On the 29th of May 1453, our holy Orthodox Church and the Greek community remembers the fall of Constantinople, capital of the Christian Orthodox Roman Empire centred on the Bosphoros (between Greece and Asia minor), and often called the ‘Byzantine’ empire. Founded by St Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD, its inhabitants, coming from a range of cultures, all identified themselves as Romans, with Greek as the lingua franca.
It is a truism that civilisations that last for a long time are bound to suffer from political and military fatigue. Yet for Byzantium, this fatigue took a long time to set in: a thousand years to be precise. Despite encompassing much of Western and Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, Palestine and North Africa in the sixth century, the Byzantine empire underwent various ebbs and flows. For a long while it covered most of Greece, the southern Balkans, Asia Minor, and Southern Italy, while the capital Constantinople exerted its hegemony over some Slavic states such as Bulgaria and Serbia in the East and the Merovingian and Carolingian kingdoms in the West. Unfortunately, after the ill-fated fourth crusade in AD 1204 that witnessed the sack of Constantinople, once the richest city in Christendom, the empire was dealt a crippling blow. But the exiled Byzantine states in Epirus, Trebizond, and Nicaea continued to thrive, until the latter retook the city for a final flourishing of civilisation that was repeatedly threatened and beleaguered by the Seljuk and Ottoman onslaught in the East. In this final period of the empire, known as the Palaiologan after the surname of its ruling dynasty, theology, arts and culture flourished. The age old practice of hesychasm, the cultivation of stillness by monastics and lay persons alike as they invoked Christ through the Jesus prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—became a refuge for the empire’s inhabitants, who increasingly turned their attention away from worldly concerns (that were still on the minds of the imperial court) to spiritual ones. In this period, hesychasm was defended and articulated by the great theologian Saint Gregory Palamas. The best iconography—the sacred art that depicts the saints and our Lord Jesus Christ in a divinely inspired way—as well as profound intellectual achievements in turns of astronomy, architecture, and philosophy, date from this period.
Yet the empire’s doom was inevitable. A series of emperors tried to broker a union with the Catholic West—which was severed from the Orthodox Church since at least the Great Schism in 1054, a severance made permanent by the fourth crusade—but these were rejected by the people and were interpreted as engendering divine disfavour. The reign of the empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI Dragaš Palaiologos, son of Helen Dragaš who later took the monastic name Ypomone (and is venerated as a saint), underlines an eerie—perhaps even providential—symmetry between the empire’s founding and fall: for it was founded by St Constantine, whose mother was St Helen. Try all that he might to solicit support from potential Western allies—including a failed ecclesiastical union with the Catholic Church in Rome—Constantine Palaiologos could not muster enough military aid to successfully defend what little was left of the empire: the borders of Constantinople itself.
Valiant Greek-speaking Romans, along with Genoese, Venetians, and even some Turks who were enemies of the current Sultan, Mehmet II, laboured to defend the land walls as the Ottoman war machine of sixty thousand soldiers began their attack on 11th of April, 1453. By mid-April, this attack was thwarted, to be followed by a naval attack in the Golden Horn which was again repelled by the courageous defenders of the city. On the 22nd of April the Turkish ships were transported overland behind Galata across the Horn—and ended up in its waters—while the Turks resumed their landward assault which continued throughout late April to the middle of May. A series of small victories by the city’s defenders were overshadowed by terrible portents. On 22nd of May the moon was eclipsed, and on the following day at midday the icon of the Mother of God Hodegetria—“She who leads the way”—was processed around the city for the latter’s protection, but a terrible thunderstorm broke out and the icon slipped and fell from the frame on which it was held; the procession was then immediately abandoned. On the 24th of May the city was enveloped by a thick fog until the evening, when a red glow was seen on the dome of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia)—the main cathedral of the city and the largest in Christendom at the time—which rose to its top, and then disappeared.
