The Fall of Constantinople and the Metaphysical Sanctity of Hellenism’s Ideals
May 29, 2009 marked the 556th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. The infamous anniversary did not received too much coverage. The Greek media was occupied with the upcoming European Parliament elections on June 7th. Moreover, a protest organized by 1,000-plus Muslims in the center of Athens that same day actually drew greater coverage than the anniversary of the fall of the great city.
In fact, the Associated Press merely mentioned the historic occurrence as a side note in its feature story about the protesting Muslims, remarking that certain “far-right” Greek groups were holding a gathering commemorating the fall. Meanwhile, Turkey organized events celebrating the fall of the great city to Mehmet the Conqueror.
A search of Greek news agencies revealed a gathering in the courtyard of the Annunciation Cathedral of Athens, where a statue of the last Roman emperor Constantine Palaeologus stands. Those present held Greek and Byzantine flags with the two-headed eagle. Whether all the individuals present at the event are ultra-right or not is unknown to me. It is certainly possible that ultra nationalistic elements were present. However, this shouldn’t mean that anyone wanting to commemorate the event should be branded a fascist. It is disturbing that foreigners can freely demonstrate in Greece, while citizens wishing to commemorate an event that altered the future of Europe and perhaps the world are dismissed as militant reactionaries. Perhaps the powers that be are preparing to export the dreadful Kosovo model elsewhere.
For hundreds of years, generations of Greeks lived with the idea that they would one day regain the Queen City. Even if these dreams came to a bitter end during the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, Constantinople still remained at the heart of Greeks’ spiritual visions. The tactile embodiment of metaphysical ideals has historically played a very important role in the Hellenic worldview. This is has been illustrated since ancient times with the Parthenon and subsequent Christian centuries with the Church of the Holy Wisdom (St. Sophia). These two structures embody the sum total of Hellenism’s highest ideals.
Not commemorating the fall of Constantinople, or suggesting that those who do are uber-nationalists demonstrates ignorance over the significance of the metaphysical in the Greek worldview.
Of course, it is not surprising that foreign media present this story in such a way. But that is precisely the reason why Greeks at home and abroad have an obligation to uphold the Greek perspective. The consequences of the fall of Constantinople – creation of the non-existent term “Byzantine” Empire, impact on Western Renaissance – played an important part in world history.
The answer given by Constantine the XI to the Sultan’s offer to surrender peacefully (“It is not up to me or anyone else living here to hand over the City to you. It is our common decision to willingly die and spare not our lives.”) is of major importance to our ethnic vitality. The same remarkable self-sacrifice shown by the last emperor on May 29, 1453 was echoed in the response of his people nearly 500 years later when Greece stood up to Mussolini’s demand to occupy their land. The same fighting spirit displayed by the last free Greeks of Constantinople remained alive to guide their descendants to register one of the greatest victories of the 20th century.
History is worth remembering because it inspires. It maintains a sense of sanctity in our lives. It stands as a roadmap to future generations.
Peter G. Peterson, the third wealthiest Greek American of 2009 (according to TNH’s special issue), recently decided to endow his personal foundation with $1 billion from profits he made from his company the Blackstone Group. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation addresses fiscal sustainability issues related to federal deficits, entitlement programs and tax policies.
In his article in Newsweek, Mr. Peterson mentions being the first Greek cabinet officer in a US administration, and recalls his dad’s sacrifices at the family diner in Kearny, Neb. He then goes on to lament the ills of the debt-ridden American political system, and call its leaders “enablers, co-conspirators in a disingenuous and greedy silence.”
I am admittedly unaware of Mr. Peterson’s contributions towards Greek Community projects, but I cannot help but think that if the metaphysical sanctity of Greek history was better preserved he might be inspired to share more of those billions towards better serving its metaphysical engagements.
Consider the awe-inspiring continuity of self-sacrifice that remains a constant from Thermopylae, to the last stand at Constantinople, to the heroic battles of 1940, or the spiritual mettle that insists on forever remembering Istanbul as the Queen City of Constantinople, or the centuries-old belief that keeps alive the hope through songs, legends, and prophecies that somehow, someway, this city of 20-plus million Turks will indelibly remain a beacon of Romanity (Hellenism + Orthodoxy).
Be it to a university, a school, or some other institution, such an endowment from ultra-wealthy Greek Americans like Mr. Peterson would prove that empires as rich and powerful as America, or as vast and longstanding as Constantinople New Rome, survive not only on their financial wherewithal, but their metaphysical composition as well.