[Order Robert Spencer’s new book. Empire of God: How the Byzantines Saved Civilization: HERE.]
Empire of God was published by Bombardier Books in November, 2023. The book is 400 pages and includes twenty-one pages of black-and-white illustrations. There are extensive footnotes but unfortunately no index.
Spencer is fully deserving of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Those who tell the truth about Islam risk their lives. Witness the fates of Theo Van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Paty, Molly Norris, Hitoshi Igarashi, and a former teacher at Batley Grammar School. We are not allowed to know this teacher’s name. Muslims forced him to run for his life and disappear. His erasure, we shall learn, has happened not just to individuals, but to entire civilizations.
Even Pope Benedict XVI felt it necessary to back-pedal after, in a university lecture, merely quoting Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. In 1391 this emperor observed, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” After the papal lecture, Muslims attacked churches in Israel, Gaza, and Iraq. In Somalia, Muslims murdered Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who worked at a children’s hospital. In Iraq, they beheaded Father Ameer Iskander, a priest.
In spite of Islam’s suppression of free speech, free inquiry, and the human conscience, Spencer goes where others dare not go. If I were queen, I would offer a tax benefit to any citizen who mastered three essential Spencer books: The Critical Qur’an, The History of Jihad, and Did Muhammad Exist? I’m not queen, but everyone – Muslims most of all – should read these books.
Nowadays, unsupported claims of “genocide” are tossed around as propaganda tools and exchange goods. Empire of God, draws attention to an actual biological and cultural genocide: the religiously-mandated Islamic erasure of the Byzantine Empire, its faith, its language, its awe-inspiring monuments, and its people.
Spencer is a Greek Orthodox Christian. He explains, “My grandparents shortly after World War I were offered the choice of conversion to Islam or exile from the land where they had lived for many hundreds of years … they came to the United States … Their experiences involved some violence and some killings of some of the family members … [But] they spoke in a uniformly positive fashion about life over there and made me become quite fascinated with it such that I took the first opportunity I could when I went to college to read the Koran and to begin studying Islamic theology and history.”
Spencer’s grandparents may have been remnants of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire is more influential and yet less known than the mythical lost Atlantis. The Empire lasted for a thousand years. It was the “Eastern Roman Empire” after the fall of Rome. Its inhabitants considered themselves Romans and their descendants called themselves and their language Roman. Its crowning jewel, the Hagia Sophia, was completed in 537 AD and it still stands today, though Muslims desecrated it and it is now used as a mosque.
Astoundingly, the Byzantines erected Hagia Sophia in just five years. When it was completed, it was the world’s largest interior space. Its massive dome harnessed Greek ingenuity to defy gravity. After 1453, “It was extremely difficult for non-Muslims to visit the mosque of Aya Sofya. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century European travelers tell tales of bribery and disguise to gain entrance at risk of life and limb.”
Constantinople was one of the richest and most luxurious cities in the world. The emperor’s throne room included a “tree of gilt bronze, whose branches … were filled with birds of different sizes, which emitted the songs of the different birds corresponding to their species … lions of immense size … coated with gold … seemed to guard” the emperor. These mechanical lions struck the ground with their tails and “emitted a roar with mouths open and tongues flickering.” The throne rose in a way that seemed miraculous to observers, and the emperor’s clothing changed as his throne rose. The Byzantines deployed a weapon called “Greek fire.” The recipe of Greek fire has been lost to time. This weapon immolated enemy ships.
The Muslim Conquest slowly but surely crushed the Byzantine Empire. The centuries-old Christian world of North Africa and the Middle East died the death of a deer strangled and swallowed by a python. It takes a long time for the serpent to digest one of God’s loveliest creatures, but once the process starts, there is no escape.
