Christendom College

History Professor Unlocks Byzantine Mysteries

August 22, 2013


The exterior of the Chora Church, now a museum.

In the spring of this year, history professor Dr. Brendan McGuire conducted a weeklong archaeological field study, focusing on the extant Byzantine-era churches of Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is, of course, historic Constantinople, which served as the capital of the East Roman—or Byzantine—Empire for over a millennium before the Turkish conquest in 1453. In the Middle Ages, Constantinople was the jewel of the Christian world, exceeding the combined size, wealth, and artistic splendor of any ten Western European cities.

The overwhelming majority of surviving Byzantine-era churches have functioned as mosques for over 500 years. This has meant that their previous histories, identities, and roles in the vibrant liturgical and monastic life of the city are often shrouded in mystery.

Having been trained by renowned scholar Stephen Murray of Columbia University in the archaeological analysis of medieval buildings, McGuire was confident that a week in Istanbul would allow him to shed light on he role that these churches played during the thirteenth century Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261), also known as the frankokratia.

“This was a fascinating period, after the Fourth Crusade, in which Latin and Greek Christians coexisted in a ruined and depopulated capital, often sharing ecclesial space with one another,” McGuire says. “I discovered, however, far more than I bargained for—evidence that will, quite possibly, allow scholars to answer age-old questions surrounding the identity of monastic and ecclesiastical monuments on the shores of the Golden Horn.”

Although he was able to spend time appreciating the well-known artistic treasures of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church, much of his work was conducted well off the beaten path, in the teeming, urban heart of Istanbul’s “old city.”

“Every second that I had spent studying the Turkish language proved to be of immense value, as I used the unfamiliar tongue to navigate the vast metropolis, ask directions, argue with taxi drivers, and order coffee,” he says.


Mysterious ruins in Istanbul.

There are Byzantine archaeological treasures scattered throughout the city, unsought by tourists and unrecognized by locals, and these were his targets. He aimed to map the ecclesiastical geography of the medieval city. In so doing, he stumbled upon something that he believes to be of immense significance: Byzantine ruins, half-buried in the middle of a city block in an unfrequented, impoverished neighborhood.

“These ruins may play a key role in answering age old questions surrounding the identity of Byzantine monuments in that part of the city—questions that have vexed scholars since the nineteenth century,” McGuire says.

The trip certainly had its adventurous moments. Some of the mosques welcomed him with smiles, while others—with furious Islamic clerics—kicked him out. McGuire rescued an elderly German couple from a third-world slum, was hit by a motorcycle in a densely-packed neighborhood, and rode shotgun with a lost monoglot youth who wanted his map spread out on his steering wheel while he drove.

“Nevertheless, while field work can be exhilarating, it cannot bear fruit without real scholarly work in libraries and archives—work that will bring my project to fruition in the form of 2-3 scholarly publications over the next year or so,” he says.

 brendan-mcguire_8355Faculty Research Initiative
It is well known that the members of Christendom College’s faculty dedicate their lives, first and foremost, to college teaching, giving Christendom a well-earned reputation as an institution that places undergraduate learning at the center of its mission. Nevertheless, many of the professors at Christendom are also active scholars who contribute to their respective fields on a regular basis through research and writing. To support these important endeavors, Christendom College established the Faculty Research Initiative (FRI), with the generous support of donors. The FRI will assist Christendom’s professors in contributing to their scholarly fields, while also making it easier for the College to recruit and retain talented scholars on its faculty.