Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide - Barrie Kerper - E-Book

Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide E-Book

Barrie Kerper

2,99 €

  • Herausgeber: Vintage
  • Kategorie: Lebensstil
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • Veröffentlichungsjahr: 2021

THE COLLECTED TRAVELER For Travelers Who Want More Than a Guidebook Bringing The Collected Traveler along on your trip is like having your own savvy personal tour guide who knows the place intimately. This unique guide to one of today's hottest tourist destinations combines fascinating articles by a wide variety of writers, woven throughout with the editor's own indispensable advice and opinions-providing in one package an unparalleled experience of an extraordinary place. THIS EDITION ON ISTANBUL FEATURES: • Seductive, colorful, and in-depth articles that illuminate the dazzling treasures and monuments of Istanbul, from the Grand Bazaar to the Sultans' palaces; the delights of Turkish cuisine; the rich pageant of Istanbul's history; and the people and personalities that define it today. • More personal pieces that take the reader beyond the usual tourist highlights, offering intimate reports on everything from the heavenly scent (and taste) of Turkish roses to the glitzy nightlife of this city of "minarets and miniskirts" to the unusual pleasure of being pummeled to within an inch of your life in an historic Turkish bath. • Enticing recommendations for related reading, including novels, histories, memoirs, and the most useful guidebooks. • An A-Z Miscellany of concise and entertaining information to arm you for your trip-on everything from Alexander the Great and Ataturk to Whirling Dervishes and Turkish Wine. • Interviews, Q & As, and commentary from visitors and residents, ranging from the 18th-century society wit Lady Mary Wortley Montague to Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. • Spotlights on unusual shops, restaurants, hotels, and experiences not to be missed.

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Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide
The Turkish Table
The Bosphorus

Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide

Barrie Kerper



The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler


The Collected Traveler

Once again, to my mother, Phyllis,

who always believed my boxes of files

held something of value,

and to my father, Peter,

the most inspiring person in my life

The rich colors of the spectrum of Ottoman art, evocative of both a heavenly and an earthly Paradise, help to convey artistic messages that, while reflecting the religious and cultural complexities and subtleties of Ottoman civilization, at the same time speak to all of us in a clear and understandable artistic voice. The concept of “otherness,” for all of the incredible suffering and destruction that it has caused when exploited in the political clashes of nations and cultures, is fortunately a very fragile one, whose hard and destructive edges erode very quickly once we familiarize ourselves with other cultures. The centuries-old artistic legacy of the Ottomans will always preserve the mystique of another time and another place, but their works of art still contain the power to move and fascinate us, whatever our culture, with the immediacy and freshness that enables all great art to overcome distance and years, cultures and beliefs. These artists and patrons were Ottomans of bygone ages, but they were also people just like us. What delighted, inspired, and moved them also delights, inspires, and moves us, putting interesting differences of time, space, culture, and language into their proper perspective against the enduring message of beautiful things.


Iznik: The Artistry of Ottoman Ceramics

Istanbul may or may not be the world’s most magnificent city, but it is certainly the most magnificently situated.


Crescent & Star: Turkey

Between Two Worlds

It would be a dull visitor indeed who could not find, at certain times, in certain lights, a place in the city which did not whisper of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” For Istanbul is still the Miklagard [Great City] of the Vikings, and still the Red Apple of the Turks. The handprint of the conqueror is still on its column, and the ruthless ambition of an empress is encapsulated in a mosaic. Yeats was right: many moments of greatness and decay reverberate across the modern city, built up by the voices of the living and the dead.


in the foreword to

Istanbul: Poetry of Place


Istanbul [is] like any great Imperial city a melting pot of cultures, a homing ground for disparate peoples, a Tower of Babel. Here Asia, the Transcaucasus, and the Balkans meet, Tartary and Arabia converge, Black Sea and Mediterranean types gather, Muslim, Christian, and Jew pray, ancient and modern counterpoint.

—Ateş Orga,

Istanbul: Poetry of Place

THIS IS an exciting moment in history to visit Istanbul. The United Nations has designated no fewer than nine World Heritage sites in Turkey, and the European Union has chosen Istanbul to be a European Capital of Culture for 2010. If you feel you may have an image of the city that is dusty and medieval, you probably do, and it’s outdated: an August 2005 cover story of Newsweek proclaimed Istanbul “The Coolest City in the World”; Tyler Brûlé, founder of Wallpaper, was quoted in the May 2006 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller saying that “Istanbul is the new black. It’s the new Barcelona and Turkey is now the emerging hot spot for edgy food, cool design, and early adopters of premium tourism that Spain was ten years ago”; Suzy Menkes, writing in The International Herald Tribune in December 2006, noted that “Istanbul, straddling East and West across the Bosphorus, is on the cusp of change”; and three-Michelin-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened an outpost of his Spice Market restaurant in Istanbul in 2008 in the swank new W Hotel. The Wallpaper City Guide to Istanbul enthuses that “some cities continue into the twenty-first century only as museum pieces or tourist traps—and in Istanbul, the impressively numerous sights and still more numerous carpet salesrooms fulfill both functions in one easily navigable crux—but Istanbul is a monster metropolis that never stands still (and that’s not a coded reference to its seismic activity).”

On the other hand, those who think that modern Turkey has become too much like anywhere else are simply mistaken. Things are different in Turkey, as writer Anthony Weller noted in European Travel & Life: “Istanbul, which straddles the border between Europe and Asia, is schizophrenic; it cannot make up its many minds about anything. It is either the last noisy city in Europe or the first quiet town in Asia.”

I admit that one of the reasons I initially wanted to visit Istanbul was due to my affection for that silly song, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” written by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon and originally recorded by The Four Lads in 1953 for Columbia. (The fact that They Might Be Giants made it a hit again in 1990 was all the proof I needed that the song is catchy and endearing.) Some years later, I learned of an earlier song, “C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E,” recorded by Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby in 1928, which is even sillier. But I love them both, and for many years I couldn’t imagine a more exotic city on earth.

Philip Mansel, in Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, relates that few people consistently used one name for the city. Other names, spellings, epithets, and abbreviations have included Istanbul, Islambol, Stambul, Estambol, Kushta, Cons/ple, Gosdantnubolis, Tsarigrad, Rumiyya al-kubra, New Rome, New Jerusalem, the City of Pilgrimage, the City of Saints, the House of the Caliphate, the Throne of the Sultanate, the House of State, the Gate of Happiness, the Eye of the World, the Refuge of the Universe, Polis, and—simply—the City. It isn’t difficult to find adjectives to describe Istanbul’s beauty, uniqueness, and spirit.

