Come with us to Iran! 1. In the historic cities on the feast of Ashura. 2. The centuries-old desert towns of Iran

After last year’s highly successful tour to Iran, and this June’s photo tour in Iranian Kurdistan, now we invite our readers on two new Iranian trips. Although they are two independent one-week tours, we announce them in one post, so that if you want, you can participate on both, and with a minimum of repetition see new things on each. The first route leads us through the historic cities of Iran in the festive week of Ashura, while the second tour is an expedition to the lesser known thousand-year-old towns of the Iranian desert.

We arrive to both tours by plane, through Istanbul to Tehran. The flight starts in the night preceding the program (on 9 and 16 October, respectively) from Istanbul, and arrives early the next morning (10 and 17 October) in Tehran. The flight back from Tehran is also at dawn, on 17 and 24. The price of the flight tickets, due to the uncertain conditions in Istanbul, is at a historic low point: it is only 120 euros from Istanbul and back from Tehran with the Turkish Pegasus Airlines company.

Whether you have already decided, or you need some further encouragement to make the right decision, here you can read our collected posts on our previous Iranian tours and on Iran.

• First journey. On the feast of Ashura in the historic cities (9-17 October)

The two consecutive days of Tasuʿa and Ashura are the largest celebration of Shiite Iran. Fifteen hundred years ago, on 10 October 680, or, according to the Islamic calendar, on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the soldiers sent by the perfidious Sunni caliph Yazid clashed at the city of Kerbala in Irak with the army of the true Imam, Husayn. The battle ended with the murder of the Imam and his folowers. On this day, the whole Shiite world mourns that event, and that with the defeat, the complete Shiite trend went off the shoreline in the history of Islam. Nevertheless, most Iranians do not experience Ashura as a feast of mourning. In the celebrations organized on these two days and during the following week, they rather rejoice that the true faith has survived all trials, and that when the last Imam, the Mahdi, descendant of Husayn, will come back at the end of days together with the Christian Jesus to restore the rule of justice, the Shiites will regain their legitimate rights, and the Sunnis – particularly the despised Arabs – will finally sink to the bottom of hell. This is what they celebrate, this they re-enact in parades with the participation of hundreds of people and in bazaar theater plays, prior to which they organize free public dinners in every Iranian city, especially in the historic cities. Therefore, it is the best time to go through the historic cities and get acquainted with them, from Tehran through the wonderful merchant cities of Kashan and Isfahan, and the centers of ancient Persia, Pasargade and Persepolis, to Shiraz, the hometown of poets, roses and wine.

10 October: The feast of Tasuʿa in Kashan

Our flight leaving Istanbul on 9 October arrives at 10 in the early morning at the airport of Tehran. Here we are awaited by the but that will take us to Kashan, the thousand-year-old caravanserai-city. On halfway we stop in the town of Qom, in “the Shiite Vatican”, where the commemorative rites go on all night in the gorgeous mosques. Our Kashan accommodation will be in the four-century-old Kamal-ol-Molk guest house, and our Kurdish friends who run it will be with us throughout the course of the holiday, just as they did last year. In the morning we will make up for our backlog of sleep, and then starting at noon we immerse ourselves in the feasting city. Together with the locals we enjoy the lunch that the local mosques offer for free. We wander through the old clay town of Kashan, from the alleys of the bazaar to the Agha Bozorg Mosque. Late in the afternoon we take part in the festive parade, followed by a dinner in the mosque of our friends.

11 October: The feast of Ashura in Nushabad and Kashan

In the morning we go out to the nearby desert town of Nushabad, where on this day they commemorate the Battle of Kerbala with a great historic costume procession on camel and horseback. With the help of our friends, we try to penetrate into the famous underground city (World Heritage site), which is closed on the festival, but in Iran everything can be arranged through personal contacts. We visit the town’s mosque, and for the lunch we return to Kashan. In the afternoon we take part in the Ashura Day parade, and in the evening we will be hosted by the community of another mosque.

