Debate Magazine

Sky-Sailing to Byzantium

By Cris

By the magic of flight, I have just sailed the skies to Byzantium and back. It was a wonder-filled sojourn that has had me away for a few weeks, so there is some catching up to do. Before getting back to the blog’s more regular programming, I am going to talk Turkey over the next few posts. In anticipation of the trip, there was reading to be done. This reading began, of course, with William Butler Yeats’ poetic journey to the polis of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and today known as Istanbul, which Yeats never actually visited:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

A great deal of interpretive ink has been spilled over Sailing to Byzantium, so I don’t feel any need to spill more. While all readers of the poem will appreciate that Byzantium was richly symbolic for Yeats, perhaps fewer know that Yeats partially explained this symbolism in his esoteric-occult tome, A Vision:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.

Given this splendid vision of the ancient city, it’s a small wonder that Yeats did not have his rough beast, in The Second Coming, slouch towards Byzantium rather than Bethlehem. While this would have required some symbolic sleight-of-hand, with Emperor Constantine standing in for the poetic allusion to Christ, as a matter of historical fact such a substitution makes sense. Without Constantine, his conversion, and promotion, there is no Christianity as we know it today.

Not all of my preparatory reading was so poetic. I had long wanted to peruse Peter Brown’s classic, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, so this seemed the perfect time. Aside from providing critical context on the development of early Christianity (context which, by the way, has influenced Robin Horton’s theory of religion), Brown’s book rescued Constantinople from Edward Gibbons’ dim assessment of the city as an emblem of decline and fall. While Rome and the western provinces later known as Europe did in fact descend into “dark ages,” Brown observes that things were quite different in the east:

In Byzantium, a classical elite survived. It constantly re-created itself throughout the Middle Ages. Most of our finest manuscripts of the classics were produced in medieval Constantinople. Indeed, if it were not for Byzantine courtiers and bishops of the ninth and tenth centuries onwards, we should know nothing — except from fragments in papyrus — of Plato, Euclid, Sophocles, and Thucydides. The classical Greek culture that we know is the Greek culture that continued to hold the interest of the upper classes of Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. These men lived in their classical past so naturally that medieval Byzantium never experienced a Renaissance: Byzantines never thought that the classical past had died and so they rarely attempted, self-consciously, to have it “reborn.” (177)

These little known facts had me searching for traces of Hellenism among the Islamic-Ottoman palimpsest of modern Istanbul. Other than some remarkably old columns in Corinthian, Doric, and Ionian styles, the classical traces have mostly been erased (or overlaid). Brown’s book also alerted me to the possibility that such traces might be found in the provincial east, at Harran, where Hellenistic learning and pagan rituals flourished for a few centuries after they had disappeared even in Constantinople.

Because Harran is near Göbekli Tepe and the latter was on my itinerary, it seemed only right to pay my respects with a visit. While I could not find any traces of Hellenism at Harran, it was well worth the time. History hangs in the air there like no other place I’ve ever been. My site inspection of Göbekli Tepe was naturally awesome and surprisingly informative. There are aspects of the site that have been little noticed or mentioned in the literature. Some of these (which I will discuss in a future post) would seem to confirm the suspicion, summarized here, that Göbekli was residential and agricultural.

Two other books deserve mention for the prospective traveler to Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul. The first, Michael Angold’s Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, creates the dreadful impression that the city’s main occupation over the centuries was theological controversy. While this is in some sense true, there was much more to Byzantium than arcane and empty disputes over matters of Christian doctrine. This much more is on ample display in the second, Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. While Wells may overstate some small aspects of his case, this is a book which you should read even if you aren’t soon sailing to Byzantium or Istanbul.

But for those who are soon to visit, or are thinking about visiting, this epic piece of cultural analysis parading as sports writing should convince you. Rarely have I encountered a better lede than this from Spencer Hall’s delightful essay, “The Istanbul Derby”:

Come up the steps of this hotel, there’s something you should see while we explain this setup to you. First, there is this soccer game. It takes place in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people founded around two thousand years ago, a city so old it has Viking graffiti in its Muslim mosque which was once a Catholic church built for an emperor. Nothing can happen here that has not already happened, and yet people are very, very excited about a soccer game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, Istanbul’s two oldest and bitterest rivals.

Like Byzantium turned Constantinople turned Istanbul, Hall’s essay is a layer cake of paradox. In the next few posts, I’ll share some additional slices. But in the meantime, here is my main impression: the city has long been about conquest, commerce, and religion. In its historical aspects, it overwhelms with all three.


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