May 29, 1453 - The Fall of Constantinople
and the Catholics who fought to save
the Imperial City and Hagia Sophia



N.B.: A shorter and condensed version of the following historical article has been published in the Catholic weekly Newspaper "The Wanderer", issue of March 24, 2016

 

In a previous article "The Scourge of Christendom and the Byzantine Schism" (The Wanderer, 10/13/11), I described the horrific carnage of the population of Constantinople at the hands of its Muslim conquerors. Author Roger Crowley in his outstanding volume "1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West" (N.Y. Hyperion, 2005) noted that for Mohammed II, the enclave of Constantinople was "a bone in the throat of Allah."

Robert Carver, in reviewing another major work on Mohammed II, wrote that the precocious Renaissance Ottoman Turk who knew Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Greek and some Latin and was fascinated with the study of history, geography, and practical engineering:

"was undoubtedly the most dangerous enemy Christendom had ever had to face.... His role model was Alexander the Great whose exploits he aimed to surpass, but in reverse - that is, conquering the West from the East. But he was a ruthless enemy. His word was worth nothing: those who surrendered after being promised quarter were almost always executed. He tortured, impaled and beheaded at will. Priests and bishops he used to have trapped between two planks and then sawn in half through the middle. His army killed Christian children like dogs; women they raped and then enslaved; men were killed or enslaved. The terror he caused across Europe was the origin for the visceral hatred Islam and the Turks still inspire in many Christians throughout the Balkans, Greece and the Levant... When he died, at age 49, he was preparing to take a vast army into Italy to capture Rome."
(The Tablet, July 2009)

The butchery which would take place in the Emperor Justinian's magnificent Church of Hagia Sophia, the mother church of Eastern Christendom, was horrendous. From its founding, Hagia Sophia was the wonder of the Christian world,

"Conceived as the replica of heaven, a manifestation of the Triumph of Christ, and its Emperor regarded as God's vice-regent on earth".

So stated historian Roger Crowley in his remarkable volume which details the 50 days of incredible fighting which saw the defenders of the city and the Turks "taunting and slaughtering one another across the walls and executing prisoners in full view of their compatriots."

The Byzantines realized only too well that only effective military aid from the West could prevent the Fall of the City besieged by land and sea. However, the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War between England and France, the quarrels and divisions in Italy, and the despicable selfishness of the Italian Mercantile States together with the constant lack of resources and financial difficulties of Pope Eugenius IV - made it difficult to mount yet another crusade to save the City. Popes Eugenius IV and Nicholas V did all they could to gather resources to save the Byzantine capital. A Venetian galley was able to be gathered together; Cardinal Isidore of Kiev (who played a key role in bringing about the 1439 Reunion Council of Florence) arrived in the City with 200 soldiers; seven hundred men in full body armor (400 Genoese and 300 from Rhodes) also arrived led by a professional soldier who was an expert in warfare, Giovanni Giustiniani. As Crowley relates:

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of Giustiniani to the Byzantine cause. From the moment that he had stepped dramatically onto the quaryside in January 1453 with 700 skilled fighters in shining armor, Giustiniani was an iconic figure in the defense of the City. He had come voluntarily and at his own expense 'for the advantage of the Christian faith and for the honor of the world'. He alone had been able to command the loyalty of both the Greeks and Venetians – to the extent that they were forced to make an exception to their general hatred of the Genoese."
(Crowley, p. 193)

It was Giustiniani who repeatedly led his troops to beat back Muslim attacks on the walls. A small group of other Western soldiers were also brought by three Genoese brothers, and Catalans from Spain supplied an additional contingent. A Scot engineer John Grant proved invaluable in exploding the mines which the Turks drilled under the mighty Theodosian walls and managing the Greek Fire that was hurled to burn alive Ottoman attackers.

The defense of the City by the Emperor Constantine XI Dragases (or Palaeologus) was complicated by the anti-unionist propaganda spread by the obstinate bishop Mark of Epheus who refused to sign the Decree of religious Union that took place in the Council of Florence (1439). The open hostility by fanatical monks leading to the outbreak of riots in opposition to the Union, pressured 22 other signers to retract their signatures to end the Schism. And thus,

"Schism was to cast a long shadow over Constantine's attempts to defend the City."
(Crowley, p. 72)

The lay scholar George Scholarius, who at Florence had supported the Union, would reverse course when he succeded Mark of Ephesus as leader of the anti-unionists. The position of the anti-unionists was clear:

"We don't want Latin help or Latin union, let us be rid of the worship of the unleavened" [a reference to the Eucharist with "heretical" unleavened bread].
(Crowley, p. 70)

Vivid in Byzantine memories was the Crusaders' sack of the City in 1204 which gave rise to much anti-Latin animus. For the Italians, besought to come to the aid of the hostile Byzantines, they too had memories:

  1. the massacre of thousands of Venetians in Thessalonica in 1171;
  2. and the butchery of "nearly every Latin in Constantinople in 1183 - women and children, the old and infirm, even the sick from the hospitals."

