When East meets West in a constructive mood: The Empress Theophano Prize goes to the United Nations in 2023

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


The humanitarian role of multilateral institutions, this is what the United Nations was honoured for – in the person of Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres – with the Pan-European Prize Empress Theophano.

Founded in 2020, to reward “individuals or organisations who make an outstanding contribution to bridging Europe’s historic diversities”, the prize is awarded annually on the first Saturday after the first of November (this year round protocol was breached due to the fraught situation the U.N. finds itself in: for the same reason the Theophano Prize was received by Miguel Angel Moratinos, Under-Secretary General of the UN on behalf of Gutterres) at the historic building of the Grand Rotunda of Thessaloniki; both the monument and the city (the second-largest of the Byzantine Empire) testify to the multiple influences on the making of Europe: Roman, Byzantine, Orthodox, Jewish, Ottoman and Greek.

Long-forgotten Byzantine princess Theophano married the Holy roman Emperor Otto II (known for extending German/Saxon rule and the Empire’s borders deep into Southern Italy but also for asserting imperial power over the Catholic Church) and was active in cultural and social endeavours of her time – the end of the 10th century.

In 2021, under Covid-19 conditions, the Empress Theophano Prize was awarded to Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the (Turkish-issue, German-based) scientists who worked on the mRNA Covid vaccine. In 2022, the Prize went to (Israeli-Argentinian) Daniel Barenboim, a major figure of the international music scene, for his multiple initiatives on issues of peace and understanding between peoples.

In 2020, the first-time winner of the Prize was ERASMUS, the student exchange Programme of the European Union, bestowed on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and marking “how the individual historic and cultural differentiations of Europe are part of a wider geographical and cultural unit, expressed by means of a common European identity”.

The 2023 prize means to assert the role of the United Nations in building bridges between nations and promote peace and international cooperation. Antonio Gutterres said that  “rays of hope can be seen behind today’s dark clouds”, so bridging the gaps, re-establishing relations and “getting back confidence among nations[…] with brave initiatives” constitute the main challenge of our times.

If one goes back just some days and recalls the increasingly desperate calls of Gutterres for some measure of self-restraint to be shown in the conflict underway in Gaza so as to spare lives of non-combatants, one wakes up to quite different a reality of our days…