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“Better Turks than Latins!” – The Aftermath and the New City

May 30, 2014

So the end of the Roman Empire and of its Emperors had come at last. The Roman Empire of the East, which we now call Byzantium had lasted (if you start at the founding of Constantinople) for one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years and eighteen days. Its contributions to Western culture and history would last: the Orthodox church; wonderful art; superb architecture; and checking the Ottoman advance into Europe. Perhaps most of all a myth emerged which like so many may be romanticised and idealised, but nevertheless can provide an inspiration for many. It has for me and this is why I started this blog.

Recently, Mizar, a cult rock band that uses Macedonian traditional music and Orthodox Christian chant in much of its work, released a new single, “Konstantinopol,” featuring Harmosini Choir. A video clip using a number of depictions of the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, including a modern romanticist, kitschy image of Constantine XI riding a horse on the battlements (minute 0:16) is on You Tube. It continues the romanticist theme and of course, Byzantium still has a powerful draw for the Greeks.

Let’s continue with the story of the Fall, as it did not end with the capture of the City. In fact you can see how Mehmet attempted to claim legitimacy as a continuation of the Roman Emperors.

Mehmet had now achieved the goal that for centuries had been the sacred duty of the faithful to capture the Christian capital. Born during a plague that had killed two of his brothers, he was the third son of a father, Sultan Murad, whopreferred his two brothers. They both died prematurely. Murad became closer to his older son and took him on campaigns. Most notably Mehmet commanded the Anatolian troops at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448 where the Albanian Christian patriot George Kastriota, better known as Skanderbeg, and the Hungarian prince John Hunyadi were soundly defeated.

When he seized the throne after his father’s death in 1451 the Western princes had formed no opinion of Mehmet and judged him by the failures of his youth. However, as we saw during the siege, he was quick to learn and the West badly misjudged the young Sultan thinking he would not add to his father’s conquests. As Gibbon wrote “Peace was on his lips, but war was in his heart.” He took his time receiving envoys and confirming previous treaties, biding his time until he was ready to continue the expansion of the Empire.

Mehmet had a fierce temper and did not lack courage. During the siege of Constantinople and the final assault, he had been at the head of his advancing troops, encouraging with promises of great prizes and with his heavy mace.

After the capture of the city, those in the West realised too late that leaving Constantinople to its fate had been a mistake. For many centuries it has acted as a bulwark against invasion from the east. In recent times, much weakened it had been a rump empire, surrounded by the Turks, but nevertheless it was a bastion drawing in Turkish time, energy and resources. Now the Turks were entirely free to face the West. There was much shock in the West. This was the end of the ancient Roman Empire and there was genuine sorrow and mourning for its Fall. Anthems were written and services held to mourn the loss. (the video below features the music of Cappella Romana from their album “The Fall of Constantinople”.

Mehmet did not waste time. With the capture of the city he saw himself as the heir of the Caesars. His city would be Byzantium reborn in a new image; an Islamic city and the centre of his Empire. He had big ideas and he was flattered by those he conquered. The Cretan historian George Trapezountios assured him when summoned to his court: “No one doubts that you are the Emperor of the Romans. Whoever is legally master of the capital of the Empire is the Emperor, and Constantinople is the capital of the Roman Empire.” Mehmet was Kaiser- i – Rum, Roman Emperor in succession to Augustus and Constantine the Great, and Padishah, Vice Regent of God. He now personified Turkish, Islamic and Byzantine traditions.

Therefore he had no desire or reason to destroy the city or the Empire, but to bring new life to it under an Ottoman pattern. He saw it remaining as a cosmopolitan empire, with all races and creeds living together in harmony. Whilst the Church was subordinate to the State and paid tribute, its members enjoyed freedom of worship and retained their own customs. Against Islamic law he retained the figurative mosaics in Hagia Sophia (many of which can still be seen today), which as a Mosque retained its name in Islamic form as Aya Sofya.