These omens were interpreted by the Byzantines as signs of God’s disfavour, which—in the estimation of some of them—was manifested in the early hours of the 29th of May, when the land walls were mercilessly bombarded by canon fire, followed by wave-after-wave of attack. The emperor Constantine led the defence which seemed to be holding ground, until two things that changed the course of the battle happened: the Genoese captain was mortally wounded, and a small door which was being used for skirmishes near the Blachernae district was left open. These two near simultaneous happenings witnessed the influx of Turkish soldiers onto the ramparts and through the land walls, and Constantine Palaiologos was last seen alive hurling himself into the fray near the St Romanos Gate, where the fighting was thickest. He was never seen alive again.
In the aftermath of the conquest of the city, lamentation resounded throughout the world in literature, folklore and song. Sultan Mehmet styled himself as the conqueror of the Romans, while children were told that Constantine Palaiologos had not died, but was plucked by an angel from the battlefield, turned into marble, and placed beneath the Golden Gate. One day he would return to reclaim his city. Descriptions of the horror and carnage experienced by the inhabitants in the three-day looting that took place after the city’s fall was mingled with tales to lift their spirits; like that of a prelate interrupted while serving a final liturgy in Hagia Sophia on the day of the city’s fall. He vanished into a side door and will one day return to finish the service when the building—converted into a mosque after the city’s conquest (and now a museum)—will once again become a church. These tales gave hope a Christian people placed into servitude; and while many churches were turned into mosques and imperial buildings either demolished or converted to Ottoman use, the Sultan did go looking for a prospective patriarch to be appointed as overseer of not just the Greeks, but of all Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule. He discovered this in the person of Gennadios Scholarios, an anti-ecumenist theologian of some repute, who was elevated as patriarch by the representatives of the Church, and also was made—by the Sultan—into the ethnarch of all Orthodox Christians throughout the Ottoman empire. And thus a new chapter dawned for the Church in Constantinople, for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whose prelate is the ‘first among equals’ in Orthodox Christianity. This chapter was both genuinely martyric, as manifested in the sufferings of the Patriarchate that are in imitation of Christ, and also complicated by political relations with the ‘Sublime Porte’ (a metonym for the Ottoman court); especially as the Ottomans advanced onto other Orthodox nations in the Balkans, conquering them but not being able to penetrate into Russia, although they repeatedly tried.
That the Orthodox Church lives on despite the fall of Constantinople should come as no surprise. The Church is the body of Christ in the world. As such, the Church transcends every culture and civilisation; it is above them and yet communicates the saving Gospel of Christ within and through them for their salvation. For this reason, the collaboration between Church and state in Byzantium—with its beating heart in the city of Constantine—should be seen as part of God’s providential design for the former to communicate the Gospel through the means of the latter; and criticisms that are levelled against instances when the Church seemed to capitulate to the state or empire should be regulated by an examination of the lives of the saints who—with God’s grace and assistance—resisted the empire when it tried to impose its will upon the Church. In any case, Byzantine culture has left its mark upon Orthodoxy in its adoption of the best elements of that later period—marked by the Palaiologan renaissance—which was characterised by a positive collaboration between Church and state, such that both sovereigns and saints had a hand in the articulation and defence of hesychasm, developments in iconography, architecture, and Byzantine chant for that matter. The Church in fact transmitted these throughout the Ottoman occupation and continues to do so to this very day. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is still there, in Constantinople, and despite the change of the city’s name to Istanbul, Greeks—who won their independence from the Ottomans in 1821—still tenaciously refer to it as Constantine’s city or ‘the City.’ And the Romaioi or Romioi, the direct descendants of the Byzantines in modern Turkey, also refer to this city—for some still their home—as Constantinople. Indeed, all Orthodox churches throughout the world can claim to have been influenced by the Byzantine legacy, which comes starkly to mind as we remember the city’s fall on the 29th of May. Yet, on the anniversary of this tragedy, we call to mind not just what this civilisation contributed to the Church—but also all that it gained from the Church as well—as inspiration for our continual duty as Orthodox Christians to communicate—with God’s help—the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to this world for its salvation.
Dr Mario Baghos
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
* This article comprises a revised version of an eponymous piece published in VEMA in May (2019): 10/28-11/29.