The Fall of Constantinople

To Americans to whom the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is already a hazy memory and anything before World War II ancient history, an event in 1453 would seem to be one that took place an immeasurably long time ago. People didn’t even have cell phones then.

Yet the event, like the first voyage to the New World of Christopher Columbus 49 years later, was one that changed the world, producing in its wake other events and developments that continue to unroll unto the present and color the lives of everybody living today. It was on May 29, 560 years ago this month, that Constantinople, founded as New Rome by the Emperor Constantine in 330 AD and a vibrant Christian metropolis of a million souls when the old Rome, the one in Italy, was mostly ruins and open fields inhabited by hardly anyone but shepherds and their flocks, fell to the Muslim Turks under Sultan Mehmed II after a siege that had lasted since April 6.

Other peoples have longer memories than most modern Americans. They include countless of our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, ones in communion with us as well as the Orthodox, who will remember this May 29, as every year, what happened in 1453 when most of us of the formerly Christian West ignore the date.

I know they will remember because one May about thirty years ago I listened intently to a Melkite Greek Catholic priest in a suburb of Washington D.C. teach three dozen youngsters gathered at his feet that when the Turks rode their horses into Hagia Sophia, the stupendous mother church of Eastern Christendom, a wall of the building opened and the priest who was at the altar singing Divine Liturgy stepped through the miraculous portal, which closed behind him. Father explained that when God wills it that Constantinople, now called Istanbul, is liberated finally from Muslim rule, the wall will reopen and the priest will step forth and finish the Mass.

It is true that once Sultan Mehmed had consolidated his hold on the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and transformed Hagia Sophia into a mosque, surviving Christians were not simply exterminated. Mehmed and his successors even often relied on Christians to fill government administrative posts because they possessed the necessary knowledge and skills. Indeed, a case can be made that the Turkish success in May, 1453, would not have been possible except for the collaboration of venal and apostate Christians.

It remained, in following centuries Christians living under the Ottomans always knew, and dared not forget, that if their lives as members of a religious minority were untroubled for fairly long stretches of time, it was due to the sufferance of their Muslim rulers, and that the rulers’ attitude toward them could change very quickly with tragic results.

For instance, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the primatial patriarchate in Orthodoxy, continued to have its seat in what had become the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but in 1821 when the Greeks began their War of Independence against the Turkish occupation of their country, the Sultan of the day blamed Patriarch Gregorius V. Accordingly, Turkish soldiers dragged the Patriarch from the altar where he was celebrating Easter Divine Liturgy and hanged him, still dressed in his vestments, from the main gate of the Phanar, Orthodoxy’s equivalent of the Vatican. His body remained there for three days. The gate has been closed and locked ever since.

The locked gate and high wall surrounding the Phanar do not provide an impregnable defense. In 1997 a grenade was lobbed over the wall and a deacon, trying to dispose of the thing, lost an arm when it exploded.

Of course there have also been atrocities on a scale approaching the astronomical. Most notoriously, there were the actions of the Turkish government during World War I commonly referred to as the Armenian Genocide. Perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenian Christians died. The Turks continue to deny that there was a genocide, this to the extent that in Turkey it is an offense punishable by imprisonment to say or write otherwise.

Earlier I referred to Christian treachery as helping assure the Muslim capture of Constantinople. That won’t be detailed here. Christianity has always had its Judases but also its heroes, and it is better to remember these latter, including the last Emperor of the East.

His name, like that of the great founder of his capital, was Constantine. His number was eleven – Constantine XI. Though never officially canonized by the Orthodox Church, he is venerated as a martyr-saint by many. It is because he died fighting.

Accounts of his death, even ones written by putative eyewitnesses, vary. It does seem certain that when Constantine, a man of 49 and still fit, saw from the battlement where he stood that the situation was hopeless, he stripped off all his imperial insignia before throwing himself into the ranks of the remaining Christian soldiers for a last stand. In the words of one chronicler: “Constantine charged into the sea of enemy soldiers, hitting left and right in a final act of defiance.” There is a question as to whether he took the time to discard his distinctive purple boots, purple being a color that was reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor. I like to believe with those who think he did not, that in fact this was the origin of our still speaking of certain heroes as dying “with their boots on.”

There is also a question of what became of Constantine’s remains. The Turks claimed they found a corpse with purple boots, and they did parade through the streets of the city the head of some fallen soldier. The trouble is that none of the Greeks who were still alive gave any sign of recognizing it. It is most likely that the Emperor was buried anonymously along with fellow Christian warriors in a mass grave.

The real point here is that Emperor Constantine XI’s last stand was not like the most famous one in American history, that of General Custer. For all we can know, in the din, dust and fury of his battle Custer may have thought he was winning until the moment he was killed. That possibility didn’t exist for the Emperor and he knew it. The city’s walls had been breached. Traitors had opened a gate. The enemy was inside the city. Constantine might have tried to flee but didn’t. To where would he flee? His empire was falling with the fall of his capital. He could surrender, but why bother? The hours or day or two of life he gained would still end at the hands of one of Mehmed’s executioners. The right thing for him was to do as he did: fight to the end.

There is an example in him for all who still cling to the Faith in our faithless day, but unlike him don’t have to fight hopelessly. An empire may fall, even one with a history going back eleven hundred years, like Constantine’s, and anyone clinging to the Faith today may meet his personal fall tomorrow, but the Faith itself has a mandate for eternity. It won’t “fall” even when individual defenders sometimes do.

No doubt the awareness and certainty of that is exactly what enabled the last Emperor of once mighty Byzantium to take his stand and die fighting.

One final thought: The current Patriarch of Constantinople, Batholomew I, was on the scene for the installation in Rome of Pope Francis in March. This was the first time in history, as far as is known, that Orthodoxy’s “first among equals” has been present at the installation of a pope. The official website of the Patriarchate rightly described the presence of Bartholomew as being of “extraordinary historical significance.” It surely was that. The website also spoke of his attendance as a “powerful symbolic gesture for the cause of Christian unity” and possibly having “lasting significance.” Surely that is to be hoped.

As the rising tide of secularism threatens to engulf Christianity in the East as well as the West, at least insofar as no government anywhere still enacts laws meant to fortify Christian living, the entire Mystical Body of Christ will work better if its “two lungs” breathe together. Besides, it would be good to have men standing alongside ourselves with memories longer than a few years. History’s mistakes cannot be corrected when they are forgotten.