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Naxos in the Byzantine era

As far as Greek history is concerned, most people only think of Ancient Greece, and with good reasons, since Greece developed in antiquity (and before) a very important culture, that not only profoundly influenced the neighbouring peoples, but also birthed our entire “western civilisation”. Already in the late prehistoric period, Greece was a forerunner within Europe, with the Cyclades and their important Early Bronze age Cycladic culture making the start. The importance of Greece in antiquity in the fields of art, literature and architecture as well as in philosophy and science is undisputed. The Cyclades, and Naxos in particular, contributed the most to the cultural development in the early period of antiquity, the Archaic epoch, whereas towards the end under Roman rule they had hardly any political or cultural significance.

After the low point during the Roman epoch, the island of Naxos restarted to flourish economically and culturally (as did Greece as a whole) during the Byzantine period. However, the cultural development of the island during the Byzantine period is relatively unknown: This period is usually rather neglected, in spite of all its significance. The same is true for the whole of Greece and the Byzantine Empire in general: The political, economic and cultural flourishing that it achieved, and the role that it played during this period for the preservation and transmission of ancient knowledge leading to a crucial fertilization of the development in Europe, is still little noticed today and completely overshadowed by the attention paid to Greek antiquity.

The Early Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire developed out of the Roman Empire, the Imperium Romanum, after Emperor Constantine the Great around 330 AD chose the Greek city of Byzantium as the seat of government, renaming it into Constantinople. In 395 the Roman Empire was divided into a western and an eastern half, each of which was ruled by one emperor, who initially stood side by side on equal terms. “Eastern Rome” initially comprised the Greek mainland and the southern Balkans, Asia Minor and the Levant, as well as parts of Egypt. In the 4th century the Western Empire was increasingly threatened by Germanic and Hun tribes, and in 410 Rome was conquered by the Visigoths. Eastern Rome sent some help, but the defeat couldn’t be avoided, as it was itself constantly involved in fights with its various neighbours, which reached a first climax in the 5th century. The Germanic tribes that had conquered Western Rome initially recognized the Eastern Roman (now sole) emperor as overlord. In the 6th century, the Eastern Roman emperors were able to re-conquer most of the Western Roman provinces for a short time; soon, however, they lost them again in several wars, with an outbreak of the plague in the Mediterranean area also contributing to the collapse. Byzantium was able to keep only parts of Italy for a longer period of time. In the 7th century, the Slavs advanced in the Balkans, and the Persian Sassanid Empire conquered the eastern Roman provinces of Egypt and Syria, with its army advancing as far as Constantinople. However, after a temporary victory of Eastern Rome over the Persians, which led to the fall of the Persian Empire, the regained territories were quickly lost again to the now rapidly expanding Arabs; nor could the Balkans be reconquered. Emperor Heracleios, who deposed of his rival, Emperor Phocas, after internal battles in 610 AD, first appointed Greek as official language; this is why some scholars consider him to be the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire in the narrower sense: Late Antiquity was now over and the Middle Ages began.

The Middle Byzantine Era

During the Middle Byzantine period (7th to 11th century) Byzantium continued to be involved in constant defensive battles. It had lost its territories in the Levant and North Africa and was now limited to parts of Asia Minor, present-day Greece and small areas in Italy. In this way, however, it had achieved greater cultural and therefore political uniformity and was able to hold its ground for a surprisingly long time against the strong attacks of the Arabs and also the Balkan peoples. In the 8th and 9th century turbulent times began for Byzantium as far as the cultural development and inner politics were concerned: Emperor Leo III, who came from Persia, proclaimed the iconoclasm, during which icons and images of God were considered a heresy and the icons were destroyed or painted over and replaced by representations of the cross. (During the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine artists fled from Greece to Italy where they noticeably influenced religious painting. Later, Byzantine painting also fertilized Frankish art and even Irish religious miniature painting.) The iconoclastic dispute, which comprised several phases, led to significant internal political unrest. Still the Byzantine Empire was during the same period quite successful in foreign affairs and was even able to wage several wars of conquest; thus a decisive victory over the Arabs was achieved. In the north, the Bulgarians became an increasing threat, but this was somewhat mitigated when the Bulgarians converted to Christianity in the 9th century, so that this country too joined the Orthodox world. In the 10th and early 11th century, the Byzantine Empire experienced a new peak of power. Bulgaria was conquered, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia adopted the Orthodox religion, Crete was reconquered, and Syria and for a short time even Palestine were subjugated. However, even this expansion did not last long, firstly because of internal political difficulties with the aristocracy, which turned the army into a mercenary army thus decisively weakening it, and secondly because two new enemies were approaching: The Normans in the west, who conquered southern Italy, and the Seljuks in the east, who proceeded in Asia Minor. The Byzantine emperors called on the Western Christian states for help in this emergency, but they sent armies of knights rather than mercenaries. Thus the first crusade was started. Although it was initially a military success, tensions soon arose between the Eastern Romans and the Crusaders, and the conflict between the Republic of Venice, which was growing stronger in Italy and was sending numerous merchants to the East, and the Byzantine Emperors became increasingly acute. The Western and Eastern Churches finally separated in 1054, mainly due to this power struggle rather than because of theological differences. At the same time, Byzantium experienced another period of cultural flowering and military expansion in the hands of several strong emperors. Finally, Emperor Alexios IV, threatened in internal political battles, once again called the Venetian and Frankish crusaders of the Fourth Crusade to his aid, who initially supported him; but when Byzantium failed to pay them, they turned against Constantinople in 1204, conquering and devastating the city. After the destruction of Eastern Rome in its place the short-lived Latin Empire was founded.

