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Remnants of Byzantium in London

March 6, 2009

Editor’s note: this special report comes to us from Dr. Jonathan Harris of Royal Holloway, University of London. It recounts the proceedings of an absorbing workshop recently held at London’s Hellenic Centre, which brought members of the general public into contact with some of the world’s leading experts on Byzantium- this time, in the unique context of its little-known, but lengthy relationship with the British capital. Photos appear courtesy of the author.

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By Dr. Jonathan Harris

On Saturday, February 28, a special public seminar was held at the Hellenic Centre. Attended by some forty people, the workshop aimed to explore the links between Byzantium and London by investigating the ways in which the two societies interacted in the past and by exploring the reminders, remnants and reflections of Byzantium that can be found in London today.

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Christchurch, on London

The five talks delivered during the day approached that task from different angles.

Anthea Harris of the University of Birmingham looked at Byzantine artefacts that have been found in datable contexts in London and the Thames valley.

While the evidence from London itself is sparse, finds from burials both to the north and south of the Thames suggest that Byzantine luxury objects were reaching Britain during the so-called Dark Ages (c.450-c.650).

Silver spoons and bronze bowls of Constantinopolitan manufacture have been found interred in high-status graves, probably those of chiefs or kings.

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Byzantine spoon from an Anglo-Saxon burial site in Prittlewell, Essex

For his part, Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library, described some of the Byzantine manuscripts in the library’s collection and how they came to be there.

He ended with a description of the BL’s Codex Sinaiticus online project, which is making the text of the oldest complete copy of the New Testament available on the internet.

In the afternoon, Geoff Egan of the Museum of London’s archaeological service recounted how an excavation on the foreshore of the River Thames had revealed some unexpected finds: Byzantine coins and lead seals.

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The Codex Sinaiticus

When these were sent to experts for identification, they proved to be of eleventh-century date. One of the seals bore the Greek word €šÃ„òGenikon,’s suggesting that it was once attached to a document issued by the imperial treasury in Constantinople.

The presence of these objects in London might have been connected with the recruitment of English mercenaries for the Byzantine army, and the famous Varangian guard.

Eugenia Russell, who recently completed a doctorate at Royal Holloway, University of London, looked at Andronicus Kallistos, a Byzantine scholar who died in London in 1476 in circumstances that are slightly obscure. His lonely end is almost foreshadowed in a lament that he wrote for the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and which highlights the themes of exile and dislocation.

Finally, George Manginis of the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina looked at neo-Byzantine architecture in London. As well as discussing the well-known monuments such as Westminster Cathedral and St Sophia in Bayswater, he showed pictures of obscure buildings such as a Primitive Methodist chapel that show a pronounced Byzantine influence. His presentation left the audience eager to learn more about London’s neo-Byzantine survivals.

Among the many satisfied participants at the event was Londoner Martin Hall, currently embarking on a post-retirement MA in Crusader Studies at Royal Holloway. Mr. Hall says that he was “particularly impressed” by George Manginis’s discussion of Byzantine remnants in London, considering it “a highly professional presentation which caused you to look at London buildings in a new light and with a new understanding.”

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This Primitive Methodist Church on Caledonian Road in London boasts Neo-Byzantine windows

The workshop was funded by the London Centre for the Arts and Cultural Enterprise and by the Hellenic Centre, and organised by the Hellenic Institute, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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