Eastern Roman Empire: a rather tolerant and cosmopolitan medieval society – Muslims and mosques in Orthodox Constantinople

Here we present a selected part of the very interesting and informative essay “Byzantium and the West“, by Angeliki A. Laiou*.


“After about a month, the two travelers (Note: Hugh de Troyes from France and Paolo from Venice) would have reached Constantinople. For both of them, even for the somewhat cynical Paolo, the city held great marvels. There was, first, its size. Constantinople was a large city, with a population of about 250,000 to 400,000 at a time when Venice, the largest city in western Christendom, may have held a population of fewer than 80,000, and Paris fewer than 20,000 people. It was also magnificently built, a city meant to be imperial, to impress its inhabitants and foreigners with the magnificence and power of the Byzantine state and the magnificence and orthodoxy of the Byzantine church. Hugh was a knight, whose life and livelihood centered around war, and so, like Villehardouin a generation later, he may have been most impressed by the defenses of the city and also its wealth. As Villehardouin wrote,

I can assure you that all those who have never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently at the city, having never imagined there could be so fine a place in all the world. They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many that no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and viewed the length and breadth of that city which reigns supreme over all others”.

Or, according to an earlier observer,

no man on earth, however long he might have lived in the city, could number the palaces and other marvels or recount them to you”.


These were some of the visible investments of what today we would call a tax-gathering state: investments in the preservation of its own authority, which for a long time proved just as precious and as effective as investments that took the form of gifts to foreign rulers. Contemporary observers attest to the success of this policy:

Oh, what a great and beautiful city is Constantinople! How many monasteries and palaces it contains, constructed with wonderful skill! How many remarkable things can be seen in the principal avenues and even in the lesser streets! It would be very tedious to enumerate the wealth that is there of every kind, of gold, of silver, of robes of many kinds, and of holy relics”.

Paolo was interested in other things. He was a merchant, and to him the city held different marvels: a deep port, where the routes of Central Asian and Black Sea commerce met the trade of the Mediterranean; a city of large bazaars, a meeting place of merchants of many nations, a place worth its wharves in gold. Here came merchants and merchandise from all over the world. In the market were sold spices and perfumes and cloth of gold, and humbler commodities, and one met merchants from Western Europe, from Egypt, Persia, Russia, Hungary, and other places.

Both men would have visited the sights of the city, and undoubtedly been impressed with the Great Church of Haghia Sophia, a marvel of architecture built to impress. If they were lucky, they would have seen it during a major holiday, decorated with silken hangings, myrtle, and candelabras, the floor covered with carpets. The impressionable Hugh, like others before him, might have remarked that he did not know whether he was alive and on earth or dead and already in heaven.


Our travelers would have met in the streets of Constantinople a multitude of foreigners and heard many tongues: French, Latin, Italian, Russian, Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew, among others. This was a cosmopolitan society, and one which tolerated foreigners and even welcomed them, as long as they were not hostile to the interests of the state; another surprise for Hugh, since in Western Europe strangers were subject to special impediments -although cities were beginning to accept them. For Paolo, of course, this was all splendid, since he could hope to trade with the merchants of different nations who came to Constantinople.

The presence of Muslims in the greatest of Christian cities may have upset Hugh somewhat. Coming from a Europe where the crusading movement was still very active, he would have been deeply offended by the grand reception offered by the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I, to the Turkish sultan Kilidj Arslan II in 1162. The emperor, trying to nudge the sultan toward a lasting peace, prepared for him the best spectacles Constantinople could offer: an impressive reception in the throne room of the palace, magnificent banquets, a visit to the baths and the horse races, even a demonstration of the efficacy of Greek fire. The affair was to culminate with the entrance of the emperor and the sultan in the church of Haghia Sophia. Here, however, the patriarch balked, and did not allow the entry of a Muslim ruler into the greatest church of Byzantium. Hugh would have agreed wholeheartedly with the patriarch’s action, but the emperor’s intent would have been incomprehensible to him. Since at least 1095, that is, since his grandfather’s generation, the fighting men of Europe had been nurtured on an idea of holy war against infidels which brooked no mercy and allowed no accommodation. He simply could not have understood how reasons of state might move a Christian sovereign to make peace with Muslims, let alone entertain a Muslim prince. Yet this was a time-honored aspect of Byzantine diplomacy; even soldier-emperors like the ruling dynasty of the Comneni preferred to win wars rather than battles, and the more peaceful the means of doing so, the better. Did Hugh mutter under his breath what his countrymen who had gone on the Second Crusade a few years earlier had said out loud? Did he mutter, “treachery”? If so, he too was the victim of a major misunderstanding between Western Europeans and Byzantines, a misunderstanding whose causes ran deep, since they resulted from different concepts of state, war, and religion.

*About the author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angeliki_Laiou


NovoScriptorium: We encourage the interested reader to study the following, relative to our subject, papers:




Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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