First of all, what is Byzantium? It is a very interesting topic and will take me hours to explain, so to make things simple, the Byzantine Empire was one of the longest surviving empires in the world and lasted for 1,100 years. One interesting fact is that they can be credited for inventing – the fork.
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In this article, let me share with you the places I’ve travelled to that have a rich legacy of Byzantium, from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, to the mystical monasteries of Meteora and Ohrid. These places have certainly given me the feeling of what the Byzantine world would look like, even if it has already been gone for centuries.
The Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople, now Istanbul was the Eastern Roman Empire that survived as the remains of the once powerful Roman Empire. In the year 330, the emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman world from Rome to his new city of Constantinople found along the Bosporus Sea, a narrow strait between Asia and Europe. For the next 1,100 years it would be the seat of a powerful empire that controlled both land and sea. The empire was at its height in the year 565 when it regained most of the old territories of the Roman world in the Mediterranean from Southern Spain in the west to Armenia in the east, from the Black Sea coast of Ukraine in the north to Egypt in the south. For the next centuries during the Middle Ages, the empire remained wealthy from trade all over the East Mediterranean and with goods coming from the Silk Road from China, but its borders were gradually decreasing from enemy threats of the Arabs, Bulgars, and Turks on all sides. The empire reached its end in the 15thcentury only holding onto the capital and its surroundings, and in 1453, the Byzantine Empire completely fell to the Ottoman Empire.
Today, Byzantium will still be remembered for its rich cultural legacy in the arts and architecture. Even if the Byzantines are an underrated civilization, they have contributed a lot to our society today including the codification of laws and the legal system which are used in most countries today to the simple invention of the fork for eating. It is impossible to imagine not eating with a fork, especially for me who even uses it for pizza and burgers.
Where else to begin a tour of the old Byzantine but in its capital, what is today Istanbul. Istanbul is located between Asia and Europe along the coasts of the Bosporus and Marmara seas. Almost everything in the city is found on the European side on the west, which was the imperial center for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Today, what you see in Istanbul is mostly the remains of the Ottoman era, such as the large and impressive mosques and minarets, the busy Spice and Grand Bazaars, carpets, spices, and of course the cuisine. Kebabs, mezze platters, desserts and snacks such as baklava and simit. Turkish happens to be my favorite cuisine and the food of Istanbul never disappoints.
The most famous attraction of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia or Church of Holy Wisdom dates back to the Byzantine era and was built all the way back in 537 by Emperor Justinian I, almost a thousand years before St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome. The Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world with a dome that is unimaginable, and today it still remains impressive. Near the Hagia Sophia is the former Hippodrome or public gathering square in Byzantine times and some of it remains intact such as the columns. Near it as well is the Basilica Cistern which was also built during the reign of Justinian I (527-65). Built to store the city’s water supply back then, today it is a scenic place especially with the lights underneath lighting up the columns. Other than these, you will randomly bump into ancient looking structures all over Istanbul, and these are definitely remnants of Byzantium such as the ruins of the old Magnaura Palace in the city center, the Hagia Eirene which was once a church now found near Topkapi Palace, then there’s the column at the Forum of Constantine found at the southern entrance to the Grand Bazaar. There’s also the massive remains of the Aqueduct of Valens in the west side of the city, and the Church of Chora with its interior walls ornately decorated with late period Byzantine frescoes. Surrounding the city till this day on 3 sides are the Walls of Theodosius, impregnable walls that would be difficult to breach as it had 3 layers. So, to anyone who travels to Istanbul, watch out for these ancient landmarks.
In northeastern Greece, along the north shores of the Aegean Sea and not that far from Istanbul is the city of Thessaloniki, the 2nd largest in Greece after Athens and centuries ago, the 2nd city of the Byzantine Empire. Unlike Athens or in most of Greece, you will find more medieval Byzantine remnants rather than ancient Greek ruins in Thessaloniki. What you will find in the historic centre of the city is the Church of St. Demetrios built all the way back in the 4th century and near it the Triumphal Arch and Rotunda of Galerius. Most of the city does not really have attractive buildings, but still, found between them are attractive Greek style streets as well as hidden treasures like the remains of the Roman Agora and the Turkish bathhouse which was built over an old Byzantine structure. To get views of the city, you can go to the uphill vantage point where you will also find the Byzantine era city walls, which are a miniature version of the massive ones at Istanbul. Meanwhile, by the harbor of Thessaloniki is its most famous attraction, the White Tower built by the Ottomans after they captured the city in 1430. All of these landmarks mentioned are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites and as you look closely, you will still see the flag of the Byzantine eagle on display outside Byzantine era buildings like the Church of St. Demetrios, but other than that, you can enjoy Greek cuisine and delicacies here.
