Wanted: Byzantium 2011

Byzantium: if you want it, come and get it

av Helena Bodin

The international conference Wanted: Byzantium, arranged by Nordic Byzantine Network at The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters History and Antiquities in Stockholm in late October 2011, turned out to be three days of multidisciplinary work at its best. About twenty speakers and another twenty listeners agreed – Byzantium was definitely wanted, in so many different ways. As Jonathan Shepard pointed out in his introductory lecture, it has been wanted as a goal, a template and a transit-point. Ever since Middle Byzantine time, several countries have used “the Byzantine copyright”. Byzantium has also formed the base of Modern Greek identity, combining Greek paideia with the Orthodox faith, as Helen Saradi-Mendelovici showed.

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Ingela Nilsson and Per-Arne Bodin open the conference.

Among many other things, the participants could hear about Constantinople as the fallen woman, as the new Jerusalem and as constructed by the early 20th century traveller’s gaze, about the concept of innovation in Byzantium, about “Grikkland” on rune stones and exiled Byzantine widows in Venice after 1453, about an imperial memory of Byzantium constructed in 19th century Germany and French “Byzantinomania” in film, about the Peruvian poet Vallejo who wrote “That Byzantium asphyxiates me” and W. B. Yeats’ use of gold in his Byzantine poems, about the Romani people who are “the sons of the people who ruled Rome”, about the desire of icons in postmodern cultural theories and the revival of Symeon the New Theologian’s thoughts in theological aesthetics of the 21th century, and about the trade, collections and displays of Byzantine artefacts.

One of the highlights was Ahmad Shbouls lecture, where he applied a line from The Beatles on Byzantium: “if you want it – come and get it”. As a little boy in Jordan, he had played with such trash as Byzantine oil lamps, found by children and used as toys in the streets, and now, coming all the way from Australia to Stockholm, he told his listeners: “Byzantium wanted me.”

Ingela Nilsson opened the concluding discussion on Friday evening by quoting John Burke’s lecture, where he had called Byzantium “a quicksilver concept”. These qualities, which attract and escape us, are they inherent to Byzantine culture, or are they all in the beholder’s eye? During our three days in Stockholm, we did not have to find any reply, since we had not come to discuss Byzantiumper se but to explore the uses and abuses of Byzantium, the wishes and desires to achieve something from it throughout history, as well as today – to acquire goods, gain advantages or share values. Byzantium might be a quicksilver concept, but as this conference has proven, it is worth trying to grasp its elusive forms, across the boundaries of times, cultures and disciplines.

Wanted: Byzantium was organised by the Nordic Byzantine Network, The Departments of Linguistics and Philology & Archaelogy and Ancient History at Uppsala University and The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, with the generous support of The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation & The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities.

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(Originally published on November 28, 2011)

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