12 October: From Kashan through Abyaneh to Isfahan

In the morning we visit the historic merchant houses in Kashan, we go out to Shah Abbas’ five-century-old pleasure garden (World Heritage site), and then we set out to the Vulture Mountain, to Abyaneh, the Red Village, which was converted to Islam only a few hundred years ago, and still vividly preserves its ancient Persian Zoroastrian traditions. On the way we pass along the tanks guarding the Natanz uranium enrichment center (photographing is strictly prohibited, even from the bus, but looking is not), and we stop at the 13th-century Natanz mosque, built by the Mongol khans. Late in the afternoon we arrive in Isfahan.

13 October: Isfahan

Isfahan is the most beautiful city of Iran, which was also its capital for centuries. In this and the following day we tour the city. From our hotel in the center, through the huge bazaar, we reach the main square, which is considered by art historians to be among the world’s ten most beautiful squares. We visit the Imam Mosque, decorated with the blue tiles of Armenian craftsmen, the thousand-year-old Friday Mosque, we ramble in the eight-hundred-year old and still vivid Jewish quarter, the largest Jewish center in Iran, and we cross the five-hundred-year old Si-o-se, that is, the Thirty-three-hole Bridge, to see the Armenian quarter over the Zayande, that is, Life-giving river. We will visit Persian gardens and palaces, will begin the hopeless attempt of going through the entire bazaar, see nomadic carpets, have dinner in old tea houses, listen to traditional concerts.

14 October: From Isfahan through Persepolis to Shiraz

In the morning we go by bus to Shiraz. This is the longest track of our journey, 490 kilometers, but we do it on highway, and we stop at several beautiful views and historic sites, including Pasargade and Persepolis, the secular and sacred capitals of ancient Persia, impressive even in their ruins (both World Heritage sites). There I lead a detailed art historic tour at the well-preserved buildings, reliefs and king tombs. In the evening we arrive in Shiraz.

15 October: Shiraz and Tehran

In the morning we tour the old town of Shiraz, the bazaar, the beautiful mosques and merchant houses, we have a siesta in a traditional teahouse. In the afternoon we fly back with a domestic flight to Tehran.

16 October: Tehran

In our last day in Tehran we summarize our impressions. We tour the city’s pre-revolutionary center, established in the 1930s by Shah Reza Pahlavi in elegant art deco style, we walk along Lalehzar Street, a ghost street still preserving the spirit of the former “Moulin Rouge of Tehran”, we visit the magnificent ancient Persian exhibition of the National Museum. We picnic in Taʿbiat Park, at the largest pedestrian bridge of the world, opened just a year ago, and we have a farewell dinner in the bohemian Darband district, above the city, in a traditional teahouse. Whosoever at this point leaves us, will fly back in the early morning to Istanbul.

• Second journey. The centuries-old desert towns of Iran (16-24 October)

“The desert is beautiful, because it hides a well somewhere”, writes Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince. And the Iranian desert is but a network of wells. This network is the system of qanats, the vaulted underground aqueducts from the foot of the hill, above which a multitude of thousand-year-old towns are thriving, and whch were included in this year in the list of World Heritage Sites.

“In contrast to us Europeans, the Iranians do not consider the desert as a wilderness. The Indo-European names for this land, desert, Wüste, pustina, come from the Latin, Germanic or Slavic words for “abandoned, empty”, while the origin of Persian کویر kavir is the verb “surround, accept”, related to Latin capere. The Iranian city dwellers go on excursons and picnics to the desert with the same excitement and curiosity as we go to the mountains,” I wrote a year ago, in the introduction to the desert photo album of the renowned Iranian photographer Nasrollah Kasraian, whose images you should necessarily browse through if you want to see what the desert means to the Persians: the abundance stemming from nothing, the true value of life surrounded by devastation, the garden of paradise, whose image was born here, and which is still called by its original Old Persian name paradeis, a walled garden, irrigated with well water, wonderfully productive in the middle of the desert.

