Saturday, June 29, 2013


“I’m as Greek as a souvlaki, I’m as Irish as a stew.” Johnny Young.
The mouth-watering smell of cubed lamb smoking and sizzling over splintered pieces of left-over skirting boards allowed to age in a woodpile of other off-cuts, the acrid smell of the peeling paint permeating their fibres and blistering the skin of the adjacent red, green and yellow capsicums while caramelising the adjoining onions, the burning of my tender fingers as I attempted to purloin the metal skewers resting on the blackened grate for my own personal consumption – these are enduring memories of being treated to a souvlaki in my grandmother’s back yard. On occasion, the capsicum and onions would be complemented by the addition of eggplant, largely unnegotiable for a youthful palate, as well as rather more pungent home grown peppers.
The preparation of the souvlaki required pre-mediation and could never be the consequence of a spur of the moment impulse. The night before, my grandmother would meticulously cube the meat into chunks and marinate it overnight in lemon juice and olive oil along with such herbs as  herbs and spices such as oregano and thyme. Prior to doing so, she would open a small container she kept high above in the cupboard and extract pinches of a deep red and thoroughly intoxicating, grainy substance, which she would then proceed to rub all over the meat.  «Σουμάκι my grandmother would reveal triumphantly. “This is the secret to the best-tasting souvlaki. Mainland Greeks have no idea how to season meat. But then again, there are a lot of things for which they have no idea. Take gyros for example. The Greeks just shove meat around the souvla and expect it to season itself. Without a few tomatoes and some sheep’s fat on top of the stake, «δεν γίνεται η δουλειά When my grandmother wanted to be particularly subversive, she would concoct a marinade comprised of mint and tahini so sublime as to render itself unable to be reproduced in print.
My job was to assist in the composition of the souvlaki. There was, according to my grandmother, a natural preordained order in the skewering of ingredients; a consubstantiation of flavours that brought forth optimum taste, if only one was able to master their inherent proclivities. She would watch me with a wry smile, trying to turn the skewers over and remark drily: “You know, that’s what they did to Athanasios Diakos. They skewered him.”  My eyes would invariably go wide. “Did they really yiayia?” I would wonder. Turning the skewers over for a while in silence, I would ponder the ramifications of such an extreme act. “Did they skewer him with capsicums and onions?” was the inevitable riposte that caused my grandmother to collapse it fits of uncontrollable laughter.
Regardless of the spurious assertions of our sundry Middle Eastern cousins, the souvlaki’s ancient Greek provenance is attested archaeologically at least as far back as 1700BC, which is the estimated age of the souvlaki holders illustrated herein, found at Akrotiri in Thyra. These κρατευταί as they were known, boasted a pair of the supports in which the receptions for the spits lined up absolutely, while the line of small openings in the base formed a mechanism to supply the coals with oxygen so that they remained alight during its use. Ingenious. Furthermore, the existence of souvlaki in Greece is attested in writing since antiquity, it being known with the name obeliskos, a diminutive of obelos, meaning ‘spit.’ As such, it is mentioned amongst others in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon and Aristotle. The great bard Homer himself too describes a meal of skewered meat and a meat and bread recipe which resembles the way pita souvlaki is served today, is eerily attested by Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae, who referred to the dish by the name of ‘kandaulos.’
Despite having so many lovely Greek names for our national dish, the word souvlaki, it would surprise many to learn, is not Greek. Being a diminutive of souvla, it is derived from the Latin subula. The kebab on the other hand, a paltry imitation of the real thing, has its origin in the Aramaic word ‘kabbaba’ or ‘kababu’ meaning to burn or char, proving that even back then, they couldn’t even come within proximity of the real thing.
I first learned that my grandmother’s souvlaki was culturally distinct from the Greek souvlaki upon my first visit to that country, whereupon I soon learned that an entire etiquette existed as to its ordering. In Athens, my request for a souvlaki was met with a raised eyebrow. Did I want a kalamaki? A souvlaki merida? A Souvlaki-pita? A Souvlaki Diplopito? (not for the faint hearted), A Souvlaki Dikalamo? Or a Souvlaki ap’ ola? It was when ordering the Souvlaki ‘with the lot’ for safety, that I discovered that Greek souvlakia were generally made of pork, and, as I related to my grandmother in horror upon my return, often enclosed fired potatoes, which caused her to cluck her tongue and classify such a terrible occurrence as the supreme culinary abomination of desolation. In Thessaloniki, being clever, I hung back and waited for someone else to order, to give me a chance to learn the patois. In that city, if one asks for a kalamaki, they are provided with a straw, for the word souvlaki is more consistently in use and one is more likely to find there, rather than in the capital, if one is patient, a lamb souvlaki which invariably trumps pork every time.
Back home, when seized with the irrepressible desire to eat such foods as patsa, kokoretsi, gardoumbes and souvlaki, having being advised by my loved ones that they will neither make or permit me to sully their kitchens with my own preparations of such gastronomic delights, I generally sally forth not to the few Greek purveyors of souvlaki in my area, but rather to Sydney Road in Brunswick, whereupon, in the relative anonymity of Turkish restaurants I am able to indulge in my guilty kebab consuming pleasures in the way that decadent desires should be indulged – alone. As is requisite of all great pleasures, such indulgence comes not without a little guilt. After all, my palette is too jaded, my tastebuds too corrupted by my grandmother's exotic culinary mysteries, in order to fully enjoy the readily available, much simpler, less spiced and often as far as the quality of the meat goes, not so superior Hellenic counterpart as much as I should, let alone extol its virtues. I feel torn, as Cafavy would have put it, as a Greek who enjoys the allurements and pleasures of the East, as a Macedonian soldier who is seduced by the luxury of the Persian hinterland and turns his back on his frugal yet virile homeland, as a Spartan… well you get the idea.
I owe the reversal of my status as a culinary recusant primarily to the memory of unforgettable times in Greece, obtaining souvlakia at ridiculously implausible moments the small hours. It is that experience, the smell of the Athenian street, the discordant symphony of passersby, the choking warmth of the Salonican souvlaki shop in the midst of a biting winter’s night that season my Hellenic souvlaki. And the only place in Melbourne where I can recreate that is perched precariously upon Lonsdale Street, at the recently opened Kalamaki, where the purveying of Greek Street Food is the primary concern. Here, all the old Greek street smells return surreptitiously to fumigate my oriental perversions – the multiple combinations and permutations of souvlaki and pita, the alluring use of what the proprietors term “virgin tzatziki,” Smyrnan sausages, sheftalies, chickpea keftedes and, the clincher for me, the Smyrnan salad of pearl barley, lentils, seeds in pomegranate dressing, evoking, as in a  the omniprescent memories of my grandmother, who was wont to construct similar concoctions, and a long lost ancestral homeland, which survives only in the stories of my grandmother and the food she once cooked.
Kalamaki then, is the straw through which we imbibe the savour of emotions and tastes of memory. Upon each skewer are transfixed the parts constituent of our experiences which meld with each other in order to produce a shared common identity. Such is its power that it, coupled with profuse quantities of Kalamaki’s cinnamon and mastiha liquer, is more than sufficient to bring this lost sheep back into the pork souvlaki fold, in uneasy yet manifest equilibrium with Çökertme kebabı, Hünkâri kebabı and Patlıcan kebabı, subverting the inner dichotomy, in the interests of gastronomic catholicism.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 June 2013.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


