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Article review: “Turkey’s Continuing Siege: Rememebring the Fall of Constantinople”

In this generally excellent article republished via Pravmir (first published here by The Huffington Post) on the Fall of Constantinople’s extraordinary significance in Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Western history, as well as Greek and Turkish national identity, Dr Elizabeth H. Prodromou and Dr Alexandros K. Kyrou connect the legacy of May 29, 1453 to the continuing marginalization and persecution which Christians endure in Turkey.

The Middle East’s only republic to have a predominantly Muslim population while still adhering to an officially secular Constitution, Turkey has seen a period of increasing pressure on Christians as the currently embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling AKP party have sought for several years to realign Turkey, an emerging regional power, with neighboring Muslim countries. As a result, Erdoğan practices a kind of Islamist populism which selectively blends Turkish nationalism with a consciously Muslim identity and the occasional politically timed pan-Arabism quip.

Turkish PM Erdogan has recently expressed his support for the possible re-converting of Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya, Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία), currently open to the public as a museum, into an active mosque. Besides angering Christians worldwide, this affront to Istanbul's shrinking Greek Orthodox community based in the Phanar, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, would also mean the loss of significant revenue from tourists, especially many Christians, who visit Hagia Sophia ever year.

Turkish PM Erdogan has recently expressed his support for the possible re-converting of Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya, Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία), currently open to the public as a museum, into an active mosque. Besides angering Christians worldwide, this affront to Istanbul’s shrinking Greek Orthodox community based in the Phanar, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, would also mean the loss of significant revenue from tourists, especially many Christians, who visit Hagia Sophia ever year.

The authors of this piece are outstanding experts in the field of modern Turkish and Balkan politics, Eastern European history, and the status of the Orthodox Church in the Middle East and Southeast Europe. Dr. Prodromou is an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University where she serves as Co-Chair of the Southeastern Europe Study Group. She is also a retired US diplomat as the former Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Associate Professor of History at Salem State University, where he directs the Program in East European and Russian Studies and teaches on Byzantium, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire. 

The Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), official painter to the Doges of Venice, rendered this portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih ("the Conqueror").

The Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), official painter to the Doges of Venice, rendered this portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”).

I have studied Byzantine history both on my own and through my university for many years, and I have to respectfully disagree with two parts of this otherwise excellent summary of the lasting legacy of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and its relation to the ongoing difficulties which Christians face today in Erdogan’s Turkey. My objections are found in this paragraph here: 

“The erasure of Christians from Constantinople (located on the ancient city of Byzantion on the southernmost promontory of the European side of the Bosporus) is one of the tragedies of history. When the Ottomans began their 54-day siege of Constantinople, the city was still renowned throughout Europe for its size, wealth, and cosmopolitan sophistication. Even after the disintegrated Western Roman Empire had been resuscitated by Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire, the capital city of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire had a population numbering nearly one million, and was the repository of Medieval Europe’s art, ancient literature, and the birthplace of the hospital and the university. And long after the Christian Sees of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem had fallen to Arab Muslim armies moving westward through the Levant and the Holy Lands of Christianity’s origins, Constantinople stood as reminder that the epicenter of Christian theology and practice was in the eastern territories of the Roman Empire — only the See of Rome lay in western imperial lands. When the Great Schism split Christendom into the Greek Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West, Constantinople’s Christians were largely alone on the frontlines when the Ottoman Turks began their assault the city.”

1) “When the Ottomans began their 54-day siege of Constantinople, the city was still renowned throughout Europe for its size, wealth, and cosmopolitan sophistication”. (Emphasis mine).

Unless Drs. Prodromou and Kyrou use the word “size” here to refer to the sheer territorial extent of the city, which did cover a large area of the European side of the Bosporus, then it refers to the city’s population. Yet by 1453, the once-massive city had shrunk to a shell of its former metropolis-level population. By some contemporary accounts, Constantinople’s population had approached either half a million souls in the sixth century, reaching possibly as high as 800,000 in the twelfth (the city was never quite so large as Classical Old Rome with its over 1 million souls). By 1453, estimates from both Byzantine and Venetian sources put the total population of the city at figures as low as 40,000 souls. By then, Constantinople had been reduced to a veritable city-state in its actual territorial sovereignty, while still an Empire from a political theory perspective. When Mehmed II rose on horseback through the conquered Second Rome, he rode through what must have appeared to him a desolate landscape of burning settlements, small villages loosely connected by the ancient roads and viaducts which had once served as the arteries of the city in its heyday as a global metropolis.

Byzantine_Constantinople_eng

2) “When the Great Schism split Christendom into the Greek Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West, Constantinople’s Christians were largely alone on the frontlines when the Ottoman Turks began their assault the city.” 

I understand that this is a summary intended for a general readership, but I have two points with this sentence. Firstly, it is historically inaccurate to posit that “Constantinople’s Christians were largely alone when the Ottoman Turks began their assault on the city”. Out of a total defense force of  at most 6-7,000 men (according to almost all contemporary sources), a body of at least 700 Genoan and Venetian troops defended the city alongside the Byzantines, with many perishing alongside Emperor Constantine XI and some witnessing the city’s brutal three day sack.

This map in French gives an approximation of the Venetian and Genoan positions on the walls of Constantinople during their defense of the city alongside the Byzantines.

This map in French gives an approximation of the Venetian and Genoan positions on the walls of Constantinople during their defense of the city alongside the Byzantines.

Thus, the historical reality is that at least one-tenth of Constantinople’s defenders were mercenaries from the northern Italian mercantile city-states which had previously been great (and largely successful) rivals to the Byzantines, whose fortunes had reduced considerably after the Fourth Crusade ended with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The circumstances which caused the Fourth Crusade to end as it did are extremely complex, but what historians agree on is that Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice approved the sack against Pope Innocent III’s orders since the Venetian forces had not been paid what Emperor Alexios IV had promised them for their support against his rivals Alexios III and Isaac II, Alexios IV’s own father. So, while it is accurate to say that no Western kingdoms sent any substantive aid to assist the Second Rome (France and England were largely exhausted from fighting each other in the Hundred Years’ War, while Castile and Aragon were focused on the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the remaining Muslim city-states and were not yet united in personal union under Isabel I and Fernando II), it is misleading to say that “Constantinople’s Christians were largely alone” in 1453 when at least one-tenth of the city’s defenders were Catholic soldiers sworn to the capital’s defense.

The restored fourth century Theodosian Walls commissioned by St. Emperor Theodosius I (347-395, r. 379-395 as Byzantine Empire, from 392 over reunited West and East). Prior to the 1453 siege which involved the terrifying use of massive bombards (huge, cumbersome siege cannons) by Mehmed II's forces, these walls were believed to be impregnable.

The restored fourth century Theodosian Walls commissioned by St. Emperor Theodosius I (347-395, r. 379-395 as Byzantine Empire, from 392 over reunited West and East). Prior to the 1453 siege which involved the terrifying use of massive bombards (huge, cumbersome siege cannons) by Mehmed II’s forces, these walls were believed to be impregnable.

Secondly, when referring to the Great Schism of 1054, this sentence is very reductionist, in the sense that the Schism was an accident of political and ecclesiastical history which did not alter the ecclesiastical reality of intercommunion between the Churches of Old and New Rome for many years. 

In reality, historical evidence suggests that Western Christians under the sole Western patriarch, the Bishop of Rome, and those Eastern Christians living under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Patriarch of Constantinople continued to inter-commune following 1054. The Great Schism dated to that year only occurred because the two main protagonists, Cardinal Humbert, the papal legate to Constantinople, and Byzantine Patriarch Michael Cerularius (Greek: Keroularios) mutually antagonized each other, exchanging shared insults contrary to the spirit of Christian love and fraternity in which they were supposed to meet.

Hagia Sophia at night, as it appears today. Upon his conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque to symbolize the conquest of the ancient heart of Byzantine Christianity and Islam's superseding of Orthodox Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mehmed also took upon himself the title "Caesar of the Romans" (Ottoman Turkish: Kayser-i-Rûm), believing that the mantle of the Classical, then Christian Roman Empire which Byzantium had preserved for a millennium had fallen to him, the ruler of much of the Muslim world.  Mehmed's claim, rejected by the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Holy Roman Empire which both claimed to be the true successor to Constantine's city, rested with the concept that Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire, after the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in 330.

Hagia Sophia at night, as it appears today. Upon his conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque to symbolize the conquest of the ancient heart of Byzantine Christianity and Islam’s superseding of Orthodox Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mehmed also took upon himself the title “Caesar of the Romans” (Ottoman Turkish: Kayser-i-Rûm), believing that the mantle of the Classical, then Christian Roman Empire which Byzantium had preserved for a millennium had fallen to him, the ruler of much of the Muslim world. Mehmed’s claim, rejected by the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Holy Roman Empire which both claimed to be the true successor to Constantine’s city, rested with the concept that Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire, after the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in 330.


According to Roman canon law, Humbert had no authority to excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople unless specifically authorized by the Roman Pontiff, who never so authorized him. In fact, Leo IX, the Pope who had sent Cardinal Humbert to treat with Patriarch Michael, was dead at the moment Humbert laid the bull upon the altar of Hagia Sophia to the horror of the assembled clergy, Eastern and Western. Thus, from the perspective of the Roman canons, a papal legate to a dead Pope has no authority to issue any previously signed bull of excommunication from that pope (never mind that Leo had never drawn up a bull or authorized Humbert to do this).

Looking toward the eastern apse which rises above where the altar and silver iconostasis once stood, you can see the architecturally odd arrangement left in the wake of Mehmed's conversion of the Orthodox temple into a mosque. Mehmed had the magnificent Byzantine frescoes painted over (fortunately he did not have them destroyed) and ordered four pendants bearing the name of the first four Muslim caliphs (political and spiritual leaders of the Ummah, the Muslim community) recognized in the Sunni tradition erected to hang over the nave.

Looking toward the eastern apse which rises above where the altar and silver iconostasis once stood, you can see the architecturally odd arrangement left in the wake of Mehmed’s conversion of the Orthodox temple into a mosque. Mehmed had the magnificent Byzantine frescoes painted over (fortunately he did not have them destroyed) and ordered four pendants bearing the name of the first four Muslim caliphs (political and spiritual leaders of the Ummah, the Muslim community) recognized in the Sunni tradition erected to hang over the nave.


On Mehmed II's orders, the Christian altar was removed and in its place a mihrab erected. This niche in the wall indicates the qibla, the direction toward the Kaaba in Mecca. As you can see, this is obviously aesthetically off-center, as the building was clearly designed to face cardinally east.

On Mehmed II’s orders, the Christian altar was removed and in its place a mihrab erected. This niche in the wall indicates the qibla, the direction toward the Kaaba in Mecca. As you can see, this is obviously aesthetically off-center, as the building was clearly designed to face cardinally east.

Guillaume Dufay’s magnificent Lamentation for Constantinople

Video

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.

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.

This video here is a profound and beautiful example of the Roman Church’s horror over the fall of the city which had been the Byzantine capital and heir to the Roman Empire for over a millennium. At Pope Nicholas V’s urging, the brilliant Franco-Flemish choralist Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), leading composer in the Burgundian School, composed this magnificent early Renaissance motet in 1454. Pope Nicholas invited many Greek refugees from Constantinople to Rome, where he hoped to add their intellectual luster and their accumulated theological, historical, literary and artistic works to the splendor of Old Rome. Unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the squabbling northern Italian city-states to unite in a common cause to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans, Nicholas V died in 1455, acknowledging that his papacy would be forever marred in history as that during which Nova Roma, the Queen City of Christendom, fell.

Guillaume Dufay with Gilles Binchois.

Guillaume Dufay with Gilles Binchois.

Dufay modeled his ethereal dirge, “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae” (the Lament of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople) from a part of the Book of Lamentations on the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Here are the song’s lyrics in Middle French, with translation into English below:

O tres piteulx de tout espoir fontaine,
Pere du filz dont suis mere esplorée,
Plaindre me viens a ta court souveraine,
De ta puissance et de nature humaine,
Qui ont souffert telle durté villaine
Faire à mon filz, qui tant m’a hounourée.

Dont suis de bien et de joye separée,
Sans qui vivant veule entendre mes plaints.
A toy, seul Dieu, du forfait me complains,
Du gref tourment et douloureulx oultrage,
Que voy souffrir au plus bel des humains.
Sans nul confort de tout humain lignage.

Translated into English:
“O most merciful fount of all hope,
Father of the son whose weeping mother I am:
I come to complain before your sovereign court,
about your power and about human nature,
which have allowed such grievous harm
to be done to my son, who has honored me so much.

For that I am bereft of all good and joy,
without anyone alive to hear my laments.
To you, the only God, I submit my complaints,
about the grievous torment and sorrowful outrage,
which I see the most beautiful of men suffer
without any comfort for the whole human race.”

Disclaimer: I highly encourage you to disregard the text which accompanies this video. While some of it is accurate, a good deal of it is absurdly polemical. I chose this video of Dufay’s “Lamentatio” in preference to the other three I found for its inclusions of a series of famous portraits and paintings of the siege and fall of the City. In no ways do I endorse the description which “Petrus Josephus”, the anonymous poster of this otherwise beautiful YouTube video, uses to apply to all Muslims in his text. “Petrus” refers to the Ottomans as “heathen Turks” and refers to all Muslims as “abominable mohammedans”. This is an antiquated and inaccurate term rooted in an initially widespread misunderstanding of Islamic theology (the word “mohammedan” itself implies a worship of Muhammad which Muslims categorically reject). Later in his video, “Petrus” refers to “the virus of Islam” as an “onslaught” which “has never been stopped” in “Europe and her colonies”. Besides the obvious reality that most of Europe is not Muslim, “Petrus”, an ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholic whose “About” page contains references to the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), would do well to read more about the resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe and its growth in Germany, France and Britain.

Please find the other two YouTube videos I found of Dufay’s “Lamentatio” here, performed by the renowned Hilliard Ensemble, a British male quartet specializing in Medieval and Renaissance music, and here.