Rescuing Constantinople, liberating Istanbul and de-bunking history

History, Henry Ford apparently actually said, is more or less bunk. It seems he and I have moved closer together over the years. I was always led to believe that he was claiming the one hundred percent bunkishness of history, and I disagreed most fervently. Now I gather he qualified his statement with that ‘more or less’, and I find myself increasingly coming round to the same opinion.

Let me give you yet another example. On Tuesday 29 May, Turks celebrated an event they know as the ‘Conquest of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Fethi). Some four and a half months later, they will celebrate another occasion they remember as the ‘Liberation of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Kurtuluş’u). The second of these dates is always a holiday for the school children of Turkey’s largest city, while the former is not.

Recent excavations related to the construction of Istanbul’s new underground Metro system have put back the date of the first human settlement on the site of this ancient city to around 6,500 BCE. That makes a whole lot of history, doesn’t it! So you can understand Turkish school kids experiencing some difficulties remembering exactly what happened when. The task is complicated, however, by the fact that there seems to have been some tinkering by authorities to ensure that school history books present the approved version.

Getting back to those two dates above, it surprises me anew every year to find how many of my Turkish students seem to think that 6 October was the day when Turks ‘liberated’ Istanbul from the Byzantine Greeks. In fact, what happened was that, after Mustafa Kemal and his Turkish nationalist army had chased the modern Greek forces out of Anatolia in 1922, British and other allied troops that had been occupying the Ottoman capital since the end of the First World War, decided to up sticks and head for home.

Turkey’s most expensive film to date
I guess when you’re a kid at school, having an official day off is always going to be a powerful reason for remembering a date – so perhaps it’s a good thing that Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated his intention to make 29 May a public holiday in future. In that case, kids next year are much more likely to learn that the date will mark the 560th anniversary of an earlier Tuesday, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious army into the Byzantine Greek capital of Constantinople after a seven-week siege in 1453. Perhaps some of the confusion will be cleared up too, if the name of the celebration is altered to recognise the self-evident fact that the city didn’t become ‘İstanbul’ until after it had been conquered – some would say, until long after.

Perhaps it’s not so much history itself, but our knowledge and understanding of it that is ‘bunk’. And just possibly the reason is that certain ‘authorities’ have vested interests in fostering misunderstandings. When you compare what the average Turk knows about the history of Constantinople/Istanbul with the knowledge most of us in the West have, you perhaps get a better sight of the problem.

The event of 29 May 1453 is generally referred to in Western histories as ‘The Fall of Constantinople’. Some writers credit the influx of Greek scholars fleeing the city as a key element in the Europe Renaissance. Some consider the Islamic takeover to have been the spur that prompted Columbus and others to launch themselves across the Atlantic in search of India. The successful employment of gunpowder and cannons against the medieval world’s best-fortified city is often taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages. These claims are interesting, and undoubtedly debatable, but I will leave the debate to more able scholars. Of more relevance to my immediate purpose is the oft-heard claim that the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans was ‘a massive blow to Christendom’. It has even been said to mark ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. 

Now I don’t know what you were taught when you were at school, but I have a pretty clear memory of being told that ‘Rome fell to the barbarians’ in 476 AD/CE. The main authority for that precise date seems to have been the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon. I also have hazy memories of Christians having been thrown to lions, but I can’t remember if these were sourced from the same book or the same teacher; nor do I have a clear memory of whether the barbarians were God’s punishment for what the Romans did to the Christians, or if they were just an unfortunate coincidence.

What I definitely do not remember being told was that, 140 years before the German upstart Odoacer deposed the resident Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, an earlier emperor, Constantine, in response to the declining importance of Italy, and the rising importance of Asia Minor, had established a ‘New Rome’ at the mouth of the Bosporus Strait. While it was clear that, at some point, those ‘old Roman’ citizens had given up feeding Christians to lions, and transformed themselves into good Catholics, I do not remember its being made clear that the ‘Roman Empire’ continued in the east for another thousand years until finally laid to rest by that 21 year-old Ottoman sultan on that fateful Tuesday in 1453.

So why the confusion about the end of the Roman Empire? I guess part of the problem stems from the fact that those ancient ‘Romans’ used the name of their capital city as the basis for naming their empire – as if the British Empire had instead been known as Londonian. A second source of confusion is that the conferring of ‘Roman citizenship’ was used as an instrument of control and government, and was not restricted to residents of Rome itself, or even Italy. As a result, citizens in Constantinople, and elsewhere in Asia Minor continued to think of themselves as ‘Romans’ long after the fall of the city of Rome and its western Empire – and long after they had ceased speaking Latin and had reverted to the use of Greek. That’s why modern-day Turks still refer to their Greek-speaking citizens as Rum, and their church as Rum Ortodoks.

However, we can’t just blame the ancient Romans and Greeks for the confusion. Europeans have always had problems defining their relationship with their eastern cousins. For a start, there was bitter competition in the Middle Ages between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. Doctrinal differences related to such issues as the Holy Trinity, the true nature of Jesus, and what sort of bread to use for the Sacramental Feast were the ostensible reason – but perhaps more important was the envy of Roman Popes for the temporal power of the Eastern Church. Papal attempts to resurrect the western Roman Empire in holy guise made it impossible to accept the existence of a rival in the east – which henceforth became known as ‘Greek’. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Churches finalised their split in what became known as The Great Schism, and relations went from bad to worse.

Around this time, traders from the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi began setting up shop across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. Of course, both sides derived benefits from the arrangement, while at the same time friction also developed. Locals resented the accumulating wealth and arrogance of the foreigners, especially when their mutual rivalries broke out into violence. Resentment came to a head, apparently, in April 1182 when the local population went on a festive spree of riot and murder, known to historians as the Massacre of the Latins.

Latin revenge, however, was not long in coming. Roman Popes had been unleashing crusading knights eastwards for a hundred years, partly in response to appeals from the Eastern Emperors for help against the spread of Islam. The fourth and last of these crusades was, it seems, something of a fiasco. Shortage of funds for the journey obliged participants to render military services to the Doge of Venice. Subsequently they found their way to Constantinople, which they proceeded to besiege and sack in April 1204, installing a Latin Emperor of their own. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost sight of the main purpose of their venture (viz. fighting Muslims), and very few of their number managed to engage with any.

When those Latin Crusaders sacked, looted and destroyed the capital of their eastern rivals, subjecting its citizens to three days of rape and murder, the Pope of the day, the ironically named Innocent III, who, one assumes, had sent them in good faith to fight Saracens, Turks and other assorted infidels, was apparently somewhat upset, and gave their leaders a sound telling-off. Nevertheless, after piles of booty from the pillaged imperial capital began to appear in Rome, it seems the Pontiff found it in his heart to forgive his errant knights, and allow them back into his church. Today, visitors to St Marks Cathedral in Venice can see the copper statues of four prancing horses that had stood over the main gate of the Hippodrome in Constantine’s New Rome for nine centuries – just the most famous of the looted treasures.

The Greeks did succeed in winning back their capital some fifty-odd years later, but by then irreparable damage had been done. The Byzantine Empire (as it came to be called in later years) had been mortally wounded. By the time the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmet decided to add Constantinople to his growing empire, there was, in fact, very little of Imperial Rome remaining outside the city walls. Nevertheless, capturing the ‘Queen of Cities’ was not an easy task. Apart from the Fourth Crusaders, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, even Vikings, had assailed the mighty walls on many occasions without success. This time, however, the Ottomans were determined, and laid their plans well. Even so, had ‘Christendom’ really wanted to stave off that ‘massive blow’ to their power and prestige, and turn back the Islamic Ottoman threat, you would think they could have made a little more effort.

Now, with the Ottoman forces massed outside those walls, might have been a good opportunity for the Western Church to show a little temporal solidarity – but they didn’t. Pope Nicholas V did, apparently, make a half-hearted call for another Crusade, but the call fell on deaf ears. Apart from a few hundred Genoese and Venetians with a financial interest in supporting their Greek patrons, the last descendants of Imperial Rome were left to fight their final battle alone. As history records, their valiant defence was at last broken, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered the city that would become his own capital.

History, at least the western version, is a little quieter on the aftermath of the conquest. As we mentioned above, the victorious Latin knights rampaged for three days through the city of their Christian cousins in 1204. To be fair to the Crusaders, a three-day mayhem of killing and looting was the standard reward for an army that had been put to the trouble of besieging and capturing a walled town. England’s noble King Henry V, according to Shakespeare, gave the French defenders of Harfleur a final warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds . . . (Henry V, III, iii)

So we may be surprised to learn that the Muslim Ottoman Sultan called off his ‘blind and bloody soldiers’ after one day of such sport. He also allowed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to maintain his seat in the new Ottoman capital. According to one source, ‘As a strange side-effect of the Muslim conquest, the doctrinal integrity of eastern Christendom was preserved: instead of the compromises with the Vatican that might otherwise have been inevitable, the patriarchate was able to hold to its view on the issues, such as the nature of the Trinity, that had led to so much bitter argument.’

And there he can be found to this day, ministering to his flock from his sanctuary in Istanbul, largest city of the Turkish Republic, with its ninety-nine percent Muslim population: Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, First Among Equals in the Eastern Orthodox communion. History, if not one hundred percent bunk, at least needs careful watching.

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