Fire and Ice: Byzantium and Rus – the historical contacts

I’ve recently been reading Colin Wells’s excellent book, Sailing from Byzantium, which traces the heritage of Byzantium through its impact on the West, particularly Italy and the beginnings of the Renaissance; the Arab world; and the Slavs. The book is good on the early contacts between Byzantium and the Slav world, and in particular on what the Slavs took from Byzantium.

This is what I want to focus on in this post, the second in a series about the links between the two cultures.

The history of the initial contacts between Byzantine and Russian cultures revolves around two key dates.

The first documented contact occurred in 860. The Byzantine Emperor, Mikhail III, was away from the capital fighting the Arabs, when suddenly a fleet of 200 ships from the north appeared offshore and began to attack the city. The attack was completely unexpected and from an unexpected direction. Two weeks of plunder and savagery followed before the attackers withdrew. By the time the Emperor returned to defend his capital, the attackers had vanished.

The attack had a traumatic effect on Byzantium and its perpetrators were described as a barbaric, nomadic tribe. Until very recent times it was thought the attackers came from Kiev, but modern archaeology has indicated that at the time, Kiev was just a collection of huts and the attack is therefore more likely to have come from further north, possibly Novgorod.

One impact of this event is the decision by the Byzantines to commence a mission to the Slavs, commencing with that of SS Cyril and Methodius (see my first post). This was largely self-preservation, but also an attempt to head off the influence of the Latin (ie western) wing of the church, already working on conversions to Christianity in Moravia.

Over the next hundred or so years trade links between Rus and Byzantium (or Tsargrad – the city of the Emperors) began to develop on a more systematised basis.

The second key date is 988, the date when traditionally Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised. The Primary Chronicle, the history of Kievan Rus between the ninth and the early twelfth centuries, explains Vladimir’s conversion as the result of a conscious choice between several different options. He considered the Latin church (represented by Germans), Islam (represented by Bulgars), Judaism (represented by Khazars) and Byzantium (represented by a Byzantine scholar). Eventually Vladimir sent envoys to the Germans, the Bulgars and to Byzantium to find out more about the different candidate religions.

The Primary Chronicle records the reactions of the envoys when they were taken to Haghia Sophia by the Emperor and Patriarch:

“we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.” 

Colin Wells points out that the Byzantine point of view is quite different. The Emperor at that time, Basil II, was hard pressed by the Bulgars and so turned to Vladimir of Kiev for support. In return for providing 6,000 soldiers he gave his sister, Anna, in marriage to Vladimir, but on the condition that he was baptised a Christian and gave up his other wives. From that prestigious marriage based on the parlous state of Byzantium, Vladimir kept his side of the bargain and ordered his people to be baptised.

Acceptance of the religion of Byzantium brought with it the need to build churches in Kievan Rus and the means with which to disseminate the new faith in his kingdom. So a wave of architects, artists and scholars went to the newly converted kingdom to help in this great task. And the language in which the new religion was celebrated and taught was Old Church Slavonic.

What do these early contacts have to tell us?

Realpolitik forced Byzantium into an alliance with Rus which Rus accepted because of the prestige of the alliance. Religion was also an important factor, but the appeal of the religion, as The Primary Chronicle makes clear, seems to have been primarily an aesthetic one, rather than based on its compelling theology. Rus accepted Orthodoxy wholeheartedly and adapted it to its language and culture (eg through the use of Old Church Slavonic in worship; and the use of domes on their churches, probably because they were more suited to the snow than the Byzantine style). But it did not radically re-examine or re-invent it.

Perhaps also Vladimir was attracted by the role that the Byzantine Emperor, as God’s representative on earth, played in relation to the Church. It was a way of bringing his people together and uniting spiritual and temporal power in one person. Religion with its prestigious links and unrivalled tradition stretching back into history provided a rich narrative with which to be associated.

The use of Old Church Slavonic for the dissemination of the new religion was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in the sense that it made it easier for the new religion to be accepted amongst the Slavs (compare that with the use of Latin in the Western Church). But it was curse in that it cut the Slavs off from the Hellenic heritage which (to some extent) Byzantium had preserved. Ultimately it would prevent a similar re-discovery of the Classics that occurred at the Renaissance in the West, a challenge to the authority of the Church and divine rulers, and the development of a Russian form of the Enlightenment.

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Walking for the sake of it

Today is the first day I have had a proper walk for ages. The weather here has been so wet and cold that it hasn’t encouraged me to get out and about. Well, maybe that’s my excuse for being lazy.

But today it is at last like a summer’s day. Warm sun, blue sky and big cotton wool clouds. It even smells like summer: scents of unidentified flowers, mown grass, warm earth.

As I step out of the house I suddenly remember the free app I downloaded some time ago and have never used. A pedometer. So I give it a go. I have tried them before the advent of smart phones, but was always put off by having to measure the length of an average stride and keep the thing clipped on a belt. Just too much of a faff. But for the app, you tap the start button and that’s it. It tracks your route by GPS (give or take about 35m), how far you walk, the number of steps, calories burnt, speed and average speed.

There are some days when you just have to give the mind a rest and let the body, straining at its leash like an untrained puppy, have its day. This enforced period of no exercise has made me feel stale and uncreative. I find that ideas flow better when there’s some exercise built into my day.

I’m not totally convinced that the pedometer is working, so about half way round my circuit I stop and check up on it. It seems to be OK and the figures look plausible.

Back home I capture my stats and transfer them from the pedometer to my diary: steps – 4946; distance – 3.925 km; calories – 205.3; time – 55.36 mins; speed – 5.4 km/hr; average speed – 4.2 km/hr.

So 10,000 steps (the amount the health police at one point were advising us to walk per day) is about two hours walking at my pace.

Hope this is not going to become an obsession…

The Summer – a short reminder

With all the rain we have had in the past few weeks in England, I have started to forget what the sun looks like and that this is our summer. My Greek teacher, Maria, told me this morning that there are a lot of Greek songs about the summer and the sun. You only have to do a quick search on You Tube to get pages of them up.

This strikes me as odd, because the Greeks see far more of the sun than we do. It’s not even as if they have been missing it. In fact, you would think that they would have a hankering for the cooler weather and a bit of relief from the sweltering heat and dazzling light.

On the other hand, I am not aware that us northern Europeans – sun-deprived, rain-sodden forest dwellers that we are – have any songs about summer and a longing for the sun. (I do not count The sun has got his hat on…) Why should that be? Where are the songs expressing our yearning for a bit of sun? Perhaps the Nordic countries which seen even less of the sun than we do in England are better at this than we are. Certainly in Sweden they seem to be prone to a bit of hypermania in the short summer season (midsummer madness).

Perhaps, from bitter experience, in England we know that singing about it is not going to improve the weather nor bring on the sunshine. With our luck on the weather front, it might in fact only make matters worse: turn the downpour into a cataract, for example. We have become resigned to the weather as it is. So in the continuing absence of the cheering summer sunshine or even a song to encourage it to appear, here are some of my photographs of Greece (all taken in the Peloponnese).

Enjoy warming your hands on the reflected heat!

Kalo Kalokairaki! (Have a good summer!)

The Swans of Wells

Diamond Jubilee Mosaic – St Thomas Street, Wells

Wells in Somerset is celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a public art event featuring 60 swans, one for each year of the Queen’s reign. The Swans have all been sponsored by local firms, organisations and individuals, but the interesting thing is that they have been turned into an individual works of art.

Why swans? Wells has a thirteenth century Bishop’s Palace with a moat and swans on the moat have been a familiar sight in the city for centuries. They are also a royal bird, as the crown owns all unmarked swans in open waters.

Here are just a few that I captured over the past couple of days:

The next , one of my favourites, is entitled ‘Up before the beak’.

Here’s the black swan, Odile:

Even Le Petit Prince makes an appearance:

Here’s ‘Shelley’ by Candace Bahouth:

And finally my favourite, so simple and elegant, the Bishop’s Swan (Guinevere). It’s hard to improve on the original.

The Bishop’s Swan is accompanied by a beautiful poem written by the sculptor, Ian Marlow;

Fire and Ice

As a long-standing student of Russian language and culture and a much more recent student of the language and culture of modern Greece, I am intrigued by the links between them. So this is the first in an occasional series exploring these links in a bit more detail.

I am sure there must be scholarly tomes on the subject, but I have not yet found anything. If you know of any studies on these cultural links, then please let me know. I would be delighted to hear about them.

One of the most obvious similarities is the alphabets.

The Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet developed from the Glagolitic alphabet that SS Cyril and Methodius first used to standardise the language of the Slavs in order to translate the Bible.  Cyril and Methodius were ninth century Byzantine Greeks from Thessaloniki who were sent as missionaries to Moravia to convert the Slavs to Christianity.

They based their Glagolitic alphabet on Greek but modified it to cope with the different sounds in the Slavic languages. Later, in Bulgaria the Glagolitic alphabet was simplified into the Cyrillic and Old Church Slavonic became the official language.

Interestingly, part of the reason behind the later developments of the Cyrillic alphabet is political. The Bulgarian ruler wanted to diminish the influence of Byzantium and Byzantine Greek priests who celebrated the liturgy in Greek. Using Old Church Slavonic as both a liturgical and standard language was one way of maintaining distance and independence from the influence of Byzantium.

Eventually the Cyrillic alphabet spread east to Kievan Rus and to other Slavonic language speaking countries.

Here’s the Greek alphabet:

Here’s the Glagolitic alphabet:

… and the modern Cyrillic alphabet: