Wednesday 29 May 2019


On this day 29th May in 1453, The Ottomans made the final assault on Constantinople after a 53 day siege. The evening before, the Byzantine Emperor and those who could be spared from manning the walls of the Great City repaired to Αγία Σοφία Hagia Sophia the Church of the Divine Wisdom for a last service. They knew it would be all over on the morrow. Ottoman troops didn't wait for daylight but started to move on the breaches in the mighty walls shortly after midnight. The emperor discarded his purple robes and went down fighting in the streets with most of his soldiers. Some of the Venetian, Genoese and other Christian mercenaries managed to get down to the harbour in the chaos and escape out to sea - so we have several eye-witness accounts of the last days of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Christians stretched an iron chain across the mouth of the Golden Horn between The City and the suburb of Galata to prevent the Ottoman fleet from getting access to the weakly walled edge of the harbour. But the ingenious Turks heaved some of their ships across the peninsula on a road of greased logs and so bypassed that defence. The death of the Constantine XI and the departure of the Italians marked only the beginnings of the horror meted out on the civilian population, not to mention the churches and libraries of the city. By tradition, the troops were allowed three days of loot and pillage as a reward for putting their  own lives on the line. The desire for the good things of life among the Ottoman soldiery was instrumental in allowing the escape of many of the surviving fighters from the other side. As a civilian, the best chance of survival was because, alive, you represented value as a slave.

There is a certain irony that the current name of the city Istanbul is supposed to be a transliteration of a Greek phrase εἰς τὴν πόλιν, [eis tēn pólin] "to the City". 20 years ago, I was teaching in a University outside of Istanbul and at the end of the course, I hung out for a couple of days in The City. Hagia Sophia is now a mosque [the muezzins of the city called the faithful to prayer at first light and woke me up] but I still had a visit on my bucket-list to pay respects to the last of the "Romans", and reflect on the extraordinary perspectives of history. The Byzantines felt they were the descendants of Cincinnatus, Claudius, Cato and Cicero - upholders of civilisation for a 1000 years after the Legions, for example, left Britain. But you can't spend too long looking at the past through the foggy, slightly rose-tinted, lens of history. After breakfast on my last day, I repaired to a huge covered market to buy baklava; red star&crescent tee-shirts, and pointy-toes slippers for the girls and a pair of star&crescent cushion covers which are still gracing our sofa:
Cue WB Yeats:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

1 comment:

  1. They claim that the Suir was chained in an attempt to twart Henry 11 in 1172,but I've found nothing very concrete as yet. You give me a renewed faith in finding something :)