Sky-Sailing to Byzantium

By the magic of flight, I have just sailed the skies to Byzantium and back. It was a wonder-filled sojourn that has had me away for a few weeks, so there is some catching up to do. Before getting back to the blog’s more regular programming, I am going to talk Turkey over the next few posts. In anticipation of the trip, there was reading to be done. This reading began, of course, with William Butler Yeats’ poetic journey to the polis of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and today known as Istanbul, which Yeats never actually visited:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

A great deal of interpretive ink has been spilled over Sailing to Byzantium, so I don’t feel any need to spill more. While all readers of the poem will appreciate that Byzantium was richly symbolic for Yeats, perhaps fewer know that Yeats partially explained this symbolism in his esoteric-occult tome, A Vision:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.

Given this splendid vision of the ancient city, it’s a small wonder that Yeats did not have his rough beast, in The Second Coming, slouch towards Byzantium rather than Bethlehem. While this would have required some symbolic sleight-of-hand, with Emperor Constantine standing in for the poetic allusion to Christ, as a matter of historical fact such a substitution makes sense. Without Constantine, his conversion, and advocacy, there is no Christianity as we know it today.

Not all of my preparatory reading was so poetic or metaphorical. I had long wanted to peruse Peter Brown’s classic, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, so this seemed the perfect time. Aside from providing critical context on the development of early Christianity (context which, by the way, has influenced Robin Horton’s theory of religion), Brown’s book rescued Constantinople from Edward Gibbons’ dim assessment of the city as an emblem of decline and fall. While Rome and the western provinces later known as Europe did in fact descend into “dark ages,” Brown observes that things were quite different in the east:

In Byzantium, a classical elite survived. It constantly re-created itself throughout the Middle Ages. Most of our finest manuscripts of the classics were produced in medieval Constantinople. Indeed, if it were not for Byzantine courtiers and bishops of the ninth and tenth centuries onwards, we should know nothing — except from fragments in papyrus — of Plato, Euclid, Sophocles, and Thucydides. The classical Greek culture that we know is the Greek culture that continued to hold the interest of the upper classes of Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. These men lived in their classical past so naturally that medieval Byzantium never experienced a Renaissance: Byzantines never thought that the classical past had died and so they rarely attempted, self-consciously, to have it “reborn.” (177)

These little known facts had me searching for traces of Hellenism among the Islamic-Ottoman palimpsest of modern Istanbul. Other than some remarkably old columns in Corinthian, Doric, and Ionian styles, the classical traces have mostly been erased, effaced, or overlaid. Brown’s book also alerted me to the possibility that such traces might be found in the provincial east, at Harran, where Hellenistic learning and pagan rituals flourished for a few centuries after they had disappeared even in Constantinople.

Because Harran is near Göbekli Tepe and the latter was on my itinerary, it seemed only right to pay my respects with a visit. While I could not find any traces of Hellenism at Harran, it was well worth the time. History hangs in the air there like no other place I’ve ever been. My site inspection of Göbekli Tepe was naturally awesome and surprisingly informative. There are aspects of the site that have been little noticed or mentioned in the literature. Some of these (which I will discuss in a future post) would seem to confirm the suspicion, summarized here, that Göbekli was residential and agricultural.

Two other books deserve mention for the prospective traveler to Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul. The first, Michael Angold’s Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, creates the dreadful impression that the city’s main occupation over the centuries was theological controversy. While this is in some sense true, there was much more to Byzantium than arcane and empty disputes over matters of Christian doctrine. This much more is on ample display in the second, Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. While Wells may overstate some small aspects of his case, this is a book which you should read even if you aren’t soon sailing to Byzantium or Istanbul.

But for those who are soon to visit, or are thinking about visiting, this epic piece of cultural analysis parading as sports writing should convince you. Rarely have I encountered a better lede than this from Spencer Hall’s delightful essay, “The Istanbul Derby”:

Come up the steps of this hotel, there’s something you should see while we explain this setup to you. First, there is this soccer game. It takes place in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people founded around two thousand years ago, a city so old it has Viking graffiti in its Muslim mosque which was once a Catholic church built for an emperor. Nothing can happen here that has not already happened, and yet people are very, very excited about a soccer game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, Istanbul’s two oldest and bitterest rivals.

Like Byzantium turned Constantinople turned Istanbul, Hall’s essay is a layer cake of paradox. In the next few posts, I’ll share some additional slices. But in the meantime, here is my main impression: the city has long been about conquest, commerce, and religion (in this particular order, with the latter subserving the former). In its historical aspects, it overwhelms with all three.


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9 thoughts on “Sky-Sailing to Byzantium

  1. Larry Stout

    Glad to learn that you’re safely home, Cris. If there’s anything uninteresting about Turkey (and its history and prehistory), I have yet to get wind of it. I hope your experiences there and your readings about Turkey will spawn more than a few posts!

  2. Larry Stout

    Without Constantine, his conversion, and advocacy, there is no Christianity as we know it today.”

    When, or if, Constantine converted is debatable. It seems that “Sol invictus”, traceable to Mithraism, was his personal motto right up to the end; perhaps he professed some more-Christian version of faith on his deathbed. In any case, his prior putative Christianity did not prevent his arranging murders of his wife and son. Paul Stephenson’s “Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor” offers cogent insights into the man and his calculated political strategies and tactics, evincing the universal and timeless conjunction of religion and politics.

    Arianism, representing the major schism in the early evolution of Christian dogma (sharing phylogenetic space for a long time with the Nestorians, Monophysites, and several other sects besides the Nicene creed of Constantinople, not to mention the dissenters in Rome), was alive and well in the three Germanic kingdoms of fifth-century Europe, the Ostrogoths of Italy, the Visigoths of Iberia, and the Vandals of North Africa (and northward), fully two hundred years after Constantine, when Justinian waged war to enforce conformity and control.

