Narrative cosmonauts

On the 6th of May 2023, Retracing Connections researcher Dimitrios Skrekas performed at the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla in Westminster Abbey.  Dimitrios was part of the Byzantine Chant Ensemble, directed by Dr Alexander Lingas, Prof. Emeritus at City University. We took this opportunity to ask him a few questions about his experience of performing Byzantine music for a modern audience.

Ingela Nilsson: You sang at the coronation of Charles II – a once in a lifetime experience, I guess. What was it like?

Dimitrios Skrekas: It was such a unique and – as you said – once in a lifetime experience to participate in the coronation. All splendour and aura were so great. I really enjoyed the solos by the famous Sir Bryn Terfel and Roderick Williams. The music was outstanding and superb thanks also to the so gifted conductors, like Sir Antonio Pappano and others.

IN: That space must be rather special to sing in, in view of both historical and spatial aspects. Was it different from a musical perspective to perform in such a place?

DS: Indeed, despite the fact that the space was in a church and one would expect to be similar to other church settings where chanters usually perform, it was so different. The overall result was really of the highest standards.

IN: Is this as close as one comes to Byzantine ceremonials these days?

DS: In terms of music, the setting was a rather recent composition of the 20th century which was composed in order to be chanted during Royal Ceremonies in Greece, but it follows the rules of Byzantine chant. In terms of performance, it is quite close in the sense that we formed a choir with the conductor standing  in the middle- as we still do in the Greek churches- and the Byzantines did. We had at the back two people keeping the drone tuning (isokratema, basically equal to E).

The Byzantine Chant Ensemble (Dimitrios Skrekas is third from the right)

IN: Was this an important promotion of Byzantine hymns to a wider audience? Have you had any interesting offers coming up?

DS: Undoubtedly we not only honoured the memory of His Majesty’s late father Prince Philip who was of Greek origin, but we also promoted Byzantine singing on such an important occasion worldwide. I am sure this will attract interesting offers, which will be addressed to our conductor.

IN: What’s next on your agenda, as regards singing and research?

DS: As I am a professional chanter, I will keep on chanting on Sundays and main feasts in London. Research wise, aside from my involvement in the critical edition of the Life of Theodore of Edessa, I am working with other colleagues on the preparation of a catalogue of Greek Manuscripts that come from the library of Guillaume Pellicier in Venice (1539-42). Also, my monograph on the iambic canons attributed to John of Damascus is forthcoming, as well as other publications.

Watch a clip of the choir’s performance.

The International Conference “Liminal Spaces in Byzantium and Beyond. Perceptions, Performativity and Placemaking” took place at the Swedish Institute at Athens on April 27-29, 2023, as part of the activities of the Section of Byzantine Studies in the Department of Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University. It was envisaged as follow-up to the department’s first attempt to refine the boundaries, main focus and future aims of the study area of Byzantine Spatial Studies, by organizing (and publishing the proceedings of) the International Conference “From the Human Body to the Universe – Spatialities of Byzantine Culture” which took place in Uppsala in 2017.

This second conference was reified thanks to the kind financial support by The Royal Humanistic Science Society in Uppsala (Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskaps-Samfundet i Uppsala) and in collaboration with the Research Programme ‘Retracing Connections – Byzantine Storyworlds in Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic (c. 950–c. 1100)’.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. It is a space where genuine newness can begin. It is not possible or it could be quite wary to be in a permanent liminal experience but if we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normality. During this interdisciplinary Conference, twenty-three speakers—historians, art historians, archaeologists and philologists—reflected upon the concept of liminality in the Byzantine world during which the acts of subversion of territorial and linguistic barriers – through political, military, social and cultural interaction as well as technological, artistic and literary exchange – were very common. Instead of choosing predefined liminal moments/periods or liminal persons, the departure point of the meeting was the spatial dimension of liminality. 

This conference was never meant as an effort to classify a yet-unclassified (or unclassifiable) Byzantine cultural in-betweenness. It was an attempt to acknowledge and establish our awareness of its existence, and to investigate the spatial dimension of liminality by means of the Byzantine paradigm. Such work requires our admitting that liminality is, by definition, an entirely fluid concept; for that reason, it is precious for dealing with this extraordinary space in between opposites, which is essential for the construction of culture. With the help of this concept, we can describe diverse kinds of ambiguity. We can experiment on doing research which resists applying distinctions and classifications, and which transcends an ordering and splitting of the world into neat binaries and oppositional systems and meanings. Because it is reality itself which provides no firm ground for neat classification. In applying classifications to raw reality there will always be an unclassifiable remainder.

The meeting mainly aimed to offer an alternative to the binary oppositions such as inside/outside, self/other, and good/bad and delineate liminality as a necessary concept for understanding a whole series of phenomena placed within the medieval world. It also aimed to further develop the use of the concept of ‘space’ as a vehicle for research of the medieval societies and cultures and as working platform for interdisciplinary collaboration within Byzantine and medieval studies.

Coming back on this soon enough!