"If ERT is being shut down owing to poor management, why cannot the Greek government also be shut down for the same reason?" Anonymous Greek protester.

We live in Orwellian times. So says Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, when in a recent speech describing modern Greece, he suggested that we are living through times similar to those described in George Orwell's totalitarian world of "1984." In modern Orwellian Greece, Samaras says, words are starting to mean their real opposites. For instance, those who we now describe as progressives, in reality are people who do not want anything to change.

I'm not sure whether Samaras is right. After all, Airstrip One in 1984 was replete with telescreens, broadcasting Big Brother's news and propaganda to hapless party members. Presumably, such broadcasts were free. In Hellenic 2013, however, there is no public broadcaster, the Greek Radio and Television or ERT, having been disbanded by the government, with only a vague promise that it will re-open, suitably chastened and shorn of its dross, privileges and perquisites.

Maybe rather that living in Orwellian times, it would be more correct to say that we live in Macbethian times, where fair is foul and foul is fair and if one is to survive, one must hover through fog and filthy air. In the case that filthy air seems to be the revelation that certain superstars of the Greek public broadcaster have been the recipients of hyper-inflated wages and this, at a time when the majority of the Greek people are finding themselves in increasingly straitened circumstances. As a result, the fog of their indignation at the privileges of the pampered presenters, or of revelations that personages drew a wage from ERT without ever setting foot in the place, obscures their understanding of the true significance of ERT's closure and the consequential loss of over three thousand jobs. For them, it is a long awaited nemesis that justly follows the hubris of the culture of indulgence and clientilism propagated by successive Greek governments.

Reconciling the natural order of things from their current inversion seems exactly that which Samaras wants his people to believe that he is able to achieve: that he is willing to take radical measures to break from the corrupt, static and inefficient past in order to have Greece merge, lean, purged of its iniquities and absolves of its peccadilloes, willing to take its place in a modern, global world. In this new world, there is no room for sentimentality, or for that matter, the need for consultation or protest. Instead, the dissenting parties of the Greek government coalition, namely PASOK and DIMAR which have hitherto prided themselves on their alleged 'progressive' character are labelled as reactionary by Samaras, in his quest to convince the International Monetary Fund and any one else who may be listening, that Greece is slavishly adhering to the terms of its bailout, no matter the social cost. What Samaras is in fact proclaiming, while, in the manner of Macbeth, screwing his courage to the sticking place, is that the curtain of illusion is finally drawn aside: no longer are the governments of Greece to claim that they concern themselves with formulating and executing policies that will ensure the future progress of the Greek people. Rather, they act in the capacity of appointed receivers and managers, there to run the Greek state as a concern for its mortgagees, to whom it has defaulted, in order to recoup their losses. At some undisclosed time in the future, sovereignty of the state will be handed back to the people, but predicting when this will occur is as difficult as interpreting the signs of the Revelation in order to ascertain the exact moment of the Second Coming.

Despite the undeniable fact that ERT, like most other Greek government institutions was poorly and inefficiently run and riven by political machinations, regardless of the inexplicability of a nation of ten million people requiring not one, but three public television stations, it cannot be disputed that ERT played an invaluable role within Greek society and of course for diaspora Greeks who were, via satellite treated, at any given time, to lavish productions of «Μένουμε Ελλάδα,» a travel show that took the viewer to diverse prospective holiday spots around Greece, all of which seemed eerily to resemble each other. Without ERT, we would not be able to spend "Sunday in the village," being compelled to witness visibly bored television presenters visiting obscure villages of Greece that, if it was not for ERT we would never even have heard of (for if the Greek commercial channels are to be believed, Greece starts and ends a little outside Athens, to which are added some Mexican barrios and Turkish enclaves), and listen to them asking the same inane questions over and over again as the villagers eagerly attempt to display their traditional foodstuffs and  relate village lore before being cut off by the presenter. Further, without ERT, we would not know that it is permissible to have ladies who have wrinkles, moles and do not look as if their skin has been airbrushed every time they enter a studio, appearing on screen. Variety shows such as «΄Εχει Γούστο,» presented by the euphoniously named Bilio Tsoukala, or «Στην υγειά σας ρε παιδιά,» were not only thought provoking, but laid back, unpretentious and able to host a wide array of contemporary as well as traditional entertainers.

