History on Display: Byzantium and Islam

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Islamic gallery has been on my to-do list for this  year’s trip to New York ever since it opened last November. It has some amazing pieces.  But the exhibit that blew me away was Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.

I want to make it clear right from the start: I know next to nothing about the Byzantine Empire.  In my mental chronology, it’s basically a placeholder between the “real” Roman Empire and the rise of Islam. (I realize this is a wrong-headed and mistake positionn.  We all have holes in our mental history of the world.)

The exhibit rammed me right up the sharp edges of my own ignorance.  It gave me a broad-brush introduction to a multicultural empire that covered more territory than I realized.  There were plenty of surprises.  The one that had me scraping my jaw off the Metropolitan's marble-tiled floor was the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries.

If you're like me, your mental image of Byzantium looks like this:

With that picture in my head, I find it hard to combine the words "Byzantine " and "Iconoclasm" in a sentence.  And yet it appears that there was not just one period of Byzantine iconoclasm, but two.  The First Iconoclasm lasted from 726 to 774 CE; the Second Iconoclasm from 813-842 CE.

During these periods, the Orthodox Church was torn by theological battles over the use of icons and images as objects of religious veneration.  Imperial edicts forbade the creation or use of icons.  In some parts of the empire, including Constantinople itself, existing images were plastered over*.  Some iconoclasts took a more labor intensive approaching, carefully removing tiny mosaic tiles and jumbling them into a new, abstract pattern.

No one really knows what triggered the controversy.  Some attribute it to an imperial attempt to seize control over the wealthy Orthodox Church.  Others see it as a response to the rise and spread of Islam during the same period.

Whatever the reason, I was totally gobsmacked by this new insight into Byzantium.  Anyone else had their historical certainties shaken up recently?

Updated:  For those of you who can't make it to New York in the coming months, here's a wonderful slideshow of items from the exhibit from History Today.


City of Fortune

I thought I knew something about Venice. A floating city carved out of a malaria-ridden lagoon.  Merchant city-state turned maritime empire, with one foot in the Muslim world.  The European end of the desert caravan trade, with merchant entrepôts throughout the Levantine coast.  Canals, gondoliers,  masked balls, gold ducats. Glamor, wealth, decadence, decay.  Or perhaps, in the words of Lerner and Lowe, "just a town without a sewer."

Then I got a chance to review  Roger Crowley's City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas for Shelf Awareness and discovered I knew nothing about Venice.

Roger Crowley  returns to the medieval and early modern Mediterranean in City of Fortune, using three defining moments to tell the story of Venice's development from a "smattering of low-lying muddy islets set in a malarial lagoon" to the greatest power in the region: the city-state's pivotal role in the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; the city's bloody rivalry with Genoa for control of the East-West trade; and its desperate defense against the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.

As in his earlier books, Crowley's fast-paced narrative style and vivid character sketches strike a nice balance between the big picture and the telling detail. He tells the story using a variety of voices. In addition to accounts by Venetian doges, merchants and city officials, he uses those written by--often hostile--outsiders, including the poet Petrarch, Pope Innocent III, Norman crusaders, and Cretan rebels.

Trade is the theme that ties Crowley's story together. With no natural resources, no agriculture, and a small population, Venice depended entirely on trade for its survival. Its relationships first with Byzantium and later with the Islamic world were both the foundation of its prosperity and a source of contention with the rest of Christendom. Control of the western end of the overland trade caravans was the key to Venice's success as "Europe's first full-blown colonial adventure." Crowley ends with the event that would bring Venetian maritime dominance to a close: the news that Portugal had found a sea route to India, rendering the Venetian empire suddenly obsolete.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

The Lost History of 1914

Anyone who's been following along on this blog knows that, like most history people, I have events and periods that I return to over and over again. Some I've followed for years; others are relatively new interests.  One of the constants in my historical life is the First World War.*  It's always a pleasure to discover a book at looks at the war in a new way.

In The Lost History of 1914, NPR's Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the "cult of inevitability" that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. Most books about the war's origins focus on the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June, 1914, and the subsequent domino effect of alliances that pulled Europe into war.

Beatty, by contrast, considers a handful of events that dominated international headlines in the months before the war: a threatened coup in the German Reichstag over military actions in Alsace, a change in Russian foreign policy based on the Tsar Nicholas's fears of seeming weak, a potential civil war in Ireland over Home Rule, Woodrow Wilson's support of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, and the defeat of a leftist minister in France because his wife murdered a right-wing newspaper editor. At the end of each chapter, Beatty offers a counterfactual account of events that would have changed Europe's response to the events at Sarajevo.

None of these events is unknown to historians, though they may not be familiar to the non-specialist reader. The originality of Beatty's work lies in bringing them together as threads in a single story. Looked at individually, each story is a compelling slice of history, told in a conversational style. Taken as a whole, The Lost History of 1914 makes a powerful argument that the chain of events leading to the First World War was not only complicated, but fragile--so fragile, perhaps, that the inevitable war might better be described as the unlikely war.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers