I now have a much deeper respect for the Byzantines and their culture. The Byzantines were a people who were not afraid to openly borrow from other cultures. They willing took from the Greeks, Romans, and (during the later days of the empire) the Ottomans. The Byzantines' art changed with the times in an attempt to stay one step ahead of everyone else. In this respect, the Byzantines remind me a great deal of the United States. The US is a country built on the foundation of being an inclusive culture. Aspects from other nations and cultures have been added throughout our history in an effort to better our way of life. Today, the impetus to change has lessened, much as it did toward the end of the Byzantine era. Perhaps this is indicative of the United States’ current state of affairs, a pseudo-empire that may be on the verge of collapsing.
In another respect, the Byzantines' inclusion of religious themes throughout their art and architecture is astounding. They were an empire built on Christianity and were not afraid to flaunt that fact. In a way, this also reminds me of the United States, although I would disagree with the statement that America is a Christian nation. Instead, I would claim that we are a nation composed primarily of Christians, rather than a Christian nation. The legacy of Christianity and Western culture permeates all aspects of American culture, much as the historical legacy of the Greeks and Romans as well as Christianity greatly influenced the Byzantines.
The Byzantines lived a grand lifestyle and that lifestyle was reflected in their architecture. Even today, the Hagia Sophia is still an incredible building. From the outside, it appears somewhat short and squat. However upon entering, you are amazed at the feeling of airiness and grandeur contained within. The dome is massive and seems to float in midair as if being supported by some celestial being or perhaps the faith of the millions of Orthodox Christians still around today.
Along with their taste for building grand works of beauty, the Byzantines also built some of the most impressive public works ever constructed. The walls of Byzantium are truly a sight to see. The Yedikule Fortress and the land and sea walls were built to protect the city’s inhabitants from invading armies. Even today, they are being used for the public good as ready-made garden terraces. The hundreds of cisterns, which lie beneath Istanbul, can also attest to the Byzantines' creation of great public works. In order to feed them, the emperors also constructed the most expansive aqueduct in history. The cisterns are quite possibly the greatest metaphor for any dead empire or culture. Though we may not know it, they are always there lying just beneath the surface, acting as a foundation for our modern way of life.
The mosaics and frescoes contained within churches such as the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church are stunning. The use of gold backgrounds creates the feeling that you are in the presence of royalty. The depictions appear timeless and still hold sentimental value for anyone who might view them today. While the Byzantine Empire is long gone, their works of art still live on. The only thing that seems to be able to destroy them is the slow process of time itself. Thankfully, through modern conveniences such as cameras and videos even when they are physically gone, they will not be dead.
Today while the Turks may not like this assessment, I would say that in a way they have carried on this same legacy. Modern Istanbul is still a cosmopolitan city, a city where ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Christian, and Muslim culture all live side by side. It would be amazing to meet some of the Byzantine emperors and see what they think of their legacies. Would Justinian be surprised that his church still captivated millions of tourists each year or would he simply say, “I told you I was going to create a feeling of heaven on earth?” One thing is for sure, he would be steaming mad that today any average bum could walk through the imperial entrance into the church he built.