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Burak on RA's Byzantium- Politics by Omission?



Last week, finally, I managed to visit the Byzantium exhibition at the RA just a few days before it closed. Am I writing in vain? I know it is a bit late to share my impressions as the Byzantium: 330-1453 exhibition that opened on the 25th October last year and was on some levels a great success. Those who live in London with a particular interest must have visited long before but what can I do when stuck in the regions? Still bear with me, the exhibition is worth reflecting on, it achievements and its one disastrous flaw. We'll get to that in a minute.

The exhibition overall was simply, and not surprisingly, superb. Truly impressive. The artifacts produced in a period stretching more than a thousand years bear testament to the greatness of the East Roman (which became over time the only Roman) Empire. The magnificent objects on display ranged from the impressive icons to humble, everyday items such as spoons, plates and buckets. Each and every one was beautiful and beautifully displayed.

The iconic mosaics were swirling and entrancing and it was fascinating to see the development of mosaic art, its building sophistication, by witnessing the development of micro mosaics. This evolution, so clearly laid out with clever curation, was probably the exhibition's greatest success.

What is striking about the Byzantine art is that rather paradoxically its creative peak comes between between 1261 and 1453. That period saw the waning of The Byzantine Empire as a political and military force and might have signalled a general cultural slump. Quite the opposite occurred. Byzantium's interaction with the West increased and it went on to deeply influence Russian, Ukrainian, Balkan and Caucasian arts. That burgeoning influence is well described by Anthony Eastmond in the exhibition catalogue: ‘The revived empire in Constantinople after 1261 never had the same political or military power as its predecessors… This, paradoxically, allowed churches outside the empire to renew their interest in Byzantine art… In the fourteenth century, a time when any Byzantine aspirations for international power were little more than fantasies, Byzantine art itself was resurgent’ (p. 314).

What was the reason behind that? Why were surrounding powers so keen to be associated with Byzantine culture? The answer was a search for legitimacy, of a scramble to control that very special brand: Rome. Here's Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki (editors of the catalogue): 'In emulating and reproducing its visual language…they were posturing as future successors to Constantinople; indeed, in due course Moscow proclaimed itself the third Rome’ (p. 42).

In other words Byzantium and Constantinople (in particular) were seen to be the last resting place of the first and greatest of all empires. A kind of urban relic whose art contained the sophistication and glory of Rome. What could be more attractive for jostling powers to adopt? Thus the correlation between the regression of Byzantine political power and the rise of Byzantine art was not actually paradoxical. Rising powers and competing cultures surrounding Byzantines tended to adopt the Byzantine art more and more enthusiastically as the identity as the new Rome came up for grabs.

Here is where the exhibition failed. It’s almost complete neglect of one of those powers keen to take up the Roman laurels. The Turks. Where were The Ottomans and pre-Ottoman Anatolian Turks in the Byzantium exhibition? After all they were a key successor to its inheritance. As I looked and looked the answer became increasingly clear. The Turks were nowhere, mystifyingly excluded.

When the Ottoman leader Sultan Mehmet (“the Conqueror”) took Constantinople he immediately declared his empire to be the continuation of Rome. Amongst various other titles he took the name Kayzer-i Rum, which means “Caesar of Rome” in the Ottoman language.

Amongst a number of historians who refuse to be hoodwinked by the misleading, anachronistic ideologies of Turkish or Greek nationalisms, or of pro-Ottoman/Turkish or pro-Greek standpoints, there exists the view that the Ottoman Empire adopted the Byzantine state system and became the political successor of Byzantine Empire.

Besides all, it simply cannot be thought that pre-Ottoman and Ottoman Turks and Byzantines; who shared the same geography for around 400 years before 1453 and either fought or cooperated in the course of that long period; did not have cultural interactions. They did, actually. In terms of artistic interactions, the catalogue of the exhibition contains valuable information.

The editors of the volume wrote that Ottoman Turks’ art ‘partly appropriated Byzantine ideas and techniques’ (p. 42), and according to Eastmond ‘the growing power of Muslim states in the region is increasingly reflected in art. The Innsbruck dish, made for the Artuqid ruler… in the early twelfth century… reveals the complex web of Byzantine, eastern Anatolian and Islamic motifs that were combined to appeal to this ruler in south-eastern Turkey’. A similar cultural interaction was between the (pre-Ottoman) Seljuq Turks and Armenians: ‘Armenian craftsmen were involved in the building of many Seljuq buildings, including mosques and medreses… At the same time Armenian religious architecture began to adopt much of the decorative vocabulary of Seljuq buildings…’. The key factor behind the cultural interactions between the different peoples living in the Turco-Byzantine geography is well explained by Eastmond: ‘The movement of goods along the Silk Road did much more to unite the peoples east of Byzantium than wars did to divide them’ (pp. 312-313).

This is exactly where the problem, or let’s say the missing link, emerges regarding the Byzantium exhibition. The catalogue of the exhibition has mention of the Turco/Muslim-Byzantine interactions, as well as supporting visual materials. But these visual materials are not displayed at the exhibition. Perhaps it was impossible to obtain the necessary loan of these articles. However those who didn't splash out the £27 pounds on the catalogue would never have known about this vital and mysteriously missing information.

The organizers of this event managed to create a magnificent exhibition about the Byzantine culture and history with virtually no reference to or mention of Turks. I am not joking. If you manage to organise an amazing Byzantine exhibition with the least mention of Seljuks and Ottomans, well, this means that you have done an incredible job!

Just to pick a few examples of the intervlacing cultures...there were Turks in the service of Byzantine emperors and Byzantines in the service of Ottoman sultans. Orhan Bey, the son of Osman Bey who founded the Ottoman dynasty, married a Byzantine princess. The number of like examples of cultural osmosis goes on and on. But when I looked at the list of lenders to the exhibition, I spotted a vast number of museums from 54 different cities in the world. And do you know what? None was from Turkey. Given that the Archeology, Mosaics, and Kariye museums in Istanbul and several others in Anatolia contain great examples of Byzantine arts; I find this situation highly unfortunate.

It was a wonderful exhibition but something vital was missing and you have to ask why?

I find it hard not to question this "omission" and ask earnestly as to whether this has been a deliberate attempt to erase the collaboration of cultures because one party is the "Ottomans" or whether it was the outcome of an unfortunate selection of artefacts.

Whatever the case it seemed bizarre to this observer and worthy of flagging up as a major and curious flaw. Was it merely a failure of the curators and their own and limited understanding of history or was it more intriguingly a political statement?



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