On May 11, 330 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine stood on the shores of the Bosporus, near the natural harbor of the Golden Horn, on the grounds of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (named after Byzas, its first leader in 667 BC). He dedicated the New Rome, soon renamed Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and, in time, the center of power and influence of the Byzantine Empire, as named by later historians.
From its inception, the empire had strong Greek influence, becoming progressively more Greek in its core population, language, culture, and religion. During its long history, Constantinople played a decisive role in safeguarding ancient Greek works of art and classical books and documents which, in time, became the foundation of the Renaissance and the bedrock of Western civilization; it also defined Christianity and protected Europe from marauding barbarian hordes and other invaders. For over 1,100 years Constantinople was the gatekeeper of Europe.
During the Middle (Dark) Ages Constantinople was the leading political, economic, and cultural center in Europe and the Middle East, and the empire at its height stretched from the easternmost provinces of Anatolia to the Italian peninsula and southern Spain, and from the Danube River and the Black Sea to Palestine, Egypt, and the entire Mediterranean coast of the African continent. Its robust commerce extended from China, India, and the Arabian lands to all the great population centers around the Mediterranean rim and the Black Sea. Even distant Moscow, Paris, London, and northern Europe felt the commercial and cultural influence of Byzantium. During the height of its influence, the Byzantine Empire had a most powerful and stable economy thanks to its organized infrastructure and its commanding location on the trade routes between the Aegean and the Black Seas and the Eastern and Western worlds.
During Justinian I’s reign (527-565 AD), Constantinople had a population of almost a million, with some 27 million people spread across the empire, speaking 72 languages. With the founding of Byzantium, Christianity had become the favored religion and eventually the dominant faith of the West. The remarkable classical Greco-Roman civilization had receded into history having left its indelible imprint on Europe and the world and by the 6th century, the empire was rapidly becoming more Greek than Roman while Rome itself had been sacked by barbarian Visigoths in 410 and Vandals in 455. Over the empire's long life, countless onslaughts by Huns, Vandals, Avars, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Normans, Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Turks, etc., had been repelled by a number of adroit emperors and able generals. Even when it lost a battle, the empire always had the resilience and tenacity to recover and prosper.
However, following the devastating sacking and plunder of Constantinople in 1204 by the fellow Christians of the Fourth Crusade, with the complicity of Pope Boniface of Montferrat, the empire never fully recovered. The superb horses above the entrance to St. Mark’s Cathedral, in
Venice, are copies of the original classical Hellenic copper horses, now in the church's museum; they are but a small sample of this barbaric looting of the city's treasures, its many painstakingly collected ancient Greek works of art, and the priceless classical books of its great library. What they did not plunder, they destroyed, and today we only have fragments of these remarkable ancient works. For instance, from Sophocles’ over 100 plays only seven survived the disaster. Even relics of saints were stolen. The catastrophe of 1204 can never be undone – the world was impoverished by it, and history will never forgive it! Historian Sir Steven Runciman called the Christian sacking of Constantinople “the greatest crime in history.” (After 797 years, visiting Athens on May 4, 2001, Pope John Paul II expressed his “deep regret” and lamented “the disastrous sacking of the imperial city of Constantinople.”)
Miraculously, even as its enemies were closing in, Byzantium managed to go on for another 249 years, albeit in a crippled state and increasingly shrinking geography, population, commerce, and geopolitical clout. At the end, this great empire suffered the dreadful doom against which it had defended itself and the rest of Europe for 11 centuries. During that time this city had seen a succession of tumultuous, glorious, and, sometimes, chaotic events – events that shaped its destiny forever. Its fateful end came on Tuesday May 29, 1453, a full 1,123 years and 18 days after its founding. On that black day in the history of civilization, the once Great Empire was desperately defending itself behind the ancient walls of Constantinople.
On the Ottoman side, Sultan Murat II had died in 1451 and his 20-year-old son Mehmed (later vainly renamed Mohammed II) took over and began his bloody reign by strangling his younger brother to eliminate any questions of succession and planned to strangle Constantinople.
And so, on April 6, 1453, the impregnable walls of the great city were surrounded by a massive Ottoman-Turkish army, reaching 200-300 thousand fighters with many modern canons, purchased with the blood money the Ottomans had extracted by the use of force and terror, of slaughter and rape, of plunder and extortion, from their enslaved people in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Now the barbarians were indeed at the gates!