Mehmet decided the role of Patriarch should be retained and chose the monk Gennadius who has opposed union with the Roman church. In January 1454 Gennadius was enthroned as Greek Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Apostles (where Constantine the Great’s body lay). The Sultan himself personally invested the Patriarch with the insignia of his office. The role included complete authority of the Greek community in the Phanar quarter of the City, even having his own prison. His authority extended over all Greek Christians in the Empire. The Sultan positioned himself as the protector and benefactor of the Orthodox Church, cutting off any further influence from Rome. Furthermore Mehmet decided that his new city of Istanbul should be the seat of the Armenian Patriarch, and the Jewish Chief Rabbi. This tolerance may not be universally acknowledged but it was to give strength to the Ottoman Empire as it grew; the Christians provided merchants and administrators and proved very successful, enjoying privileges over many Muslims.

The view in the West at this time was that Mehmet was a possible convert to Christianity such was his tolerance of the Church and his general interest in Orthodox Christianity, even asking for Gennadius to write a statement of Orthodox beliefs in Turkish so that he might understand more. However, such a conversion was extremely unlikely. Mehmet was probably ensuring he understood all he needed to about such an important group of his subjects. His support and influence ensures the survival of the Orthodox Church, something that perhaps may not be universally acknowledged in the West. In fact his support added weight to the cries of “Better Turks than Latins!” which were to be heard during the interminable debates about the joining of the two churches over the years.

Besides settling the position of the Church, the Sultan worked fast on the literal rebuilding of the city – the walls, the buildings destroyed in the siege – and also rebuilding it as a great city. The population had fallen to less than forty thousand by the time of the siege. The Sultan urged Christians to return and they were exempted from taxation. Around thirty thousand peasants were moved into the surrounding areas as farmers to provide food for the city. Merchants, craftsmen and artisans were moved from all corners of the Ottoman Empire to the city to work on its rebirth as a trading centre and a capital fit for the vision of empire that Mehmet was now developing. The cultural and commercial growth of the city started to attract Greek merchants and others as they saw that Istanbul would offer opportunities for wealth such as they had not seen for a long time. Within one hundred years of the conquest, Istanbul had a population of nearly 500,000, of whom only around 50 per cent were Turkish.

Mosque of the Conqueror, built by Mehmet II

Mehmet was a great builder. He rebuilt palaces and extended them for himself and his family. Most notably he built the Mosque of Faith, known as the Mosque of the Conqueror. For this work he chose a Greek architect, and probably used Greek craftsmen for the many mosaics. This fusion of Islamic money, faith and design, with the skills of the Greeks was to be seen in many places, most notably in the work of the great Mosque on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Whilst the day of the Fall was bloody, it was no worse than can have been expected in any medieval siege. Mehmet had a vision for his city and he wanted it to flourish. He recognised that this could only be achieved through a tolerant, cosmopolitan approach. The success of this can be seen in the great building which followed and the growth in both population and wealth of the city in just a few short years. That may be relatively well known, but perhaps not enough credit is given to the judgements and wise rule of Sultan Mehmet “The Conqueror”.

Related articles:

The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Days that live in Infamy: The Fall of Constantinople

May 29, 2014

Mehmet the Conqueror enters Constantinople

Faced with the certainty of death it is said that experienced soldiers are ready to make that last leap into the fray, knowing that they have only one fate. A man schooled in princely duties such as Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologos knew his duty and on this day, 29 May in 1453 he died fighting for his empire, his people, and his faith.

By Tom Sawford

After a series of unrelenting attacks by the Ottomans since 1.30 am, Constantine was at his post at the Lycus valley at aaround 7.00 am but it was clear that all seemed lost now. He gave final orders to his friends John Dalamata and Don Francisco de Toledo, and weighed in to fight hand to hand beside his troops fighting desperately in one last bid to throw back the enemy.

How tired he must have been. Covered in the blood of friend and foe alike, his sword arm feeling like a lead bar, slipping on mud and blood and tangled bodies he was now just another soldier fighting for this life and his country in the intense and frenzied conditions of hand to hand fighting where the only instincts are to kill, slash, stab, butt, kick, and scream, only thinking about the next blow and where the next enemy may come from.

Finally the last Emperor of the Romans realised that it was over. He flung off his imperial regalia, and with his friends made one last charge into the body of the enemy. He was never seen again.

The morning of 29 May was given over to rape, pillage and destruction. Those that could headed for the harbour where Genoese and Venetian ships were desperately preparing to leave the city. Hundreds of refugees joined the sailors and made their way down the Bosphorus.

