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Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople

Constantinople - Tour de Leandre - flickr-sneedy
Tour de Leandre in Instanbul. Photo: flickr/sneedy

Any understanding of the modern history of the Balkans, Turkey and the Black Sea must include an understanding of the role and legacy of Byzantium. Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, has recently published a most readable and up to date history of it, which does not get lost in lists of emperors nor the confusing fine detail of Orthodox theology. The extracts come from a chapter called "A Cosmopolitan Society" in which she discusses just how mixed and varied was the population of Constantinople in late antiquity and in the middle ages. These verses were written by one John Tzertzes in the twelfth century as a welcome, except, in this case, for Jews:

One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among

            Latins…

And also to Persians I speak in Persian…

To Alans I say in their tongue:

"Good day, my lord archontissa, where are you from?

Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda, and so on"…

Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic…

And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits…

"Sdraste, brate, sestritza", and I say, "dobra deni".

To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew:

"Your blind house devoted to magic, your mouth, a chasm

engulfing flies,

 Memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie… "

Herrin observes that Tzertzes, "did not exaggerate the number of foreigners."

Indeed, he might have also have mentioned the more famous Varangian guard formed in 988 by Basil II, which included Russians, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, or the German contingent settled in the their own quarter from the 1140s, or Catalans from Barcelona who also frequented the empire's markets and served as mercenaries in its armies.

"For centuries," writes Herren, "Byzantium had attracted adventurers, pirates, false prophets and heretics, all seeking their fortunes or an audience for their views, as well as merchants and mercenaries offering their services."

Armenians frequently found employment in the Byzantine armed forces. As the empire's reach expanded from the tenth century onwards, a larger orbit of countries and cultures became linked to it. One striking example occurred in 1034, when Harald Hardrada arrived in Constantinople with five hundred Vikings armed with their traditional double-headed axes. The young prince had been forced to leave Norway and travel to Byzantium via Novgorod, the Russian river routes and Christian colonies, over the rapids of the lower Dnieper and the Black Sea. In Constantinople, which the Norsemen called Micklagard (the Great City), he served for ten years with the Varangian guard and campaigned in Sicily. His success attracted other soldiers of fortune from Iceland, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, after the battle of Hastings in 1066. In addition to their duties as members of a professional fighting unit, they were stationed in the Great Palace as guard troops, marked out by their distinctive appearance and weaponry.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Judith Herrin. 2007.
[p. 242 & pp.  244-245 / Penguin]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
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  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
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  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
  24. Pristina: Kosovo like Namibia?
  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
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  29. The Kotor - Constantinople Express
  30. Kotor and the Montenegrins
  31. The Rabbi of Stolac
  32. Dubrovnik: England, Wine and Wool
  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
  34. Cetinje: 1858
  35. Dalmatia: Ships & Grapes
  36. Prophet of Yugoslavism
  37. The head of the world
  38. 1919: Mushrooms and Lies
  39. Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII
  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
  42. Romania: 1914
  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
  45. Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes
  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
  47. Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor
  48. Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing
  49. Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse
  50. From Pristina to Tskhinvali
  51. Serbia, Historians and Hitler's War
  52. Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov
  53. Sarajevo: The Siege Within
  54. Turkey: Osman's Dream
  55. Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea
  56. Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
  57. Bosnia: Land of Immigrants
  58. Ottoman Croatia
  59. Harem: All the Sultan's Women
  60. Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style
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  62. Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
  63. 1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania
  64. Transforming Turkey: the 1950s
  65. McMafia and the Balkans
  66. 1916: Serbia in Corfu
  67. Princes Amongst Men
  68. Limp Shevardnadze
  69. Knin: War and Suburbia
  70. In the Mountains of Poetry

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