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Exhibiting Byzantium: hree case

studies in the display and reception of
Byzantine art, 19972008
Isabel Kimmelfield

rom 330 to 1453, what we now call the Byzantine Empire ruled over a luctuating region from the capital city of Constantinople, today the Turkish city
of Istanbul. he Byzantines called themselves Romans (Rhomaoi in Greek), and
considered their empire to be a continuation of the Roman Empire. Yet, in the centuries that followed, as a concept of Europe and European heritage developed,
Rome became a key part of this heritage, while Byzantium did not. It remained
other, exotic, not quite Europe. Although the hostility exhibited by Edward Gibbon and others in the eighteenth century gave way to an increased interest in the
nineteenth century in medieval art and culture, Byzantium continued to remain
something of an outsider, never quite itting into European historical or art historical canons.1 Averil Cameron has discussed how this problematic it of Byzantium
into traditional narratives has led to the absence of Byzantium from contemporary
European political and cultural discourse, making it diicult to see how to it Byzantium into a modern concept of Europe and its heritage, even when it is desired.2
Yet, despite these challenges, recent decades have nonetheless seen eforts to address and to rectify this state of afairs and it is this changing modern perception
and presentation of Byzantium that I wish to explore. What is the meaning of Byzantium today? What is asked and expected of it? In particular, what role or roles
does it have in modern Western Europe and the USA cultures and regions far beyond either the chronological or geographic limits of the Byzantine Empire? hese
are very broad questions, and so I will explore them by considering in particular
the reception and meanings of the tangible remains of this empire its art and
artefacts as they are displayed in museums in modern Western Europe and the
USA. By presenting case studies of three recent exhibitions of Byzantine art held in
New York and London between 1997 and 2008, I hope to demonstrate some of the
1 For a discussion of Edward Gibbon and Byzantium, see Runciman 1976. Art historian Robert S. Nelson
explores the ongoing challenges to placing Byzantium within the traditional canon of European art history
in his article, Nelson 1996.
2 Cameron 2008.

2014 Isabel Kimmelfield
Ingela Nilsson & Paul Stephenson (ed.), Wanted: Byzantium. The Desire for a Lost Empire.
Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia 15. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet 2014, 275286


Isabel Kimmelfield

issues that are raised in modern exhibitions of Byzantine art in cultures and nations
beyond the reach of former Byzantine lands, and the variety of meanings and uses
this ancient empire holds today.
Scholarly Context
Some broad trends can be observed regarding the place of Byzantium in European
culture and history as presented to the public in recent years. he most signiicant shit is an emphasis away from older narratives of Byzantium, which presented
it variously as Christian in contrast to Islam, as an Eastern Other in contrast to
the Latin West, or as an inluence on the culture of Southern Europe, particularly Greece and Southern Slavic nations. Instead, Byzantium has increasingly been
presented as part of a broader Mediterranean culture, notably in association with
Islam. his change has in part been precipitated by developments in the academic
study of Byzantium, which have seen the increasing use of the term late antique to
deine periods previously separated both chronologically (early Christianity as opposed to medieval Byzantium) and geographically (separating the Latin West from
the Byzantine East, and both of these in turn from the Islamic world). Although
this historiographical trend began slightly earlier, it was Peter Browns inluential
book, he World of Late Antiquity, published in 1971, that served to popularise
both the term and concept of late antiquity. Since then, the concept has been embraced by numerous scholars (albeit with diferent deinitions), such that we can
now see this extended time and space of late antiquity encompassing periods as
late as CE 800 or even 1000, and regions as far-lung as Western Europe, North
Africa, Arabia, Persia, and even Afghanistan. his new presentation of Byzantium
within the world of late antiquity was evident, for instance, in a 2012 exhibition at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which was titled Byzantium and
Islam: Age of Transition, and treated the period 700900. Among the many consequences of this new approach to periodization, geography, and terminology has
been an increasing emphasis on the cultural history of the period over the political,
economic treatments oten seen in earlier historiography.3 his has led in turn to a
strong interest in the material culture of the period, a development that lends itself
to exhibitions of art and artefacts.4
3 Cameron 2002, 171. Cameron presents the long late antiquity and its various elements as characteristic products of the late twentieth century, illustrative of the manner in which the needs, concerns, and
ideologies of the present inluence the ways historians approach and interpret the past. Cameron, 2002, p.
4 Cameron 2002, 185. he impact of this new historiography on museums is evident in the staging in
New York of a large exhibition of Byzantine art, he Age of Spirituality, only six years ater the publication of
Browns book. his exhibition relected Browns emphasis on the period as one of increased religiosity and
spirituality, and sought to demonstrate this development through the art of the period. Kurt Weitzmann,
Introduction, in Weitzmann 1979, xxi.