It is these gardens of paradise, the wonderful thousand-year-old clay towns built on the qanat system, that we will tour during this journey.

17 October: Arrival to Kashan

The Istanbul flight of 16 October will land on the 17th at dawn in the airport of Tehran; those remaining from the previous tour will meet the newcomers. We board our bus and travel to Kashan, where we arrive late in the morning. After a few hours we visit the old town of Kashan, as well as Shah Abbas’ five-century-old garden of delights (World Heritage site). In the evening we have dinner in a gorgeous traditional tea house next to the garden.

18 October: Karshahi Fortress, Matin Abad

In the morning we visit the historic merchant houses in Kashan, and then we set out to the south along the fringe of the desert. At Matin Abad we first penetrate into the desert, thirty kilometer deep, to visit the medieval clay fortress of Karshahi, which is the largest fortress of this kind at the foot of the Misty Mountains until the restoration of that of Bam (World Heritage site), which partly collapsed in the earthquake of 2003. We sleep in the eco village of Matin Abad.

19 October: Through Ardestan to Nain

From Matin Abad we continue our journey to the south. We stop in the ancient city of Ardestan, we visit the mosque converted from a Zoroastrian fire temple, we walk about in the pomegranate-producing town. In the afternoon we arrive in Nain, in the ancient trading town lying at the crossing of caravan routes at the edge of the desert. Here our friend Mohamad, the local museum director – an impressive perpetual motion, defender of the local traditions, as well as a poet and an excellent English-speaking guide – leads us around the city, the thousand-year-old mosque and in the traditional weaving village two kilometers away. We spend the night in the town, in a traditional hotel converted from a Qajar-era merchant house.

20-21 October: In the heart of the desert. Farahzad and Garmeh

This morning we penetrate eastward into the heart of the desert. The road passes through amazing lunar landscapes, at the foot of barren mountains. We stop at the little town of Anarak, which seems to be a Persian edition of the Tuscan hill towns, and elsewhere at the most beautiful mountain formations. By evening we arrive in the oasis town of Farahzad, where we stay in a family pension established in a centuries-old merchant house and caravanserai. The next morning we make a trip between the desert dunes, where we are taught to ride on the camels of the seventy-strong family herd. In the afternoon we arrive at Garmeh, the other oasis village, at the foot of majestic mountains, in the middle of a beautiful palm grove. Here we stay in another centuries-old family pension, similar to that of Farahzad, where our host, Maziyar, the widely known performer of Persian classical music, plays for us, provided he is not performing in Tehran or Isfahan.

Fine print: Both our pensions in Farahzad and in Garmeh are the most sought-after ones, listed in Lonely Planet among the ten top places to stay in Iran. Nevertheless, they are very traditional guest houses, with tiny rooms, with Persian carpets on the floors instead of beds, and with shared bathroom-toilets. This inconvenience must be taken if you venture this far in the desert, where tourists are still rare birds, and there is no other hotel. However, the inconvenience is abundantly counterbalanced by all the good impressions, and it even helps to experience how the inhabitants of these small towns, visited by us as outsiders, have lived for thousands of years.

22 October: From Garmeh to Yazd

On the way from Garmeh to the south, we stop at the clay town of Bayazeh, we wander around the thousand-year-old fortress, through the maze of the centuries-old houses we get to know the structure of the towns of the desert. Further along the way to Yazd, we go up between the mountains to visit the temple of Chak-Chak, the most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage site in Iran. In the evening we reach Yazd, where we again stay in a hotel converted from a traditional merchant house, but already provided with all the Western comforts, similar to that of Nain and Kashan.