    It is noteworthy that Constantine is worshipped as a saint by the modern Orthodox churches, by the Eastern Catholic church, and by the Anglicans, but not by Roman Catholics.

    And just what is “Christianity as we know it today”? Clearly, the fissility of Christian dogma has not diminished after two millennia. Nor have the ecumenical councils, by any other name, ever ended.


    Some other books about Turkey I’ll recommend:

    Çatalhöyük: The Leopard’s Tale. Fascinating archaeology of a Neolithic town in southern Anatolia (but good luck digesting author Ian Hodder’s “entangled” theorizing).

    Ancient Turkey: A Traveller’s History. Wonderful comprehensive overview by a distinguished and eloquent archaeologist, Seton Lloyd.

    Byzantium: A Short History. Very readable, relatively uncritical single-volume condensed history of some eleven hundred years.

    The Ottoman Centuries, by Kinross. (As above, covering some seven centuries.)

    Atatürk. Insightful biography of the founder of the modern Turkish republic, by Andrew Mango. Also, The Turks Today, by the same author.

    Books I have in hand, which bode to be very interesting, but have yet to read:

    Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium, by Jonathan Harris

    Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, by Philip Mansel

    …and others.

  3. Larry Stout

    Carelessly neglected to mention…

    A Byzantine Journey, by John Ash. A wonderfully eloquent modern travelogue, delightfully informative about Byzantine history.

  4. Stewart Guthrie

    Thanks Cris, another great piece (and clearly a great trip). I should’ve seen it a few years ago, before going. Thanks also to Larry for the additions on history of Christianity (BTW, Hodder’s ideas on entanglement, in The Leopard’s Tale, are reasonably mainstream archeology and, for that matter, economics and sociology: in a nutshell, the more complex a society, the more its interdependence. He elaborates in a current book, Entangled.)

  5. Cris Post author

    Thanks for these great insights and information Larry. When I wrote the Constantine conversion line, I wanted to use passive or ambiguous phrasing to acknowledge the issues surrounding Constantine’s personal conversion (which is more or less irrelevant, in my estimation), but there is no doubt that Constantine converted the empire and made Christianity the official religion. So this is what I meant by his “conversion.”

    As for “Christianity as we know it today,” while I was in Istanbul I heard a radio broadcast discussing the Pope’s recent meeting with the Patriarch (who resides in Istanbul). During that meeting, the Pope apparently acknowledged Byzantium’s critically important role in the development of Christianity and associated institutions. Perhaps we should give less credit to Constantine and more to Justinian, but either way, modern Christianity (in all its myriad and schismatic forms) would look much different today without the Byzantine Empire.

  6. Larry Stout

    Thanks, Cris.

    Well, besides Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians (themselves tending towards various schisms — The Virgin is herself worshipped today as a virtually paramount god among many Latin Americans, to whom she appears on highway overpasses, tortillas, and other holy venues), we have, for just two examples, the Branch Davidians (>aka “Students of the Seven Seals”, >aka “Koreshians”), who attained a private hell in Waco, and the Mormons (reformed and unreformed). Some of the Mormons, as I understand their beliefs, conceive of paradise as a planet of their own (individual) overlordship (women admitted only on merits of their husbands). And there are uncounted store-front churches run by self- or mail-order- or online-ordained somebodies who proclaim who-knows-what brand of “Christianity”.

    But, I certainly do agree that the imperialism of Constantinople IMPOSED an orthodoxy, ostensible conformity to which became for the generality of the disparate populace of the empire a practical necessity and political expedient, which process has of course continued (in schismatic ways) right down to the present.

    (Thanks to the Seventh Day Adventists, I have learned a nifty new word: “disfellowshipped”. Now that I’ve learned the word, I begin to see that I’ve actually experienced it from time to time!)

  7. Larry Stout

    Having brought up the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, it’s interesting to note (per “History of the Vandals”, by T.C. Jacobsen) that the Donatist Christian sect there at some time spun off an ostensibly Christian group known as Circumcelliones (they roamed among the peasants), or the Agonistici. They seem to have been partial analogs of the Kali-worshipping Hindu Thuggee (Thugs), inasmuch as they

    “…sought their own martyrdom. They would attack travelers on the roads with the hope they would be killed in the assault.”

    Presumably, some travelers also perished in the various attempts at “martyrdom”.

  8. Larry Stout

    I think we’d be remiss not to mention, and credit, the non-Byzantine scholarship of the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, established and fostered by the Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad, which flourished during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. This, as I’m sure everyone here knows, was a remarkable think-tank and scriptorium where Arab, Persian, and Christian scholars alike rather comprehensively transcribed and translated the aggregate, cumulative knowledge and wisdom of mankind accessible to people in the wide part of the world under consideration in this post, not to mention their original contributions, building very considerably upon the pre-existing fund of information.

    Nor should we neglect to credit the famous Averroes (Ibn Rushd) of twelfth-century al-Andalus, he who fostered scholasticism and is remembered as “the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe”.

    So, similarly, there was not then a dark age in the Arab Muslim world.

  9. Larry Stout

    Sorry to go on and on here, but this post is stimulating in several regards. To wit:

    I find it very instructive that contemporary American voters, according the Pew Research Center, would respond most positively to a presidential candidate with military experience, and most negatively to a professed atheist. This is perfectly congruent with the political strategies of Constantine (as examined in Paul Stephenson’s “Constantine”).

    (Kudos to Cris for never failing to stimulate!)

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