The Late Byzantine Epoch and the End of Byzantium

Of the three states that were founded in succession of Byzantium, Nicaia in southwestern Asia Minor, Epirus on the Greek mainland and Trebizond in northeastern Asia Minor, Nicaia proved to be the strongest, being under the rule of the educated and capable emperors from the House of Lascaris, and after many military successes, their successor, Emperor Michael Palaiologos, was able to re-conquer Constantinople in 1261. However, the city was so far destroyed and the empire so weakened that it could no longer achieve a lasting importance. In the east, several Turkish successor states of the Seljuks built up a greater power and finally formed the Ottoman Empire, while in the Balkans the Serbs prevailed in numerous battles. The Western Christians could not decide to support the suffering and weak Christian successor states of the Byzantium, so that the Ottomans were able to conquer more territory little by little. Finally, Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453 after a siege of two months, and the almost 1000-year-old Byzantine Empire came to an end (if one includes its Roman predecessor, the Eastern Roman-Byzantine Empire even lasted for almost 2000 years, making it one of the most long-lasting empires in world history). The Byzantine culture survived longest in Crete, which was only subjugated by the Turks in 1669.

The importance of the Byzantine Empire for Europe

The Byzantine Empire can be characterized as a mixture of Roman state, Greek culture and Christian faith. During the Middle Ages it was the best organized and richest state in the area of Europe and Western Asia, and the level of education of its inhabitants was significantly higher than in Western Europe at the same time. Its importance for Western Europe as a mediator of ancient culture and science and as a shield against the Islamic Arabs and Turks can hardly be overestimated. Its importance for the eastern orthodox Slavic countries of Europe, to which it passed on its religion and culture, is undisputed. It is one of the ironies of world history that the end of the Byzantine Empire was heralded by the relentless plundering of Constantinople by the Western Crusaders, whose homeland had benefited so much from its existence. After its downfall, the Renaissance was set in motion in Europe by refugees from the Byzantine Empire, during which the scientific knowledge and thinking of ancient Greece gained a stronger foothold and new significance in the West.

Naxos in the Byzantine Era

One of the difficulties with investigating the Byzantine period in Greece is that there is little written evidence, although the Byzantine Empire had a very well organized state and economic system. This also applies to Naxos. From the few preserved sources we can conclude that most of the present-day Naxiotic villages already existed in the Middle Ages; in addition, a number of other settlements existed that have disappeared today. It can be considered as certain that just as today, most of the island was cultivated, with the exception of the coastal areas, which were endangered by pirate raids, and the highest mountain regions, which were probably still largely covered by trees. The most important evidence of the Byzantine culture on Naxos are the numerous churches scattered all over the island, many of which still show murals from the Byzantine times, in some cases even relatively well preserved. In the whole of the Southern Aegean, indeed in the whole of Greece, hardly anywhere else exists such a wealth of wall paintings, sometimes of a rare kind or even unique, as on Naxos. This proves that even during this troubled epoch the island held a prominent position both culturally and politically, ecclesiastically and economically.

According to tradition the island was converted to Christianity already in the 3rd century AD by disciples of Saint John. He is said to have worked in Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor and was temporarily exiled to the island of Patmos, not far from Naxos. Soon Naxian Christianity organized itself under a bishop who was subordinated to the Metropolitan of Rhodes in 395 AD. Already in these first early Christian centuries some churches were built on the island, such as the cave church of Kalorítsa between Damariónas and Sangrí, dating from the 4th century, and some other churches dating from the 6th and 7th centuries. From this very early period, only a few wall paintings remain today, although some of them are very significant.

