Remembering the Fall of Constantinople and its legacy today

On May 29, Orthodox Christians worldwide remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”, 1432-1481, r. 1444-1446, 1451-1481) on that date in 1453, 565 years ago. Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, a survivor of the city’s brutal sack, the leading Greek choralist Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly moving, transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, which had once been referred to as “the Queen City of Christendom” and the “Eye of the World”.

Most musical historians regard Manuel Chrysaphes as the most prominent Constantinopolitan musician of the fifteenth century. He was a renowned singer, composer, and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two emperors of Constantinople, the brothers John VIII (1392-1448, r. 1425-1448) and Constantine XI Palaeologus (1405-1453, r. 1449-53). Chrysaphes’ surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of courtly singing in the late Palaiologan period.

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, Greek, Ottoman, European, Mediterranean, Christian, and Muslim history.

While the city had declined in population, power and prestige since the Fourth Crusaders’ renegade, errant sacking of it in 1204 to become a mere shadow of its former self—it was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient fifth century Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them—its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.

The lead-up to the city’s fall: hopes for Western aid, and failed attempts at Union with Rome to secure that aid

While the Catholics and Orthodox had acrimoniously split with the so-called Great Schism in 1054 (a date whose significance is more an anachronistic myth than a clean, neat reality of severed communion, which happened gradually over the following centuries), as the Ottomans continued to encircle Constantinople, tightening the noose ever-closer around the beleaguered city, several of the city’s emperors made overtures to the papacy in Rome. Several offered to accept the papal ecclesiastical claims to jurisdiction over the Patriarchate of Constantinople in exchange, they hoped, for vital, substantial military and financial aid given at papal directives from the kings and princes of Catholic Western Europe.

After Ottoman Sultan Murad II’s forces unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople itself in 1422, in the 1430s, the desperate Emperor John VIII—urgently trying to obtain more Western aid and papal support for a Crusade against the Ottomans to relieve his capital—went to Florence himself along with Patriarch Joseph II and most of the leading imperial court. Here, after extensive debate about the Filioque, azymes, papal supremacy, and several other theological issues, the Emperor accepted the Filioque and the papal claims of supremacy over the Eastern Churches, and ordered all his bishops to do likewise. This ‘unia’, or union with Rome, solemnized by the decree Laetentur Caeli of Pope Eugene IV, is particularly important in Russian history: the pro-union Metropolitan of Kiev and Moscow at the time, a Greek named Isidore, whom Emperor John VIII had appointed in 1437 to head the Orthodox Church in Rus over the objections of the Tsar, Vasily II, was made a cardinal and papal legate to Galicia and Russia. Isidore accepted the Unia, personally proclaiming it at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople before returning to Russia.

During his return journey to Moscow after the council had approved reunion, in 1440 Isidore issued an encyclical while in Budapest calling on all the Russian bishops to accept the union. Upon his arrival in Moscow at Pascha/Easter in 1441, the Metropolitan opened the Divine Liturgy at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskiy Sobor) carrying a Western-style Latin cross in front of the procession, and naming Pope Eugene IV in the diptychs commemorating all the Church hierarchs, proclaiming the new reunion with Rome by reading aloud the Pope’s decree solemnizing it. Most Orthodox clergy, the common people, and the Tsar rejected Isidore’s position, denouncing him as an apostate. Three days later, the embattled Unia-affirming Metropolitan was deposed for apostasy and imprisoned at the Chudov Monastery by a synod of six bishops irregularly convened by the Tsar. Vasily II and the Orthodox bishops swiftly elected Bishop Jonah to replace him.

Metropolitan Jonah of Kiev and all Rus, the last to use this title despite residing in Moscow, in 1448 declared the Russian Orthodox Church autocephalous without Constantinople’s approval, arguing, as ultimately the Old Believers would two centuries later, that Constantinople had lost its right to determine other Orthodox Church’s autocephaly due to its apostasy in reuniting itself to communion with Rome. The hapless Isidore of Kiev, rejected by the Russians as an apostate, escaped from prison in 1443, ultimately returning to Rome, where Pope Nicholas V appointed him as the papal envoy to Emperor Constantine XI in 1452. Isidore was present at the city’s siege and sack, serving at all the liturgies prior to its fall. His detachment of 200 papal guards, whom Pope Nicholas had sent with Isidore to defend Constantinople, died defending the city. Isidore himself barely escaped the sack with his life, abandoning his clerical vestments on the body of a dead boy before being enslaved with a host of the common Greek people of the city. He ultimately escaped slavery, returned to Rome, and was appointed to subsequently serve, nominally, as the Latin rite Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople until his death in 1463.

The 1431-1449 coterminous Council of Basel-Florence-Ferrara was the ultimately abortive, final imperial attempt at union with Rome, which Moscow and Constantinople’s citizens ultimately rejected under the influence of the sole dissenting Orthodox bishop present at Florence, St Mark, bishop of Ephesus. Usually referred to simply as the Council of Florence, where it met in the late 1430s after a plague outbreak obliged the delegates to remove from Ferrara, it failed to inspire Western kingdoms to make significant military and financial efforts to relieve Constantinople. Venice and Genoa, the two chief rival maritime northern Italian city-states, each had favorable trade treaties with the Ottomans and stood to lose much of their commerce with the Turks should they openly side with much-weakened Constantinople. Bitterness over the lack of substantive Western aid to defend Constantinople prior to 1453 remains a major point of contention among many Greek Orthodox to this day, while the Russian Orthodox Old Believers held that the city fell precisely due to its leaders’ acceptance of the union with Rome shortly before the Ottomans’ 1453 siege.

The siege itself: Titanic losses on both sides as Mehmed’s cannon and strategic calculations prove decisive

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This map in French gives an approximation of the Ottoman, Venetian and Genoese positions on the walls of Constantinople during their defense of the city alongside the (Byzantine) Greeks, who always considered themselves to be Romans.

Despite well-founded Greek outrage at the lack of promised Western military aid, when Sultan Mehmed II ultimately began the siege of the city in early April 1453, out of a mere 7,000 armed defenders, some 700 of them—a full ten percent of the defense—were a motley crew of Venetian and Genoese Catholic mercenaries financed, trained, and led by the famed Genoese captain, condotierro, and mercenary soldier Giovanni Giustiniani Longo (1418-1453). These men were willing to stand with Emperor Constantine XI (1405-1453) and the people of Constantinople to vigorously defend the city against the Sultan’s massive army of at least 80,000 (several other reliable sources estimate up to 100,000) Ottoman soldiers. The Ottoman forces were outfitted with the latest in gunpowder technology, and comprised both professional soldiers and feudal vassals’ conscripts from across the Ottoman possessions in Asia Minor, Thrace, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

As formidable as the Turkish army was—with the relentless forward-attacks and constant pounding of the city’s ancient Theodosian triple walls by their massive bombard cannons—the defenders and their allies held out for an astonishing 53 days. A man of deep military experience, Constantine XI had served as the chief imperial commander in the Peloponnesus and regent of Constantinople when his older brother John VIII had spent several years in the 1430s travelling throughout Western Europe desperately seeking military and financial aid. During this time, Constantine had undertaken much-needed structural repairs to the city’s outer wall and fosse (dry moat). Prior to the commencement of the siege, Constantine recalled and implemented a longstanding Byzantine military stratagem, and ingeniously blocked Mehmed’s access to the Golden Horn harbor to the less-defended north of the city with the use of a 700-yard-long iron chain. This freed up the Emperor’s limited supply of men to concentrate on defending the four miles of land walls on Constantinople’s western end, repair the great, triple walls as necessary amid the constant, day and night cannon bombardments and Ottoman mining attempts, sally out to repel attacks, and pray that vital additional assistance would come from Western European powers.

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A part of Constantine XI’s heavy iron chain that closed off the entrance to the Golden Horn in April 1453, now on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.

The defenders’ morale rose briefly when a contingent of four Genoese carracks managed to break through the Ottoman blockade of some 140 war galleys after a furious struggle, and enter the protected Golden Horn harbor with vital military supplies. The enraged Sultan ordered his chief admiral Hamza Bey’s impalement as punishment, but was moved to show clemency by the entreaty of his sailors and courtiers, who held that the admiral had fought bravely, even losing an eye in the fighting. Mehmed instead ‘mercifully’ stripped the admiral of his command and had him given a hundred lashes in public view, while impaling the surviving crew of one of the sunken Italian warships in full view of the disgusted defenders on the city walls. The Christians in turn responded by slaughtering their Turkish captives and hanging their bodies from the ramparts.

A brilliant military tactician, Mehmed managed to circumvent the problem of the huge defensive chain over the harbor—which was blocking his navy from bombarding Constantinople’s weaker northern seaside walls—by having his sailors dismantle many of his ships out of the water. He had several thousand Ottoman sailors drag and pull them on log rollers from the Double Columns harbor on the Bosporus north of the city, over the Galata/Pera valley by land, and into the Golden Horn west of the defensive chain and the small Christian fleet positioned there. Once in position, the city’s lower seaside walls were vulnerable to bombardment and landings, forcing Constantine to fatally weaken his concentrated defense of the land walls by sending some of his troops to man the lower, weaker sea walls overlooking the Golden Horn.

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One depiction of the Ottoman army’s relentless assault on the Theodosian land walls in April-May 1453.

While the Ottoman gun batteries on the northern shore of the Golden Horn exchanged fire with the small gun batteries of the defenders overlooking the inner harbor, and the Venetians and Genoese squabbled over how to attack the Ottoman fleet positioned in the harbor, the Emperor on the land walls constantly reviewed strategy with his chief commanders, inspected his troops and boosted morale, and fought side-by-side repelling numerous Ottoman frontal assaults on the walls. At Constantine’s directive, the city’s able-bodied citizens, including monks and nuns, constantly repaired breaches in the walls by night. The capital’s noncombatant women and children, meanwhile, prayed ceaselessly to God in the city’s hundreds of ancient churches, which in these perilous hours made no distinction between those clergy and laity who had accepted or rejected the unia with Rome. All hoped that, as she had so many times in the city’s history, the Theotokos would protect Constantinople and her people from this latest heathen attack.

After defeating many Ottoman mining and sapping attempts to undermine and collapse the outer land walls, and withstanding endless direct troop assaults on the walls alongside constant day and night artillery bombardments that rained massive stone cannonballs down on all sections of the land walls and outer city’s houses and churches, the defenders became increasingly exhausted. Fear of the spread of contagion gripped both besieger and besieged alike, but by early May, Constantinople’s already limited food rations began to run short. The besieging army, however, was also beginning to lose morale, as so many thousands of Turkish corpses piled up on the walls that the Ottomans were obliged to burn the bodies for fear of disease spreading. Along with the battle-hardened Emperor and his advisors, the young Sultan and his advisors knew that, with each passing day that the city had not been taken, the chance of a Hungarian relief army or a Venetian or Genoese naval force appearing on the western horizon increased.

As with all late medieval and early modern sieges, this one was a question of time and morale, of whose side gave in to disease, hunger, or impatience first. Defeat for Mehmed meant not only humiliation and the clear sign of Allah’s displeasure with him, but also likely rebellion and insurrection by his disgruntled soldiers who had suffered much and expected to reap the reward of three days of pillage once they took the city. Defeat for Constantine, having rejected Mehmed’s customary offer to surrender the city to him, or embrace Islam and vassal status, meant certain death along with most of his people. Religious faith and identity, so integral to the very cause of the conflict between the Byzantines and Turks, and before that the Byzantines and Arabs, played out in the opposing sides’ camps day by day. Both sides believed in the truth and reality of omen and auguries, both good and evil, and held that theirs was a holy cause, a just war ordained by God, and both sides’ clergy and soldiers alike despised the other as infidels, pagans, and heathens.

Before the walls of the city, in full view of the defenders, the Sunni Turkish imams sounded the azan, the Arabic call to prayer, five times daily, beginning the dawn (fajr) prayers before the Ottoman gunners commenced their artillery bombardments. Mehmed led daily dawn and evening prayers, visibly prostrating himself among his sheikhs, qazis, imams, generals, and princes on a silk rug facing the qibla, the direction toward Mecca’s Kaaba shrine, Islam’s holiest site. Acutely aware that his troops’ morale had been frustrated by high casualty rates and their lack of success so far at breaching the walls, the Sultan had his imams and qazis constantly make the rounds throughout the Ottoman camps by day and night. The Muslim prayer leaders exhorted the soldiers to endure to final victory, reminding the men of Muhammad’s prophecy that Allah would confer the highest blessings on the Muslim army that conquered Rum (Constantinople) for Dar al-Islam and the Ummah, but that, in so doing, one third of the Muslims would fail, one third gain martyrdom for Allah, and one third emerge victorious. Constantine likewise made a point to worship day and night, both in church and out in the open, alongside his men. The Emperor ordered constant processions of the city’s numerous ancient holy relics and icons to beseech God, the Theotokos, and all the saints for their aid, and ensured that the bells of the capital’s hundreds of ancient churches tolled night and day as the women, children, and elderly prayed ceaselessly along with the monks and nuns for divine deliverance.

The citizens’ once unshakable morale and redoubtable faith in the divine protection of their ancient capital, which had withstood dozens of sieges in the last millennium, finally plummeted several days before Mehmed II ordered the final attack. In addition to a partial lunar eclipse, which frightened besieger and besieged alike, the ancient, beloved Hodegetria icon of the Theotokos fell to the ground while being carried in a procession along the city’s land walls, horrifying the people of Constantinople. Exhausted by a month and a half of defending the city against tremendous odds, the citizens began to fear that God had finally forsaken them. Omens of old men and women who claimed to have seen the Holy Spirit of God departing from Hagia Sophia, so named after Him, further diminished morale among the exhausted defenders inclined toward superstition.

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Stamped, embossed, and gilded copper icon of the Theotokos Virgin and Child done in the Italo-Byzantine (Venetian) style, dating to the 12th century. The icon was found in the rood-loft of the Cathedral of Torcello in Venice. Inscribed in Greek: ‘Mother of God strengthen thy servant Philip the bishop’; the bishop has not been identified. The plaque was probably made for an altar.

Both sides spent Monday, May 28 in deep fasting and prayer, with Constantinople’s exhausted defenders finally flocking from most of the other churches to Hagia Sophia, which most of the anti-unionist populace had shunned since the proclamation of the union. Constantine XI, grand duke (Megadoux) Lukas Notaras, the chief Greek, Genoese, and Venetian generals, and all the bishops and priests of the city along with many of the faithful laity gathered bearing all of Constantinople’s vast array of wondrous and miracle-working icons and saints’ relics. As many as could fit into the great cathedral assembled for what was to be the final liturgy in Hagia Sophia as the imperial church, coming together for the solemn Feast of All Saints. In these moments, the pro-union and anti-union clergy and laity reconciled and concelebrated together on the eve of the city’s final defense. The Emperor received holy communion with the bishops and priests, and then, bowing down low before the high altar of the great church, he tearfully prostrated himself before God, imploring the Lord to show mercy on the city.

The Turkish camp bonfires at night lit up the entire landward horizon opposite the battered city walls, as the army of Muhammad shouted and danced with camel-skin drums, cymbals, and tambourines to loud, rhythmic cries of the dhikir (the 99 names of Allah in Arabic) and the Shahadah, “La-ilaha illa’lah, Muhammadun rasul-ullah” (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”).

The final assault: 1:30-6:00am, Tuesday, May 29, 1453

After praying for Allah to let the city fall to his armies, and again closely supervising his troops’ preparation of numerous siege ladders and final formations, Mehmed ordered the final assault to commence at 1:30 in the morning with one massive cannon bombardment of the outer wall. First, he sent waves of thousands of mostly poorly-armed, expendable Christian conscripts from the Balkans and Hungary against the defenders. These men of dubious loyalty to the Sultan fought courageously against the equally valiant defenders, who poured down rocks, crossbow bolts, arrows, burning sulfur, pitch, and Greek fire on them. Ultimately, the Ottomans’ Christian conscripts—pinioned between the defenders in front of them and Turkish military enforcers behind them who forced them forward with blows of their clubs and scimitars—were repulsed with staggering casualties after about two hours of constant fighting along the vulnerable middle section (Mesoteichion) of the wall between the Blachernae Palace walls and St Romanos gate.

Determined not to let the exhausted defenders have a moment’s respite, Mehmed then ordered his main contingent of Anatolian Turkish heavy infantry to attack the outer walls. Most of them being sincere Muslims who genuinely believed in the holiness of their cause, these men did so, rushing against the middle section of the outer wall bellowing war cries and shouting the different titles for Allah to the deafening cacophony of Ottoman drums, trumpets, fifes, and cymbals designed to rally the attackers and paralyze the defenders. The noise of it all—bullets cracking, guns booming, arrows whizzing and thudding, swords and spears cutting through shields, armor, and flesh, men fighting, screaming, moaning, and dying, the pealing church bells within the city— was deafening. Piles of thousands of Turkish corpses filled the gap between the outer fosse—which the Turks had finally mostly filled in the night before—and the outer wall, while the exhausted defenders—only some 2,000 remaining on the land walls—knew that if they allowed the Ottomans to mount the outer wall, the city’s defenses would effectively collapse. Somehow, after another two hours of constant attack, the Ottoman heavy infantry began to falter, having failed to establish a firm hold on the walls or plant the Turkish red and white or Islamic green flags on the battlements.

Finally, aware as Emperor Constantine, Giustiniani, and their men were that the Ottoman advance seemed to be faltering under the determined, relentless attack of the defenders up on the walls, the desperate Sultan made the fateful decision to commit his elite, well-trained imperial Janissary personal guard—some 5,000 men, about three times the likely number of surviving defenders still manning the walls.

Ironically, before the light rose on Tuesday May 29, 1453, it was not the final push by Sultan Mehmet II’s elite Janissary corps that ultimately overwhelmed the city’s defenses and led to the city’s fall, but a seemingly accidental caprice of fate. In fact, the beleaguered defenders held off the Turks to the mounting frustration and desperation of the young Sultan, many of whose leading viziers and generals again urged him to call off the siege in the wake of such staggering losses, and demand that the city pay a steep, face-saving annual tribute.

