Pilgrimage in search of Byzantium and early Christianity

Pilgrimage in search of Byzantium and early Christianity


Australian Catholic University lecturer's initiative

You do not need a time capsule to find the capital of the Roman Empire as it was before 1453, the year it fell to the Turks. You just need to know where to look under the surface of modern Istanbul.

Today Istanbul is the largest city in modern Turkey; but when the Turks captured 'the City' and killed the last Roman Emperor as he defended the battlements, it was called Constantinople - its name up until 1930. And Constantinople was built on the site of a more ancient city still, Byzantium, which is why things pertaining to Constantinople are Byzantine.

Many relics of pre-Turkish, and therefore pre-Muslim, Istanbul are preserved. One of the best guides to them is an Australian cleric, Archdeacon Lawrence Cross. Lawrence Cross is a Senior Lecturer in Theology, Australian Catholic University, Christ Campus, Oakleigh, Victoria, and a Deacon of the Melchite Greek-Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch. He conducts the Early Christianity and Byzantium tour program for the University's Centre for Early Christian Studies - these tours being open to the general public.

Relics

Istanbul is not the only location where Byzantine buildings, artistic, religious and other relics survive. The tour takes in Rome, Ravenna, Venice, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Ephesus and other fascinating sites.

The Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 AD. While he and his successors constructed mighty churches and other buildings in the new capital of the East, they continued to spend money on buildings in Rome and other parts of the empire.

Some of Rome's most famous churches were built by Emperors resident in the far off Eastern capital. The old St Peter's Basilica and the Church of St John on Lateran Hill are two of the best known.

"To appreciate Byzantine culture, including its architecture, and to a large extent its art," says Archdeacon Cross, "it is necessary to travel to Byzantine locations. For while other ancient arts and civilisations are well represented in Western museums and art galleries, the opulent and visionary art of Byzantium is "largely in the form of mosaics, frescoes and buildings." Hence "to really appreciate them one must visit them 'in situ'."

Obviously the most important Byzantine centre is Istanbul itself. After the conquest enormous damage was done to the Christian architecture, including artistic and religious symbols, but some fascinating sites still survive. Although old Constantinople is largely hidden behind a Turkish facade, it is open and exposed in some places. But a knowledgeable guide is required to direct the visitor to the Byzantine sites.

They exist not only in old Constantinople itself, but in many other cities and towns which were part of the Byzantine empire.

Some Italian cities, other than Rome, are important centres of Byzantine art. Ravenna, Venice and Sicily have some matchless treasures in buildings and mosaics. This is because by the early 500s AD, the fortunes of the city of Rome had sunk so low that the Western capital of the Roman Empire was switched to Ravenna on the northern Adriatic Coast, which became Constantinople's main naval base on the Italian Peninsula. Here we find one of the world's oldest standing Christian churches, San Vitale, which is purely Byzantine in architecture, and the pride of Ravenna. Indeed, the whole city is a treasure chest containing numerous exquisite churches and buildings.

Venice's most famous church, the Cathedral of San Marco, is also entirely Byzantine in inspiration, but the first Cathedral of what was to be Venice is still standing out in the Venetian Lagoon on the isle of Torcello. Its awesome Last Judgment and marvellous depiction of the Virgin are some of the finest surviving Byzantine mosaics. Venice also has some ill-gotten gains, in the form of many relics and precious plate and vessels stolen from Constantinople during the sack of 1204.

Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, is a world away from Venice, but it also exhibits deep Byzantine influence in art and architecture, including churches and monasteries. One Byzantine church, St George, is so ancient it has sunk so deeply that its roof barely shows above street level. The solemn performance of the Orthodox liturgy in the Cathedral of Sofia gives the visitor some feeling for what the great ceremonies of Agia Sophia in Constantinople must have been like.

Monasteries

Any pilgrimage in search of Byzantine culture must also take in a number of sites in Greece, including Thessaloniki, the monasteries perched high upon the great rocks at Meteora, the little churches of Kastoria, the ghostly towns of Mystra and Monemvasia in the Peloponese, Athens and the island of Chios, as well as the glowing churches of Hosios Loukas and Dafni.

All of these locations are included in an Early Christianity and Byzantium tour scheduled to take place between 25 October-27 November 1997. Anyone interested in the art and history of this intriguing and neglected side of Christianity and its place in European thought and philosophy should contact Archdeacon Cross for details on (03) 9563 3631. He can also put you in touch with people who have recently made this journey through Byzantium.

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