The period of the iconoclasm in the early Middle Byzantine period (9th and 10th century AD) is represented on Naxos in fourteen churches with rare non-figurative wall paintings. Thus, the island has by far the largest collection of iconoclastic murals in the entire Greek area; these show interesting similarities with wall paintings in Asia Minor and the Levant.

During these first Byzantine centuries, Naxos suffered particularly from the frequent pirate raids, especially the Arab invasions from 653 to 672 AD and from 824 to 961 AD; but also pirates of other nationalities plagued the islands during these and the following centuries. The coastal areas, including the ancient capital of Kallípolis, in the place of today’s Chóra, were abandoned for this reason, and the population withdrew to the mountains and the fertile region of the Tragaía. It is possible that the eastern influence in the wall paintings is due to contacts with pirates who came from these areas.

After the liberation of Crete from Arab pirates in 960/1 AD a comparatively calm and productive period began for the whole region including Naxos until the conquest of the island by the Venetians in 1207 AD. Still the number of churches with paintings from the 11th and 12th century is not much greater than that from the previous period.

The Venetian nobleman Marco Sanudo, who conquered Naxos a few years after the fall of Constantinople (1207 AD) and over the course of time also subjugated most of the other Cyclades and the Sporades, founded the “Duchy of the Aegean” and chose Naxos – being the most important and richest island – for his seat, certainly not without reason. During the first century after the conquest, the Orthodox religion was practised unchangedly by the island’s Greeks, and the Byzantine culture experienced a new bloom despite the Catholic rule. Thus the greatest number of the Byzantine churches of Naxos were built in the 13th and early 14th century (Late Byzantine period) and often richly decorated with murals, especially also in the more remote rural areas of the island. It is noteworthy that despite Catholic supremacy, there is hardly any evidence of Western influence in the wall paintings.

In the following centuries, the pressure of the Venetian feudal rulers on the Greek population became stronger and stronger, and the Greek population was soon mercilessly oppressed and exploited by the catholic aristocracy. Now hardly any churches were built on the island, and the murals were not renewed. Only after the subjugation of the Venetian rulers by the Turks in the year 1537, the Greeks could regain a certain political and economical independence. The largest newer post-Byzantine village churches of Naxos date back to the 17th century, and their construction was accompanied by a revival of Greek patriotism. The most significant aspect of the late Byzantine phase for the religious art on Naxos is that the paralysis, into which the island had fallen, resulted in the unchanged preservation of the earlier Byzantine wall paintings in many churches; only rarely were they covered with more recent paintings.

During the Byzantine period, Naxos gained importance because of the major seaway from Constantinople to Crete, on which many ships were sailing. The bay of Agiassós in the southwest of the island was used as an important supply and refuge port. Near this port, on the mountain of Apalírou, a strong fortress was built probably as early as the 7th century, at the foot of which a large settlement was situated on the steep slope; at that time it was the largest city on the island. Below the mountain, one of the largest plains of Naxos spreads out, which was certainly densely cultivated and thus played an important role in supplying the population and the Byzantine ships. The fact that this area was already significantly populated and cultivated in ancient times is shown by the small but important Temple of Demeter, which was converted into a church as early as the 3rd or 4th century AD. In the north of the island another, albeit much smaller, fortress existed on the hill of Kalógeros near Apóllonas. It protected and guarded the nearby ancient port of Apóllonas, the first port for ships coming from the north, and also served as a watchtower.

The important Byzantine fortress of Apalírou could only be captured by the Venetians after a long siege.

The steep slope below the castle is littered with rubble.

In the Middle Ages, the largest town on the island was located here, but nothing has been preserved except many potsherds and here and there a few small walls.

The church of the fortress lies mostly in ruins.

the Byzantine Church Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis
Ágios Geórgios Diasorítis is one of the numerous important churches of the Tragaía and is decorated with impressive, well-preserved murals.

The church of the Panagía Drosianí near Moní is one of the oldest churches of Naxos with important murals in several layers, the earliest of which date from the 7th century.

But also some churches in remote, rural areas of the island are decorated with elaborate murals, such as the small, peculiar church of Ágios Panteleímonas in Lakkomérsina near Apíranthos.

The murals in this church date from the 13th century. Note the garments decorated with many carefully executed details.


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further reading: Byzantine Empire at Wikipedia