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Constantinople: From Christianity to Islam Author(s): K. E. Fleming Source: The Classical World, Vol. 97, No.

1 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 69-78 Published by: Classical Association of the Atlantic States Stable URL: Accessed: 12/06/2009 13:48
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Of the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a contemporary observer, the Hellenist chronicler Chalconcondylas, wrote: This was surely the most grievous catastrophe known to history, and the complete destruction of the Greeks matches the Fall of Troy, a capture of Troy by the Barbarians, as it were. So the Romans think that this disaster overtook the Greeks as recompense for the sack of Troy long ago.' In the same events, contemporary Muslims saw fulfillment of a prophetic hadith ("tradition of the prophet") found in the musnad ("collection") of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855). It reads: The Liberation of Constantinople, Narrated 'Abdullah Bin Bashar Al Khath'amy, fulfilled the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which he heard from his father, who heard it from the prophet (peace and blessings upon him) who said, "You will liberate Constantinople, blessed is the Amir who is its Amir, and blessed is the army, that army."2 By both views, the events of 1453 were the fulfillment of prophetic tradition-a punishment, in Roman eyes, of the Greeks for their long-ago sack of Troy; a vindication, for the Muslims, of Muhammadan prophecy and its promise of universal Islamization. These two views-the Christian/Hellenist and the Medieval Muslim-have come to be fixed in popular collective historical memory in both the East and the West as the standard. Muslims, it is thought, viewed the 1453 conquest of the city as a "liberation," a vindication of Islam against the idolatrous and polytheistic worlds of Hellenism and Christianity. Christians, for their part, it is assumed, viewed the conquest of the city as an "enslavement," the tragic and apocalyptic destruction of the definitive bastion of Christianity by the "infidel," the Muslim Turk, a punishment that had been visited upon them for some long-ago ill deed. In both dichotomous interpretations, destruction is a core concept, and what for the Christian world was thought to be a tragedy was, by the Muslim one, taken as a triumph, a liberation, and a divinely mandated victory. At the risk of drifting into ahistoricity, it is worth noting that this dichotomous interpretation is one that might, at first blush, appear to have particular resonance to us now.

J. R. Melville Jones (cited in "Selected Bibliography" at the end of this article) Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, Awwal Musnad al-Kufiyyin, No. 18189.





Indeed, a recent Web site on Constantinople,3 erected by Greek nationalists, included such links as "Crimes of Turkey against Humanity," "Turkish Crimes against Hellenism," "National Hymn of Byzantium," "Remember Constantinople," and "Manzikert: The Beginning of the Holocaust"-this last a reference to the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, in which the Seljuk (Persian) armies of Alp Arslan defeated the Byzantines under Romanus IV Diogenes. And one scarcely need point out that it is not only Greek nationalists who these days espouse a dualistic worldview that pits the Christian West against the Muslim East. The story, however, both then and today, is both far more complicated and more interesting than such facile dichotomies might lull us into thinking. The multiple ways in which the transition from Christian to Muslim rule in Constantinople was understood, interpreted, and experienced show it to have at once been a moment of rupture and one of continuity; a catastrophic event and a divinely mandated one; an act of destruction and one of salvation. Moreover, these positions, as this essay hopes briefly to suggest, do not fall out along sectarian lines: there were Christians who saw the Ottoman conquest of the city to be a protective act of divine intervention, and there were Muslims who saw it to mark not a radical rupture-the supplanting of Christian with Muslim rule-but rather a moment of Hellenic continuity as well as the fulfillment of Islamic messianic prophecy. In 1451 Mehmet II came to the Ottoman throne. From the moment of his accession, he declared that it was his aim to take the city of Constantinople, no matter what the cost. For centuries, the city had proven impregnable to the repeated onslaughts of barbarian, Persian, Arab, and Turkish offenses-only in times of internal strife was the city briefly taken by independent Christian states. The massive triple walls that ringed the city had for years served their purpose most effectively. Technological advances, however, combined with the resolve of Mehmet II, were, by the fifteenth century, going to overcome their strength. Preparing for his offensive, Mehmet employed the services of a Hungarian cannon builder, a Christian, commissioning him to cast seventy cannons for the Ottoman army. The largest, named, at least in the apocryphal lore, "Basilica," weighed more than nineteen tons and was capable of firing an eight-hundred-pound cannon ball. It took hours to load and had a maximum rate of fire of three shots a day, but the inconvenience was well worth it. A contemporary Greek writer, Doukas, an obscure figure who seems to have been in the employ of the Genoese, was struck with virtual disgust by the pathos of the Greek plight; he comments wryly in his account on the pathetic sight of the Greeks standing on the ramparts, fighting
I The link for this Web site is no longer




