May 29 (technically, by the old calendar) is the anniversary of the fall of the Queen of Cities to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. On that day, the city founded by Saint Constantine for the glory of God and all its sacred churches and shrines suffered horrendously as its holy sites were profaned and its faithful were slaughtered or enslaved. Constantinople had been known as the “God-protected City” because so many pagan and infidel armies had been unable to conquer it. In 626 AD, the Avars tried and failed to conquer the City when the Emperor Heraclius was away fighting the Persians. It was said the most Holy Theotokos interceded to save the City in response to the all night vigils that pleaded for her miraculous intervention. Historians have said that even the armies of the enemy said that they saw a woman standing over the walls of Constantinople.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs attempted to conquer the God-protected city and failed. During these attacks, the City was saved by the weapon known as ‘Greek Fire’, a chemical that was used to successfully destroy the ships of the aggressor armies. Constantinople was also known as the Heavenly City because of so many beautiful churches and the presence of so many sacred relics of the holy apostles and other saints. Aghia Sophia was completed in the year 537 AD under the auspices of the emperor, Saint Justinian. This was the Patriarchal Cathedral and the successor to previous temples which had been destroyed.
Constantinople was the center of Christendom and the greatest city in the world. It possessed manuscripts of the classical Greeks and the philosophers. It was a city that became the center of civilization and culture. During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Church of Constantinople converted the Slavs to Christianity. The conversion of Russia in the tenth century during the reign of Emperor Basil II was a remarkable achievement. The Empire that was known as the Eastern Roman Empire had many flaws, such as palace intrigue that brought about the violent removal of many emperors.
On the other hand, the emperor, who was known as ‘Viceroy of God and equal of the Apostles’ would fulfill many obligations as a Christian. Books have been written about the birth of institutions such as the hospital in the Eastern Roman Empire and the philanthropic activities undertaken by Church and State alike. During the reign of the great Saint Justinian, the concept of ‘symphonia’ or ‘synergy’ came about which defined Church-State relations. According to this
theory, Church and State work together as partners. This tradition holds in the Greek Orthodox world today in which the Church and State in Greece are close. There remain certain challenges to this conception of Church and State in Greece today as a result of the activities of pro-European secularists.
Heresy was a major problem in the Empire of New Rome. Arianism, Nestorianism, and Iconoclasm were among the most notorious heresies that divided the Christians of New Rome. The Church always overcame these crises
through the convening of an Ecumenical Council presided over by the Emperor. The great fathers of the Church gathered together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to clarify the dogmas of the Church. The heretics were always exposed and condemned.
In the year 1071 AD, the Empire suffered significant losses after the Battle of Manzikert, when much of Anatolia was lost and the process of Turkification and Islamicization was begun. The treachery by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 destroyed Constantinople and deprived the City of its treasures and wealth. The Queen of the Cities would never recover and from then on the Empire declined as the Turks gradually seized more and more territory. At the end of the fourteenth century, Emperor Manuel Paleologos successfully defended Constantinople from the Ottomans. He would successfully defend Constantinople again in 1422.
The Emperor Manuel also travelled to England and France at the beginning of the fifteenth century to gain assistance from Europe. Such assistance would not be forthcoming. In 1439, his son John Paleologos paid the high price.
of abandoning the Orthodox faith by agreeing to the Pope’s demands at the Council of Florence in Italy. The Greek Church had watched the Latins abandon Orthodoxy during the eleventh century as a result of serious errors such as inserting the filioque (the words “and the Son”) into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and insisting that the Pope had universal authority over the Church.
In 1439, the Ottoman Turks were at the gates of Constantinople. The Latins were attempting to humiliate the Greeks by forcing them to abandon the true faith of Christ. At such a moment, a giant emerged. The holy and pious monk Saint Mark of Ephesus travelled to Florence with the Emperor and the bishops. Saint Mark alone refused to accept the heretical union with Rome. Upon the return of the Greek delegation to Constantinople, the people of God revolted against the union and Saint Mark became a beloved hero who remains an example and inspiration for Orthodox Greeks up to the present day.