Late in the afternoon the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet, entered the city and ordered the looting to stop. He headed straight for St Sophia, placed a handful of earth on his turban as a gesture of humility and entered the great church. The senior imam mounted the pulpit and proclaimed the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate, there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet. The Sultan knelt, his head to the ground in prayer and thanksgiving.

The city was his at the age of just twenty one. The Empire of the Romans was finished.

The Final Hours of Constantinople: the funeral oration of the Roman Empire

May 28, 2014

A romanticised image of Constantine XI Palaeologos at the end of the siege

We come now to the last hours of Byzantium. The defenders were weary after defending the city since April 5th 1453. The Emperor’s hope lay with a relief fleet from Venice, but this had failed to appear. On 3 May a Venetian brigantine left the Golden Horn flying a Turkish standard, and carrying a crew of twelve volunteers. It slipped through the Turkish naval defence to go in search of the expected reinforcements.

We ponder the last hours before the final Ottoman assault, and I try to take some of it from the personal perspective of the last true Emperor of the Romans, Constantine XI Palaeologos, also called Dragases …

By Tom Sawford

As the end drew near all in the city must have thought that the ship would not return but on the night of 23rd of May it reappeared hotly pursued by a squadron of Turkish ships. Tacking furiously the superior seamanship of the Venetians resulted in them successfully outrunning the Turks. They reported that they had searched for three weeks throughout the Aegean with no success. The captain asked his men if they wished to return to Venice or to Constantinople. All bar one volunteered to return to the Emperor knowing full well that they would probably never leave the city alive (Note – The Venetian relief fleet sent by Pope Nicholas was on its way. It had anchored off Chios waiting for a favourable wind).

As weariness and hunger set in so did the level of superstition rise. Some spoke of the omens that forecast the last Emperor of the Romans would be a Constantine born of a Helena. On 24 May there was a lunar eclipse; two days later the most precious icon of the Virgin fell to the ground whilst being carried in a procession. It was picked up but then a huge thunderstorm burst over the city, more violent than any could remember. The next morning the whole city was shrouded in a thick fog, and later that night a red glow crept up the side of the Hagia Sophia to the summit and then disappeared. The Turks saw this also and interpreted it as a sign that the building would soon be illuminated by the one true faith. The Byzantines saw only the spirit of God leaving the city. The Emperor was encouraged by his friend George Sphrantzes to leave the city whilst there was still time, but Constantine would have none of it. This was his city; these were his people and he could not desert them.

Mehmet was now getting impatient. Some of his advisers said the siege had been going on too long and should be broken off. His younger generals however agreed with the Sultan who said that the time had come for the final assault and plans were made for an attack in the early hours of 29 May.

There was no attempt at secrecy by the Turks. Why should there be? The site of the preparations for battle of such a large, well equipped and well fed army would be enough to lower the morale of the defenders even more. Ditches were filled, cannon pulled into new positions, catapults ranged in place, food, water, scaling ladders, arrows, bandages, gunpowder and all other weapons and stores required by an army undertaking a frontal assault were prepared. At dawn on 28th May all work ceased. The Sultan wanted his men to rest. Mehmet spent the day inspecting and making final adjustments and giving his orders. All was ready.

That day was a Monday and within the walls the defenders prepared themselves but could get no rest. Imagine their tasks; making all ready at their positions; filling gaps in the walls; bringing up new supplies of arrows; sharpening swords; trying to eat what few rations they had; going back to their homes to see all was well, and then back to their stations on the walls. The most precious of icons processed around the streets in a spontaneous procession of Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic alike. The Emperor joined this procession and when it was over he called his captains and generals to him to give them his last instructions. He told them all that there were four great causes for which a man should be prepared to die: his faith; his country; his family and his Emperor. They must be prepared now to give their lives for all four. He said he was willing to die for his faith, his family, his city and its people. He then turned to them all, Greeks and Italians alike, and gave a speech which was effectively the funeral oration of the Roman Empire:

“Gentlemen, illustrious captains of the army, and our most Christian comrades in arms: we now see the hour of battle approaching. I have therefore elected to assemble you here to make it clear that you must stand together with firmer resolution than ever. You have always fought with glory against the enemies of Christ. Now the defence of your fatherland and of the city known the world over, which the infidel and evil Turks have been besieging for two and fifty days, is committed to your lofty spirits.

