Viking Neighbourhood Found Near Istanbul

Archaeologists conducting a study for evidence of Vikings near the city of Istanbul (formerly the Byzantine capital of Constantinople) have suggested the discovery of a Viking neighbourhood, reports Heritage Daily. The study has focused on the ancient city of Bathonea (previously identified as Rhegion) on the European shore of the Sea of Marmara, 20 km west of Istanbul.

Vikings first came to the Byzantine Empire as merchants, before being incorporated into an Imperial guard formed by Emperor Basil II in AD 988, consisting of Varangians from the state of Kievan Rus’.

The recruitment for the guard outside of the Empires borders was a tactical policy, as the guard members lacked any loyalty to factions other than the emperor or held any political ambition (a common issue historically with the Praetorian guard of the Western Roman Empire) that could be a threat to the Emperor’s position.

Over the next 100 years, the guard’s ranks would include Norseman from Scandinavia, establishing a Norse cast that would become the dominant entity of the guard’s ranks.

According to contemporary texts, foreigners were forbidden from settling in the capital, but were instead said to be living in a port which corresponds with sites such as Bathonea. Vikings and Varangians could enter the capital in the morning within small groups, but had to leave the city before sunset.

During excavations of Bathonea, the team of archaeologists found a cross made from ambergris, a substance formed from a secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of the sperm whale. The most significant find is a necklace depicting a snake, that represents Jörmangandr (also known as the Midgard Serpent) that will bring about the first signs of Ragnarök.

Head of excavations Şengül Aydıngün, an associate Professor of the Kocaeli University told Hurriyet Daily News “Vikings lived in Istanbul between the eighth and the 11th centuries in different periods. We have found their exact settlement area to be between the ninth and 11th centuries in the Bathonea excavations.”

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Why we should be concerned about President Erdogan turning museums into mosques

Christ Chalkites, inner narthex, Kariye Mosque Photo: James Conlon © The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church will remain “open to all”, Turkish government promises—but restricted access may not be the primary worry. An article from The Art Newspaper by Holger A Klein.

Last Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey signed a decree that transferred the management of the Kariye Museum, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated monuments of late Byzantine art and architecture, to the Religious Affairs Directorate and announced its reopening as a house of Muslim worship. The extraordinary mosaics and frescoes of the former Byzantine monastery church of the Chora (Greek for field or countryside; Kariye in Turkish) were commissioned by the Byzantine prime minister, humanist and poet Theodore Metochites between 1315 and 1321. It is not only the most complete ensemble of late Byzantine art to survive in Istanbul, but also one of the most sophisticated artistic achievements of the last centuries of Byzantine artistic production anywhere in the Mediterranean.

President Erdogan’s decision comes little more than a month after a similar decree revoked the museum status of Hagia Sophia and turned the building back into a functioning mosque. The official announcement of the museum’s conversion should not have come as a surprise to anyone. In November 2019, Turkey’s highest administrative court had ruled that the Council of Ministers’ decision in August 1945 to close the Kariye as a mosque and designate it a museum was “unlawful”. This ruling ultimately paved the way for the court’s more consequential decision on 10 July 2020, which nullified in similar terms the cabinet decree responsible for turning the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia into a museum in November 1934.

Christ of the Chora, inner narthex, Kariye Mosque Photo: James Conlon © The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

Why should we be concerned about these decisions? Did Erdogan not promise that Hagia Sophia would remain “open to all, locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims” alike? Is it not Turkey’s sovereign right to designate historical monuments as museums, revoke such decisions, and use former churches-turned-mosques as houses of prayer if the Turkish people and their political leaders deem it appropriate?

