I take the Regular Members to Athens' Byzantine and Christian Museum in January when we all return from our holiday travels. To make the week that I return better, I have begun thinking about how I will present the museum over the past week. This winter the museum is hosting an exhibit of Georgios Lampakis early 20th century photographs from Thrace. Lampakis was among the founders of the Christian Archaeological Society and dedicated photographer who used his photos to document Byzantine and Post-Byzantine monuments and objects throughout Greece (his journals and photographs were published in first series of the Deltion of the Christian Archaeological Society which ran from 1892-1911). He was also instrumental in the establishment of the collection of Early Christian and Byzantine antiquities that would later form the core of the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens. Trained as theologian in Athens and an archaeologist in Germany, Lampakis blended ideas of European romanticism with Byzantine Orthodox theology to envision a Greek state that was historically and spiritually coterminus with the Church.
In 1902, he traveled through Thrace, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, to Constantinople documenting the Byzantine monuments there and in the capital. His photos from the towns of Ainos, Didymoteicho, Adrianople, and Constantinople capture not only the significant monuments in those place, some of which are now lost, but also the feeling of these early 20th century Ottoman Balkan towns with their narrow streets and low slung neighborhoods clustered around the tall domes of churches and the minarets mosques. (His photos of the Eastern Corinthia -- particularly the harbor at Kenchreai -- some of which were displayed at the relatively recent retrospective on the Byzantine and Christian Museums capture moments of a lost landscape.)
What was interesting to me was that Lampakis trip was sponsored in part by the Greek government and in part by the Christian Archaeological Society. His goal of documenting the Byzantine monuments was very similar to work of the Early Travelers in Greece who sought to document the remains of antiquity. The efforts of these travelers to inventory the antiquities (and in some cases the modern remains) of Greece were an aspect of the imperialist impulses that ultimately led to the appearance of the Greek state as an outpost of the West on the border of the Orient. With the establishment of the Greek State, Classical antiquities acquired tremendous importance as the physical validation of Greece's place among the Western nations and symbols of national identity.
By the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, the Byzantine past of Greece was given a seat at the able. Fueled perhaps in part by the growing cynicism toward the Western European interpretation of Greek history and the growing confidence of Greek intellectuals (particularly Konstantinos Paparregopoulos), Greece's Byzantine past came to the fore. Their interpretation of the Byzantine heritage of Greece, however, set its eyes not only on Byzantine monuments within the border of the Greek state, but those among the Greek communities of the Ottoman empire and especially in Constantinople. Lampakis efforts to photograph the monuments of Thrace and Constantinople was, like the early Western travelers to Greece, an effort to secure the place of these monuments in the revised narrative of Greek national history. This same impulse influenced the development of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, which even today intersperses Byzantine antiquities with images of the churches of Constantinople.
Ultimately the aspirations of some Greek intellectuals and politicians to unite the Greek communities of the Mediterranean in a single state ended in tragic results in 1922. The place of Byzantium in the Greek state's national identity has by then been secured and was developed brilliantly in the Byzantine Museum's first independent iteration under George A. Soteriou. While the recent changes at the Museum offers a somewhat different perspective on the Byzantine history of Greece, the photographs of Lampakis should serve as a good introduction to of the complex history of Byzantium in the formation of the Greek state.
I. Katsaridou and K. Biliouri, "Representing Byzantium: the Narratives of the Byzantine Past in Greek National Museums," http://www.ep.liu.se/ecp/022/016/index.html
D. Ricks and P. Magdalino, eds., Byzantium and the Modern Greek Identity. Aldershot: 1998.
Ο Κόσμος Του Βυζαντινού Μουσείου. Αθήνα 2004.