Exhibiting Byzantium


But despite these developments, Byzantium and its contribution to Europes

cultural history still have yet to be fully explored, and it remains a somewhat mysterious, unknown, and exotic entity to many in Western Europe and the USA. Yet
vast numbers of Byzantine antiquities reside in collections across these regions, others are in private hands, and still more are displayed frequently in larger and smaller exhibitions. his indicates that both the potential for and interest in a greater
understanding and appreciation of Byzantiums role in Europe already exist, but in
what ways does this interest manifest itself ? What approaches are museums taking
to address this interest; what are the challenges to such eforts; what expectations
do visitors to these exhibitions have; and is there a diference in how Byzantium is
perceived and portrayed in Europe as compared to the USA?
As an approach to answering these questions, I will now ofer a brief consideration of two recent blockbuster exhibitions of Byzantine art and artefacts held at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and ofer as a comparison a 2008
exhibition held in London at the Royal Academy.

Case Study 1 The Glory of Byzantium, 1997

he Glory of Byzantium, was staged in New York in 1997. It was conceived in one
sense as a sequel to an exhibition held twenty years earlier at the Met, titled Age of
Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, hird to Seventh Century, which
embraced the early period of Byzantium. he 1997 exhibition took 843 the oicial end of Byzantine Iconoclasm as its starting point, and 1261 the end of Latin
occupation of Constantinople as its end date, thus covering the middle period
of Byzantium. In the Directors Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Philippe de
Montebello stated that this exhibition, like its predecessor, was intended to be a
didactic exhibition of the highest quality; a combination of the beauty of the relatively unfamiliar with the intellectual revelation of an extraordinary era.5
he exhibition was a great success, with 460,864 visitors (the third-highest
number of visitors at any exhibition world-wide in 1997, exceeded only by an exhibition on Picasso in Washington D.C. and one on Renoir in Chicago).6 It also
drew numerous favourable reviews both in general publications like he New York
Times, in specialist periodicals such as the Burlington Magazine, and academic publications including Gesta, and Speculum.7 hus, it succeeded in appealing to both
popular and academic audiences, and the large and lavishly-illustrated catalogue
with its essays written by leading scholars in the ield has come to be seen as a key
survey of the contemporary state of knowledge of middle Byzantine art.8 he scale
5 Philippe de Montebello, Directors Foreword, in Glory of Byzantium 1997, xiii.
6 Dobrzynski 1998.
7 Buckton 1997; Pace and von Falkenhausen 1998; Buckton 1998.
8 Eastmond 2010, 313.