Be not afraid because its walls have been worn down by the enemy’s battering. For your strength lies in the protection of God and you must show it with your arms quivering and your swords brandished against the enemy. I know that this undisciplined mob will, as is their custom, rush upon you with loud cries and ceaseless volleys of arrows. These will do you no bodily harm, for I see that you are well covered in armour. They will strike the walls, our breastplates and our shields. So do not imitate the Romans who, when the Carthaginians went into battle against them, allowed their cavalry to be terrified by the fearsome sight and sound of elephants.

In this battle you must stand firm and have no fear, no thought of flight, but be inspired to resist with ever more herculean strength. Animals may run away from animals. But you are men, men of stout heart, and you will hold at bay these dumb brutes, thrusting your spears and swords into them, so that they will know that they are fighting not against their own kind but against the masters of animals.

You are aware that the impious and infidel enemy has disturbed the peace unjustly. He has violated the oath and treaty that he made with us; he has slaughtered our farmers at harvest time; he has erected a fortress on the Propontis as it were to devour the Christians; he has encircled Galata under a pretence of peace.

Now he threatens to capture the city of Constantine the Great, your fatherland, the place of ready refuge for all Christians, the guardian of all Greeks, and to profane its holy shrines of God by turning them into stables for his horses. Oh my lords, my brothers, my sons, the everlasting honour of Christians is in your hands.

You men of Genoa, men of courage and famous for your infinite victories, you who have always protected this city, your mother, in many a conflict with the Turks, show now your prowess and your aggressive spirit toward them with manly vigour.

You men of Venice, most valiant heroes, whose swords have many a time made Turkish blood to flow and who in our time have sent so many ships, so many infidel souls to the depths under the command of Loredano, the most excellent captain of our fleet, you who have adorned this city as if it were your own with fine, outstanding men, lift high your spirits now for battle.

You, my comrades in arms, obey the commands of your leaders in the knowledge that this is the day of your glory — a day on which, if you shed but a drop of blood, you will win for yourselves crowns of martyrdom and eternal fame.”

Once over he shook their hands asking for forgiveness for any wrongs he had committed against them and moved to the Church of the Holy Wisdom where for one last time vespers were held in the great church built by Justinian nearly nine hundred years previously. Virtually everyone who did not have pressing duties is said to have come to take the Eucharist one last time. Cardinal Isidore, former Metropolitan of Kiev took the service, uniting Orthodox and Catholic as he dispensed the Holy Sacrament. The Emperor took communion and then returned to Blachernae Palace for a last supper with his household. Around midnight he rode the length of the land walls with his friend George Sphrantzes to convince himself that all that could be done had been done for the defence of his city. They talked together for an hour on top of a tower near the palace and then said their goodbyes, knowing that they would never see each other again.

Related articles:

Weather Eye: explaining bizarre events in the Byzantine Empire

The Siege of Constantinople One Month On

Turkey’s Great Musical Gamble

May 8, 2014

Another article from the New English Review on an interesting subject. I can only imagine that the situation has got worse sincein the middle east in general since this was first written.

By Geoffrey Clarfield.

First published in the New English Review, February 2010.

Today the status of music and musicians in the Islamic world is grim. In Europe and North America, municipal, regional and national authorities compete with each other to support the arts-music, theatre, dance, sculpture, film and architecture. With few restrictions artists and musicians are free to express themselves. What was considered obscene twenty years ago, today gets broadcast with barely the blink of an eye. And, in the West the Internet remains completely uncensored.

The religious right maintains a steady criticism of the lascivious hedonism and violent sentiments that so much modern music expresses, but the law and the courts uphold freedom of expression, the market supports it and public funding for the arts is rarely withheld on moral grounds. It would be fair to say that in the Western democracies musicians are free to express themselves in any way possible.

Not so in the contemporary Islamic world. During the 1950s Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice banned singing and music. In those days, if you were caught at a musical gathering the religious police had the right to beat you up. It was a time when musical instruments as well as records and record players could be seized and destroyed by the authorities.

