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A Report on the Proceedings of the 2016 Byzantine Studies Symposium

Posted On May 03, 2016 | 16:45 pm | by konstantinak | Permalink
Konstantina Karterouli on Reconsidering the “Worlds of Byzantium”

The 2016 Byzantine Studies symposium reconsidered the identity and character of Byzantium, especially the traditional understanding of an empire with a fixed center and periphery. It emphasized the plurality of cultures and multiple centers of action found in the Byzantine world and the connections that once existed among the various Eastern Orthodox Christianities. The symposium presentations painted a picture of complex interaction, and drew on a range of linguistic, theological, and visual material. Islam featured centrally in the discussion, while the Arabic language was also highlighted as a medium for Christian writings.

Scott Johnson put forward the model of a Byzantine “commonwealth,” based largely on a Greek theological legacy of integration and sharing across Christian denominational lines, as one that could prove more apt than that of an “empire.” Originally coined to describe Slavic peoples’ relation to Byzantium, Johnson, along with Stephen Rapp, proposed to apply the commonwealth model to the Caucasus and other areas in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, which were seen in the symposium as an integral part of this broader Byzantine world. Rapp and Robin Darling Young showed that not only Greco-Roman traditions of rulership and Byzantine Christianity, but also the Persian government and its Iranian past, were central aspects of both Georgian and Armenia’s cultural identities. Averil Cameron raised the related question of where Byzantium fits in transnational and global historical narratives, especially in the binary context of East and West. Kostis Kourelis moved the discussion of Byzantium’s identity into the modern period, exploring the extent to which the political agendas of the Second World War might have stripped Byzantium of its multicultural character, replacing it with an overtly Greek imperial hegemony.

Another major focus of the symposium was the period of Late Antiquity, both its expansion as a field of study in recent decades and its strengths and limitations as a scholarly framework. The questions concerned its geographical and chronological limits and the areas of study that this encompasses—for example, how the Arabian Peninsula fits in this discourse, and whether, as Antoine Borrut discussed, Late Antiquity requires a shared antique past. 

The symposium stressed the importance of religion and language for making sense of these “worlds of Byzantium,” as opposed to the traditional focus on political structure and the state. For instance, the pairing of languages in a one-to-one relationship with specific religious communities was shown to be untenable: Jack Tannous highlighted Syriac as a liturgical language for Chalcedonian Christians, contrary to an established understanding that these mainly wrote in Greek and Arabic. Arietta Papaconstantinou discussed multilingualism within the empire itself, and not only in its periphery. In the realm of religion, Daniel Galadza explored the gradual Byzantinization of the Jerusalem liturgy after the tenth century, when scribes in Jerusalem, Palestine, and Sinai saw Constantinople as a guarantor of Orthodoxy and a paragon of right faith and liturgical practice.

Speakers also highlighted artistic pluralism, emphasizing the need to shift attention away from Constantinople to other centers of production and microregions of exchange. Elizabeth Bolman juxtaposed visual material culture with language as a shared cultural tool that challenges the traditional divide between “Constantinopolitan” and “provincial” art—as manifested, for example, in the coexistence of styles in the Coptic art of Egypt. Alicia Walker showed that different networks of communication and particular socio-historical contexts allowed for varying patterns of cross-cultural emulation in the Middle Byzantine period, as seen in the use of pseudo-Kufic ornament in the decoration of the tenth-century church of Hosios Loukas in mainland Greece. Cecily Hilsdale discussed style as a carrier of meaning, with an emphasis on stylistic eclecticism (for example, thirteenth-century liturgical fans with Syriac script that are prime examples of Mosul metalwork) and its ability to suggest political and other affiliations.

Columba Stewart, director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’s digitization project of over thirty thousand eastern manuscripts threatened with destruction, closed the symposium with a discussion of the importance of recording for the future of the field.  He drew attention to the richness of textual evidence in the various eastern languages—Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Hebrew—and how this promises a better understanding of the interaction between the various Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and Middle Eastern communities that once participated in this broader Byzantine world.