Elon Musk reminded us on June 18th that Constantinople (and Byzantine culture) is the beating heart of Europe and Middle East. His twitter post was enigmatic and even provoked conspiratorial newspaper headlines, mainly in Turkey, but an indifferent puzzlement elsewhere. The image showed a medieval soldier trying to fall asleep while asking himself if he had left the city gates open. Beneath it reads ‘Constantinople, 1453’, the year when the Ottoman Turks captured the city and renamed it Istanbul. Musk touched a raw nerve: Constantinople and its legacy.
Most conflicts and complicated areas in Europe and the Middle East have direct or indirect connections with Byzantium. The war in Ukraine is precisely about the legacy of Byzantine culture. The Rus became Orthodox Christians when they entered the cultural sphere of the Byzantine Empire, starting with the baptism of their ruler Vladimir/Volodymir in 988 in Crimea.
Ukraine claims to be the rightful heir of this culture which developed around Kyiv, while Russia believes that that same culture was transferred further north and became Muscovy. Moscow calls itself the third Rome, after Rome (Italy), New Rome (Constantinople/Istanbul) since 1448.
The legacy of Byzantine culture is not only central to Ukraine, but also to the Balkans. The innocuous geographic denomination ‘Western Balkans’ carefully conceals the division, between Catholic and Orthodox, between Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, between Croatia and Serbia, which defined the breakup of Yugoslavia, and which ultimately originate in Constantinople.
The Caucasus is shaped by Byzantine questions. The identity of the Georgian nation and church is defined by its comparison and contrast with Constantinople in the Middle Ages and this feature distinguishes it from both Russia and Armenia, who both focus on other connections with Byzantine culture, creating tensions between the three. Ossetia also has direct links with the Greek speaking Roman Empire (the first Ossetian inscription is in tenth century Byzantine Greek script).
The Israeli and Palestinian question has important roots in the byzantine world. Jerusalem was conquered by Arab armies in 638 from the Byzantine Empire. In Syria, the ruling class is composed of members of the Alawite community, who were not recognised as Muslims by the Islamic caliphate and therefore fled in the early 11th century and found refuge in the part of Syria which was under Byzantine control. They are still there as the majority in the area and today form the ruling class of Syria.
The Greek speaking community in Istanbul is the heir of the culture of Constantinople. The head of the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is technically archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome. The diplomatic channels opened by the Pope, archbishop of Old Rome (Italy) and Moscow (which refers to itself as the third Rome) are in contrast with the recognition of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church by the Ecumenical Patriarch (Archbishop of the 2nd Rome): more byzantine tensions.
The central issue is Constantinople. The areas which are diplomatically most complex (Balkans, Ukraine, and Caucasus, as well as the Middle East) derive their cultures from their different legacy with Constantinople for over one thousand years.
Many of us would by now be sitting back relieved that Byzantium does not affect us: these are only marginal issues which occur on the news underlined by overzealous journalists or explained by nerdy scholars.
We are wrong. Constantinople makes these issues directly relevant to our everyday life. The survival of all classical Greek texts in the original, the backbone of the democratic ideal, European philosophy, and literatures, was due exclusively to Constantinople. It was there that the Roman Law Code was published in 534 (what we call Roman law is effectively a Byzantine code of older Roman laws.). Roman law is studied in China today as a model for future legal reforms.
School memories remind us of Virgil’s Aeneid and his description of the flight of Aeneas from Troy, besieged by the Greeks. He took the Palladium, the symbol of his city and brought it to Rome. Caesar had the scene depicted on his coins. Bernini sculpted Aeneas fleeing with his father on his shoulders. The Roman emperor Constantine brought the Palladium to Constantinople, when he founded the city in 330, and placed it at the base of the column today known as the burnt column (Çemberlitaş Sütunu) in Istanbul.