Text & Poster: Myrto Veikou & Buket Kitapçı Bayrı; Images: Ingela Nilsson  

My project, The Byzantine Legacy, aims to make the heritage of cities and monuments around the Eastern Mediterranean more accessible. It showcases Byzantine cultural heritage on a website that documents various sites using my photos, accompanied by plans, historic images, and texts reviewing academic literature. While it is mainly focused on Istanbul’s medieval monuments, it also involves me traveling quite extensively around the region. This was fundamentally disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic – something, of course, we all experienced in one way or another. Last year, 2022, gave me the opportunity to return to my travels.

It was an interesting year to reflect on my project, since I revisited cities that inspired me to start it, including Ravenna, Venice, Mystras, and Thessaloniki. Retracing my steps helped me see how much I learned while developing it, from noticing various architectural details to considering the history of the places in terms of the longue durée (rather than simply romanticizing a limited moment of time). I was also reminded of the primary reason I started The Byzantine Legacy: to provide accessible information on historical monuments and the stories they tell.

In many ways, this project was quite an accident, slowly developing as I researched the monuments and sites of the region. The first steps came shortly after my first visit to Rome in 2014. While planning the trip, I made an extensive list of places I wanted to see in Rome, and I began learning more about Roman architecture and archaeology. Even though I was only there for a couple of days, I was finally in Rome – a place I had wanted to see since I was a child. As I was wandering around the city, trying to see as much as I could in a limited amount of time, I began to ask myself why I had not already done this in Istanbul, where I live. So while in Rome, I decided I would search for the New Rome in old Istanbul.

When I came back and began to explore Istanbul, I quickly realized it can be quite difficult to make the list I had made in Rome. I slowly added sites to a map I created, noting how important sites, such as Boukoleon Palace, lacked signboards at the time. I also realized how Istanbul’s numerous inscriptions in Latin, Greek, and even Ottoman Turkish were quite inaccessible to the public. During this process, as I learned more about Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments and studied the relevant academic literature, I began to visit other cities I had learned were vital to understanding Byzantine material culture. At the same time, I saw that there was a significant gap in public outreach on Byzantium in general – and I thought others might be interested in an overview of what I was learning.

My travels last year put all of this into perspective. Perhaps this was the most obvious during my second visit to Venice – my first since I began the travels that led to my project. The main focus of my research before my recent short visit there was on the spolia of San Marco. Still it was quite astonishing to realize, while photographing the various reliefs on its façade, just how much I previously missed. The Tetrarchs, the vastness of its gold mosaics, the Quadriga, the Treasury – all of it distracted me from seeing other remarkable details. Even for scholars, there are noteworthy monuments in Venice, such as the Lion of Piraeus in front of Venice’s Arsenal, which could be easily missed if they happened to be on the periphery of one’s research. While the organizers of the Byzantine Congress in Venice certainly had limited time to prepare, the organizers of the congress originally scheduled to be held in Istanbul in 2021 mapped out 85 Byzantine sites and museums on their website. This is yet another reason why it is important to continually create new tools and methods to help members of both the public and academia know what is where.

My recent visit (in January 2023) to sites along the Black Sea to the east of Istanbul again reminded me of the importance of providing accessible information. The Black Sea city Amasra is one of the nine sites that comprise the UNESCO tentative list of Genoese trading posts and fortifications in Turkey. While its fortifications are quite accessible and its recently restored museum could be counted as one of the better regional museums in the country, some of the Genoese slabs on its walls are not so accessible to the public (or in some cases, they can even be very difficult to find). Yet they are intimately connected to Genoese history in the 14th and 15th centuries, as can be seen in the slab with the coat of arms of Milanese Visconti who occupied Genoa from 1421 to 1435. Güzelcehisar, located near Amasra, is noteworthy for its rare lava flow estimated to be 80 million years old. While its signboards discuss the remarkable geology of the area, its crumbling castle, which gives the site its name (meaning “Beautiful Castle”), is not even mentioned in the overview of its history.

These recent travels have again underlined the need to continuously develop various ways to provide accessible information on historical monuments and the stories they tell. The Byzantine Legacy was developed for this very purpose – to create links between academic research and material culture, particularly in the form of cultural heritage sites, in order to give reliable information to non-academic and even academic visitors. After all, it is sites like these, even when in ruins, which tell a fragmentary yet important part of the story of the lands on which they lie.

David Hendrix

is the creator of the Byzantine Legacy, a website and social media project on the Byzantine Empire with a particular focus on Istanbul. He extensively travels around Anatolia and the Balkans, researching and photographing dozens of cities, archaeological sites, and museums for this project.

Have you come across Siri the Viking girl yet? If you have, you can now look forward to a fourth book and her return to Constantinople. If you haven’t yet made her acquaintance, you have something to look forward to! Siri is a feisty Pippi Longstocking kind of girl, presented in words and images that are reminiscent of Asterix – as clever as entertaining.

The next Siri book will appear by the end of April and is titled Calamity in Constantinople (Kalabalik i Konstantinopel). I recently met with her creators Patric Nyström and Per Demervall in Istanbul, where the Turkish translation was launched in early November, and took the opportunity to ask some questions about characterization and world-making.