Isabel Kimmelfield

and popularity of this exhibition is striking, particularly given the relative unfamiliarity of its subject matter to many Western visitors notably in comparison to the
exhibitions of works by Picasso and Renoir.
Some of this interest is accounted for by the particular marketing method used
by the Met for this exhibition. his approach, known as ethnic marketing, also
indicates the way in which the museum conceived of the meaning of this exhibition
both in the New York area, and to visitors from around the country and abroad.
In part, the choice to employ this approach can be seen as a commercial decision,
given the fact that the Met had employed this method a year earlier for their Splendors of Imperial China exhibition, which had the highest number of visitors at any
exhibition worldwide in 1996.9 But the fact that the Met once again chose to do
this with the Byzantium exhibition, targeting ethnic groups usually not aimed at by
even the most sophisticated commercial ethnic marketers, also relects a conscious
choice to present the subject matter of the exhibition as the cultural heritage of particular ethnic groups living today in the USA, rather than exclusively as the subject
of academic study or aesthetic admiration.
In the course of the marketing campaign, the museums advertising agency canvassed members of the Armenian, Greek, Russian, and Ukrainian communities in
the city. From this study, the museum selected several specialized publications in
which to advertise, such as the Greek-American paper, he National Herald and
he Armenian Mirror-Spectator, and purchased air-time on Greek and Russian
radio stations in the New York metropolitan area. his advertising campaign was
further tailored to each targeted ethnic group through the images selected for each
publication. For Greeks, these advertisements showed a mosaic of St Andrew from
the Archaeological Museum in Serres, Greece. For Ukrainians, they depicted a mosaic of he Deacon Stephen from the Kiev Architectural Conservation Area. For
Russians, they showed an image of St Luke in an illuminated manuscript from the
Russian National Library in St Petersburg. And for Armenians, they featured an
illuminated page from the Zytun Gospels produced in Armenia in the thirteenth
century.10 In this way, the links between medieval Eastern Christian art and modern national and cultural identities were clearly demonstrated, acknowledged, and
even encouraged within this exhibition.
Besides relecting modern ethnic identities and their heritage, the show was also
seen by some observers as responding to broader contemporary political and cultural issues and debates, in large part due to the unfamiliarity of its subject matter
to those in Western Europe and the USA. In March 1997, while the Glory of Byzantium was still on display at the Met, Karl E. Meyer wrote an editorial in he New
9 Halter 2000, 130131.
10 Collins April 10, 1997; Collins July 10, 1997. Collins also notes that this campaign, costing an estimated
$200,000, was the Mets most ambitious foray into ethnic marketing, a rarity coming from a cultural institution.

Exhibiting Byzantium


York Times in which he noted the fascinating political subtext of this exhibition.11
Meyer framed this subtext within ongoing questions regarding the concepts of a
clash of civilizations and the West and the Rest. He suggested that this art of a
defunct empire was not politically inert, but rather provided (mostly Western)
visitors with an encounter with a civilization that belongs to the Rest, allowing
them to appreciate that Western models have not been universal in past and are
not now. his interpretation of the show emphasizes the otherness of Byzantium,
relecting its absence from Europe and concepts of Europeanness, in the manner
described by Averil Cameron. his places Byzantium much more irmly within the
conceptual framework that links it with Islam (as highlighted in the 2012 Met exhibition), rather than one that would seek to associate it with a modern Europe
now expanding to include southern, Orthodox nations with Byzantine heritage.
Paired with the ethnic marketing campaign, Meyers interpretation indicates that
the show had multiple aims and was received in multiple ways, depending in part
upon the expectations, interests, and attitudes of its viewers.
Other political implications of and potential challenges to the show were
highlighted only two years later when another exhibition, this one planned to be
held at the Walters Art Gallery (now Museum) in Baltimore, on medieval Georgian art, was cancelled due to protests in Georgia. he Mets 1997 loans from Georgia had been secured only with great diiculty, and in 1999, dissenters declared
that the objects to be sent on loan were part of the national patrimony and should
not leave the country. his time they achieved their goal when the Patriarch of
the Georgian Orthodox Church agreed with their claims, stating that the objects
would lose their holiness if they let Georgia. Gary Vikan, director of the Walters,
expressed his regret at this turn of events, saying, Georgia is a wonderful place and
this was an opportunity for them to become part of the Western world. 12 Besides
introducing Americans to Georgian art, this exhibition was also intended by the
Georgian government to raise the nations proile in the West, encouraging foreign
investment. his incident relects both eforts to integrate previously divided concepts of Western and other cultures, and also the anxiety such eforts can evoke
regarding the potential for dilution or loss of cultural heritage and identity. hus,
the overlapping nature of cultural, religious, and national identities and political,
economic concerns is evident within the conception and delivery of exhibitions
like those held at the Met and elsewhere.
Case Study 2 Byzantium: Faith and Power, 2004
In the wake of the great success of he Glory of Byzantium, the Met proceeded to
mount two more large-scale exhibitions focusing on Byzantium: Byzantium: Faith
11 Meyer 1997.

