The growing number of leaders around the world wanting to turn their countries into stagnant ponds filled with frightened xenophobes should take a careful look at two of the two of the longest-lived empires the world has ever seen. They would learn that one of the main reasons for the 1,600-year collective longevity of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires in what was then, as now, a very troubled part of the world was their willingness to incorporate outsiders into the very fabric of the empire.
Unlike today’s leaders they saw the value, the necessity, of bringing fresh ideas, different experiences into the empire. Not for them the narrow-minded fear of ‘Johnny foreigner.’
The Byzantine Empire lasted about 1,000 years from the mid-4th century AD to the mid-15th century. During that time, it was surrounded by threats on all sides such as Persians, Avars, Russians, Bulgars, Latins, Visogoths, Arabs, Mongols, Turkic tribes, and finally the Ottoman Turks. The Byzantines are too easily dismissed in much of today’s history books as effete, unreliable, and more obsessed with bloody palace intrigue than true statesmanship. That simplistic characterization obscures their ability to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances. The 1,000-year run didn’t happen by chance alone.
|Byzantine Emperors Justinian and Constantine presenting Haghia Sophia and city to the Virgin Mary|
When strong enough, resort to military measures. When weaker, resort to diplomacy and what we call today ‘soft power.’ Compared to much of the rest of the region the Byzantine Empire, more particularly the glories of Constantinople, was so splendid that many foreigner rulers were gladly co-opted into that splendour and, in some cases, the Orthodox faith. The period was highlighted by strategic inter-marriages, alliances, financial tribute, trading privileges and much more. Jonathan Harris put it very nicely in his recent book The Lost World of Byzantium.
“Thus if Byzantium has one outstanding legacy it is not perhaps Orthodox Christianity or its preservation of classical Greek literature. Rather it is the lesson that the strength of a society lies in its ability to adapt and incorporate outsiders in even the most adverse circumstances.”
The Byzantine Empire finally and totally collapsed one spring day in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks succeeded where so many others had failed and breached the formidable walls that had protected Constantinople since the 5th century. The Byzantine Empire may have disappeared as a political and military entity, but the early Ottoman leaders were smart enough to maintain the essential characteristics of religious tolerance and using talent wherever they found it. Far from being frightened by religious or ethnic diversity these Moslem leaders valued the strength that diversity gave the Empire.
In a new book, Aleppo, The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel recounts some advice that Suleyman the Magnificent gave to his council that was considering expelling Jews from the province in the mid-16th century.
“The more sorts of nations I have in my dominion under me as Turks, Moors, Grecians, etc. the greater the authority they bring to my kingdoms and make them more famous. And that nothing may fall off from my greatness, I think it convenient that all that have been together long hitherto, may be kept and tolerated so still for the future.”
The Jews stayed put in Aleppo and continued to contribute to Suleyman’s greatness. It is no coincidence that the ultimate decline of the Ottoman Empire was hastened when its rulers ignored Suleyman’s advice on the value of diversity. The greatest of Ottoman sultans must be looking on modern Turkey with great despair as the current rulers do their best to eradicate all traces of that tolerance and diversity.
But Turkey is far from being alone in its headlong retreat from those two values. One need only to look at some of the countries in the European Union where walls and barbed wire have replaced Welcome signs. And then there’s Donald Trump in the United States. He not only has pledged to build a gigantic wall along the Mexican border but to expel more than 10 million immigrants now living in the U.S. The famous Statue of Liberty must be blushing at the thought of that happening.
The shameful immigration ‘debate’ in Britain is so far a debate without any facts or even a real discussion. The anti-immigrant rantings of UKIP and many Tory members of parliament are taken at face value without a shred of proof that foreigners – specifically those from the European Union -- are taking over the country. The actual, official, numbers on immigration into Britain tell quite a different story – one that demonstrates clearly that crust-less watercress sandwiches and tea are not about to be replaced by kielbasa and vodka. But bringing this reality into the debate would require an act of statesmanship and political courage – two qualities completely lacking in the entire Brexit discussion up to now. Those two long-gone empires have a great deal to teach modern politicians.