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The Place of Byzantium in World History

Byzantium
Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral which served as the seat of Eastern Christianity for nearly one thousand years, is now a mosque. It was one of the centers of Byzantium, one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Credit: Greek Reporter

Byzantium served as an important link between antiquity and the Renaissance, and much of Greek theology and thought can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire.

by Alexander Billinis

The summer is ending. In some jurisdictions, school has already started, and as a university lecturer I am using a hiatus between summer classes and the fall semester to tune up syllabi. The vacation-centric “August” of our years in Europe is a fading memory, and the current Greek August is turning out to be a tragic inferno.

It has been a pedagogical summer all around. In addition to teaching incoming college freshmen, once a week I pointed my car northward and upward into the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, bound for the Greek Orthodox Diakonia Center of the Metropolis of Atlanta. My nickname for this sacred space is “America’s Mystra.”*

My family and I, including our dog Rocky, often go to the Panagia Chapel, an architectural and spiritual descendant of Mystra’s Pantanassa, for church services, including one to memorialize the recent departure from this world of my wife’s much-loved father.

My weekly trips this summer, however, focused on the theme “Byzantium in Context” in instructing the participants at St. Stephen’s Summer Camp.

The summer camp, operated by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, provides a spiritual and recreational solace for Greek Orthodox teenagers in a setting both all American (and Southern) yet readily recalling many a mountainous spiritual retreat in Greece.

Byzantium and Greek identity

Even in such a setting, particularly after a long day of both physical and mental activity, telling the timeline of Greek history is a tough sell. In a Southern summer afternoon, it is even harder.

What I tried to leave my temporary (often unwilling) charges with had less to do with dates and facts, but rather, that Byzantium existed, that it was the continuation of the Greco-Roman world in a Christian setting, and that the Christianity we practice — and the identity we hold — directly descend from Byzantium.

Then I asked them, “has anyone ever told you this, in this way?”

That got their attention — assuming they were indeed awake. With rare exceptions, the answer was a resounding “No.” Not from school, not from family, not from Church, Greek School, Greek Dance, or other Greek organizations.

Were the silence solely from the American school and university system, one might give it a pass. When neither parents nor ecclesiastical/ethnic organizations took the time to put over a millennium of Greek history — much of it quite spectacular — into context, however, there is a larger problem.

I ask yet another question of my charges.

“What empire lasted as long as Byzantium? I’ll wait.”

History is one of my passions, but it is a front in a struggle we are losing as a society.

When most of the students assembled were unaware of the Asia Minor Disaster or the Greek Genocide that occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century — unless their families were directly impacted — this is yet another disaster.

If we do not know our history then we can be assured that others will not, or they will interpret it in ways that disintermediate us from our own story, and with our own passive acquiescence.

Over the past several years I have worked both individually and with active and enlightened organizations such as East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) to tell a more holistic, contextual Greek story to an audience both Greek and non-Greek.

Given the Bicentennial year, we have accelerated our programs and lectures, and others have followed our lead. We need more, not fewer, of these activities.

What my summer sessions drove home to me was the need to do this at an (pardon the pun) elementary level, as well as for adult audiences. This is on us.

If you do not know your history, it will become somebody else’s history.

*Full disclosure: the phrase “America’s Mystra” was first coined by my good friend Eric Hill.

Alexander Billinis is a Greek-American writer, author, lawyer, and university lecturer.  He is the author of two books: 

 

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