A Guide to Byzantine Greece

Each summer my Facebook feed fills study-tour travelogues posted by my faculty colleagues. The best of these trips reflect careful selection of sites, thoughtful readings, and clear learning goals. Most study tours focus on the monuments of ancient Greece, but many of the most visually arresting monuments in the Greek landscape do not date to antiquity. Talking to students participating on the Western Argolid Regional Project for the last couple of year and contributing to study tours in Cyprus, I’ve come to realize that students are generally interested in the post-ancient world in part because they’re simply not as familiar with the narrative, and it has a sense of exotic novelty. In contrast the unfamiliar narrative, Medieval monuments associated are often more immediately accessible to their developing archaeological imaginations because many of them are still standing. 

This realization has led me to think a bit about producing a Guide to Byzantine Greece as a complement to the common itineraries followed by American study tours. 

If I was to do this, or find someone to do it with me, I figure that our guide has to have a couple features to make it useful.

1. Complementary. One of the most significant challenges will be that the guide has to complement traditional study tour itineraries which focus on ancient sites. While I’d love to write a book that leads a group of excited and interested students to the spectacular late Byzantine church of the Panayia Kosmostira in Ferres in Thrace, it’s not a realistic addition to most study tours of Greece. Instead, we have to focus on the main heartland of American study tours which tend to focus on Athens, Delphi, Olympia, the Corinthia and the Argolid. Fortunately, there are plenty of important and interesting post-ancient sites in this area.     

2. Modular. Along with being complementary, we have to write our guide in such a way that it can be used in a modular way. The traditional itinerary-based approach favored by, say, the Blue Guide, is a lovely way to experience Greece, but for the modern study tour which will not stop to enjoy the “lovely principle city of the demos Koutsopodi,” this approach makes dipping into the guide for some information on a particular building or site difficult.    

3. Encounters. The challenge of a modular guide is that they tend to fragment the landscape into distinct, isolated sites, and this works against presenting a cohesive view of Greece in the Medieval period. So, we have to figure out a way to weave unifying narrative throughout the encounters with individual places. We have to assume that the average American study tour might only see one Early Christian basilica or one middle Byzantine church or one “Slavic” cemetery, and our guide will need to find a way to make encounters with these single sites serve as synecdoches for larger trends, processes, or types. 

4. Open Access. It goes without saying that our guide should be available for free in some kind of digital form. I suspect that .pdfs will be the way to go for cross-platform compatibility, but we would also make a print copy of the guide available at as low a cost as possible. This would encourage adoptions (particularly if the book was to function as a supplement to a more traditional guide focused on ancient sites). 

5. Images, Rights, and Plans. One of the challenges of this kind of production is that there are some restrictive rules in place about using images of monuments in Greece and we’d have to reproduce plans which can be a time-consuming and frustrating project. It would be appealing to imagine ways that use the huge quantity of digital sources to supplement our book, but it is probably not useful to expect students to have constant internet connections while in Greece. Connectivity issues could make it more difficult to produce an interactive map that would provide directions to particular sites (although our students and staff this year almost all had phones with good internet connections).

Aside from the technical aspects of this kind of project, the intellectual challenge is very appealing to me. I’m not sure that I have time to do it properly, but I might have a collaborator who has both some time and expertise. For now, I’ll tuck this into my idea box and we’ll see where it goes over the next year or so…

3 Comments

  1. vincentoreilly July 22, 2015 at 8:56 am

    A truly worthy project. One might also reference the popular books: Osbert Lancaster’s Sailing to byzantium, an architectural companion and John Ash’s Byzantine Journey. It would be nice were these on line but a very quick google search did not turn them up.

    Reply

  2. vincentoreilly July 22, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Such a guide would also make a fun text for a cultural history course.

    Reply

  3. As a student at the American School who was not at all familiar with medieval or modern Greece, I did find learning about post-antiquity very rewarding. I had done some general reading on Byzantine history and for specific projects I did more extensive research, but I never found a general guide to Byzantine topography. I would be eager to read such a project and hopefully use it as an excuse to travel back to Greece some day.

    Reply

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