The end for the defenders only came because someone had forgotten to re-lock the door of the Kerkaporta, a small postern on the northern edge of the city’s fortifications on the Golden Horn. A band of Turkish janissaries cautiously entered this unguarded door, convinced that it was a trap by the defenders. Moving slowly into the city, they discovered that their entrance was a Greek oversight, as nearly all of the defenders had locked themselves into a section in the central part of the wall to meet head-on the mass of the attacking army.

Invigorated and astonished, several janissaries rushed up to the wall and planted the red and green Turkish flags with the white Islamic crescent and star on the parapets. While these flags were quickly taken down by a group of quick-acting defending troops, the sight of the enemies’ flags within the city melted the strength of the exhausted defenders, who started to flee from the walls. When Giustiniani, who had already been gravely wounded the previous day, was again wounded, this time mortally, he gave the order for his remaining Genoese soldiers to carry him toward the Genoese ships in the Golden Horn. Horrified by what the sight of Giustiniani leaving the walls would do to the remaining defenders, Emperor Constantine implored him to stay on, but the stalwart mercenary could no longer stand. Realizing that the fateful moment had come, the Emperor reluctantly gave his erstwhile indefatigable Genoese ally the keys to the inner city wall. Seeing the wounded commander and his guards depart through the inner wall’s gates back into the city, the remaining defending troops’ morale began to collapse. Many of the exhausted Greek and Italian soldiers began to flee back toward the inner wall as thousands of janissaries and ordinary Ottoman troops began to pour through the gaps in the outer wall. The tide had turned, and either fate, or God, had abandoned the city after sustaining the exhausted defenders for the past 54 days. In a matter of minutes, some 30,000 Turkish soldiers had poured through the crumbled outer walls.

Thousands of remaining Greek and Italian defenders, including Emperor Constantine and his men, were killed in the subsequent rout, with the Emperor by all accounts deciding to die fighting on the walls with his remaining men rather than risk dishonorable capture or public execution. The Emperor threw off his armor, and with his remaining bodyguard plunged into the mass of advancing Turkish janissaries, never to be seen again. To Mehmed and the defeated Constantinopolitan citizens’ mutual dismay, Constantine’s body was never recovered.

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A depiction of the Ottoman soldiers rushing toward the breach in the outer walls.

The end of the City: the savage sack, blood running in the streets, and Mehmed’s triumph

In the wake of the collapse of the last defense on the wall, the Turkish army and its Serbian Christian vassals poured into the horrified, shocked city, looting the western districts’ richly adorned ancient churches and monasteries. Initially refusing to believe that the 2,000 defenders on the land walls were all that remained of the city’s defenders, the Ottomans proceeded warily and cautiously. As they came to realize that the city’s defenders had all died on the walls, they began to wildly set about ransacking all they could, indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, and children, old and young, monks, nuns, and laypeople. Thousands of soldiers began streaming down the ancient, colonnaded Mese, the city’s principal ancient processional thoroughfare.

Everywhere, women and children ran about screaming, with the Turks slaughtering most men regardless of whether or not they were armed, and taking as many women, boys, and girls captive as possible. Guaranteed three days of raping, pillaging, and sacking according to the dictates of the Quran and hadith, the army of Muhammad spared no one. The soldiers set about invading, pillaging, and firing houses, looting and burning palaces, libraries, churches, and monasteries, and slaughtering and enslaving thousands of civilians with impunity. In a matter of hours, some one thousand years of Byzantine art, literature, religious icons, and historical records went up in flames. The Turkish advance headed inevitably for Hagia Sophia, where thousands of desperate civilians had crowded into the massive ancient church, itself the symbol of the Christian capital, praying for a miracle even now as the city burned around them.

With the death of the valiant Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose Greek-speaking citizens had for over a millennium simply called themselves ‘Romans’—whose realm’s official name was Τον Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, ‘the Roman Empire’, or Ῥωμανία’, ‘Romania’, for short—came to a bloody end after 1,123 years. It is remarkable to think of how—until this moment in history—the city had endured, and, with only one exception, successfully withstood repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Sassanid Persians, Muslim Arab caliphs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, renegade Italian Crusaders, and finally the Ottomans. Until its first, fatally weakening sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences: Greek culture, Roman political organization, and Eastern Orthodox, or ‘Byzantine’ Christianity. Now, on this Tuesday in late May, 1453, the ancient Christian empire, long since reduced to a shadow of its former imperial grandeur, was no more.

Some 30,000 of Constantinople’s citizens of both sexes and all ages, irrespective of their former class or status, were taken as slaves. Numerous monks and priests were enslaved or killed, and thousands of horrified nuns, laywomen and boys raped as the Ottomans poured through the city. Both Christian and Ottoman accounts of the sack record that many Turkish soldiers brawled and even fought to the death over the most beautiful captives. When the Turks finally reached the renowned Augusteion plaza before Hagia Sophia, the spiritual and symbolic heart of the imperial city, they shouted and rejoiced, praising Allah and giving thanks to their god and Muhammad, whose ancient prophecy they had at last fulfilled.

After eight centuries of repeated failures by other Muslim armies, caliphs, and sultans to take the city, the soldiers of the House of Osman had finally attained their centuries-old dream of conquering ‘the Red Apple’ of Muslim legend. This legend was that the symbolic ‘apple’ rested in the towering, gilded equestrian statue atop the grand Column of Emperor Justinian. The towering statue dominated the plaza in the shadow of the great cathedral, triumphantly pointing east toward Asia Minor and the Asia that the Romans had at that time still dominated. The irony of the situation—a mostly Asian army of Muslim Turks and their Christian vassals conquering, from the western walls, what had once been Rome’s political and Europe’s cultural capital—must not have been lost on the Greek-speaking Romans who now found themselves slaves in what had been their capital city for over a millennium.

The Turks had long revered and feared Hagia Sophia, a building that had been erected when they were still a loose band of sky-and-nature worshiping pagans from the inner depths of Central Asia near Mongolia. Many Turks believed the building was enchanted, protected by the same mystical power that had, to their frustration, so long defended Constantinople from repeated attacks. Yet when some of the janissaries set about with axes and picks to demolish the great cathedral’s locked outer gates, and then finally breached Hagia Sophia’s massive bronze doors, no divine hand stopped their path or blocked their assault. The ancient cathedral—all its wealth, its symbolic importance, and all its horrified people within—was now theirs.

In a matter of seconds, between the shouts, screams, and commotion outside and the horrified, prayer-filled panic within, most of Constantinople’s surviving noblewomen, elderly noblemen, laypeople, and clergy found themselves suddenly prisoners and slaves. They suddenly came face to face with the armed, murderous infidels who considered them infidels, the Muslim soldiers who had, in the name of Allah, Muhammad, and their Sultan, slaughtered so many of their brothers, fathers, and husbands and conquered their ancient city. It is impossible to imagine the terror, horror, and dread that the civilians of Constantinople felt in this awful moment, or the triumph that their captors, rapists, and killers felt. Such was the horror of war in the late medieval and early modern period—regardless of religion, a city taken after a siege, after it had refused an offer of conditional surrender, could expect no mercy.

In fits of triumph and fury, the Turkish soldiers set upon the defenseless citizenry inside the cathedral, killing only a few laity who dared resist, and separating those women and boys they wished to rape and those they wished to sell at Muslim slave markets. The troops literally fought and some even killed each other over these human beings, the living spoils of their conquest. Several of the Muslim soldiers profaned the altar by throwing down the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, which had been offered in oblation only hours before. Triumphant in their religious zeal, the Muslims declared to the horrified crowd of prisoners that their idolatrous worship of a man as god was at an end, and that their city had fallen as divine punishment for their blasphemies. One can only wonder what the pious Christians of the ancient capital thought to hear such blasphemies against Christ God pronounced to them at the end of a sword.

The Ottomans set about looting as much gold, silver, porphyry, and bronze as they could from the fabulously adorned cathedral, which had until that moment been the hallowed center of Eastern Christian worship for almost a millennium. They terrorized the women, children, and elderly captives in their midst, but did not dare to torch or raze the magnificent edifice, which had captivated and haunted their imams, folk singers, and musicians for centuries. Their Sultan, they knew, was intent on claiming the greatest, oldest imperial cathedral in Christendom as his first imperial mosque.

Mehmed could not bear to think of his intended capital burning to the ground, and fires of various sizes were already burning throughout the sacked city by nightfall. Nevertheless, he had pledged to allow three days of unrestricted looting. Informed by his advance scouts that his rebellious soldiers had already stripped the city of most of its wealth, the enraged Sultan gave the order for the pillaging to cease by nightfall on the same day, the 29th. He wanted some semblance of order restored in what remained of the dilapidated city by June 1, Friday, the weekly holy day in Islam.

Accompanied by the full host of his triumphant imams, princes, and generals, the Sultan who had conquered the City of Constantine at only twenty-one years of age entered the burning, much dilapidated city on horseback, with his red and white Turkish standards and the green crescent flags of Islam billowing in the wood. This iconic image—capturing the glory and triumph of this moment when a young Turkish sultan became, by conquest, Caesar of the Second Rome— would be immortalized by painters and memorized by Turkish schoolchildren down through the centuries.

Mehmed II enters Constantinople

Mehmed proceeded at once on horseback to the already looted Hagia Sophia. Dismounting before the great Column of Justinian, the Red Apple of centuries-old Islamic lure, the sultan bent down, prostrated before the cathedral, facing east, and poured some dust on his turban as a sign of humility before God. Entering the cathedral narthex—whose nine centuries old-Christian mosaics and frescoes depicting the silent presence of Christ and His saints outraged Muslims’ iconoclastic beliefs—the sultan was horrified to find a Turkish soldier hacking away at the marble floor of the ancient structure. When Mehmed asked him why he was striking the floor of the looted cathedral, now reduced to a shell of its former glory, the man responded “for the Faith!” (Islam). The enraged Sultan struck him with his sword, and his guards carried the half-dead man away.

Turning to what remained of the sanctuary—his troops had already stripped away most of the holy altar, templon or iconostasis, gold candelabra, incense stands, imperial and patriarchal episcopal thrones, and various furnishings—Mehmed gave the fateful order to his chief imam. He ordered the man to go up into what had been the Christian pulpit and recite the Shahadah. According to Islamic theology, this action at once transformed the ancient cathedral into a mosque.

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Inside Hagia Sophia: Looking toward the eastern apse, which rises above where the altar and silver iconostasis of Justinian once stood, you can see the architecturally odd arrangement left in the wake of Mehmed II’s conversion of the Orthodox cathedral into the first imperial Ottoman mosque. Keeping with the anti-image, iconoclastic dictates of Islam, 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 Rashidun Muslim caliphs (political and spiritual leaders of the Ummah, the Muslim community) recognized in the Sunni tradition erected to hang over the nave, directly beneath the place where the Four Evangelists’ icons had stood under the central dome

 

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On Mehmed II’s orders, the remnants of the shattered, desecrated Christian altar were removed and in their place a mihrab erected. This elaborate niche in the wall indicates the qibla, the direction toward the Kaaba stone in Mecca. As you can see, this is obviously aesthetically off-center, as the building was clearly designed as an Orthodox cathedral to face cardinally east.

As part of his strategy to Islamicize and repopulate the devastated former Christian Roman capital, the Sultan subsequently forcibly imported tens of thousands of Turkish Muslims from Anatolia into the city. He allowed surviving Greek and Armenian Christians to return to the capital, ordered the construction of several new imperial mosques on the sites of destroyed Byzantine churches, and converted many of the most prominent Christian churches in the city into mosques. Disturbed by the haunting, somber images of the Lord Jesus Christ and His most pure Mother adorning the dome and apse of Hagia Sophia, Mehmed ordered the immediate whitewashing of its magnificent Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, which so offended Islamic theology. He subsequently commanded the removal of the outer dome’s crowning cross, the remaining incense stands, baptistery, and bells, and the erection of four huge minarets to summon faithful Muslims to prayer with the azan. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish soldiers repeated this pattern of converting, whitewashing, and re-purposing ancient Christian churches and cathedrals in the name of Islam.

Constantinople’s thousand-year legacy: Uniting Greek, Roman, and Christian cultural, literary, political, and theological ideas

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An artistic reconstruction of Constantinople in Late Antiquity, following Constantine’s establishment in AD 330 of the ancient port of Byzantion as the new Roman imperial capital, renamed Constantinopolis-Nova Roma in his honor. The view northward from the Imperial Palace of the Roman emperors looks out over the huge, colonnaded Augusteion, the plaza of the Augusti (emperors) with the grand Column of Justinian facing east, and Hagia Sophia in the background beyond.

From its re-founding by Emperor Constantine in AD 330 to its fall to the Ottomans over a millennium later, Byzantium—an anachronistic term, since the citizens of New Rome always considered themselves Romans—synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural legacy and infused it with new vitality. Nova Roma on the Bosporus, straddling Europe and Asia, Greece and Asia Minor, was the heir to the greatest artistic, literary, and philosophical legacies of Classical Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms. It also uniquely preserved and re-articulated Classical Roman law, political theory, and imperial government structure.

Its numerous, richly endowed monasteries, convents, and imperial libraries preserved thousands of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classical and legal texts which were mostly lost or unknown to the contemporary West. Under St Emperor Justinian the Law-giver (482-565, r. 527-565), most of the full Roman Empire’s boundaries were (briefly) reconquered under the brilliant general Belisarius, the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt after a fire in only seven years, at huge expense, to become the marvel of the world, and the Emperor issued his famous Codex Justinianus, his revised and codified statute book of all existing Roman law.

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The magnificent painted gold and multi-colored frescoes of Hagia Sophia were ordered whitewashed by Mehmed II. They remained under the prohibitive, iconoclastic Muslim-directed paint until the 1930s, when, following Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1935 proclamation of the secular Turkish Republic, he ordered Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia Camii in Turkish) turned into a museum. The museum historians and artisans carefully uncovered many of the cathedral’s ancient mosaics in the 1930s and 40s, revealing much, though not all, of the formerly Byzantine splendor of the structure.

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An approximation of the territorial extent of the Christian Roman Empire in AD 555, at the height of the reign of St Emperor Justinian the Great (482-565, r. 527-565).

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Magnificent Byzantine fresco depicting Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximianus in the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna, which served in the sixth century as the capital of Roman-controlled Italy under Constantinople’s rule.

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Stunning mosaic of the Lord Jesus Christ shown as a boy with angels at His side, overlooking the apse over the eastern wall altar inside the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna.

St Vitale in Ravenna

A crowning example of Late Antique, early Byzantine frescoes and interior church decor, the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna functioned under Constantinople’s rule as a monument to Justinian and Theodora’s imperial glory, a projection of Constantinople’s power and prestige, and a symbol of the enduring link at the time between Eastern and Western Christianity, all united then under shared recognition of the Pope in Rome and the Emperor in Constantinople.

Theodora in Ravenna

Opposite the apse wall showing Emperor Justinian and his advisors is his brilliant consort, Empress Theodora (500-548) shown with her female noble courtiers and advisors. Theodora ruled alongside Justinian as a kind of unofficial co-ruler despite her scandalously humble origins as a stage actress at Constantinople’s huge Hippodrome stadium. When in 532 the chariot-racing, politically-tinged rivalries between the Blue and the Green racing teams boiled over into mass rioting, brigandage, and near civil-war in the capital, the Emperor and his advisors considered fleeing the city and attempting to re-group elsewhere. The Empress, aware that she owed her position to the love and admiration of the Empress, famously addressed her husband and his advisors, urging them to stay, kill the rebels, and restore order. Her words are preserved as follows: “My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”

For centuries, despite the Empire contracting and losing territory in the wake of regular Muslim Arab caliphate and later Seljuk Turkish conquests and incursions, the central arteries of East-West Mediterranean trade in spices, silks, slaves, furs, oils, perfumes, jewels, and much agriculture passed through Constantinople’s ports and markets. The city’s imperial treasury minted the gold standard of the Mediterranean commercial world at the time, the gold solidus nomisma. Christian Roman scholars in Constantinople made numerous new contributions and advances in all the fields of science, literature, philosophy, military technology, urban engineering, and law. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of eleven centuries of constant external pressures, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim westward expansion from Asia into Europe.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor in Christendom as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity. Its bishops, monks, nuns, and saints over the centuries made a vast contribution in the Eastern Church liturgical tradition, Patristic writings, homiletics, mystical theology, and spiritual phronema. The fall of Constantine’s City, however long in the making, 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 world’s most powerful Muslim empire which was to menace the Christian West for centuries.

The horror of the West and the Latin Church at the city’s fall

This video offers a profoundly beautiful example of the contemporary Roman Church’s horror over the fall of the city, which had been the Eastern Roman capital and thus the living embodiment and legacy of the ancient 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 in lamentation of the city’s fall.

The same Pope Nicholas invited many Greek refugees from Constantinople to Rome, where he hoped to add their intellectual luster and 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 and kingdoms of Hungary and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire to unite in a common cause to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans, Nicholas V died in 1455. He did so bitterly acknowledging that his papacy would be forever marred in history as that during which Nova Roma, the Queen City of Christendom, fell.

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Flemish master choralist Guillaume Dufay (of the Burgundian School) shown with Gilles Binchois.

Dufay modeled his ethereal dirge, “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae” (“Lament of Holy Mother Church for 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.’

Triumph of the Turks: The Ottoman advance into Europe and its emergence as the leading Mediterranean hegemon

For the Ottoman Turks, the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 marked the crowning inauguration of their hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, and the attainment of an eight centuries-old goal of all Muslim Arab and later Turkish kingdoms and caliphates dating back to Muhammad’s prophecies. Mehmed II declared himself “Caesar of Rome”, adding the Persian version of this title to his others of Padishah (Great King) and Sultan. It also marked their transformation from a powerful Turkish kingdom into a burgeoning world empire which could now harass Christian European shipping in the Mediterranean with impunity and begin to contemplate invasions beyond Thrace and Serbia into Central Europe. At only twenty-one, Mehmed II had, after almost eight hundred years of failed attempts by numerous earlier Umayyad caliphs and Seljuk Turkish sultans, conquered the Second Rome, the ‘Red Apple’ of Muslim legend.

Mehmed II’s vast, efficiently-supplied and well-trained armies of Turks, Uzbeks, Syrians, and Persians, as well as coerced Muslim converts from Christian Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria soon threatened all Christendom with a kind of reverse Crusade. By the Sultan’s death in 1481, Ottoman armies had conquered the last Byzantine bastions in Morea, Greece, subdued Serbia and Bosnia, raided Italy and threatened Rome itself, and cemented Ottoman rule over most of Wallachia and Transylvania (Romania). Mehmed II’s descendants would conquer most of Hungary, all the Middle East and North Africa, and push Ottoman ambitions twice to the gates of Vienna.

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The Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), official painter to the Doges of Venice, rendered this 1480 portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) a year before the Sultan’s death at age 49. Feared and despised by Christians for his conquest of Constantinople, his ravaging of the Balkans, and his well-publicized sexual immorality, Europeans called him “the Eagle” for his harsh, aquiline features. Following his astonishing conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed took the Persian title Kayser-i-Rum, ‘Caesar of Rome’, believing himself to be the rightful Roman Emperor. This portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, what was in 1453 a nightmare at last come to reality was, for the Ottomans, the triumphant realization of their long-cherished dream. Alone of all the dozens of Muslim empires to rise and fall after Muhammad’s death in 632, they had finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century after their fourteenth century conquest of most of Anatolia and their expansion behind Constantinople into Thrace and Serbia. For the city’s Greek and Armenian Christian populace, most of whom were sold into slavery or fled to Greece or Syria, the conquest was a tragedy which still evokes pain down through the centuries.

From the new Ottoman capital at Constantinople, successive sultans began to expand Ottoman territory ever further into Central Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, taking tens of thousands of male and female slaves for the Janissary corps, palace bureaucracy, and the imperial palace harem. After largely digesting his father Mehmed’s conquests in the Balkans, Beyezed II (1447-1512) shrewdly resettled most of the exiled Sephardic Jewish populations throughout his Empire following the 1492 Alhambra Decree by Fernando II and Isabel I, which expelled them from Catholic Castile and Aragon.

Notably, Bayezid also subdued the first of a series of Azeri Qizilbash rebellions against Ottoman rule by these Safaviyya tariqa Shia-aligned Sufi tribes. Most of the ‘Safavi’ Azeris were a mix of culturally Persianized Turks or Turkicized ethnic Iranians, united in their common adherence to the Jafari or ‘Twelver’ mazhab of Shia jurisprudence which the mostly Hanafi Sunni Ottomans viewed as heretical. In 1501, the head of the Savafid Turko-Kurdish Iranian dynasty, Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), proclaimed himself Shahanshah (king of kings) of Iran, capturing and making the mostly Azeri city of Tabriz his capital. Motivated as much by an intense religious desire to ensure Shia orthodoxy as his desire to create a unified Iranian state, Ismail rapidly commenced the forced conversion of the Iranian plateau to Twelver Shia Islam. He incentivized Sunni conversions by promising land grants, wealth, and meritorious advancement, destroying Sunni Sufi tariqa (religious schools) and confiscating their assets, and threatening Sunni ulema (scholars) and nobles with death or exile if they did not convert. The new Shah sought to impose Shia conformity in order to create a more unified Iranian imperial, ethnic, and religious identity distinct from his Ottoman rivals to the west and Sunni Turkic Uzbeks to the east.

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A European portrait of Safavid Shah Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), founder of the Twelver Shia Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501-1736)

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Shah Ismail I entering Tabriz with his Qizilbash army contigents in 1501. This victory commenced the start of his reign as Shahanshah over Persia and the establishment of the Shia Safavid dynasty, which would challenge the Ottomans on political, religious, and cultural fronts until its collapse in the 1730s.

Shah Ismail I and Sultan Bayezid II were thus not only political rivals contesting control over the disputed borderland regions of Armenia, Georgia, eastern Turkey, and Shirvan (much of modern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran), but mortal religious enemies who viewed each other as contemptible heretics. Ismail billed himself as the champion ghazi (warrior) of Shia Islam, whereas Bayezid, like his Ottoman forebears, saw himself as the champion and caliph of Sunni Islam. Jafari ‘Twelver’ Shia Safavid Iranians and the Hanafi Sunni Ottoman Turks both viewed each other as heretics, but, ironically, the two rival dynasties both had mixed Turkic-Iranian-Central Asian origins. The Safavids had direct Turkic ancestry, with Shah Ismail speaking an Azeri variant of Turkish as his first language rather than courtly Persian, while the Ottoman sultans were ethnically a mix of Albanian, Serbian, Greek, and Turkish, but preferred to compose their poems and issue their decrees in classical Persian dialects.

Bayezid was ultimately forced to abdicate by one of his sons, Mehmed II’s grandson Selim I “the Grim” (1471-1520, r. 1512-1520). Selim continued the documented Ottoman tradition, established at least by Mehmed II’s time, of engaging in mass fratricide upon his accession; he had his half-brothers by his father’s different harem concubines strangled with bowstrings or silk chords to ensure that he had no rivals for the throne. A great conqueror, Selim used innovative tactics and the Ottomans’ artillery and musketry to defeat the previously expansionist Safavid Persian Shah Ismail I in battle at Chaldiran in 1514. One of the most decisive battles in Turkish and Iranian history, the outcome saw Ottoman guns and cannons triumph against the Safavid heavy and light cavalry, who, just as the Ottoman Turks used to do, formed the basis of most formerly nomadic peoples’ armies. Selim’s forces captured Ismail’s entire harem, including his two favorite wives.

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An illustration of the decisive 1514 Battle of Chaldiran which checked Ismail’s Safavid westward advances into Turkey, cemented Ottoman rule over most of Armenia and Georgia, and ended the Persian threat to Ottoman Turkish eastern borderlands.

The battle of Chaldiran halted Safavid Iranian expansion westward into the Ottoman Turkish heartland, and forced the increasingly distraught and despondent Ismail to return most of annexed Georgia and Armenia to Ottoman rule after Selim briefly occupied and sacked the first Safavid capital, Tabriz, before turning his attentions elsewhere. The Sultan’s armies most famously conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, thereby taking over vast territories in Egypt, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and the entire Hejaz region of Arabia, the holiest region in Islam. This allowed the Ottoman sultans to proclaim themselves the caliphs, or chief religious-political leaders, of Sunni Islam as the guardians of the principal Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Selim’s conquests in his short reign of only eight years thus enormously increased the religious prestige of the Ottoman dynasty as the Sunni Muslim superpower, and dramatically increased the territorial size of the Ottoman Empire by some 70%.

The Sultan’s conquests gave the Turks control over the three holiest cities in Islam—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem— as well as the ancient Sunni mazhab academies and tariqa of Cairo, the rich Mediterranean ports of Alexandria and Beirut, and the colossal Egyptian Mediterranean-Red Sea spice, jewels, and incense trade. Ottoman dominion over Egypt, the Hejaz region of western Arabia, and leading Red Sea ports also meant that the Sultans now dominated the ancient Islamic Trans-Saharan trade in sub-Saharan black slaves, and the gateway to trade unmolested with Indian ports. These conquests made the Ottoman sultans, already fabulously wealthy, into by far the wealthiest monarchs in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.

Selim’s son and heir, perhaps the greatest Ottoman emperor, inherited this great wealth and mantle of conquest, presiding over the Empire’s military, political, cultural, and economic zenith. Known to history as Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566, r. 1520-66), he was, like most of his forebears, equally a ruthless conqueror for Sunni Islam, colossal builder, a shrewd administrator, gifted poet, and pious endower of numerous imperial mosques, turbes (tombs), tariqa, and public baths. Known as ‘the Ottoman Justinian’, and similarly named ‘the Law-giver’ after his death, this Ottoman Solomon reigned for the longest of all the sultans. This forty-six-year period of constant territorial expansion, imperial projection, and administrative centralization saw Suleiman give orders to codify all existing Ottoman imperial decrees and statutes. The sultan personally presided over additional Ottoman conquests in Algeria, Serbia, Transylvania, key Mediterranean fortress strongholds on Rhodes and Crete, and, most importantly, the Carpathian basin. Suleiman’s rapid conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary (1526), his ambitious, though failed, siege of Habsburg Vienna (1529), and his admirals’ numerous raids across the Mediterranean world horrified Christian Europe.

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Titian’s 1530 portrait of the Ottoman Empire’s most successful and greatest Sultan, Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1494-1566, r. 1520-1566).

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A contemporary Persian-style Ottoman miniature of Suleiman at the 1522 Siege of Rhodes.

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Sultan Suleiman’s imperial tughra, or Arabic calligraphy signature, used in all imperial firmans (edicts), comparable to a royal seal.

Suleiman’s advance into the heart of Europe terrified all of Christendom. His well-trained army of some 250,000 men succeeded where Mehmed II had tried but failed in 1456, capturing in August 1521 the key Hungarian-controlled fortress of Belgrade, Serbia and deporting its entire Orthodox population to Istanbul. After the young, ill-prepared King Louis II of Hungary foolishly declared war on the Turks in summer 1526, Suleiman personally commanded the Ottoman troops at the decisive August battle at Mohacs, which saw the young king and the flower of the Hungarian nobility and knightly classes killed. Hungary’s twin political and spiritual centers, Buda and Esztergom, fell within the year, leading the Ottomans to annex and incorporate most of the ancient Magyar kingdom.

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Flemish painter Sebastian Vranck’s European-style portrait of the Ottoman Siege of Esztergom, the seat of the Catholic Primates of Hungary, in 1543. A depiction of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman on horseback in his yellow robes and turban is in the left foreground. The Sultan, as with so many of his campaigns, personally commanded the Ottoman armies.

Suleiman’s rapid path of conquests into Central Europe horrified his Christian contemporaries, especially the young Charles V (1500-1558, r. 1516-1556 as King of Spain, 1519-1556 as Emperor), the new Holy Roman Emperor who was also Carlos I of Spain, Flanders, and Burgundy.

Ottoman naval power grew so strong that throughout the 1520s and into the 1540s, Suleiman’s Grand Admiral of the imperial fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546)—himself the son of a Greek Orthodox woman like so many of the Ottoman pashas, princes, and sultans—raided Spanish and Italian shipping across the Mediterranean. Barbarossa assisted the Sultan in expelling the stalwart Knights of St John Hospitaller from the Aegean Greek isle of Rhodes in 1522, thereby greatly easing Ottoman commerce and naval communications between Istanbul and Alexandria, Egypt. His fleet then captured the crucial North African western Barbary port of Algiers in 1525. This victory caused most of Muslim North Africa to become an autonomous part of the Empire by acknowledging the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultans. This meant that from Egypt to Algeria, almost the entire North African coast was now in Ottoman hands, significantly increasing the Turkish fleet’s ability to harass Spanish and Italian shipping and raid the coasts of Sicily, Malta, eastern Spain, and southern Italy.

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European style portrait of the Ottoman Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546).

In 1538, Barbarossa defeated the allied Christian Holy League—formed by Pope Paul III’s diplomacy and comprising a loose combination of the Imperial Habsburg (Spanish), Venetian, Genoan, and papal fleets under the overall command of Charles V’s Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560)—off the western Greek coast at Preveza. The unified Ottoman force of some 120 galleys and 12,000 soldiers decisively defeated the 110 galleys, 50 heavy galleons, and 70 smaller barques of the 60,000 Christian forces, who were split with internal rivalries between the Genoese and Venetians. The victory ensured Ottoman dominance of the Mediterranean for the next 33 years until the decisive allied Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571.

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The “Battle of Preveza” (1538) by Ohannes Umed Behzad, painted in 1866.

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At Suleiman’s command, under Barbarossa’s leadership the Ottomans established a sizable fleet on the Indian Ocean to ensure that Ottoman-Mughal commerce and the maritime passage of hajj pilgrims to and from Ottoman-controlled Mecca and Medina passed unimpeded.

In 1535, King Francis I of France successfully proposed a French-Ottoman alliance against his and Suleiman’s common Habsburg enemy, earning the ire of Charles V and the Pope, who was horrified that the French monarch, who bore the papal honorific title of ‘Most Christian King’, would ally with ‘the Grand Turk’, the infidel scourge of Christendom. Francis even permitted Barbarossa’s fleet to winter in Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast in 1543, following a joint French-Turkish fleet attack on Nice, which briefly captured the port from the city’s Habsburg-allied ruler, Charles III the Duke of Savoy.

In 1529, Suleiman embarked on his most ambitious undertaking yet: he set out into German lands to conquer the Austrian Habsburg city of Vienna, in the southern heart of Central Europe.

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This contemporary 1529 engraving shows clashes between the Austrians and Ottomans outside Vienna in September or October 1529 by the German painter and engraver Bartel Beham.

The Sultan’s forces of at least 200,000—who had to abandon many of their camels and heavy cannon as they marched northwest in the heavy summer rains of Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria—nevertheless invested and besieged a much smaller but stalwart force of 16,000 Austrian and Spanish Habsburg defenders. The Ottomans were only repulsed in October after the heavy rains caused morale to plummet and disease to spread in their camps. However, the escape of most of the Sultan’s army, sans his long imperial baggage trains stocked with riches, opened the door for a possible future Ottoman invasion of the German principalities or down into Italy from the north.

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Suleiman commissioned his chief architect, the great Armenian or Greek-born, Christian-turned-Muslim master Mimar Sinan (1488-1588) to design and build what would become Istanbul’s most famous imperial Ottoman mosque. Designed deliberately after Hagia Sophia, which Suleiman sought to surpass architecturally, Suleiman had the mosque dedicated in his own honor to the glory of Allah. The Suleymaniue Camii remains one of modern Istanbul’s greatest tourist attractions, and active mosque.

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The Suleymaniye Mosque as seen from the Galata tower.

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The mosque’s interior.

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The territorial extent of the Ottoman Empire upon Suleiman’s death in 1566. 

Ruling in their heyday in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries from Algeria to modern Ukraine, modern Yemen to Hungary, and northern Romania to the Horn of Africa, the Ottoman sultans saw themselves as the political heirs to the Roman Emperors of Constantinople. Declaring themselves “Lords of the Two Lands and the Two Seas”, originally this title assumed by Mehmed II referred to Ottoman control over the Balkans and Anatolia, and the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Seas. By Suleiman’s death, the Ottomans effectively ruled not only these seas, but the Red Sea and Persian Gulf as well. The Sultans of Constantinople, like their Safavid and Mughal contemporaries, used the Persian titles of Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) and Padishah (“Great King”), but most important to them, politically, were the title Kayser-i-Rum (“Caesar of Rome” [Constantinople]) and Caliph of Sunni Islam as the Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”). The latter title recognized the Ottoman sultans as the paramount religious and political authority among Sunni Muslims due to their position as rulers over the Hejaz and as custodians of the two principal Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. Acknowledging their dynasty and people’s ethnic origins from Central Asia, all sultans also bore the traditional Mongol title of khan.

Constantinople’s legacy

Constantinople’s place as a redoubtable Christian bastion even after the initial Ottoman ascendancy in the fourteenth century had, for almost four centuries, checked Turkish advances into Europe—their chroniclers called the city “A bone in the throat of Allah”, insisting that it must be conquered for Islam. Prior to the Seljuk Sultan Arp Arslan’s shock triumph over the Emperor Romanos IV at Manzikert in 1071, Constantinople had resisted repeated Arab Muslim attempts to capture the city for Islam. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish magistrates enforced the infamous devisherme system which exploited local Christian populations by forcibly conscripting numerous boys as janissaries (the sultans’ elite shock troops) or court eunuchs, and Christian girls, and sometimes boys, for the provincial beys’ harems and ultimately the imperial harem of the grand ‘Seraglio’ at Topkapı Palace.

Within a century of overtaking Nova Roma on the Bosporus, Ottoman forces had conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean, and most of the Kingdom of Hungary, continuing to war with and regularly threaten the Habsburg German-controlled Holy Roman Empire until the end of the seventeenth century, when they last attempted in 1683 to conquer Vienna under Mehmed IV (1642-1693, r 1648-1687) and his ruthless Albanian Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Constantinople, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Greek refugees poured into Italy.

The great Christian empire of Constantinople is long gone, with the Turkish-speaking city of Istanbul teeming with some fourteen million people today. Every year on May 29, commemorated as Fetih day (“Conquest” day), Muslim Turks gather across the country and city, but especially in front of Hagia Sophia and Mehmed’s turbe at his commemorative Fetih Camii, to commemorate what is, for them, the glorious conquest of Constantinople. May 29 symbolizes for many Turks both their hopes for the triumph of Islam over Christianity, and the past greatness of the Turkish Muslim empire, whose complicated legacy the AKP’s ruling President Erdogan often evokes in nationalistic and pan-Islamic tones today. Haghia Sophia itself, while officially still a museum, has increasingly been publicly used as a mosque, especially during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan (currently going on now).

H.A.H. the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly condemned Erdogan’s statements threatening to turn the ancient church-museum back into a mosque, while Turkey’s prime minister and deputy prime minister have variously spoken in favor of re-opening the building for regular Muslim worship. Prominent nationalist and Islamist politicians and religious figures in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora have cited Mehmed II’s 1453 decree, which declared Hagia Sophia to be the Sultan (and his heirs’)’s personal property by right of conquest, enjoining that the building remain a mosque ‘until the Day of Judgment’. H.H. Pope Francis, the president and prime minister of Greece, and various other political leaders, statesmen, and academics have all weighed in on the controversy.

Yet as Christians, there are lessons for us to learn from Constantinople’s fall. We know that as followers of Christ, this life is in many respects like a battle. We can never mistake or equate any earthly kingdom or power with the eternal, Heavenly Kingdom and its power from God alone. The apostle St Paul commands us to put on our spiritual armor in our daily lives because we are not playing on a neutral playing field. This means that in our personal lives, our spiritual lives, and our societal lives, we must constantly guard our defenses against sin and evil in all their forms. Yet those who mean us harm do not always attack from the front, but will hit us from a side where we were least expecting it. My prayer is that we constantly ask God to show us the Kerkaportas in our own lives, so that we can always be fixing our defenses in order to run the good race and fight the good fight. May the memory of Constantinople’s valiant defenders be eternal!

Hagia Sophia

May the church of Justinian’s glory—the imperial and patriarchal cathedral of the Roman Empire for almost a millennium—shine forth again one day with the splendor of the Christian Divine Liturgy.

Bibliography

Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Crowley, Roger. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2005.

Evans, James Allan Stewart. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005.

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Kaegi, Walter. Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.

McGeer, Eric. Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 2008.

Meyendorff, Fr. John. The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.

Necipoğlu, Nevra. Byzantium Between the Ottomans and the Latins: Politics and Society in the Late Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Runciman, Steven. The Byzantine Theocracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Runciman, Steven. The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches During the XIth and XIIth Centuries. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2008.

Treadgold, Warren. A Concise History of Byzantium. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

 

Letter to a formerly Orthodox friend who became a Roman Catholic

To an agnostic-turned Orthodox friend who left Orthodoxy for Catholicism at the time of his marriage to a Roman Catholic. December 2015.
Dear  _______,
Congratulations on your marriage! Many years! I hope you both are doing well. I appreciate your thoughtfully detailed comments. I am in the midst of exams, so I will respond to your specific points in more detail later.
I remember that at a Bible study Metropolitan Jonah was hosting at St Mark’s OCA parish in Bethesda some years ago, probably late fall 2013, you commented that you hadn’t felt Christ truly present when you communed of the Eucharist. That always astounded and saddened me, since it was entirely the opposite of my own experience upon becoming Orthodox. I hope and pray you did come to experience Him noetically while you were still Orthodox, or, if not, that you have begun to experience this when communing now as a Catholic. I fell in love with Orthodoxy above all else because I encountered Christ in a way I never had as a Roman Catholic. I saw Him acting and alive in the Orthodox around me, in the beauty, truth, and majesty of the divine services, and in the words of her Saints and the ancient Fathers’ writings which simply breathe grace. Immersed in living (and failing repeatedly to live up to) Orthodoxy, God touched my soul and illumined my heart in a way I had never encountered as a Catholic. Time and again since becoming Orthodox, I have experienced profound grace and God’s healing (salvific and therapeutic) presence, mainly through moments in church, communing of the Eucharist, reading the Bible and the Fathers’ writings, talking with the poor, and in deep noetic prayer. I pray that you have found and continue to enounter Christ in this real, intimate way, above all in your marriage and in becoming a Catholic. Although I naturally was sorry to hear you had left Orthodoxy, and am grieved for you, I respect you too much to think you could ever make such a decision lightly.
I guess I’m wondering: what inspired you to leave Orthodoxy for Rome? Are you predominantly worshiping now according to one of the Roman Rites (Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI, or the Extraordinary Form/Tridentine Latin Mass) or one of the Eastern rites? I have several Melkite and Ukrainian Greek Catholic friends, so I couldn’t help but wonder which rite(s) you and your wife decided on in terms of worship.
A major factor for me in moving from Roman Catholicism (my faith for the first 21 years of my life) to Orthodoxy was not so much the papal claims in theory (these were problematic enough) so much as what I saw as their utter failure in practice. By this I mean: it’s all well and good and right (and apostolic) to have the Pope of Rome serve as the “servant of servants”, as St Gregory the Great called himself. The Pope ought to be Primus in rank and Protos in authority and honor, exercising a supreme archpastoral role, presiding in love, mediating conflicts between local Churches (jurisdictions), etc. I and most Orthodox would welcome this someday. Metropolitan John Zizioulas has written superbly in this area (a man whom Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has recently and publicly referred to as the best Orthodox theologian alive today).
To be honest — this may surprise you — the papal claims themselves aren’t nearly as unnerving as what many of my Orthodox friends call among ourselves “the L factor”. Both the papal claims and “the L factor” are supremely interrelated — the latter could never have taken place without such a concentration of power over the fate of the sacred liturgy itself in the papacy’s hands. We are terrified — genuinely — and deeply concerned more than anything else about the radical innovations which have taken place in Rome’s liturgical worship since the implementation of the Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI beginning in 1969. Put simply, Pope Benedict’s well-intended but, I believe, ultimately futile efforts to defend the Ordinary Form as a valid Mass when properly and reverently offered does not convince me. Where the Holy Father insists on defending both the Mass of Pope Paul VI and the Tridentine Mass as equally valid forms of the Roman liturgy, as much as I respect him, I can’t accept this view. Rather than accept his earnest contention that faithful Catholics must try to understand, reform, and improve the Novus Ordo rite through a “hermeneutic of continuity”, Benedict himself admitted to observing with alarm a noticeable “hermeneutic of rupture” between the 1969 Missal/Ordinary Form and the previous, organically developed missals of the Roman Mass. In his Introduction to the French edition of The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Msgr. Klaus Gamber, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

  What happened after the [Second Vatican] Council was something else entirely: in the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product (produit banal de l’instant). [Introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger to La Reforme Liturgique en question (Le-Barroux: Editions Sainte-Madeleine), 1992, pp. 7-8.]

Bearing this in mind, how can we Orthodox possibly consent to lowering and denigrating the Divine Liturgy and our other ancient, holy services and admit, as Pope Benedict and certainly Pope Francis would have us do, that the Mass of Pope Paul VI — as it is commonly and usually offered — is on the same level as the Orthodox divine services when spiritually, noetically, and liturgically it simply and obviously isn’t? How can we be seriously be expected to say that the Novus Ordo, as usually offered, is right glory and right worship truly befitting God when so often its celebration is marked with profound irreverence, liturgical abuse, and an overall Protestant atmosphere? How am I, or anyone with eyes to see and noses to smell and ears to hear, supposed to seriously believe that a solemn, reverent High Church Anglican service is supposed to count as less valid in God’s eyes than the most sloppily offered Ordinary Form Mass? Because one is offered in communion with Rome, and the other not?
Such a claim astonishes me in both its sweeping arrogance and its utter dismissal of the crucial importance virtues like beauty, reverence, solemnity, and dignity play in leading and beckoning the worshiper to God. All these things, Rome says, matter less than being in communion with one man. How can you expect me to explain to my Russian or Greek or Antiochian friends that the Novus Ordo Mass as commonly offered is, in Rome’s view, actually equal to the Divine Liturgy? Even if liturgical abuse were not nearly as widespread as it is among so many Novus Ordo parishes, these kinds of abuses should not be taking place at all. Yet these abuses have gone on for decades with little to no real interference from Rome, because, I suspect, she values 1) even a nominal communion with her See no matter how skin-deep or threadbare, and 2) Novus Ordo parishioners’ continued tithes rather than risking driving them from the pews by restoring traditional, reverent worship to replace what they’ve gotten used to since 1969, all over an actual fidelity to orthodox, organically developed Catholic worship and spiritual tradition.
How can you justify these liturgical abuses or explain them away, when many of them take place with the full knowledge and support of local Catholic bishops and archbishops, even the papacy itself?
To illustrate my point, think on the sad reality that every year the horrifically irreverent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress occurs, sponsored by the L.A. Archdiocese, one of the nation’s largest, and attended by numerous faithful laity, priests, and bishops, including the Archbishop himself. Far from only occurring in a few tiny, marginalized liberal name-only Catholic parishes such as this one in Seattle, these liturgical abuses are taking place at major stadium events, major “valid but illicit” Masses celebrated with the full knowledge and blessing of Church leaders as high as the L.A. Archbishop himself. You then might say, in defense of Rome, “well at least this wrong, unfortunate toleration of liturgical abuse and error is only a problem among liberal bishops and archbishops. At least it does not extend all the way up to the Papacy itself!” Sadly, Rome is entirely complicit in not only allowing such abuses and turning a blind eye, but as recent as 2011, the man who is now the Pope of Rome himself happily presided over a “Children’s Mass” replete with liturgical abuse. Think on the sad reality that in this public “Children’s Mass” celebrated in Argentina in 2011, the presiding celebrant was none other than then-serving Buenos Aires Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
According to the video,
El 15 de octubre de 2011 se realizó la Misa Arquidiocesana de Niños en el Estadio del Parque Roca. La jornada se llenó de sol y alegría con la participación de muchísimos niños acompañados por sus catequistas, dirigentes y delegados. La Misa fue presidida por el Cardenal Jorge Bergoglio.
[My translation] On the 15th of October 2011 was celebrated the Archdiocesan Children’s Mass in the Parque Roca stadium. The day was filled with sunshine and joy with the participation of many children accompanied by their catechists, leaders and delegates. The Mass was presided over by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Think of the reality that not only was this event somehow seen, indefensibly, as a proper form of catechetical instruction for Catholic youth, but that the man who is now the Roman Pope, allegedly the Vicar of Christ Himself, willingly presided over such a Mass! How does this kind of banal, ugly worship lead anyone to salvation? Yet we Orthodox are often accused of chauvinism and triumphalism (“our liturgical life could never get that bad!”). We are somehow expected to “mind our own house” and not express our horror that, were we to reunite with Rome anytime soon, we would be obliged and expected to accept as entirely legitimate this kind of “worship” as a valid Mass! This is theological-liturgical minimalism — “let’s set a low baseline standard of what has to take place in a service for it to be counted as a valid Mass. The rest doesn’t matter”. This overly permissive, I would argue fundamentally lazy attitude to offering the Eucharistic liturgy could not be more estranged from the ancient Orthodox phronema which holds instead that we are to offer the most beautiful, glorious, reverent, and majestic worship to our King and Creator. Man’s primary purpose, his intrinsic end, is to worship God and grow closer to Him — so how can such irreverent, minimalist  “I guess this is good enough to count as valid” worship be pleasing to Him? Why do we presume to offer anything less than the most beautiful and sublime worship to God?
Perhaps the sad truth is that we, Rome and the Orthodox, have gradually, in the past millennium of intermittent levels of cultural and liturgical and theological estrangement, but more rapidly in the past five decades, developed apart from each other fundamentally different understandings of what true beauty and true sublime worship actually are, and thus, we sincerely believe in worshiping God in very different ways? From an Orthodox perspective, this chasm has only occurred because Rome, by giving a primacy of emphasis to her political and jurisdictional claims, has tragically over centuries cut herself off from her organic roots, from the single, united deposit of apostolic Faith and post-Nicene worship which defined the pre-Schism Church, East and West. (Let us leave the Arians and Nestorians and Non-Chalecedonians aside here, since both Rome and the Orthodox view these divisions as ruptures by heretical groups from and out of the one Catholic Orthodox Church). Thus we Orthodox are forced to ask, especially when we walk into most Novus Ordo liturgies and are confronted with the spectacle of what is clearly another faith separate from our own: what have we carried on and preserved which Rome has lost, and what has Rome accrued and accepted which we reject as, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, heretical? There is, I believe, a close interconnection between the two components.
I understand and have processed the intellectual draw of the papacy and its claims, yet all my research using numerous patristic sources and Greek language scholars over the past five years supports an Orthodox understanding of the papacy (pre-Schism), an understanding which is very different from how Rome has gradually come to define its understanding of the proper universal powers and role of the papacy from 1213-15 (Fourth Lateran), to  Trent (1545-63), to Vatican I (1868-70) and Vatican II (1962-65), and of course in the latest edition of the constantly updated Catechism (CCC).
Fundamentally, I believe that the Orthodox are correct in arguing that the Roman papacy has evolved its theological views, and more recently ruptured its ancient, inner liturgical life, to become, since the Schism gradually became reality, something now which it was not prior. Put another way, the papacy tragically claims today for itself a degree of absolute spiritual authority and power which it simply did not always have.
Then you have the disturbing theological and pastoral implications of Rome’s opposing approach to chrismation/confirmation between the Roman and Eastern rites. Rome delays confirmation and communion in the two Roman rites, but now encourages and supports the ancient Catholic and Orthodox practice of chrismating and communing infants among Byzantine and other sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches. This disparity is extremely disturbing to me. How can they both be right? Regarding ministering chrismation and communion to infants, it is either an apostolic, orthodox practice and therefore essential for the good of the young souls being chrismated and then communing, or it is, on the other hand, wrong to offer confirmation and communion, as the Scholastics argued, to those who could not begin to rationally discern what they were consuming. One approach being right/orthodox logically and rationally necessitates the other one being wrong/heterodox. That Rome endeavors to try to allow and maintain these two fundamentally contradictory approaches to such major questions is to me astonishing, and reinforces my belief that she values maintaining communion with her to the great expense of any notion of enforcing orthodox of belief and practice. My same concern applies with equal weight to the Latin/Western Church’s longstanding custom (with almost the force of law) since the 13th century of requiring celibacy vows of all priests. This innovation goes against the pre-13th century universal practice in West and East alike of married clergy (excluding monks who were always celibate, from whose ranks bishops in the East are selected). There are numerous other examples of Rome departing from the pre-Schism practices of the Church, but for time’s sake i will not delve into them here. Suffice it to say that, far from serving as the universal conservator of Truth and the early apostolic and pre-Schism Faith, Rome seems to have become a great innovator and enabler of new theological ideas, customs, and pastoral practices.
Far worse, in my estimation, the Magisterium has colossally failed in the past fifty years (since the conclusion of the nebulous, much-misinterpreted and much-misunderstood Second Vatican Council and the subsequent issuing by Pope Paul Sixtus of the revised, much abbreviated Roman Missal) to preserve intact the most basic and important of all things — orthodox, reverent, holy Catholic worship. Isn’t it a scandal that something like the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress exists, much less that it is so expensive and yet continues to be held and publicized annually? I was raised in the Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I attended two parishes when I was a child and went to Mass every Sunday with my family, one parish from 1990-1997 when I was in northern VA and then one in suburban Long Island, NY from 1997-2010, when I started exclusively going to Orthodox divine services. These churches were both very modern, ugly (built, of course, in the 60s), and everything there was conscientiously done to adhere to the so-called, nebulous, somehow decidedly progressive “Spirit of Vatican II”.
The vast majority of Masses offered by the Catholic Church today are Novus Ordo (Mass of Pope Paul VI/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). I know that the Revised Missal’s rubrics prescribe great reverence, assume that the priest is celebrating ad orientem and using incense, defend the continued pride of place of Gregorian chant and the organ to the exclusion of “secular” instruments and music bands. Yet visit most OF/NO parishes around the Catholic world and this is never the case. Ask yourself: why and how is this? What is the purpose of the Pope’s supposedly universal spiritual authority and jurisdiction if not precisely to enforce such rubrics’ liturgical orthodoxy, while working to forbid and prohibit liturgical abuse and innovations?
Every year I dread going to Western Christmas Eve Mass with my mom and sisters because of how fundamentally Protestantized, how “happy clappy”, how fundamentally irreverent and banal the ethos of the service is, how ugly the building is, etc. I try so hard to find beauty there, but compared to Orthodox worship it is like night and day. Beauty points to holiness and witnesses to and conveys inner spiritual truths. Its absence is jarring to me. 
The “Spirit of Vatican II” as interpreted by theologically progressive liberal bishops and priests has been devastating to Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Where is Rome in all this? What has Rome done to restore proper, orthodox Catholic catechism, discipline flagrantly heretical, progressive”social justice warrior” priests and nuns such as the defiant LCWR groups, and encourage the restoration of dignified, reverent, orthodox worship in its Ordinary Form? Pope Benedict’s “New Evangelization” was laudable, but all of his efforts seem to be quietly, and sometimes not so quietly opposed, by his perplexing successor. This highlights another major vulnerability to the papal Church’s governmental structure — one more traditional, orthodox Catholic pope can work so diligently to reform and undo decades of poor catechism and liturgical abuse, but then his more liberal successor can in turn undermine, slow, or undo all his efforts. The hypercentrality of the Papacy–which has the practical effect of rendering all Catholic diocesan bishops worldwide as essentially little more than deputies or vicars of the Pope, who thus becomes the only one true ruling bishop– has the major liability of allowing successive popes to greatly disrupt, interfere with, and disturb the organic liturgical life of the Church via papal fiat, Vatican council, or committee agenda. This kind of concentrated power to alter or revise or even do away with the sacred liturgy is incomprehensible to the Orthodox.
It is deeply saddening, and terribly ironic to me, that at the end of the day we Orthodox are being asked to sacrifice our commitment to absolute, organic, high and ancient standards of truth-conveying beauty in our liturgical life for the sake of external unity. We are being told “keep your liturgy as you like, for now, but if you enter into communion with Rome, you have to recognize even the most irreverent Novus Ordo Mass as valid.” This is theological and liturgical minimalism and I just can’t bring myself to accept it. I can’t see how it is right to offer second-rate worship to God in purposely-built ugly buildings with banal services but still pride oneself on being in communion with Pope Francis. What would one gain from entering into communion with him which one does not already have as an Orthodox Christian? My spiritual life would be greatly impoverished were I to do that, and I would lose so much of my relationship with God which the Orthodox Church has helped me deepen and cultivate.
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We so clearly have two different religions, two different faiths — Rome and the Orthodox. At our worst we Orthodox are factious and feuding. We need papal primacy properly exercised. But at Rome’s worst, you have archbishops and bishops presiding over the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress every single year, with either Rome’s tacit approval or her inability to stop the madness. Then you have the current Pope himself happily and freely presiding over, enabling, and doing nothing to correct a Children’s Mass in Buenos Aires filled with numerous examples of liturgical abuse. This man is supposed to Christ’s Vicar on earth? The idea is really laughable, were it not so sad.
My studies of all the Vatican I and Vatican II documents — and my years of seeing their poisonous fruits firsthand (appallingly bad-to-nonexistent parish Catholic catechesis, openly heretical “Spirit of VII” priests and nuns who deny the Real Presence and the Trinity and Christ’s maleness and even His (and thus all of our hope for) bodily resurrection, all sorts of liturgical abuse uncriticized and unchecked)– have convinced me that Rome has fundamentally erred and has lost in various ways the pre-Schism deposit of Faith which she once shared with the Orthodox. Put simply, if you go into almost any Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form parish on a Sunday, and then visit an Orthodox Divine Liturgy the next weekend, you will not be able to believe that these two services, worlds apart in content, ethos, atmosphere, decorum, style, and reverence, are somehow of the same religion and a shared faith.
We Orthodox are asked and expected to acknowledge the full, immediate, and supreme jurisdictional authority of a Pope, resting by virtue of his office in and on a man who, in the case of Pope Francis, willingly presided over flagrant liturgical abuse. Seriously? I just can’t believe that this man is who Rome claims him to be.
My point in all this is that the Orthodox have preserved, over centuries, in a living Faith, an astonishing degree of beauty and inner truth without the externally-imposed unifying power of a theoretically (in certain situations) infallible and unerring Pope. We have, despite centuries of Ottoman Turkish and then communist Soviet oppression, preserved something in and by and through the inner life of our Church — the divine services above all — and defended and kept and passed down such an inheritance of beauty united with Truth. Sadly, despite having her theoretically universally-ruling and situationally infallible Pope, or more likely because of this overcentralized papal structure, Rome could or would not preserve and keep intact this same rich and timeless deposit of Faith.
This is by no means to argue that the Orthodox Church does not have serious problems of its own, especially concerning evangelism and petty jurisdictional disputes, or that every Novus Ordo Catholic parish is a nest of irreverence or liturgical abuse. One can search hard and find a OF/Novus Ordo Mass properly offered according to the prescribed, rarely followed rubrics. These are a tiny minority — and this reality speaks volumes. With Catholic parishes in most Atlantic and Pacific coast towns and many even in more Protestant Midwestern states, something is really wrong if one has to drive hours, even across state lines, to find a reverently offered Novus Ordo Mass or Tridentine Mass. One can also remain in communion with the Pope and choose to worship in the different Eastern Rites or the Extraordinary Form (TLM) and shut one’s eyes and ears to flagrant liturgical abuse in Ordinary Form parishes. That defensive, withdrawing attitude of “what isn’t around me can’t harm me” is understandable for Catholics looking for a healthy, liturgically orthodox parish, but it is ultimately a kind of head-in-the-sand denial of the reality of how things are for the vast majority in the Catholic world. The sad reality is that the vast majority of Roman Catholics will never experience anything beyond a banal (to use Pope Benedict’s word), protestantized Mass of Pope Paul VI, which, as it is usually offered, is such a profoundly impoverished, sad departure from the glorious musical, artistic, liturgical, theological, and architectural patrimony of ancient and medieval Catholic tradition. 
Despite the laudable attempts at restoring Catholic orthodoxy via the recent New Evangelization, this movement has made very little headway outside of elite Catholic intellectual circles. I can guarantee that, once again on Western Christmas Eve this year, my local Catholic Novus Ordo parish will celebrate Mass on the second-holiest day of the year without incense, versus populum, clapping for the choir’s performance during the service against Pope Benedict’s ethos, a full music band, communion in the hand in an assembly line, etc. This kind of worship can’t possibly somehow be passed off as “basically the same thing” as the Orthodox Liturgy. No one can seriously be that blind. The ethos of the Mass will feel more like a banal, lovey-dovey Unitarian Universalist assembly than an authentic, reverent, traditional Catholic liturgy where Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary is fully made reality and He is offered, by and of Himself, on the altar to be worshiped and consumed body, soul, and divinity. Yet if I were to ask the parish priest beforehand to celebrate ad orientem and use incense, he would either be confused, laugh at me, or be annoyed that I dared to question or disrupt the “new normal” of post-VII life. Most Catholic laity have in this environment only a tiny glimmer of the glorious patrimony of Catholic sacred music or art or architecture. This is so sad.
How do you explain or reconcile yourself to all this? How did you come to terms with the rampant liturgical abuse, the poor state of parish catechism, or the hundreds of radical feminist liberal pro-abortion nuns (LCWR) who openly espouse various heresies, whom Benedict XVI sought to discipline but whom Francis let go free? How do you view the internal Vatican reaction to the child abuse scandals, or the reality that the Orthodox have preserved liturgical integrity and orthodoxy of belief far better without a supreme Pope than Roman Catholicism has managed to do with popes? I’d love to hear your thoughts when you have time. Thanks, and God be with you.

Abby Johnson testifies before Texas Senate on Planned Parenthood’s profiting from sale of fetal remains

Warning: The following testimony deals with the graphic issue of abortions, the dismemberment of fetal tissue after abortions, and the harvesting and disposal of fetal remains. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood abortion clinic director, testified before the Texas State Senate.

If you are reading this and have had an abortion, I am not judging you at all. I love you and pray for you, as does the whole Orthodox Church every day. My fervent hope is that you will not despair of your decision, but will unite yourself all the more deeply to the Church who loves you. If you are not an Orthodox Christian, Google “Orthodox Christian parish” and find the one closest to you. Stop by for a service sometime and revel in the peace. You are always welcome in the Lord’s temple. The Lord still loves you and always will, and He wants to offer you the healing your soul needs. If you were coerced by your partner or parents into getting an abortion, the Lord understands the truth of what happened. Nothing you can ever do will destroy or take away His love for you. If you are struggling after having had an abortion, please Google your nearest Orthodox Church, and, if you want, feel free to stop by, call, or talk to a priest there. That is a core part of their job, to counsel people in grief and desperation. They will not turn you away. God bless you and keep you, and bring you healing of soul and body. You are a beloved child of God, and always will be.

You are not alone in your struggle. Every year thousands of women who have gone through abortions regret their decision and feel deep pain over it. Abby Johnson has dedicated her life’s work to helping post-abortive women in the recovery and healing process. She worked for Planned Parenthood for many years and saw the evil of the institution from the inside.

Here is most of Ms. Johnson’s testimony:

My name is Abby Johnson, I am a former Planned Parenthood abortion clinic director. I worked directly for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast affiliate and ran one of their abortion centers. My testimony is going to specifically talk about the procedure of harvesting fetal tissue and organs. It is not true that [at PP] fetal tissue is only harvested through DNA procedures. Fetal tissue is harvested through manual vacuum aspiration… and vacuum aspiration procedures. The vacuum aspiration procedure is twenty-seven times more powerful — the suction — than a household vacuum, so it is not always a D&E [“dilation and evacuation” abortion procedure] that is performed. .. After the abortion is performed, the fetal tissue, the aborted child, is suctioned into a glass container. That glass container goes into a lab called the POC lab, the poc lab, that officially stands for ‘products of conception’, however in Planned Parenthood the joke was that it stood for ‘pieces of children’. The tissue would be dumped into a glass baking dish, a little water would be squirted in there, and the POC technician who is not medically trained in any way would then begin pulling the parts of the baby away from each other and, depending on what was ordered by the company that we [PP] were going through — we personally went through Amphioxus Cell Technologies and Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast– and we would pick out depending on what was ordered, whether it was eyes, liver, the entire body, babies are always dismembered during abortion procedures, whether it’s through D&E or an aspiration procedure. It is very rare to get intact tissue unless you are doing a procedure over sixteen weeks’ gestation. Many times they would also be ordering extremities — legs, arms, the calvarium, which is the skull, the head. We would piece these parts and then we would put them into a bio-hazard zip-lock bag. That would go into a Styrofoam container that had dry ice in it. That would go into our freezer that was already in the POC room. The freezer was jokingly called the nursery inside of our abortion facility, that was where all of the babies were held until a company…would come and either take them for bio-hazard waste [disposal] or we would ship them to the Amphioxus Cell Technology company. Generally, in our studies that we did, we received $200 in compensation per baby that was sent. I can assure you that there is no additional charge for collection, or storage of fetal tissue. The only additional expense would be shipping and that’s between five to ten dollars per specimen, not $200. That [the $200] is sheer profit for Planned Parenthood, and let’s just be a little generous here, the Planned Parenthood in Houston off of the Gulf Freeway, their abortion quota is to perform 75 abortions every day, 6 days per week. Let’s be conservative and say they only charged $100 per specimen, and let’s say that only 50 of the 75 women consented to harvesting this fetal tissue. That would be $100 per specimen, 50 specimens per day would be $5,000 per day, multiply that 6 days a week, we’re talking about $30,000 per week that Planned Parenthood was collecting from fetal tissue. Extrapolate that $120,000 per month. That is certainly not recouping cost from the abortion procedure or anything relating to fetal tissue research…

You can hear Ms. Johnson’s full testimony which begins at 2 hours and 30 minutes into this video. You can follow and ‘like’ Ms. Johnson’s page on Facebook here, and link to her professional website here.

Just to give you an idea of how much profit Planned Parenthood makes off the sale of fetal remains: if we take Ms. Johnson’s figure of (a low estimate) of Planned Parenthood making only $100 per fetal specimen, harvesting 50 fetal specimens a day, results in a profit of $5,000 per day, multiply that by six days a week (how many days PP operates) and you have $30,000 per week. Multiply that by four and you have $120,000 per month, with a grand annual total of an astonishing $1,440,000 — this is how much profit an average Planned Parenthood clinic could make per year off the sale of fetal remains. Yes, that ugly Planned Parenthood building closest to you could well be making over one million dollars per year off the sale of fetal remains. Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, friend of President Obama and daughter of the late Democratic Texas pro-abortion governor Ann Richards, makes a whooping annual salary of $400,000 per year — the same salary as the U.S. President himself. In just three months of one clinic’s sale of fetal remains, Richards’ annual salary is paid for.

Planned Parenthood’s website lists over 700 clinic locations across the United States .If we multiply the annual fetal remains profit of $1,440,000 per clinic by 700, the result — the total annual profit Planned Parenthood obtains from the sale of aborted fetuses’ remains — is a staggering $1,008,000,000 — yes, over one billion dollars. In this March 25, 2006 Washington Post article by Darragh Johnson covering Cecile Rechards, then the newly-appointed president of Planned Parenthood, the article claims that the organization operates “850 health-care clinics”, meaning that, if we take the earlier figure of an annual profit per clinic from the sale of fetal remains of $1,440,000 and multiply it by 850, the total annual profit Planned Parenthood obtains from the sale of aborted fetuses increases to a numbing $1,224,000,000.

Open Letter to Archbishop Demetrios of America on Matthew Heimbach

We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.

– Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople

“Do you consider yourself a racist?”

“Sure! So what?”

– Matthew Heimbach to an interviewer in the video clip here.

To: His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Chairman of the Holy Eparchial Synod of Bishops, and Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.

CC: Ms. Marissa P. Costidis, Department of Communications, Coordinator, Managing Director of GOTelecom, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Your Eminence, bless!

I consider it the greatest blessing to be part of the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ which has produced so many holy men and women and Saints over the centuries. In particular, it is a great source of inspiration to me and so many of my Millennial generation that we have the prophetic words of the 1872 Council of Constantinople which, possessed of a divine vision for the inherent dignity of all humanity, condemned phyletism and other forms of racism decades before the national Civil Rights movement arose. I consider it a great honor and blessing that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in particular was blessed with so courageous a hierarch and Primate as the late and ever-blessed Archbishop Iakovos, who marched at Selma with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965. I am aware of Your Eminence’s own recent commemoration of this momentous event in the life and history of our nation.

My conscience obliges me to report to Your Eminence that a white supremacist named Matthew Heimbach, who claims to be a practicing Orthodox Christian, has unfortunately been receiving major media coverage from ABC News in the wake of the recent Charleston shootings. Only yesterday, an article appeared in ABC News in which Heimbach was interviewed while wearing an Orthodox cross. Mr. Heimbach has publicly claimed that the suspected shooter in the Charleston attach is a “victim” of a culture which, supposedly, hates and oppresses white people. Mr. Heimbach has claimed, and continues to claim –falsely– that his racist views somehow are in line with those of Orthodox Christianity. He further claims, despite having been excommunicated for his views by Bishop Anthony of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest, to be an active Orthodox Christian in good standing. While his constitutional rights to free speech allow him to do this, I and a number of my friends from across Orthodox jurisdictions are greatly concerned that Mr. Heimbach’s views will cause non-Orthodox members of the public to associate the Holy Church with his radical, un-Orthodox views. He is furthermore presenting a false narrative, claiming himself to be an active member of the Church when in fact he is excommunicated. I am especially anxious that the memory of your illustrious predecessor Archbishop Iakovos not be profaned by the shameful association of such an ignoble man with Holy Orthodoxy.

I and so many of my generation appreciate Your Eminence’s loving and strong message of support for and solidarity with the victims of the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting. It is a joy to have such a conscientious hierarch as yourself to express such sentiments which reflect the timeless Orthodox teaching on the inherent dignity of all human life. I am writing now to Your Eminence in your capacity as Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, with the fervent hope and prayer that, in your wisdom and charity, you will urge your brother bishops, both in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and in the Assembly itself, to 1) reiterate that Matthew Heimbach is an excommunicated person outside the Orthodox Church and 2) to issue a statement from the Assembly bishops condemning the Charleston shootings for what they were: a racist, hate-motivated terrorist attack.

Yours faithfully in Christ,

-Ryan Hunter (Christian name “Silouan”)

P.S. I have also written to His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese here.

Superb essay on U.S. and U.K. media’s ongoing Russophobia by Catherine Brown

I know no Russian who has any knowledge of Russia’s representation in Britain who is not strongly critical of it. I too am depressed by it, specifically because I think that it is intellectually and morally demeaning, and counter-productive to a dangerous degree.

-Dr Catherine Brown

I could not agree more with these words. They describe the sentiments held by all of my Russian friends, of all religious persuasions, and of all political persuasions. Of my Russian friends–only three of whom are from Moscow, and none of whom are active members of Putin’s political party– all of them nonetheless strongly support President Putin’s policies, believe he has had a strongly positive impact on their country’s economic development, and believe that Crimea, historically part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev drunkenly signed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, is now rightfully once again part of nasha strana.

Noted British professor, author, and academic Dr Catherine Brown recently published a superb essay “Deconstructing Russophobia” on her blog. By her own admission, Dr Brown has “no ethnic, financial, professional or political ties to Russia whatsoever. It follows that I am not a Russian expert – but nor am I, on the other hand, parti pris. I am a friendly, distanced observer of the country.” This is the way I would describe my own godmother, a lifelong Russianist who has no ties to Russia save her abiding interest in the pre-Soviet Tsarist period, especially its magnificent artistic, cultural, and religious heritage.

Dr Brown, while not claiming herself to be “a Russian expert”, is nonetheless immensely qualified from her decades of direct experience with all matters Russian to write on the topic. Her academic resume is of the highest calibre:

My academic position is as Senior Lecturer and Convenor (Head of Department) of English at New College of the Humanities in London.

I took a BA in English Literature at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, then an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics. I lived in New York and Moscow, and learned Spanish and Russian, before coming back to literary academia with an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, and a PhD at Caius College Cambridge as an Anglo-Russian comparatist.

I taught English at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Greenwich, before starting in my current position in London in 2012.

Dr Brown begins her essay by reeling in her readers with a gentle yet damning satire of the ongoing idiotic British and American narrative of Putin as a tyrant and thug:

Imagine that Vladimir Putin were not a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who has spent his fourteen years in power living up to his KGB past and dragging Russia ever back towards Communist autocracy, illiberalism, and expansionism. Imagine that instead he were the one of the greatest leaders that Russia has had, whose policies have helped produce a massive rise in living standards and life expectancy, recuperation of national pride, and enforcement of the rule of law, who has tackled kleptocrats and gangsters wisely and well, whose foreign policy has on balance been realistic, diplomatic, and conducive to peace, who has presided over a country of which the human rights record is considerably better than that of the United States and in which civil rights are improving, and who richly deserves the steady support of 65% – currently at a Ukraine-related high of 83% – of the population that he possesses. It is my understanding that the reality is closer to the second scenario than the first…

Dr Brown notes that, since the early 2000s, she has noticed a steady improvement in the conditions of life for ordinary Russians under Putin’s tenure as President and then Prime Minister:

A year later, on a visit, the situation was slightly better. The most extravagant misery was no longer apparent. A year later, better still. And that has been the consistent pattern on all my visits since then. Capitalism has been getting its gloves back on. Public facilities are in a much better state. Nothing is sold in dollars and Western brands have Russian rivals. A sensible tax structure means that businesses and salaried employees can and do pay their taxes. One sees no-one drunk in public. Muscovite women no longer exaggerate their femininity in a way which testifies to financial insecurity and a strenuous imitation of a pornographically-imagined West. And most reassuringly of all, to Westerners used to this custom, people have begun to smile. Even the hardest cases – the babushki guarding the museum rooms, and the border guards at passport control – will now return a smile. Last year, for the first time, I felt that Russia was in a new phase – the post-post-Soviet, in which people are no longer waiting for normality to be re-established, or yearning to live in a ‘normal’ country. A new normality, and a new optimism, have emerged.

Dr Brown also notes how the Western condemnation of the Russian government’s prosecution of activist group Pussy Riot for their “punk prayer” on the solea of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was both grossly inaccurate and flagrantly hypocritical. She also observes how Pussy Riot are anything but a legitimate musical band or decent political activist group, noting that prior to their desecration of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, they had done even more offensive things in public to attract attention:

In certain respects the operation of the Russian law is more lenient than the British. Prior to their ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, members of Pussy Riot had performed public sex in a museum, and thrown live cats at workers in a McDonalds restaurant. In Britain such acts could have resulted in prison sentences of at least two years, whereas in Russia they were not prosecuted at all. One reason why Pussy Riot were prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ was that it disrupted and parodied a religious act of worship, which is specifically prohibited under Russian (as also British) law, and which is particularly comprehensible in a country with a history of state persecution of religion.

Dr Brown goes on to note how the Russian human rights record is far superior to that of the United States, with Russia incarcerating fewer prisoners, the death penalty no longer practiced at all there, and Russia not allowing its President to “authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial” as the United States has done since the authorization of the Patriot Act.

Let us compare Russia to the United States (China being of course much worse than both). The US has around 730 to Russia’s 598 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. It uses the death penalty, executes minors, and empowers its President to authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial. Russia does none of these things. The US government has significantly curtailed Americans’ civil liberties under the Patriot Act, extensively spies on the media activities of its own and other countries’ citizens, and detains hundreds of people without trial in an international network of secret prisons. Russians’ civil liberates are now more strongly guaranteed by law than are Americans’; there is no evidence or suggestion that Russia kidnaps individuals abroad or outsources torture, nor that it runs a torture camp resembling Guantanamo Bay, nor that the FSB spies on Russian citizens to anything near the extent that the NSA spies on Americans, let alone on foreigners. In this respect – the extent of spying on their own citizens – Russia and the US have changed places since the end of the Soviet Union.

Dr Brown’s essay is refreshing in that she analyses Western media’s biases against Russia from a purely secular perspective. Thus, her analysis appeals to the majority of Russian scholars in Britain and the United States who are not Orthodox. Nonetheless, I think her essay would have befitted from one additional area of analysis: religious identity. This is a core difference between American and British civilization and Russian civilization. Neither Britain nor the United States have been defined by a single unifying, common religious heritage, whereas all of Russian history is closely tied to the country’s embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity over a thousand years ago. Unlike the mostly non-religious country of Britain, Russia saw no inter-confessional religious wars, and large Muslim and Buddhist religious minorities continue to live in Russia today.

British history is marked by years of intermittent violence between Catholics and Protestants, with the pendulum of persecution veering from the targeting of both Catholics and Lutherans under Henry VIII, to savage persecution of Catholics under Edward VI, to the Marian persecution of Protestants under the infamous “Bloody” Mary I, to a less intense but still damning level of persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I and James VI and I. The English Civil War was fought in large measure because Puritans despised the High Church Anglican King Charles I, whom they feared was sympathetic to Catholicism, while in 1689 the English Bill of Rights specifically disenfranchised English Catholics and made them second-class citizens under the law.

The United States is the first nation in history to have been uniquely founded without a national confession, a single, unifying religion, and so we have no concept of what it means to have a people’s national identity married to their religion. Suzanne Massie, American author, Russian expert, and President Reagan’s adviser on Russian culture and history, understood this when no one else did: that a significant factor behind the disconnect between Russia and the U.S. was the complete unfamiliarity of Americans, on a cultural level, with the notion of a nation being founded on one religion. Reagan called Massie “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.” Massie writes in her memoirs Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me that:

“There were reasons for our official blindness, among them that in the United States we have the tendency to see everything as a reflection of our own beliefs. Being “like us” is equivalent to being “right.” We in America can choose our religion as if we were shopping for a new car, changing at will, and harbor thousands of offshoots and sects. Because our history is founded on personal choice for all religions we have no experience or understanding of a religion that represents a nation, and we find this somehow disturbing. The history of Russia is the opposite, and the communist regime of the Soviet Union always understood this fact completely.” (135).

In fact, far from having “a religion that represents a nation”, our national identity is in many ways influenced by our lack of a single, unifying religion. Russian history, void of the religious wars that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation, is one of largely peaceful coexistence between the Orthodox majority and local religious minorities. While we have all read of the infamous anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century during the Tsarist period, the inescapable reality is that all of these tragedies occurred not in Russia proper, but in Ukraine, predominantly western (Greek Catholic) Ukraine.

I interviewed Suzanne Massie in late November 2014 after Liturgy in the Holy Archangels Chapel in Washington, DC, where my spiritual father regularly presides over the divine services. She and I share the same godmother– my godmother is a dear friend of hers– and we were both received into the Church within a year of each other. Massie told me that to know Orthodoxy is to know Russia, and to know Russian history is to begin to know Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound up in Russia’s national identity. The only intellectual force — if one wants to so denigrate the term “intellectual” — that ever pushed for the separation of this dual Russian and Orthodox identity was Marxist-Leninism, or, more properly, what came to be Soviet Bolshevism.

What Massie insisted that Reagan learn, and what President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their advisers remain sadly ignorant of to this day, is that one cannot hope to understand Russia today without first coming to understand its religious history. Russian Orthodoxy is the only cultural and religious institution that survived Soviet rule. It is the single and deepest connection Russians have to the pre-revolutionary period, to the thousand years of Russian history before the Soviet nightmare. If you dismiss Orthodoxy’s role in shaping Russian history, as both Obama and Cameron clearly have, you will remain profoundly ignorant of the most basic aspects of Russian cultural history.

The Orthodox Christian faith has influenced the very foundations of Russian society. The Russian word for ‘Sunday’ is воскресенье (voskresenie), [Christ’s] ‘Resurrection’, while the most common phrase for ‘Thank you’, спасибо (spasibo), is a compound of Spasi bog — literally ‘God saves’ («Спаси тебя/вас Бог» means, literally, “God save you” ). The Russian word for peasant–the vast majority of Russians in Russian history — is крестьянин (khrestyanin), literally, a Christian. These nuances are all tragically lost on those who rule in Washington, London, and Brussels today.

The very heart and soul of Russia — the Orthodox Church — is experiencing a steady, imperfect yet unstoppable revival, and all that this merits from senior U.S., British, and EU policymakers is cynicism. Take for example the widely circulated yet disputed figure from the Pew Forum that, as of 2008, only 7% of Russians attend Orthodox services every month. This claim merits deeper examination. Even if we take that statistic as accurate, Russia’s population is currently 144 million, so seven percent of this figure is just over 10 million people. By contrast, in England, which still has an official, state-funded Church, only 800,000 Britons attend Church of England services weekly, out of a population of 64 million.

Russia is experiencing a cultural renaissance, a rediscovery of its true identity after seventy-four years of enforced atheism and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should we miss the opportunity to reach Russians where they are, at this moment in their history, I fear we will lose a crucial chance to genuinely come to better understand Russian society’s past, present, and future.

One cannot understand the religious revival taking place in Russia today if one does not first understand, and contrast it, with the state-sponsored suppression of and attempted extermination of religion under the Soviets. When the Bolsheviks had taken power, Massie writes, they attempted to completely destroy all vestiges of religion, considered the chief obstacle to building an ideal socialist state:

“. . . all religion was considered Enemy Number One, but Orthodoxy the most dangerous, to be eradicated with all the ruthlessness they could command. They set out to commit what can only be called a genocide of the Church. In 1918 they began to wage what they called a “war on God.” All manifestations of religion were prohibited as were all Church holidays, even Easter and Christmas. Liturgical music was banned until the mid-1980s. Sunday was made a compulsory work day. . . the word god was always to be spelled in lower case. Thousands of historic churches and all their treasures were destroyed outright. . . Millions of icons were destroyed, broken, or sold abroad along with other treasures of the Church. Multitudes of priests and believers were murdered outright, more imprisoned or sent to labor camps. (136-37).

A quarter century after the fall of the USSR, the most important national institution in Russia today, the only one to outlast the Soviet Union, remains the Russian Orthodox Church. It is impossible for anyone hoping to understand Russia to do so without first coming to understand the guiding role the Church played—and continues to play— in forming the country’s national identity.

In This Great Service: A Theological and Political Defense of Monarchy

Laurits Tuxen's 1898 Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna.

Laurits Tuxen’s 1898 Coronation Portrait of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna.

“Lord God of our fathers, and King of Kings, Who created all things by Thy word, and by Thy wisdom has made man, that he should walk uprightly and rule righteously over Thy world; Thou hast chosen me as . . . judge over Thy people. I acknowledge Thy unsearchable purpose towards me, and bow in thankfulness before Thy Majesty. Do Thou, my Lord and Governor, fit me for the work to which Thou hast sent me; teach me and guide me in this great service. May there be with me the wisdom which belongs to Thy throne; send it from Thy Holy Heaven, that I may know what is well-pleasing in Thy sight, and what is right according to Thy commandment. May my heart be in Thy hand, to accomplish all that is to the profit of the people committed to my charge and to Thy glory, that so in the day of Thy judgment I may give Thee account of my stewardship without blame; through the grace and mercy of Thy Son, Who was once crucified for us, to Whom be all honor and glory with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

–Russian emperors’ coronation oath, last spoken by Nicholas II at his coronation in 1896.

“Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

Georgian Queen Tamar the Great’s dying prayer, uttered in 1213.

This will be no great tract, for such a lengthy essay it is not in my power at present time to write, and wiser men and women than I have already left the world with so many excellent essays on the virtues of the monarchical system. Instead, let this essay serve as a straightforward and simple enumeration of the benefits of monarchy, its inherent virtues, and natural superiority over the republican form of government presently used by most of the world.

Further, let it serve as a theological reflection on the reality that kingship is the sole political model which is recognized and discussed in the Holy Scriptures, even though several forms of government existed in the world at the time of the Scriptures’ composition. As Christ is often referred to as the eternal King of the ages and the Son of David, let the point stand that the Israelites prior to His coming understood and anticipated His messiahship as a typological fulfillment and full realization of their ancient Davidic kingship. That is, as Israel’s kings were anointed by God and consecrated to their duties of holy service to Him and His people, even carrying out specific priestly roles in the Temple, so too have “pious kings and right-believing queens” of the Orthodox Faith, as defenders of the new Israel, the Church, been understood throughout their existence to be consecrated to their people’s service and anointed by God. Reflecting the highly typological language of the Church, which permeates all of her liturgical services, the role of the Christian king is compared to that of Christ: just as Christ the God-Man unites Himself in loving service to the Church His people, all kings are called to unite themselves in a life of service and martyric dedication to their people.

Before Christ’s incarnation, the kings of the line of King David, who was both the Lord’s anointed king and a priest and prophet for His people Israel, served God as the earthly governors of His people, while after Christ’s incarnation—with the world transfigured and time and matter itself made sacred by God Himself having come to dwell among humanity and take on human nature in all things except our sinfulness—Christian kings served God in this way, as stewards, caretakers, and servants of the good order, security, and peacefulness of their people. This is why, throughout Christendom, but especially in the Orthodox East, the rites of coronation and anointing of Christian monarchs emphasize not only their natural and ontological bond with their subjects—an essentially familial bond in which the king is father of his people and the queen the mother of her people—but also the continuation in the Church and with the Church’s blessing of Davidic kingship. Christian kings in general, and Orthodox monarchs in particular, have a claim to the Davidic lineage of kings which has its origins in the very pages of the Old Testament’s books of Samuel the Prophet.

One particularly striking historical reality is the concept of Davidic kingship as it was practiced for some 2,800 years in ancient Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia). Preceding Christ’s incarnation by some eight centuries, the royal House of Solomon in what would ultimately become (after AD 451) the non-Chalcedonian kingdom of Ethiopia by its very name claimed not only a theological and ontological continuity with the line of David, but, as the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church’s canonical book “The Glory of Kings” (Kebra Negast) lays out, the foundation of the Solomon dynasty is that they claim to be the literal, biological descendants of King David through his son Solomon’s son Menelek. According to the Kebra Negast, Menelek was Solomon’s son and the successor of Solomon’s purported lover Queen Makeda of Axum (mythically Sheba). As the story goes, the young Menelek purportedly brought the original Ark of the Covenant with him to Ethiopia after leaving his father’s kingdom, and while the House of Solomon no longer rules there, it is in Ethiopia, as the Ethiopian Church claims, that the true Ark resides to this day.

Leaving aside the unique claims made by the Ethiopian kings and their Church, which follows the proscriptions of the Mosaic Law more closely than any other Christian communion, the concept of Davidic kingship is one not limited to mere biological descent from King David (however fascinating that possibility is to contemplate), but one of covenantal kingship in which God anoints and consecrates the king and/or queen as His servant(s) who carry out and bear with His grace the burden of the “great service” of governing His people (see the above coronation oath of Russian monarchs). Davidic kingship, by necessity, is a royal lineage or authority which resides only with the people of Israel. Who are the people of Israel today? By this term, I do not mean Israel the geographical spot on a map (which the Romans called Palestina) or Israel the modern Jewish political state established in 1948. Both Israel on the map and Israel the State are not the ontological entity of Israel, the people of God, which, since Pentecost and the coming down of the Holy Spirit, isthe Orthodox Church, the “New Israel” of the New Covenant.

Because the Church alone, in heaven and on earth, is the full dwelling place and abode of the Holy Spirit, which blesses and consecrates all things and raises up the human race to the heavenly, in the Church alone rests the ability and authority to bless and consecrate kings and queens to God’s service. This is why, from the first Christian Roman emperors of the fourth century (on through the later Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperors) to the ancient kings and queens of England and France, to the Orthodox emperors and empresses of Russia, Christian kingdoms uniformly understood their monarchs and consorts to be first and foremost God’s anointed servants, endowed by the Church at their coronations with the charism or grace of the Church’s blessing of their “great service”. The Church always understood monarchs’ lives—however grave their individual shortcomings or crimes might be—to have been solemnly consecrated to the Lord’s service from their coronation and anointing, and dedicated to the defense, good ordering, and stewardship of His people.

It goes without saying that, as all presidential republics or parliamentary democracies see authority as primarily coming up temporarily to elected rulers from the people of the nation themselves andnot down from God upon divinely anointed and consecrated king and queens, no elected system can theoretically or practically embody, manifest, or make real the solemn and covenantal three-way relationship that exists between God, a crowned and anointed monarch, and his or her people. There is no covenant between President Obama and the American people, nor was there such between any of his predecessors and the people, nor was there between Prime Minister David Cameron and the British people, or President Hollande and the French people. A constitutional oath is not a covenant with God, but merely a promise to the people to respect the existing earthly constitutional laws of the state. Unlike a coronation, at which the new sovereign is mystically and forever joined to his or her people, there is no spiritual dimension whatsoever to the inauguration of a president or the first Cabinet meeting of a prime minister.

An individual president or prime minister may or may not govern well, he or she may or may not be privately a virtuous and ethical person, but whether or not they are virtuous or ethical, never mind pious, devout, and concerned with the state of his or her soul, is of literally no concern to the republican or democratic system itself. It is not so much that democracy or republicanism sanctions or “blesses” the immorality of its rulers so much as both elected systems are 1) entirely unconcerned with morality, 2) founded and enunciated without any real concern for private morality or the idea of corporate, national salvation, and 3) have no authority or license besides a subjective appeal to God or some other kind of transcendent moral framework by which they may appeal to, recognize, or submit to any kind of universal, objective Truth. Democracy is not so much allergic to the notion of objective Truth as it is blind to it; the only real truth in any democracy is the ever-changing will of the people expressed through the act of voting.

A democracy or republic’s people may overwhelmingly follow one religion, for example, as in largely Catholic Ireland or Sunni Muslim Turkey or Pakistan, but any appeal by the president or prime minister of that country to that one prevailing religion is, in a republic or democracy, a fundamentally alien appeal grounded in that elected leader’s personal whim or the perceived political expediency of the moment. There is nothing foundationally or integrally religious in either the democratic or republican systems, since all elected systems have as the basis and fount of their authority the fundamentally secularexpression of the popular will, not some sort of objective Truth (e.g. God’s blessing and sanction to reign following His laws and commandments). Even if one approaches the subject of government from an atheistic perspective, and one does not believe in a God who supposedly blesses and sanctifies a monarchy and the rule of the monarchs, it remains inescapable that the political foundation of monarchy is entirely a religious one (the blessing and authority of God), whereas the political foundation of a republic or democracy is an entirely secular construct in which God’s will and His very existence are both utterly irrelevant to the foundation, mission, and legitimacy of the political state. It is of little surprise that the philosophical and ethical foundations of all modern republics and democracies are the writings of so-called “Enlightenment” thinkers who were, without exception, all deists or atheists in their private religious beliefs.

Built entirely on the inherently and inevitably changing expression of whatever happens to be the popular will at a given moment in time, democracies and republics are fundamentally onlyconcerned with whatever might be the will of their voters, and therefore, they are fundamentally notconcerned with questions of what constitutes objective Truth, whether such Truth exists, or how to best lead a nation’s people toward that Truth. A republic or democracy’s people may live their lives unconscious of, and the body politic may exist entirely ignorant of, for instance, the Person of Christ, Whom Christians know to be God the eternal Son, yet nothing in the elected “contracts” of a prime minister or president oblige them in the discharge of their office to introduce their people to Christ (or if the country is mostly Muslim, to the teachings of Muhammad found in the Qur’an, etc.). This is because any republic or democracy is fundamentally secular in nature (any republics ostensibly rooted in religion such as the world’s many “Islamic republics” are an existential and ontological aberration with literally no credible, ancient theological foundation within Islam itself.)

Since elected rulers’ authority is entirely secular, as it is derived only from the power and authority conferred by a popular election, it is entirely outside the scope of a president or prime minister’s elected prerogative and therefore, his or her necessarily temporary authority, to understand his or her temporary stewardship of the body politic as one uniquely blessed and sanctified by God. An individual president or prime minister might happen to be a devout Muslim or Christian who believes that God blessed his or her leadership of their country, but there is nothing within the political system over which they preside that recognizes this entirely subjective belief. Whether or not a president or prime minister believes in God or that God may have blessed his or her leadership is fundamentally irrelevant to the discharge and duties of their secular, elected office. The only real blessing in the republican or democratic systems is that of the voter who “blesses” the candidate by voting for him or her in an election.

This is why democratic republicanism (or republican democracy, however one prefers to order the term) is essentially a secular, entirely non-religious creation. God’s very existence is a matter of literally no concern within the framework of a republican or democratic government, which, taking its authority only from the people, presupposes onlythat the people themselves are sovereign to the degree that their express approval is required for the election of new leaders of the body politic. The only “blessing” that takes place in the casting of ballots at the poll stations or at the later “inauguration” rites in presidential systems is the manifestation of the popular will through the election-based transfer of political power. It goes without saying that the conferring of the people’s will and approval of this or that candidate is an altogether different framework for conferring and recognizing political authority than the solemn anointing and sacred consecration by the Holy Spirit through the Church of a king or queen, or emperor or empress to their people’s service (or, in Islam, the blessing by Allah of a Muslim monarch’s reign).

These musings on the foundational flaws and problems in the republican and democratic political systems beg the question: What is monarchy? Above all else, it a solemn and covenantal service to God in which the monarch is ultimately subject to the Creator to give an account of his or her stewardship and rule over His people. The greatest monarchs in history are those who were the most effective stewards of the good order, prosperity, and peacefulness of their realms. Just as Christianity understands that is natural for men and women to honor, love, and worship their Creator, as man has his very purpose and end in serving and loving Him, so too it is natural for all righteous rulers to honor, love, and worship their Creator, and see themselves as not so much exalted above their subjects so much as the first of His humble servants. The virtues and values of these concepts are entirely alien to the republican and democratic systems, in which God fundamentally does not matter.

Practically speaking, monarchy is the hereditary inheritance and exercise of either political power, ancient ceremonial authority, or both such power and authority, in which the monarch is understood to be the chief servant of the good of his or her realm. The chief good, in a spiritual sense, in any religious society is mankind’s salvation, so for a Christian monarch, it is his or her fundamental duty to encourage, however deemed best, the living of Christian values and a common Christian life by his or her people. For Muslim monarchs, it is their fundamental duty to encourage, however deemed best, the living of Muslim values and a common Muslim life by their people, the same applying to Buddhist monarchs or Hindu monarchs, and so on. The virtue and values of these concepts (of encouraging the spiritual development and transformation of their people) are again fundamentally alien to the republican and democratic systems.

Any monarchy in a religious society, in which the monarch’s reign is understood to be blessed by God, is one that must essentially and practically value above all else the corporate salvation of the nation as the highest duty, the highest good and ontological purpose or end of the monarchy and the political state itself. Seeing as all republican and democratic governments are fundamentally notconcerned with God or salvation, their leaders understandably do not value this. The greatest purpose or end of a democratic or republican system is, in the baldest sense, the perpetuation and preservation by the dominant party’s elite of their own political power.

It is apparent to any student of history that there have been successful monarchs and terrible monarchs, just as there have been successful presidents and terrible presidents, effective prime ministers and incompetent ones. I would never presume to argue that we should accept various monarchs’ abuses of their authority throughout history, and history is rightfully harsh on monarchs who showed themselves to be either incompetent or tyrannical. Yet, just as the reality that certain presidents and premiers have abused their authority does not singularly prove the defectiveness of democracy as a political system, so too republicans and democrats ought to acknowledge that bad monarchs’ presence in history does not singularly prove monarchy’s defectiveness. My account here is not an ideological defense of the historical record of all monarchs as ‘good’, nor is it a condemnation of all republican and democratic authorities as ‘bad’. Instead, it is an examination of the virtues, benefits, and liabilities of both systems (monarchy and republican democracy), with the implicit realization that in both systems there have been certain authorities who governed better or worse than others.

Nevertheless, I am prepared to argue that, within the framework of political theory, monarchs are actually far more accountable to their people than are elected republican leaders. Most elective, republican systems today are inherently non-theistic in their political constitutions (God does not appear as the ultimate authority and judge of mankind), and thus, their notions of political accountability are completely divorced from God or any notion of objective Truth, salvation, redemption, or eternal consequences. Nothing intrinsic to the nature of the elected office of president or prime minister beholds occupants of either office to see themselves as accountable to God for their exercise of that office. Conscientious presidents and premiers throughout history have naturally held themselves accountable to both God and their people, but this is not something which the elected roles themselves prescribe. In monarchies, on the other hand, the monarch’s accountability to God for their service on behalf of their people is at the very foundation of the office and role itself. This accountability of service is stressed numerous times in the foundational prayers and supplications used in their rites of coronation. It is the primary and defining source of their political authority and legitimacy. An individual president or prime minister might personally believe themselves to rule with God’s help; no monarch may dare to rule without it.

From an iconic Christian perspective, bearing in mind above all else the transformational reality of Christ the God-Man’s incarnation, which sanctifies and raises up human nature to its natural and divine potential, Christian monarchy alone of all forms of political authority has at its core the ideas of self-sacrifice, loving service, individual and collective transformation and growing in holiness, and accountability directly rooted in the Christian Gospel. Of all forms of government, Christian monarchy alone directs and compels those in paramount authority to pursue that which is objectively good and true, because Christian monarchy alone is rooted in, believes in, and is defined as succeeding or failing based on to what extent its rulers foster, pursue, and protect that which is objectively good and true—the corporate and ever-deepening life of the people in Christ. Monarchy alone demands of the ruler an account before God of his or her carrying out of that lifelong role of service and dedication.

To this end, I will share one anecdote: according to Georgian Orthodox priest Fr. Zakaria Machitadze in his book The Lives of Georgian Saints, when Queen Tamar the Great ascended the Georgian throne in 1184 following her father King Giorgi III’s death, she addressed the clergy of her realm with these words outlying the basic duties and obligations of her role as monarch:

At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “Begin with me — if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation.… You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

St. Queen Tamar the Great of Georgia (1160-1213, r. 1184-1213).St. Queen Tamar the Great of Georgia (1160-1213, r. 1184-1213).

In every monarchy in the world, from ancient times to present, all monarchs have been instructed and admonished in their accession celebrations, coronation oaths, or other installation ceremonies with regard to the tremendous ethical responsibilities and sacred obligations incumbent upon their high office. In Imperial Rome, emperors celebrating triumphal processions were acclaimed as the personification of the supreme deity, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, yet at their side throughout the fanfare stood a humble slave, whose duty was to whisper in the emperor’s ear the humbling and haunting words Momento mori: “Remember: you are mortal.” Imperial China, the world’s longest-lasting monarchy, maintained since the Zhou dynasty the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, by which the emperors (called the “Son of Heaven”, Tianzi) were accountable to the gods of heaven (Tian) for their rule and, if they transgressed beyond all bounds of propriety or became so ineffective that they endangered the empire, the divine mandate to rule could be withdrawn and transferred to someone else worthy of holding it.

While elected civil authorities today commonly swear public oaths to maintain and defend the political constitutions of their respective nation-states, monarchs throughout history commonly undertook solemn, public oaths to govern their peoples with mercy, truth, and righteousness, ideals which are emphatically, and inseparably tied to the Christian Gospel. A modern president or prime minister swears only to defend the integrity of a fallible constitutional document composed by men; the Christian ideals of mercy, truth, and righteousness are entirely absent from any elected head of government’s oath. In the history of the world’s other largest monotheistic faith, Islam, monarchs also saw themselves as accountable to God and the precepts put forth in Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, and recitations from this book featured prominently in the installation rites of the Sunni Ottoman Turkish sultans and Shiite Safavid Persian shahs.

By the very nature of the democratic system in which they operate, democratically elected leaders in republics are accountable in actuality only to ever-shifting opinion polls, the often amoral and conflicting political interests of their most powerful financial supporters, and the media whose presentation of political events often significantly influences voters’ opinion. Even the best republican leaders in history have always had to balance these often conflicting demands of office, so that the pursuit of the ideals of the Truth becomes clouded at best and often instead entirely abandoned in the fray of partisan politics. In contrast, even the worst monarchs in history are, within the monarchical framework, accountable notonly to their people, but especially and ultimately to God for how they serve and reign. By God’s grace all kings reign and ultimately to Him all must give an account of their stewardship. Therefore, a monarch who has spent his or her formative years being trained in the service of their people and in love and fear of God will feel and understand himself or herself to be accountable to history, to their people, and especially to God who rules over all things. This ancient monarchical process of the formation of the ruler as his or her people’s first servant and dedicated defender is a much more time-tested method of producing able rulers than the comparatively recent, modern notion that a previously partisan, highly divisive elected politician will, once sworn into office, suddenly become a moral, ethically driven person able to execute his or her office above partisan interests. Indeed, while history is replete with numerous examples of selfless and dedicated monarchs, I have yet to come across one politician who operated entirely selflessly and without partisan bias.

Thus, from both a theoretical and a practical viewpoint, monarchs are far truer servants of their state than democratic, republican leaders can ever hope to be. Whether a monarch actively rules (exercising paramount political authority in his or her kingdom) or simply reigns ceremonially, as most do today, his or her coronation or installation oath invariably binds them to serve and reign above all else in remembrance and fear of God, prioritizing the salvation, moral and ethical good, and lifelong service of their people. Democratic and republican constitutional oaths prescribe no such obligations on the part of a president or prime minister.

I include the above coronation oath taken by Russian emperors to contrast it with the oaths of office commonly taken by elected republican heads of state today. Whereas the President of the United States solemnly swears to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to the best of his or her ability “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”, the Russian emperors, to use just one example, swear a solemn oath before God and their people to “accomplish all that is to the profit of the people committed to my charge”. The Russian monarchs who were crowned as God’s supreme earthly “judge over Thy people” humbly “bow in thankfulness before Thy Majesty” and acknowledge themselves as subordinate to and servant of their “Lord and Governor”. Likewise, Queen Tamar of Georgia, in her dying prayer, prepared to give her final account to God for “the nation and people entrusted to my care”. A President of the United States is accountable only to voters’ and his or her most influential supporters’ changing opinions of him or her over time, whereas everyone a century ago understood the Russian emperors to be accountable before God and their people for their “great service”, a sacred and solemn obligation far more binding than the temporary discharge of an elected office.

The presidential oath of office does not speak at all of the president’s accountability to either God or his or her people, whereas at the very core of the Russian emperors’ oath is his or her prayer to “in the day of Thy judgment give [God] account of my stewardship without blame”. The highest moral authority referenced in the presidential oath is the Constitution itself, a man-made, amendable, and changing document which so many people in this country somehow treat almost as if it were infallible. On the other hand, in the Russian monarchs’ coronation oath, the highest authority to which the monarch must submit is none other than God Himself, Whose guidance, teaching, and assistance the monarch constantly implores throughout the coronation oath and beyond.

It is telling that nowhere in the coronation oath for Russian monarchs (viewed before the 1905 revolution as absolute autocrats subject to no earthly constitution) is to be found any haughty exultation of their own power or authority, but, instead, a humble prayer that God “teach me and guide me in this great service.” Thus, at the very climax and pinnacle of his coronation as supreme Autocrat of a vast, multiethnic empire, the Russian emperor humbly took on the role of a servant, imploring God’s guidance in his monarchical rule, a role defined above all else as a “great service” to God and his people.

Just as every Christian family is headed by either a father and mother together or just one of these, so too a monarch, either male or female, serves as the symbolic father or mother of his or her nation. Ideally, the monarch and his or her consort serve together as the typological father and mother of their people. This is a profoundly unifying, supra-political role, and the less the monarch actively involves himself or herself in the nation’s political life, the easier it tends to be for their people to view them in this way. In those monarchies in which the monarch reigns with a crowned consort, we see even further the most natural manifestation of the familleidéale, in which a king/emperor and queen/empress preside together in loving service as the symbolic ‘father’ and ‘mother’ on behalf of their national ‘family’. In a very real and symbolic sense, the monarch and his or her consort serve as the earthly heads of their nation, and, regardless of whether or not they rule politically or simply reign, they serve to embody the Christian ideals of marriage, family life, and domestic unity and tranquility for their people, ideals which are themselves salvific when joined to a common life lived in union with Christ and His Gospel. In any democratic model, by virtue of their temporary and elected, intrinsically partisan office, presidents or prime ministers cannot hope to ever serve in this symbolic way, and the people suffer for lack of a unifying, supra-political father and mother figure to look to for moral example and virtuous conduct. It is a telling example of childhood psychology that boys and girls all around the world play at being kings and queens, never president and prime minister.

It is well known in British history that the Anglican Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603, r. 1558-1603) repeatedly and publicly referred to herself as England’s bride, England’s wife, and her Kingdom as her husband; what is less well known is that this concept began with her Catholic half-sister and predecessor, Queen Mary I (1516-1558, r. 1553-1558). Sarah Duncan’s book Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen is a superb resource in this area of research. Since Mary was the first crowned and anointed queen regnant in English history, her reign necessitated the development of new political language to legitimize and confer royal authority on a woman. To justify and legitimize this anomaly of female rule, a new formulation of sovereignty itself was necessary, since it was unprecedented for a woman to rule England. This new development was known as the theory of the “king’s two bodies”, or, for Mary and Elizabeth’s reigns, the queen’s two bodies. It recognized that the monarch has both a “body personal”, which was mortal, and could be female, and a “body politic” — the timeless, immortal Crown and Throne personified in and through the monarch, which passed from one monarch to his or her successor, and so forth, unto eternity.

Fittingly, as kings were compared to Christ, Mary I was compared to the Queen of kings, the Virgin Mary, Queen of heaven, the chief intercessor for Christians. As Duncan shows, it was the oft-forgotten, largely marginalized Mary Tudor, not her half-sister Elizabeth, who invented the concept of the Queen regnant as Mother to her people and “married” to the Kingdom of England.

Since, as an Orthodox Christian, I am fundamentally concerned with my own salvation and especially the world’s, and interested most in Christian monarchy as opposed to the monarchical traditions of other faiths, it is worth examining what the Holy Scriptures, the divine books assembled and compiled by the Holy Spirit acting through Christ’s Body, the Orthodox Church, have to say about government in general, and kingship in particular. Here are just a few examples from an article written here by Fr. Joseph Gleason:

  • Psalm 2:10-12 urges Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.”
  • Psalm 24:7 refers to God in the Person of the Holy Spirit as a King: “ Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.”
  • Romans 13:1 refers to the divine origins of the “powers that be” (originally kings in every country): “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
  • The Book of Judges repeatedly connects the lack of kingship with the lawlessness and chaos then prevailing in Israel: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:5-6). This refrain “in those days there was no king in Israel” and its equation with lawlessness and injustice appears numerous times throughout the Book of Judges.
  • When the Prophet Samuel was an old man, he prepared to leave his sons after him as judges over the people of Israel, but the people of Israel wanted none of them, reminding the prophet that his sons were not righteous men as he was. Instead, they beseeched him to anoint a king for them (1 Samuel 8:1-22).
  • Proverbs 16:12 warn that kings must act righteously: “It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness.”
  • Proverbs 20:28 pray that “Mercy and truth preserve the king: and his throne is upholden by mercy.”
  • Proverbs 29:14 promises an eternal throne (sainthood) to kings who love the poor: “The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established forever.”

As Father Joseph Gleason notes in the same article, numerous further Scriptural passages mark kingship as a special vehicle or mechanism by which God communicates with His people Israel and His prophets:

  • In Genesis 14, King Melchizedek prophetically acts out the first proto-Eucharist in Scripture, blessing Abraham with bread and wine.
  • In Genesis 17, God promises to bless Abraham with kings for descendants.
  • In Genesis 35, God promises to bless Jacob with kings for descendants.
  • In Genesis 49, God promises that Israel’s kings will come from the tribe of Judah.
  • In Deuteronomy 17, Moses lays out the blueprint for Israel to have godly kings.
  • In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prophesies about the coming monarchy (verse 10) in a very positive context, focusing on the Lord’s anointed monarch.
  • When Israel’s kings behave righteously, Scripture never suggests that they should have been “good enough to abolish monarchy, and establish some better form of government”.
  • Similarly, when Israel’s kings act wickedly, Scripture never suggests that “being a king” was part of their sin.
  • In the New Testament, many people spoke Greek, and the entire Roman Empire was deeply influenced by the Greek culture, which had already been aware of democracy for over 500 years. Yet, Jesus and the apostles never suggest that we should replace monarchies with democracies (or with any other form of government). Individual kings are reprimanded, but monarchy itself as a political form is never condemned.
  • The apostle Peter tells us to “submit … to the king” and “honor the king“.
  • The apostle Paul not only asks us to pray for, but also to give thanks for kings.
  • Throughout Scripture, Jesus is referred to as a great King.
  • In the book of Revelation, God promises us Christians that we will reign as kings.

From Genesis to Revelation, monarchy is presented in a positive light, as God’s plan from the foundation of the world. (1 Samuel 8 is no exception, as demonstrated in this article on “The Long-Awaited King“ by the same Fr. Joseph Gleason.) Things go well when kingship is practiced in a godly way, and things go poorly when it is practiced in an evil way. But the same goes for any job under the sun. In this particular sense, there is nothing unique about the monarchy.

What do the Church Fathers and early Christian bishops have to say about monarchy and other forms of government? These were men who knew the Scriptures better than any others:

“Monarchy is superior to every other constitution and form of government. For polyarchy, where everyone competes on equal terms, is really anarchy and discord.” –Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea

St Gregory the Theologian says in his Third Theological Oration:

“The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that which we hold in honour.”

We see also, more explicitly in the writings of St Theodore the Studite, found in volume 4 of the Philokalia:

“There is one Lord and Giver of the Law, as it is written: one authority and one Divine principle over all. This single principle is the source of all wisdom, goodness and good order; it extends over every creature that has received its beginning from the goodness of God…, it is given to one man only… to construct rules of life in accordance with the likeness of God. For the divine Moses in his description of the origin of the world that comes from the mouth of God, cites the word: ‘Let us create man in accordance with Our image and likeness’ (Genesis 1.26). Hence the establishment among men of every dominion and every authority, especially in the Churches of God: one patriarch in a patriarchate, one metropolitan in a metropolia, one bishop in a bishopric, one abbot in a monastery, and in secular life, if you want to listen, one king, one regimental commander, one captain on a ship. And if one will did not rule in all this, there would be no law and order in anything, and it would not be for the best, for a multiplicity of wills destroys everything.”

Likewise, St Emperor Justinian (483-565) elucidates the right relationship of the Church and the State in the Preamble of Novella Six (in the Codex):

“The two greatest gifts which God in His infinite goodness has granted men are the Priesthood and the Empire. The priesthood takes care of divine interests and the empire of human interests of which it has supervision. Both powers emanate from the same principle and bring human life to its perfection. It is for this reason that emperors have nothing closer to their hearts than the honor of priests because they pray continually to God for the emperors. When the clergy shows a proper spirit and devotes itself entirely to God, and the emperor governs the state which is entrusted to him, then a harmony results which is most profitable to the human race. So it is then that the true divine teachings and the honor of the clergy are the first among our preoccupations.”

Here are some additional quotes on monarchy from other prominent Church Fathers:

“Power, that is authority and royal power, are established by God.” –St Isidore of Pelusium

“The difference between a tyrant and a king is that the tyrant strives in every way to carry out his own will. But the king does good to those whom he rules.” –St Basil the Great

“If some evildoer unlawfully seizes power, we do not say that he is established by God…” –St Isidore of Pelusium

“God gave the greatest gift to men: the priesthood and the imperial power; the first preserves and watches over the heavenly, while the second rules earthly things by means of just laws.” –Seventh Ecumenical Council

“A priest who is not a monarchist is not worthy to stand at the altar table. The priest who is a republican is always a man of poor faith. God himself anoints the monarch to be head of the kingdom, while the president is elected by the pride of the people. The king stays in power by implementing God’s commandments, while the president does so by pleasing those who rule. The king brings his faithful subjects to God, while the president takes them away from God.” –Metropolitan and New-Martyr St. Vladimir of Kiev

Monarchy is an icon of Christ. No other form of government images this:

“God has placed a king on earth in the image of His Heavenly single rule, an autocratic king in the image of His almighty power, an autocratic king and a hereditary king in the image of His Kingdom that does not pass away.”—Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

In summary, here are just a few of the reasons, from both a consideration of political theory and practical application, that monarchy is a more moral, stable, and overall better and ontologically higher form of government than any other system. I will not delve into the debate of whether or not absolute or autocratic monarchy is preferable to constitutional monarchy, but I will simply observe that, whether or not a monarchy exists constitutionally within a democratic political framework, its existence is still of great benefit to the broader political society and culture.

1)  Monarchy’s intrinsic end or aim is ontologically higher than the intrinsic end or aim of any other type of political authority. The underlying purpose of monarchy is the rendering to God by each monarch of a successful stewardship on behalf of his or her people. Each monarch is only a temporary steward, but he must give an eternal account of his or her stewardship to the King of Kings. This stewardship is best carried out by the monarch’s zealous maintenance of peace and good order, and therefore, the general protection of liberties and freedoms conducive to that peace and order. An elected leader who abuses his or her authority and violates the constitution he or she has sworn to defend understands himself or herself to face only earthly consequences (possible impeachment, criminal conviction, removal from office, enduring unpopularity, etc.). A monarch on the other hand understands himself or herself to be fundamentally accountable to God for how he or she discharges the duties of his or her office.

2)   Monarchy is the most natural form of government known to mankind, and the most widely practiced form of political authority throughout human history. The fact that monarchies still exist today after thousands of years and numerous political revolutions is remarkable in and of itself, and all the more so given that most monarchies in the world today are seen as highly legitimate by most of their populations. History is replete with examples of bad monarchs and good monarchs, as well as bad presidents and good ones, yet the presidential and prime ministerial systems of government are, at most, three hundred years old in any part of the world, and in most countries, far more recent introductions.

3)      Monarchy is the only form of political authority which images on a national and societal level the most basic and foundational unit of society: the family. Thus, far more than elected prime ministers or presidents, monarchs and their families are able to set an ideal model for family life, which is the basic foundation of the rest of society. A president or prime minister need not be married, and it is becoming increasingly common to see unmarried presidents (France’s Francois Hollande) or prime ministers (former Australian PM Julia Gillard).

4)      Monarchy is the only form of political authority which Christian Scripture and Tradition praise, defend, and encourage.

5)     Monarchy is the only form of government which properly and ideally images the highest Christian virtues of service and self-sacrifice. Almost every Christian society was, historically, a monarchy. Similarly, monarchy is the only form of political authority which has at its core the maintenance of Christian faith and virtues, as seen by the coronation oaths, still taken, of British monarchs, and the ones formerly taken by Russian, French, Hungarian, and German sovereigns.

6)      Monarchy is the only form of government in which the ruler is obliged to defend objective Truth and represent and defend a fundamentally incarnational, Christian worldview. Thus, the Russian emperors prayed to receive “the wisdom which belongs to [God’s] throne; send it from Thy Holy Heaven, that I may know what is well-pleasing in Thy sight, and what is right according to Thy commandment.”

7)     As previously argued, monarchy can be shown to represent and manifest an intrinsically and ontologically higher form of government when compared with republican democracy. Monarchs are held to be accountable not only to their people but most of all to God for their service and stewardship.

8)     My final point should go without saying: Monarchy is an intrinsically and ontologically higher form of government than the modern tyrannies of either communism or fascism, in which rulers are never held accountable except by history, and are free to commit innumerable abuses, as the examples of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Croatia, and Spain, and the communist Soviet Union, China, Romania, Cuba, and Vietnam show.

While some might find it strange that I, being an American, should write an essay in defense of monarchy, I would posit that there are many of my fellow Americans who are monarchists. One of the most tragic and disturbing realities of American political history is the forced extrajudicial exiling, immediately after the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, of hundreds of thousands of American Loyalists from the country; most of them saw themselves as loyal subjects of the King, yet the victorious Patriots viewed them as irredeemable traitors who must be deported.

Many of my friends of all political persuasions feel a natural love for the person of Queen Elizabeth II, who would be our Sovereign, as she is Canada’s, had history not separated our country 232 years ago from its prior centuries of union with the Kingdom of Great Britain. Why, on any moral or ethical level, should Americans feel any less respect or devotion to Her Majesty the Queen than to our own elected political authorities, when the former has made as her life’s priority the furthering of peace around the world, the gentle communication of Christian values to her people, and the closer cooperation of the family of nations of which she is the earthly head? As a living embodiment of monarchy’s core values and virtues of service to God and her people, Her Majesty the Queen is rightly hailed by people across the world of every nation and political persuasion as a model monarch and woman who prioritizes her service to God and her people. As she promised decades ago when she was still Crown Princess Elizabeth, her pledge to the lifelong service of her people is one she has discharged, and continues to discharge, with remarkable humility and enduring grace: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

In closing, I would humbly ask for the blessing of Almighty God, the King of Kings, on all civil authorities everywhere, especially all monarchs and their consorts, and ask that He strengthen all rulers in righteousness, moral conduct, piety, and remembrance of their ultimate accountability to Him who judges all men and women. I would enjoin all people everywhere to pray for the life of their rulers, whether elected or unelected, that by their prayers their rulers may either continue in justice and piety, or, if unjust and impious, be converted to governing justly, carefully, and in remembrance of God, to whom all must ultimately give account of their lives.

Ryan Hunter

Bibliography:

Benisis, Marios. “The Depiction of the Coronation of Byzantine Emperors in Art“.Academia.edu. March 3, 2007. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.academia.edu/2648035/The_Depiction_of_the_Coronation_of_Byzantine_Emperor_in_the_Art

Buxhoeveden, Baroness Sophie. The Life and Tragedy of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna.Longmans, Green and Co., 1928.

Duncan, Sarah. Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Gilbert, Paul. “The Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II”. Royal Russia. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.angelfire.com/pa/ImperialRussian/royalty/russia/coronation.html

Gleason, Joseph Father. “Biblical Monarchy and the Book of Judges”. The Orthodox Life. October 29, 2013. Accessed May 5, 2015.

https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/biblical-monarchy-and-the-book-of-judges/

Hunter, Ryan. “Queen, Saint, and Stateswoman: Commemorating the ‘Lion of Georgia’”. Juicy Ecumenism. May 2, 2014. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/05/02/commemorating-one-of-historys-greatest-christian-rulers-and-saints/

Thurston, Herbert. “Coronation”. Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)Volume 4. 1913. Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed May 5, 2015.

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Coronation

Vasilief, A. A History of the Byzantine Empire. “The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian: Reforms of Diocletian and Constantine” Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/vasilief/reforms-diocletian-constantine.asp

Wooley, Maxwell, B.D. Coronation Rites. Cambridge University Press, 1915. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.archive.org/stream/coronationrites00wooluoft/coronationrites00wooluoft_djvu.txt

Wortman, Richard S. Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy From Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II. Princeton University Press. 2006. Accessed May 5, 2015.

Metropolitan Jonah’s 2011 Pastoral Letter at the start of Great Lent

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Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

      The beginning of another Lenten season is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for us to cast aside those things which have distanced us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Like a wise mother, the Church provides this period of time as a means for us to prepare for receiving the joy of Pascha and Christ’s holy resurrection.

      This same joy and blessing was granted to us at our baptism, when the following prayer was read:

      “Grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from himself the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

       Our baptism in the waters of regeneration enabled us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use the upcoming season of Great Lent to return to those baptismal waters. For this transformation to take place, we must first have a desire for a change of heart. Do we want to turn aside from the passions of our flesh? Carnal thoughts or deeds, idle chatter, gossip, lying, selfish acts, greed, and gluttony are all things which separate us from Christ. Isn’t it time to stop these destructive habits? Simply put, we know our passions stand in our way of entering into the heavenly kingdom. Now is the time to cast them into oblivion. Instead of tearing each other down, let us build each other up, as the Gospel commands. Instead of slander and accusation, judgment and condemnation, let us encourage and love our neighbors.

      If we truly desire to return to God, then let us do so in a spirit of humility. Let God transform our minds and hearts through true repentance, the fruit of that humility. We live in a society which encourages us to have an opinion or comment worthy of posting or tweeting about everyone and everything, but as Orthodox Christians it is time for us to stop thinking we have all of the answers. Let us turn off the rhetoric and excuses while rejecting our arrogance and pride. Denial of self is not easy. Yet we can echo the example of our Savior, who silently, and with meekness and humility approached the cross. When we take up our cross and follow Him, He will make our burden light.

      When we have reacquired a sense of humility, it is possible to more clearly recognize our sins and repent of them. Admission of our sins through repentance will not only help us as individuals, but also as communities of Orthodox Christian throughout North America. The effects of a broken and contrite heart can have a great impact on every relationship in our lives. True repentance replaces discord with harmony, and frustration with love. Individually and collectively, our lives should and need to reflect the love found in Jesus Christ.

      Great Lent is an excellent time for us to rediscover the importance of loving one’s neighbors. If, as Orthodox Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we have a responsibility to ask forgiveness for our failings, while banishing our grudges and egos. It means sharing the love of Christ with those in need, whether they are in our parishes or on the street. Putting an extra ten dollars in the basket is an excellent start. Or try to actually tithe your income (10%) to the Church during Lent. Taking it one step further to make a connection with someone by providing them with a meal or charity can make Christ present in their lives and so fulfill the law of God.

      The joy and radiant light of Pascha will quickly be here, and it is imperative that we make use of the time available for us during Great Lent to work on our spiritual health. It is time for us to cast off the works of darkness, as the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Romans. The services, prayers, fasting, and acts of charity we do during Lent are merely tools to help us return to God. Be careful, my beloved ones, that these tools do not become stumbling blocks for us, or that we use them to cause others to sin.

      I believe it is possible for each of us to turn from our sins and draw closer to our God the Father by redirecting our lives through Christ. What a joy it will be if each of us begins taking those first steps in love on the narrow path leading back to God. Our collective journey through Great Lent will bring us closer together as a community of love, and as the baptismal prayer says, may we become partakers of the Resurrection. Let us keep a sober mind to properly prepare for that moment on Pascha when we boldly and confidently may proclaim: Christ is Risen!

      In the many ways while serving as your archpastor, if I have failed or wronged you, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. May the Lord forgive us all!

      With my prayers for a holy season of Great Lent,

       With love in Christ,

      +Jonah

Update on Metropolitan Jonah’s situation

Since this past summer, Metropolitan Jonah has often been serving at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist here in Washington at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) and Cathedral rector Fr. Victor Potapov. For some time Metropolitan Jonah has been serving weekly at St John’s, a warm and very active parish. Metropolitan Jonah has been welcomed very kindly by all, including both English parishioners and Russian and Ukrainian parishioners attending the Slavonic Liturgy.

His weekly Bible studies are always very well attended, and these talks are available here via the St John’s Cathedral YouTube channel. His ministry is well-loved and growing under the care of this wonderful parish and the kindness of those in the Russian Church Abroad who have been very welcoming. The OCA enthrones Metropolitan Tikhon this coming Sunday, January 27 at St. Nicholas Cathedral. It is crucial for Metropolitan Jonah that the OCA soon release him to ROCOR so that he may continue his ministry uninhibited by those in the OCA who sought his removal as primate.

The following information comes from George Evanisko, an active Orthodox Christian in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. I highly encourage you to share this information with all your friends. Since the OCA is no longer paying Metropolitan Jonah, if you or any of your friends are in a position to financially support his continued ministry, I can vouch for the integrity of the Holy Archangels Foundation.

Dear Fellow Orthodox Christian,
 
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) requested Metropolitan Jonah be released to ROCOR from the OCA more than a month ago.
The OCA Synod has yet to release +Jonah, even after the Synod’s letter accused +Jonah of being unfit for the OCA.  In addition, the OCA has stopped providing a salary to +Jonah.
 
I am asking you to do two things today to assist +Jonah, as the OCA Synod meets in seven days.
 
1.  Write a letter to the OCA Synod and Metropolitan Tikhon kindly asking that the OCA Synod release Metropolitan Jonah to ROCOR.
The address is: Metropolitan Tikhon and the OCA Synod, c/o St. Nicholas Cathedral, 3500 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC 20007.

 
2.  Write a letter to Archbishop Justinian of the Moscow Patriarchate asking that
a.  He speaks to the OCA Synod and asks them to release +Jonah to ROCOR, and 
b.  if the OCA does not release +Jonah, that +Justinian asks Patriarch Kirill to mercifully accept +Jonah into the Moscow Patriarchate.
The address is: Archbishop Justinian, c/o St. Nicholas Cathedral, 15 East 97th St, New York, NY 10029.
 
Finally, if you are interested in supporting Metropolitan Jonah’s ministries, a charitable organization has been established.
You can send a check to: Holy Archangels Orthodox Foundation, 3027 Foxhall Rd NW, Washington DC, 20016
If you have any questions about the foundation, you can email mpswezey@comcast.net to find out more information.
 
Let us never forget what was unjustly done to Metropolitan Jonah and let us all work to come to a Christian resolution to this sad chapter in the OCA.
 
In Christ,
George Evanisko 

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Realizing our life in Christ

We are called to love every person as a child of God made in His very image

If anyone professes that man is created in the very image of God, for men are all “children of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), then it follows logically that the essential purpose of man’s life here, his very being, is to unceasingly worship His Creator through all his actions, by his words, and in his very demeanor, countenance and spirit.

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If anyone truly and sincerely claims this divine inheritance, through which we are called to “be perfect even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), summoned to be “imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), and exhorted to become “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then he or she would naturally seek to conform the entirety of their life, the whole of their inner heart and the depths of their noetic mind, to glorify and praise God in all ways and at every moment.

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Even the etymology of the word by which we have been known to the world since the first days after Christ ascended to heaven, ‘Christians’, from the Greek Χριστιανών, means ‘little anointed ones’. How then can a Christian, a little Christ, thus truly be a disciple of the Lord, much less aspire to mystical union with Him through participation in the divine energies, if he or she does not live, show and even breathe Christ in all they do, from the depths of their being? How can we be Christians, how can our lives be a “Christ-like fragrance rising up to God” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT) if we do not truly love all those around us?

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The simple answer is the logical one. If the very essence of the Christian life is to worship and glorify the boundless and ineffable grace, mercy and majesty of God, if the core calling for all humanity is to worship Christ the Savior by loving and honoring His image present in each of His children – even the lowliest or ugliest or rudest person – then any person who does not understand this simplest of the Lord’s commandments (John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40, Deuteronomy 6:5) cannot, in truth, be numbered among His anointed ones (Matthew 25:34-46).

Our highest calling as Christians is to do as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Asia Minor, walking “in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, KJV). Among all those who lovingly honor Christ’s commandments, we know that the Lord “abideth in him, and he in Him. And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” (1 John 3:24, Douay-Rheims version).

Certainly, the idea of conforming one’s actions, one’s approach to living and thinking, and even the eye of one’s noetic heart to live chiefly to glorify God runs completely contrary to what “the world” values today, especially in its prevailing secular outlooks of modernism and relativism, which challenge and question the very concept and existence of objective Truth.

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This is why the true heart of the Christian Gospel appears as foolishness to those who live and think and have their being in and of the world, outside of a yearning for God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, St. John the Theologian, beloved apostle of the Lord, reminds us that our love, if truly selfless, is something the world not only often fails to understand, but indeed, because it is selfless, is something the world often despises:

“Wonder not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death.” (1 John 3:13-14, Douay-Rheims version).

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Yet if we truly hold to the faith we have received (Jude 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2), living out the essential message of the Holy Scriptures and the universal witness of the ancient and holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, if we rest assured in the vast reservoir of wisdom handed down through centuries of martyrs, confessors, evangelists, teachers and pastors of the revealed Truth, how natural and joyous it is to be a Christian, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Christ crucified for love of the world, even a love it does not want or understand!

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, KJV)

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What a fathomless blessing it is to participate in the divine energies, the very manifestations and grace of God active in the world, indeed, in all who are open to it, through the invisible power and action of the Holy Spirit. It is by our participation in the energies of God that we are motivated, strengthened, and beckoned forth to show the world that we are truly little Christs by our selfless and genuine love for all His children. This love, fired by faith, is the spring, the catalyst in our souls, for our transformation in Christ, our divinization:

“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:34-35, Douay-Rheims version).

For just as we remember St. Paul’s admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), so too do we recall that works done without a loving spirit of real devotion to the other lack the spirit and grace of God. For any works lacking in love is are not true examples of loving kindness by which we truly desire to serve, selflessly, as little Christs unto our brothers and sisters:

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20, King James Version).

Mother Teresa with baby

Please pray for Metropolitan Jonah, his family, and the departed soul of his sister

Laurie Paffhausen, the kind, beloved younger sister of Metropolitan Jonah, reposed at 9:45 on Sunday morning, November 18 (Julian calendar November 5). Before her passing, she was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation with the name Laura, in honor of St Laura the martyr at Cordoba (d. 864). Please pray for her soul and for the Lord and His Saints to comfort her grieving parents, Louise and Jim, and her brother. May her memory be eternal!

O Master, Lord our God Almighty, who willest that all men should be saved and should come to a knowledge of the truth; who desirest not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn again and be saved: We pray thee and beseech thee, deliver thou the soul of thy handmaiden, Laura, from every bond, free it from every curse. For thou art he who delivereth them that are bound, and guideth aright them that are cast down, O Hope of the hopeless. Wherefore, O Master, command that the soul of thy handmaiden, Laura, may depart in peace, and may rest in thine everlasting mansions with all thy Saints; through thine Only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thine all-holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.