23 October: Yazd and back to Tehran

In Yazd, the caravanserai town on the edge of the desert used to gather the caravans coming from north and west, before they crossed the desert. We submerge into the maze of the old town built of clay, visit still-working caravanserais, centuries-old mosques, merchant houses, sanctuaries. The Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia – which is tolerated by Islam as a “religion of the book” – has the most followers in Yazd, so we will visit Zoroastrian shrines and “towers of silence” outside the town, where the bodies of the dead were placed to decompose, so they may not contaminate the sacred elements of earth, water and fire. We will have our farewell dinner in a traditional caravanserai, and in the evening we fly back to Tehran, from where we return home the next morning.

We will do both journeys first class – according to Iranian categories, “VIP” buses (fine print again: if for the desert tour the bus is not full, then it will be more profitable to rent cars, but more about that later). The participation fee for each tour is € 790, which includes accommodation (half of a two-bed room) with breakfast, traditional Iranian dinner for all seven days, the rented bus, the domestic flight to Tehran from Shiraz (first journey) and Yazd (second journey), as well as the guide fluent in Persian and versed in Iranian history and culture, that is, me. Participation in both tours is only € 1480 instead of 1580. Add to this the price of the flight ticket (approx. € 250 there and back), and the Iranian visa (approx. € 85) to be purchased on arrival at the Tehran airport. Deadline for application: 11 September, Sunday at the usual address

Invisible cities. Czernowitz, where people and books lived

“A Czech architect who studied in Vienna and became immersed in the characteristics of Bukovinian folk architecture and art, builds up with the help of local Hutsul, Polish and Romanian craftsmen and artists the palace of the Romanian Orthodox Metropolite in Czernowitz – can you imagine a more convincing example of a mutual cross-fertilization of cultures?” (Martin Pollack: Mythos Czernowitz)
Czernowitz, wo Menschen und Bücher lebten. This is how Paul Celan, the great poet of Czernowitz remembers his native town, and it’s not sure which of the two is rarer and more flattering for a city. The easternmost large city of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was created almost from nothing at the end of the 18th century, when Galicia and Bukovina became part of the Hapsburg empire. The Viennese government intended it from the beginning as a model city, where the representatives of all the nationalities of the Monarchy would harmoniously live with each other, united by the enlightened Hapbsburg government and the common German language. Each of the forty-two ethnic groups constituting the population of the city had their own social, religious and cultural institutions, societies, streets and newspapers, while they were proud that in all the empire, it was in Czernowitz where the most beautiful German was spoken. This diversity and unity of the city’s spirit was also reflected in its built texture, where the planned structure, the large public spaces and public buildings were in a harmonious balance with the quarters and institutions of the single nationalities.

This is the structure we will walk through on the next occasion of our “Invisible cities” series, on 17 September 4 p.m. in the FUGA Center of Architecture (Budapest, Petőfi Sándor u. 5.). In contrast to the previously examined cities, Prague and Tbilisi, Czernowitz became invisible not by destruction. Its old town still preserves its turn-of-the-century fabric virtually without change. Only its diverse and sophisticated culture disappeared, which had created this fabric and filled it with meaning. In our presentation we reconstruct this life and these meanings with the help of contemporary photos, descriptions and local press, thereby showing how Czernowitz indeed became a Hapsburg model city, and later a nostalgic “myth of Czernowitz”, still alive in the memory of its former inhabitants.

Chak Chak

When the traveler sets from Yazd, the adobe city standing on the edge of the desert, where for thousands of years the caravans gathered to start together on the thousand-kilometer-long road across the desert, and follows their traces toward east, the city of Mashhad lying on the other edge of the fertile fringe of the Iranian plate, after eighty kilometers arrives to the adobe village of Kharânaq. Here, a smaller road branches off the ancient caravan road sharply to the left, among the mountains bordering the road. It meanders between ragged mountains and barren rocks of bizarre shapes, where only the scattered dry tufts suggest some life, and the traces drawn in the sand by the snakes, who in the daytime hide from the scorching heat under earth. After thirty more kilometers an even narrower road turns left again, slowly spiraling in between the giant mountains. When we are already deep in the belly of the mountain, we suddenly catch sight of the sanctuary of Chak Chak, one of the holiest places of pilgrimage of the Zoroastrians, sticking high upon the huge mountain wall, like a swallow’s nest. At that point, a believer dismounts his horse or, more recently, parks his car, and continues his way on foot.

