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Medieval Astoria

by Paul Halsall


halsall4.jpg (45712 bytes)Medieval New York is meant to make readers look around and see how the middle ages is interwoven with the physical, religious, and physical fabric of New York City. I happened to live in north west Queens, or Astoria, an area much more known for the situation comedy All in the Family than the middle ages!  When a New York Times reporter visited me recently, he noted wryly "there's not much medieval around Astoria". On this page page I shall prove him wrong!

First we might as well admit that there is a lot of undistinguished tract architecture in the neighborhood, but let's take a closer look...

[A map with all these spots highlighted is available.]



Astoria:  Community and the Name

halsall17.jpg (19253 bytes)The people who lived in Queens in the period of the European middle ages were Native Americans - Algonquians, Matinecocks, Jamecos, Rockaways.

Queens County was settled as farmland in the 1640s after the Dutch founded Flushing in 1637 - the name is an anglicization of the Dutch port of Vlissingen.

The village of Astoria was developed in 1839 by one Stephen Halsey, aided by the creation of a Ferry station at 92nd St in Manhattan. Bits and pieces of this antebellum Astoria still exist, colonaded mansions and all - go to 12th Street between 26th Avenue and Astoria Park South to look them over.

In 1870 all of western Queens was chartered as Long Island City, an entity that lasted until it was consumed by expanding New York City in 1898.

Until the eighteenth century the area now known as Astoria was known as Hallets Cove after the Englishman  William Hallett bought 1,500 acres along the shore from the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant in 1652. It was renamed in honor of the elder John Jacob Astor, who had his summer home here. (The house was where Washington Irving wrote his work on the fur tradel Astoria (online) [1836]).  Some residents wanted to call the area Sunswick, an Indian name, but Halsey persuaded them to change the the name in the hopes that Astor would donate money to the village's young ladies' seminary; he eventually sent $500.  

[ John Jacob Astor was born July 17, 1763 in  Walldorf, Germany and died, March 29, 1848, New York City. His wealth began in the fur trade, but he made real money in real estate. When he died he was richest man in the U.S., and left $400,000 for the founding of a public library, the Astor Library, later consolidated into the New York Public Library.]

None of this is especially medieval. But with some poetic license, there is a real medieval slant to the name Astoria.  After Visigothic Spain was conquered by the Muslims, a small sliver of territory remained in the north. This area was known as the Asturias [see Map] and it was from here that the gradual Christian "reconquest" of Spain took place. Even today the son of the King of Spain - the heir to the throne - is known as the Prince of the Asturias.


An Italian Campanile

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Campanile of Church of the
Immaculate Conception

Beginning in the northern part of Astoria, Ditmars Village, along Ditmars Boulevard is perhaps the most Greek part of Astoria. But its sightlines are dominated by the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception.

The church itself is not especially notable, but it has dramatic campanile which is worthy of note. The campanile, or bell-tower, is a feature of any number of medieval Italian ecclesiastical and muncipal structures.  Like its Italian prototypes, the Immaculate Conception campanile is built of brick, and has the characteristic widening of the upper part of the tower.




Greek Orthodox Cathedrals

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St. Markella's Cathedral

Astoria is far from exclusively a Greek enclave. Italians, Poles, Czechs, Ukranians have also long been part of the mix. These days they have been joined by Brazilians, Latin Americans from various hispanophone countries and a very significant Indian and Pakistani population. But the Greek association is real: the area has more Greeks than any urban area outside Athens; Greek food; Greek shop signs; and a variety of Greek newspapers are available everywhere.

It is its Hellenism which gives the area a number of real links with Byzantine (i.e. Medieval Greek) culture. This runs from visits by the Patriarch of Constantinople, to the variety of processions for Greek saints, or around the Easter ceremonies, which take over the streets.

Because of splits among the Greek Orthodox over the use of the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar, there are a number of Orthodox Catherals in the area. Two of these already have web pages on this site:

Although these two Orthodox groups were in schism, a reconciliation took place in May 1998 and St. Irene's became a "patriarchal and stavropegial monastery."

St. Markella of Chios, (Hellenic Orthodox Traditionalist Church of America: Holy Diocese of Astoria), 22-68 26th Street Astoria, N.Y. 11105 [offsite link] remains separate from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. The link is to its own website. Since that site does not have a picture of the church, I have provided one here. The church, which is still under construction, claims that it is modeled on the 14th-century St. Saviour in Chora in Constantinople.



A Modern Greek Orthodox Church
With a Dome Modeled on Hagia Sophia

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St. Catherine and St. George Church, 33rd St @ Ditmars.


The largest Orthodox church in the area is what appears at first sight to be the completely modern church of St. Catherine and St. George. But look at that domed roof. Its shape, not to mention the embedded windows, deliberately recall perhaps the most famous Byzantine church - the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

A Monophysite Congregation

In addition to the various Catholic and Orthodox religious buildings and paraphanalia, immigrant Arab Christians from Egypt (called Copts from an adaptation of the Greek word for "'Egyptians") have established a local congregation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This church, headed by the Patriarch of Alexandria, the only person other than the Bishop of Rome called "pope" (currently its Pope Shenouda III), descends from the theological conflicts of the fifth century when most Egyptian Christians split from Greek and Latin speaking Christians over the exact words used to describe the relationship of the human and divine in Christ.

This dispute, in which the Egyptian side, were called the "Monophysites" (a term that they do not like, but which is hard to ditch after 1500 years), so weakened Byzantine control in Egypt that the conquest of the country by Muslim forces around 640 CE was comparatively easy.



A Romanesque Church

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Most Precious Blood Church, 37th St. @ Broadway

At Most Precious Blood Church in Astoria, the special-language Mass schedule for Sunday really brings out the variety of the area - It reads: 10:45 Croatian; 12:30 Italian; 5:00 Filipino; 6:30 Brazilian.

The church building itself, however, is a slightly modified Romanesque structure - "Slightly modified" because there are a number of art deco elements in the decoration. The simple styling, the squat impact, and the castle-like bell-tower all make this a most pleasing church to visit..

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Moorish Detailing

halsall15.jpg (49211 bytes) Astoria has seen large increase in its Mulsim population in recent years. All over the place, small houses and storefronts are being used as mosques.

None of these building as yet is as striking as the major Manhattan Mosque on East 96th St. And none can compete with the various churches. Recently, however, the storefront Mosque on Steinway Street @ 25th Avenue carried out a major internal and external renovation. Its marble exterior and the "moorish" detailing of the doors and windows is meant to recall the glories of Islamic architecture. Unlike Christian art, which has always focused on representational images of Christ, the Blessedd Vrigin Mary and the saints, Muslim art has used pattern, shape and color to gain its effects.

Even in the busy shopping district of Steinway street - look closely, and the Medieval heritage is there.



And Finally....

A Statue of the Man who Ended the Middle Ages

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Christopher Columbus, Astoria Boulevard @ 31st Street.

Christopher Columbus' most well known statue in New York is of course at Columbus Circle, but he also has a statute just next to the Astoria Boulevard subway station.

By "discovering" America in 1492, Columbus began a process of globalization of Western European culture which marks as useful point to end the middle ages, and this tour.

 


References/Astoria Links:


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