Harder to describe are its inhabitants. You will surely find, as I did, repeatedly, that the Turks are among the kindest, friendliest, and most trustworthy people in the world. This is worth emphasizing, not only because just seeing the sights and not getting to know the people who created them leaves the visitor with half the insight and knowledge of a particular place, but because the Turks have been so misunderstood for so very long.

Nothing convinces like examples, so I will share a few: Godfrey Goodwin, in his autobiographical book Life’s Episodes: Discovering Ottoman Architecture, relates a story about a time he and his wife were on a road somewhere in the middle of Turkey that was still meant for buffalo. The car jolted and died. He brought the car into a garage, and the next morning, he expected to be told that he would have to wait a day or two more for it to be fixed. “But not at all,” he explains. “There was the car sparklingly polished and the tank filled. We were allowed to pay for the petrol but not for the two men who had worked all night on a wreck. ‘Our road did the damage,’ said the owner of the workshop. ‘We had to put it right.’ Were all humanity like him, there would be no need of Paradise.” My husband and I lost count of the times we left our bags at bus stations and shops for safekeeping, only to be told when we returned that no payment was necessary. And we remember well how a bus driver picked us up in Izmir and refused payment, saying only that we looked like we needed a ride so he was happy to give us one, and the guy who bought us coffee just because he wanted to talk to Americans and find out what we thought of Turkey. Lastly, Bill Penzey, founder of the excellent company Penzey’s Spices (800 741 7787,, thirty-nine stores nationwide) related an experience he had in a taxi that he originally wrote about in his Penzeys One magazine:

You can’t be a good spice business without having really good bay leaves and really good oregano. We have found Turkey to be the best location for both of these, as well as Aleppo pepper. But this moment did not happen in the pepper fields or on the mountainous slopes outside of Izmir where the oregano and bay leaves grow. This moment happened in a taxi between Istanbul and Atatürk International Airport about a month after 9/11.

… This ride started like so many—in silence.… The driver’s English was not great, and my Turkish was non-existent, so communication was tough. He had studied to be an engineer in Germany and with my Wisconsin upbringing we were able to use a combination of a little English and a little German to get a conversation started. After a few minutes of small talk, he paused a moment and asked me where I was from.… Bad thoughts go through your head a month after 9/11 when someone who looks like he could be one of the terrorists’ roommates from Frankfurt asks you where you are from. Still, I was not going to let my thoughts get the best of me, so I told him I was an American. I was watching his eyes in the rearview mirror and I saw a sadness come over him.… For him there was a deep sadness for the victims of the terrorists … for my driver and many others I was surprised that they spoke of these deaths as though they were the deaths of their own family members. Their grief was immense, but coupled with their grief was anger. An anger that someone could have done this monstrous deed and then tried to say they did it for their religion. Over and over the driver said to me in English so I would not miss the point, that this was not Islam.…

Though this alone is a good story, it is not the moment that this tale is about … somewhere about three miles from the airport I must have been distracted by the taxi driver’s words, thinking about what he had to say. While I was looking the other way, the driver reached over and turned off his meter and quickly restarted it. We got to the airport, I looked at the meter, and for what should have been a $16 fare, the meter read the Turkish equivalent of $1.85.… It is one thing to say you feel bad about what has happened; it is another thing to undercharge a random American by $15 to do something about it. Fifteen dollars is a lot of money in Turkey. We were standing there looking at each other and I was trying to figure out what to do. In the back of my mind was that old Harry Chapin song “Taxi.” So I handed him the Turkish equivalent of $20 for a $1.85 fare and told him to keep the change. He tried to give me change; I would not take it. He shook my hand with more feeling than I had felt in a handshake in a long time. We walked away. Nothing in the world had really changed, but for the two of us it felt like it had. Turkey, it is a magical place.

Istanbul is an extraordinary city, filled with much that is old and plenty that is new. Asia Minor (or Anatolia, Greek for “east” or “the land of sunrise”), note Hugh and Nicole Pope in Turkey Unveiled, “is extraordinarily rich in ancient peoples. It bears some of the world’s earliest traces of civilization. Like the architectural jumble of Istanbul, where buildings have been piling up on top of each other for millennia, the ethnic and historical origins of Turkey’s peoples are inextricably intertwined.” The layers of history in Istanbul, combined with its vibrant pulse, ensure that to know the city well would take a lifetime. I hope that after reading this book, and traveling to Istanbul, you, too, will realize that, as Verity Campbell wrote in the Lonely Planet Turkey guide, “There simply is no other city like it.”


A traveller without knowledge is a bird without wings.

—SA’ADI, Persian poet,


The Collected Traveler editions are meant to be companion volumes to guidebooks that go beyond the practical information that traditional guidebooks supply. Each individual volume is perfect to bring along, but each is also a sort of planning package—the books guide readers to many other sources, and they are sources of inspiration. James Pope-Hennessy, in his wonderful book Aspects of Provence, notes that “if one is to get the best value out of places visited, some skeletal knowledge of their history is necessary.… Sight-seeing is by no means the only object of a journey, but it is as unintelligent as it is lazy not to equip ourselves to understand the sights we see.” Immerse yourself in a destination and you’ll acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation of the place and the people who live there, and, not surprisingly, you’ll have more fun.

This series promotes the strategy of staying longer within a smaller area so as to experience it more fully. Susan Allen Toth refers to this in one of her many wonderful books, England as You Like It, in which she subscribes to the “thumbprint theory of travel”: spending at least a week in one spot no larger than her thumbprint covers on a large-scale map of England. She goes on to explain that excursions are encouraged, as long as they’re about an hour’s drive away.

I have discovered in my own travels that a week in one place, even a spot no bigger than my thumbprint, is rarely long enough to see and enjoy it all. For this reason, most of the books in The Collected Traveler series focus on either cities or regions, as opposed to entire countries. Though I did not plan to compile a book on all of Turkey, I am mindful that Turkey is a member of three communities: European, Mediterranean, and Asian. I have tried to reflect this wider world sense of community throughout the book.

The major portion of this book features a selection of articles and essays from various periodicals and recommended reading relevant to the theme of each section. The articles and books were chosen from my own files and home library, which I’ve maintained for over two decades. (I often feel I am the living embodiment of a comment that Samuel Johnson made in 1775, that “a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”) The selected writings reflect the culture, politics, history, current social issues, religion, cuisine, and arts of the people you’ll be visiting. They also represent the observations and opinions of a wide variety of novelists, travel writers, and journalists. These writers are typically authorities on Turkey or Istanbul, or both; they either live there (as permanent or part-time residents) or visit there often for business or pleasure. I’m very discriminating in seeking opinions and recommendations, and I am not interested in the remarks of unobservant wanderers. I am not implying that first-time visitors to Turkey have nothing noteworthy or interesting to share—they very often do, and are often very keen observers. Conversely, frequent travelers are very often jaded and apt to miss the finer details that make Turkey the exceptional place it is. I am interested in the opinions of people who want to know Istanbul, not just see it.

I’ve included numerous older articles because they were particularly well written, thought-provoking, or unique in some way, and because the authors’ views stand as a valuable record of a certain time in history. Even after the passage of many years, you may share the emotions and opinions of the writer, and often you may realize that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I have many, many more articles in my files than I was able to reprint here. Though there are a few pieces whose absence I very much regret, I believe the anthology you’re holding is very comprehensive.

A word about the food and restaurant section, “The Turkish Table”: I have great respect for restaurant reviewers, and though their work may seem glamorous—and it sometimes is—it is also very hard. It’s an all-consuming, full-time job, and that is why I urge you to consult the very good cookbooks I recommend as well as guidebooks. Restaurant (and hotel) reviewers are, for the most part, professionals who have dined in hundreds of eating establishments (and spent hundreds of nights in hotels). They are far more capable of assessing the qualities and flaws of a place than I am. I don’t always agree with every opinion of a reviewer, but I am far more inclined to defer to their opinion over someone who is unfamiliar with Turkish food in general, for example, or someone who doesn’t dine out frequently enough to recognize what good restaurants have in common. My files are filled with restaurant reviews, and I could have included many more articles; but that would have been repetitive and ultimately beside the point. I have selected a few articles that give you a feel for eating out in Istanbul, alert you to some things to look for in selecting a truly worthwhile place versus a mediocre one, and highlight notable dishes from Turkey’s surprisingly diverse cuisine.

The recommended reading for each section is one of the most important features of this book, and together they represent my favorite aspect of this series. (My annotations are, however, much shorter than I would prefer—did I mention that I love encyclopedias?—but they are still nothing less than enormously enthusiastic endorsements, and I encourage you to read as many of these as you can.) One reason I do not include many excerpts from books in my series is that I am not convinced an excerpt will always lead a reader to the book in question, and I think good books deserve to be read in their entirety. Art critic John Russell wrote an essay, in 1962, entitled “Pleasure in Reading,” in which he stated, “Not for us today’s selections, readers, digests, and anthologizings: only the Complete Edition will do.” Years later, in 1986, he noted that “bibliographies make dull reading, some people say, but I have never found them so. They remind us, they prompt us, and they correct us. They double and treble as history, as biography, and as a freshet of surprises. They reveal the public self, the private self, and the buried self of the person commemorated. How should we not enjoy them, and be grateful to the devoted student who has done the compiling?” The section of a nonfiction book I always turn to first is the bibliography, as it is there that I learn something about the author who has done the compiling as well as about other notable books I know I will want to read.

Reading about travel in the days before transatlantic flights, I always marvel at the number of steamer trunks and the amount of baggage people were accustomed to taking. If I were traveling then, however, my trunks would be filled with books, not clothes. Although I travel light and seldom check bags, I have been known to fill an entire suitcase with books, secure in the knowledge that I could have them all with me for the duration of my trip. Each recommended reading section features titles I feel are the best available and most worth your time. I realize that “best” is subjective; readers will simply have to trust me that I have been extremely thorough in deciding which books to recommend. It disappoints me, however, that there are undoubtedly books with which I’m unfamiliar and that therefore do not appear here. I would be grateful to hear from you if a favorite of yours is missing. I have not hesitated to list out-of-print titles because some very excellent books are out of print (and deserve to be returned to print!), and because many of them can be easily found, through individuals who specialize in out-of-print books, booksellers, libraries, and online searches. I also believe the companion reading you bring along should be related in some way to where you’re going, so these lists include fiction and poetry titles that feature characters or settings in Istanbul or Turkey or feature aspects of Turkey and the Turks.

Sprinkled throughout this book I have included the musings of a number of visitors to Istanbul—ranging from the best-selling writer Frances Mayes to noted chef Claudia Roden—briefly describing their most memorable sight or experience from their visits. I included some of my own family members in this group because, perhaps unusually, Istanbul has long been a favorite destination of ours.

An A to Z Miscellany appears at the end of the book. This is an alphabetical assemblage of information about words, phrases, foods, people, themes, and historical notes that are unique to Istanbul and Turkey. Will you learn of some nontouristy things to see and do? Yes. Will you also learn more about the better-known aspects of Istanbul? Yes. Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, a sunset over the Bosphorus, a glass of rakı, a cup of çay, and making new friends at a meyhane are all equally representative of Istanbul. Seeing and doing them all is what makes for a memorable visit, and no one, by the way, should make you feel guilty for wanting to see some famous sites. They have become famous for a reason: they are really something to see, Topkapı and Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) included. Canon number eighty-four in Bruce Northam’s Globetrotter Dogma is “The good old days are now,” in which he wisely reminds us that destinations are not ruined even though they may have been more “real” however many years ago. “’Tis a haughty condescension to insist that because a place has changed or lost its innocence that it’s not worth visiting; change requalifies a destination. Your first time is your first time; virgin turf simply is. The moment you commit to a trip, there begins the search for adventure.”

Ultimately, this is also the compendium of information that I wish I’d had between two covers years ago. I admit it isn’t the “perfect” book; for that, I envision a waterproof jacket and pockets inside the front and back covers, pages and pages of accompanying maps, lots of blank pages for notes, a bookmark, mileage and size conversion charts … in other words, something so encyclopedic in both weight and size that no one would want to carry it, let alone read it. I envisioned such a large volume because I believe that to really get to know a place, to truly understand it in a nonsuperficial way, one must either live there or travel there again and again. It seems to me that it can take nothing short of a lifetime of studying and traveling to grasp Istanbul. I do not pretend to have completely grasped it now, many years later, nor do I pretend to have completely grasped the other destinations that are featured in The Collected Traveler series; but I am trying, by continuously reading, collecting, and traveling. And I presume readers like you are, too. That said, I am exceedingly happy with this edition, and I believe it will prove helpful in the anticipation of your upcoming journey, in the enjoyment of your trip while it’s happening, and in the remembrance of it when you’re back home.

Güle, güle! (Bon voyage, or “go with smiles!”)