It is in this field, that of traditional culture, that ERT undoubtedly made its mark more than anywhere else. While Greek commercial television presents a sanitised and westernised view of Greece, giving voice to the commercial and bourgeois aspirations of the middle class, ERT, through its programs, sponsored and promoted the survival of traditional music and dance, causing a revival of interest in this neglected field, especially among younger generations. ERT was also instrumental in producing such shows as Arxontariki, hosted by the bishop of Dimitrias, in which the orthodox Christian perspective on a range of social and political issues was examined in a sophisticated manner. This, coupled with the maintenance of ERT's vast historical archives, containing rare footage and quality news programs comprise what is in jeopardy here. ERT, for all its foibles is one of the chief custodians of Greek culture. It is also worthwhile mentioning that two of its other important subsidiaries, the National Symphony Orchestra of Greece and the Orchestra of Contemporary Music  are also set to close.

As usual, the multitude of Greeks who took the time to protest outside ERT's headquarters in St Paraskevi have realised this a little too late. In times of crisis, it is to those perennial aspects of culture, whether these be musical, historical or religious that our people invariably turn in order to gain strength and guidance, so as to negotiate the tortuous passage to better times. Without a central protector, these essential aspects to our national character, which are priceless and thus above any estimation that could be given to them by a plague of international bankers, are placed in jeopardy.