Mohammed II's policy was also clear - to always take advantage of the religious division between Latins and Greeks and to cement further division:

"The fear of Christian Unity had always been one of the guiding principles of Ottoman foreign policy."
(Crowley, p. 72)

It is, moreover, not an exaggeration to say that despite the hostility of the anti-unionists in the City, "the main adversaries of the Union were not the Orthodox but the Ottomans!" So lamented the Syrian Orthodox art historian Lina Murr Nehme in her "1453 Fall of Constantinople: Muhammed II Imposes the Orthodox Schism" (Francois-Xavier de Guibert, Paris, 2003). Thus, the conqueror of the City promptly chose Scholarius (the monk Gennadius) to be the patriarch Gennadius of Constantinople.

"1453" is also a story of shameful collaboration with the enemy by traitors. Crowley comments on:

"the help the Ottomans received from their Christian subjects, mercenaries, converts, and technical experts (including those who helped build the largest cannons ever seen to bombard the walls of the City), as well as vassals of the Turks. This was a theme of repeated lament from European Chronicles; 'I can testify', said the eye-witness Catholic Archbishop Leonard of Chios, 'that Greeks, Latins, Germans, Hungarians, Bohemians and men from all the Christian countries were on the side of the Turks... Oh, the wickedness of denying Christ like this!'"
(Crowley, p. 101)

Interestingly, the Sultan Mohammed II had wished to spare the destruction and pillaging that would follow the conquest of the City. He put forward arguments to the Emperor Constantine to surrender:

"Are you willing to abandon the City and depart for wherever you like, together with your nobles and their property, leaving behind the common people unharmed both by us and by you. Or do you wish that through your resistance... the common people should be enslaved by the Turks and scattered all over the world?"

After the conquest, the Sultan summoned to his presence the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras, famous for his resistance to the religious Union of Florence and secretly financing the anti-unionists, and for his infamous declaration:

"I would rather see in Constantinople the turban of the Turks than the Latin mitre."

The Sultan asked him why he had not persuaded the Emperor to surrender the City in which case the City would have been spared the atrocities which followed. Notaras replied he and the Emperor Constantine were ready to surrender. Actually, the Emperor had not, defiantly exclaiming:

”It is not in my power, nor in that of any citizen, to hand over the City to you. It is our universal resolve to die rather than have our lives spared.” “We accept neither the tax, nor Islam, nor the capitulation of our fortress.”
(Crowley, p. 107)

The Italians forming the hard-core of the defense absolutely refused surrender. An early Ottoman source confirmed that the "Frankish infidels" were offended and protested:

"We will defend the City; we will not surrender it to the Muslims', and they persisted in continuing the fight."

Whether it is true or not that after his capture the Grand Duke refused to sacrifice his son and son-in-law to the Sultan's lust, Notaras and his family and associates were all executed as Mohammed II was persuaded by his counselors that Notaras could not be trusted and planned treachery and desertion.

As previously observed, the Emperor, who would fight heroically to the death in defense of the City, after repeatedly encouraging the morale of the defenders amidst shot and shell, remained adamant in adherence to the Union declared at Florence. As historian Crowley noted:

"Most of his immediate circle of nobles, officers, and civil servants supported the Union. Only a fraction of the clergy and people did. The propaganda of the anti-unionists proved all too effective. They believed the Union had been forced on them by the treacherous Franks and that their immortal souls had been imperiled for base and materialistic motives. The people were profoundly anti-papist; they were accustomed to equate the pope with the anti-Christ, 'the wolf, and the destroyer'; 'Rum Papa' (the Roman Pope) was a popular choice of name for city dogs. The citizens formed a volatile proletariat: impoverished, superstitious, easily swayed to riot and disorder."
(Crowley, p. 68)

Nevertheless, as the doom of the City appeared imminent with the Turks beginning to breach the walls, the Emperor after a procession with all the bells of Constantinople ringing, dramatically addressed his commanders and officers and his Venetians and Genoese allies:

“Never had his officers so much loved him. For nearly two months, they had seen him spending himself unselfishly. He inflicted on himself severe fasts to obtain the salvation of the City, and slept little. He would wake up at night to pray for hours with the monks, and instead of going to bed again, would climb the ramparts and spend the day visiting, listening, consoling, encouraging, fortifying his soldiers. The lack of sleep, the sorrows, and the maceration had so much weakened him that, recently, he had fainted in front of them. However, his courage and his charisma had remained intact.”

