Tomorrow, June 11 (which is May 29 on the Julian calendar) we remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) on May 29 in 1453, 560 years ago.
Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, the “Eye of the World”. Most historians regard Chrysaphes as the most prominent Byzantine musician of the 15th century. He was a singer, composer and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two Byzantine emperors, John VIII and Constantine XI. His surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of Byzantine singing in the late Palaiologan period. The Portland, Oregon-based Byzantine choral ensemble Cappella Romana sings this otherworldly lamentation. Here is a review of Cappella Romana’s performance of the lamentation by The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson.
One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western and Ottoman history.
While the city had declined in population, power and prestige to become a shadow of its former self, and was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them, its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.
With the death of the Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose citizens had simply called themselves ‘Romans’, whose official name was Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, the Roman Empire, or Ῥωμανία, ‘Romania’, came to an end after 1100 years. When one thinks of the city’s repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Persians, Arabs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, and finally the Ottomans, it is remarkable that, until its first sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences.
Byzantium synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural and philosophical legacy from classical Greece and the Hellenic kingdoms with that of Roman law, political theory and imperial government structure, preserving thousands of classical and legal texts which would have likely been lost in the West. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of many centuries of external pressure, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim expansion into Europe..
From an Orthodox perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity with a vast contribution in liturgical tradition, homiletics, theology, and phronema. The fall of the city profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the most powerful Muslim empire.
The Ottoman Turks finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century since they conquered most of Anatolia and expanded behind Constantinople into Thrace and the Balkans. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Byzantium, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Byzantine refugees poured into Italy.