Friday, October 24, 2008

Byzantium and Turkey

Last Sunday night I heard a programme on Radio 3 about Byzantium which is one of a number on BBC radio recently to coincide with the new exhibition at the Royal Academy. The programme can still be heard on the BBC iPlayer for a couple more days. It was a fairly routine run through the history of Constantinople but the part that interested me came at the end (at about 40 minutes) where it started addressing modern Turkish attitudes to the Byzantine past. Apparently, in Turkey, study of Byzantine history was largely unknown until recently and classics departments were also rare and regarded with deep suspicion. However it seems attitudes are changing and there is an openness to seeing this period as part of the history of the country now. In fact the last speaker goes so far as to say that Byzantium is part of the Turkish past and has nothing to do with Greece! Maybe this is not exactly a very new development. I remember reading in my guide book on a trip there in 2001, that the Turks even lay claim to Homer as their own being from Smyrna.
There is a story in the Tablet today about a visit of the Austrian Cardinal Schönborn to the Islamic theological faculty of Ankara regarding protection for religious minorities which indicates that attitudes may be changing in Turkey. An interesting situation given the hardening of attitudes elsewhere in the world, notably Iraq, and one that gives a bit of hope.


maris said...


It's true that we are not taught any Byzantine history if it was not related to the Ottoman history. Then again, we were not taught much of any history other than former Turkish states. You might like to know, that the name "Byzantium" was invented in the 16th century by historians. When we learnt about the Byzantines, they were simply called the "Rum"s which comes from the word Rome since the empire was also called the Eastern Roman Empire.

I think, Iraq War ironically drew Turkey closer to the Catholics and the Orthodox away from the Protestants, whom the Ottomans supported for a long time against the Catholics. Also, Holy Father's visit to Turkey made an amazing difference even though the people were upset about his remarks about Muhammad. It was simply wonderful, despite being stuck in the traffic for three hours because of security.

One last note, Turks think everybody is Turkish. Dear, if Homer is Turkish, that makes St. Paul a Turk as well:)

Rubricarius said...

Denial of one's own history is always a very dangerous sign.

I was struck by a line in a write up on the Byzantium Exhibition that appeared in last weeks newspaper "...they wanted to make icons that lasted a thousand years and still have meaning. They did."

Poor Iraq. Ancient Oriental Christians lived alongside their Isalmic neighbours in peace at one time. Then came along a Fundamentalist 'Born Again' type and...

Perhaps that is history we should want to erase from our collective memory.

Fr Michael Brown said...

Derya, delighted to hear from you and for the light you can cast on our knowledge of what is going on in Turkey.

I don`t like the term Byzantine and prefer to talk about the Eastern Roman Empire, although given the West had gone in 476 it should just be the Roman Empire but it just seems anachronistic to still be talking about it in 1453.

Didn`t the Sultans take on the title Emperor of Rum?

I did go to Turkey in 2001 because I`d always wanted to see what was left of Constantinople (not much) and to see things from a Turkish perspective given that when I did A level history on the 16th and 17th centuries the Turks were always the bad guys. We had an interesting guide for a couple of days who took us round the sites of ancient Lycia and what I thought was interesting was his identification with the Lycian heritage.

The idea of St Paul as a Turk is interesting!

I was certain that the Holy Father would be shot in Turkey and would die before he could give us Summorum Pontificum. I think that trip is still the bravest thing he did and am glad to hear that it was well received.