Posted by: mollyscafeistanbul | August 2, 2010

molly’s cafe: sailing from byzantium

sailing from byzantium

sailing from byzantium: how a lost empire shaped the world. this is another book that i recently read.  i think the title may be a play on words of a title by william butler yeats, sailing to byzantium.  at any rate, this book was a very easy read, full of interesting details, but not boring at all.  colin wells does not burden the reader with annoying notes (i hate those little raised numbers that you have to find somewhere else in the book), though in the back you can see where he got a lot of his information.  there are a few footnotes, but they are briefly explanatory.

you may know if you have read my other “book reports” that i have been reading a lot about byzantium.  i think this was one of the most readable books.  i have often felt that my connection with istanbul exists because much of our christian culture is related to this place (nicea of the nicene creed is just across the sea from here, for example).  from this carefully organized book i can see how that connection was made for the italian renaissance, the arabic enlightenment, and the rise of the slavs into russia.  wells explains how even as the byzantine empire was disintegrating, learned men from byzantium were travelling to europe and the slavic countries, as well as to what we now call the middle east, to meet with other learned men and in fact to create more.  it is very clear that without cyril and methodius, for example, there would be no cyrillic alphabet, which was in fact the first written alphabet for the slavs.  scholars such as cydones, chrysolaras, and bessarion influenced those such as erasmus, politian, and the medicis.

going another direction, the arab world was affected deeply by the byzantines.  for example, damascus was taken, but the government and much of the social structure remained the same, largely byzantine (probably a case of it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).  wells decribes the development of islamic philosophers, with the most famous being al kindi. one of the most prolific translators from greek to arabic was hunayn, a christian nestorian.  much of what he translated was medical and scientific, though the need for these decreased as arab scientists themselves came up with their own ideas. wells also discusses the falsafa movement, which was the development of philosophy. he makes the connection between averroes from al andalus and thomas aquinas, who read many of the translations of aristotle that averroes had done.

orthodoxy in kiev

it was also very interesting to read about the rise of the slavs into what would become russia.  wells debunks the notion that kiev had been in existence for millenia, as he points out that archeological digs indicate it was settled around 900 a.d. and was in fact first a collection of wooden buildings, as was moscow.  what did byzantium have to do with these people?  many missionaries came from there and they developed cyrillic writing in order to help spread the word.  of course politics was important, but the church officials were intent on keeping the churches in line with the patriarchate.  ultimately politics prevailed to break this aim, but the byzantine influence is clearly present in the church art, among other things.

this is just a brief overview of the book, but i highly recommend it. wells writes fluently and the ideas, although based on almost ancient history, seem fresh.  living in byzantium, it is very interesting to me to see how this old empire reached so far into the future.


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