This is the scene in Constantinople during its last few days of agony: For weeks, the triple-tiered walls – built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II were bombarded relentlessly by the new awesome weapons, the large bronze cannons. With their loot from plundered lands the Ottomans had commissioned 67 cannons capable of hurling 200 pound shots. The biggest, 3-ft in bore super cannon fires 1,200 pound projectiles capable of shattering the, until now, impregnable walls. This is the largest cannon in the world and it takes sixty oxen to draw it and 10,000 cavalry to protect it. Designed by the Hungarian cannon founder Orban for a very high price, it was responsible for bringing down Constantinople’s walls, not the Turkish multitude, or Mehmet’s strategy, or the fighters’ hunger for plunder, or even the myth of the 72 virgins waiting for them in paradise. Constantinople’s population has already declined to some 50,000 people. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos and the city’s mere 8,000 Greek defenders, 2,000 mercenaries, and 200 archers, fight valiantly, desperately defending the 13 miles of damaged walls that had always protected the city. To Mehmet’s request for surrender, Constantine replies: “It is not my will or the will of any of its citizens to surrender the city to you; with our free will we are ready to die and we are not fearful for our lives.”
The exhausted defenders repair the ramparts by night and beat back one assault after another. On the evening of May 28, the soft rays of the setting sun embrace the cross on top of Aghia Sophia for the last time. The untiring Constantine attends solemn services and, in spite of strong advice to flee, he inspects the fortifications and stays with his men. They scan the horizon for help from Western Europe only to confirm that they are alone. Sensing the imminent danger, Constantine and his soldiers are determined to sacrifice their lives at the highest possible cost to the enemy. Every night the Turks wage a war of nerves and terror by beating drums, blowing trumpets, lighting fires – but not this night. This night, a deadly, terrifying calm hangs heavily in the air, portending something ominous. The Turks had already towed several vessels overland and pulled them back into the water, circumventing the heavy Byzantine chain that had until then prevented enemy ships from entering the Golden Horn harbor.
At about 2:00 AM, the defenders hear clamor as 2,000 Turks move ladders through the moat and up the walls. Simultaneously, flames were spewing out the cannons signaling the beginning of an ear-shattering, wall-shaking bombardment, now by land and sea. The Romanos Gate comes under relentless barrage and repeated assaults. The embattled Emperor rushes to the breached gate, which has become ground zero of the city's fate; dressed as an ordinary soldier, he fights like a lion next to his doomed men and the 700 brave Genoese under captain Giustiniani, the only Westerners who came to help. While they absorb a blizzard of deadly fire from Turkish muskets, slings, and archers, they inflict heavy losses on the enemy. Wave after wave of Turks swarm up the ladders and repeatedly are thrown back. Turkish soldiers squeeze through newly opened holes on the walls and fall upon the defenders. Mehmet commits his elite troops, the Janissaries, (abducted Christian children who were forcefully converted to Islam and trained to fight Christians). What was until now a chaotic battle, turns into savage carnage.
The hand-to-hand battle continues into the night until the Turks discover a lightly guarded portal and storm in. The defenders now find themselves under attack from all sides while simultaneously a shrill cry fills the air: “The city has fallen!” Constantine sensing the death of his city, decides to die with it. With three of his closest comrades, their swords drawn, they charge into the swarming enemy lines and fall fighting as bodies of friends and foes pile on top of them. The savage battle lasts all night.
The frenzied Ottoman troops flood into the city and unleash a biblical orgy of slaughter, plunder, rape, and destruction. As the Turks penetrate into the inner city, looting and slaying, they meet with stiff house-to-house, and hand-to-hand Greek resistance. True descendants of those who fell at Thermopilae, the defenders fight and fall as the shining star of Europe is violently snuffed out and darkness falls on the dying empire. The dawn of May 29 reveals the extent of the incomprehensible carnage. The bloody streets of the city, the mutilated, the dead, and the wounded stand gruesome witnesses to one of history’s worst tragedies and civilization’s and Christianity's most lamentable misfortune!
History will be forever haunted by the inconceivable horror that befell Constantinople on May 29, 1453. On that day, the only hot-white flame during Europe’s Dark Ages was doused with blood and the lofty universal mission of Byzantium came to a cruel end. For the next four centuries the Greeks would find themselves deep in the jaws of an insufferable hell. Their domination by the Turks, a nomadic people, with no cultural achievements of any kind, who swarmed like a viral plague from the steppes of Central Asia and, using terror as their main weapon, subdued one town after another until they finally snuffed the life out of the 11-century old imperial city!
