The Hagia Sophia in International Politics

In late July, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke on the phone about the Turkish decision to change the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque. Putin had previously criticized the Greek-Macedonian name deal that led to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to change it’s formal title to Northern Macedonia. But last summer, the heads of the two orthodox countries found much to agree on, apart from the status of Constantine’s church.

This autumn, they seem to be drawing yet closer as Putin has recognised Greece’s claims to an exclusive economic zone in the Aegean Sea, contested by Turkey. The support was reiterated by the Russian Embassy in Athens via its Twitter account. The title of the account might be confusing to Medievalists. At the top, it say “Rus embassy, Greece.” The Rus are not known to have sent an embassy to the Greeks for roughly 700 years.

When exactly in 2021 is Putin coming to Greece?

Roman Empire Ended in 1461

The fall of the Roman Empire might not exactly be breaking news, but it can be a relief to take a break from following the US presidential debates and consider history for a while. Everyone knows that the Western Roman Empire formally ended in 476 and that the Eastern Roman Empire was finally conquered in 1453. Or was it?

While Constantinople duly fell to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, the Empire of Tebizond lasted for eight more years. Trebizond was one of the successor states of the Byzantine Empire after the previous fall of Constantinople to crusaders in 1204. It was founded by Alexios Komnenos, last male descendant of deposed Byzantine Emperor  Andronikos I Komnenos. It’s rulers claimed to be the rightful heirs of Rome and had as their symbol the two-headed eagle.

Situated on both the northern and southern shores of the Black sea, Tebizond was finally subdued by Mehmet II in 1461. The month long siege can se seen as the final stand of the Romans. Nevertheless, a final holdout, the Principality of Theodoro on the Crimean Peninsula, lasted until 1475. Perhaps the Eastern Roman Empire, much like its western counterpart, can be said to have gone out with more of a whimper than a bang. The fate of modern day empires remains to be seen.

International Byzantine Studies Congress Moves From Istanbul to Venice

Much like the Triumphal Quadriga above the porch of St. Marks Basilica in the 13th Century, the 24th International Byzantine Studies Congress has been moved from Constantinople to Venice. The International Association of Byzantine Studies website has announced that the 2021 Congress has been postponed until 2022 and will now take place in Venice and Padua, Italy. The congress was originally to take place in Istanbul in 2021.

The Turkish Duvar Gazette states that while the reason for the postponement was Covid related, the reason for relocating the congress was not. Rather, it was a response to the Turkish government converting the famous Hagia Sophia Byzantine church from museum to mosque. The congress committee quotes Covid as well as “other concerns associated with issues of heritage management” as cause for the move.

The congress has been held every five years since 1948 and over 1000 scholars were expected to attend the 2021 congress. They will now be meeting a year later with the Bronze Horses of Venice instead of the Hagia Sophia as backdrop, with the precise date yet to be announced.

For the International Association of Byzantine Studies website, see:

For the Duvar website, see:

Varangians Could Only Visit Constantinople in Small Groups

At the end of August, Turkish news sources announced that the remains of a Varangian settlement had been discovered outside Istanbul. This is not the first hard evidence of Northmen in what was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the most famous being the runes found inscribed on the walls of the Hagia Sophia itself. But it may tell us a lot more about their activities there.

The team doing the dig consisted of 75 archaeologists led by the Turkish Şengül Aydıngün and including the Polish Viking expert Blazei Stanislawski. The site is in the the ancient city of Bathonea near Lake Küçükçekmece, and findings date from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Bathonea was an international port at the time and among the objects found are a north European ambergris cross and a necklace bearing the symbol of Jörmundgandur, the Midgard Serpent.

Among the theories prompted by the discovery are that the Varangians were not allowed to live within the walls of Constantinople at the time, but could only enter in groups of 35 men at the most and had to be gone by sundown. It seems that fear of the Northmen encouraged social distancing long before our era.

For the news story in Hurriyet Daily news, see:

The History of Hagia Sofia

As probably everyone knows, the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul has been turned back into a mosque for the first time in almost a century. On Icelandic National Radio this week, our very own Þórir Jónsson Hraundal spoke about the history of the church from Orthodox to Catholic and back again, to mosque to museum and again to mosque.

(Icelandic only)

Meanwhile, on the podcast Byzantium and Friends, University of Pennsylvania professor Bob Ousterhout also recounted the history of the illustrious church, contextualising it with the current global trend of changing memorials. He also mentions the considerable part its reputation played in the Christianisation of the Rus.

(In English)