Ingela: Many things have happened since 2016, when I chanced upon Siri in Dagens ETC, bought the first book and contacted you for an interview. Is it possible to describe briefly what the journey has been like for you and Siri since then?

Patric & Per: It’s actually been staggering, but also slow, partly because of the deplorable Covid pandemic. But we’ve been pegging away with several books so now if feels as if more and more people know about Siri.
Then we have to say that Siri and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul really have found each other in a fantastic way – and of course also the people behind Siri and the institute.

Ingela: Speaking of which: the translation of the first two books into Turkish, as well as Siri’s participation in the digital exhibition “Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths”, feels rather unexpected and exciting. What was it like to take Siri into a Turkish language environment?

Patric & Per: We felt confident all along that the interplay between word and image would work also in another language. Our hope is that the Turkish children will learn not only a part of their history, but also develop their own reading habits and language through the books and the exhibition.

Ingela: Siri started out by travelling to Miklagård/Constantinople in the first book. She has since then been visited by her friend Zack in the North (second book) and travelled to France to see Paris (third book), but I understand that she is now going to return to Constantinople. Why? And can you reveal anything about what will happen to her this time?

Patric: I felt it was time for Zack to visit his home in Constantinople again. I wanted to show his parents and the cityscape in more detail this time.
I have based Zack’s dad on Michael III, the youngest son of Emperor Theophilos. I made Eudokia Ingerina, Michael’s mistress, into Zack’s mom.
I thought this would give an obscure enough background to our little hero. I also invented a new villain, which was a bit scary when you’re used to Ivar and Grym.
This book is the most difficult I have written so far, since I had so many ideas and threads. But now I hope that they have all resulted in an entertaining story about a ring that brings luck to the emperor and the people and how it gets stolen by our new villain.

Ingela: You have actually created an entire world together in words and images – a historical world, but at the same time a world of its own and an imaginary version of what you have seen and read. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but how does this co-creative process come about?

Patric: It really is joint work. I write my manuscript based on what I have read during my research for a new book. In the manuscript I describe environments, monuments and buildings to Per, but also the characters that the children encounter. I try to incorporate historical events in order to infuse some more life into my stories. For example, the monk Ansgar lost almost 40 books to pirates on his first trip to Birka and I associated this with an idea I had about the Viking myth of the source of wisdom: that it could contain books. These thoughts eventually led to Mimir’s Well, the second book about Siri and Zack.

Per: Wow! That’s a question that demands a long digression! 🙂 But I will try to offer a short version.

When Patric has written his first draft, we go through it first individually and then together. At this point we’re brainstorming ideas and come up with all sorts of follies. When that’s done, Patric writes up the manuscript, which I then take and break it down into sketches of comic pages. We try to work in parallel as much as possible. I look up the environments and buildings which are to be recreated, the uniforms of guards and soldiers and so on.

When it comes to characters, it’s important to ‘build’ the persons based on their characteristics. In the forthcoming book, there is a sleazy advisor who has an assistant by his side. They have to be in sync, so there’s quite a bit of sketch work before I can feel that they are right. Of course, Patric also needs to feel that they are right for his manuscript. When it comes to buildings there is much material to draw on. I try to make my own reconstructions based on that material, so that the series has its own profile. But the most important is that image and text unite beautifully, which we think they do.

Ingela: Finally, there are rumours about a film adaptation – can you say anything about that? Is Siri going to Hollywood?

Per: That’s correct, there’s a great interest. We have a big film producer, a director and an animation company ready to take on Siri. But to launch Siri as an animated film is a long process. We have begun that journey and hope we will make it all the way.

As we are wrapping up, I come to think of one more question that I need to ask – something I’ve been wondering about when reading, but feel a little embarrassed to ask.

Ingela: I just realized I have one last question, if you have time. It’s not meant to be a snobbish academic question, I’m seriously curious: which language do you think that Siri speaks with Zack and other people she meets on her travels? Or is there a language in her world that goes beyond our ideas of languages bound to specific places?


Per: Ha-ha. That one is for Patric.

Patric: Thanks for the question 🙂 Of course, the complicated answer is that Siri and Zack speak Old Norse, because Zack grew up surrounded by his dad’s Varangian guards. When they’re in Paris they get around with Old Norse too. When it comes to Greek in Constantinople, I guess Zack interprets for Siri, but that would be very tedious to include in the books!
It is, in fact, likely that in the wonderful world of comics everyone speaks the same language, maybe thanks to the fact that they all have a Babel Fish behind their ears.*

This answer is indeed symptomatic of Siri and her creators: a combination of learning and pop culture, serious craft and a great sense of humour. Obviously, in the wonderful world of not only comics and fantasy, but also medieval storytelling, language is rarely an issue – characters and plots transgress such boundaries and that’s how storyworlds travel, effortlessly, through time and space.

Ingela Nilsson

* For those of you who are not familiar with the Babel Fish, check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – according to Patric “the best novel ever”.

Before approaching Byzantine literature in translation, we need to face the question of what Byzantine literature is in the first place. How do we deal with a modern term in the Byzantine context? Stratis Papaioannou discusses what we mean by “Byzantine” and by “literature”, while presenting the new Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Literature in the Byzantium & Friends Podcast