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Chak Chak means drip-drip. This is how the cave sanctuary, opening in the rock wall, speaks, by falling a drop of water every few seconds on the floor of the sanctuary. The water flows out, and creates a small green life among the barren rocks. This gives the other name of the place: Pir-e Sabz, the Green Sanctuary.

The mountain mourns for Nikbanu, the daughter of the last Persian king, Yazdegerd III, who, when in 636 the Arab conquerors coming from nowhere destroyed the Persian army in the Battle of Qadisiyyah, fled to the east. Here she was caught up by the Arab horsemen sent to pursue her. To avoid falling among their hands, she prayed to the God of Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda, to whose command the mountain opened up and embraced her.

We also climb on foot the steep stairs to the sanctuary. On both sides we read quotes from the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, carved in stone or engraved on metal plates, in the original Old Iranian language, or translated to modern Persian. Not a soul can be seen, the large covered terraces are now empty, which between 14 and 18 June of each year accommodate thousands of Zoroastrian believers coming from all over the world. From the hot walls, large green lizards curiously stare after us. Planted in the middle of the stairs, a tall green cypress, Zarathustra’s sacred tree.

Arriving to the highest terrace, a door opens suddenly. A guard comes out. He absently greets us with a “ya Ali”, he is probably a Muslim guard paid by the Zoroastrians. He calls for an entrance fee and for donations. The he lethargically flops on the little chair, as if amidst the endless idleness even this much effort would be fatal. “Do you want some tea?” he asks the obligatory Persian question of courtesy, and, without waiting for the answer, he fills it only to himself. Then he continues staring into the space, like a particularly overgrown lizard.

The sanctuary might have been renewed in the days of the last Shah, perhaps in 1971, in preparation to the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, when the Pahlavi regime tried to efface the conservative Muslim clergy and petty bourgeoise by emphasizing the country’s national traditions. This is evoked by the retro feeling of the equipment, the pavement, the eternal lights, and the holder of the food offering, as well as the Persepolis bodyguards, the indispensable decoration of Pahlavi-era public buildings, on the bronze doors. A label states that we have to take our shoes off, we have to cover our head, and if we were in the days of menstruation, we could not enter the sanctuary. Inside, the holy water patiently drips on the floor, like it has done for several millennia. From the side of the shrine, a huge old plane tree grows out, which, according to tradition, is Nikebanu’s cane, and otherwise a holy tree in the Zoroastrian tradition. As Herodotus mentions it, when describing the way of Xerxes marching to the Greek war:

“…found a plane-tree, which he adorned with gold because of its beauty, and he assigned one of his immortals to guard it.” (Historiae, 7.31)

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In the first centuries after the conquest, the Arabs took in possession rather the western half of Persia, the fertile plain of the large rivers, today’s Iraq. Yazd and its surroundings at the edge of the desert for another half millennia only payed tax to the caliph. An Arab governor and army were rarely seen here. The great number of local or refugee Persian Zoroastrians and Judes – for ten of Israel’s twelve tribes were settled here, “in the cities of Media”, after the Assyrian deportation – could freely practice their religion for a half thousand years. Only in the 13th century, after the establishment of the Muslim Yazd government, are the Zoroastrians and Judes chased from the old towns to the outskirts or the neighboring villages, where their communities have survived up to recent decades. Yazd is still a center of the few living Zoroastrian and Jewish communities in Iran, with a working fire temple, and, in a circle of a radius of 100 km, with fifty other pirs, holy places, the remains of former fire temples and holy sources.