St. Augustine was born in what is now Algeria. St. Anthony, founder of Christian monasticism, was Egyptian. The Shroud of Turin, historians theorize, was once stored in what is now Turkey. Christians are now unsafe in all of these locations. Up to the Middle Ages, Egypt, once part of the Byzantine Empire, was majority Christian. Christians were menaced, humiliated, taxed, punished, and pressured to convert. Egypt is today perhaps ten percent Christian.
Year by year, remnant populations of Christians disappear. In 1900, Turkey was twenty percent Christian. By 1927, Turkey was 2.5% Christian. Today, Christians are less than 0.2% of the Turkish population. Earlier in the twentieth century, Bethlehem was 85% Christian; it’s now about 12%. “In Bethlehem, the Christian population is shrinking and afraid,” reported the London Times on December 23, 2022. “Christians everywhere should protest persecution in Middle East, Asia, Africa,” reported the Jerusalem Post on December 21, 2023. “The Palestinian Authority has always shown contempt for Christian holy sites, violently evicting monks and nuns from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Hebron in 1997, and using Christian churches, schools, and homes as military bases … In April 2002, PA forces took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and held 40 Christian clergy and nuns as hostages for 39 days.” Listen closely and you can hear the sound of bricks crashing and women mourning. Those sounds have been ongoing for 1,400 years. Byzantium continues to fall.
My fellow Catholics, in the 1204 Sack of Constantinople, contributed to the Byzantine Empire’s vulnerability to jihad. In an atrocity of historic proportions, Catholic Crusaders desecrated churches, stole relics, and carried off precious metals and jewels. They murdered innocents and burned structures. Catholic Crusaders struck a blow to the Byzantine Empire from which it never recovered.
The Pope at the time recognized that the Crusaders had committed a great sin. Pope Innocent III excommunicated the guilty. He also wrote to the Crusade’s commander, “You rashly violated the purity of your vows; and turning your arms not against the Saracens but against Christians, you applied yourself not to the recovery of Jerusalem, but to seize Constantinople, preferring earthly to heavenly riches … These ‘soldiers of Christ’ who should have turned their swords against the infidel have steeped them in Christian blood, sparing neither religion, nor age, nor sex … They stripped the altars of silver, violated the sanctuaries, robbed icons and crosses and relics … the Latins have given example only of perversity and works of darkness, No wonder the Greeks call them dogs!”
Eight centuries later, Pope John Paul II, On May 4, 2001, apologized, even as Orthodox monks, nuns, and priests marched with signs reading “Pope go home.” “Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day … The disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople” is one such painful memory. Constantinople “was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret … We entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people. Together we must work for this healing if the Europe now emerging is to be true to its identity, which is inseparable from the Christian humanism shared by East and West.”
The sins of the past are grave; the urgent task of the present is to preserve the best of our shared Christian heritage. Jihad has been joined by Marxism and New Atheism. We don’t have a moment to waste.
Empire of God’s narrative focuses on the succession of Byzantine rulers from antiquity to the end in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks entered Constantinople and ended the Empire. Byzantine emperors were sometimes dynamic, expansionist, wise, self-sacrificing, and served their people well. They erected magnificent public structures, reclaimed territory lost to an endless line of enemies, clarified massive legal codes, and attended to smooth successions after their deaths. They kept the value of money stable and they took a prudent approach to taxation. They formed valuable alliances and agreed to strategic truces.
As Spencer points out, war was a constant fact of life in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines fought an astonishing series of enemies, including Vandals, Goths, Bulgars, Lombards, Pagan Russians and other Pagan Slavs, Scythians, and Normans. A good emperor was one who won wars and kept the peace.
Bad emperors over-taxed their citizens, engaged in military follies that lost territory, tinkered with the value of currency to disastrous effect, and agreed to truces that hurt, not helped, them in the long term. Bad emperors were obsessed not with affairs of state but with the many entertainments available in the Empire, including the theater and races in the Hippodrome. That Hippodrome was something, by the way. It could accommodate 100,000 spectators. Eight chariots, each pulled by four horses, could race at once. Royalty and commoners watched the same spectacles.
