Letter from Novi Sad

Riding a white horse, 20-year-old Mehmed II, known as «the Conqueror,» entered Constantinople. The last emperor, Constantine XI, died fighting. It was May 29, 1453. By the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to a fraction of its former size, yet the culture, as well as language, in the small empire was Greek. Proudly as Hellenes, the last Byzantines presented themselves to the world. Now, dear reader, should you understand Greek, you could learn almost everything about one of the most important military engagements of the Middle Ages should you tune in today to Athens’s Skai radio 100.3. It is going to dedicate its whole program to the «Black Anniversary,» as most Greeks consider this day 552 years after the fall of Constantinople. «Blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal,» wrote the Venetian Nicolo Barbaro in his «Diary of the Siege of Constantinople 1453.» And in his «Byzantium – The Decline and Fall,» John Julius Norwich notes: «The most hideous scenes of all, however, were enacted in the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Matins were already in progress when the berserk conquerors were heard approaching. Immediately, the great bronze doors were closed, but the Turks soon smashed their way in. The poorer and more unattractive of the congregation were massacred on the spot; the remainder were lashed together and led off to the Turkish camps, for their captors to do with as they liked. As for the officiating priests, they continued with the Mass as long as they could before being killed at the high altar. But there are among the Orthodox faithful those who still believe that at the last moment one or two of them gathered up the most precious of the patens and chalices and mysteriously disappeared into the southern wall of the sanctuary. There they will remain until the day Constantinople becomes a Christian city once again, when they will resume the liturgy at the point at which it was interrupted.» This is the myth that nurtures hopes of the «Great Idea» to some Greeks still today. In 1910, one of our national poets Costis Palamas wrote: «King, I shall arise from my enmarbled sleep. / And from my mystic tomb I shall come forth / To open wide the bricked-up Golden Gate / And, victor over the Caliphs and the Tsars / Hunting them beyond Red Apple Tree / I shall seek rest upon my ancient bounds.» Now, a myth is a myth and the strong tendency to glorify Byzantium at the expense of the Ottoman Turks is a question that has troubled many scholars. «As a living political system, was the Byzantine Empire, at least in its decline, really better that the Ottoman Empire in its heyday?» Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper asked readers of the New Statesman some years ago, indicating that the answer to the question is negative. And Sir Steven Runciman, a brilliant writer of history who liked facts and distrusted theories in his brilliant «The Fall of Constantinople, 1453,» describes the end of the Byzantine Empire, which began in 1204, by putting the blame on pillaging crusaders and on a pope who did his best to bring the schismatic Greek Church back into the fold rather than due to the Turks. And most important of all, Professor Phaedon Maligoudis at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki reminds us that the Turks, though cruel conquerors, were sensible governors. «Turkish dominion does not interrupt forcibly a historical evolution; on the contrary, it constitutes itself an element of continuation,» Professor Maligoudis notes in an article in Eleftherotypia on May 12, 2005. Quite true for, unlike the Roman Catholics, the Turks did not persecute others for their religion. Christians were considered «people of the Book.» Abraham and Mary are revered by Muslims; «Jesus, on whom salvation be poured,» as one Ottoman decree said, is one of Islam’s greatest prophets. Mehmed II appreciated Greek culture, as well as the prosperity the Greeks could bring to his capital. The celebrated remark that Lucas Notaras is supposed to have made, «Better the Sultan’s turban than a Cardinal’s hat,» indicates the atmosphere at the time just before the fall. (A chief minister of the last emperor, the same Lucas Notaras, was later executed because – it is rumored – he refused to yield his son to the sultan’s desires and unmentionable pleasure. That was after the fall.) Owing to disputes between supporters and opponents of reconciliation with the pope, there was no patriarch in Constantinople in 1453. A chronicler named Kritovoulos mentions that a most open-minded Mehmet II: «…made George Gennadios Scholarius patriarch and high priest of the Christians, and gave him among other rights and privileges the rule of the Church, and all its power and authority, no less than that enjoyed previously under the emperors.» Moral: By submitting politically to the sultan, the Greek Church was able to survive until the present day, while the Greeks continued to maintain their identity in a way which – in all probability – might have proved unachievable had the Westerners once more «saved» Constantinople. Because «the long-lasting portrait of a peaceful coexistence of all those different cultural communities in the Balkans would be perturbed when the transplantation of an ideology based on national states arrives from the West,» Professor Maligoudis concluded. P.S. The Turks were less fortunate in their conquests in Vojvodina, where I happen to be at the moment. More about the festival in Novi Sad next time.