During the last fifty years the Saudis have liberalized their approach to music and it is now broadcast on their TV and radio stations. But the state still monitors and screens recordings and live performances. Licenses for recording go mainly to male singers. Yet in contemporary Saudi Arabia there are still a significant number of hard line religious teachers who encourage young people to burn musical instruments in public places. Such a situation creates a climate of fear and no doubt, Saudi or visiting musicians and song writers self edit to an extraordinary degree.

Despite the relatively tolerant nature of Egyptian society and their interpretation of Islam, music and musicians there also live in fear. Every piece of music needs a recording license issued by the government in order to be published. Often the censors ask the artists to change the lyrics. The government gives much authority to the Islamic Research Council of the religiously based Al Azhar University which is active in the censorship of music. They often contact publishers and ask them to change, or hold back a piece of music from the public for religious reasons. Members of the Egyptian Assembly representing the radical Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood regularly criticize pop music and musicians during parliamentary sessions.

In relatively tolerant and multi cultural Lebanon the musician and singer Marcel Khalife barely escaped the wrath of Islamic authorities there who managed to have him tried in a high court for blasphemy, for the content of a song which used a line from the Quran. After numerous hearings he was acquitted, not because the court agreed that in that barely secular republic, as a songwriter he had the right to freedom of expression, but because in their eyes, “the defendant has chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase.” Imagine what his prison sentence might have been if he had been using the phrase ironically.

Similarly, a recent hip hop concert in Gaza was violently broken up by Hamas supporters. Even though the contents of the lyrics were stridently anti Israel, the followers of Hamas took exception to the fact that the rappers were using a form of music that came from the West. The content was the least important issue. And, that did not stop radical Islamic clerics around the world from threatening former Beatle Paul McCarthy with death for performing in Israel. Read more…

Getty Villa Moves ‘Heaven and Earth’ for Byzantine Art Exhibition

April 7, 2014
Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958

Icon with the Archangel Michael, about A.D. 1300–1350, Constantinople; tempera and gold on wood. Courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958


The Getty Villa in Los Angeles presents Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections from April 9 through August 25, 2014. This major loan exhibition surveys the artistic, spiritual and cultural splendor of the Byzantine Empire.

By Dawn Levesque, 21 March 2014.

The Byzantine art exhibition highlights 167 items that include painted icons, frescoes, sculptures, mosaics and ceramics, illuminated books and other objects. Spanning more than 1,300 years, the art and antiquities are on loan from 34 Greek archaeological and art museums like Athen’s Benaki Museum, creating the largest and most significant Byzantine collection from Greece ever assembled and presented in Southern California.

The display of Byzantium art outlines the progression of Byzantine culture. It starts in the fourth century from its Greco-Roman beginnings and progresses to the 15th century and the “ancient pagan world of the late Roman Empire” through the profoundly spiritual realm of the new Christian Byzantine Empire.

Emperor Constantine the Great relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Rechristened Constantinople, it became the new capital of the Roman Empire, and one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the Christian World. The empire spread and receded throughout its history, but remained infamous for the grandeur of its art and architecture. The ancient name, Byzantium now signifies the empire, culture and period when the rulers of Constantinople created.

Five key thematic sections comprise the Byzantine Art exhibit. It begins with the early adoption of Christianity as the state religion in late antiquity when it infused and influenced all aspects of life including the architecture and the arts. The exhibit follows to the pluralistic nature of the empire and its reflection of the arts of the West, most notably in Italy.

The first section entitled, From the Ancient to the Byzantine World highlights the fourth through the sixth century, and illustrates the classical influence. During the time, paganism and Christianity coexisted in a “hybrid culture.” Visitors can study the principal figures of classical antiquity from the early centuries and their role in providing a foundation for Early Christian visual culture.

In the second section, The Christian Empire: Spiritual Life explores the sixth through the 14th century, and works created exclusively for the church or private worship. Here, visitors can view Byzantine mosaics and emblematic icons, with most painted in tempera on wood. An example from the exhibit is the 12th century double-sided icon with Virgin Hodegetria and The Man of Sorrows.