Among the pirs stand out six ones, which are considered especially sacred, and where thousands of pilgrims come together between March and August of every year. The legends of them are identical: in all six places, a member of the fleeing royal family was embraced and hidden from their Muslim persecutors by the earth, one of the four Zoroastrian sacred elements. In Pir-e Sabz and Pir-e Banu, Princesses Nikbanu and Banu, in Pir-e Narestane, Prince Ardeshir, in Pir-e Naraki, the daughter of the governor of Persia, in Pir-e Herisht, the royal maid of honor Morvarid, and in Pir-e Seti, Queen Shahbanu Hastbadan herself. As the event had obviously no Persian witness at any place, therefore in all six locations the hidden majesty him- or herself appeared in the dream of a local shepherd or hunter several centuries later, entrusting him with the construction of a sanctuary.

The emblem of the Zoroastrians stenciled on the wall of a house in the desert town of Iraj

We do not know exactly how many children King Yazdegerd had. The Arabic, Shiite, Jewish, Bahaʿi, Indian and Chinese sources say different things, each trying to locate a royal descendant on his own half-court. However, Nikbanu and Banu, Prince Ardeshir and Morvarid are not mentioned by any source. Perhaps they were subsequently created by the Zoroastrian tradition, when they had to give a new meaning to those lonely sanctuaries, lying on the top of high mountains, where before the Islamic conquest they offered sacrifices to the one God, Ahura Mazda, as Herodotus writes:

“It is not their custom to set up statues and temples and altars, because they have never believed the gods to be like men, as the Greeks do; but they call the whole circuit of heaven Zeus, and to him they sacrifice on the highest peaks of the mountains.” (Historiae, 1.132)

According to the Zoroastrian theology, every soul returns to heaven, to God the Creator. Thus they need no holy intermediaries. Therefore they do not go on pilgrimage to the graves of holy persons, to seek for their intercession, as the Shiites or the Christians do. Their sites of pilgrimage are the locations of memory. In the pilgrimage season from March to August, when they go from sanctuary to sanctuary, they tour and refresh in their memory a sacred topography, like the Christians who follow the traces of Jesus in the Holy Land, or the Jews who on pilgrimage to the wall of the Temple. This is the topography of their religion, which developed in Iran, and was fixed in the Avesta.

Several items of this topography are missing by now, those holy places, which were carefully expropriated by the Islam through the building of a mosque, as they expropriated the memory of the Jewish Temple with the Dome of the Rock. The missing items are compensated by incorporating into the tradition such sanctuaries, which are not mentioned in the Avesta, and which were originally only sacrificial sites, but now, linked to the last Zoroastrian royal family, become part of the sacred geography of the Zoroastrian memory. As the sanctuary of the Indian Udvada, the most important Zoroastrian place of pilgrimage is called Iranshah, and dedicated to the returning King of Iran, and as the Zoroastrian years are still calculated from the ascension to the throne of the last king Yazdegerd III, so are the former sanctuaries linked to the members of the royal family. By visiting them again and again, they embrace their former land and and make it again theirs. In the tears dropped by the mountain, as the historical summary reads on the sanctuary wall, they see the tears of the orphans and the oppressed. In the fate of Nikbanu, they recognize their own fate.

Plethon’s tombstone

Gemistus Plethon’s portrait from Benozzo Gozzoli’s Three Magi fresco (Firenze, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, 1459-1461)
An interesting inscription is hiding in the unfinished cathedral of the excommunicated condottiere, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the town of Rimini. I mean, not in the church itself, but on its external side, on the sarcophagus in the third window niche to the right. Since 1466 here lays, half in the open air, the body of one of the last great Greek Neoplatonic philosophers, Georgios Gemistus Plethon. His importance is shown by the fact that, as Marsilio Ficino recalled, he inspired the foundation of the Florentine Academy, and thereby, symbolically, the whole Italian Renaissance humanism:
“In the Synod of Florence, organized with the participation of Greeks and Latins, Cosimo de’ Medici often heard a Greek philosopher named Gemistus Plethon, to explain the Platonic mysteries. His inspired lectures made so big impression on him, that at that time the idea of the foundation of the Academy was conceived in him.”
The corpse of Plethon were stolen in 1466 by his former students and by Venetian mercenaries led by Malatesta from the Peloponnese city of Mystras, which came under Turkish rule, and brought to Rimini, “so our great teacher could lay among free people”, and in order to authenticate with his authority the shockingly pagan Neoplatonic iconography of the Malatesta church. The inscription of his tomb poses an interesting geographical and historical problem: since when is Byzantium called Byzantium?

