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Top 5 Byzantine history books for May

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This Thursday marks the 561st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. On May 29, 1453 the once impenetrable walls of the city were breached and a siege that lasted nearly two months finally ended. Several authors and historians throughout history have tried to piece together what happened on that fateful day, but there are still questions and mysteries that persist. Here are five books that tackle the history of Byzantium and the fall of Constantinople.

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“1453” by Roger Crowley furnishes the astonishingly brutal details of the actual siege and fall of Constantinople with about as little bias as possible. Both sides are given their due, the besieged and the besiegers, allowing for a generally balanced history. It would be too easy to characterize one side or the other as entirely good or evil. The reality of warfare is much more complicated.

“A Short History of Byzantium” by John Julius Norwich is a must read for anyone interested in the Byzantine Empire. The author has written a more detailed, three volume history of Byzantium, but this concise version is a wonderful introduction into the often brutally violent and rich history of the Eastern Roman Empire that carried on for over a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Without the tenacious efforts of Byzantine scholars, lawmakers, artists and intellectuals, civilization as we know it in the West would not exist.

“Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” by Helen C. Evans, editor, is a beautiful volume published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art full of artwork from the late Byzantine period. The essays bring the history of the time to life and help us appreciate the influence of Byzantium on a wide range of cultures through its art, manuscripts, jewelry and textiles. The icons, mosaics and paintings are remarkable works highlighting the faith and devotion of the people that would carry them through the fall of the empire and beyond.

“Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition” by Helen C. Evans, editor, is another volume from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition catalogue features works of art from the Mediterranean world, from Spain and North Africa, and as far east as China, to emphasize the influence of Byzantine art and culture on Islamic art from the 7th to the 9th centuries. The essays and illustrations provide unique insight into this time period and its history.

“Byzantium” by Stephen R. Lawhead is not strictly about the fall of Constantinople, but it is an entertaining historical novel set in Byzantium. The young monk Aidan travels from Ireland to Constantinople with a gift for the emperor and adventure ensues. The book is lengthy, about 900 pages, so be warned.

These books are all available online, at your favorite bookstores, and at your local library.

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