12 Dobrzynski 1999.


Isabel Kimmelfield

and Power 12611557 (covering the late period of Byzantium) in 2004, and Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition in 2012. hey also undertook a renovation project
that culminated in the inauguration in 2000 of the new Mary and Michael Jaharis
Galleries for Byzantine Art.13 hese galleries occupy a central location in the museum, running on either side of and just behind the Grand Staircase that greets visitors as the enter the Met, a placement whose potentially meaningful implications
regarding the role of Byzantium in the story of art history was noted by reviewers
at the time.14
Comparing the 1997 and 2004 exhibitions, further examples may be seen of
the challenges of staging and presenting an exhibition of Byzantine art, due not
only to the complexity of the Byzantine Empire itself, but also how it is perceived
and received today. hese challenges include the political, national issues discussed
above, but also academic questions, like what is Byzantine art?, and the ever-present diiculty of pitching a blockbuster exhibition to a large and diverse audience
(both in background and familiarity with the subject matter). Antony Eastmond
considered the irst of these issues when he observed the change in the layouts of
the maps provided in the catalogues between the 1997 and 2004 exhibitions.15 he
irst one was more speciic in its labelling of diferent regions, indicating in large
type the areas deined as Byzantium, Islam, and the Latin West, while slightly
smaller type identiied Georgia, Armenia, Syria, and Egypt, among others. he
2004 map forewent any such regional labels in favour of city names alone. Eastmond notes that this relects the inherent problems in attempting to map out the
geographic contours of the Byzantine Empire, whose borders luctuated greatly
over its thousand-year life-span, much less the extent of its sphere of inluence. He
also notes modern political problems with such identifying labels for example,
the label Armenia sits over the site of the modern nation-state, but historically
Armenia covered a much larger area.
Such modern political considerations also inluenced the objects on display at
both the 1997 and 2004 exhibitions, as the various countries with Byzantine heritage choose to view this history in diferent ways. Eastmond ofers Armenia as an example: this country did not lend art to either the 1997 or the 2004 Met exhibitions,
preferring not to contribute to an exhibition that deined this art as part of a larger
13 he Jaharises have contributed to a number of similar projects. Besides contributing funds to the Met
galleries, they lent some items from their own collection and have endowed a Center for Byzantine Art and
Culture at the Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of heology in Brookline, Massachusetts (inaugurated in 2010). Inauguration of he Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture,
article cited from: website Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, October 3, 2010 <http://www.goarch.
org/news/maryjahariscenter-100310> (5 July 2013). Most recently, they funded the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art at the Art Institute in Chicago (opened 2013). Of
Gods and Glamour, article cited from: website Art Institute Chicago <
gods-and-glamour-mary-and-michael-jaharis-galleries-greek-roman-and-byzantine-art> (5 July 2013).
14 Smith 2000; Kramer 2000.
15 Eastmond 2010, 313314.

Exhibiting Byzantium


stylistic group of Byzantine art, rather than as exclusively Armenian.16 Bulgaria,

on the other hand, loaned to both, a choice that can be seen as relecting the desire
on the part of the nation to be seen as part of Europe and a European artistic tradition (Bulgaria was at that time a candidate nation for membership in the European
Curators must also consider how best to pitch such blockbuster exhibitions.
Helen C. Evans, who co-curated both he Glory of Byzantium and Byzantium:
Faith and Power, later recalled overhearing a visitor to he Glory of Byzantium
wandering through the exhibition asking Who are these Byzantines did they
live before or ater Christ? In an efort, then, to ofer something to all visitors, she
explained that she sought to present, at the lowest level, an exhibition that would
appeal visually to non-specialist visitors, perhaps inspiring them to pause to read
labels and learn more. At the same time, she also sought to ofer, at the highest
level, the opportunity to see both important and lesser-known works side by side,
to draw new conclusions.17
In light of such considerations, as well as the ethnic marketing campaigns introduced by the Met, two questions arise: for whom were these exhibitions staged?
And who actually visited them? he catalogues of both he Glory of Byzantium and
Byzantium Faith and Power include letters from the Patriarch of Constantinople,
giving his blessing to the undertaking.18 hese exhibitions thus irmly placed themselves in the context of the Orthodox Church and its heritage but how many
visitors to these exhibitions were Orthodox? How many came from or had relatives
in the countries whose art was deined by these exhibitions as Byzantine? How
did those with no personal connection to Orthodoxy or these nations perceive the
exhibition? Did they see it as a representation of an unknown culture; as an exploration of a reintegrated part of European cultural heritage; a glimpse into the
history of an unfamiliar religious tradition; a contribution to a multicultural efort
to engage with traditional others; or simply as an exhibition of beautiful pieces of
art and decorative objects?
Case Study 3 The Royal Academy 2008
In contrast to this highlighting of the issues regarding the connection between the
heritage of this ancient empire and modern national and religious concerns, the
Royal Academy took a very diferent approach to its own blockbuster exhibition
16 Eastmond 2010, 316. Eastmond also points out the theological complications concerning the identiication of Armenian (religious) art as Byzantine. Since the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451, whose canons
the Armenian Church never accepted, the Armenian Church has not been in communion with the Greek
and other Orthodox churches (although it still is viewed in Armenia as Orthodox). Since Byzantine art is
strongly deined by its religiosity, this is potentially a justiiable claim to diferentiation.
17 Gettinger, Saint-Laurent, and Steptoe 2009.
18 Glory of Byzantium 1997, vii; Byzantium. Faith and Power 2004, vi.


