A Dark Day in History
On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Muslims. It was a dark day for Christendom and for all civilized humanity. His pleas ignored in the West, his supplies running out after six weeks’ siege, his soldiers outnumbered 15 to one, Emperor Constantine XI Dragas knew that his cause was hopeless. Like Prince Lazar at Kosovo 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.
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—so men said—by Saint 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 Mehmed 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. 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.
A century later the Turkish Republic is a populous, relatively prosperous and self-assertive nation-state. The Turkish nation 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 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.
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.
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