Τhe Byzantine Empire was the predominantly Greek-speaking continuation of the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Most historians agree that after the accession to the Byzantine throne of Heraclius in 610 A.D., the Byzantine Empire became essentially Greek in both culture and spirit. Heraclius made Greek the official language of the Empire, and it had already become the most widely spoken language of the Byzantine population.
The Byzantine Empire, having had its origins in the Eastern Roman Empire, now evolved into something new—something different from its predecessor.By 650 A.D., only a very few lingering Roman elements remained alongside the pervasive Greek influence. According to various historical sources, a large majority of the Byzantine population from 650 A.D. onwards was of Greek cultural background. Additionally, the Byzantine army fought in a style which was much closer to that of the Ancient Athenians and Spartans than that of the Roman Legions. Its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), originally known as Byzantium. it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe.
The origins of Byzantium are clouded by mystery, but for our list we will follow the generally accepted version. Around 660 B.C., a Greek citizen, Byzas, from the town of Megara near Athens, consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Byzas requested advice on where he should found a new colony, since the mainland of Greece was becoming overpopulated. The oracle simply whispered, “opposite the blind.” Byzas didn’t understand the message, but he sailed northeast across the Aegean Sea. When he came to the Bosphorus Strait, he realized what the oracle must have meant. Seeing the Greek city of Chalcedon, he thought that its founders must have been blind, because they had not seen the obviously superior site just half a mile away on the other side of the strait. So he founded his settlement on the better site, and called it Byzantium after himself.
Most historians of Byzantium agree that the Empire’s greatest and most lasting legacy was the birth of Greek Orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy arose as a distinct branch of Christianity after the “Great Schism” of the eleventh century between Eastern and Western Christendom. There were major theological differences between Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians, on topics such as the use of images, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the role (and identity) of the Pope.
Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical, abstract, and mystical in its thinking, whereas the Latin West tended towards a more pragmatic and legal-minded approach. All these factors finally came to a head in 1054 A.D., when Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church. In response, the Patriarch condemned the —and nearly one thousand years later, this division in the Christian church has still not been healed. The 11th and 12th centuries were the Golden Age of Byzantine art in Athens. Almost all of the most important Middle Byzantine churches in and around Athens were built during these two centuries, and this reflects the growth of the town in general. Some of the most known monasteries in the Athenian suburbs were also built in the same period.
After you are greeted with your English Speaking driver, you depart for your first visit of the day at the Byzantine Museum of Athens.With some 25,000 artifacts on display, the museum is vast and knowing where to start can be bewildering! If you decide to book a guide, let your guide introduce you to its best bits while learning about Greece during the Byzantine Empire. Highlights of the museum include a beautiful gallery of Coptic Christian paintings, mosaic icons inside the re-constructed Christian church, and a collection of medieval books. The building itself is both beautiful and historic too, having once been the palace of a Greek duchess.
After a short drive through the city centre, you will visit the Monastery of Kesariani. The Kesariani Monastery was built in the 11th century on top of the foundations of an ancient secular building of an unknown period. Apart from the main church and bathhouse, which are original 11th century structures, the bell tower and St. Anthonychapel were added later, during the Turkish occupation.
The buildings are set around a courtyard and enclosed by a high wall. On the east side is the church, the west side the refectory and kitchen and on the south the bathhouse, converted into an olive press in Turkish times.The Kesariani bathhouse is one of the few examples known from the period (another is at Dafni, on the other side of the city, which would be or next stop) and bears witness to the monastic rule which specified the frequent practice of ablutions, the ritual cleansing of the hands and body. It is constructed much like a Roman bath.
The Refectory and kitchen are housed together in a single building by the western wall opposite the front of the church. The arched wall outside of the monk’s cells from the cloister and the green surroundings, trees, shrubs, plants and undergrowth, add to the beauty of the warm colored brick. Cypresses stand tall behind the church as if to add their own stately protection.
After this visit , your driver will take you for lunch in a nice traditional Greek restaurant, before you move to your next stop, The Monastery of Daphni.
The monastery lies to the west of Athens, almost half-way along the ancient Sacred Way to Eleusis. The Daphni Monastery is built on the site of the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Daphnaios which was destroyed during the invasion of the Goths in 395 A.D. Of the old temple only one Ionic column still remains in the colonnade of the narthex, while the rest were removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century. The monastery, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, was founded in the 6th century A.D. and in spite of its great wealth and fame, it was abandoned. It was reconstructed at the end of the 11th century by an unknown benefactor.
Alternative Tour Options:
There are so many other things to see in this area. Keep in mind that your driver is at your disposal, so if you would like to adjust the proposed itinerary at all, just let him know!
Proper attire must be worn inside monasteries – shoulders and knees must be covered.
This tour is not available on Mondays and Tuesdays.
It is entirely up to your discreet decision to leave some money in the candle box of the churches that we visit.
Did you Know?
- Many historians have agreed that without Byzantium to protect it, Europe would have been overrun by the tide of Islamic invaders.
- The Byzantine Navy was the first to employ a terrifying liquid in naval battles. The liquid was pumped onto enemy ships and troops through large siphons mounted on the Byzantine ships’ prows. It would ignite upon contact with seawater, and could only be extinguished with great difficulty. The ingredients of “Greek fire” were closely guarded, but historians think it was a mixture of naphtha, pitch, sulfur, lithium, potassium, metallic sodium, calcium phosphide and a petroleum base.
- Today, the aromas and ingredients of Greek and other Mediterranean food gives us a little taste of what Byzantine food must have been like.