Visitors will next study The Pleasures of Life that studies the secular works of art in the home. Items include silver flatware, floor mosaics, ceramic plates, jewelry, and perfume flasks. Also on display is the sumptuously illustrated copy of Romance of Alexander, a fictional account of Alexander the Great’s adventures.

The Intellectual Life section displays illustrated manuscripts such as theology, liturgy, scripture and other topics that directed intellectual life in the Christian empire. Also on view are copies of manuscripts that cover the Byzantines ancient Greek heritage such as texts by Socrates and Euripides. These and other similar works demonstrate the importance that scribes in the Byzantine empire had in passing down the tradition of classical learning and literature.

The last section of the Byzantine art exhibition is The Last Phase: Crosscurrents, which explores 14th and 15th century art of the Byzantine Empire under the rulers of the Palaiologan dynasty. Works feature naturalism and narrative detail as seen in the 15th century icon, Volpi Nativity (Nativity of the Virgin). This section shows the cross over between the Byzantines and Western crusaders that occupied Byzantine territories in the 13th century. At this time, artists worked for both Greek and Italian patrons, producing paintings in a “fusion style.”

Byzantine artists made use of pagan and early Christian fundamentals to form an opulent and spiritual Byzantium world. With Christianity as the state religion, resplendent icons, sculptures, textiles and frescos ornamented cathedrals and churches throughout the empire. Illuminated manuscripts sustained ancient Greek literature, and privileged individuals promoted the beautification of daily life. Objects from the Byzantine art exhibition exemplify Byzantine beauty that impelled artistic traditions of cultures for over a millennium.

Five questions on an Irish poet’s famous paean to Byzantium

April 2, 2014
William Butler Yeats (Photo: Library of Congress, Wikimedia)

William Butler Yeats (Photo: Library of Congress, Wikimedia)

Istanbul has arguably inspired more poetry, novels, travel accounts and essays than any other city. But the world’s most widely read depiction of the city came from a man who never set foot in it: the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

This leaves us to wonder: How did Yeats’s famous poem “Sailing to Byzantium” come about? In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we shed some light on the matter. From Today’s Zaman.

So what exactly did Yeats write about Byzantium?

Yeats wrote two poems about İstanbul that have become classics in the Western literary canon: “Sailing to Byzantium” and the later “Byzantium.” The first poem uses an imagined journey to Byzantium to meditate on mortality, spirituality and artistic legacy, among other themes. The poet escapes a country of youth neglecting the “monuments of unageing intellect” around them and travels to Byzantium, seeking some form of eternal paradise.

The second, lesser-known poem, “Byzantium,” is a nighttime portrait of the city populated by classical Greek symbols — the figure of Hades, the golden bough, dolphins carrying people to the underworld. While “Sailing to Byzantium” invokes a journey, the second poem paints a picture that is complex and dizzying.

How famous are these poems, really?

As far as poetry goes, “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of the most commonly referenced poems ever put to paper. It begins with the line “That is no country for old men,” famously adapted as the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel that later became an Oscar-winning Coen brothers movie. Another line describing a human as a soul “fastened to a dying animal” has become a oft-quoted vision of mortality. Beyond these are countless references in novels, films and other works.

“Byzantium” is cited less often, but its final line describing “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is well known.

So if he never visited the city, where did Yeats get his inspiration to write about Byzantium?

Yeats was a student of classical life, mythology and art, basing his understanding on works such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also viewed Byzantine art during a trip to Italy and heard further accounts from his friend Oscar Wilde. In terms of personal inspiration, he is famous for practicing “automatic writing,” which meant opening his mind to divine inspiration and simply acting as a scribe for the words and images that came to him.

That all sounds extremely unreliable. Was his description of the city accurate?

The answer to that is subjective, of course, and critics have made a small industry out of pointing out the discrepancies between Yeats’s vision and the historical reality. On the other hand, the sense of dizzying imagery blending the ancient and the modern he evokes in “Byzantium” is a pretty resonant account of what it’s like to be in İstanbul. But accuracy was far from the writer’s goal. The poem is most often understood as using a physical journey as a metaphor for a spiritual one.

So should I read the poems to understand historic İstanbul?

