ΕΑΛΩ Η ΠΟΛΙΣ!
You have a Mr Kalymnakis (no relation or associate to any employees, assigns, agents, contractors or sub-contractors to the Diatribe) for this week’s column. His main concern, as expressed to me, is that in the conscious re-casting of the Greek identity so as to conform to western stereotypes and conceptions, the city of Constantinople, a true successor to the multi-ethnic and multicultural Hellenistic kingdoms, which for over a thousand years moulded and shaped Greek cultural identity and is a vital link of continuity between the ancient and modern worlds, a valuable repository and disseminator of world civilisation, is largely overlooked, except within the hypernationalistic circles of the fringe dwellers of our ever unravelling intellectual carpet. Its fall, a traumatic event, altered the course of history.
In the final years leading up to the decline and eventual fall of Constantinople, the last Emperor ruling at this time was Constantine XI, who inherited a remnant of an Empire of past glories, surrounded on all sides by Ottoman Turks. In spite of Constantine continuing with his predecessor’s policy of trying to force religious Union with Rome in exchange for military support, the West never sent any help. Constantine was left to rule over a deserted city protected only by five thousand citizens, and a small army of Genoese mercenaries. Against this backdrop, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II began planning for the siege of the City. Almost a year before the attack, Mehmet slowly went about controlling and restricting all trade routes around Constantinople. From his new naval forts, he maintained a strict blockade of the City and built earthworks to surround the city and support the establishment of heavy artillery. With the help of the Hungarians, he built the largest canon in the world. With 150,000 troops at his disposal, Mehmet began his siege of Constantinople in April 1453, which would last for 54 days. The walled city was attacked almost constantly from Ottoman canons on both land and sea, until a part of the walls was finally breached under the constant bombardment.
Constantine rushed to the breach in the walls, and supported by his Varangian Guard, facing an enemy a thousand-fold their size, fought valiantly to the very end, his body lost, amidst the general slaughter. Following the fall of the city, Mehmet allowed three days and nights of murder, rape and pillage to his Turkish soldiers. No one was spared. Priests, monks, women and children sheltering in churches were attacked and killed in the onslaught. Mehmet then entered the city, and rode into the great Cathedral of Agia Sophia on a horse, trampling over the dead bodies of those who had sought sanctuary inside. Even he could not believe the extent of the desolation of a beautiful city, once known as the Queen of all. Roaming through the empty, deserted and decayed City that was for hundreds of years the wonder of the world, Mehmet, visibly moved by what he saw, was caused to mutter a famous Persian couplet: “The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Kings, the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.”
It is high time that attention was drawn to this significant but oft-neglected event in the Greek calendar. For some inexplicable reason, heavy emphasis tends to be placed by modern Greeks on their glorious ancient past and their cultural and political regenesis after the 1821 Revolution
but the whole thousand year history of Byzantium, in which Greek civilization achieved nadirs and zeniths of cultural, political and economic attainments in dizzying succession and was almost able to conceive of an ideology of globalism akin to that prevalent today (οικουμένη), is glossed
over. So too is the 29 May 1453, the day Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, after an epic struggle, even more heroic that the battle of Thermopylae. The chronicles read like a decent action movie script and it is a wonder no one has picked this up yet.
Yet far from being an obscure historical event of limited relevance to the modern world, the Fall, much lamented in Greek folk songs, influenced the Greek people to a vast degree. Firstly, for the first time in about two thousand years, they were on their own, not an intrinsic part of another Empire, nor lording it over other subject peoples. It was a time for recrimination and insularity, trying to take stock of what went wrong for an Empire that was supposed to re-create God's kingdom on earth and which consequently enjoyed divine sanction. As the first Orthodox Patriarch after the Fall, Gennadios Scholarios lamented in his eloquent tribute:
“O city, even if you were poor in your final years and uninhabited for the most part and living each day in fear and stripped in all respects of your celebrated wealth, you were free nonetheless, and you gave those who dwelled within you the nourishment of Christ abundantly, City, by the reputation of your ancient eminence and the ruins of your former prosperity you earned yourself the fitting and singular reverence of all… You were the sweetest city to the foreigners who came to you and enjoyed strange, unfamiliar wonders, as though they had been brought up into heaven… You cannot explain to those who did not see you even once, and, even to those who visited you often, you raised a spectacle always stranger still than any verbal account. I will now abandon the task of trying to explain your splendour, because it is impossible.”
The Fall also united the Greek people, given that while they tended to identify with their birthplace, Constantinople somehow was the capital and homeland of all. The single event of the Fall of Constantinople was also able to sustain Greek dreams of a time when the Empire would be restored. This was a major driving force behind Greeks retaining their religion and culture under the often extreme pressures of the Ottoman period. The Fall of Constantinople also influenced Greek politics. Catherine the Great used the re-establishment of a Greek empire in Constantinople with her grandson, fittingly named Constantine as Emperor, as a carrot on the end of the stick for Greeks to revolt against the ottomans in the Peloponnese.
According to the revolutionary luminary and thinker, Rhigas Pheraios, Constantinople retaken would comprise the capital of a great commonwealth of Orthodox nations that would be ruled in accordance with the principles of the enlightenment and liberalism. Ioannis Kolettis, the Epirot physician of Ali Pasha and later Prime Minister of Greece was able to afford a central role to Constantinople in his political manifesto, the Great Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα) in which Greeks would eventually re-extend their sway over the lands
formerly comprising the Byzantine Empire.
This 'Idea', achieved an almost mystical reverence, especially during the times of foreign intervention in Greece during the rule of Otto I, given that is was already reinforced by popular myth and prophecies stemming back from the time of Byzantium. St Kosmas the Aetolian prophecised the vanquishing of the Ottomans while the of spurious authenticity prophecy of Agathaggelos, foresaw that the 'blond race' (ξανθόν γένος) would deliver the Greeks from bondage and that the Ottoman oppressors would be thrown back to their legendary homeland near the 'Red Apple Tree' somewhere in the depths of Asia. Alternatively, Constantine, the last Emperor, in true Arthurian fashion, would arise from his marbled state hidden in either a monastery, city wall or a column in Agia Sophia, re-establish control of the Imperial City and expel the hated oppressors.
The eschatological part of the myth, propagated during Byzantium, that the Emperor's rule would precede the rise of Satan and the Apocalypse was conveniently ignored. The myth was so attractive, that it fuelled Greek foreign policy for the next hundred years. It underpinned the invasion of Thessaly in 1897, which almost resulted in the Ottoman capture of Athens, the Cretan Revolt, the Samian Revolt, the Cheimarriot Revolt, the reconquista of northern Greece during the Balkan Wars and culminated in the disastrous Asia Minor campaign, where in 1922, the entire Greek population of Anatolia was extirpated. The Megali Idea is now dead. Yet if Athens is the political capital of Greece, Constantinople, the seat of the Oecumenical Patriarchate, appears still to be the Greeks’ cultural and spiritual capital and continues to exercise an immense fascination over them.
It is therefore inconceivable that except for the Church, no one has sought to mark the importance of this event, arguably even more significant to the Greek people than 25 March 1821.For the Greeks therefore, the Fall of Constantinople is a day of memory and onsolidation. That day marked the beginning of the end for Hellenism in Anatolia. Though the Greeks clung tenaciously and lovingly to their city, the combined effects of nationalism and hysterical racism, culminating in the 1955 pogrom and other repressive and racist policies against Christian minorities in ‘democratic’ Turkey, have seen the Greek population fall in Constantinople from 500,000 in 1922 to approximately 3,000 elderly and fearful citizens today.
In remembering the fall of Constantinople, we remember also the enlightenment of the west. For it was the Constantinopolitan scholars, who, fleeing from their lost city, and bringing their cultural knowledge with them, as well as valuable manuscripts of the Greek classics, were able to cause the Renaissance and an increased admiration for Greek culture. This cultural tradition has not diminished over time. Until the thirties, more Greek books had been printed in Constantinople than Athens. As the apogee and personification of Greek cultural refinement, the city shines still as a beacon still and it is perhaps the deep knowledge of the legacy of this pained city that prompted national poet Kostis Palamas to pen the following immortal lines which are perhaps the personification of the redemptive way Hellenism views the fall of Constantinople and the Greek renascence:
«και μην έχοντας πιο κάτου άλλο σκαλί/ να κατρακυλήσεις πιο βαθιά/ στου Κακού τη σκάλα,/ για τ’ ανέβασμα ξανά που σε καλεί/ θα αιστανθείς να σου φυτρώσουν, ω χαρά!/ Τα φτερά,/ τα φτερά τα πρωτινά σου τα μεγάλα!»
ΑΙΩΝΙΑ Η ΜΝΗΜΗ.
First published in NKEE on 28 May 2007