The first ceremonial sound that had resounded in the enormous, seemingly levitating, gilded dome of Aghia Sophia in 537, was the proud exclamation of Emperor Justinian, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” Alas, on May 29, 1453, the only echoes were those of praying and pleading faithful; then came the echoes of the shrill and profane screams of the sackers, looters, and plunderers storming in with their blood dripping scimitars, shouting orders and mercilessly assaulting the vanquished. Then trotted in the leading horseman of the bloody apocalypse, Sultan Mehmet, underscoring his victory by defiling the Cathedral; then the muffled echoes of painful lamentations and anguished mourning of the wounded and the dying!
The Turks who had added nothing to world civilization and had acquired everything through violence and plunder of other people’s cities, achievements, and possessions, suddenly had become the overlords of one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. The highly educated and learned people of Constantinople abruptly became slaves, within their own city, to an ignorant host whose greatest achievements had been the ruthless destruction of ancient civilizations in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Thus the Greeks were forced to live under the appalling conditions of Turkish occupation for almost 400 years.
The Ottoman Empire hardly produced anything of lasting value to civilization during this period. They destroyed institutions of learning and replaced them with harems full of enslaved girls. They often closed schools and engaged in the despicable practice of kidnapping Christian children, Islamizing them, and turning them into the dreaded Janissaries, the Sultan’s elite corps and enemies of the . . . ‘infidels’. Had the West helped, the fall of Constantinople could have been prevented. However, to its eternal shame, for religious, economic, and political reasons, the West, except for a small Genoese force, maintained a cruel neutrality. It debated and watched while what had been the bastion of Christendom and Europe fell to Islamic Turkish hordes. Without the protective shield of Constantinople, the Turks were some day to appear at the gates of Vienna, threatening to strangle the Renaissance and Western civilization in the cribs of their rebirth. The fall of Constantinople shocked Europe but shock is never a substitute for timely help that could have prevented the catastrophe. History will never forgive Western Europe and the Vatican for their cynical failure to help the city and the weakened empire that had protected them for 11 long centuries!
The eminent historian John A. Crow gives an accurate historical profile of the invaders: “The Turks were recent intruders in this part of the world. The first great migration of these Asiatic people had been in the 11th century. A second wave was pushed out of Asia by the eruption of the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Turks were a primitive, barbaric people, who found their main outlet in war. Their conquest of the Arabian Peninsula marked the death knell of Arabic culture. Under them Baghdad and other cities of Arabia ceased to be centers of a thriving civilization. Neither did the Turks show any consideration for Greek, Byzantine, Persian, or Syrian culture; they came like a whirlwind, looting and killing as they advanced. They had been converted to Islam but seemed impervious to all aspects of Islamic civilization.” These were the people under whose dreadful choking yoke the Greeks had found themselves.
On May 29, 1453, the eleven-centuries-old empire, the impregnable fortress of freedom that had stopped Christendom's and the West's enemies at the doorstep of Europe, had finally fallen, mortally wounded on the blood-drenched soil in one of the most fateful onslaughts in history. On that day Byzantium, the empire with the “Triple Fusion,” in the words of Robert Byron, “that of a Roman body, a Greek mind, and an oriental, mystical soul,” saw its body destroyed in the savage carnage on its walls and streets with its mortally wounded heart expiring under the majestic dome of the defiled cathedral of Aghia Sophia, its immortal soul going into hiding in the fractured psyche of every Greek who suddenly became slave to an uneducated, nomadic, barbarian host. Its remarkable mind fled to the West and, as it crossed the Italian peninsula. The familiar ruined Greek temples of old welcomed it, and a plethora of Greek intellectuals, scientists, engineers, philosophers, architects, and others, their treasures of classical Greek books and ancient scrolls passing to the West. Soon they were fanning the recent sparks of the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment which, together, transformed the Europe of the Middle Ages into the Europe that heralded our modern world! Byzantium had safeguarded the classical Greek writings, wisdoms, and inventions and had added a plethora of its own contributions that enriched the global pool of human knowledge for 11 centuries. Civilization is poorer because Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453. The 400-year pain of enslavement ultimately nourished the spirit of the Greek Revolution of 1821, which brought about the liberation and rebirth of Greece – sadly without Constantinople – and the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire!
May 29, 1453 and March 25, 1821 are the two bookends that bracket the worst and most regressive period ever in the 4,000-year-old Hellenic history. Unfortunately, it was also the longest! For 368 painful years the fugitive soul of Byzantium kept alive the hope of freedom in the hearts of every Hellene until, against all odds, it vaulted out and defiantly demanded and reclaimed its freedom on March 25, 1821, a day to which history has granted the honor of immortality and whose bicentennial was celebrated world-wide, a few weeks ago!
Ernest A. Kollitides: Scientist/Professional Engineer, Fortune-500 Corp. Executive, Historian; traveled to and studied all historical sites referenced in his writings.