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Byzantine Lyra
Βυζαντινή Λύρα
Byzantine Lyra Museo Nazionale.jpg
Earliest known depiction of lyra in a Byzantine ivory casket (900 - 1100 AD). (Museo Nazionale, Florence)[1]
String instrument
Other names Byzantine lyra, lira, lūrā, Rum Kemençe, medieval fiddle, pear-shaped rebec
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 321.21-71
(Bowl lyre sounded by a bow)
Developed 9th century AD
Related instruments

The Byzantine lyra (Latin: lira, Greek: λύρα, Turkish: Rum Kemençe), or Byzantine lira was a medieval bowed string musical instrument in the Byzantine Empire and is an ancestor of most European bowed instruments, including the violin[2]. In its popular form the lyra was a pear-shaped instrument with three to five strings, held upright and played by stopping the strings from the side with fingernails. Remains of two actual examples of Byzantine lyras from the Middle ages have been found in excavasions at Novgorod [3]; one dated to 1190 AD [4]. The first known depiction of the instrument is on an Byzantine ivory casket (900 - 1100 AD), preserved in the Palazzo del Podesta in Florence (Museo Nazionale, Florence, Coll. Carrand, No.26) [1]. Versions of the lyra are still played in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Turkey; a notable example is the island of Crete, where the lyra is central to the traditional music of the island.



The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments he cited the lyra (lūrā) as the typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe) [5]. The lyra spread widely via the Byzantine trade routes that linked the three continents; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments [6]. In the meantime, the rabāb, the bowed string instrument of the Arabic world, was introduced to Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments such as the medieval rebec, the Scandinavian and Icelandic talharpa, and the Celtic crwth. A notable example is the Italian lira da braccio[6], a 15th-century bowed string instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin [2][7].


From the organological point of view, the Byzantine lyra is in fact an instrument belonging to the family of bowed lutes; however, the designation lyra (Greek: λύρα ~ lūrā, English: lyre) may constitute a terminological survival relating to the performing method of an ancient Greek instrument. The use of the term lyra for a bowed instrument was first recorded in the 9th century, probably as an application of the term lyre of the stringed musical instrument of classical antiquity to the new bowed string instrument. The Byzantine lyra is sometimes informally called a medieval fiddle, or a pear-shaped rebec, or a kemanche, terms that may be used today to refer to a general category of similar stringed instruments played with a horsehair bow.


The Byzantine lyra had rear tuning pegs set in a flat peg similarly to the medieval fiddle and unlike the rabāb and rebec. However, the strings were touched by the nails laterally and not pressed from above with the flesh of the finger such as in the violin. The lyra depicted on the Byzantine ivory casket of Museo Nazionale, Florence (900 - 1100 AD) has two strings and pear-shaped body with long and narrow neck. The soundboard is depicted without soundholes and as a distinct and attached piece, however this might be due to stylistic abstraction. The lyras of Novgorod (1190 AD) are closer morphologically to the present bowed lyras (see gallery): they were pear-shaped and 40 cm long; they had semi-circular soundholes and provision for three strings [4]. The middle string served as a drone while fingering the others by finger or fingernail alone, downwards or sidewards against the string, for there was no fingerboard to press them against: a method which gives the notes as clearly as the violin and remains normal in lyras both in Asia as well as on present bowed instruments in post-Byzantine regions such as the Cretan lyra [4].

In use today

The lyra of the Byzantine empire survives in many post-Byzantine regions until the present day even closely to its archetype form. Examples are the gadulka (Bulgarian: Гъдулка) in Bulgaria, the Calabrian Lira (Italian: Lira Calabrese) in Italy, the lyra (Greek: Λύρα) of Crete and the Dodecanese and the Classical Kemenche (Turkish: Armudî kemençe, Greek: Πολίτικη Λύρα) in Turkey.

Similarly to the lyras found at Novgorod, the Cretan lyra, the Gadulka, the Calabrian Lira and the lyras of Karpathos, Thrace and Olympos are manufactured from a single wood block (monoblock), sculpted into a pear-shaped body. The slightly rounded body of lyra is prolonged by a neck ending on the top in a block which is also pear-shaped or spherical. In that, are set the pegs facing and extending forward. The soundboard is also carved with a shallower arch and has two small semi-circular (D-shaped) soundholes. The Cretan lyra is probably the most widely used surviving form of the Byzantine lyra, except that in Crete instrument-making has been influenced by that of the violin. Currently, numerous models tend to integrate the shape of the scroll, the finger board and other morphology of some secondary characteristics of the violin.

The modern variants of the lyra are tuned in various ways: LA-RE-SO (by fifths) on the Cretan lyra; LA-RE-SO (SO is a perfect fourth higher than RE rather than a fifth lower) in Thrace and on Karpathos and the Dodecanese; LA-LA(an octave lower)–MI, in Drama; MI-SO-MI (a fourth and a fifth) on Gadulka; LA-RE-LA (a fifth and a fourth) on the Classical Kemenche.



  1. ^ a b Butler 2003
  2. ^ a b Grillet 1901, p. 29
  3. ^ The city Novgorod (or Holmgård) has been a major station on the trade route from the Baltics to Byzantium
  4. ^ a b c d Baines 1992, p. 109
  5. ^ Kartomi 1990, p. 124
  6. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica 2009
  7. ^ Arkenberg 2002




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