off the gigantic cannon balls of the Turks with bullets "the size of a Pontic walnut."4 Under such conditions, the city could not hope to hold out long. Indeed, the first breach in Constantinople's walls came on April 11, 1453, and by May 29 the city had fallen. Eyewitness accounts, both Greek and Turkish, paint an astoundingly graphic and moving picture of the months-long siege: over the course of March, Mehmet's armies had dragged their cannon into position, just out of firing range of the Byzantine defenders. The Greeks could climb to the top of their city's walls and see, all around, the fourteen Ottoman cannon positions that ringed Constantinople. After weeks of uneasy waiting-as all the while food stores within the walls dwindled away-the expected first shots from the Ottomans came. For the first weeks of April, the defenders made Herculean efforts, attempting to rebuild and patch the walls as each breach came and fending off Ottoman attempts to storm the city. Finally the ancient walls were weakened and collapsed. Over a thousand years of Christian rule in Constantinople had come to an end. Just what, however, the Ottomans had come into possession of was far from glorious. By the end of the Byzantine period the city was a small island surrounded by Ottoman land; its population had dropped dramatically, and its rulers had, for decades, known that Turkish conquest was a question not of if, but of when. The conquest of 1453 has been widely depicted as the final episode in a long process of Christian decline at the hands of Islamic ascendancy. The backdrop to the events of 1453, however, is one that was characterized not so much by a dichotomous antagonism between a unified Christian West and a monolithic Muslim East, as by a highly contentious division between the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. This division the so-called "Great Schism"-dated to 1054, when Cardinal Humbert, Bishop of Rome, excommunicated Michael Cerularius, Bishop of Constantinople, in retaliation for Cerularius' excommunication of a group of Western papal legates. The tensions that divided the two communities became a problem for Byzantium some centuries later, when it became clear that Constantinople, without assistance from the West, would not long be able to withstand the expansion of the Ottomans. The Council of Florence (1438-1445), which met successively at Ferrara, Florence, and Rome, was consequently convened with the hope of reuniting the churches of East and West. Even at the time it was clear to most observers that Byzantine compliance with the council's statements was driven less by spiritual considerations than by political ones primary among them the desperate need for allies. On paper, though not in practice, the council was successful: on July 5, 1439, Greek and Roman representatives signed a Decree of Union, which granted the Church of Rome control
4 Doukas, Grecu text, book 35. Translation is by Melville Jones (below, "Selected Bibliography").



over the churches of the East. The result was supposed to be a long-awaited period of calm, but the reality was quite different. The general populace in Constantinople was starkly divided into unionist and antiunionist camps. The latter, seeing the Orthodox Church's capitulation to Rome as the tactical sellout that it was, rioted in the streets, and described as an act of treason the participation of Greek representatives to the council. The unionists, for their part, condemned the antiunionists as fools who would bring about the collapse of Byzantium by their insistence on the superiority of Eastern Orthodox doctrine. One indication of how purely cosmetic the council's edicts were is seen in the fact that only four years after it was concluded, the pope sent Cardinal Isidore of Russia, a Polish cardinal who had formerly been Archbishop of Russia, on a mission to Constantinople "to effect union between the churches of East and West." Clearly, the earlier council's declaration of union had had little bearing on reality. The aforementioned Doukas writes of the Cardinal's arrival in the city, and shows how insincere the Greek statements of support for union really were: The emperor received them graciously and paid them due honour, after which they settled to a discussion of the Union. They found him in favour of it, as were the principal lay members of the church. But the majority of the priests and monks, the abbots, archimandrites and nuns, were against it. The majority, did I say? My mention of the nuns compels me to alter my words and make this clear, that not a single one of them consented; and the Emperor himself only pretended to agree.5 While the nuns were silent in their opposition, the general populace could scarcely contain itself. Doukas paints a dramatic picture of the Orthodox rioters again teeming through the Constantinopolitan streets, "bowls of wine in their hands," cursing the Unionists and their "azymite ways."6 Things only got worse. The meeting between the Emperor and Isidore was to be followed by a solemn eucharist, cocelebrated by Latin and Orthodox clergy, in the church of the Hagia Sophialong abandoned by the Orthodox, as in their view it had been contaminated and desecrated by the Latin use of it for celebration of heretical azymite-eucharists. The Orthodox, writes Doukas, shunned the Church of Hagia Sophia "as if it were a Jewish synagogue, or
Jones (below, "Selected Bibliography") 74-75. Jones (below, "Selected Bibliography") 74-75. The term "azymite" refers to the Latin Church's use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The Orthodox claimed that the rite was invalidated by the absence of leavened bread.