Isabel Kimmelfield

of Byzantine art, staged in 2008. Byzantium: 3301453 set itself the monumental
task of presenting the entirety of Byzantine history and cultural production to its
audience. his emphasis on the entirety if not the continuity of the Byzantine
Empire was intended to showcase the achievements and contribution of the Byzantines at all stages of their history, contrary to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
historians dismissive or condescending treatment of the empire. his exhibition
was portrayed as a landmark both within the catalogue (in its forewords) and in
newspaper reviews, as it was the irst comprehensive exhibition of Byzantine art
held in Britain in ity years (that is, since Masterpieces of Byzantine Art, shown at
the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at the Edinburgh International Festival in
1958). Given the great developments in the academic study of Byzantine art that
have taken place since the 1950s, it was felt that this exhibition had much ground
to cover, and many previous omissions and inaccuracies to address and correct. Indeed, co-curator Robin Cormack stated explicitly in an article published in he
Telegraph a week before the exhibition opened that the show was intended to rectify the damage done to European (and in particular British) perceptions of Byzantium by the work of Edward Gibbon and his successors, ofering a chance to think
again about Byzantium, and to look at what Gibbon ignored.19
his theme of restoring Byzantiums reputation, of presenting it as a sparkling
gem rather than as a dusty fossil, was repeated in numerous reviews in major British
newspapers. Several of these reviews also quoted or simply referenced W.B. Yeats
1926 poem, Sailing to Byzantium. None discussed this poem and its meanings at
any length, but rather referred to selected lines in a shorthand manner suggesting
that readers were expected to be familiar with at least its lyrical words, if not its
deeper meanings. Robin Blake, for instance, closed his review with this sentence
(having made no previous mention of Yeats poem): But I would defy anyone
not to relish the brilliant things, those made by the icon-painters and the golden
smithies of the Emperor.20 hese words were thus used to evoke in the minds of
readers (and potential visitors to the exhibition) the glittering beauty of the empire
and its treasures, to bring it alive and present it as a vivid, concrete world readers
could visit (or sail to) by attending the exhibition.21 Contributing this touristic
element of the exhibition, several of these newspapers, including he Telegraph, he
Independent, and he Financial Times used the exhibition as an inspiration for articles in their travel sections, promoting holidays to centres of Byzantine culture
and art, such as Istanbul and Ravenna.22 he Times of London even joined with the
Royal Academy to ofer its readers a chance to win a trip to Athens, indicating that

19 Cormack 2008.
20 Blake 2008.
21 Besides Blake, other reviewers to refer to Yeats include: Richard Dorment (Dorment 2008) and Jonathan Sumption (Sumption 2008).
22 Edwards 2008; Packe 2008; Norwich 2008.