Bad emperors, rather than handle succession peacefully, sometimes murdered their fathers, other kin, or rivals. Poison, both slow-and-quick acting, decapitation, and torture were all possible murder methods. Sometimes a rival would simply be blinded and imprisoned. Some emperors were unable to produce a male heir.
Apparently there were many highly literate chroniclers devoted to recording Byzantine history. They churned out many humanizing and horrifying anecdotes. Spencer spices up his text with juicy, colorful quotes. These voices from the past sound utterly vibrant and alive.
One can’t know if the chroniclers’ tales are true or are the Byzantine version of an internet rumor, but their tales are fascinating. That they aren’t always reliable is demonstrated by one chronicler’s reporting that Justinian I was a vampire and seen walking with his head separated from his body. Another emperor rises from the dead to join in the fight against Bulgars. Other anecdotes are easier to believe. Some emperors were illiterate and signed legislation using a stencil that squeezed out the legitimizing word “Legi,” or “I have read.”
Spencer’s parade of emperor after emperor is punctuated by key events. The first such event: In 312 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross and the caption, “In hoc signo vinces,” or “In this sign you will conquer.” Constantine may or may not have converted to Christianity, but his reforms fostered Christianity’s dominance. Spencer points out, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire.” Constantine assured non-Christians that they would not be coerced into conversion. Constantine founded Constantinople as a Christian city untainted by Paganism. “That Salonica could have become a center of Jewish learning … in the twelfth century demonstrates that, however imperfectly at times, the Roman Empire in the Byzantine era was a truly tolerant society,” Spencer writes.
Justinian I, who reigned between 527 and 565 AD, was able to retake territory from Barbarian invaders. Justinian also revised Roman law and oversaw the production of the Corpus Juris Civilis, or Body of Civil Law, which would someday be studied by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Another important event in Byzantine history was the Plague of Justinian (541 – 549 AD). This plague may have killed forty percent of the capital city’s population and twenty-five percent of the overall population in the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantine – Sassanian War of 602 – 628 was the last and most destructive of the wars between the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire. Shortly after the devastation of the plague followed by war, The Muslim Conquests began in 622.
Christians in the West were more Latinized and more closely connected to traditions in Rome. Christians in the Byzantine Empire spoke Greek and considered Constantinople the center of Christendom. Church leaders clashed over issues that seem trivial to us today, including something called the filioque. The filioque is Latin for “and from the son.” It refers to words added to the Nicene creed. These words identified the Holy Spirit as proceeding not just “from the father,” but “from the father and the son.” western Christians adopted the new wording; eastern Christians preferred the original wording. For the Eucharist, western Christians preferred unleavened bread, while eastern Christians preferred leavened bread.
Other clashes were over worldly power and ultimate survival. Eastern Christian leaders considered themselves equal or superior to western Christians. Eventually the bishop of Rome demanded the subservience of other bishops. Bishops in the east at first objected but finally relented in a doomed attempt to gain western military support in their existential struggle against jihad. The Great Schism of 1054 was one event in a series of clashes. Spencer points out that at the time, most Christians didn’t regard this alleged schism as a big deal. Many weren’t even aware that it happened. But 1054 was evidence of a pre-existing crack between two cultures, a crack that would grow wider as time went on. It is, today, a gulf, and it is not healed.
In 717 AD, Emperor Leo III, after the plague and the onset of the Muslim Conquest, recognized that the Empire was on the ropes. He searched for a cause and a solution. He decided that the church’s emphasis on imagery was to blame. The second commandment, he decided, forbade imagery. Iconoclasm, or the destruction of images, would, Leo reasoned, restore God’s favor, and worldly wealth and military victory. Clerics objected and stated that Leo was overstepping his authority as a worldly, not church, leader, but Leo prevailed. For a while iconoclasm seemed to work, and Byzantines won victories. Then they lost, and people realized there was no cause and effect. In any case iconoclasm was eventually overturned as policy.