Indirectly, sure. While it would be foolish to take the poems as informative accounts of Byzantium, they say a lot about how it existed (and still exists) in the popular Western imagination as a near-mythical place on Earth preserving our inheritance of ancient wisdom. And anyone planning a first encounter with İstanbul would do well to take a practice run reading “Byzantium,” with its disorientating array of images blending the mythical and the political, the archaic and the new.

Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats


That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

–Those dying generations–at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect.


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.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The Byzantine Scribe

March 26, 2014

My thanks to Geoffrey for giving me permission to post this article.

By Geoffrey Clarfield

First published in the New English Review, August 2010.

Many years ago, while walking through the grounds of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s greatest temple, the Hagia Sophia, in what is now the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, I marveled at how it is that some great civilizations decline, disappear and are renewed from the outside.

Since the rise of agriculture and the subsequent emergence of the Biblically inspired empires of the Near East, with their distinctive forms of world religion, it is clear that the decline of these civilizations was often completed by invasions or migrations and penetrations of barbarian chieftains and their hordes, who, after having pierced the empire’s borders and sometimes sacked the capital, would then take over whatever remained of the apparatus of the state. Gibbon’s classic study The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is replete with examples.

These new barbarians would then, by necessity, and in order to consolidate their conquest, set up a new, rougher state, but with the minimum trappings of the old one, and which often, like the Holy Roman Empire, pathetically aspired to the greatness of that which they had destroyed or overtook.

As a boy, I often wondered what life was like for the worldly and well educated Byzantine refugees, after the Ottoman Turks finally breached the walls of Constantinople on that fatal day of May 29, 1453. What became of these final exiles from Constantinople, whose only asset was their sophistication? They arrived in Italy, in the Slavic lands and in Europe’s far west, selling their skills to the more simple societies at the courts of semi barbarian kingdoms, for Byzantium was the light of the middle ages and the spark of the Renaissance.

The Jews of the West, educated professionals, carrying a plethora of degrees and diplomas and who have immigrated to the Land of Israel since its rebirth in 1948, are in a sense akin to those wandering Byzantine refugees and who have found a new home and market for their skills.

What I am saying, very simply, is that so many Western Jews who live in Israel have functioned and continue to function like Byzantine scribes – as administrators and advisors to the no nonsense, pragmatic and tough talking pioneers and patriots who created the State of Israel. What do I mean by this? I mean that in subtle and often unconscious ways aspects of history recur in new contexts.

The late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and his generation of Sabras (native born Israelis) were partially justified in rejecting the refinement and manners of the Jews and Gentiles of the Diaspora, claiming that such “bourgeois manners” covered up both the denial of anti-Semitism by the Jewish middle classes of Europe and the hypocrisy of their anti-Semitic host societies.

The Sabras substitute was what in the end turned out to be an equally arbitrary culture of directness – no shaking hands, no polite elections, passionate ideology and personal vendetta (however, substituting character assassination for the vendetta based murder that is common in more traditional surrounding Mediterranean cultures) instead of dispassionate public debate, and, at least in the early days of the state, a denigration of corrupting luxury.

These were, in the time of the Zionist pioneers, fine and true virtues and perhaps even necessary, especially when building an egalitarian state amidst a sea of authoritarian regimes and kingdoms who sympathized with the Axis powers of the nineteen thirties and who have yet to admit that they did. But, and this but has enormous consequences, for once Israel joined the family of nations its rough hewn new leaders, of a sudden, found that they had to deal with all that hypocrisy and sophistication that they had left behind in the Diaspora.

Sabra leaders and diplomats became like the later Kikuyu tribe of Kenya after the Mau Mau revolt-“we have defeated British Imperialism, grown our hair long and taken oaths, it is time once again to put on suits, learn English and beat the white man at his own game.”

Once a cultural form is imprinted it takes generations to change and the norms of modern Israeli behavior, from a European or North American perspective, are still direct and lacking subtlety. There is a certain charm to it, once you have mastered the language and the local Mediterranean life style, but most foreigners just don’t get it. The late Prime Minister Rabin was hardly eloquent and Shamir before him was close to mute. Luckily, by 1948 there existed a growing minority of Western Jews, who with visions of a Third Jewish Commonwealth, had returned to the land of their forefathers.