One of Greece’s most famous landmarks and a work of architecture that is unbelievable are the 6 monasteries built high above narrow natural pillars known as Meteora. The rock formations of Meteora in northwestern Greece, near the Pindus Mountains and the border with Albania is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is both a destination for history and nature. The monasteries were first built in around the 11thcentury during the Byzantine Empire era when monks wanted to live a life of peace and quiet away from civilization. Originally there were 24 monasteries above the large stone pillars, but only 6 survive and are functioning today as Greek Orthodox monasteries. The largest of these monasteries is the Grand Meteoron, built in the 14th century when Byzantium was nearing its end. In its church and hallways you will see a rich collection of late-period Byzantine fresco art as well as the quarters, dining hall, and kitchens of the monks, as well as a large courtyard. From here, you can view the 5 other monasteries which all have the same red brick architecture. These are the monasteries of Varlaam, Rousanou, St. Nicholas Anapausas, St. Stephen, and The Holy Trinity. Meteora is surely worth visiting and is a perfect place to take a hike.
Now up to the inlands of the Balkan Peninsula to the small city of Ohrid on the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia. The old town and lake of Ohrid is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for history and nature. It is one of the few places on earth where you will find so many Byzantine era churches intact and right beside each other. Ohrid has a total of 365 churches, one for each day of the year and is known as “The Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Ohrid has been around since Ancient Greek times and grew to become a center of learning and worship during the period under the Bulgarian Empire between 990 and 1015. In 1018, it was retaken by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II “The Bulgar Slayer”. The famous attractions in Ohrid include the isolated Church of St. John at Kaneo facing the lake, the cathedral also known as Hagia Sophia, the large Church of St. Kliment and Pantelemion, the Church of Theotokos Peribleptos which have stunning darkly colorful frescoes in its interior walls.
A hidden treasure in Ohrid is found a few kilometers south of the old town and on a crag beside the lake, this landmark is the monastery and church of Sveti Naum, which is a quiet, peaceful, and mystical place which has impressive frescoes and the relics of the saint who is from Ohrid as well. In the old town, you will see several houses with the Byzantine architecture of protruding upper floors. To see the whole town with the lake at the background, go up the hill to Samuil’s Fortress, which was once the citadel of the city under Bulgarian rule and its structure dates back to the Ancient Greek period in the 4th century BC. When in Ohrid, the food is much different, it is no longer Greek or Turkish but the meaty Yugoslavian cuisine which tastes good as well.
Nowadays, not a lot of us have an idea of what the Byzantine world was like, but reading about it in books shows a colorful world of interesting figures, endless conquests and military expeditions, poisoning and plots, family dramas, trade between east and west, inspiring stories of how commoners became emperors such as Basil I and Justinian I. It would be hard to imagine the Byzantine world by just reading about it in books, the best way to relive the empire is to travel to places like Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Meteora, and Ohrid. These places do not completely have the Byzantine world intact but its churches with a simple brick exterior and rich and colorful interiors will help you imagine the world of Byzantium while the walls of Istanbul and Thessaloniki will show you how powerful the empire was in military strength.
There are still a lot more places of the Byzantine world I have yet to see, like the cathedral mosaics of Ravenna, as well as Sicily, Cappadocia, and Trabzon. Hopefully I will be able to see them in the future. Byzantium may not be remembered as much because there are no popular movies or series produced about their history, but still even if they remain an underrated civilization, we must remember them for the introduction of the fork to Europe and the rest of the world and for their exceptional skills in so many things – including running an empire that lasted for more than a thousand years.
Because of their great skills and contributions to society, I have always found Byzantium interesting and something that must be further discovered.
Well, this is all for now for my article on Byzantium. Thanks for reading!