Surely, Samaras could have avoided compromising the integrity of the Greek public broadcaster by appointing a commission to institute the requisite cuts and cauterise the institution from the rot within. By abolishing it wholesale, while making the desired overtures to his financial overlords, he is perhaps also signalling to the Greek people that they  alone and no one else are responsible for the preservation of their identity and the interests of their country. Nonetheless, now that a  Greek court has ruled that ERT must reopen immediately, Samaras now must realise that, in his eagerness to please,  his fate would resemble that of with the words of the mistress herself, Lady Macbeth: "Nought's had, all's spent, Where our desire is got without content; Tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy." Silly, silly man.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 22 June 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Every year, our Good Friday Epitaphios procession, which winds itself before the looming sinisterness of the Moonee Ponds branch of the Tax Office, past the local Safeway into the street behind the church, is, unbeknownst to many parishioners,  accompanied by a discreet group of Assyrians. The reason for this is that owing to the intolerance of their Muslim Arab oppressors and well founded fears of attack, the Good Friday Epitaphios procession had to be discarded and is no longer carried out. The loss of the procession is felt keenly, and the Assyrians that join our procession do so, rejoicing in the fact that in this country at least, they are free to do so. For the rest of us, who have taken the procession for granted for centuries, it forms an intrinsic part of our identity, so much so that it is perhaps the only night in the year that even the most disengaged of Greeks will make the pilgrimage to their local church, there to clock on, as a member of the community. It is this celebration and affirmation of identity that gives the Epitaphios its unique jubilant and triumphant tone, here in Australia, as opposed to the traditional solemnity of its Greek counterpart. As such, it is a particularly Australian procession and a Melburnian institution, as is also evidenced, at least in my parish, by the number of non-Orthodox local residents who await its passage outside their homes every year, often holding candles of their own.
Recent reports in this newspaper suggest that the word 'free' is not to be conjoined to the Epitaphios procession for much longer. The revelation that local councils can and do charge our churches thousands of dollars in order to grant permits or effect traffic management along the route of the procession has caused outrage and bewilderment among members of the Greek community. Further bewilderment has been caused by intimations that in the event of an extension of the current 'user pays' system, rather than pay, and in the absence of other alternatives, the procession will be dropped altogether.
If the carbon tax is about taxing the air we breathe, or rather, produce, then the Epitaphios tax is about taxing the God we worship. It is a levy that casts doubt over our governmental authorities' commitment to multiculturalism and in fact, constitutes a primary example as to how definitions can shift over time. Rather than being a doctrine whereby the state actively encourages and subsidises the practices of local cultures and religions according to the belief that these enrich the fabric of Australian society, it appears on the surface, that we are moving to a system where if we wish to practice those customs or beliefs, we had better be ready to pay for them.
Various local council's uncharitable stance on this issue appears as misguided as it is insulting. Greek Australians have a high rate of property ownership and are conscientious rate-payers. Rather than creating immense good will within the local community, by subsidizing the relatively small cost of a yearly religious procession that is of no more than a half hour in duration, councils would rather convert this, along with so many other practices, into a money-making opportunity. This appears to be an act of blatant disrespect towards a community that has contributed so much to the formulation of modern Australian society. Further, it is divisive and dangerous, in that it compels us to ask questions as to the extent in which the festivities of other ethnic and religious minorities are funded by councils and should the comparison be unfair, cause unneeded friction. For example, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches particularly amongst other Christian denominations also have similar processions; on Good Friday they have the Stations of the Cross along Elizabeth and Swanston Streets, from St. Francis, to St. Paul's, and St. Patrick's, for over an hour, around midday. It is unknown to what extent these need to be subsidized by the churches themselves.
One would be forgiven at being at a quandary as to how can such a situation come to pass, especially for a community that numerically at least, here in Melbourne, is supposed to be significant. Do we not have local councillors of Greek extraction in many local councils of our city? Do we not have Greek-Australian state and federal members of parliament? The answer lies not in representation in parliament but the failing structure of our community as a coherent entity. While organisations created based on one's regional origin abound in Melbourne, few organisations exist based on the interests of local Greek residents in a given area. Where these do exist, they are generally weak, poorly organised, riven with strife, unrepresentative of the Greeks in the local community and unable to be seen by local authorities as an important sounding board with regard to the interests of the local Greeks. Add to this mix, the general disengagement and non-participation of other local Greek organisations in local affairs and one can see why local councils cease to regard the feelings of local Greeks as important on a political level, when conducting their affairs.
