Hagia Sophia. Chapter 5: The Fall of Constantinople
Chapter IV here. Beginning here.
This chapter describes the final battle for control of Byzantine Constantinople.It was a confrontation between two leaders, the 23 year old Islamic leader, Mohammed II and Constantine.
There had been two centuries of Palaeologi emperors beginning with Michael Palaeologus in 1261. Michael VII,I as he was called, was crowned for a second time in Hagia Sophia after triumphantly entering the half-ruined city of Constantinople through its famous Golden Gate.
The author points out that “the revived empire was only a shadow of its former self, but in the fourteenth century it was suffused with the twilight glow of a cultural renaissance comparable to that which was dawning in the Italy”. During this renaissance, intellectual and artistic life flourished. Hagia Sophia, as the imperial church, was a state responsibility and further repairs were made to the interior and exterior of the complex. Earthquakes and civil unrest hampered the speed of these projects, but after ten years, pilgrims were, once again, able to marvel at the beauty of the restored church.
New treasures were found to replace the ones lost to the Franks. They included “an image of the Virgin that had purportedly wept when the Franks occupied the city; a coffer of pearls, representing her tears, stood before it...one of the robes of our Lord, the end of the lance that pierced his side, the sponge that was offered to him, the reed that was put in his hand...”. The great mosaics were gloriously restored.
After this renewal, unfortunately, the Hagai Sophia (which seemed to be a “nightmare of upkeep” due to its size and constant earthquakes), fell once again into disrepair. Even before the final onslaught on the city, visitors chronicled the general decline of the church and the impoverished city itself. It was not a particularly good time for anyone in Europe, East or West. This period of climatic and political dishevel was a source of constant consternation. The plague was claiming victims in many parts. In fact, Constantinople's population had decreased by a third due to the plaque. It was so bad that many in Christianity believed that they were in the biblical end times.
Under the reign of the last Palaeologi emperor, Constantine (1449- 1453), the Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium, fell at the hands of Mohammed II, a Turk who, from his boyhood dreamed of conquering Constantinople. In doing so, according to his beliefs, he would be fulfilling the “Moslem tradition: They shall conquer Qostantiniya [Constantinople]. Glory be to the prince and to the army that shall achieve it”. Constantine was also the recipient of long held prophecies foretelling that “the last Christian emperor would be named Constantine, as the first had been”.
After peace negotiations failed, the battle lines were drawn and it only took a siege of 53 days for the Turks to conquer the city. The Venetians did not come to their aid and Genoese had limited means of support to offer. It should be noted that the Christians of the Latin West and the Orthodox East had failed to reunite under an Act of Union provided by the Ecumenical Council in Florence, 1439. By 1452, when a desperate attempt was made to seal this agreement in the Hagia Sophia (without the church patriarch), support for the cause had already diminished greatly in the West, as well as in the city itself.
Constantinople was divided politically and spiritually when, in 1453, the Turks finally invaded.
When Constantine realized that the battle was lost, he removed his insignia and royal purple garb, then heroically plunged into the street fight. He was never heard from or seen again. When the invaders reached Hagia Sophia, they barged down the doors and entered the holy temple, killing the elderly and taking the rest for slaves or cruel sport. The looting began. Large icons were turned over and used as tables, vestments were made into horse blankets and reliquary contents were defiled. One legend tells of certain priests who ”took the holiest vessels and miraculously passed through the wall of the sanctuary, which opened up to admit them and close behind them. There’ walled up, they are believed to remain to this day, destined to emerge only when Hagia Sophia becomes a Christian church once more”.
For those who appreciate details of battle, this is the chapter where it will be found.
image 1 The victory of the the Turks marked the end of the glorious Byzantine artistic tradition that produced such superb works as the embroidered silk shroud.
image 2 Virtually impregnable land walls (right), built by Theodosius II in the fifth century, had protected Constantinople from attack for a thousand years. In 1453 the fortifications were finally breached by the inexorable Ottoman advance, and today they stand in crumbling isolation.
Events leading up to the fall. The discussion of one problem.
By Savvas Kyriakidis, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Greek and Latin Studies, University of Johannesburg.
"The Histories of Kantakouzenosis the main source for the civil war between AndronikosIIandAndronikosIII which was fought intermittently from 1321 until 1328.This article examines how Kantakouzenos remodelled and fabricated events, conversations and deliberations in order to depict Andronikos II as an incompetent military leader..." link
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