Conquering Constantinople – The ‘Otherness’ of Turkey

In 2001 there was a UEFA Cup football match in Istanbul between a local club Fenerbahçe, and a Greek team from Athens, Panathinaikos. The Greek team lost the match, and their supporters received a lot of negative publicity for the damage they caused after the match to the Fenerbahçe stadium. I remember seeing a photograph in a local newspaper of a group of Fenerbahçe supporters who, during the course of the match, delighted in waving a large banner on which was emblazoned the inflammatory message: ‘Welcome to Istanbul – ours since 1453!’

This date, 1453, is sometimes taken by historians as marking the end of the Middle Ages – it is arguably of more international significance than the year (1483) when Henry Tudor defeated the Yorkist usurper, Richard III, in a relatively minor island state on the western outskirts of Europe, as my school textbook suggested.

Not that it’s a year much celebrated outside of Turkey. This year, 29 May marked the 556th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – so you’d have to think that the likelihood of the Turks packing their bags and heading back to Central Asia where they came from is decreasing with the passing years. Nevertheless, they still seem to have some difficulty in getting themselves accepted as bona fide members of the Europe Club.

The most obvious problem is that the Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the mental baggage we Westerners inherited from our Crusader ancestors, inclines most of us to view Muslims with suspicion at the very least. But it’s not just that. There’s a serious dichotomy in the prevailing Western view of the part of the world currently called the Republic of Turkey, which goes back beyond the arrival of marauding hordes from the steppes of Asia.

Constantinople, and the Byzantine Empire of which it was the capital city, was ‘Christian’, and therefore the fall of the city was a terrible blow struck against Christendom by the forces of Islam. John Julius Norwich, in his History of Byzantium, postulates that, had it not been for the persistence of the Eastern Roman Empire for a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the whole of Europe could well have been overrun, and we would see nothing strange about trotting off to the local mosque five times a day at the call of the muezzin.

On the other hand, the Byzantine Empire (and hence Constantinople), was not ‘real’ Christian, i.e. they were heretics and schismatics who did not belong to the ‘true’ church (viz. the church of Rome). For this reason, medieval western Christendom would not send aid to their fellow Christians against the threat of militant Islam (knew the cause was hopeless is also possible, but debatable).

Constantine the Great –
by York Cathedral, UK

When Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330 CE, the city was, by definition, the centre of an empire which was unquestionably European. However, as the city of Rome lost its imperial power and became dependent for its prestige on the rise of Christianity and the Bishops of Rome (read ‘Popes’, if you prefer), it became necessary to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of Constantinople, which retained its temporal power (along with powerful religious influence) for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

This concept of ‘otherness’ was later solidified in Western thinking by the adoption of the term ‘Byzantine’ to describe the Roman Empire in the east which survived after the fall of the western Roman Empire to the barbarians in the 5th century. In fact, the word ‘Byzantine, was not used by those people to describe themselves, and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, was first used by European historians in the mid-17th century.

We may account for the adoption of this term by hypothesising that classical scholars in succeeding centuries were enamoured of the (pagan) Roman Empire which they saw as epitomising all the virtues to which they aspired as sons of a new world empire. Naturally they were reluctant to accept that the direct heirs of this great classical empire were the decadent, heretical, pseudo-Christians of the eastern Mediterranean.

During the Middle Ages, crusades were sent from Western Europe to free the so-called Holy Land from the yoke of the Islamic Turks, despite the fact that there was a Christian power on the doorstep of those holy places. One can easily imagine that the whole Crusade business was a ploy by the Bishops of Rome to unite western Christendom against a common enemy in an attempt to regain the temporal power that had been lost with the fall of Rome to the barbarians (which power, we may assume, they greatly envied their eastern brothers). The fact that these western ‘Crusaders’ did not consider the Eastern Christians co-religionists is emphasised by the sack of Constantinople by forces of the 4th Crusade in 1204.

Returning to an earlier point (Constantinople as a disaster for Christendom as a whole), western sources of dubious historical veracity have subsequently tried to assert kinship with the brave defenders of the city by a) reminding us that there were Genoese and Venetians (the right kind of Christians) among the defenders and b) asserting that the desperate defenders held ecumenical services of communion in the cathedral of St Sophia as the axe began to fall. We gather that the errant Easterners were beginning to see the light, though sadly for them, it was too little, too late.

Linking to an issue which I intend to discuss in a later article, in the 19th century, European interests, especially Great Britain, were encouraging the Greek-speaking peoples of the Aegean to form a nationalist consciousness and rebel against the Ottoman Empire. The emergence of the modern nation-state of Greece in 1832 was made possible only with major support from the British and French fleets of the day. This encouragement culminated in an invasion of Western Anatolia by a mainland Greek military force under the aegis of the victorious Allies at the end of the 1st World War.

The ‘megali idea’, on which this invasion was based, was the concept of the recreation of a semi-mythical Greek empire centred on the Aegean. Of course, for the Greeks, this dream could never be fulfilled without the inclusion of the former imperial and religious capital of Constantinopolis – something which, one suspects, the Allies had no intention of allowing. The city straddling the Bosphorus Straits, and bridging the continents of Europe and Asia, had too much geo-political significance to be given over to what could only ever be a minor player in world politics. It is fairly clear that the ‘megali idea’, and the encouragement of Greek nationalism by the western powers, was primarily aimed at dismantling and disempowering the Ottoman Empire, and creating a puppet state in the strategic zone of the eastern Mediterranean.

It’s a complex history, made more complex after the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453 and the city’s status as capital of their Islamic empire for nearly 500 years. The Western point-of-view seems always to have struggled to come to grips with reality in this part of the world. Witness the invention of the word ‘Byzantine’ to name the Eastern Roman Empire that survived for 1000 years after the fall of Rome.

The refusal of history to conform to Western plans was further confirmed when, against all expectations, a blond, blue-eyed genius from Salonika led the Turkish rump of the Ottoman Empire to military and political success in the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey.
After 556 years, 29 May is still a big one for Turks – and a thorn in the side of visiting football teams from Athens.

3 thoughts on “Conquering Constantinople – The ‘Otherness’ of Turkey

  1. Hi Alan, great article! I love the longue durée, transhistorical approach, moving from the 21st century to the 15th to the 19th. Of course, on the other side is the fact that the Ottomans didn't start calling Constantinople “Istanbul” for centuries after the conquest. In the Topkapı palace, apprently, the scripts read “Konstantinye.”

    Why don't you contact Zaman at I think the treasures of Turkey article would be the perfect beginning, since May 29th is past and summer season has just opened.

  2. I've had a query about my attitude towards the Eastern Orthodox Church, as a result of the paragraph where I suggested that the reason western Christians did not come to the aid of Constantinople was because they were heretics and schismatics. In fact, my intention here was to say that this was the viewpoint of said western Christians, rather than my own, a point I was trying to convey by my use of inverted commas for the words 'real' and 'true' with respect to Christians and Christianity. Apologies for any ambiguity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s