Letter from Thessaloniki

It was some years after May 29, 1453 – the date when Mehmed II, the 20-year-old «Fatih» (Conqueror) entered Constantinople riding a white horse – when George Trapezuntios, 50, a Cretan-born Aristotelian scholar and philosopher living in Italy, said to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire: «The seat of the Roman Empire is Constantinople… Therefore, you are the legitimate emperor of the Romans… And he who is and remains emperor of the Romans is also emperor of the whole earth.» Shame on him, to describe in this way the legendary vices of the Byzantines. At that time the seat of the Roman Empire was a catalog of woe. According to an observer from the West, blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal. Constantinople had been taken by the sword. Today, force has long ceased to be modern Turkey’s principal means of control. But there are other contemporary means of making war, including a Turkey forum on the Internet where Greeks fight constantly with Turks. Is it a major campaign to take a stand on the basic civil liberties in both our countries? Hardly. «Act civil!» the site admonishes. That means forum participants cannot incite ethnic, national, racial or religious hatred and intolerance. A few days ago, a new chapter in Greek-Turkish tensions, titled «Great Conquest Week – May 29, 1453 – 553 year,» debuted on the forum. There was plenty of the inevitable nationalistic ranting, sure, but there were also cool-headed assessments, such as this offering from someone called Turk 79: «After the conquest, Ottoman Muslims were to take dynamic roles in shaping international politics,» Turk 79 wrote. «Up until that point, European Christendom had, for three centuries, striven to evict Muslims from Asia Minor, with Istanbul functioning as a border station for the Crusaders. After the conquest, however, the sovereignty of Asia Minor Muslims was assured, and they were no longer threatened by the Crusaders. Indeed Muslims would eventually begin European campaigns, so that the conquest of Istanbul became a historic turning point vis-a-vis proving superiority over Europe.»   Another participant in this discussion group, obviously a Greek, sounds just as cartoonish as the father of the bride in «My Big Fat Greek Wedding.» «Greece invented democracy, mathematics, science, navigation, drama, astronomy, philosophy, medicine, money, banking, modern economy, government and diplomacy,» he wrote. «Greece and Persia were the first two nations in history to have diplomatic cooperation… and much much more…» That one probably never read Gore Vidal’s «Creation,» in which a Persian ambassador in the 5th century BC hardly had the very best to say about the state of Athens at the time. At this late date in the so-called Greek-Turkish friendship, the question of history and our relationship with international law has been pretty much decided. Yesterday the former president of the republic, Costis Stephanopoulos, proposed accepting the good services – that is, arbitration – of the International Court of Justice in Hague, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. But should Greeks really trust the West? In general practice, if not in particular statute, our nation tends to have always kept a proper distance from our mainly civilized partners there. Reading «The Fall of Constantinople, 1453,» by Sir Steven Runciman, one understands that the end of the Byzantine Empire, the last custodian of Greek heritage, began much earlier than 1453. It began in 1204 when the Crusaders seized Constantinople and divided much of the Christian Empire among themselves. This deed was particularly dishonorable since the crusade’s pious aims had been the freeing of the holy sepulcher and turning back the Muslims. Those who rejected Western European Christianity were converted or killed – no doubt for their own good. Sir Steven is particularly enlightening as he describes the various internal strife for and against the union with the Catholic Church, including the celebrated remark Lucas Notaras is supposed to have made: «Better the sultan’s turban than a cardinal’s hat.» The periods in history which are most admired by patriotic moralists and present-day politicians tend to be such vigorous warlike times when «the troops took silver and gold vessels, precious stones, and all sorts of valuable goods and fabrics from the imperial palace and the houses of the rich. In this fashion, many people were delivered from poverty and made rich» – as an Ottoman official, Tursun Beg, wrote at the time of the fall. No doubt Greeks would have acted in a similar fashion had they only the chance. Amid the nationalistic wails heard on both sides of the Aegean, I prefer playing on the safe national-nationalistic agenda which is being talked about presently in Novi Sad – a (still) Serbian city of some 300,000 inhabitants on the Danube. There is an International Symposium of Theater Critics and scholars taking place there right now. The subject is national theater and nationalist theaters. I have been invited to participate and still hope to be able to make it. As problems of national identity, modern conflicts caused by national intolerance and a controversial historical heritage are still present in central as well as in southeast Europe. This event – presided over by Ian Herbert, the president of the International Association of Theater Critics – sounds most promising. Defining what is national and nationalistic is not an easy task. Stil, the disintegrated former Yugoslavia does not mind taking on the issue.