Friday, June 15, 2007

Would there be two Europes?

If the Byzantine Empire hadn't fallen to the Ottoman Turks? It's an interesting question and one that's not looked at very much. What we know as Europe, at least Western Europe, was created by a synthesis of late Roman culture and Roman Catholic religion with the cultural influences that the barbarians brought. The tribes that sacked Rome and had their rulers crowned Roman Emperors eventually assimilated the culture that they originally dominated. Some scholars, like Perry Anderson, author of "From Antiquity to Feudalism", locate the division between east and west in what tribes had a Roman influence and what tribes didn't. But that's too easy a distinction to make, first of all because a lot of what we think of as "Eastern Europe", i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and at least Croatia, were actually assimilated into Western Europe and were, until after the second World War, thought of as being part of the west, at least in Europe.

The other problem is that the Byzantine Empire was spreading its own culture, its own way of government, and its own religion at the same time, bringing the Romanians, the Bulgars, the Ukrainians, and the Russians into its cultural sphere. The reason why the ruler of Russia was called the Tsar is because that model of government was partially supplied by the Byzantine Empire, where the Emperor was referred to as the Caeser, which was actually pronounced "Chaisar". The Russians weren't the only ones to have a Tsar; the Bulgarians, who for a time had an empire in Southeast Europe, also referred to the ruler of their empire as the Tsar.

There was also cultural interchange in terms of philosophy going on between the Byzantine empire and the priests and monks of the Orthodox churches, although this is an obscure subject. What finally interrupted all of this was the conquest of the Byzantine empire by the Ottoman Turks. There were a lot of tensions before this, an obvious one being the increasing encirclement of the Byzantine Empire by peoples who had converted to Islam, but theoretically the influence could have extended and deepened, ultimately giving rise to a second Europe that could have been as culturally sophisticated as Western Europe. It would also have been much more multi-ethnic as a lot of the peoples living to the north of the black sea were recent invaders from the steppes. But, the Bulgars, who were part of this, were assimilated into Eastern Christianity much as the Hungarians, who also came out of this movement of peoples were assimilated into Catholicism and into the Holy Roman Empire.

Things to think about. One of the consequences of having a distinct, united, European cultural zone of the East like this is that it would provide an intermediate state between Western Europe and the Islamic lands of the middle east and central asia so that it would be easier to trace the continuum of cultures from the Islamic East to the West. This would be in contast to how it is now, where the perception is that there are very funamental cultural divides between western Europe and the Islamic east. That's not exactly how it is but the lack of any middle term makes it appear so for people living in the cultural sphere derived from Western Europe.

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