One could envisage a totally different outcome if, to take Saint Andreas parish, which is in the City of Brimbank, for example, the parishioners and the rest of the many Greeks who reside within the council's bounds indicated that they would not pay their rates on time and further, would not vote for any of the current councillors in the next local elections. To do this however, one needs to be capable of concerted action, and this is what is severely lacking within our community. Yet, as Victorian member of parliament John Pandazopoulos points out, the fault may be our own: "Brimbank Council has an appointed Government Administrator and NO elected representatives. I haven't heard it to be a problem in other areas. The things that I often hear though is that local churches put their paperwork in late in order for Council By Laws Officers and local police to give appropriate permits and to plan for safety. If there are costs where Council may have a user pays policy there are often Council grants for community events to offset costs. I also understand that the vast majority have no problems."
Ange Kenos, who was a councillor for Moonee Valley agrees: "I would have thought that a sensible organiser would have raised the matter with councils months ago. I was on Moonee Valley council and not one local priest approached me for advice or support." At Saint Dimitrios in Moonee Valley, the procession took place without the need for payment as it does every year. It is unknown why Panagia Soumela, also in the city of Moonee Valley, did not secure a permit.
This being an election year and a particularly important one considering that the current government's hold on power is on a knife edge, it would be useful to convert this into a federal matter, with local parishioners seeking the intervention of their members of Parliament as a quid pro quo. Yet again, the eternal question is raised: who will speak on our behalf and are we prepared to act as one to protect our privileges? Further, before we remain with the proverbial mud on our faces, why are we not being more proactive on this issue and attempting to secure permits on time?
Whatever the outcome, one thing becomes starkly clear. We cannot rely upon our local, state, federal or even parish authorities to safeguard our cultural or religious interests ad infinitum. All these, it becomes apparent are negotiable and are not an automatic entitlement, as many of us have been led to believe. While government assistance is welcome and necessary, if any remnant of belief is to remain in the cynically manipulated term 'multiculturalism,' it is our community and not just one section of it that must develop the structures and resources to protect such privileges when state patronage is, for whatever reason, withdrawn.
A community that is so vast and yet cannot, if absolutely pressed to do so, raise a few thousands in order to perpetuate age old customs, is a mere parody of itself. To have to raise thousands in order to walk around the block is ridiculous. To not be able to raise it, in the absence of any other alternative and after a century in this country is an abject failure, for which we should be ashamed. This is why the indication to this newspaper by various circles that where permits will not be granted gratis, the Epitaphios parade will not take place is deeply disturbing. We would not want this to suggest that our adherence to our traditions is proportional to the extent to which we are willing to pay for them. Furthermore, one would not wish to ask who would be consulted when making the determination that the Epitaphios parade will not take place in a given parish and when, or whether this will take place only after extensive attempts at fundraising, in consultation with parishioners and the community at large, or again, whether the decision be an arbitrary one. Finally, we need to ask how is it possible on one hand to proclaim that we as a community must adhere to our religious customs and traditions and on the other hand, even consider the thought that the single annual event that unites Greeks across the spectrum could be abolished owing to an unwillingness to pay for it, without even mentioning the possibility of organising a campaign to preserve it.
We are indifferent, slothful and complacent when it comes to maintaining our privileges but when faced with their ultimate effacement, the Greek community invariably rises to the occasion. In this, an election year, where a referendum question on recognising local councils in our Constitution will also be added to the ballot, let us unite ensure we are provided with the appropriate guarantees that our freedom of religion will be respected in accordance with the principles of multiculturalism. This procession, which has its origins in the luminous services that took place in Jerusalem where all the pilgrims would gather and was attested by the pilgrim nun Aetheria as early as the 4th century, must not be lost either through council insensitivity or ecclesiastical laxity and defeatism. Melbourne without an Epitaphios procession will be invariably the poorer for it, in fact, not to be countenanced. Let us discard the mantle of defeatism and indifference lest we, in the very near future, become the bearers of the Epitaphios of our own cultural diversity.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 June 2013.