The question may seem pointless at first. It is therefore worth to go over from where this term comes from.

The “Byzantine” Empire in the reality never existed under this name, which put roots and is exclusively used in historiography. The term was coined about a century after the fall of the Roman Empire – as it was really called – by a German humanist historian, Hieronymus Wolf.

Wolf learned self-taught Greek. In 1549 he published the first translation of Demosthenes’ speeches. From 1551 he worked the Augsburg Fugger library, where he catalogued the medieval Greek manuscripts brought from Venice. In 1557 he published his main work, the Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compiled from the Greek sources in the Augsburg library, with which he unintentionally rewrote the world history. When in the early 17th century the compilation of a similar summary from the surviving Constantinople sources was encouraged by Louis XIV of France, it obviously had to be based on Wolf’s work, so that Philippe Labbé, the Jesuit scholar leading the project did not even try to find a new title for the 34-volume collection: it was also published as Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. The scholars dealing with the late Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, all adopted this terminology (e.g. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). The adjective “Byzantine”, which during the Enlightenment spread worldwide, especially due to the writings of Montesquieu, was impossible to be detached from the (late) Roman Empire. And the adjective was also associated with an explicitly negative connotation, which was deduced from the supposed qualities of state power: courtly intrigues, complicated bureaucracy, incomprehensible and over-decorated ceremoniality and fraudulent diplomacy.

Emperor Constantin I donates the city to Christ and the Virgin Mary. Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, ca. 1000

The problematic character of the “Byzantine” adjective can be shown in three examples:

A country? – A state called “Byzantium” or “Byzantine Empire” never existed in world history. If someone used this term between the 6th and 15th centuries, nobody would have understood what he meant. The official name of the Constantinople-centered and Greek-speaking state was Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων (Basileia tōn Rōmaiōn), that is, Rome, to its very end. Its own citizens called themselves Romans, even though they were also aware of their Hellenistic cultural heritage. In history, it is not possible to draw a caesura, that is, to mark a date when Rome became Byzantium. The root of the problem is that with the coronation of Charlemagne, the Roman Empire got a challenger, who sought to strengthen his own legitimacy. Therefore they tried to deprive the Empire from its Roman character, by calling it Greece, or the Empire of Constantinople, but never Byzantium. This endeavor appeared during the Holy (German) Roman Empire of Otto, but it could overcome only after the real Roman Empire was finally swallowed by the Turkish flood. When Wolf came into scene, there was no longer anyone who could have protested against the “Byzantine” title.

The map of Constantinople (1422). This is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one made before the Turkish conquest

A city? – The city of Byzantion did exist, in the place of Constantinople, the modern Istanbul, on the peak of the headland reaching into the Golden Horn bay and the Marmara Sea, opposite to Chalcedon, the “city of the blind”, who did not notice that the opposite coast was much more suitable for the foundation of a city. It was founded by Megaran colonists under the leadership of Byzas, on the altitude which was later called “the first hill”. In 330, this settlement was completely rebuilt on Roman model by Emperor Constantine, who called it Constantinople, or New or Second Rome. It cannot be therefore associated with the (Eastern) Roman Empire, since the history of the town of Byzantion ended at the moment when this latter was born through the foundation of Constantinople.