Regent Irene, ruling in place of her nine-year-old son, was in favor of icons. In 787 she convened a council of church leaders who also supported icons. Ten years later, Irene had her son, who had come of age, arrested, blinded, and imprisoned, so that she could retain power. A chronicler reports that the sun stopped shining because the emperor had been blinded. Irene was in turn eventually deposed and exiled.
In 1071, Byzantine forces were defeated by the Seljuk Empire. This defeat took place at Manzikert, in what is now eastern Turkey. Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was captured. This was the first time a Roman emperor was captured since Persians captured Valerian in 260 AD. This defeat was yet another disastrous watershed that weakened the Empire and aided the Muslim advance.
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II heeded calls from the Empire for help against jihad. “Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help … the Turks and Arabs have attacked them … they have destroyed the churches … I beseech you … to carry aid promptly to these Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends.” “Deus vult!,” he said. Alas, the Crusades did not work out as Urban, or the Empire, had hoped.
Empress Theodora is my favorite person in Spencer’s book. She was an activist against human trafficking and prostitution. Another Empress Theodora, who ruled in the middle of the ninth century, is also awesome. A Bulgar, Bogoris, threatened Theodora and insulted her sex. Her response rings down the centuries. “You will have to reckon with me fighting against you, and, if it be God’s will, getting the better of you. And even if it is you who gets the upper hand (which is by no means impossible) the victory will still be mine. For it will be a woman, not a man that you have overcome.” Her fire “took the wind out of the barbarian’s sails; he fell silent and renewed the former treaties,” reports the chronicler.
In 988 AD, Anna Porphyrogenita was forced to marry Vladimir I of Kiev, a Pagan who chose Christianity for himself and his people. Anna resisted this marriage but she made the best of it, playing an active role in the Christianization of Kievan Rus. Czarina Anna even inspired a rock opera.
Anna Komnene was another impressive Byzantine woman. A princess, she was also an historian. Around 1148, she wrote the Alexiad, an important account, inter alia, of the early Crusades. The Alexiad, says Spencer, is “a triumph of medieval historiography.” Amazon reviewers describe the Alexiad: “marvelous and contagious,” “cinematic,” “reads like a novel,” “you’re totally immersed in Anna’s world,” a “witty, entertaining, informative” account of “every political intrigue and subtle nuance of living in Queen of Cities.”
The Byzantine Empire was not perfect. Slavery and castration of slaves were practiced, as were mutilation and dismemberment. Spencer does not linger on the many blindings he mentions. Journalist Rafil Kroll-Zaidi provides a gory description.
“The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act … The iconoclasts blinded the eyes of the icons.”
Spencer writes that in 528 Justinian I oversaw the torture, public humiliation, and the amputation of the genitals of homosexuals. One visitor to the Byzantine emperor presented him with castrated child slaves. One emperor, Michael III, who dispatched Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, thus beginning the Cyrillic alphabet, would, allegedly, get drunk and order that random victims have their nose or ear or head cut off. One would hope that had the Byzantine Empire continued, it would have eventually realized, as abolitionists later did, that these practices violated their faith. See, for example, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2297, here.
Spencer argues that “the Byzantines saved Western civilization from destruction and oblivion and did so in numerous ways. Without the Byzantine Empire, there would be no Western civilization.” Western civ descends from Athens. It could not have, Spencer says, unless the Byzantines had preserved “the pioneering philosophical and literary works of ancient Greece. When only a handful of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and others were known in the West, the fifteenth-century Byzantine philosopher Gemistos Plethon brought works of theirs that were preserved only in the empire to Florence and taught classes on them, doing a great deal to spark the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.”