When the Turkish commission charged with the designation of Hagia Sophia as a museum in the 1930s emphasised the sixth-century building’s universal cultural and artistic value as an “architectural masterpiece” over its more divisive religious and political status as a house of worship and symbol of Ottoman conquest, it dedicated the monument to “all of humanity”. In Erdogan’s Turkey, such enlightened attempts to neutralise a contested religious site and to create a sense of shared cultural heritage seem no longer appreciated or politically opportune. On the contrary: the president’s effort to turn back the historical clock by converting Ataturk-era museums into mosques is a blunt instrument to score points with his political base and an ostentatious act to demonstrate religious superiority and cultural domination. While Erdogan’s actions may well earn him the status of a gazi (religious warrior) in the eyes of his most ardent supporters, the damage to Turkey’s reputation in the world is significant.

Dome of Christ, inner narthex, Kariye Mosque Photo: James Conlon © The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

In America, we are reminded of concerns raised by Thomas Whittemore, the Bostonian archaeologist, relief worker, and later founder of the Byzantine Institute of America, who became keenly aware of the destructive force of religious conflict during the Balkan Wars, when mosques and their minarets became targets of artillery fire, and former Byzantine monuments were held hostage in an effort to prevent a foreign invasion. In March 1913, Whittemore wrote to his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston: “It seems probable that before you have this, Constantinople will have fallen but not, I fear, until all the Mosques have been destroyed. That I am told is the intention of Turkey, to bombard Santa Sophia [Hagia Sophia] if they have to surrender.”

Whether these rumours were true or not, they raised enough alarm in diplomatic circles that US Ambassador Morgenthau intervened directly with the highest government authorities in Turkey. Fortunately, Hagia Sophia and other mosques were not dynamited in 1913. International interest in the preservation of Istanbul’s architectural heritage increased considerably in the following decade. In June 1931, Thomas Whittemore was able to obtain permission from the Council of Ministers to uncover Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics. Their existence had been known since the mid-19th century, when the Swiss-born Fossati brothers restored Hagia Sophia and meticulously documented their findings. However, it was the Byzantine Institute of America’s restoration of these mosaic treasures that ultimately convinced Kemal Ataturk to declare the building a museum. Once concluded, the Turkish government entrusted the Byzantine Institute of America with the restoration of the deteriorating Byzantine mosaics and frescoes of the former Kariye mosque. Again, it was thanks to American philanthropic efforts that this extraordinary Byzantine monument was preserved. After ten years of painstaking preservation work, its spectacular mosaics and frescoes were revealed to the public in 1958. The Kariye Museum has since drawn millions of local and international visitors, allowing “all of humanity” to witness and relish in the sublime beauty of Byzantine art.

Dome of Christ, inner narthex, Kariye Mosque Photo: James Conlon © The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

Fear of restricted access to Byzantine monuments and their Christian mosaics and frescoes is not the primary concern for those who have criticised Erdogan’s recent decisions. Travellers and tourists were able to visit Hagia Sophia, Kariye, and other mosques for centuries either with an official permission or by buying their way in, as Mark Twain famously recalled. Future visitors will no doubt continue to have access between times of prayer. More worrisome are the examples set by similar conversions in the cities of Vize, Iznik and Trabzon over the past decade. They provide ample evidence that concerns about adequate building maintenance, scholarly access and scientific input on restoration decisions are not unjustified. The conversion of the Kariye into an active space of worship is likely to result in the covering of several mosaic panels in the main congregational space, or naos, during times of prayers. It remains to be seen how the authorities will deal with the fully frescoed side chapel (parekklesion) and the two vestibules (narthexes), whose ceilings and wall surfaces are covered with mosaics depicting biblical stories.

Parekklesion Anastasis, Kariye Mosque Photo: James Conlon © The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

It is too early to know how the loss of their museum status will impact the long-term future of monuments such as Hagia Sophia, the Kariye and others. We have to trust that respect for the religious history and beliefs of others and the universal value of cultural heritage will prevail regardless of the buildings’ new religious function. For now, it is the world’s duty to remind the Turkish government of its responsibility to serve as guardians of their country’s extraordinary religious and cultural treasures, which are the heritage of all of humanity.

