A Byzantine Journey

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The list of British writers who have ventured abroad to interpret the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean for their compatriots is long and distinguished. Norman Douglas celebrated southern Italy. Patrick Leigh Fermor and Lawrence and Gerald Durrell are noted for their evocations of Greece. Yet while the Byzantine world has not lacked for modern interpreters, their names and the rich civilization they have explored have not made so great an impression in readers’ minds. Robert Byron wrote a groundbreaking popular account in The Byzantine Achievement (1929). More recently, John Norwich compiled detailed but readable histories in Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1989) and Byzantium: The Apogee (1991). In A Byzantine Journey, poet John Ash has taken a similar journey of interpretation through time and space.

Ash’s trip (helpfully outlined on a map) takes him from Istanbul, at the intersection of Europe and Asia, into the heart of Asia Minor, the great peninsula jutting westward between the Black and Mediterranean seas and occupied by modern Turkey. The book’s sections (“Istanbul,” “Bithynia,” “Phrygia and Pisidia,” “Konya and Kara-man,” and “Cappadocia”) are not merely excursions into territory bound to be exotic to most readers but explorations far backward into time. While Ash’s focus is upon the Byzantine centuries, he does not neglect subsequent history.

As Ash explains, the Byzantine Empire had its origins in the Roman Empire, a vast entity that had grown so cumbersome to govern by 286 c.e. that it was split into two sections. Constantine (later known as “the Great”), Emperor of the West, assumed rule of the entire empire in 324 and subsequently moved its capital from Rome to Byzantium (modern Istanbul) in 330. This move reflected not only the increasing importance of the East Roman Empire but also the difficulty of defending the west from barbarians. The West Roman Empire fell in 476 to invading Germanic tribes, leaving the East Roman Empire as the bastion of Greek and Roman culture. The Roman Empire had become Christian in the fourth century, and thus its surviving half became the center of the Christian world as well. At some undefined point in this process, the East Roman Empire became what we now call the Byzantine Empire, although its citizens never ceased thinking of themselves as Roman.

Turkey was enduring the heaviest rain in decades as Ash waited to cross the Sea of Marmara from the European to the Asiatic shores of Istanbul. Ash remarks that “melancholy in any weather may be the keynote to Istanbul,” and his characterization seems borne out by his experiences. Ash visits the shoddy Tower of Isaac Angelus (built to commemorate a forgotten emperor deposed and blinded by his even more deservedly forgotten brother) and the once-renowned Blachernae Palace, now reduced to absolute ruin. The mystery once conveyed by the great church of Hagia Sophia is being dispelled with new coats of garish paint. Even the idyllic Princes’ Islands, lying off the coast of Asia, evoke memories of exile and mutilation.

The chapters of “Bithynia,” by contrast, contain some of Ash’s sunniest pages and recount some of the most glorious and eventful days of the Empire. Modern-day Iznik is a quiet, unpretentious city of storks, roses, and poplars. As the city of Nicaea it lay at the heart of the Empire, and the story of its capture by the Seljuk Turks, its recapture by the Byzantines (with the help of the soldiers of the First Crusade), and its eventual reconquest by the Ottoman Turks is of epic proportions. The most moving episode came when the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, granted the defending Sel- juks such generous terms that they gratefully surrendered, thus averting the frenzy of rape and pillage that the Byzantines’ Crusader allies had been anticipating.

The Christians of the west would not soon forget their “betrayal” by the Byzantines, whom they regarded as heretics in any case. The Byzantines themselves held their western coreligionists in contempt as barbarians, and thus mutual suspicion and incomprehension grew. Jealousy on the part of western (and especially Venetian) traders also played a part, until finally the Venetian-dominated Fourth Crusade attacked not the infidels to the south but the greatest city in the Christian world. Byzantium fell in 1204, and a large measure of the artistic legacy of Greece and the Roman Empire was destroyed as libraries, palaces, and churches were put to the torch by the very peoples whose heritage it was.

Yet there was to be a happy sequel. The...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)