Saturday, June 08, 2013



“They had taken up the Cross and sworn on it … they would pass over the lands of the Christians without shedding blood…Instead of defending [Christ’s] tomb, they …outraged the faithful who are members of Him. They used Christians worse than Arabs use Latins, for at least the arabs respect women.”

When Nicetas Choniatis, erstwhile Grand Logothete of the Byzantine Empire penned these lines in 1204, he was in exile. He penned them still unable to grasp the enormity of the crimes he had seen being committed before his very eyes. It is a crime that implicated the whole of Western Christendom, the wounds of which are still suffered today by the eastern Christians.

It is little known that the classical Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, largest in France, was built to contain the head of St. John the Baptist, stolen during the commission of one of the greatest crimes in history: the sack of Constantinople by the Latin West at the time of the Fourth Crusade.

Ostensibly, the Crusades were fought with several aims in mind: to free the Holy Land, to stop the spread of Islam, and as set out by Bishop of Rome Innocent III, to unify the Eastern and Western Churches, which by 1204 had been in schism for two hundred years. However, they failed in all of these: the holy places remained under Mohammedan control, Islam continued to extend its influence, and a deeper wedge was driven between the two churches. If anything, the Crusades hastened the demise of the Byzantine Empire and its ultimate fall into Moslem hands. This had devastating effects on the whole of Europe. Not only did it let the Turks into Europe; it subsequently led to the Balkan problem and the economic disparity between eastern and western Europe. And all this to a city, which for nine hundred years, safeguarded Europe from the devastation of the Avars, Bulgars, Arabs, Rus and the Turks.

Bishop Innocent III of Rome called the Fourth Crusade in 1196. Essentially, it was a French enterprise, supported by Swabians, and later, by Venetians. Because Mohammedan power had shifted from Palestine to Cairo, its objective was to take Egypt. This meant launching a maritime campaign, requiring ships and related supplies, which the French did not have. They turned to Venice, ruled by the aged, blind doge Enrico Dandolo, for assistance.

The wily Dandolo persuaded the Crusaders to move on Zara on the Illyrian coast in 1203 instead. When this attack against a Christian city outraged the church in Rome, a remarkable pretext occurred to whet the Crusader’s appetite elsewhere. The ruler of Swabia had received a letter from his brother, the deposed Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelos, who had been deposed by his brother, Alexius III. Isaac's son. In exchange for western help to enthrone his son, Alexius the Younger, he would pay for the crusade against Egypt, supply an army of ten thousand men, dispatch 500 knight to guard the Holy Land, and also offered the submission of the Eastern Church to the west. Dandolo convinced the Crusaders that better pickings were to be had in Constantinople and it was agreed the Egyptian Crusade should be put off.

Arriving in Constantinople, the French chronicler and Crusader, Geoffrey de Villehardouin wrote that the Crusaders “when they saw those high ramparts and the strong towers with which it was completely encircled and the splendid palaces and soaring churches…there was not a man so bold he did not tremble at the sight.”

Disembarking at Chalcedon on the Asiatic shores, the Crusaders attacked and occupied the commercial centre of Galata and proceeded to attack the City from the imperial palace of Blachernae. Knowing all was lost, Alexius III fled the city. Thus, the son of blind Issac, Alexius IV was crowned emperor on 1 August 1203. He inherited a treasury hat was empty. He also inherited a population that was furious against the continued sojourn of the unruly, rude and uncivilized Crusaders. Tensions drew to a height when a gang of maurauding Crusaders set fire to the Church of St Irene, causing the greatest fire in the City , since the days of Justinian.

Furthermore, the Crusaders were feeling resentful against the Byzantines as well. The loot promised them would be used only to pay off the Venetians for their transport. They were gaining nothing materially from this, the richest City of the known world. Moreover, it was revealed that Alexius did not have the means to honour his father’s extravagant promises.  It was at this juncture that the perfidious Dandolo orchestrated the crime of the millennium. He intimated to the Swabians that nothing could be expected from the Greeks, who had betrayed them and would not fulfill their promises. If the Crusaders took the city, they could establish a Latin Emperor on the throne, who would have a quarter of the city, while a half would go to Venice along with the right to appoint a Venetian patriarch to the City.

Meanwhile, on 25 January 1204, the protovestiarius Alexius Ducas Mourzuphlos deposed Alexius IV and assumed the throne. He immediately began to improve the City’s defences, awaiting the imminent attack. After receiving absolution, on 9 April 1204, the Crusaders attacked. Constantinople fell on 12 April after three days, of the final, furious attack by land and by sea. Once inside the walls, the Crusaders began an orgy of carnage, brutality and vandalism not seen in Europe since the barbarians invaded seven centuries earlier.

Nicetas Choniates wrote in despair: ““I do not know how to put any order into my account, how to begin, continue or end. They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour. These heralds of Anti-Christ seized the chalices and the patens, tore out the jewels and used them as drinking cups… As for their profanation of the Great Church, it cannot be thought of without horror. They destroyed the high altar, a work of art admired by the entire world and shared out the pieces among themselves… And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne and the pulpit and the doors and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure.

A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch’s chair, to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs and danced bawdy songs and danced immodestly in the holy place … nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God… In the streets, houses and churches there could only be heard cries and lamentations.”

Fires were started throughout the city. Villehardouin wrote that in the conflagration, “more houses were burnt… than are to be found in the three greatest cities of the Kingdom of France.”  The butchery ended only when the Crusaders were so tired that they no longer could lift their swords. Then began the looting and profanation on a scale unparalleled in history. This pattern of pilferage and desecration was repeated in churches, monasteries and palaces throughout the city. The tombs of the emperors were rifled, and all of the classical statues and monuments which had survived from ancient Greece and imperial Rome were destroyed. What was not carried off was burned, smashed, melted down for its precious metal content, or stripped for its jewels.

For the Greeks of Constantinople, the tragedy had only begun.  There began a slow and steady removal of treasures out of the Orthodox temples and into the churches and cities of Latin Europe. Epistle books, ladles, church plate, censers, , candelabra, epitaphia, reliquaries, vestments, banners, manuscripts, miniatures, mosaics, thrones, tapestries, furniture and architectural items all were pilfered. Cartloads of gold and silver from Hagia Sophia found their way into the Vatican treasury. Constantinople had become the gold mine which supplied Latin Christendom.

A scandalous traffic in relics was started. The head of St. John the Baptist was carried off to Amiens. Amalfi took the head of St. Andrew from the Church of the Holy Apostles, along with a set of heavy bronze doors. The bishop of Soissons shipped home the head of St. Stephen and a relic of St. John. The remains of St. Clement, pillaged from the Church of St. Theodosia, were taken to Cluny. St. Albans received the relics of St. Marina. Halbstadt claimed the relics of St. James. The True Cross was divided up among the barons, with a portion sent to Innocent III. King Louis IX of France paid 10,000 silver marks for the "true" Crown of Thorns, for which he built St. Chapells in Paris.

From the Monastery of the Pantacrator , the Venetians appropriated a group of exquisite gem-crusted enamel cameos, to enhance the Palo D'Oro, an elaborate Byzantine bejeweled gold screen which was used in the Cathedral in Venice to cover the relics of St. Mark.. They also carried off the Icon of the Theotokos of Nikopeia, as well as a relic of St. Stephen. The golden tabernacle from the Church of the Holy Apostles, a replica of the church itself, was added to their booty. Venice's prized possessions are the four magnificent glided bronze horses, cast in Constantine's time, which once stood in the Hippodrome; today, except when removed for cleaning, they stand atop the gallery of St. Mark's basilica. The Roman porphyry statue of four tetrarchs, taken from a palace, stands in a corner of St. Mark's treasury.

Many ancient artworks were destroyed. Among them, the immense bronze statues of Hercules by Lysippus, Pegasus by Rhoecus and Hera by Theodoros of Samos were melted for their metal by the barbarous Crusaders. Even statues of the Mother of god, a focal point in the Forum of the Ox were not respected.

Venetians valued craftsmen, and they took away the best: goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewel workers, iconographers, woodcarvers, stone and glass workers. Much of the Venetian glass technique so famous today originated in Constantinople. St. Mark's contains the finest collection of Byzantine craftsmanship in the world. It includes 32 Byzantine chalices, plus assorted relics, reliquaries, altar pieces, Gospels, Jewels, vestments, manuscripts and church plate. The collection was recently exhibited in Melbourne though it is interesting to note not so much attention is paid to the return of these artifacts, as to the Parthenon Marbles.

The Latin Empire lasted for about forty years before the Byzantines retook the city. During that time, the Orthodox Church was persecuted and the inhabitants of the Empire were treated as no better than slaves. Constantinople was used as a base from which to raid the Aegean Islands and Greece, resulting in the Venetian capture of Athens. Scions of Byzantine families, set up Byzantine seigneuries in sundered parts of the Emppire: the Angeloi founded the Despotate of Epirus, the Komnenoi, the Empire of Trapezous, in the Pontus and the Palaologoi, the Empire of Nicaea in western Asia Minor.

The Fourth Crusade surpassed all acts of faithlessness, duplicity and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had not been just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs – perhaps the most single catastrophic single loss in all history.

Politically too, the damage done was incalculable. Although Latin rule along the Bosphorus was to last less than sixty years, the Byzantine Empire never recovered its strength or any considerable part of its lost dominion. A strong and wealthy Byzantium would have halted the Turkic advance and saved eastern Europe from destruction. There are few greater ironies in history than the fact that the fate of Eastern Christendom was sealed by men who purportedly fought under the Cross. It is only with the late John Paul II’s apology on behalf of the Western Church for the Crusade, that the tremendous wounds, bleeding for over seven centuries, can finally be healed.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 and Saturday 8 June 2013.