When Turks meet friends in unexpected, remote locations they say, “The world is small.” The saying has never been closer to the truth than at present times because, thanks to the advances in technology, the world is right in their sitting room every night. But while the Turks educate themselves as to the peculiarities of most nations, cultures, and lands, they still remain something of a mystery to the rest of the world, surrounded by a hazy cloud called the Orient. Turkish delight, carpets, towels, cigarettes, and coffee are all that most outsiders can associate with the country, yet beyond this parsimonious list one of the richest of cultures and the most welcoming of hosts lies, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.


Culture Shock! Turkey

In Turkey dreams come true, especially if they involve a glass of tea.


Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea

It is customary to speak of westernization as having made Turkey two nations: one modern, the other primitive. But this suggests too neat a dichotomy. Most of the time, Turkey is modern and primitive. Simultaneously! Like the girl in the Moslem head scarf wearing a pair of designer glasses; or the old woman with a cordless phone sitting in a house so ancient, it seemed to be tottering.


Looking for Osman

The Byzantine Empire

Rome of the East


THE BYZANTINE civilization, centered on Constantinople, was a star that shone brightly during Europe’s Dark Ages. The empire preserved the heritage of Greece and Rome and spread Christianity across a vast realm. After eleven centuries, it finally splintered, its many accomplishments falling in the shadow of the Italian Renaissance.

In this brilliantly detailed interpretive piece, Merle Severy takes an end-of-the-twentieth-century look at Byzantium’s importance “as a buffer shielding medieval Europe from the empire-building Persians, Arabs, and Turks; as a bridge between ancient and modern times; as the creator and codifier of laws and religious, political, and social practices vibrant to this day.” This essay, written in 1983, remains one of the most valued articles in my archive. It is one of the few pieces in which history is presented in a complete, wide-ranging circle.

As this piece originally appeared in National Geographic, it was naturally accompanied by some fantastic photographs and a beautiful, specially created map of the Byzantine world. I had wanted to include the map with this piece—it’s made to look as if it were crafted into a mosaic—but as it was a foldout in the magazine, it would have been lost in a book of this size. Happily, the map was reproduced and enlarged and now hangs in the outer vestibule of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), in Istanbul, just inside the main entrance.

MERLE SEVERY founded the National Geographic Society’s book division and worked for the society for almost thirty-eight years. Another very good piece of his not included here, “The World of Süleyman the Magnificent,” could be seen as a companion piece to this one, and I encourage readers to search for it (National Geographic, November 1987).

ON THE twenty-ninth of May in 1453—6,961 years after the creation of the world, by Byzantine reckoning; 1,123 years and 18 days after Constantine the Great dedicated his new Christian Rome on the Bosporus—Constantinople fell to the Turks. With it fell the heart of the Byzantine Empire that once ruled from the Caucasus to the Atlantic, from the Crimea to Sinai, from the Danube to the Sahara.

Yet 1453, a pivot on which ages turn, was a beginning as well. Just as the double-headed eagle, symbol of Byzantium and its spiritual heir, imperial Russia, looks both east and west, forward and backward in time, so Byzantine ways of government, laws, religious concepts, and ceremonial splendor continue to move our lives today.

Much of our classical heritage was transmitted by Byzantium. Its art affected medieval and modern art. Byzantines taught us how to set a large dome over a quadrangular space, gave us patterns of diplomacy and ceremony—even introduced forks. (An eleventh-century Byzantine princess brought these in marriage to a doge of Venice, shocking guests, just as her cousin, wed to a German emperor, scandalized his court by taking baths and wearing silk.)

“City of the world’s desire,” hub of the medieval universe, Constantinople bestrode a superbly defensible peninsula and sheltered harbor, the Golden Horn, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Here in the legendary past Greek settlers named the place after their leader, Byzas. And Byzantium it also continued to be called, as well as the Eastern Roman Empire it ruled, until the Turks captured it in that fateful year, 1453, and later renamed it Istanbul.

To this day the city retains its fascination: the kaleidoscope of craft like water bugs on the Golden Horn, the cries of vendors in the labyrinthine covered bazaar, porters jackknifed under loads threading teeming alleys—the unpredictability of its life. Forget logic if you search a street address. Sit to sip tea by the seawall near Justinian’s palace, and don’t be surprised if a brown bear shags by with a gaggle of Gypsies.

Threading crowds of fervent Muslims boarding buses for the pilgrimage to Mecca, I entered Hagia Sophia, once the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Christendom’s crowning glory. Fragmentary mosaics hint at the golden sheen that illumined the shrine. Light shafting through a corona of windows seems to levitate the giant ribbed dome. Let imagination fill the vast nave with worshipers, chanting clergy robed in brocade, incense swirling through a constellation of oil lamps toward that gilded dome suspended as if from heaven, and you will share Justinian’s exultation. In 537 he beheld his masterwork complete: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Constantine and Justinian—these two emperors, both born in Serbia, set Byzantium on the path to greatness. Constantine’s Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century is one of history’s mightiest revolutions. He chose a persecuted minority sect—an illegal, subversive intruder into the Roman state—and made it the cornerstone of a world-shaking power: Christendom.

His sainted mother, Helena, in her old age made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There, with a rapidity and assurance that can only strike wonder in the modern archaeologist, legend has it she unearthed the True Cross, the lance, and the crown of thorns and identified, under a temple of Aphrodite, the tomb of Christ. Over it her thrilled son ordered buildings to “surpass the most magnificent monuments any city possesses”—a decadelong labor now incorporated in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Constantine himself presided over some 250 bishops assembled at Nicaea for the first of seven ecumenical, or universal, councils that forged the Orthodox faith. They formulated the familiar Nicene Creed (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …”). Those opposing the council’s decrees were branded heretics.

Constantine gave Byzantium its spiritual focus. Justinian in the sixth century gave it its greatest temporal sway. Reconquering lands once Roman, he magnified his empire by founding or rebuilding cities, monasteries, and seven hundred fortifications. In the Balkans, the Levant, Italy, from the Euphrates to the Pillars of Hercules, I found impressive works. In Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya I strolled cities roofless to the North African sky. Triumphal arches, amphitheaters, baths, and grids of stone-paved streets lined with shops and town houses bespoke Roman origins. Justinian’s fortresses and churches placed them in the Byzantine world. Some stand alone in an empty countryside.

In the Algerian-Tunisian frontier city of Tébessa (Byzantine Theveste), life pulses at the crossroads of a fertile belt of towns shielded from the Sahara by a crescent of the Atlas Mountains. Burnoosed men and veiled women, donkeys, and vehicles stream through a sculptured, porticoed Byzantine gate. Children clamber on Byzantine walls in whose shade old men sit and watch the passing parade, and women gossip.

