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The liturgical practices employed by the Greeks — which originated in the Syrian city of Antioch but, after the sixth century, matured in Constantinople’s Great Church of the Haghia Sophia — are now commonly referred to as Byzantine.

Byzantine Greece. After the Arabs seized Alexandria in 641, the Greek city of Thessalonica assumed cultural, ecclesiastical, economic and political prominence second only to Constantinople. Inspired by works in the capital, artisans embellished Thessalonica’s churches of St. Dimitrios and Haghia Sophia with mosaics, marble, richly embroidered tapestries, silks and gem-encrusted liturgical objects. Ennobled with the title of “co-queen” by emperors and chroniclers alike, Thessalonica’s influence spread beyond the frontier. Two sons of the city, Cyril and Methodius, were charged by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to work among their pagan neighbors to the north, the Slavs. They created a Slavonic alphabet and translated Scripture into Slavonic. Their ministry eventually won the Eastern Slavs to Christianity in its Byzantine form.

But it is in Greece’s medieval monasteries — Mount Athos, Hosios Lucas, Nea Moni and Daphni — where the richest concentration of Greece’s Byzantine legacy survives. Founded during the empire’s zenith (10th to 12th centuries), the churches, refectories and treasuries of these monasteries house some of the greatest works of Byzantium. Long after the empire collapsed, monks kept Byzantium alive, commemorating its emperors and empresses, saints and scholars, iconographers and philosophers in their liturgies and prayers.

Commerce, crisis and conflict. Greece’s position in Byzantium grew in the 11th century as the Seljuk Turks overran Anatolia, which had once provided the empire with grain, soldiers and tax revenue. Not since pre-Christian Rome had the heartland of the Greek world prospered, providing markets with grain, oil and wine while filling the coffers of the imperial treasury with revenue. But this financial success, coupled with dynastic chaos in Constantinople, eventually proved Byzantine Greece’s downfall.

Relations between Byzantium’s emperors and a resuscitated Latin Europe had never been strong. In 800, the papal coronation of Charlemagne as Imperator Augustus on Christmas incensed the Byzantines, whose emperors maintained their Roman inheritance and identity, despite their Greek culture and language. Relations eroded as the Latin “Holy Roman Emperors,” buttressed by the popes, challenged Byzantine political primacy and hegemony in southern Italy.

A number of temporary schisms between the churches of Constantinople and Rome exacerbated relations. But the Great Schism of 1054, in which pope and ecumenical patriarch excommunicated each other, definitively severed full communion between the churches, thus drawing a faith-line through the ancient Roman prefecture of Illyricum, of which Greece was a part.

Using the schism as justification, the Normans of Sicily sacked Thessalonica in 1185. Bands of Latin knights on crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims — led by leaders of the Holy Roman Empire and bankrolled by the rising merchant city-states of the Italian peninsula — threatened other Byzantine cities with the same. In 1204, they instead stormed the greatest prize of all, Constantinople, looting its palaces and churches, even desecrating the Great Church of the Haghia Sophia.

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Tags: Christianity Orthodox Church of Greece