Friday, September 17, 2021

The Queen of Cities


Why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks

-          Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

From the days of Alp Arslan, the Turkish march through Eastern Christendom had never come to a halt.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

The time is nearly four centuries after the Battle of Manzikert, in 1071.  The Byzantine forces suffered a significant defeat, resulting in the capture of the emperor and the loss of Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia.

The Crusades had done little to stay the onslaught – delaying actions at best, while making jihad a more compelling call for the Muslims.  And, now, the final onslaught; by now the mantle had moved to the Ottomans.

The foothold in Europe came earlier, in 1354, with the capture of Gallipoli.  A few years later, Adrianople – to become the capital of an emerging Ottoman Empire.  An arc would begin to form around Constantinople; in 1389, the Serbian army was wiped out at the Battle of Kosovo.  In 1396, Bulgaria was lost at Nicopolis.  Christian boys were taken as slaves to the Sultan’s court.  These would be trained as the fiercest warriors, to be known as janissaries. 

Then, a slight reprieve: Tamerlane would attack the Turks in Anatolia in 1405, hence diverting their gaze from Constantinople.  Perhaps a chance for rapprochement with Rome – and military support?  There were many who favored the repair of the schism, and not only for military reasons.  There were also those in the East who demonstrated an interest in scholasticism.

Emperor John Kantakouzenos would preside over the Council of Constantinople in 1351.  This council would confirm hesychasm.  He would then abdicate the throne, to live in monastic retirement and to act as a patron of theology and intellectual life. 

…he also supported the study of Western scholasticism and encouraged the translation of Thomas Aquinas into Greek.

The time was ripe to attempt a repair, and the Council of Florence was held in 1438 – 1445.  To come to the point: while the representatives of the Eastern Church were given a full opportunity to speak, little was accomplished in terms of reconnecting the Church.  Even with this, a document was produced that was signed by almost everyone.  Almost…

The document would assert papal supremacy, with the pope assigned universal rule over the entire Church; purgatory was established dogmatically; the filioque was confirmed – with an assertion that this was consistent with the early Greek fathers.  There was one concession to the East: the eucharistic bread could be offered in either leavened or unleavened form.  An almost unequivocal victory for the Latin Church.

So, what happened – if almost everyone signed this document, known as Let the Heavens Rejoice?  Metropolitan Mark of Ephesus did not sign, leaving Florence and returning to an East threatened with destruction.  But it was not only this:

…the reaction to the treaty in Constantinople was nearly revolutionary.  When the emperor and his loyal supporters returned, they were greeted with widespread outrage.  Public disturbances broke out, and some of the signatories were attacked on the streets.

Former supporters of the document would repudiate it; other supporters would move to Rome.  The pope would order the promised crusade, but the army of Hungarians and Poles would be wiped out by the Turks at the Battle of Varna in 1444.  All that remained was Constantinople.

The Muslim army would assemble in 1453.  The people of Constantinople knew what was coming.  It was April 6 when the siege began.  At least 100,000 attackers, although the Greeks would report twice that number.  Hundreds of vessels would join the attack.  And there was also the cannon, commissioned by Mehmet to a Hungarian cannon founder named Orban.

Orban had first offered his services to Constantinople, but the emperor didn’t have the funds necessary for such an undertaking.  So, he then when to Mehmet.  Regarding the cannon:

It was 27 feet long. The barrel, walled with 8 inches of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast, had a diameter of 30 inches, enough for a man to enter on his hands and knees and designed to accommodate a stone shot weighing something over half a ton.

In a test firing, a giant stone ball was hurdled a mile before driving into the ground six feet.  But this cannon had to be transported 140 miles, to the siege:

Two hundred men and 60 oxen were detailed for the task. The immense barrel was loaded onto several wagons chained together and yoked to the ox teams. The great gun rumbled toward the city at a speed of two and a half miles a day, while another team of engineers worked ahead, leveling roads and building wooden bridges over rivers and gullies.

The trip took six weeks, and all along, the Byzantines knew what was coming.  The walls of the city gave way, and the Muslim soldiers would charge in on the morning of May 29.  It is reported that the emperor threw himself into the breach, his body never to be recovered.  Churches were desecrated, houses were robbed, the thirty-thousand Christians who survived the onslaught were either murdered or taken into slavery. 

Young boys and girls were sent to be sex slaves.  Priests, continuing their duty were beheaded or impaled.  The Hagia Sophia would become a mosque; the cross replaced by a crescent moon.


The Eastern Church would now enter a very different chapter.  Constantinople, having stood as the New Rome for a millennium, was no more.

For the West, a different but equally impactful transition was on the horizon….

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