But none of Justinian’s cities matched the splendor of his Constantinople.

Medieval visitors from the rural West, where Rome had shrunk to a cow town, were struck dumb by this resplendent metropolis, home to half a million, its harbor crowded with vessels, its markets filled with silks, spices, furs, precious stones, perfumed woods, carved ivory, gold and silver, and enameled jewelry. “One could not believe there was so rich a city in all the world,” reported the crusader Villehardouin.

The first Rome, on the Tiber, did not fall in 476, as school-books often say; it withered away. No emperor died on its walls when it was sacked by Visigoths in 410, or by Vandals from Carthage in 455; emperors had long resided elsewhere. From the third century the course of empire had set eastward.

The Dark Ages are dark only if you look at Western Europe, for long centuries a backwater: decaying towns, isolated manors, scattered monasteries, squabbling robber barons. In the East blazed the light of Byzantium, studded with cities such as Thessalonica, Antioch, and Alexandria, more cosmopolitan than any Western society before the modern age.

While Charlemagne could barely scrawl his name and only clerics had clerical skills, many Byzantine emperors were scholars. Even laymen knew their Homer as they knew their Psalms. While men in the West for centuries tested guilt by ordeal—picking up a red-hot iron (you were innocent if you didn’t burn your hand)—Justinian set scholars to compiling his famous Corpus Juris Civilis, the foundation of Roman law in continental Europe today. Via the Code Napoléon, Byzantine precepts were transmitted to Latin America, Quebec Province, and Louisiana, where they still hold sway.

Though the empire became officially Greek in speech soon after Justinian’s day, people of the East still considered themselves Romans. (Westerners they called Latins or Franks, when they weren’t calling them barbarians.) Their Emperor of the Romans was the legitimate heir of Augustus Caesar. Down to 1453 theirs was the Roman Empire. But it was the old pagan Roman world Christianized and turned upside down, the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Such was the Byzantine worldview: a God-centered realm, universal and eternal, with the emperor as God’s vice-regent surrounded by an imperial entourage that reflected the heavenly hierarchy of angels, prophets, and apostles. One God, one world, one emperor. Outside this cosmos was only ignorance and war, a fury of barbarians. The emperor had a divine mandate to propagate the true faith and bring them under his dominion.

Ceremony reinforced his role. His coronation procession moved through the Golden Gate along the Mese, the arcaded, shop-lined avenue leading through the Forum of Constantine and past the Hippodrome to the Augusteum, the main square with its gargantuan statue of Justinian on horseback gesturing eastward atop his pillar, and the Milion, the milestone where the routes of empire converged. Along the way a legitimate successor or victorious usurper transformed himself by a series of costume changes from a hero in gleaming armor to a robed personification of Christ. On Easter and at Christmas twelve courtiers symbolically gowned as the Apostles would accompany him in procession to worship in Hagia Sophia, the populace prostrating in adoration.

Ruling from his labyrinthine sacred palace, the emperor, crown and gown festooned with precious stones, invested his officials in silken robes and bestowed titles such as Excellency (used by ambassadors, governors, and Roman Catholic bishops today) and Magnificence (still used by rectors of German universities). Popes would adopt his tiara; England’s monarchs, his orb and scepter; protocol officers, the order of precedence at imperial banquets.

The splendor of Byzantine ceremonial in rooms with doors of bronze and ceilings in gold and silver awed the foreigner, especially when a bit of mechanical wizardry was thrown in. Liudprand of Lombardy, on a diplomatic mission in 949, describes an imperial audience:

Golden lions guarding the throne “beat the ground with their tails and gave a dreadful roar with open mouth and quivering tongue.” Bronze birds cried out from a gilded tree. “After I had three times made obeisance … with my face upon the ground, I lifted my head, and behold, the man whom just before I had seen sitting on a moderately elevated seat had now changed his raiment and was sitting at the level of the ceiling.”

Beneath the glittering ritual we can perceive a prototype of today’s bureaucratic state. A hierarchy of officials, including the custodian of the imperial inkstand, who readied the quill pen and red ink with which the emperor signed decrees, minutely supervised this “paradise of monopoly, privilege, and protectionism” that subordinated the individual’s interest to the state’s.

Constantinople organized its trades in tightly regulated guilds; controlled prices, wages, and rents; stockpiled wheat to offset poor harvests. Officials inspected shops; checked weights and measures, ledgers, quality of merchandise. Hoarders, smugglers, defrauders, counterfeiters, tax evaders faced severe punishment.

Unlike the West, trade or industry seldom bore a stigma. One empress distilled perfume in her palace bedroom. The emperor himself was the empire’s leading merchant and manufacturer, with monopolies in minting, armaments, and Byzantium’s renowned luxury articles. Justinian had founded its famed silk industry with silkworm eggs smuggled into Constantinople. (Hitherto the empire had paid a pound of gold for a pound of Chinese silk.) Special brocades from imperial looms and other “prohibited articles” not for sale abroad made prestigious gifts for foreign princes.

Import, export, sales, purchase taxes, and shop rents swelled the imperial coffers (Basil II left 200,000 pounds of gold)—this at a time when the West more often bartered than bought. Nor were interest-bearing loans condemned as sinful; in the West they were, and this put moneylending into the scorned hands of Jews. Justinian set an 8 percent ceiling on interest—12 percent on maritime loans because of increased risk. (The borrower did not have to repay if ship or cargo was lost to storm or pirate.) Insurance and credit services were developed. Banking was closely audited. The gold solidus, the coin introduced by Constantine and later called bezant for Byzantium, held its value for seven centuries—history’s most stable currency.

In the spirit “if any would not work, neither should he eat,” the indigent were put to work in state bakeries and market gardens. “Idleness leads to crime,” noted Emperor Leo III. And drunkenness to disorder and sedition—so taverns closed at eight.

God’s state would protect the working girl: a fine of two pounds of gold for anyone who corrupted a woman employed in the imperial textile factories. Incest, homicide, privately making or selling purple cloth (reserved for royalty alone), or teaching shipbuilding to enemies might bring decapitation, impalement, hanging—or drowning in a sack with a hog, a cock, a viper, and an ape. The grocer who gave false measure lost his hand. Arsonists were burned.

The Byzantines came to favor mutilation as a humane substitute for the death penalty; the tongueless or slit-nosed sinner had time to repent. Class distinctions in law were abolished. Judges were paid salaries from the treasury instead of taking money from litigants, “for gifts and offerings blind the eyes of the wise.”