The heraldic animal of the Palaiologos dynasty, the two-headed eagle

A famous person? – Until Christmas of the year 800, apart from a few self-proclaimed emperors, nobody called in question that the Roman Emperor rules from Constantinople. Even the Roman popes recognized his supremacy as long as the late 8th century, they minted money on Constantinople model, and dated their documents by the years of the emperors until 781/782. After Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome, they had to coin a new title for him, because despite the fact, that the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled for the moment by a woman, nobody imagined that Charlemagne would move to Constantinople to rule from there the rest of the Roman Empire. Between 800 and 1461, the titles of the Eastern and Western Roman Emperor existed parallel to each other, and in this period it was the Western emperors who felt it more critical to prove the “Romanness” of their empire. A mean to this was to call “Greek” the Emperor of Constantinople, who since Heraclius did not use the title “Augustus”, but adopted the Greek “basileus”. The official language of the empire was Greek, but the state itself, its rulers and its organization was the legal successor of the Roman Empire. This is why in Constantinople they did not know greater diplomatic insult than the terms of “Greek” Emperor or “Greek” Empire. Liutprand of Cremona, the envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto tells this about the reception of those who came with letters addressed like this.
“The Greeks scolded the sea and cursed the ocean, and were extremely amazed that the waves did not open by themselves to swallow the ship on which such a monster was traveling. «A foreigner», they shouted, «some Roman beggar dares to call the only great and majestic Roman Emperor, Nicephorus, the Emperor of the Greeks! What should we do with these unholy, crooked people? They are poor maggots; if we kill them, we contaminate our hands with vile blood.» Therefore, they put the papal emissaries in prison, and they forwarded the sinful letter to Nicephorus in Mesopotamia…”
But what has all this to do with the inscription on Plethon’s tombstone?

The Rimini epitaph calls the philosopher “Byzantine”:

“The mortal rests of the Byzantine Gemistus Plethon, the greatest philosopher of his age was brought here by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, son of Pandolfo, commander of the Peloponnesian war born against the Turkish ruler, and, inspired by his ardent love to erudite people, he placed them here in 1465.”
Apart from Gemistus Plethon, there were a number of other “Byzantine” famous people, for example the astronomer Epigenes of Byzantium, who lived around 200, and thus actually came from the town of Byzantium. The same is the case with his contemporary, the linguist Aristophanes, who also was a “real” Byzantine. In a more complicated situation is Stephanus Byzantinus, who was known for his geographical work Ethnica, written about the ancient Greece. In his works published in Europe, his name was only written “Stephanus” as long as 1678, their Amsterdam edition. In the Leiden edition of 1688 he is already mentioned as Stephanus Byzantinus. That is, he was simply renamed sometime in the last third of the 17th century.

If we assume, that the tomb inscription was not made after Wolf’s work of 1557 (and the tombstone-carver did not keep pace with the latest scientific research), then we must also assume, that the term “Byzantine” already existed before 1557, as a typical Renaissance hyper-classicism (like Istropolis instead of Posonium), but it was only applied to the city, and not to the state. Wolf was probably aware of this use, and as he tried to draw a caesura between the ancient and medieval Greek literature and sources, he adopted the term “Byzantine”, which was later extended on the basis of his work to the Constantinople-centered Roman Empire.

Byzantium, like a ghost, definitively broke free from Wolf’s bottle, and it is unlikely that we will ever squeeze it back there. Nowadays, if anybody talks about the Roman Empire in connection with the period between the 6th and 15th century, he will shock his listeners just as much as if he used the term of Byzantine Empire in those very centuries.

Piero della Francesca: The Baptism of Christ, 1448-1450 k. London, National Gallery. According to Carlo Ginzburg and other art historians, the exotically dressed figures in the background are Eastern Orthodox theologians, who are discussing the central topic of the Synod of Florence (1439-1442), the Filioque, that is, the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. Thus, after many centuries, they are the first Byzantine figures in Western art, and there is a good chance that also Gemistus Plethon can be found among them.