Tuesday, September 3, 2013

History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -3

The Hippodrome, next door to the Sacred Palace and connected to if by galleries and staircases, was the venue for lavish spectacles and sporting events, with seating for perhaps 100,000 spectators. It had been restored by Constantine as a slightly scaled-down model of the Circus Maximus in Rome, and embellished by his successors. Near the Hippodrome, the Baths of Zeuxippos provided a fashionable backdrop for socializing. Towering above the other buildings rose the gigantic dome of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Justinian’s supreme achievement and the masterpiece of all Byzantine architecture. To the historian Procopius, perfect of Constantinople at that time, the vast dome 33m (108ft) across seemed not to be supported by masonry at all, ‘but rather to cover space as though it were suspended from the sky by a golden chain’.

 In fact the weight had been spread across the whole structure by the use of arches, semi-domes, vaulted aisles, and galleries. The basilica was all the more remarkable because of the speed of its construction – it was built by 10,000 workmen between AD 532 and 537. The services held inside were of staggering magnificence. On ceremonial occasions the entire court would crowd into the sanctuary. Before them was a curtain embroidered with 500,000 pearls, veiling a massive gold altar inlaid with precious gems. The interior of the church was illuminated by thousands of candles; smoke rose from incense burners. Crimson-clad musicians accompanied huge male-voice choirs, and the curved surfaces of the dome produced extraordinary effects of resonance.

Much of the original ornamentation in the Hagia Sophia has disappeared, but several examples of Byzantine church decoration have survived elsewhere, such as in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Exquisitely carved marble panels would have served as altar-pieces, walls and domes would have been inlaid with coloured-glass mosaics. One characteristic feature of the Byzantine style was the bold presentation, in simple lines and flat colours, of sacred figures gazing upon the worshippers through wide and penetrating eves – eyes deliberately enlarged to enhance the grandeur and mystery of the Christian faith. IN front of the Hagia Sophia, in the heart of the Imperial District, was the Augustaeon, an impressive forum or marketplace whose shady colonnades were the favourite meeting place of Byzantine high society. People gathered there to market their mark, to chat or argue, to parade in the latest fashions, and to watch the comings and goings of the imperial court. The surrounding area was renowned for its luxury and beauty. There were countless bookshops, serving as meeting places for the city’s aspirant intellectuals. Perfume shops were redolent with the whiff of scandal as well as scent, as gossips met to exchange rumours. Only the wealthiest could afford to live in the area: the land-owing aristocrats, for example, who lived in town palaces, away from their country estates.

These nobles were forbidden to engage in business. Commerce was the prerogative of an elite class of magnates who controlled the major businesses, trade, and administrative posts, and may also have lived around the Augustaeon. The imperial government shrewdly assembled these merchants in a single area in order to supervise them more easily. Justinian himself had extensive commercial interests, especially in the manufacture of silk. Until the 6th century, the Chinese had monopolized silk manufacture. The fine silk thread had reached Constantinople along the ancient Silk Road from the East.

How the thread was produced remained a mystery in Europe. Justinian was determined to break the secret. Learning that the knowledge he required had reached the Persian Empire to the east of Byzantium, he persuaded two Persian monks to engage in some officially sponsored espionage. They returned to Constantinople with details of the technique and a few silkworm eggs hidden inside a bamboo. Justinian set up looms in the palace to manufacture the cloth: the entire European silk industry dates back to this beginning. All luxury goods were a major source of wealth for Byzantium, and trade in them was concentrated along a short stretch of a great avenue called the Mese.

 This marble highway ran for some 8km (5 miles) from east to west. At its east end, in the Imperial District, it was lined with two-storey arcades, housing stalls and shops of every kind. Prosperous goldsmiths and jewelers traded along the route between the Sacred Palace and the Forum of Constantine – a distance of about 600m (1,970ft). Money-changers plied their trade there too, often operating in the street itself, sitting at tables piled high with bags of gold and silver coins. The Forum of Constantine was the hub of the Byzantine business world. It was overlooked by the Senate and a splendid statue of the first Christian emperor perched at the top of a porphyry column. From the Forum of Constantine, the Mese ran west to the Forum of Theodosius, dominated by a triumphal arch, and thence to the Amastrianum, the cattle market, and the Forum of Arcadius – thus connecting all the city’s principal marketplaces. The highway then crossed what remained of Constantine’s walls and passed through the Psamathia district. With every step away from the smart Imperial District, the shops became shabbier, the people poorer, the buildings more crowded.

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