Emperor Constantine Dragases Paleologos was a tragic but heroic figure. He was known as a good and honest man, but he had the misfortune to come to the throne of Constantinople when the Empire had been nearly decimated. He was crowned in the Church of Saint Demetrios at Mistras where he had been serving when his brother John died. Because of the controversy over the Union of Florence, the Emperor was not crowned at Aghia Sophia, and at the beginning of April 1453, the Sultan Mehmet began his jihad and siege of the City.
The Emperor Constantine refused the Sultan’s offer of mercy to the people of the City if they surrendered. With the full support of the people, the Emperor led the defense which would last nearly two months. The Greeks had only five thousand men able to fight, and two thousand Italians from Venice and Genoa arrived to fight with the Greek – but it was much less than the Emperor had anticipated. The Ottoman Sultan had eighty thousand soldiers at his disposal. In addition, European treachery enabled the Sultan to purchase canons which the Turks used successfully to attack the Theodosian Walls which had protected the City on so many previous occasions.
Despite the bravery of the Emperor and the people of God, they could resist no more. Throughout the siege, the common people helped repair breaches in the walls and bringing food and water to the soldiers. In the end, the Ottoman Turks prevailed. The Emperor Constantine had been urged throughout the siege to flee the City and to go into exile. He refused such appeals by declaring, “as my City falls, I shall fall with it”. The Emperor Constantine Dragases Paleologos, defiant to the end, fell in front of the Romanus Gate on what we now call ‘Black Tuesday’, May 29, 1453.
The Fall of Constantinople was accompanied by slaughter. The Sultan had warned the Greeks that if they resisted three days of pillage and destruction would follow the Ottoman victory. For three days, the Turks slaughtered the people of Constantinople or enslaved them. The liturgy in Aghia Sophia was interrupted and men, women, and children were tied in pairs and taken away to the slave markets. The holy chalice and the altar of Aghia Sophia were defiled. One of the Emperor’s loyal officials, George Sphrantzes, lamented and mourned the destruction of Aghia Sophia and the City in his memoirs.
With the martyrdom of the Emperor, it was demanded that Constantine be made a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. The pious Monk Georgios Scholarios (disciple of Saint Mark of Ephesus) became patriarch and agreed to adding Constantine to the list of saints. The new patriarch would take the ecclesiastical name of ‘Gennadios’ and would have the painful task of trying to lead the Church under the new realities that Greek Orthodoxy faced. The Church of Constantinople by a miracle of heaven would maintain the light of Christianity throughout the horrible centuries of Ottoman occupation.
The sacrifice of Emperor Constantine and the Church of Aghia Sophia would never be erased from the consciousness of Orthodox Greeks. Nationalist myths were told to children by their parents of the ‘marble Emperor’ – it was said the Emperor did not die but was saved by an Angel at the last moment and was turned to marble. It was believed that the day would come when the Angel would awaken him and bring him his sword and that he would reclaim his City. Tales were also told about the priest or priests (the stories vary) of Aghia Sophia. It was said that the priest or priests serving the liturgy in the Great Church were taken away into the walls of the Great Church at the last minute so that the infidels would not desecrate the holy gifts.
Even today, it is believed that Constantinople will be redeemed. It has been said that Saint Cosmas Aitalos (martyred by the Turks in 1779) predicted that Constantinople would be Greek again.
More recently, it has been said.
that Saint Paisios predicted that Constantinople will be redeemed. What is certain is that the Queen of the Cities will never be forgotten by Greek Orthodox Christians. Turkish rule ushered in centuries of brutal oppression.
Generations of boys were lost to the Janissaries, generations of girls to the harems, and generations of Greek Christians were lost to Islam. Legal courts in the Ottoman Empire favored Muslims and Churches were frequently seized. Christians were forced to dress distinctly from the Turks and had an inferior status.
In 1922, the dream of the Greeks to liberate Constantinople (known as the ‘Megali Idea’) was destroyed when the British, French, and Italians prevented the Greek Army from liberating Constantinople. After the anti-Greek pogroms in 1955, the final exodus of Greek Orthodox from the City of the Emperors and Patriarchs began. The Greek Orthodox population of Constantinople is now around 1,500. In our own day, the Great Church of Aghia Sophia has been
converted into a Mosque once more.
The great spiritual and cultural heritage of Constantinople should never be forgotten.