When Christianity was riven by controversy over the exact nature of Christ, church fathers, initially convened by Constantine, met to debate their differences. These debates, Spencer writes, “set an important precedent for precision of thought, as opposed to slackness or indeterminateness … the council fathers paved the way for the precision of scientific exploration that would become a hallmark of the West … there is a straight line from Nicaea to Galileo, and to Neil Armstrong.”
Spencer describes a highly educated Empire. Dutch historian Peter Rietbergen concurs. He writes, “Byzantine society was an educated one. Primary education, widely available, sometimes even at the village level … for both sexes – a thing unheard of in the Christian west till some thousand years later – ensured a high level of literacy. Female participation in culture, generally, was extensive, with many aristocratic ladies studying, engaging in research and writing. Scholarship was held in high esteem, fostered both in the great university of Constantinople, founded already in AD 425” and elsewhere in the Empire.
Byzantine emperors, like Justinian, didn’t just revise legal codes. They agreed that the emperor was subject to the law “eight hundred years before the Magna Carta,” writes Spencer. While this concept was not always respected, “even to state it as a principle or ideal was a sharp departure from the other empires of the day.”
Given Spencer’s focus on emperors and warfare, there’s not a lot of social history in Empire of God. Social history is “history from below;” it paints a portrait of every day life for common people, the kind of people who don’t make it into genealogies of kings.
Spencer does include a brief, unflattering report from French historian Odo of Deuil, who wrote of his 1147 visit to Constantinople. “The exterior of the palace is of almost incomparable loveliness.” But “the city is rather squalid and smelly and many places are afflicted with perpetual darkness. The rich build their houses so as to overhang the streets and leave these dark and dirty places for travellers and for the poor. There murder and robberies occur, as well as other sordid crimes which love the dark. Life in this city is lawless, since it has as many lords as it has rich men and almost as many thieves as poor men. Here the criminal feels neither fear nor shame, since crime is not punished by law nor does it ever fully come to light. Constantinople exceeds the average in everything. It surpasses other cities in wealth and also in vice.”
I enjoyed this book and I recommend it to you. There were just a couple of features of the book that did not work for me. In several places, Spencer interrupts the flow of his historical narrative and jerks his reader out of immersion in the ancient past to insert commentary on how events in the Empire parallel events in America today. For example, he mentions the Biden administration’s hiring of cross-dresser, bestiality practitioner, and thief Sam Brinton. I can draw my own conclusions about parallels. In any case, they were few enough in number and brief enough that they didn’t ruin the book for me.
A minor disagreement. Spencer opens his book with a defense against stereotypes of the Byzantines. Spencer quotes an historian who says that the Crusaders from the West assessed the Byzantines as “gay Greeks – effeminate, scheming, and bitchy.” Another says, “the modern stereotype of Byzantium is tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy.” Spencer is on a mission to rescue the Empire not just from obscurity, but from the contempt of those who know a little, but not enough, about it.
Spencer is correct. “Byzantinism,” or prejudice against the Byzantine Empire, has its own Wikipedia page. Harvard Professor Dimiter Angelov published, in 2003, “Byzantinism: The Imaginary and Real Heritage of Byzantium in Southeastern Europe.” In this scholarly article, Angelov demonstrates that Westerners sometimes view the Empire’s former territories in Europe, [and in fact all of Eastern Europe], as “crippled,” “different,” and “backward.”
Why? One reason: The West failed Byzantium when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. The West failed again when Constantinople fell to jihad. The West’s failures continue today. We comfortable Western Christians barely react to persecution of Christians in the lands of the former Byzantine Empire. As Hitler himself said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Denigrating those we have failed lessens the sting of our own failure. Something similar happened after the West failed Eastern Europe at Yalta, at Budapest in 1956, and at Prague in 1968. We responded to our own failure by telling the Dumb Polak and “Wild and Crazy” Czech jokes so popular in the 1970s.