Exhibiting Byzantium


this approach to presenting Byzantium was not developed solely by newspapers,

but was also promoted by the Royal Academy itself.23
However, the Royal Academy did not choose to employ any form of ethnic marketing. Cormack briely mentions in his article in the Telegraph certain parallels between Byzantium and elements of modern Europe, including its regional concepts
(Georgia and Ukraine were within the Byzantine world). But he does not go on
to elaborate on this theme, instead choosing to turn back to the empire itself and
demonstrate its richness and inventiveness in its own time, pace Gibbons narrative
of decline. hus the general tone of the catalogue forewords, Cormacks article, and
the various reviews of the exhibition suggest that it was advertised to and aimed at
the general British public a didactic exhibition, relatively free of any concerted
eforts to tap into contemporary issues regarding modern Orthodox culture and
ethnic identities. Few of the newspaper reviews made any mention of political, religious, or ethnic issues like those raised by the US exhibitions. Only one quoted
Cormack comparing Byzantiums linking of church and state to Putins Russia an
interesting point that emphasized the inluence of the Byzantine Empire and state
structures over its cultural, ethnic impact.24 Also, despite the presence in the exhibition of icons from the ancient Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine at Sinai
notable due to the diiculty of securing loans and the rarity of such objects leaving the monastery instead of a statement from the Patriarch of Constantinople,
the RA catalogue included forewords from political, rather than religious igures.
hese included its patron, Charles, Prince of Wales, and the then-prime ministers
of Britain and Greece. All emphasized previous omissions or misrepresentations
of Byzantine history in European history. Only the foreword of the Greek prime
minister, Kostas Karamanlis, made reference to some of the issues made so evident
in the US exhibitions, when he expressed his hope for a common future between
Eastern and Western Europe within the European Union, with Byzantium serving
to foster the common values that bring us together and allowing understanding
of the causes and the nature of our diferences.25
he very diferent issues raised by the US and British exhibitions are intriguing
and require more extensive research before potential explanations can be posited.
hey seem to suggest diferences arising due to the respective histories and cultural make-ups of the countries in question, with Britain home to relatively few
Orthodox Christians, while signiicant numbers have emigrated to America, with
strong communities existing in the New York area which actively retain their re23 Win a trip to Athens, he Times of London, 16 February, 2009, Section T2, Features, p. 2. It should be
noted that this special ofer did not appear until nearly ive months ater the exhibition opened (and only a
little over a month before it closed). his could indicate that this advertisement was thus a response on the
part of the museum to newspapers emphasis on travel and tourism, rather than a planned approach from
the outset.
24 Higgins 2008.
25 Kostas Karamanlis, Prime Ministers Forewords, in Byzantium. 3301453 2008, 11.


Isabel Kimmelfield

spective cultural, ethnic, and even national identities (as seen by the existence of
ethnic community media in which the Met was able to advertise). his is not to
say that Orthodox Christians did not visit the London exhibition, nor that the
exhibition itself was not aimed at an audience beyond Britain as well (Karamanlis foreword suggests a wider, European scope also underlay the exhibition), but
the degree to which this side of the exhibition was emphasized (or not) suggests a
very diferent set of aims behind the Royal Academys exhibition, even as it covered
similar ground artistically and chronologically to the exhibitions at the Met. his
demonstrates the diverse and powerful meanings Byzantium can be accorded and
evoke, and these meanings are very oten inluenced as much by the culture and
heritage of those observing and engaging with Byzantium in the present as with its
own historical existence and impact on its contemporary world.
Recent and upcoming exhibitions on early Christian and Byzantine art indicate
the enduring appeal of this art to both scholars and the broader public, and this
interest demands further examination to understand its origins and implications.
Recent political developments also make this study timely, as modern concepts of
Europe have expanded to include lands with a Byzantine, Orthodox heritage. his
is seen in the recent entry into the political body of the European Union of Cyprus
in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, Croatia in 2013, and the ongoing (and
controversial) candidacy of Turkey. Byzantium has thus come to the fore as a ield
on which to construct a common European history, and museums are looking
for ways to contribute to this efort, to overcome old narratives that depicted Byzantium primarily as a contrast to other cultures, and instead to integrate it into a
shared history of an increasingly culturally diverse modern Europe. he manner in
which they do this indicates not only the current place of Byzantium in popular
and academic perception, but also the manner in which contemporary cultural,
political, and religious lines of identity and heritage are drawn, maintained, and

Exhibiting Byzantium



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