BARI AND ST NICHOLAS:
A BRIDGE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
IN THE MIDDLE AGE
The city of Bari is mentioned several times by Latin Classics, but it was not until the Longobard conquest of VI-VIIth centuries after Christ (AD) that is reached a true relevance. Strangely enough, the city enters the historical scene only with the Muslim conquest of 841. The tragedy for its Christian population had however its positive impact, because the Muslims in Bari opened new commercial routes, for example with Egypt and especially with Syria.
Somehow the Muslims also instigated the first encounter between East and West, because, in order to re-conquer the city to the Christian World and avoid a permanent presence of Muslims in Southern Italy, a singular alliance between the Byzantine Emperor Basil I the Macedonian and the Western Emperor Ludovicus II the German was formed. The liberation took place in 871. After five years the Franks withdrew and the Byzantines took over Bari and Southern Italy, thereby creating the Thema or Province of Longobardia.
This political encounter was followed by the religious one. Under the Emperor Nicephorus II, probably in the year 968, Bari was chosen as the Catepan’s residence, and in this sense it was considered as the capital city of the Byzantine Province of Italy. In this same year, the first attempt on the part of the Byzantine Church to compel the population of the Italian peninsula under Byzantine rule and thus, to follow the Byzantine religious traditions and practices, was made. The attempt, however, failed and, in this land, Latin and Greek clergy continued living peacefully side by side. Indeed, no clashes occurred, as can be documented by the numerous parchments dating to that period, which can be found in the Archives of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas.
In the year 1054, however, the peace was broken when Michael Kerullarios, the Patriarch of Constantinople (today Istanbul) made a request to Argyros, duke of Italy and citizen of Bari, to introduce the Byzantine practices among the population. To this purpose, through the Bishop of Ochrid he pushed the Archbishop John of Trani to support the Byzantine traditions in Apulia against Argyros’ tolerance. Argyros refused, and in retaliation the Patriarch refused to grant him communion. The strange thing is that the two fought decidedly against each other, in spite of the fact that both had a common political interest in the war against the Normans who had invaded this Byzantine region. Their fight was the first step toward those reciprocal excommunications which historians took as the beginning of the great schism between Catholics and Orthodox, a tragedy that even today divides Christianity.
In 1071 Bari was conquered by the Normans, only a few years after other Normans had conquered England. Losing of political importance in the Middle Ages was often counterbalanced by a recovery in religious terms. The citizens of Bari organized the sacred theft which changed the course of their history. With the arrival of the relics of St Nicholas (1087), the city of Bari became even more famous than before. Hardly a chronicle of the times did not register the event, and from all over, people came to venerate the Saint who at that time was considered the number One in the East as well as in the West.
With the presence of the relics of Saint Nicholas in Bari, it was only natural that the greatest knights of the first Crusade stopped over in Bari in the month of October 1096 before sailing off to Constantinople or Jerusalem. It was also natural that pope Urban II in 1098 chose Bari as the host city of the Council which was to meet with the Greeks. Among the participants of the Council was the greatest thinker of the time: Saint Anselm of Canterbury. On the other hand, in the East, the Translation of the relics of St Nicholas was looked upon and interpreted in different ways. While the Greeks viewed the Translation as a personal loss, and therefore a sad event, the Russians sang joyfully and even instituted the liturgical feast of the arrival of the relics to Bari.
After the destruction of the city by the Norman king William the Bad in 1156 the city of Bari became known as St Nicholas’ Harbour, and from East and West pilgrims continued to come to visit his shrine. From the West, for example, Saint Bridget of Sweden came in 1366 and 1369. From Serbia numerous gifts arrived from the most important tsars Uroš II Milutin, Saint Stephen Uroš III Dečanski and Stephen Dušan. Pilgrims arrived from Russia, such as in 1459, when the monk Barlaam from Rostov the Great came to venerate the Saint.
Therefore, if Bari played an important role in the division of 1054, today, thanks to Saint Nicholas, it is acquiring an important role in the ecumenical movement. An Orthodox Chapel can be found in the Crypt of the Basilica where Christian Orthodox faithfuls can participate to the Liturgy every Sunday. Although there is a very beautiful Russian Orthodox Church in Bari, Russian Orthodox pilgrims come everyday to our Roman Catholic Basilica, given the primary role of St Nicholas among the Saints venerated by the Slavic populations.
If we consider that even Protestants, thanks to the figure of jolly old Saint Nicholas, better known to many as Santa Claus, look upon Saint Nicholas with affection and that even Muslims are glad to admire the decorations of the mosaic inspired to the monogram “Allah is Great”, found in our Basilica, it can really be said that the city of Bari is the ideal meeting place for people of different Christian confessions, and even different religions, races and cultures.