Another reason for Byzantinism. Atheists and their allies are repelled by the Empire’s religiosity and spirituality. Joseph Connors is Harvard Professor of the History of Art and Architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque. Connors points out that “Byzantium was reviled in the Enlightenment as a civilization ridden with superstition. The French historian Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1865 of the mosaics of Ravenna … [that they] looked like ‘vacant flattened sickly idiots…great simpletons with staring eyes and hollow cheeks.'”
Byzantine art and architecture was not the only target of Enlightenment critics. Enlightenment figures also disparaged the architecture of their own ancestors, Western European Catholics. Moliere condemned “the dismal taste for Gothic monuments, hateful monstrosities vomited up in torrents by barbarians throughout the centuries of ignorance.”
Both Gothic and Byzantine art emphasized the spirit over accurate representation of anatomy and physiology. The mosaics of Ravenna are exquisite. They don’t look like real people; they capture the essence of the soul, not the muscles or bodily organs. When I gaze at Empress Theodora and Emperor Justinian as depicted in Ravenna’s mosaics, I feel as if I could, just through my thought and my feelings, transcend time and space and communicate with them. I thank Theodora for her work against sexual slavery. I try to convince Justinian that he needs to rethink his approach to his homosexual subjects.
I love the more anatomically accurate approach of Greek Classical art and also Renaissance art, but I don’t have that transcendent reaction to that more carnal art. Meaty art is clearly a depiction of a mortal human, limited by time and space, someone dead and gone. Spiritual art exists on a plane that any one of us can participate in.
Romanian theology Professor Nicu Dumitrascu explains, “The icon portrays the human as united with God. The icon unites two worlds, which appear to be irreconcilable, but in fact are in perfect co-ordination in the transfiguration of the whole creation. It allows us to unite the past with the present, and to catch a glimpse of the future. The icon is an expression of eternity because the Face of the Unseen becomes transparent in it.”
Part of Spencer’s jousting against Byzantinism and his rescue of the Empire’s gifts to us today is Spencer’s rejection of the words “Byzantine” and “Byzantium.” He prefers “Rome” and “Roman.” In this review, I do not reflect this choice. Not enough people have even heard of the Byzantine Empire to be aware of the negative stereotyping. People, including me, inevitably associate the words “Rome” and “Roman” with the Coliseum, Russell Crowe as the Gladiator, Nero, crucifixion, etc.
Some in the West have denigrated the Empire. But not every Westerner has done so. Spencer never mentions Nobel-prize winner William Butler Yeats’ 1926 poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” One of the world’s premier poets valued Byzantium so highly that he used it as a metaphor for the rarefied spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic side of life that makes old age endurable. In his poem, Yeats clings to the “artifice of eternity” to be found in Byzantium. Byzantine artistry and spirituality is necessary for Yeats, an old man, “a tattered coat upon a stick.” “Unless soul clap hands and sing” and appreciate the “monuments of unageing intellect” to be found in Byzantium, brute survival in a merely carnal world is too grim for this elderly poet to consider.
Yeats’ poem was no one-off; it was part of a Byzantine revival, 1850-1950, that included an American church by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Parisian crypt of Louis Pasteur. Gustav Klimt made a pilgrimage to the previously mentioned Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. Klimt praised these “mosaics of unbelievable splendor” as a “revelation.” The mosaics inspired his “Lady in Gold.” Mad King Ludwig’s castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany, contains a Byzantine-inspired Throne Hall. Stockholm’s City Hall contains a Golden Hall in Byzantine style. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America and one of the largest in the world. It is built in Byzantine-Romanesque style.
Early in the twentieth-century, French historian Charles Diehl wrote, “Under the golden domes of Justinian’s church, every Byzantine experienced emotions [that transcend human intelligence] … as deep and as powerful and his mystic and pious soul became marvellously exalted.” Clearly, there is appreciation as well as negative stereotyping.
