The year 1453 marked a very significant event in the life of the Orthodox Church, for that was the year that the city of Constantinople fell to the Turks, effectively bringing to an end the long thousand year reign of the Christian Roman Empire (also known as “Byzantium”). Of course by that time, most of the empire had already fallen to the Ottomans, Constantinople and the little area surrounding it being the last desperate hold-outs.
The final conflict was ripe with symbolism for the poetically-inclined: the Sultan launching the final assault was Mehmet II, named after Islam’s prophet Muhammad, while the last Christian emperor striding along his city’s previously impregnable walls was Constantine XI, who bore the name of Constantine the Great, the city’s founder and Rome’s first Christian emperor. The city which was for centuries the beautiful and beating heart of Christian power on earth finally fell after a siege of fifty-five days on Tuesday May 29, 1453.
It was long felt by many Christians that the Church must have an empire if it was to survive. Thus for example, in 1393 Anthony, then patriarch of Constantinople, learned that Basil, the grand prince in Moscow, was not offering a liturgical commemoration of the emperor, and he wrote him to correct this omission, saying, “My son, it is not possible for Christians to have a Church and not have an empire. Church and empire have a great unity. It is not possible for them to be separated from one another.”
It was not hard to see why he felt this. The Church and the Empire had long been fused. Witness, for example, the tropar of the Cross, sung every Friday: “O Lord, save Your people, and bless Your inheritance! Grant victory to the Orthodox kings over the barbarians, and by Your Cross, preserve Your habitation!” In Greek the word here rendered, “habitation” is πολίτευμα/politeuma, meaning “commonwealth, state, citizens”. The tropar in fact was asking that God give military victory to the Roman State over its political enemies. The divine “habitation” here is not the Church, but the State. No wonder that a scant sixty years before the Ottoman Sultan conquered the city it was taken for granted by people like the patriarch that God would defend His earthly habitation and that the empire could never fall.
It is fashionable, especially in some Anabaptist circles, to denounce Byzantium as nothing more than an extended and grievous error, a complete betrayal of Christianity at the hands of its well-intentioned but fatally short-sighted fourth century friends. According to this view, Constantine’s faith was spurious, his friendship disastrous, and with him the Church began its steep and terrible decline. “Constantinian” functioned by those taking this view a kind of swear word, code for the Church’s long lapse into worldliness—a worldliness with little to commend it, and which would not be set right until the anabaptists’ arrival in the sixteenth century.
Admittedly the cooperation of Church and State under Constantine’s successors (which set in with a vengeance under Justinian) was a mixed bag, with both up sides and down sides, both of which are more readily seen with our 20-20 hindsight. But the symphonia of Church and State did produce good things, and helped to bring some moderating elements to the previously all too brutal Roman empire. It also fulfilled Biblical prophecy concerning the turning of the nations to Israel’s God (e.g. Isaiah 60:1-3), as people like Eusebius of Caesarea (a fan of Constantine) were keen to point out. The anabaptist denunciation of Byzantium therefore goes too far. Byzantium fallowed Christian values and Christian devotion to sink deep roots into Roman culture–roots which would survive the catastrophe of 1453 and would continue to flower in the nations that arose after Byzantium’s fall, in a kind of Byzance apres Byzance.
So then what did the fall of Constantinople in 1453 mean? Perhaps something that neither of the fighting parties then fully understood.
For the Muslim Ottomans the fall of Christian Constantinople meant proof of the divine superiority of Islam over Christianity. For all its preoccupation with final judgment and punishment in the world to come, Islam tends to collapse eschatology into a category of this world. Notions of separation of Church (or Mosque) and State find little place in Islam (hence their insistence on sharia), and Allah’s power must ultimately be manifested in military victories in this age. That explains, they insisted, the blitzkrieg victories of Islamic armies over much of the Roman world in the few decades after Muhammad died: it was because Islam was the true religion that Allah gave them victory on the field of battle. (That also explains the collective trauma that gripped the Islamic world when their political power was later eclipsed.) For Sultan Mehmet striding into the city’s ruins that May in 1453 the fall of the city meant that there was no God but Allah, and that Muhammad was His messenger. He was wrong.
For the defeated Christians the fall of the city was theologically traumatic as well as politically disastrous, for it meant that Christ had somehow abandoned His Church. No doubt many defending its walls and dying along with their emperor that day hoped for a miracle, and felt that despite the overwhelming odds favouring the Islamic armies their city and empire would somehow stand and survive. That is what happens when practical politics is fed by religious ideology. The last time that happened on such a scale was in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.: the Jewish defenders of the Holy City felt that Jerusalem could never fall because it was the City of God, and God would somehow defend His citadel no matter how hopeless the odds. Because their hope was rooted in hot ideology and not in cold numbers, they defended it until the end, and died along with it—just as did the defenders of Constantinople over a thousand years later.
The fall of the Christian city, I suggest, actually meant this: that all that is merely earthly is transient, and that every worldly kingdom will fall after it rises. What was revealed that day in the smoking ruins of the battered city was the eschatological nature of the Church within it, that here in this age Christians have no continuing city (Hebrews 13:14), even one as longstanding and glorious as Constantinople. Man begins to die on the day he is born, and the death warrant for that great city was signed the day Constantine the Great claimed the town of Byzantium as the capital city of his empire. Constantinople was doomed as the world is doomed, for we are all mortal, and the civilizations we build in this world are mortal too. That is why Christ established a Kingdom that was not of this world, a realm which would rise and never fall.
We Orthodox say this often enough, but we seem loathe to really believe it—or at least to draw the necessary conclusions from it. We still secretly hanker for the glory days when the world was ruled by those who kissed the Cross. Some people (I had one in my parish once) believed that Constantinople would be returned to the Christians before The End came—a hope sometimes wistfully accompanied by a legend that the church vessels which were spirited safely away within the walls which miraculously opened to receive them when the invaders burst in will be brought out once again when the building again becomes a church. My parishioner didn’t believe that last bit of course, but did believe that Constantinople would eventually become the Christian citadel it once was. Some saint had apparently said so. Hope dies hard.
Indeed, very hard. We see this too in our canonical vocabulary. We insist on calling the old city “Constantinople”, although that name can no longer be found on any map or in the brochures of any travel agent. Tickets are now purchased to Istanbul, and calling the place “New Rome” is staggeringly anachronistic. The old and vast ecumene is still enshrined in the title of the “Ecumenical Patriarch”, though the reality behind the title has long gone. Non-Orthodox Christians all know this, and I suspect they smile a bit behind their hand when we talk as if somehow Byzantium was still standing. For us the post-Byzantine world may be a scarier one, but it is the only one we have, and we must learn to live in it. Otherwise someone may serenade us with a song called “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” to remind us of it.
There is therefore no use hankering after lost glories, or clinging to imaginary titles and ancient privileges. Our bishops may still wear the clothing and headgear of a former day (the sakkos and mitre originally worn by the emperor, and which only gradually found their way to the backs and heads of all bishops), but the bishops’ true glory, like the glory of any Christian, comes only through service to the humble, or through persecution and blood. The Church—bishops, clergy, and laity alike—are called to a greatness which is not of this world, even as the Kingdom is not of this world. We often seem to have forgotten this. If so, remembering the events of Tuesday May 29, 1453 can function as our wake-up call.