“Men … should not shamelessly trample upon one another,” observed Leo VI, the Wise. Contractors had to replace faulty construction at their own cost. Housing codes forbade balconies less than ten feet from the facing house, storing noxious matter, or encroaching on a neighbor’s light or sea view.

As solicitous for its subjects’ welfare as it was in controlling their thoughts and deeds, the state provided much of the cradle-to-grave care expected by the Communist faithful today. Emperors and wealthy citizens vied in endowing hospitals, poorhouses, orphanages, homes for the blind or aged (where “the last days of man’s earthly life might be peaceful, painless, and dignified”), homes for repentant prostitutes (some became saints), even a reformatory for fallen women aristocrats. Medical services included surgical and maternity wards, psychiatric clinics, and leprosariums. In contrast to the unwashed West, early Byzantium abounded in public baths. Street lighting made the nights safer.

A modern state in many ways. Passports were required for travel in frontier districts. Tourists can sympathize with Liudprand; he ran afoul of customs on his way out. From his baggage, officials confiscated prized cloths of purple silk.

Sunrise burnished the gold of autumn leaves in the Balkan Mountains. A horse plowed a Bulgarian field where peasant women bent to their toil. My photographic colleague and I stopped our camper to capture the scene.

A police car pulled up. A policeman and a political official checked and recorded our documents. The official ordered us to strip our cameras. With no explanation, no heed to our anguished protests, he ground the cassettes under his heel, pulled out the film, and cast in the dirt our color record of the region’s Byzantine churches.

The incident came as an unpleasant reminder that a harbinger of Eastern Europe’s police states was Byzantium, suspicious of foreigners and as chary about letting out information as it was avid in gaining it.

State visitors were shown what officials wanted them to see. En route to Constantinople a guard of honor kept them from deviating from the imperial post route. Assigned servants and interpreters learned as much as possible from the envoy’s entourage. Also, merchants were kept under surveillance. No alien might trade or trespass beyond fairs held near the borders except in the presence of an official. In the capital the prefect assigned them separate compounds to curb spying—fur-clad Rus with drooping mustaches; unkempt Bulgars belted with iron chains; Khazars and Petchenegs from the steppes; merchants of Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi, Lombardy, and Catalonia. If one overstayed his three-month term, he was stripped of goods, whipped, and expelled.

How free was speech? How welcome criticism? One clue was the name of the imperial council: Silentium. The historian Procopius extolled Justinian’s military and building campaigns—on the emperor’s orders. He had to reserve his bitter personal opinions for a Secret History, “for neither could I elude the watchfulness of vast numbers of spies, nor escape a most cruel death, if I were found out.” Only at chariot races and other events in the Hippodrome could the populace express discontent before the emperor. Factions among the 60,000 spectators sometimes exploded into riot. Justinian survived one attempted rebellion by drowning the Hippodrome in blood.

Behind the court’s glittering facade lay perhaps “the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed,” fulminated a Victorian historian, William Lecky: “a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.”

Surrounded by would-be usurpers and assassins, no incompetent emperor remained God’s vicar on earth very long. Of the eighty-eight emperors from Constantine I to XI, thirteen took to a monastery. Thirty others died violently—starved, poisoned, blinded, bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, dismembered, decapitated. The skull of Nicephorus I ended up as a silver-lined goblet from which Khan Krum of the Bulgars toasted his boyars. The Empress Irene was so obsessed with retaining power that she had her son blinded and took his title of emperor. Even the sainted Constantine the Great had his eldest son slain and his wife suffocated in her bath.

Yet the empire, ringed with enemies, endured more than 1,100 years. Behind the silken glove of its diplomacy lay the mailed fist of its navy, sophisticated defenses, and small but highly trained army, based on a battering wedge of armored cavalry and mounted archers.

Proudly continuing Rome’s iron discipline, the Byzantines now defended the empire as “champions and saviors of Christendom.” On campaign they rose and slept to a round of prayers. Parading a most sacred relic—the Virgin’s robe—around Constantinople’s walls was credited with saving the “city guarded by God” from Rus attack in the ninth century. The Emperor Heraclius’s ultimate triumph was not in crushing the millennial enemy, Persia, near Nineveh. Rather it was in recovering the True Cross looted by the Persians and returning it in person to Jerusalem in 630.

What about that nasty reputation for duplicity and cowardice? The Byzantines weren’t cowards. They neither romanticized war nor gloried in it as a sport. They studied it as a science and used it as a last resort if gold, flattery, and intrigue failed.

Fire beacons and flag towers gave distant early warning. Ten centuries before Florence Nightingale set up field hospitals in the Crimean War, Byzantine medics got a bonus for each man they brought alive off the field of battle.

The fortified Crimea was the empire’s listening post for the steppes, that invasion corridor for Huns, Slavs, Khazars, Magyar hordes “howling like wolves,” and Bulgars born of that wild marriage of “wandering Scythian witches to the demons of the sands of Turkestan.” Information also came from distant ports, naval patrols, envoys, merchants, spies, defectors. (“Never turn away freeman or slave, by day or night,” counseled a tenth-century officer.) Collating this intelligence, the Bureau of Barbarians—Constantinople’s CIA—analyzed strengths and weaknesses of each nation, calculated the price of each prince, determined when to unleash a pretender to spark rebellion.

If fight they must, Byzantines bet on brains over brawn. Military manuals stressed mobility, scouting, surprise. Immobilize an invader by capturing his baggage, food, and mounts while grazing. Scorch the earth, block the springs. Don’t join an action unless strategy, numbers, and odds are in your favor. “God ever loves to help men in dangers which are necessary, not in those they choose for themselves,” explained Justinian’s famed general, Belisarius.

If things got desperate, the Byzantines unmasked their ultimate weapon: Greek fire. Volatile petroleum, preheated under pressure, was projected through a flamethrower, incinerating ships and crews. It even spread fire on the water, turning a foe’s fleet into a raging inferno. This Byzantine A-bomb broke five years of naval assaults on Constantinople in the late seventh century and a yearlong siege in the early eighth, changing history by stopping the Arabs at Europe’s doorstep. And when, two centuries later, Rus flotillas swept into the Bosporus, Byzantines sent them reeling with “lightning from heaven,” in the words of Prince Igor’s defeated force.

