Monday, 21 August 2017

Intimations of Byzantium: Hidden History of Turkey’s Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia

Text by Christopher Deliso   
Forty-five minutes from Trabzon, on the temperate Black Sea coast of north-eastern Turkey, Sumela rose out of a cliff, surrounded by lush verdure. The best Byzantine monasteries always take effort to reach, and this one was no exception. Visiting Sumela reaffirmed that unique aesthetic genius of the Byzantines to seek, whenever possible, to harmonize their sacred sites with the contours of the natural world.

It was mid-morning, and we had come to explore arguably the finest – though still largely unfrequented – Byzantine church in eastern Turkey. Although a Muslim, my Turkish friend Ibrahim was greatly impressed by Sumela, which emerged in a revelation of colour and steep solemnity as we strode upwards on the path through impossibly green forests, the only sounds being the gurgling of streams and the singing of birds, the dampness of the woodland breeze cool on our faces and each draught of fresh air more refreshing than the last.

Most extraordinary, however, were the frescoes that decorated Sumela’s walls, vividly stacked like at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Centuries of foggy Black Sea weather and wind had, along with some unfortunate troublemakers, left parts of them faded and thinly gouged. It was impossible to appreciate how vivid and immaculate they must have looked in their prime, when the monks still inhabited this tranquil corner of forested paradise in the now unknown and vanished world of Byzantine Anatolia.

While most tourists in Turkey are only aware of Istanbul’s major Byzantine sites, such as Agia Sofia, the Byzantine Walls and the Chora Monastery, Anatolia and the Caucasus are full of treasures such as Sumela, testaments to a great social, economic and political commonwealth that existed for over a thousand years. The Byzantine Empire, like the Ottoman one that followed it, relied on the contributions of a diverse range of peoples. Although Greek was the official language, it was said, according to the trope of the day, that one could hear ‘all of the world’s 72 languages’ in the streets of Constantinople. Jewish traders, Russian trappers, Italian sea merchants and more were represented. Fierce Scandinavians were utilized in the emperor’s guard, and Armenians, those famed cavalrymen from the east, were the Byzantine army’s finest. In fact, one-fifth of Byzantine emperors and empresses were either Armenian or half-Armenian.

Relations between Byzantium and eastern Anatolian Greeks, Armenians and Georgians were not always friendly, in part because of an undefeatable geography. This desolate land of dusty plains, frigid in winter and baking hot in summer, and mountain ridges crowned by watchtowers, lent itself to the machinations of clan chiefs and their duelling, shifting interests, forging a history replete with exotically-named rulers such as the Archons of Vaspurakan, the House of Bagrationi and the Kings of Abkhazia.

Although relations between Byzantium and the easterners were often turbulent, a still surviving common culture was created through Christianity. Georgia and Armenia are among the world’s oldest Christian countries. In the first century AD, the Apostle Andrew visited Georgia, according to legend bringing with him the ‘uncreated’ icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God), not made by human hands. The new religion spread with the preaching three centuries later of a female saint, Nino of Cappadocia. Today, the veneration of the Mother of God remains vital in matriarchal Georgia; one of the most famous icons on Greece’s Mt. Athos, that isolated group of monasteries that have followed the Byzantine rite for over a thousand years, is the ‘miracle working’ icon of the Virgin Mary in the Georgian-endowed Iviron Monastery.

The dynamic of war and cooperation is exemplified in Byzantine Emperor Basil II’s victory over Georgian King Giorgi I in 1021. Not long after his loyal Armenian guard had saved him from Bulgar forces near Philipopolis (modern-day Plovdiv, Bulgaria), the emperor turned east to suppress the Georgians, long prone to making alliance with power-hungry Anatolian Greek clan chiefs. After defeating the Georgians, Basil II generously funded one of Georgia’s most spectacular churches, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the mediaeval capital of Mtskheta, 12 kilometres from Tbilisi and famed burial place of the Georgian kings.

Today, Svetitskhoveli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its solemn, cavernous structure practically swallowing up the visitor, the ornate tombs of great rulers underfoot. Above, on a high and windy bluff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi is the smaller church of Djvari (Holy Cross)- its placement reiterating the Byzantine Christian passion for natural harmony.

Another, even more serene example of this common heritage is the tenth-century Armenian church of Surp Khach (also meaning Holy Cross), on Akdamar Island, in eastern Turkey’s Lake Van. While political antagonisms between Turkey and Armenia had imperilled the now disused church’s future, it has been saved with a $1.5 million restoration undertaken by the Turkish government.

The Armenian royal family of Arzruni ruled from Akdamar in the twelfth century: it boasted a palace, harbour and other churches. Surp Khach complements the cliffside forested Sumela or mountaintop Djvari in Georgia; it stands on a rippling lake (if you have the fortitude, try swimming there), and has magnificent stone-carved frescoes.

The church is surrounded by stone sculptures, its façade depicting in deep relief thematically-grouped scenes from the Old Testament. However, sculptures also depict daily life scenes such as hunting, work, celebrations, and grape-harvesting. These images give us a glimpse today into the forgotten, lost world of Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus in Byzantium times.

*A version of this article was originally published in Korean Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Morning Calm.

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Readers' Comments:

"Great articlee, Chris! Congratulations! You really understand the Balkans and its heritage. Once again, thanks for posing the article."
Best regards,
Rossitza Ohridska-Olson (Rosie Olson)
Vizantia Enterprises. Making Business Sense. Creatively.

"great pictues, great article, well written piece about a complex historical place."




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