had been used for sacrifices to Apollo."7 This so-called service of reconciliation was held on December 12/13, 1452, but, he recounts, was considered by the Greeks "no better than an abominable heathen sacrifice." A second account of the service is given by Nicolo Barbaro, a Venetian medical student serving as ship's doctor on a Venetian merchant galley at anchor in the Bosphorous, just off Constantinople's shores. His ship was one of a fleet of several that on the eve of the Turkish assault very bad timing for the Venetians-was anchored in the region. Of the service Barbaro writes, "There was there the Reverend Cardinal of Russia, who was sent by the Pope, and also there was the Most Serene Emperor with all his nobles, and all the people of Constantinople. And on that day there were great lamentations in the city"-this in reference to the violent riots that again broke out after the service.8 The real politics behind the deal were revealed immediately: no sooner had the so-called "union" been declared and the service adjourned than did Cardinal Isidore and various Greek bishops visit the Catholic Venetians on their ships and appeal to them to stay and help the Greeks fight against the Turks. As the conversation was recorded by both Barbaro and another witness, the Greek chronicler Phrantzes, the Greek plea had the hollow ring of desperation and feigned brotherhood: Noble Venetians, said the Orthodox Bishop of Mytiline, beloved brothers in Christ the Lord, strong men, practiced and mighty soldiers in battle, you who through divine grace and the power of your shining sword have often destroyed hordes of Muslims such that their blood ran in rivers out of your hands; today I beseech you to be, with all your heart and soul, the defenders of this city so beleaguered by the catastrophes of war. You know well that she has always been to you like a mother and a second homeland. Therefore I beg you . . . to act, in this hour, as faithful friends, fellow Christians and brothers.9 Appeals of brotherhood in Christ did little to convince the Venetians, and only after a hard-driven bargain was negotiatedeach Venetian captain would be paid a sum of four hundred ducats per month, plus food and expenses did the ships agree to stay. And even then, the captains said, regardless of the fine for violating the bargain, they might in the end "want to leave at all costs."'0
7 Jones (below, "Selected Bibliography") 74-75. 8 N. Barbaro (below, "Selected Bibliography") 12. 9 G. Phrantzes (below, "Selected Bibliography") 11.277 ff. 1' Barbaro (below, "Selected Bibliography") 16.



The Venetians were, in short, hired as mercenary troops, and unwilling ones at that. The fear of "Murad Kurushdji," the Ottoman Sultan, along with the sorry state of the Greek troops, made them hesitant to agree to assist them. No superficial, last-minute union between the Latins and the Orthodox could provide sufficient allegiance to the cause to make them want to stay on in the doomed city. It is against this backdrop of internal Christian schism-Catholic against Orthodox, and unionist against antiunionist-that the conquest of Constantinople must be read and understood. For it is a backdrop that transforms our view of the event from one of Christian destruction pitted against Muslim victory to something more complex. The division of the Christian world between Catholic West and Orthodox East had, for centuries, caused those Greeks who abhorred the West to view the rise of Islam with something less than total horror. For many, in fact, Muslim power looked like a happy alternative to Catholic hegemony. As early as 1170, leading figures in the Orthodox Church had expressed such a view. That year, Patriarch Michael III of Anchialos wrote to the Emperor Manuel Komnenos of his preference for Muslim rule to that of the Catholics: Allow the Muslim to be my ruler in external things rather than the Latin rule me in spiritual things. If I am under the Muslim, at least he will not oblige me to share his faith. But if I am under Frankish [that is, Roman] rule, and united with the Roman Church, perhaps I will have to separate myself from my God. " The deep division in the Greek Orthodox community over the question of Church union-and the deep resentment of the Western Latin Church, a resentment shared by unionist and antiunionist for the seemingly peculiar fact that many Greek alike-accounts Byzantines did not view the events of 1453 as the disaster that later Greek apologists have depicted it to be. The standard historiographic narrative of modern Greek nationalism holds that the fall of Constantinople was an unprecedented disaster for the world of Christendom in general and for Eastern Orthodoxy in particular. lt is presented as a dramatic rupture, one that plunged the Eastern Church into despair and confusion and that pitted the Christians against an Islamic, infidel East as never before. The most famous, if not most recent or extreme, articulation of this position is found in Sir Steven Runciman's The Great Church in Captivity. Runciman writes:
eC& TO7 ranP1-pI4ov KwTrap-r1vovn iloAoros "1 Michael III, Patriarch of Anchialos, ed. K. roLl Bv;aVriov Mav. A KoqpV'VxZt,, Max. III roC Aky%i2ioLv irv'5 TOP avroKpaTopa Dyobouniotes (Athens 1939). The translation is mine.



