day, the day that Christ laid down his life for us all.

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