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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

“Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World”, by Colin Wells


368 pages, Delacorte Press, ISBN-13: 978-0553803815

This is an excellent popular history about the impact of Byzantine culture on Renaissance Italy, the Arabs during their Baghdad apogee, and the Slavic world as it was differentiating into nationalities. While it is best to have a good grasp of these four periods of history, in particular Byzantium's, the author offers good skeletal explanations of vast swaths of time.

First, Byzantine scholars preserved most of what texts we know today as ancient Greek. They represented a crucial step in the evolution of the Renaissance as they contributed to the development of a secular understanding, a sense of history and philosophy not springing exclusively from Christian faith. This was very interesting to me, but I am not sure if it would interest most readers. This is the stuff of Plato v. Aristotle, mathematics, poetry, and the Greek historians. Interestingly, it was a mystic religious movement – the Hesychasm, which flourished as a reality-denying reaction to the decline of the Empire – that started pushing scholars out, well before the Turks conquered the city.

Second, we learn of the Byzantine roots of the practical scientific and medical texts that were translated by Nestorian Christians in Syria. This fostered a rationalistic branch of Islam, which an Abbasid Caliph attempted to force onto an unwilling populace, leading directly to the establishment of the conservative, anti-rationalist philosophy that later would underpin the Wahhabis. Their translations of Aristotle, transmitted via Moorish Spain, were the source that the Scholastic's first used, as they attempted to logically reconcile every Biblical reference, also a precursor of modern science. But it is also a portrait of Islam during a period where it was at the cutting-edge, an eclectic and dynamic civilization that surpassed anything happening in the West during the dark ages.

Third, over nearly 600 years, Byzantine monks decisively influenced the development of the Slavic world, as it evolved from a loose coalition of pagan tribes into the nations we know today. From Byzantines, they gained their Cyrillic alphabet, the first texts in their then undifferentiated languages, political-administrative organizational ideas, and lastly, their Orthodox (and in some cases Catholic) faith, based on the mystical Hesychasm. Unlike the Arabs and Italians with their intellectual pursuits, this is about the evolution of religious faith and doctrine. As I knew very little about this, it was the most fascinating part of the book. It also gave me a renewed sense of wonder at the sweep of human ambition, how civilizations collide, absorb, and borrow from each other.

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