"A hugely entertaining and often moving portrait of a civilization to which the modern West owes an immense but neglected debt. Read it, and you will never use the word 'Byzantine' as a term of abuse again."
The name Melissena Martinakios probably doesn’t come to mind when thinking about famous princesses- in fact it’s a good bet that 99.9% of the population has never even heard of either of those names. Most of us, however, can’t start the day without her.
Melissena was a Byzantine princess of the mid-9th century (that’s about as specific as it gets- details of her life are frustratingly elusive) and it’s probably safe to say that she won’t be getting the Disney treatment anytime soon. Her grandfather was the emperor Michael I Rangabe, an Armenian with Khazar blood (an eastern Russian people who converted to Judaism in the 8th century), but it was her grandmother Procopia who was the interesting one. Procopia was not only the daughter of a previous emperor (Nicephorus I), but she could also trace her ancestry on her mother’s side all the way back to the Han Dynasty of China. This was quite the prestigious coup for old Michael, and considerably raised the value of a marriage into the imperial family. The crown prince Theophylaktos was already married so he was off the market, but his wife had just given birth to a daughter. The infant Melissena was now the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.
But not for long. Her grandfather Michael I Rangabe abdicated after only two years on the throne and the rest of the family fell with him. Theophylaktos was castrated to ward off any future threats to the new dynasty and Melissena was presumably packed off with the rest of the female members of the family to a convent. When she came of age she married a Viking named Inger who was serving in the Varangian Guard. It was a long way to fall for someone who had once had the crowned heads of Europe eyeing a match with her. Inger, of course, had a different perspective. He was quite pleased with himself- as were his fellow Vikings. A group of them traveled to France where they met with the Frankish king Louis the Pious and boasted of their Khazar princess. It wasn’t every day a woman with such prestigious twin lineages came along, and the union of the Scandinavian and the Byzantine/Han royal families caused quite a stir among the medieval elite. After that, however, the historical trail runs cold. Melisenna’s ultimate fate is unkown.
About a century later a legend was being told in France of a beautiful woman named Melusine. According to the story she was a powerful sorceress who had fallen in love with a noble man. The lower part of her torso was made up of twin serpent or fish-like tails- a fact which she could only conceal for six days of the week. Eventually the husband found out, and the heartbroken Melusine disappeared never to be seen again.
So what does this have to do with the 21st century? Well, Melusine became quite the popular figure to have in crests- the Bavarian towns of Isen and Zusamaltheim both feature her. In 1971 a young history teacher by the name of Zev Siegl decided to use it for the logo of his new coffeeshop and as a result Melusine is now one of the most well known brands in the world.
Of course Melusine may or may not be a garbled version of Melisenna. But who knew Starbucks might have a Byzantine pedigree?
In 2005 I took a trip to Jordan and as a side trip I visited the little town of Madaba. There in the apse of the little church of St. George is a mosaic map made of several million tesserae. Composed in the 6th century roughly during the time of Justinian, it’s the oldest known map of the Holy Land and at its center is a detailed view of Jerusalem. Partially destroyed by the intervening centuries, the mosaic winds around ancient columns, showing Biblical scenes and a rich landscape of cities and countryside. The positioning of Jerusalem is no accident. Medieval Christians considered the Holy City to be the center of the world, and usually depicted it larger than the surrounding towns. Although the map does show some recognizable features- like Constantine’s original Church of the Holy Sepulcher- it also appeared to have stylized elements like a long colonnaded street running through the center of the city.
On February 11, 2010, however, archeologists working for the Israeli Antiquity Authority unearthed a dramatic confirmation of the map’s accuracy. More than sixteen feet beneath the present ground level they found the massive flagstones of an ancient colonnaded road, running straight through the heart of the city. The sidewalk had a stone foundation to support the columns as well as numerous merchant stores, pottery vessels, coins, and five bronze weights used to weigh precious metals.
Ironically enough the road lies underneath the modern David Street where the Old City’s markets still reside. Plans are to fill up the excavation and repave the street- something the current merchants are eager to see happen. As for the Madaba Map, it has given us a surprisingly reliable and fascinating snapshot of what Jerusalem looked like during the golden age of Byzantium.
1500 years ago merchants hawked their wares from roughly the same places they do now. It’s nice to see that even after a millennium and a half some things don’t change.
On a Saturday evening in 1997 a man rushed into the offices of Alpay Pasinli- the director of Istanbul’s Museum of Archeology- and breathlessly announced that he had made a discovery. He had been charged with excavating an old Ottoman prison that stood between the Hagia Sophia and the gates to the Topkapi Palace, but had found instead an entrance into Byzantium’s fabled Great Palace. The core of the imperial building- or more precisely the complex of buildings- was erected by Constantine the Great in the fourth century and had gradually expanded until by the ninth century it covered more than four and a half acres. Embellished by some of the most powerful emperors at a time when the empire was quite literally dripping in gold, it had widely been seen as a wonder of the medieval world- a fitting residence for those who claimed to be the supreme rulers of the known world.