Once these men and women entered Israeli society they often found, on the whole, that they were not the best kibbutzniks, farmers and soldiers, although many made noble attempts, but that on the whole they were better writers, administrators and advisors than their Eastern European, and Sabra employers, since they had come from precisely the world of the Gentiles of the West and which Israel was now so desirous of joining.

Behind the early rulers of Europe, after the fall of the Western Empire, there was many a Byzantine scribe. And so, with the fall of the British Empire and the establishment of the State of Israel the Western Jewish immigrant fulfills the role of these Byzantine scribes of bygone times.

In cultures established by new and vigorous “barbarian elites,” either tribal as with the Vandals or Visigoths after the fall of Rome, or self proclaimed like the early Zionists with their cult of the “natural,” we find that behind many great Israeli leaders, there have been a plethora of subdued Central European, English and North American Jews quietly preparing letters, speeches and analyses. Examples of these scribes are the Canadian secretary to the late David Ben Gurion and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s former American born spokesperson, David Bar Ilan. There are and were many, many others.

As the conquering Turks ravaged the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire, as the Slavic tribes pushed down from the north, as the rough, first pagan and then marginally Christian tribes of Vandals and Goths destroyed and then occupied the lands of the Roman Empire, each of these tribes established their newly established authority over the dead carcass of effete and often corrupt civilization that they had overcome. Once on their new thrones, chieftains, soon to be tribal kings, would turn to the wandering Byzantine scribe in order to administer their domains and communicate with the other, as yet unconquered powers on their newly acquired borders.

In parallel fashion, during late antiquity when the untutored and illiterate Bedouin camel nomads waged their holy war, emerging from the Arabian wastes as conquerors of the lands of the middle east in the name of a new monotheism, later to be called Islam, the administration of these lands was immediately put back into the hands of its former Byzantine subjects, Greek speaking administrators, many of whom eventually joined the religious community of their conquerors.

It has been argued that Islamic civilization, as opposed to Islam itself, was due to the followers of Mohammed’s speedy adoption of Greek Byzantine philosophy, literature, science, technology and forms of administration. There are many modern theorists who would argue that this was and remains Islamic civilization’s saving grace and this argument is the essence of the late historian Gustave von Grunebaum’s once classic, but now little read historical study, Medieval Islam.

The Byzantine scribe was a man of letters, of general cultivation and wide horizons, well read in the classics, conversant with geography, medicine and statecraft and often multi lingual. Since he was cut off from his own social origins by the conditions of his emigration after the fall of Constantinople, he had little or no local family or social network which would otherwise be the engine that could drive the hidden agenda of an extended kin group on the way up a social hierarchy of privilege and power. Such is the status of the skilled Western immigrant to Israel. His loyalty is unquestioned, because he (or she) chose to emigrate. He is unhindered by conflict of interest, since he does not live and work among neighbors and family from childhood.

The more he learns about Israel and Israelis, especially the Sabras (and formerly the Eastern European elite network who dominated the country for years) the more he is valued by them; because he has more knowledge of the culture, language and thought patterns of Israel’s allies and trading partners in the West, than do those that employ him, for in reality he comes from their cultural world.

The Byzantine scribe advises the young statesmen. In Israel he feels uncomfortable posing in the limelight for a state, where he has, even after ten or twenty years, spent less than half or a quarter of his life. He is all too happy to be invisible but effective.

In the end, he is the quiet power behind the throne, transferring the accumulated lore of centuries of complex settled societies to late coming modernizers and by doing so, equalizing the balance between young and old cultures. Eventually there will be little need for him as more and more native born Israelis study and live abroad and come home again to positions of influence and power, having “tasted the West” and learnt its complex ways.

Scribal migration in the service of new political elites, has been one of the hidden patterns of history in this region for millennia, or at least since the rise of the agricultural and hierarchical civilizations of the ancient Near East and their periodic transformation by robust immigrants. It is a pattern that did not die out when the British, themselves masters of a waning empire, one whose proponents had boldly declared that it was greater than Rome and Constantinople, marched into Jerusalem in 1917 and like the Byzantines before them, who had unwittingly allowed the Slavs to settle their Balkan frontiers, by the stroke of a pen in the exchange of a letter from Lord Balfour, established the foundation of a new and vigorous Jewish democracy.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.


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