[in] . . . 1453 an old story was ended . . . the Church of Constantinople, for more than a thousand years the partner of the Orthodox state, became the church of a subject people, dependent upon the whims of a Muslim master. Its operation, its outlook and its whole way of life had abruptly to be changed.'2 In this view, the Ottomans were an evil, oppressive, and above all, illegitimate master; it was the task of the Church to struggle to free its people from Turkish rule. Over the subsequent four centuries, down to the inception of the Greek War of Independence (1821), this view would be elaborated and consolidated. Yet the contemporary fifteenth-century scene is one that suggests instead that the fall of the city to the Turks was in many ways far from disastrous. In fact, paradoxically, the moment of the city's collapse was at one and the same time a moment of recovery and rebirth. Above all, it was a moment that provided the beginnings of an ongoing consolidation of a new, and largely unified, Christian identity in the East. If the centuries prior to the fall of Constantinople were marked by dissention within the Orthodox ranks, by the late Ottoman period the Eastern Church was unified as never before. A major factor in this was the apocalyptically charged belief, widespread amongst the Christians of the Ottoman Empire, that the rise of Islam was the result of divine intervention. By this view, the Turks were an instrument both of divine protection and divine punishment of the Christian community. The Christians, through the Turks, were both punished for their "heretical" dealings with the Latin Church and saved from the possibility of coming under Latin rule. In terms of punishment, Greek participation in the council of Florence was seen as the core sin of the Orthodox. In Phrantzes' account of the events of 1453, written the following year, he writes: In November of 1437 our Emperor Lord John, accompanied by the patriarch . . . numerous senators, clerics, and almost all the metropolitans and bishops, departed for the scheduled synod. Would I that he had never left! . . . Because the synod was the single most important cause for the attack that the impious launched against our City, which resulted in the siege, our enslavement, and our great misfortunes.'3 Alternately, in his account of 1453, Doukas expressed the related view that the Turks were not simply a punishment, but a mechanism of God's protection. He approvingly cites Loukas Notaras, a Constantinopolitan intellectual and theologian of the mid-fifteenth century, who of the fall of Constantinople made the widely known


Runciman (below, "Selected Bibliography") 165. Phrantzes (below, "Selected Bibliography") 49-50.



