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Review of 'A Byzantine Journey'

Review of 'A Byzantine Journey'

From the monumental remnants in Istanbul, to the magical surreal church caves of Cappadocia, Ash traverses the terrain of our forgotten heritage. Ultimately, that is the crucial theme: Byzantium is not foreign.

Upon his return to Istanbul at journey's end, Ash's entry into the dim and beautiful recesses of a church at the city's edge underscores this insight. The church of the Monastery of Saint Savior in Chora (known today as the Kariye Cami), containing extraordinary early 14th-century mosaics and frescoes, stands as a monument to all Ash reveres. "Taken together," he writes, "these [mosaics and frescoes] constitute one of the supreme masterpieces of European art, and deserve to be placed on a level with the nearly contemporary work of Giotto or the greatest achievements of the High Renaissance."

Ash is our armchair guide, and we are transfixed: "Here," he observes, "there is nothing tired or formulaic, nothing remotely decadent or pessimistic. Any unprejudiced observer who steps into the Chora today is likely to be overwhelmed by the brilliance and freshness of the vitrified colors, the shimmering fields of gold, the grace of the figures, the harmony of the compositions and the wealth of picturesque detail. There are peacocks and pheasants, groups of children at play, crags and windswept trees, fantastic architectural backdrops, billowing awnings and nearly cubist views of towns and cities. In John the Baptist Bearing Witness of Christ, a waterfowl grabs at a snake in a pool; in the Annunciation to Saint Anne, a bird flies toward a nest of squawking fledglings high in a tree. There is sorrow in the world of the Chora — mothers lament the deaths of their children, the blind, the crippled and the sick are very much with us--but there is also an intense delight in existence."

In Byzantium, we find a foundation of our culture. Schisms between Eastern and Western Christianity notwithstanding, Byzantine art, architecture, philosophy and theology are woven into the very fabric of Western history. The domes of Italian Renaissance churches come from Byzantine structures; the learning of ancient Greece was transmitted to the West from Byzantium and from the Arab caliphates who in turn inherited them from the emperors and scribes of the eastern Roman Empire; the trappings of autocracy that the crusaders observed at the Byzantine court led eventually to the royal absolutism of the Austrians and the French.

A Byzantine Journey is exotic, but only because so much of our own heritage has been forgotten or distorted. Ash reminds us that ancient Constantinople was not at such a cultural remove from modern Manhattan, with its bustle, complexity, ethnic diversity and crowds everywhere. I loved reading Gibbon. It will always be a great piece of literature. But it is time to lay his mistaken notions of the Byzantine Empire, decadent and dying, to rest.

Zachary Karabell writes from Harvard's Center for International Affairs.

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