Even National Public Radio has celebrated the Empire. In 2020, NPR featured an attempt by two Stanford scholars, one an historian, the other an expert in music and computers, to recreate Hagia Sophia’s unearthly acoustics. Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel used recent innovations to bring back, not the Empire, but a precious piece of its sound world. Capella Romana, a vocal group, recorded songs that would have been sung by celebrants in the cathedral six centuries ago. Pentcheva and Abel’s work manipulated Capella Romana’s singing to recreate it as it would have sounded in Hagia Sophia.
Even the leftists at NPR got goosebumps. NPR reports, “Imagine. It’s the early 13th century. You’re sitting inside the Hagia Sophia. Marble pillars rise up around you. And dusty light filters into the windows in the massive dome above … It’s actually something that is beyond humanity that the sound is trying to communicate.”
YouTube listeners got goosebumps, too. From the comments: “Imagine being there when the Hagia Sophia was a Christian church with the scent of incense, the smoke, the sunlight, the shadows, and the liturgy in all its glory. And I’m not even Greek or Orthodox.” “Even a Lutheran like me, feels this Great Byzantine chant touch me. Praise the Lord!” And, “Oh… As an Orthodox, I thank you. This church is our wound, and our cure. Our pain and our pride. Our piece of Heaven here on Earth.”
Turning from the spiritual to the carnal, I wondered, what happened to most of the human beings living in the Byzantine Empire as jihad made its way west?
I tried the same internet search on three different browsers. I began to type, “What do Turkish people…” and the browser finished the search for me: “look like?” People keep asking, “Why do Turks not look like the Central Asian peoples to which they are supposed to be related?” Why did Ataturk, the “Father of the Turks,” have blue eyes and blond hair? Why does one of Turkey’s most popular actors, Kivanc Tatlitug, have blue eyes and (possibly dyed) blond hair? Tatlitug is 6’2″ tall. He could play Thor. If he auditioned to play a Central Asian character, he’d be accused of racism.
Ahval is a Turkey-focused news site. In 2019, it claimed that home DNA test kits are banned in Turkey. “DNA-based tests shake Turks’ beliefs in their ‘Turkishness'” Ahval claims, in the 2019 article. “Instead of being direct descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman hordes who surged into Anatolia from Central Asia a millennium ago,” the article goes on, Turks who live outside of Turkey and who can access home DNA test kits are discovering, to their consternation, that they have Greek, Armenian, Italian, Slavic, Jewish, and Kurdish ancestry. In the cases of the first four ancestries, that means their ancestors were probably not Muslims at all, but were probably Christian.
One user reports, “Her family, from the northeastern province of Bayburt, had refused to believe that they had had Armenian, Italian and Greek links.” Bayburt used to have a large Armenian population. “Many young Armenian women were taken by local Turks and Kurds, or handed over by their families in order to save their lives … they then changed their religion and hid their roots,” the article reports. The woman who took the test was surprised. “Before this test, we believed that Bayburt had only Turks.” Turkey aggressively suppresses knowledge of the Armenian Genocide. Mere mention of it is a crime that can result in prosecution, as happened to Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel-Prize-winning novelist. Descendants of Armenians, now living as Turks, apparently do not even know that Armenians lived in Bayburt just over a hundred years ago.
One test user was put in touch with a cousin in Italy who shares her DNA profile. “He told the story of our Italian ancestors from the 1600s. According to him, some 100 people were brought to the Ottoman territories as slaves and so one of those 100 people was our ancestor.” This user discovered that her husband is of Jewish, Cohanim ancestry.
Fethiye Cetin is a Turkish lawyer. She assumed herself to be a descendant of pure Turkish, Muslim ancestry. Her grandmother revealed to Cetin that the name by which Cetin knew her was not her name at all. She was an Armenian, a Christian, and a survivor of a death march into the desert. Her fellow villagers were murdered by Turks. Cetin tells this story of forced Islamization in My Grandmother: A Memoir. Her follow-up book is The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of ‘Lost’ Armenians in Turkey.
