The Fall of Constantinople, 566 years ago (May 29th, 1453-2019)

29 May 2019

Five hundred and sixty six years have gone by since that accursed day, 29 May 1453. When the cry “The City has fallen” rang out and the Reigning City, the City of Saints, Emperors and legends passed into the occupation of the Ottoman dynasty. Thus began the years of Turkish rule. The Greek nation survived, but Constantinople and Ayia Sofia (The Church of Holy Wisdom) remain in foreign hands. Today we honour those who fell during the siege and at the fall, we read the laments and the legends, we are moved, and taught. For this is the value of historic memory: to be a lesson for ever for younger and older generations.

1) We must remember the fall in order to pay an enduring and great debt to the Byzantine state, Romania, as the texts of the time called it, the Christianized Roman polity of the Greek nation, as the recent Byzantinist Dionysios Zakynthinos has it. The Byzantine Empire, with its capital of Constantinople/New Rome, lasted 11 centuries. After the capture by the crusaders in 1204 its lands and vigour were seriously curtailed. But throughout the duration of its life, it remained the state where the successful and creative encounter between Christianity and Hellenism occurred. The Greek and Orthodox tradition was the result of this encounter and Byzantium passed it on, in a peaceful manner, to neighbouring peoples.  The cultures of the peoples of Eastern Europe today illustrate and bear witness to this missionary activity of our Byzantine forebears. When he was in Athens in 1992, the Russian Patriarch Alexei, recognized that Russia is the spiritual child of the Greek and Christian culture of Byzantium. The 20th century Rumanian historian and politician, Nicolae Iorga, called Moldavia-Wallachia, after the fall, “post-Byzantine Byzantium”. And the Cyrillic alphabet, which is of Greek origin and is used by many Slavic peoples, is practical confirmation of the influence of Byzantine culture. We modern Greeks, then, must teach and be taught by this history.

2) We must remember the fall, because through the narratives of the historians of the time, Greek endurance unfolds, the enduring continuum of the values of Hellenism. The moving speech by Constantine Palaeologus on 28 May, the eve of the final attack by the Ottomans teaches us why we struggle: for the faith, for our homeland, for our kin. He adds “the emperor”, because, at that time, this was the form of government. But the triptych of faith, homeland and kin to which the last emperor refers,  links us to the oath sworn by the ancient Athenians youths and with the paean of the fighters at Salamis: “Go children of the Greeks” and this Greek endurance continues down to the proclamation  of Alexander Ypsilantis, who wrote in February 1821: “Fight for the faith and our homeland”. It is also reflected in the words of Kolokotronis to the students of the first high school in what was now free Athens: “When we took to arms we said first ‘For the faith’ and then ‘For our homeland’”. These are the abiding values of Hellenism. This moral bond unites Palaeologus with the fighters at Salamis, with Kolokotronis, with 1940 and with the Cypriote epic of 1955-9. We fight for the faith, the fatherland and the family… never mind that some people count us anachronistic. Revering the memory of the forerunners and martyrs of Greek endurance, we shall continue to fight for these things.

 3) We remember the events of the time before and around the fall because they teach us the invaluable contribution of the Orthodox Church to the survival of the Greek nation. A few decades before the fall we had a powerful and arrogant intervention of the state, as it was then constituted, in matters of the Church. The imperial authority believed- alas- that, if we signed up to the subservience of Orthodoxy to the Pope, we would have considerable help from the West against the Ottomans. In 1438-9 in Ferrara and Florence, ecclesiastical leaders were dragged under pressure and humiliations to sign the false union of the churches. Mark Eugenicus, Bishop of Ephesus, refused to sign and saved the honour of the Church. Note: he did not refuse to talk, because the Orthodox are always open to dialogue. He refused submission. And of those who did sign, one great personality retracted his signature as soon as he returned to Constantinople: Georgios Scholarius who was later to become Gennadius, the first Patriarch after the fall.

The people followed Mark and Scholarius. The anti-union party was proved right, because, despite the signature of the false union, the Pope’s ships never reached the embattled reigning city. The British historian Sir Steven Runciman, in his meticulous work “The Great Church in Captivity” defends the anti-union party, saying that it preserved the unity of the Church and it was only in this way that Hellenism survived. And in another important work “The Fall of Constantinople” he gives the lie to all the critics of the Church and monasticism, stressing that, on the sea walls of the City, one of the towers was defended by Greek monks.

4) We remember the fall because history teaches us that when a few decide to resist the many, they may be defeated for the moment, but in the end, they triumph. The resistance on the walls of the Reigning City by 5,000 Greeks and 2,000 foreign allies persisted in the souls of the enslaved people as a title of honour and a commitment to new struggles. The sacrifice of Constantine Palaeologus at the gate of Romanos set the foundations for 1821. The dozens of movements on the part of the enslaved people were nourished by the legends of the Enmarbled Emperor[1] and the Red Apple[2]. If they had surrendered on 29 May 1453, there would not have been any resistance or national uprising. Capitulation would have been an indelible shame. Heroic defence, however, gave birth to patience, hope, expectancy. This hope is expressed in the Pontic lament:

“Romania has passed, Romania has been taken

But passed Romania yet thrives and still bears fruit”.

Besides, Kolokotronis used to say to the foreigners he talked to: “Our emperor made no treaty; his guard continues to fight and his citadels resist”. He would explain that he was referring to Constantine Palaeologus, to the brigand resistance leaders and to Souli and Mani. Those who fell at the conquest of Constantinople gave us the right to the Great Idea. And without Great Ideas nations cannot go forward.

5) The resistance of the last defenders of Constantinople and “willingly we die and count our lives as nought” (Emperor Constantine Palaeologus) also inspired the “No” of the Greek people. In 1940 they said it to Mussolini, in 1941 to Hitler and it is present in the continuing struggle of Cyprus against colonialism and de-Hellenization. Today we have to continue to resist with all the means at our disposal. Today’s losses are small and ordinary. Therefore insidious and just as dangerous. The undermining of our language, the ignorance of our history, the mania for all things foreign, the slanderers of our Greek and Orthodox tradition, the territorial claims of our neighbours, the falsification of the history of Cyprus and Macedonia, all of this and much else besides are small losses that require knowledge, resistance and pugnacity. We do not reject contact and cooperation with other peoples and cultures. Hellenism never chose to be enclosed in itself. But we will resist absorption, alienation and grey areas. We shall fight with weapons that are, principally, spiritual and moral. And we shall learn from the Tradition and experience of our Church. The fall of Constantinople and the concomitant circumstances teach us that, in the end, we have survived because of our Orthodox faith. Because the Orthodox Tradition is linked to the Cross and the Resurrection. It reminds us that after every Crucifixion of the Nation, there is a Resurrection! This is what I wish for our half-occupied Cyprus.


[1] A reference to a legend that Constantine was not killed but saved by an angel and rests, “enmarbled”, in a cave. When the time is ripe he will awake and be restored. Rather like King Arthur. (trans. note)
[2] The location from which Constantine will awake. Perhaps from a Turkish expression for “big city”. (trans. note).