Saturday, November 24, 2018


If one was called upon to guess the identity of the structure occupying the photograph accompanying these words, two possible answers suggest themselves, the first: that this is a representation of Saint Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom and the epicentre of the soul of every modern Greek. The second: that this structure, with its lofty verdigris patinaed dome, depicts Flinders Street Station, one of the iconic landmarks of Melbourne and one of the few that draw inspiration from the Byzantine architectural tradition.
Although, when seeking to define ourselves to ourselves as well as to others we, as Greek-Australians often resort to appropriating our ancient past, when it comes to Byzantium, we draw a blank. This period is barely, if at all, taught in our schools. It figures nowhere in the midst of the helmeted and shielded hoplites or foustanella-clad freedom fighters that populate our festivals. There are no diademed Emperors borne on shields by Varangians, preceded by labarum bearing cataphracts in the public assertions of our identity. For most modern Greek-Australians, it plays absolutely no role in our communal discourse. This is significant, because the Byzantine Era represents one thousand years of experience and history and yet, our community pays scant regard to it.
There are a number of reasons for this. Since the time of Gibbon, who wrote a scathing history of Byzantium in 1776, the West, in appropriating ancient Greek culture as its own, has orientalised Byzantium as a corrupt, venal, and nefarious concern. We have internalised this orientalisation and turned it upon ourselves. It is thus common for Greeks to dismiss Byzantium as naught else but a dim era of religious strife and prejudice, one that destroyed the supposedly rational and democratic ancient world, only to usher in, superstition and tyranny. So internalised is this Western-imposed orientalisation that it is often forgotten than for at least eight hundred of its one thousand years of existence, Greek-speaking Byzantium was a major world power, at the forefront of technological innovation and possessed of a vital, erudite culture, steeped within the ancient tradition, that was in constant conversation with and constituted, the envy of the known world.
The other problem we have with Byzantium is that because we have reinvented ourselves in accordance with western concepts of the nation-state during the advent of nineteenth century nationalism, whereby a single national identity based on shared social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a shared and singular history, is propagated, we cannot see how Byzantium can fit into our newly moulded, narrow self-conception. Byzantium was after all, a multi-ethnic, Greek-speaking empire, populated by people who, though they spoke Greek, believed themselves to be Romans and citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire, heirs to the polity of Caesar Augustus. Byzantium thus transcends and subverts all those elements that we are told, comprise the modern Greek.
Then there are the four hundred years of Ottoman occupation, which was brought about by the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine megacity. Those four centuries, upon which we blame all our ills, defects, failures and perceived shortcomings, were sufficient to break almost completely, the long, unbroken relationship with both our ancient and medieval past, which is how the West was able to hijack the discourse of our identity and history in the first place. Consequently, we have, through that great break in tradition, lost the ability to view our past and its seamless evolution from within the paradigm of its own tradition. Instead, we view it with foreign eyes, disparagingly, glossing over those things that those who control the discourse deride, and emphasising those elements that we believe will gain us favour in their eyes, in the process, creating a vast repository of convictions of inadequacy.
It is for this reason that the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria Greek Language Schools’ drama production on the history of Byzantium is so breathtaking and so revolutionary. For the first time in the one hundred or so years of our existence in Australia as a community, the GOCMV schools have attempted to assert the intrinsic place that the Byzantine Era must have in assessing and gaining an understanding of the cultural underpinnings of the modern Greek, and indeed in the formulation of our own identity narrative and have chosen to do so, in dramatic form.
Their endeavour is magisterial in scope, presenting a complex and compelling tableaux of vignettes that in succession, illustrate the diversity of experience but also the epic rise and ultimate fall of an Empire we all ignore, while secretly mourning our exile from the greatness that it represented and whose vestiges are still embedded within us, as a form of communal destiny.

Thus, thanks to the practised and professional artistic direction of talented drama teachers Katerina Poutachidou and Eleni Boukouvala, ably assisted by educator Vicky Petalas, whose inspired, minimalist treatment and immense attention to detail and authenticity (among other things she engaged in extensive research as to the exact hue and design of Constantine’s Chi Rho banner of victory) facilitates our conjuring up of vivid images of the era, we bear witness to the founding of the city of Byzantium in times ancient by the Megarian Byzas, and are present when Roman Emperor Constantine witnesses a vision of the Cross, that changes history as we know it and alters the geographic epicentre of the Greek world. We wail and gnash our teeth as we expect the imminent arrival of the barbarians, sit upon the edge of our seats as we await the outcome of the Nika riots, breathing a sigh of relief as the Emperor Justinian manages to save his throne, just in time to codify laws and construct Saint Sophia as the most enduring architectural monument of Eastern Christendom. The hair on our arms stand on end as we are propelled towards resplendently clad Empress Theodora, power personified and the major player behind what arguable constitutes the world’s first power couple. Finally, we rage with indignation at the Latin betrayal and rape of “our” eternal City in 1204 and weep when the desolate Constantine Palaiologos, in a poignant confrontation with turban-clad half-Greek Mehmet II, refuses to surrender the City to him, indicating that it belongs not to him, but to powers spiritual, timeless and infinite. All the while, something magical takes hold. Time itself is subverted. Within a period of less than two hours, we have lived through and most importantly, felt, an entire millennium. We have partaken of it and now it resides within us.

The actors portraying the diverse roles demanded by an undertaking of such immense undertaking, and indeed, some expertly played multiple characters, are locally-born, Greek-Australian GOCMV students. The language employed in the production was of a demanding nature and yet the students acquitted themselves admirably, assimilating, but most importantly interpreting their given texts so that they were delivered, not as unintelligible tongue-twisters, but instead, within context and with the requisite poise and passion. As a consequence of their art, a particularly strident and imperious Justinian, an electrifyingly omnipotent Theodora, a dolorous but dignified Constantine and an industrious Anthemius and Isodorus were conjured from the depths of history and vivified, drawing us inexorably and artfully, into their world.
In their dramatic production, the GOCMV and its inspired teachers display the same technique: show, do not tell. Practise, do not preach. There is no nationalistic narrative here, no hyperpatriotic hyperbole to engender anachronistic perspectives. Such brotherhood as exists, is found through kinship forged as companions on a journey back through time together and in the rediscovery of semitones in symphonies half-remembered but never entirely forgotten. This is an opportunity for us to view our ancestors as humans, not as stereotypes and the directors and writers of the epic treat it with great sensitivity.
All the while, the protagonist of this journey, the students, are not only gaining the necessary tool to place their identity into context, they are also vastly improving their fluency in Greek. As a result of their innovative efforts, these talented educators have truly redefined Greek language education discourse in Australia, teasing its permutations and extending its boundaries far beyond the staid, the stolid, the self-interested and ultimately the self-defeating, challenging preconceptions of what is possible. This is what the best of Greek language teaching in Australia does: it vivifies the language and makes it relevant not only to the mother land, but to all of us living in our own community here. Byzantium exists here: in Flinders Street Station, in our internecine politics and engraved upon our tongues.
Bearing witness to the pomp, the pageantry, but also the skill, the optimism and the progressiveness that characterise both Byzantium on stage and the Greek language education in general, truly the GOCMV and its team of accomplished pedagogues have earned the right to exclaim, as Justinian did before them: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” To the shield bearing linguists of our most hallowed tongue therefore, thrice hail and νίκα.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 November 2018