Eastern Christendom after the fall of Rome

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Eastern Christendom after the fall of Rome WHAP/Napp

Constantinople was a new city arising within the old city of Byzantium. Founded by Greek colonists in the eighth century before Christ, the old town had sometimes been captured by enemies and sometimes ransacked, but it was always rebuilt. It stood on a superb triangle of land with the sea washing two sides. Commanding a vital trade route and the only entrance to the Black Sea, its position was symbolic as well as strategic, for it was on the very edge of Europe and within a short rowing distance of Asia.

To enlarge the living and building space of this new city, outer walls were built at some distance from the previous walls, and later the perimeter of these walls went out even further, such as the city’s swift growth. Thick walls were needed, for the city was to be besieged nine times between the years 600 and 1100. Meanwhile it became a marvel of the western world – only China possessed larger cities. Visitors expressed their wonder at the large marble doors of the private palaces, the fine statues confiscated from other cities, the triumphal columns erected in honor of the emperors, and the long two-story aqueduct on which freshwater was born aloft.

Constantinople was the first city so designed as to provide prominent sites for Christian churches. Soon the churches were numerous. Visitors especially wished to pray in one of the noblest buildings in the world, the Hagia Sofia or ‘Divine Wisdom.’ Its dome was rebuilt after the earthquake of 559 and the church was converted nearly a millennium later into a mosque capped by minarets, but the tiers of arched windows and the soaring dome and the sense of space are still breathtaking.

A bishop or patriarch was consecrated in the new city, and soon his spiritual status rivaled that of the pope of Rome. As Constantinople held the palace of the Roman emperor, that heightened its bishop’s status. Already the rival bishops were tugging the church, century after century, in slightly different directions, for the cultures and peoples of Asia Minor were far apart from those of Italy. Even in language the western and eastern churches were separate. Greek was the language of the Eastern Church, and Latin of the Church of Rome. As the two cities were separated by a voyage which could occupy up to a month when seas were rough or the winds unkind, they did not always keep in touch. Moreover Constantinople now held more than 500,000 people, whereas Rome, at the mercy of the incoming barbarians, had so dwindled that it held no more than one-tenth of that population.”

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