Holger A. Klein is Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History and director of the Sakıp Sabancı Center for Turkish Studies at Columbia University, New York

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Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

I follow Peter Webscott’s Wordscene blog with great interest. Peter and I have been in contact over the years and I bow to the superior, and original, quality of his work. Ravenna is one of my favourite places. A lovely city to visit, stuffed full of Byzantine treasures. The most marvellous mosaics in the world in my opinion (but then what would I know). I thought that you might enjoy this recent article from Peter, and perhaps spead a while looking around his blog, including a recent series about his visit to Mount Athos.

Read the article with superb photographs and excellent explanations here.

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What Will Happen Now to Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine Mosaics?

The Mosaic of the Apse

Well. He’s done it. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pushed through his plans to annul the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum and turn it back into a mosque. We are all saddened. There is worldwide dismay and outrage. We can but hope that one day this decision will be revoked. In the meantime we must all be worrying that the beautiful mosaics will not be damaged. Greek Reporter and Hurriyet report that curtains may be installed to cover them during prayer.

We can have some idea based upon what happened at the smaller Hagia Sophia in the eastern port city of Trabzon as reported in the Economist:

It was born as a church, one of the icons of the Byzantine world, before being converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks and into a museum by their secular-minded successors. But now it would be transformed again. Workers squeezed a bland wooden minbar into a corner of the nave and a mihrab into a nearby portico, drew panels and screens to obscure the dazzling 13th-century Christian frescoes looking down from the vaults and the dome, and unfurled a red carpet over the marble floor. A muezzin summoned the faithful to prayers. The Hagia Sophia was now a mosque.

That was in 2013, and not in Istanbul, home of the Hagia Sophia known to millions of tourists worldwide, but in Trabzon, another Turkish city once populated by Greeks (and known in English as Trebizond), home to the ancient shrine’s much smaller and younger namesake. There are at least five former Byzantine churches dedicated to the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in Greek) across Turkey. Over the past decade, four, including the one in Trabzon, have reopened as mosques. The same fate now awaits the most important of them, the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, the grand old lady of Eastern Christendom, and Istanbul’s domed crown.

Greek Reporter tells us more:

Following Turkey’s decision to annul the 1934 conversion of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its reconversion into a mosque, questions are asked about the fate of numerous mosaics that decorate several of its interior walls.

Many social media users are expressing horror at the thought of Hagia Sophia being turned into a mosque, with the ancient mosaics would be covered up — or even worse — removed.

Turkey’s daily Hurriyet reported that the mosaics will be covered up with specially-designed curtains during Muslim prayers and that visitors would be asked to take off their shoes before entering, as is the case with all mosques.

The original mosaics were not destroyed by the Ottoman conquerors but merely covered up when the city was captured in 1453. When Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, they were uncovered so that visitors would enjoy them.

Some of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia are considered masterpieces, and they serve as a catalogue of Byzantine art. The motifs used in the creation of the mosaics were mostly imperial portraits and images of Christ.

Among them is the “Mosaic of the Apse,” completed during the 9th century, which decorates the half-dome located behind the altar. It is a representation of Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne, with the baby Jesus seated on her lap.

It is set against a gleaming golden background to create a strong contrast with the dark color of her clothing.

he mosaic called the “Pantakrator” or “Almighty”

Another masterpiece is the “Pantakrator” mosaic decorated with the figure of Jesus, located on the top of the Imperial Gate. It shows Jesus blessing the world with his right hand and carrying the scriptures in his left hand.

The following Greek words are written on the Bible: “May Peace Be with You. I Am the Divine Light.”

Hagia Sophia’s “Deesis” Mosaic

The world famous “Deesis” mosaic, which is regarded as the beginning of a renaissance in Byzantine art, is located on the western wall of Hagia Sophia’s Northern Gallery.

