Echos of an Empire


An idiophone is a musical instrument in which the sound is produced by the vibration of the instrument itself. The body of the instrument, mostly made out of wood, metal or stone, creates the sound by shaking, like the sistrum, or when striked one against one another, like the cymbals, or when hit with a non-vibrating object such as a hammer or a stick.

Up to now, research has verified the existence of seven different instruments that belong to this category. From the most to the least frequently observed, those instruments were: the cymbals; the crotales; the semantron; the sistrum; the oksivafon (a kind of metallophone); the tambourine with cymbals and the bell. Cymbals are often used in pairs and consist of thin, round metal plates. The preserved miniatures have revealed that the cymbals that were in use were of big or small diameter.

In various Byzantine miniatures depicting the Exodus 15:20 of Bible, Miriam is shown with a group of women, all dancing while some are playing the cymbals they hold in their hands. A good example comes from a manuscript preserved at the Library of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery. Dated to the 13th century, on the upper part of the miniature, each of the two female figures are playing a pair of hand cymbals.

A female dancer is holding a pair of finger cymbals in a 10th century miniature.

The crotales, that resemble castagnets, were made from wood or cane and were played in pairs. From the images we can identify that the performers were mostly women who held the crotales with their fingers and maintained a constant rhythm, in weddings and other festive occasions.

On a glazed ceramic plate from the 13th – 14th century, a dancer is shown playing crotales.

The semantron, made of wood or metal, is used in the liturgical practice of the Eastern Church and is mostly found in monasteries. It is rhythmically played using a small hammer and announces the beginning of religious duties. A visual example of the instrument can be found in the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, dated to the 14th century. The scene illustrates a musician playing the semantron, in the middle of the miniature.

The oksivafon resembles a modern metallophone. It was a round shaped instrument from metal or glass and was played with two sticks.