I must say I know next to nothing about the Byzantines, with vague ideas of its association with Rome, the Orthodox church, the iconoclasm controversy, incense-filled churches, and the Crusades. I know better now and will attempt to share some of it here.
Important land tracts and strategic locations are always fought for and Israel was no exception, although it wasn’t always Israel. Israel is part of a larger land area known as the Levant which encompasses modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. This region was populated by many nomadic tribes and had multiple cities dotted across its landscape. So when we think of vast empires, it is also important to remember that existing groups would live within the political ambit of these empires, and some can create great instability that can end the reign of an empire. That is what indeed happened to the Byzantine Empire, with many intricate details historians continue to pore over.
The Byzantine Empire for most of us is about large ornate basilicas and a form of Christianity that feels foreign and even weird. Well, the empire had its beginning in 330AD when Emperor Constantine split the Roman Empire into a western and eastern half. The Western half’s capital was Rome, and the eastern had Constantinople. While the western side fell to marauding Visigoths and Vandals (not sure if this is where we got our word vandalism), the eastern half lasted until 1453, slightly more than a thousand years, making it the longest empire in world history! The empire came to an end when its capital, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.
With such a long reign, it will not be a surprise to find evidence of this empire in Israel. In fact, the empire organized and named it Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda, and Palestina Tertia.
Our guide brought us to witness some still-standing columns that would have been part of a long marketplace thoroughfare, a cardo, which is a north–south street in Ancient Roman cities and military camps as an integral component of city planning.
It was a vibrant space reminiscent of what the prophet Zechariah envisaged::
“…There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem… And the streets of the city shall be…