John the Baptist is portrayed on the right side and the Virgin Mary on the left side of Jesus, who is in the middle in this important piece of Byzantine art.

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Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation’s Online Seminar on Byzantium

Well. We missed this as there was no real marketing beforehand. However, the news report makes some interesting points. If the lecture recording is posted online I shall make you all aware. First published in The National Herald.

The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presented Professor Maria Mavroudi on How Byzantine Civilization Influenced Modern-day Culture, an online seminar via Zoom on June 18. The fascinating lecture offered insights into the ways scholars once viewed Byzantium, how views are evolving, and how the influence of Byzantium in art, culture, and civilization continues today.

HACF Chairman Nicholas Kourides gave the welcoming remarks and thanked all those who made the event possible, noting that the event was the first in a series of virtual events “which may become the new normal for the foreseeable future.”

He continued, “This foundation was organized nine years ago to promote high quality and relevant educational and cultural programs for persons interested in the rich history and legacy of Greece. Our goal is to remain relevant and inspirational even during a pandemic and we will continue to find ways and different media to reach our audience and the community.”

Kourides then introduced HACF Board member Pericles Mazarakis who introduced Prof. Mavroudi, noting that she is not only a renowned scholar but also his koumbara. Mazarakis pointed out “her encyclopedic knowledge around the intersection between Greek history, Byzantine culture, and Islamic studies.”

Prof. Mavroudi was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and studied Philology before earning a PhD in Byzantine studies at Harvard. Her work was recognized with a MacArthur fellowship in 2002. She is a Professor of Byzantine History and Classics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Scholars from the 19th and 20th centuries assigned Byzantium a marginal role in the development of world civilization, one limited to the preservation of “classical” Greek texts. However, during the last two or three decades, new interpretations of Byzantine civilization have begun to challenge this view. Prof. Mavroudi’s presentation focused on Byzantium’s economy and monetary system, its art and its literature, in order to explain the global importance of Byzantine civilization.

A map of the lower Golden Horn region of Constantinople, from Braun and Hogenberg, 1572, from Byzantium nunc Constantinopolis (Byzantium now called Constantinople).

Prof. Mavroudi began by thanking everyone who organized the lecture, especially Mazarakis who suggested the topic, and her son who acted as her “Technical Consultant” for the event. She noted that “Byzantium is the eastern part of the Roman Empire that never fell to the barbarians,” and “`Byzantine’ is a neologism, it’s not a term ever that the Byzantines used for themselves and it was not a term that others used for them, in fact their neighbors to the east would call them Romans which is how they referred to themselves, as they understood themselves as heirs to the Roman Empire and this is the reason that modern Greeks still call themselves Romioi.”

She continued, “The complication with the name Roman started in the early 9th century when Charlemagne and later monarchies in western Europe started claiming the legacy of Rome for themselves more and more forcefully and this has determined a lot of the modern perception of Byzantium.”

Prof. Mavroudi noted that it was a 16th century scholar, Hieronymus Wolf, who introduced the neologism and continues to be influential in how Byzantium is studied to this day and how we understand medieval history as the section of history “between antiquity and modernity.”

The presentation was highlighted by many slides of maps and photographs of artwork in the Byzantine style from various places, including the famed mosaic featuring the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, an important surviving example of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture. The remarkable paintings in the Town Hall of Athens, Greece by the influential 20th century Greek artist Photis Kontoglou, and works by iconographer Mark Dukes from two nationally recognized churches, St. Gregory of Nysa Episcopal Church and the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, both in San Francisco, as well as works by artist Robert Lenz, also highlighted the powerful artistic influence of Byzantium to the present day.

Following her lecture, Prof. Mavroudi answered questions from the audience with many offering their thanks and appreciation for the event. Kourides then offered his closing remarks and thanks as he noted that over 200 people had participated in the online event. He also pointed out that anyone with suggestions for future events should contact HACF and the recording of the lecture would also be available online.