"You know well", he said to the Byzantines, “that the hour has come and that the enemy of our faith wishes to launch an intense assault against us with all his troops and cannon by land and sea... For this reason I speak to you now and beseech you to resist bravely and with noble hearts, as you have always done until now, the enemies of our faith. Into your hands I give this most illustrious and renowned City, the Queen of cities, your homeland.”
(Nehme, p. 179)

Thanking his Venetian and Genoese allies, with all in tears, Byzantines, Venetians and Genoese, embraced and forgave one another, forgetting their hatred and determined to die together for their Christian Faith.

"In the ultimate moment of need, it seems that Catholics and Orthodox worshipped together in the City, and the 400 year-old schism and the bitterness of the Crusades were put aside in a final service of intercession."
(Crowley, p. 200)

"All the men, women and children who in Constantinople were capable of moving around, came to the Basilica of Hagia Sophia to pray. Even the bishops, the priests, the monks and the nuns who had claimed that Hagia Sophia had been soiled by the Union of the Churches and had announced that they would no longer set foot in it until it was purified of all Latinism, were there... It was evening, and the Basilica was illumined with a very large number of candles, whose glow limned from afar the shapes of the immense cupolas, and made the golden chips of the closest mosaics sparkle, unveiling the image of the majestic Christ in the middle of the central cupola. In this somber and grandiose atmosphere, Cardinal Isidore of Kiev was saying the divine Liturgy behind the iconostasis, not according to the Latin rite, but according to the Byzantine, and the voices of the singers rose, insistent and sad amidst tears. The Liturgy was not finished when the Emperor arrived. He turned towards each bishop present, and asked forgiveness for his sins, even when the bishop was his enemy. Then he received communion with the crowd and left with them...When the lights had been extinguished, the Emperor returned alone to Hagia Sophia. Above one of the doors, an old mosaic represented an Emperor prostrated in supplication at the feet of Christ, surrounded by the Virgin and St. Michael. That was what he had come to do, pray for the sleeping City. He entered with small steps and started beseeching God for the City in the middle of the darkness that the night-lights broke, in front of the icons that soon would be no more. It was the last time that a Christian Roman Emperor knelt in this place."
(Nehme, pp. 182-183)

There were about eight thousand defenders of the City protecting a perimeter of 12 miles. They faced a horde of perhaps 300,000 Ottomans. The Byzantine combatants amounted to 4,774 including volunteers, monks and some residents. The others were foreigners numbering 3,000 including Venetians and Genoese, Catalans, and Cretans and some who secretly came from Galata to their aid. There was also a contingent of allied Turks led by Prince Orhan, a pretender to the Ottoman throne and Mohammed II's greatest enemy. His severed head would be handed to the conquering Sultan.

Giustiniani who had so gallantly led the resistance at the walls, suffered a serious wound, his body armor pierced by a lead shot, and disgracefully fled the field of battle to escape on a small ship. He died on the island of Chios blamed for the fall of the City. With the Turks streaming into the City on all sides, the 49 year-old Emperor stripped himself of his Imperial insignia and as a common soldier, sword in hand, plunged in to fight the oncoming janissaries. He died amidst the pile of bodies at the St. Romanus Gate, regarded as a martyr and whose death would give rise to many enduring legends reflected in songs and lamentations. It is doubtful that his head was given as a trophy to Mohammed II since he would not have been easily identified among the many beheaded corpses.
Almost the whole population of 50,000 was led away into captivity as slaves and worse..

"There were 400 survivors rescued in the final chaotic hours, as well as a surprising number of Byzantine nobles who had already boarded before the City fell. Seven ships from Genoa got away, among them the galley carrying the wounded Giustiniani."
(Crowley, p.226)

It is noteworthy that Constantine XI Drageses, the last of the Emperors of New Rome, died a Catholic. He remains venerated as a Saint by both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics.

"On May 29, each year, while the Turks celebrate the capture of Istanbul with a military re-enactment at the Edirne Gate, Constantine is remembered in the small barrel-vaulted village churches of Crete and the great cathedrals of Greek cities."
(Crowley, p. 258)

The Union which he supported would continue in parts of Greece and the Islands under Venetian rule. Until the 20th century, Christians of Asia Minor, conscious of being heirs of the Roman Empire, referred to their land as Romania, and themselves as Romios, or Romans.

The following is one of the popular lamentations for the Fall of Constantinople:

"Alack and Alas! The Turks have taken Constantinople.
They've taken the King's throne, the rulers are changed.
Churches mourn, monasteries cry, and St. John Chrysostom weeps and laments.
'Don't cry, St. John, and don't lament, Romania is taken,
but though gone, Romania will blossom again'."



About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage