As our readers will know, the Nordic Byzantine Network is not only preoccupied with the study of Byzantium as such, but also with the metahistory of its past and contemporary use. Such was, for instance, the topic of a two-day workshop in Stockholm last November, and is the focus of the Byzantine receptions network where several of our own members are active.
A topic that we have previously noted on this page is the possibility of Byzantium becoming a battering ram in contemporary political debates. In a sense, it is surprising that it has not already happened. Still to Anders Behring Breivik, Vienna and Tours rather than Constantinople served as sources of inspiration in the alleged fight against Islam; but as anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe takes on a more coherent form, partly in opposition as well as imitation of contemporary pan-islamism, it is tempting to predict an imminent wave of renewed interest for Byzantium among the so-called alt-right. As one of our members has just noted, this might indeed be the case.
If Byzantium were to gain a new role as a political mark of identification, this would of course not be the first time. In the Balkans, where communities keep identifying along the borders of the bygone Habsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Byzantium has never ceased to be a political reality – it is part of an everyday culture of symbols, rituals, and narratives. For all of Greece’s efforts to identify with its Classical past, it remains a post-Byzantine as much as post-Ottoman state. In a recent basketball match between the Athenian team Olympiakos against the Istanbul team of Fenerbahçe, Greek fans sported t-shirts featuring the image of a minaret-less Hagia Sophia and the caption “Constantinople”.
Istanbul – or Constantinople – has in fact provided Greece with two football teams with considerable fan bases in Thessaly and Macedonia: the PAOK (Πανθεσαλονίκειος Αθλητικός Όμιλος Κωνσταντινουπολιτών) and the AEK (Αθλητική Ένωσις Κωνσταντινουπόλεως), both founded less than a hundred years ago when the city was still home to hundreds of thousands of Greeks. The AEK, which roughly translates as “Athletic Union of Constantinople”, features the Palaologean double-headed eagle in black against a golden background, just like the official flag of the Ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople. The two Constantinopolitan teams met in the 75th Greek cup finale just two days ago, and as can be seen from the picture gallery here the iconography can sometimes be far blunter.
A recent visit to the picturesque Thessalian town of Trikala, situated between the Meteora and Vissarion monastic complexes, also added an extra twist to the implications of Byzantine history: here local AEK fans seem to have made it a habit to smear down the old Ottoman mosque – a work by the famous Sinan and now a museum – with their signature and the Greek word for “swine”:
The difference between these and similar outbursts that we might tentatively find coming from the far right in Western Europe is that where both Byzantium, Islam, and their long history of encounters and confrontations remain a lived reality in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean, in the West they are more likely to actualise other and totally different historical conflicts. Already nineteenth-century conservatives showed an interest in the notion of Byzantium as a bulwark against Islam; during and after the Crimean war this went hand in hand with the same kind of rampant Slavo- and Russophilia, mixed with Occidentalism, as can be seen in many parts of the alt-right movement today.
The piece linked to above is not unaware of the problems that a Byzantine infatuation might cause, such as the pro-Orthodox, and consequently anti-Western, stance that might follow, or the possibly bad example of an empire that, for all of its exemplary conservatism, ultimately succumbed to the Muslim Turks. In an age of alternative truths we should perhaps not expect this inconvenient course of events to bother those who wish to exploit the concept. But it does raise important questions on how far right the West can actually go until it turns totally Eastern.
OH – with thanks to Jakob Törneke, Dimitris Agoritsas, and George Winter