But as the centuries wore on and the fortunes of the empire declined, the buildings fell into disrepair. By the twelfth century even the emperors had abandoned them, preferring to live in the newer, more fashionable palaces on the opposite side of the city. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 the Great Palace was a series of shambling ruins. Attempting to place their own stamp on their new capital the Ottomans pulled them down, constructing (among other things) the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi palace on the wreckage. With the exception of a few floor mosaics from the time of Justinian, the Great Palace vanished without a trace.
In 1997, however, it seemed to have dramatically reappeared. Pasinli found two stone steps leading down to the basements of the Palace, clogged with five centuries of debris. They were cleared to reveal a total of seventeen stairs leading to a tunnel and a network of corridors and passageways. Frescoes- mostly dating from the eighth century- adorned the brick walls, mostly cross motifs in yellow, red, and green. Collapsed water conduits blocked some of the passages, but intriguingly Pasinli could see a large lower chamber of vaulted brick arches and domes supported by 16-foot-tall stone columns. A hasty examination revealed it to be part of an archive housing manuscripts and icons. A geological survey conducted soon after showed hundreds of possible buried structures. Pasinli had found the lost Palace of the Caesars.
Such a major discovery should have made headlines worldwide, but Pasinli’s work remains largely unknown to this day and the site has never been re-entered. So what happened? There was something fittingly ‘byzantine’ in the way the entire operation collapsed. The old Ottoman prison- where the excavation had originally started- was part of a Four Seasons Hotel. Alpay Pasinli had connections with the hotel and the Turkish press accused him of conspiring with them to turn the discovery into a tourist bazaar- throwing in charges of artifact smuggling for good measure. With tensions rising on both sides the excavation was cancelled and a bitter Pasinli stopped talking to the press.
What happened to the artifacts is still unknown.
The Great Palace of Byzantium, it seems, likes to keep its secrets.
If you missed Lars Brownworth’s lecture given as part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program in Washington DC, December 2, 2009, it is now available on YouTube. It is split into 8 segments, each just under 10 minutes long, and is available as a playlist as well.
Lars Brownworth just gave a talk at the Smithsonian in Washington DC as part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program. Over 250 people attended the lecture, extended Q&A session and book signing. If you are interested in being notified on Mr. Brownworth’s event appearances, please fill out the email form at the bottom-right of LarsBrownworth.com.
Nearly 1600 years ago there was a prosperous and powerful Kingdom in North Africa, ruled by Scandinavian adventurers called the Vandals. Today, in the year 533 it came to an abrupt- and completely unexpected- end.
Just how the Vandals ended up in Africa is a curious story. Originating somewhere in Norway or Sweden (no one really knows for sure), they migrated to modern-day Poland where they were first noticed by Roman historians. In 406, under pressure from hostile tribes in their rear, they decided to look for a new homeland and entered Gaul. The Franks already living there had other ideas, however, and after a few battles the Vandals crossed the Pyrenees and settled down in Spain. Perhaps there was something in the Spanish climate that disagreed with them, because after only twenty years, the Vandals built a fleet and departed en masse for Africa, leaving nothing but their names behind (Andalusia).
The city of Carthage was the nucleus of the fabulously wealthy Roman North Africa, and the lumbering horde of Vandals made straight for it. There was little fear of retribution from Rome. The Western Empire was on knees by now- with only three decades left before it collapsed- and Constantinople was distracted by a scandal. At last the Vandals had found a suitable home and they wasted no time in expanding their power. Carthage had a superb port and their fleets were sent in every direction, subduing Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands in turn. In 455 they carried out their most daring attack, sailing up the Tiber to attack Rome itself. For two weeks they systematically stripped the city of every valuable- departing with (among a great many other things) the solid gold menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem and the Empress and her two daughters in tow. The outraged Romans pooled all their diminished resources with Constantinople and sent a massive fleet to sack Carthage, but it was led by a complete incompetent who managed to get it completely annihilated. The effort cost Rome the strength it had left and the western empire dissolved completely 8 years later. The Vandals were the only ones left standing- they had spit in the face of an empire and won.
But then came a man named Belisarius. Landing unseen off the coast of modern Tunisia, his small army met the barbarians ten miles outside of Carthage and pulled off a stunning victory. On October 15, 533 the great general made his triumphant entry into the city and officially returned it to the Roman Empire. He arrived in time- we are told- to eat the meal prepared for the Vandal king the day before, and spent the next few days hearing the grievances of wronged citizens. All in all it was a remarkably victory. North Africa was restored to Roman Empire for the better part of two centuries and the shattered Vandals disappeared from history. True, there was still work to be done. It was almost a full year before the Vandal king was safely in chains, and there were a few scattered forces to mop up, but Belisarius had done the impossible. His emperor back in Constantinople started to dream about restoring the fallen Empire in the West.
For Belisarius that dream would end in tragedy, but nothing could take away the triumph of the moment. As Procopius fittingly wrote nearly 15 centuries ago: “And it fell to the lot of Belisarius on that day to win such fame as no one of the men of his time ever won nor indeed any of the men in olden times.”