Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities was a series about the history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore that we watched in December last year finishing just before Christmas. Montefiore seems to be specialising in serieses about holy cities – his previous ones have been about Jerusalem (which we watched before I started writing blog posts) and Rome (post).
Byzantium started out life as a strategically well placed Greek town at the eastern periphery of the Greek (and later the Roman) world. It rose to greater prominence as the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted towards the east, and Constantine moved his capital there at the same time as establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. The Greek pagan past was swept very much under the carpet as the newly renamed Constantinople was positioned as the Christian centre of a Christian Empire which it remained until 1453AD. Something easy to forget from the way the subject was taught to me as a child is that the Roman Empire continued in the East long after the fall of Rome – seamlessly becoming what we now call the Byzantine Empire. Montefiore talked about how Constantinople came to be regarded as associated with and under the protection of the Virgin Mary, one-upping in their minds the association of Rome with St. Peter. And he finished up the first episode with a discussion of the rising tensions between the Western Church and the Orthodox of Constantinople, culminating in the excommunication of the Patriarch by the Pope and the Great Schism.
The second episode covered the period between the Great Schism in 1054AD, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453AD. This is a period characterised by decline from former glories, punctuated brutally by the 4th Crusade. The Crusades started off because of the worries of the Byzantine Empire over the rise of Islam and how this new faith had conquered vast swathes of territory, including the Holy Land, and were now eyeing up Byzantine lands. They invited the Western Christians to lend their military might to hold off the Muslims, but this was an uneasy alliance. With the added political differences between Constantinople and Venice (supplier of ships for the 4th Crusade) the unease spilt over into outright violence and Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders. Montefiore had a bit of an air here of an outsider handing out the popcorn while he was discussing the lead up to this disaster, but he sobered up for the discussion of the atrocities afterwards. The programme ended with the final fall of a weakened Constantinople to the Ottomans, after they’d taken over all the surrounding territory.
The third episode covered the whole of the Ottoman Empire’s time in the sun. This was a second golden age for the city, now known as Istanbul – once again the centre of a large secular Empire it also became the centre of another religion. The Ottoman Sultans moved the seat of the Caliphate to Istanbul, and discovered (or moved in some cases) relics of the Prophet Muhammed and those close to him in the city. Montefiore dwelt on different aspects of the Ottomans to the series we watched earlier in the year (post). He didn’t gloss over the institutionalised fratricide of the Sultans as much, and he told us about some of the less successful holders of the title whose incompetance or brutality also shaped the city. He also spent a bit of time telling us about how the Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Western Europe. This episode ended with a discussion of Attaturk and the new secular Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire.
As always with Montefiore’s serieses I I liked the cinematography as well as being interested in the subject matter. There’s a visual style to the programmes that I like, though I’d be hard pushed to describe it or distinguish it from other things – but that’s me lacking the vocab and knowledge, I think 😉
The other series we finished off over the last few weeks was Sam Willis’s series about Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History. This was a three part series that looked at shipwrecks around the British coast or involving British ships since Tudor times, with the main focus being on the 18th and 19th Centuries. The format was part telling the stories of individual disasters, and part drawing out what effects these disasters have had on British culture and British history. Willis did a good job of making the shipwrecks sound every bit as hideously dreadful as they must’ve been, whilst not overdoing it. And there were lots of interesting tidbits of history – like in the last episode he told us about the first weather forecasting system, the first life jackets, the fight Plimsoll had to undertake to get overloading of merchant ships regulated and several more. An interesting series, worth watching.
Other TV watched over the last couple of weeks:
Calf’s Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food. Disappointing programme about Restoration era English food that couldn’t work out if it was about the history or about the food, and ended up falling short with both aspects.
Planet Ant: Life Inside the Colony – a bit like the series The Burrowers that we watched a while ago (post) but about leafcutter ants not cute fluffy bunnies etc. An ants nest was reconstructed in a lab and science is being done on it (and we got told how the nest worked and about the ants biology etc).
BBC 4 Sessions: The Christmas Session – recorded for Christmas 2011 I think, this featured various folk artists including the Unthanks and was a lot of fun. We watched it on Christmas Day.
Egypt’s Golden Empire – a three part series on one of the Sky documentary channels that we watched at J’s parents’ house. I confess I wasn’t always paying that much attention, but what I did watch seemed like a rather good and thorough overview of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.
Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe – round up of the big events of 2013 presented by Charlie Brooker (and segments from others, which I felt worked less well).
Jool’s Annual Hootenanny – music and chat from Jools Holland and his guests (and audience). It’s our tradition for welcoming in the New Year when we’re at home – Jools on the telly and whisky to drink. Not the best one there’s ever been, but we still had fun heckling.
2013: Moments in Time – another roundup of 2013, this time of the main news stories of the year shown through the photos that illustrated them. And some discussion of the changing nature of these photos (and the rise of social media’s importance in news).
Episode 1 of Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart. This episode was about Africa.
Episode 4 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.