declaration that "[i]t is better to see ruling over this city the turban [baKIo6IoV] of the Turks that the Latin hat [KaAUirTpaV]." This view was common in the late Byzantine period, when many pious Orthodox felt that their Church had abandoned its principles and fallen victim to the contaminating influence of the "Latins." So prevalent was this view, in fact, that one strong strand of Early Modern apocalyptic thought held that 'HT&aV6E'Avra OEMo I' irO'A va ToUPKE,'4 ("it was the will of God for the City to fall to the Turks"). By this view, the rise of the Ottomans had been decreed by God, visited upon the Orthodox as punishment for their heretical lapses and their dealings with the Catholics. Only when the Church had purged itself of corruption would the city-and the Greeks-be liberated from Turkish rule. Even centuries later the view predominated. It was in these terms that the Patriki Dhidaskalia, or Patriarchal Exhortation, issued in Constantinople in 1798, condemned the growing Greek revolutionary movement, which was mobilizing to revolt against Ottoman rule: Behold, how our merciful and omniscient lord has managed to preserve the integrity of the holy Orthodox faith of ours and to save us all; he brought out of nothing this powerful kingdom of the Ottomans, which he had set up on the place of our Byzantine empire, which . . . had begun to deviate from the path of the Orthodox faith; and he rose this kingdom of the Ottomans above every other in order to prove its divine character. . . . 14 As for the Latin West, it was scarcely moved by the collapse of Byzantium; its main concern was only that the Ottoman victory over Constantinople brought Islam that much closer to Catholicism's borders. The Muslim conquest of the city was, for the most part, viewed as a just reward for the earlier crimes of Hellenism and Eastern Orthodoxy-both of which were equally problematic in Roman eyes. Finally, what of the Ottomans themselves? Here, too, is corroboration from another angle of the view that the Constantinopolitan transition from Christian to Muslim rule was not a rupture or radically new departure, but rather an event marked by continuity. Much lore, some likely apocryphal, some not, holds that Mehmet the Conqueror-although not, it must be said, all Ottoman rulers after him-viewed himself to be an imperial successor to Rome and expressed the desire that his regime not only continue, but help revivify the glorious Roman imperial tradition. He actively sought to propagate Hellenic learning, is rumored to have known literary Greek himself, and saw himself as an inheritor of Hellenic tradition.
1 For English translations of this and other important primary sources relating for Greek Independence, to the late Ottomanperiod, see R. Clogg, ed. and tr., The Movement 1770-1821: A Collection of Documents (London 1976).



Better documented is the fact that, for the Muslims, too, the conquest was seen as the fulfillment of divine mandate. Such hadith traditions as that found in the collection of Imam Ahmad (cited above) were corroborated in a number of other sources. The great historian Ibn Khaldun related a tradition of the prophet stating that "[h]e who will destroy the Byzantine Emperor and will spend his treasures in God's behalf will be the mahdi ['rightly guided one'] when he conquers Constantinople." Constantinople, the so-called kjzyl elma ("red apple") of prophetic tradition was, to Ottoman minds, destined to fall to the Turks. Here Ibn Khaldun was inspired by the ninth-century philosopher al-Kindi, who had prophesied that the mahdi would come to "renew Islam and cause justice to triumph."As al-Kindi foretold, "[hIe will conquer the Spanish peninsula and reach Rome and conquer it. He will travel to the East and conquer it. He will conquer Constantinople, and rule over the whole earth will be his."'5 Here, then, we see a point of convergence between Greek, Roman, and Turk alike. All viewed the fall of the city in various waysthe Ottomans as a triumph, the Greeks as a defeat, the Romans with no small dose of Schadenfreude but all concurred that it was not simply a historical inevitability, but a divine one. It is tempting to think of historical change in terms of rupture and more tempting still particularly now to think of it as being played out on a dualistic battlefield divided between a Christian West and a Muslim East. But the story of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the City's transition from Christian to Muslim rule is one that suggests to us that we ought also to think of historical change in terms of continuity and commonalities. It suggests that there was no single, monolithic West or, for that matter, East. Particularly now, perhaps, it is more important than ever that we take its lessons to heart. New York University Classical World 97.1 (2003) K. E. FLEMING

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY N. Barbaro, Diary of the Siege of Constantinople, tr. J. R. Jones (New York 1969). Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, ed. and tr. F. Rosenthal, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Princeton 1967). J. R. Melville Jones, ed. and tr., The Siege of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts (Amsterdam 1972).
15 Ibn Khaldun, vol. 2 (below, "Selected Bibliography") 191. See also al-Kindi, Risalah fi mulk al-'Arab, ed. 0. Loth, in Morgenldndische Forschungen (Festschrift H. L. Fleischer) (Leipzig 1875) 261-63.



T. H. Papadopoulos, Studies and Documents Relating to the History of the Greek Church and People under Turkish Domination (Brussels 1952). G. Phrantzes, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Phrantzes 1401-1477, tr. M. Philippides (Amherst, Mass., 1980). S. Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence (London 1968). D. A. Zakythinos, The Making of Modern Greece: From Byzantium to Independence (Oxford 1976).

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