On September 22, 2023, Paul Antonopoulos posted a video on Twitter. The video purports to reveal the feelings of one Turk who did a DNA test and discovered himself to be of Greek ancestry. The man says, “The Ottomans enslaved European Christians for 600 years to their harems and Janissary army … nobody makes movies about it. Nobody talks about it … We come from Christians who were kidnapped and used as slaves by these Ottomans. By making us all Turks, by calling us all the same, by saying ‘How happy is he who says calls himself Turk’, Ataturk turned to the dark side … Instead of telling us we were kidnapped Christians who were then turned into Muslim Turks, he kept this most important part of our history a secret … We come from Christians.” Turks “committed genocide against Christian Armenians and Christian Greeks so [Ataturk] can establish a country without any Christians in them.”
These are anecdotes. What about numbers? A 2016 scholarly article found that “Turkey’s paternal ancestry was 38 percent European, 35 percent Middle Eastern, 18 percent South Asian and 9 percent Central Asian.”
Given canonical Islamic dictates, dictates that Spencer documents in his book, the story of Cetin’s grandmother has been repeated millions of times. Little Heranus is a Christian, Armenian child. Invaders arrive. They murder all the men and drive the women and children to their deaths in the desert. A man in uniform wrenches Heranus from her dying mother’s arms. He tells her that her name is Seher and she is a Muslim Turk. The end.
I would love to sit across the table from Turks and ask them, “Do you ever think of your ancestors? Do you ever ponder what inspired them to take on the nationality, ‘Turk,’ and the Islamic religion? Do you know how the Turkish population, originally from Central Asia, came to include fair hair, blue eyes, and great height?”
“Do you know about devshirme, the monstrously vile ‘blood tax’? Slavic and other Christian children were stolen from their parents, forced to convert to Islam, and become slaves to Muslims. One Serbian victim wrote, ‘We always thought about killing the Turks and running away by ourselves among the mountains, but our youth did not permit us to do that.’ He escaped. ‘The whole region pursued us, and having caught and bound us, they beat us and tortured us and dragged us behind horses.’
Serbs are tall and were appreciated for that, according to an amateur historian who reports, ‘I’ve heard Turks’ in internet discussions ‘still remarking on what “specimens” Serbs are.’
“‘Just after the Muslim conquest, the caliph in Damascus is said to have received 30,000 Christian slaves sent from Spain. As one fifth of all booty was owed to the caliph, the total bag must have been reported as 150,000,’ reports historian William D. Philips Jr. ‘Fair-skinned female Saqaliba [Slavs] were prized as concubines, their price varying according to their beauty and their talent as dancers and singers,’ reports Theodore Pulcini. ‘Hundreds of thousands of dirhams’ have been “found in Scandinavia and the Slavic lands’ are evidence of the massive number of Slavs enslaved by Muslims. ‘The slave population needed to be constantly replenished … through warfare, raiding, and trade. Slavic ‘women and eunuchs populated [Muslim] harems.’
In addition to ruthless warfare, Islam offers Christians and Jews three choices: convert, submit to taxation and humiliating subjugation, or die. When you, my Turkish friend, watched, say, videos of the Islamic State offering these choices to Christian captives, whom they later decapitate on camera, do you think of your ancestors? How do those thoughts make you feel about your current Turkish, Muslim identity and the choices that faced your not-Turkish, not-Muslim ancestors?”
Spencer closes Empire of God with these words. “As long as there are men among us who are pious, wise, learned, respectful of the Greek philosophical tradition, the Greco-Roman literary tradition, and the Judeo-Christian theological tradition, aware of the achievements of their ancestors, and unwilling to repudiate them, conscious of the rights and dignity of each human being, the Roman Empire has never fallen and can never fall.”
It’s not just Byzantium’s ideas, art, and spirit that live on. Her flesh-and-blood descendants live on, as well. May the scales fall from their eyes and may they, someday, through the grace of God, discover, and return to, who they really are.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery