Empire of the East: A short introduction to Byzantium (part one)

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The walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) 5th Century

The Last Emperor

Five and a half centuries ago, on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, a Turkish army stormed and captured Constantinople after laying siege to the city for six harrowing weeks. The last Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople died in desperate fighting near the city walls. Constantine Palaiologos had already told his friends and advisors that he had no wish to survive the conquest of his capital city: a loss which marked the end of a civilisation which had endured for over eleven hundred years.

Known to history as Byzantium, this civilisation was in fact a remnant of the eastern, Greek speaking half of the Roman Empire.

The Empire of New Rome

The use of the phrase 'Roman Empire' is likely to conjure up images of white marble columns, laurel wreaths and pagan temples, Anthony and Cleopatra or, perhaps, sword and sandal epics like Gladiator. We are used to thinking of that Roman world as Western European and Latin speaking and, as any number of books or CD-Rom encyclopaedias will tell you, that world came to an official end in 476AD with the deposition of the last Emperor in the West.

In fact by the four hundreds, the Roman Empire's most important territory existed in the eastern Mediterranean. Centered upon Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) this half of the Empire survived the fall of the West to forge a distinct identity. Greek speaking and Orthodox Christian, citizens of this Empire continued to call themselves Romaioi or "Romans" although later historians identify their civilisation as Byzantium, after the original name of Constantinople.

Constantinople: Queen of Cities

Constantinople itself tended to overawe visitors from other lands. Protected by a triple line of fortifications, the city's population grew to more than half a million people, considerably larger than all other major European urban centres combined.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (6th Century)

Formally established in 330AD, Constantinople possessed at various times piped water supply and sewage system, hospitals with surgical, maternity and psychiatric wards, old peoples' homes and public baths. Constantinople's workshops and markets produced a variety of prestige and luxury goods, including silks, perfumes and jewellery, whilst the City's trade routes extended as far as China, North Africa and Scandinavia.

The City's focal point, the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, built between 532 and 537, stands today as a monument to faith and engineering skill. Crowned by a shallow dome suspended 56 metres high, Hagia Sophia is in certain respects a scale model of the Byzantine universe: a vast and mysterious inner space which demands humility and a sense of wonder.

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