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(May 2008)

A Dark Day in History

By Srdja Trifkovic, from the “Chronicles Magazine,” July 2007.


The Church of Agia Sofia (God's Holy Wisdom) in Canstantinople

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Muslims. It was a dark day for Christendom and for all civilized humanity. Her pleas ignored in the West, her supplies running out after six weeks’ siege, her soldiers outnumbered 15 to one, Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos knew that his cause was hopeless. Like Prince Lazar at Kosovo, some 64 years earlier, he chose martyrdom.

On May 22 the moon, symbol of Constantinople since its founding, rose in dark eclipse, fulfilling an old prophecy on the city’s demise. Four days later the Bosphorus was shrouded by thick fog, a phenomenon unknown in eastern Mediterranean in late spring. When the final assault started on the 29th and the walls of the city were shattered, the Emperor discarded his purple cloak and led the last defenders to charge into the breach. The Turks were never able to identify his body; the last Roman Emperor was buried in a mass grave along with his soldiers. The inability to identify the fallen Emperor gave rise to the folk stories about the King who was turned to marble (Marmaromenos Vasilias) and awaits the time that he will come to life again and take over his rightful place in a free Constantinople.

When it was all over, bands of Turks went on a rampage. Pillaging and killing went on for three days. The blood ran down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn. All the treasures of the Imperial Palace were promptly removed. Books and icons were burnt on the spot, once the jeweled covers and frames had been wrenched off. In the monastery of the Holy Savior, the invaders first destroyed the icon of the Mother of God, the Hodigitria, the holiest icon in all Byzantium, painted by St. Luke himself.

When the Turks burst into the Hagia Sophia, Sir Steven Runciman tells us (in his “Fall of Constantinople”):

The worshippers were trapped. A few of the ancient and infirm were killed on the spot; but most of them were tied or chained together. Many of the lovelier maidens and youths and many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarreled over them. The priests went on chanting at the altar till they too were taken… The inhabitants were carried off along with their possessions. Anyone who collapsed from frailty was slaughtered, together with a number of infants who were held to be of no value… [The city] was now half in ruins, emptied and deserted and blackened as though by fire, and strangely silent. Wherever the soldiers had been there was desolation. Churches had been desecrated and stripped; houses were no longer habitable and shops and stores battered and bare.

Sultan Mohamed II is said to have been shaken by the spectacle as he rode through the burning streets, but the same carnage and bestiality was to be repeated, in one form or another, dozens of times over hundreds of years. The massacre at Chios serves as another example. Eugene Delacroix’s depiction of The Massacre at Chios: Greek families awaiting death or slavery is a masterpiece of horror depicting the systematic extermination of the entire population of an Aegean island. It graphically illustrated how being a Greek, Armenian, Serb, or indeed any other Christian, in the Ottoman Empire meant living in daily fear of murder, rape, torture, kidnap of one’s children, slavery, and genocide. Indeed, the last century of Ottoman rule—from the defeat of Napoleon until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War—witnessed a more thorough and tragic destruction of the Christian communities in the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, than at any prior period.

The tragedy of Christian communities under Turkish rule, as Gladstone rightly pointed out, was not “a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race.” The Turks, in his view, “were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force as opposed to government by law.”

The Ottoman Empire gave up the ghost right after the Great War, but long before that it had little interesting to say, or do, at least measured against the enormous cultural melting pot it had inherited and its splendid opportunities between East and West. Not even a prime location at the crossroads of the world could prompt creativity that was not there.

Today the Turkish Republic is a populous nation that has developed a culture based on a blend of European-style nationalism, which is very un-Ottoman, and an underlying Islamic ethos inherited from the Empire. Kemal Ataturk (the architect of the 1923 Hellenic genocide) hoped to impose a strictly secular concept of nationhood, but political Islam has reasserted itself. Popular Islamic political movements of the past three decades have produced a Turkish-Islamic synthesis whose “post-Islamist” upholders are firmly in power in Ankara. Their success is due to the fact that most Turks remain Muslim in their beliefs, values, and world outlook. The Kemalist dream of secularism has never penetrated beyond the military and a narrow stratum of urban elite centered in Istanbul, and today it is in retreat. The Kemalist edifice, uneasily perched atop the simmering Islamic volcano, will remain tentative at best.

The re-emergence of an empire centered on the Bosphorus is unlikely, for now, but less so than the integration into the European Union of a democratic, secular and stable Turkey. Until Turkey loses its continuing territorial ambitions and integrates herself into a stable democracy (which is a far cry from her current state) she will remain a nation that exists under the dark clouds of the genocides committed by her people and governments of past.

The freeing of Hagia Sophia from the four “ugly bars” imprisoning her is even less likely, for now; but miracles do happen, and therefore this one can happen. On this melancholy anniversary let us pray that it will happen.

† † †

Editor’s Note: It is asserted that the sack of Constantinople could have been avoided if and only if the Orthodox Church had fully given in to the papal ambitions of authority and accepted the “union” offered by Rome. In specific, in 1451, Pope Nicholas V conveyed the following extortion to the Ambassadors of Emperor Constantine Palaiologos: “If you, with your nobles and the people of Constantinople, accept the decree of union, you will find us and our venerable brothers, the cardinals of the holy Roman church, ever eager to support your honour and your empire. But if you and your people refuse to accept the decree, you will force us to take such measures as are necessary for your salvation and our honour.”

The extorting remarks of Rome were never followed up with the accompanying promises of support. The fake union that was proclaimed by some shortly thereafter had no impact to the future of Constantinople. The West never followed up with the Pope’s promises of military support and salvation from the Ottomans. Sir Steven Runciman characterizes the impact of this fake union with the Latins best within his book “The Fall of Constantinople:”

“After the union had been proclaimed there was no more open opposition. Gennadius (the Ecumenical Patriarch kept silence in his cell. The bulk of the people accepted the accomplished fact with sullen passivity; but they worshipped only in the churches whose priests were untainted. Even many of its supporters hoped that if the city were spared the decree would be amended. Had the union been followed quickly by the appearance of ships and soldiers from the West its practical advantages might have won it general support. The Greeks, with the doctrine of economy in their minds, could have reflected that the abandonment of their religious loyalties would be well compensated by the preservation of the Christian Empire. But as it was, they had paid the price demanded for Western aid, and they were cheated.”