More information is available online: http://www.hacfoundation.org.

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The making of Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia

Join Cappella Romana and the documentary of the making of their Billboard Chart-topping recording, #TheLostVoicesOfHagiaSophia. A full look at the story and the technology behind the music, as well as interviews with Cappella Romana members Alexander Lingas, John Michael Boyer, Catherine van der Salm, and more.

Support Cappella Romana: cappellaromana.org/give
Get the Recording: cappellaromana.org/hagiasophia

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Statue of the last Byzantine Emperor is unveiled in Piraeus

Statue of Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in Piraeus

Following along from our recent series on the Fall of Constantinople, a statue of the last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, was last week unveiled in Athens.

The statue has been erected in the square of the Holy Metropolis Church of Piraeus (Athens).

Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos is not only remembered for being the last Byzantine Emperor who put up a brave last stand against the Ottomans, but also for his last speech to his officers and allies before the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.

Read more about this story in the Greek City Times.

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

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, who preferred 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.

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.

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”.

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BBC’s Chronicle – The Fall of Constantinople

Here is a little gem and a blast from the past. John Julius Norwich (who wrote the excellent and accessible trilogy on the history of Byzantium) tells the dramatic story of the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, followed by the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the 15th Century. Using monuments in Istanbul to show the formidable artistic and intellectual achievements of the Byzantines, Norwich vividly describes the last scenes of Greek Orthodox Christianity from within the Hagia Sophia.

First broadcast on BBC 2 on 25 October 1967. Running time is 32 minutes 42 seconds

A ‘Did You Know’ (of course we do!) from the website – John Julius Norwich describes the calamitous scenes of the last progress of the sacred icons around Constantinople (Istanbul). ‘Icon’ is derived from the Greek word for image (eikon) and took on a special religious significance in Orthodox art. The tradition of painting the same, or similar, images of saints and holy people is meant to bring the artist and worshippers closer to the face of God. There were periods, known as iconoclasms, when icons were banned by Christians who believed that such images were heretical.

Click the picture to play.

Related article:

The Fall of Constantinople 29 May 1453

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

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The Fall of Constantinople 29 May 1453

Having said his farewells and taken the sacrament I would like to think that Constantine was at peace. He had done all he could and fought bravely with this soldiers and allies. He must have realised on that warm May evening that this was the end, not only for him, but for his city and all that it stood for. 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 Dragases knew he had to do his duty and to set an example to his people.

Perhaps he thought about death. Maybe he also realised that he would be the last Emperor of the Romans. He might well have thought about those who had gone before him, Constantine the Great, Basil the Bulgar Slayer, of Alexius and Justinian. Maybe even those Western Romans Caesar, Augustus, and Hadrian from whom his throne had an unbroken lineage.

Whatever his thoughts may have been they were soon shattered by blasts of trumpets, the beating of drums, the noise of cannon fire, and the war-cries as Mehmet’s first wave of troops attacked at 1.30 am. The city responded. Church bells rang; those who had managed to sleep awoke and ran to their posts. Husbands may have made a last embrace with their wives, and fathers kissed their children. Civilians with duties at the Wall would have run through the streets to take up positions in medical posts, to carry ammunition and to put out fires. In the dark it might have seemed like chaos but the siege had lasted for fifty two days; all knew their role and their positions.

The first troops sent to the walls were the Bashibazouks – irregular Christian and Muslim troops who were largely untrained, poorly armed cannon fodder. Their role as expendable soldiery numbered in the thousands was to wear down the defenders in wave after wave of attacks. They did this for two hours taking huge numbers of casualties, always ‘encouraged’ by the Sultan’s military police behind them with whips and swords. Their attacks would have drained the defenders of energy and missiles. However the chosen attack sites held firm, with the Genoese Captain Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, whom the Emperor had put in charge of the defences, heroically commanding the defence of the strategic Lycus valley section.

After two hours the Bashibazouks were withdrawn, but some were still active as we shall see in a while. Immediately Mehmet sent in several regiments of Anatolian Turks – regular soldiers with good training and strong discipline. Each one hoping to be the first Muslim to scale the walls and enter paradise. The Emperor himself was in the thick of the fighting at one point where cannon had opened up a breach. As he had said in his speech to his men their armour was more than a match for the Turkish infantry, they encircled the enemy in the breach and killed the Turks with ferocious abandon.

It was not long afterwards that Mehmet, getting angry now about the progress, released his elite shock troops, the Janissaries who marched to military music in perfect step under a hail of missiles. They came on, wave after wave throwing up ladders and being pushed back. The commanders ordered one wave to retire to rest whilst another was sent into the attack.

By 6.30 am the fighting remained intense but the Turks had not achieved their goal. The defenders then suffered a major blow. Giovanni Giustiniani was struck in the chest by a bolt. He was wounded but not mortally. He fell and the Emperor was on hand to encourage him back to his position. However, Giustiniani was probably exhausted and in shock and he asked that he be taken to his ship. His fighting was over. As he left for the harbour his Genoese compatriots followed.

Whether the Sultan realised precisely what had happened we do not know but he ordered yet another Janissary attack. This time they made their way over the stockade and forced the defenders back towards the inner wall. Caught between the enemy and the wall the defenders suffered a large number of casualties. It was at this time that the Janissaries saw a Turkish flag flying from a tower to the north. A patrol of Bashibazouks had found an unlocked sally port known as the Kerkoporta. They had entered and found their way unbarred to the top of the tower. They raised the flag leaving the door open for others to follow.

This event in addition to the unrelenting attacks on the open breach was the end. Constantine hurried back to his post at the Lycus valley but here 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. Those that remained behind to defend their families were cut down, their houses ransacked, their children sometimes impaled, their wives and daughters raped over and over again. Churches were sacked and burned, icons smashed and statues torn down. The streets ran with blood and would have been slippery from the blood and bodily parts that littered the streets. Citizens who had sought sanctuary in Hagia Sophia were dragged out, the best looking of both sexes were tied up and lead away, the poor and unattractive massacred. The priests who continued the Mass were murdered at the altar. This was just the morning of day one of the promised and customary three days of pillage a victorious army could expect after a siege. However, the ferocity of the fighting and the fury of the initial orgy had exhausted everyone.

Late in the afternoon Mehmet entered the city and ordered the looting to stop. No-one argued. Mehmet 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.

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The Final Hours and Last Eucharist

The fifth …

We come now to the last hours of Byzantium. The defenders were weary after defending the city since April 5th. 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.

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.

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Move the Navy by Road!

Number four …

As you know I have been away in Albania and Macedonia trying to walk (part) of the way to Byzantium. I have felt very bad about not posting but there was little time and even less internet access. More on that later as we need to catch up a little on the siege.

After the defeat of Baltoglu and his fleet by the handful of Byzantine and Venetian ships, the Sultan realized he could not beat the Byzantines in naval warfare. He needed to press the siege harder, yet there was still one part of the area surrounding the city which was not under his control; the Golden Horn.

The history books do not tell us how he came up with the idea, but Mehmet gave an order to build a road running behind Galata down to the Golden Horn at Kasimpasa. Upon this road he was to drag medium sized ships on specially made cradles. The ingenuity and the engineering can only be admired, and this is important. The Turks had long ago left behind them the simple tactics and warfare of nomadic cavalry. They were now a sophisticated fighting force. They may still have much to learn in some quarters, but they seemed to be learning quickly.

The story is told that the Genoese colony of Galata was awoken on the morning of 22 April by the sound of men and oxen dragging ships overland and down to the Horn where they were carefully launched. The Genoese might have been amazed, but think what the Romans must have felt. Their walls had stood for centuries but now the Horn which had never fallen in combat was no longer theirs. They were well and truly surrounded. The Romans fought back and tried to sink the Turkish vessels in the Horn but during the attack only one ship was sunk. Forty Byzantine sailors who swam to the shore after their ship was sunk were executed immediately. In revenge the Romans brought 260 Turkish prisoners down to their shore and beheaded them. The message was clear; there would be no quarter now. It was a fight to the death and the Sultan had the advantage.

Mehmet consolidated his position and took full control of the Golden Horn. He built a pontoon bridge across it to speed up communications from one side of the besieged city to the other. The Emperor now had one hope, that of a Venetian relief expedition. What must have been the thoughts of the defenders as May 11 approached, the anniversary of the founding of the City?

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The Siege of Constantinople – An Update

Third in the series …

It has been some time since I updated on the siege and I apologise for that. I have been busy. But life for those under siege and those attacking them would have developed a routine, just like I have in my life, and maybe you do in yours; except that this was a life or death situation for all.

What have we missed?

After his earlier unsuccessful attack by cannon on the Charisius Gate, the Sultan decided to concentrate his fire to achieve a greater effect. Remember some of his cannon were so large they they could only fire a round every few hours. He needed what modern commanders would call ‘concentration of effort’. When all cannon were in place the bombardment then continued unabated until the night before the Fall, that is for another forty eight days. Just think what it would have been like to live with the threat of cannon firing at your home all the time. Given that the citizens of Constantinople had never experience this before, you have to recognise how amazing the human spirit is to adapt so quickly in a fight for survival.

By mid-April the Ottomans had captured two small forts outside of the walls, Therpia and Studius. All the survivors were impaled, some in sight of the city.

The bombardment brought successes. The walls were breached in many places but were immediately patched up by the defenders. On the night of the 18th of April the Ottomans launched a surprise attack. Barbaro’s account tells us that the fighting lasted for over four hours. The Turks lost two hundred men, whilst not one defender died. It must have been slow work. Night fighting is extremely difficult and hazardous. The Turks must have struggled to direct their attack and control their men, whilst the defenders had the advantage of steady fighting positions on the walls (or at least what was left of them).

The story then moved on to some interesting naval battles; control of the straits was vital for both sides. The Ottoman admiral, Baltoglu, sent his ships against the massive chain that guarded the Golden Horn, but they were successfully repulsed by the taller Byzantine ships. This is interesting as the English navy under Drake when fighting the Spanish Armada suffered from the same problem; the cannon on the smaller English ships could not achieve the elevation required. However, Drake found ways of turning this to his advantage. The Turks could hardly be described as a maritime power.

Their inexperienced seamanship was exposed again when three Genoese galleys and a Byzantine transport laden with a cargo of corn from Sicily outran the blockade. It was the superior seamanship, and a bit of luck with the winds, that enabled these ships to run the blockade, offering a significant morale boost the beleaguered citizens. This small victory must have cheered them up a lot. You can imagine those that saw the exasperated Sultan riding his horse into the water to shout his instructions at Baltoglu and his sailors, but to no avail, probably had a laugh; when so oppressed you take it when you can. This story reminds of Xerxes’ anger and frustration  watching the battle of Salamis (September 29, 480 BC).

However, these setbacks were just that. The Ottomans had proven themselves soldiers of the highest order. It would be some time before they mastered the sea, but master it they did. In the meantime, they did gain access for their navy to the Golden Horn. This is a story not of naval tactics but ingenuity and determination. But it is one for another day.

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If Only Constantine Had Employed Urban

Second in the series …

The siege proper began on 6 April when the Sultan’s cannon started their bombardment of the city’s defences after the Emperor had turned down the obligatory Islamic offer to spare the lives of the inhabitants if they surrendered. The Turkish artillery included a massive cannon cast on Mehmet’s specific orders. It was designed for him by an itinerant engineer named Urban who was appointed by the Sultan in 1452. He may have been either German or Hungarian and was an expert armourer.

Urban had previously approached the Emperor with an offer to design and build cannon for the Empire. However, Constantine had to send him away; the Empire was by that time too poor to employ him and could not obtain the required raw materials. We know history turns on many small events, in this case a recruiting decision? How different might it have been had Urban offered his services elsewhere in Europe. The Empire was in terminal decline at this stage and the outcome was almost inevitable. If the Fall had not been in 1453 it would most likely have occurred in the next few years.

So what was special about Urban’s cannon? He had already built one large cannon for the Sultan which was placed at his newly constructed fortress of Boghaz Kesen, meaning “the cutter of the Strait” or “of the Throat” (referring to the narrowest point of the Bosphorus). The Byzantines called this Rumeli Hisar, or “The castle of Romeland”, which was a pretty good name as it was the medieval equivalent of the Sultan parking his tank on the Emperor’s lawn. Mehmet could do as he pleased and respected no treaties. The fortress cannon was used to enforce the Sultan’s new tax on every ship that passed through the straits. On one occasion a Venetian ship tried to run this blockade and was sunk.

The new cannon (and we don’t appear to have a name for this – typically one-off, unwieldy, but morale crushing weapons have names like “Deliverer of Death” or even “Supergun” but nothing appears to survive) was apparently nearly twenty-eight feet long, its barrel was two and a half feet in diameter at the business end, and the bronze was at least eight inches thick. During field tests (when the local inhabitants were warned not to be alarmed about the noise!) it fired a cannon ball weighing 1,340 pounds well over a mile before it buried itself six feet in the ground. The noise could be heard over ten miles.

The monster cannon had seven hundred men to service and support it (you can bet they gave it a name); and fifteen pairs of oxen to haul it. Roads and bridges had to be strengthened along the route from the Sultan’s foundry in Adrianople. Such a combined artillery force had never before been seen in the East, although it had been fairly common in Western Europe for the last one hundred years.

The Charisius Gate in the Walls of Constantinople

The Charisius Gate in the Walls of Constantinople

The bombardment that day was unprecedented. By the end of the first day a section of the wall near the Charisius Gate was reduced to rubble and Turkish soldiers attempted to storm the walls. Despite repeated charges they were driven back, and night fell bringing a degree of peace. However, a pattern now emerged. Over the coming weeks the Turks would create breaches by day only for the defenders to rebuild the walls and towers overnight, sometimes using brick and stone, at other times using wooden stockades and earth filled barrels. With his 100,000 men the Sultan could rest his men and attack in relays. The defenders had no such opportunity fighting by day, patrolling and rebuilding by night, they must have reached a state of exhaustion. But they had survived the first day, and it was the Sultan who had suffered more casualties and had to rethink his plans. This he did, and displayed genuine tactical agility and improvisation as we shall see in the coming weeks.

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The Siege of Constantinople Begins

I am reposting a series of articles that I first wrote in 2009. This is a compressed series that deals with the start of the siege on 5 April 1453, ending on 29 May.

On this day, 5 April in 1453, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Mehmet II “The Conqueror” (1451-1481) arrived to join his army establishing its siege of Constantinople. The people of the city had experienced many (long) sieges over the preceding centuries. They had reason to hope; the thousand year old walls of Theodosius remained strong, and their faith in the Virgin Mary was unshakeable. How many times had She saved the city before? Why would She not save them again?

The Byzantine Emperor was appropriately enough named Constantine, the eleventh to bear that name; and he would be the last. He had prepared the city for the expected attack, and had organised large stores of arms, cleared the ditches, and repaired the walls. The citizens had worked to support their Emperor, stopping only for the Easter celebrations in Hagia Sophia (1 April). He had called upon allies for help but none was forthcoming, save seven hundred Genoese led by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo.

Night fell. The dawn would bring the roar of Mehmet’s cannon.

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