Jason Goodwin: ‘The envoys were plainly wrong, otherwise no one could have built the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle’

Our spectator columnist dwells on where wise men find beauty, from the Hagia Sophia to the the upper storey of Superdrug in Bridport.

One thousand years ago, when the Byzantines ruled high, wide and imperial at Constantinople, the pagan Prince Vladimir of the Rus sent envoys to each of the lands that bordered his own, with instructions to investigate their religious arrangements and beliefs. They went to the country of the Muslim Bulgars – settled around the Volga – and journeyed to Germany and the country of the Khazars.

On their return to Kiev, the envoys explained how they had met the Volga Bulgars in their mosques. They were smelly and morose and didn’t touch drink. ‘Drinking,’ Vladimir retorted, ‘is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.’

The envoys had met the Khazars and admired their synagogues, but considered the Jews to be losers because they’d lost Jerusalem. As for the Germans, they had churches enough, but their ceremonial lacked glory.

Turkey, Istanbul, Haghia Sophia Mosque interior

The interior of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

Only in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman empire in the East, were the envoys blown away. The Emperor welcomed them with honour and respect and himself led them into Hagia Sophia, where the Patriarch conducted the liturgy in the great domed church, perfumed with incense, full of shadows and mosaics, already as ancient as St Paul’s is to us now.

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The envoys’ reaction is recorded in the earliest Russian chronicle, compiled in Kiev in about 1113. ‘We did not know where we were, whether in Heaven or on Earth,’ they told their Prince. ‘For on Earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men. We cannot forget that beauty. Anyone who tastes something sweet will not afterwards accept that which is bitter. We cannot remain pagans any more.’

‘It was all so beautiful, I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see what I was doing. Crying. It moved me to tears’

Adopting the pursuit of beauty as a pillar of public policy, Vladimir and his boyars promptly converted to Orthodox Christianity. Five centuries later, when the Turks took Constantinople, one of Vladimir’s heirs married Sophia Palaiologina, the last Byzantine princess, and incorporated her double-headed eagle into their own coat of arms. Holy Russia was born.

I admire the envoys’ thinking, but they were plainly wrong about the bitter and the sweet. Otherwise, no one could have built, for instance, the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle, the upper storey of Superdrug in Bridport or the Walkie-Talkie in the City.

It isn’t as if we need more lessons. On a sunny December morning, birds chatter in the gorse, cattle graze the slopes.

A sunken track, flanked by leafless thorns battered and clipped by the salt wind and covered in red berries, leads to the village, graven into the chalk by generations of drovers and their flocks.

Sunset over beautiful rolling Devon countryside, Devon, England. Summer (June) 2013

Sunset over beautiful rolling countryside, Devon, England.

In a crinkle of the fields below the ridge, a cloud of seagulls takes off from a hidden lake. The hilltop chapel stands below me, above the village and the sea where water chutes descend from the clouds, lit by the rays of a wintry morning sun. ‘To make us love our country,’ Edmund Burke wrote, ‘our country ought to be lovely.’

Back at the car, there’s a man parked up beside me, pulling on his boots, and we get chatting about the dogs. ‘I remember working up on this hill, years ago,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘I was a student, and I had this young lad to help, and we were pulling in small bales. Weather a bit like today, with the sun on the sea.

‘It was all so beautiful, I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see what I was doing. Crying. It moved me to tears. I’ve never forgotten that.’