Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Ghost Empire.

Currently Reading "Ghost Empire" (2016) by Richard Fidler, the book is a collection of chronologically ordered histories, legends and cultural observations  on the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine as a term being used in the works of Edward Gibbon and Voltaire to refer to the superstitious medieval world represented by remains of the Eastern Roman Empire, a kind of straw tiger as a subject of repudiation for the Enlightenment project. This is told ostensibly in the context of a father talking to his son as they visit historical sites in modern Istanbul. Despite the narratives chronological order (since when did you last manage to visit historical sites in chronological order while traveling through a modern city) this aspect at least feels like it contains authentic conjectures and the points of catharsis are natural tourist experiences (284 : 2017) (or at least what I imagine natural tourist experiences to be).


Its chapters cover the major points of Byzantine history, at a superficial reading, following a familiar thread (XI : 2017) to someone who has read versions of many of the histories previously. I was making mental comparisons to Bettany Hughes  "A Tale of Three Cities : Istanbul" which to my mind was covering new material. Later, I returned to reading "Ghost Empire" in depth and became aware of its detail and the fact that it managed to answer some questions I had from previous reading. It's the kind of book you get when written by a "history enthusiast" (XII : 2017) and Fidler hits those topics in a conversational manner, in my opinion. In his authors note, Fidler describes his personal reactions to reading about the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 AD, which he describes as "a perfect storm of bad planning, low cunning and greed masked as high principle" and asks "Why don't more people know about this?" (XI : 2017). Reading the chapter that covers the Fourth Crusade (Chapter Eight), it is a cathartic moment in the historical narrative told by the book. The Fourth Crusades amphibious assault on the Walls of Constantinople is compelling and features the scene of Doge (Duke) Enrico Dandolo, a blind 97 year old man dressed in battle armour, standing on the prow of his vermilion ship (343 : 2017) rallying his men. The Doge Enrico Dandolo's role in turning the destructive force of the Fourth Crusade onto the Byzantine Empire makes you wonder about his motivations, was it a combination of patriotism towards the city state of the Venetian Republic, hatred towards Constantinople, a premodern faith based decision making process akin to group think  or something else? Perhaps what history records as one man, was a group or faction with the leader or figure head of Doge Enrico Dandolo. There are many interesting narratives to this "colourful thousand year story" (XI : 2017).

One of the more familiar narratives, returning to the first Crusades, is Anna Comnena's Alexiad, a history of a reign and observations of its world, conceived as an act of devotion to her father (286 : 2017) which included her commentary on Pope Urban II and her description of the physical appearance of Bohemond (294 : 2017) and the armies of the first crusade over November 1096 to April 1097. The ninth and tenth chapters of the book cover the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and it is interesting because it describes a kind of cultural, political and diplomatic coexistence that eventually broke down. Murad II (1404 - April 1451) had attempted the conquest of Constantinople earlier in his reign but by 1451 the city functioned in an  institutional role of political asylum to fractitious family members of the Ottoman line, the Byzantine court was paid for the exiles upkeep. With the succession of Mehmed II at Edirne the Byzantine court attempted to the play the game it had for centuries, turning the power of the enemy upon itself (383 : 2017) but this time they overplayed their hand and burnt their diplomatic presence at the court of Mehmed II and the Ottoman response was slow and inexorable. After the disaster of the Battle of Manzikert, it was probably only a matter of time, but of course these things are easy to say in retrospect.

The book is interspliced with legends and myths as a way of representing the mind and nature of truth of the periods covered, Fidler at the expense of Richard Dawkins makes the point that knowledge can be apprehended through either reason or faith (182 : 2017), it is a defense that echoes the criticism of use of the Byzantine Empire as a straw tiger by the writers of the Enlightenment project, but the validity of that statement is up for debate really. The legends and myths include the Legend of the Seven Sleepers (61 : 2017), the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius (217 : 2017) a prophecy based on the Bible that the Romans used to make sense of the world post Arabian conquest, the legend of Melusine  (250 : 2017) which gave Star Bucks its symbol, the legend of Prester John (300 : 2017), the myth of the Gylo (309 : 2017), the Venetian in the suit of Armour (352 : 2017) and the Orb and Cross on the bronze statue of the Emperor Justinian, described as kizil elma, the Red Apple (371 : 2017), which to the Ottoman Turks symbolized global domination. Sounds similar to the description of New York as the Big Apple, but that could just be the general metaphor for a city. The book has a neat story about forks appearing in the West (268 : 2017) at least in my opinion. It may surprise you that I can bore people sometimes.

The last chapter of the book describes the sack of Constantinople by Mehmed II's soldiers and the beginning of its next incarnation as Istanbul, with observations about its role in the creation of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration, some observations on modernity and an end description of his son, who as a 16 year old in August 2015 likes the "Pixies and the Strokes and Nirvana and Japanese noodles and Chinese barbecue duck and comedians on YouTube." (452 : 2017) who surely must be a literary creation at this point? It is a pleasant conceit anyway.