I came to a place named Ohrid in today’s Yugoslavia—a peaceful town, its red-tiled roofs shouldering down a peninsula to a Macedonian lake backed by the stern mountains of forbidden Albania. A fishermen’s church stands on the promontory, high-cheekboned saints staring out of their halos with large black Byzantine eyes. Ohrid a thousand years ago was the capital of a Bulgarian empire whose Tsar Samuel had triumphed from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. But in Byzantine emperor Basil II, Samuel found his nemesis.

For decades their campaigns seesawed through the Balkans with ghastly carnage. Samuel, slippery as a Lake Ohrid eel, finally set a trap for Basil in a gorge along the upper Struma. Eluding it, Basil pinned Samuel’s entire army there. Now he would teach the tsar a lesson in Byzantine revenge.

Descending at dusk from Samuel’s citadel, which still crowns the peninsula at Ohrid, I joined the stream of parents, children, and lovers promenading in the main street. Dark eyes flashed, teasing in courtship; restless eyes scanned, recognized, questioned, eyes gazing boldly, eyes falling shyly.

A shudder shot through me when I thought of another procession. Basil blinded the 15,000 prisoners, sparing one in a hundred to lead the macabre march home.

Samuel watched in horror the return of his once proud army, eye sockets vacant, shuffling, stumbling, clutching one another, each hundred led by a one-eyed soldier. The sight killed him. And his empire too—swallowed by Byzantium. Basil the Bulgar-slayer was one name Bulgarians would not forget.

Awesome magnificence and diplomatic cunning, military might, terror—more effective than these were Byzantium’s missionaries. The Orthodox faith forged unity out of a diversity of nations. It brought the Slavs into the Byzantine universe.

The “apostles of the Slavs,” ninth-century Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica, invented an alphabet in which the newly converted Slavs first learned to write. Their script, and the Greek-based Cyrillic that soon supplanted it, conveyed Byzantine liturgy and learning to the Balkans, then to Russia, molding their thoughts, giving them brotherhood in faith and a Slavonic literary language, the Latin of the East.

“Civilizing the Slavs was Byzantium’s most enduring gift to the world,” Harvard professor Ihor Ševčenko told me. Among the consequences, Kievan Russia emerged from pagan isolation to join the European political and cultural community. Byzantium was Russia’s gateway to Europe.

In Kiev, Professor Andrei Bielecki told me how Vladimir, prince in that Mother of Russian Cities, shopped about for a religion for his people. He sampled the Hebrew, Latin, and Islamic faiths. Fond of women, he favored the Muslim promise after death of fulfillment of carnal desires. But alas, no wine. “Drinking is the joy of the Rus,” a chronicle has him say.

So he sent emissaries to Constantinople. Inspired by the resplendent liturgy in Hagia Sophia, they “knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor.… We only know that God dwells there among men.” Whereupon Vladimir had his people, on pain of the sword, baptized in the Dnieper.

Out of the wreckage of the Mongol empire, princes of Muscovy climbed to power, golden domes and crosses gleaming above the red-brick walls of their Kremlin. Cossacks, fur traders, missionaries spread across Siberia.

At Sitka, on snow-peaked Baranof Island in Alaska, the icons, incense, and chanting in onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral serve as reminders that in the eighteenth century the faith of Byzantium came across the Bering Sea to its fourth continent: Russian America. Here I joined a Tlingit congregation worshiping with an Aleut priest—a ritual like that I had witnessed in Justinian’s monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai.

“We change very little,” Father Eugene Bourdukofsky said as he proudly showed me an icon, the Virgin of Sitka. “That is the essence of Orthodoxy, the true faith.”

To change or not to change. Here was a key to understanding the chasm that divides the thought world of Byzantium—and eastern Europe—from the West. The West transformed itself through the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and the rise of science into a dynamic society enshrining the individual and progress through free inquiry and experiment. The East, until the eighteenth century, remained essentially static. Byzantine thought sees its world not in process; it has arrived, its eternal order God-ordained.

The Byzantine mind transformed the classical Greek word to innovate into to injure. In a monarch, a penchant for innovation is disastrous, Procopius insisted, for where there is innovation, there is no security. In a subject, deviation is not only heresy but also a crime against the state. So threatening was change that ritual reforms in seventeenth-century Russia split the church. Old Believers endured unspeakable tortures and martyred themselves in mass suicide rather than make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two.

Ritual details widened the rift between Rome and Constantinople in the eleventh century. Until then East and West shared a common faith and heritage. The patriarchs of five Christian centers had helped shape this universal faith. Then in the seventh century the march of Islam engulfed three—Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.

Slavic invasions of the Balkans and Lombard conquests in Italy drove a wedge between the remaining two. Rome, deprived of imperial support, linked its fortunes to the rising Germanic West. Constantinople’s contracting empire became increasingly Greek.

The break came in 1054, when Rome and Constantinople exchanged excommunications. The Latins had added Filioque to the Nicene Creed, making it read that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; they also used unleavened rather than leavened bread in the Eucharist. Absurd that East and West should sunder over a phrase and a pinch of yeast? Not when eternal salvation seemed at stake.

This was the lesson of Byzantine monasticism: I saw men bend their necks to the yoke of obedience and, through self-denial and punctilious repetitions of ritual, follow unquestioningly an ordained path of salvation. For as Orthodoxy was central to Byzantium, monasticism, ever the conserver of traditions, is the living heart of Orthodoxy.

The face of that boy still haunts me. I saw him on the boat to Mount Athos—father and son come from Germany to see the Holy Mountain. He was about thirteen, the same age as my son. We boarded at a Greek port at the base of the steep-walled peninsula that juts thirty-five miles into the northern Aegean. The motors revved up, and with a flurry of monks crossing themselves and murmuring “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy,” we were off for a United Nations of monastic communities—Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian—where no female has been allowed to set foot for a thousand years.

I saw the boy again when we debarked at Daphni. We crowded in, wall-to-wall black robes and black cylindrical hats, for the jolting bus ride up the mountainside to Kariai, headquarters village for the monastic republic, the world’s oldest. Then as I trudged off to join the rounds of worship and work and share Spartan meals in half a dozen monasteries, the boy slipped from mind.

Stavroniketa, thrusting massive walls and crenellated keep above the sea, was a hive of purposeful piety. There the rhythmic beats of the semantron wakened me in the night. Noah had summoned the animals into the ark with such a resonant wooden plank and mallet, I had been told. Now it called the faithful into the spiritual ark, the church, to save them from the deluge of sin.

In Stavroniketa’s church, under the brazen eagles of Byzantium agleam in chandelier coronas, I stood absorbed by the symphony of motion—monks bowing, prostrating themselves, making rounds to kiss the icons, lighting and snuffing candles, swinging the smoking censer, reading and singing antiphonally, raising voices in fervent prayer. The frescoed church itself mirrored the cosmos, martyrs and saints and angelic hosts rising in a scale of sanctity toward the symbolic vault of heaven where a stern Pantocrator, the almighty Christ, looks down disturbingly into the depth of one’s soul.

To relax my limbs, I shifted position.


I had clasped my hands improperly. As the hours wore on, if anyone made a false move or kissed an icon in the wrong order, a hiss signaled instant correction.

Back in our guest cell near dawn, my cellmate, an American anthropologist, whispered, “Reminds me of the military. The Benedictines in France are the infantry; the Franciscans in Italy, the air force, free and easy. These Orthodox monks are the marines—a crack outfit of shock troops under a tough master sergeant. No sloppiness here.”

As I topped a shoulder of the 6,670-foot Holy Mountain, wincing at each sharp penitential stone in the steep path, I found monks building a wall. A decade earlier dilapidated Philotheou Monastery had seven graybeards. I counted ten times that many monks, beards as black as their robes.

Father Nikon, the young archontaris, or guestmaster, radiated inner peace and joy as he offered me the ritual brandy, coffee, gummy sweet lokum, and water, then showed me to a neat guest room near a flower-lined balcony over the courtyard. “People come to us troubled,” Father Nikon said. “A day or two in the monastery brings peace, and they leave refreshed.”

On Athos, even meals are a continuation of worship. A bell clangs in the courtyard. The monks file in, stand silently at long tables until the abbot blesses the food. After a communal prayer, all sit, and eat swiftly under the eyes of frescoed saints lining the refectory walls while a monk at the lectern reads from a saint’s life. A bell tinkles. He returns the book to its niche, kneels to kiss the abbot’s hand, receives his blessing. Then all file out silently. After Vespers, the monastery gates swing shut and everyone turns in, soon to rise for the night’s round of prayers, for the first hour of the Byzantine day begins with sunset.

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Pinpoints of lamplight in the cells silhouette monks in ceaseless prayers of repentance. Four hours of solitary prayer before the call to four hours of communal prayer. Bread and tea, a snatch of sleep, and then silent prayer continues as the monk goes about his daytime tasks, in the kitchen, garden, at manual labor.

One moonlit night at Dionysiou Monastery a howling wind rattled the window of my cell. Dawn disclosed gray clouds beetling the brow of the Holy Mountain, and the face of the sea furrowed in anger. Below, waves slammed over the landing. No mail boat today. To get to Gregoriou, next monastery along the coast, meant going by foot.

“It’s a very dangerous path,” cautioned Father Euthymios as we set out together. The gangling New York-born Vietnam veteran was coming from the “desert,” hermitages farther out on the peninsula, where he paints icons. “Part of it is along a causeway swept by the sea.” Then came an afterthought of small comfort: “Darius lost his fleet here in such a storm.” Three hundred of the Persian king’s ships and 20,000 men dashed on the rocks of Athos in 491 BC.

Pausing on a crest, buffeted by a devil of a wind, Father Euthymios said, “I always fear this next stretch. It’s along a cliff with a straight drop to the sea. But with God’s grace we will make it.” We did. And next day we again tempted fate.

The storm roared unabated. Winds clutched at us as we climbed and descended ravines, bone weary, wet through. Breakers roared as we leaped from rock to slippery rock at the base of sea cliffs. Too close.

If you must wait out an Athos storm, you will find no more dramatic haven than Simonopetra, high on a spur above the Aegean. It opens its dovecote of cells onto tiers of rickety balconies propped by aged beams. To walk along 108 feet over the sea in a storm is an act of faith. Clutching the splintery rail, stepping over a gap in the floor planks, I looked down mesmerized at walls of water battering walls of rock.

Next day Simonopetra no longer shook. The wind had lost its howl; the sea was flattening its crests. No more dodging waves. I had been lucky. Not so that boy who looked like my son. As he leaped across the rocks, a wave swept him away before his father’s eyes. When the boats ran again, they found his body and brought it in from the sea.

The year 1071 was a bad one for the Byzantines, East and West. At Manzikert, in the highlands of eastern Turkey, the multinational Byzantine Army, riven by dissensions and desertions and for once sloppy in reconnaissance, was annihilated by the invading Seljuk Turks it had marched east to destroy. Anatolia, breadbasket and prime recruiting ground for Byzantium, subsequently was stripped forever from Christendom, opening the way to later Ottoman invasions of Europe.

In Bari, port city in southeastern Italy, I saw blood on the pavement. Assassins had gunned down a political opponent, and grieving partisans marched around the stain in bitter memorial. Nine centuries earlier blood had flowed in the streets of Byzantine Bari, sacked by the Normans after a three-y ear siege. Five years after the Battle of Hastings in England, the Normans had conquered southern Italy.

The year 1204 was even worse. On April 13 Fourth Crusaders en route to Jerusalem committed what historian Sir Steven Runciman called “the greatest crime in history”—the Christian sack of Constantinople. Burning, pillaging, raping, the crusaders looted what they didn’t destroy to enrich Venice, Paris, Turin, and other Western centers with “every choicest thing found upon the earth.” (They even brought back two heads of John the Baptist, so rich was Constantinople in relics.)

When, after fifty-seven years, a Byzantine emperor once again reigned in Constantinople, the Universal Empire was but a large head on a shrunken body. The Venetians and Genoese had a stranglehold on its trade. Franks still held territory. Trebizond ruled an independent empire on the Black Sea. Byzantine princes had set up their own power centers in Greece. Byzantium was soon pressed between the Ottoman Turks and the Serbs.

Crossing the Dardanelles, the Turks first settled in Europe at Gallipoli in 1354. A year later, with Serbian power at its peak, Stephen Dushan, who had proclaimed himself emperor of Serbs and Greeks, made his bid for Constantinople. Death robbed him of a chance to sit on Byzantium’s throne, but the Serbs never forgot the common Balkan dream of conquering Constantinople. Nor will they ever forget the collision three decades later with the Turks.

In the mists of morning rolling over brown-tilled earth at Kosovo in Yugoslavia, I peopled that “field of the blackbirds” with Turks and Serbs locked in battle. A physical defeat, it was yet a moral victory the Serbs celebrate to this day. Folk legend and epics extolling Serb bravery fed the fires of nationalism during the five centuries the Serbs suffered the Turkish yoke. Kosovo: June 28, 1389. How ironic that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria chose June 28 of all days to make his entry into Sarajevo, where his assassination by a Serb patriot plunged the world into war in 1914.