Nordic Tales – Byzantine Paths
This exhibition explores the interactions between the Byzantine and Scandinavian lands and highlights the specific traces left in visual, literary, and material culture.
The scene of the Betrayal of Christ with a representation of the Varangian guard, Church of Saint John Chrysostom in Arabissos (Karşı Kilise, Cappadocia), ca. 1212.
Although the Viking Age is the most well-documented period of contact between the Byzantine and Scandinavian realms, the relations go back to the time of the Roman Empire. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the establishment of the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople as its new capital, the scope and nature of these contacts began to shift.
Long-distance trade between western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic East inevitably became an international issue in the new political context from the seventh century onward, and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire frequently found itself acting as an intermediary between the West and the East. As for those areas north of the Black Sea – the lands that are now Ukraine and Russia – trade became important only in the eighth century, when the Byzantine Empire developed close contacts with the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who had settled in the region. The route from Constantinople to the Khazars was mostly traveled via Chersonesus, the Byzantine outpost on the southern coast of the Crimea.
From the mid-ninth century onward, the so-called Varangians from present-day Sweden moved into Slavic lands and founded a state that quickly expanded south, with its center first in Novgorod and later in Kiev/Kyiv. The Varangians, or Rhos, as they were called in Byzantine sources, soon reached the Black Sea coasts of Bulgaria and Byzantium, conducting raids and establishing trade.
The first known contact between the Varangians and the Byzantines occurred in 838, when an envoy came to Constantinople and subsequently tried to return to Scandinavia via Germany, as the direct route back was blocked. Shortly after, the first mentions of people with Nordic names appeared in Byzantine sources, and the first Varangians were baptized.
For centuries, the Byzantine emperors had a Varangian guard, a special troop of bodyguards consisting of fierce Northerners who had traveled to Constantinople via major eastern European rivers like the Dnieper. The memories of such journeys and interactions with the Byzantine Empire have been preserved in various sources in Scandinavia and will be shared in this exhibition, along with the material remains of ships, weaponry, precious objects (reliquary crosses, silks, jewelry, coins), artworks (fresco paintings, baptismal fonts), and stories (sagas).
All these different objects, as well as inscriptions on Swedish rune stones and on the so-called Piraeus Lion from the Venice Arsenal and narrative elements in Icelandic sagas, stand as evidence of the strong material and intangible intercultural exchange between these regions over several centuries.
Sources also mention medieval travelers to Constantinople – Miklagard, “the big village”, as they called it – who returned home with great treasures (usually coins), but who also sometimes died and were buried on foreign soil. At the same time, the Varangians left traces in Constantinople, most notably the rune graffiti in Egisif, Hagia Sophia, where some guards scratched their names or representations of their ships into the marble balustrades, pillars, and window posts. Moreover, the Varangians are depicted in illuminations (the Madrid Skylitzes) and even in frescoes, often within the scene of the Betrayal of Christ, as found in the Church of Saint John Chrysostom in Arabissos and Nea Moni on Chios. More recently, archaeological excavations at Küçükçekmece, on the outskirts of Istanbul, have revealed some interesting artifacts belonging to Northerners, like a game piece for hnefatafl – a game popular with Viking warriors – and ornaments which the Rhos people put on their shoes. Furthermore, remains of what have been identified as Viking swords have been discovered not only in the Balkans but also in southern Turkey, indicating the presence of Northerners south of Constantinople and in Anatolia.
The stories told by these various sources will provide a context for visitors to explore the rich heritage and historical significance of the artifacts and the importance of mutual contacts and exchanges between the Nordic and Byzantine worlds.