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Πέμπτη 23 Ιουνίου 2011


by Theodore Karacostas

The Eastern Roman Empire (known as Byzantium), or the Byzantine Empire) had been in decline for at least three centuries before the final blow of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror destroyed on that dreadful Tuesday of May 29, 1453. Intrigue and various civil wars contributed to the further demise of the Christian Empire even following the two devastating blows that occurred in 1071 and 1204 respectively. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks invaded Anatolia and defeated the armies of Christian Emperor Romanus Diogenes, who had been betrayed by his generals. Such lack of unity and vision on the part of the Greeks would be repeated again in 1920 when another great man who sought to restore the nation to its past glory would likewise be undermined.

The second devastating blow occurred in 1204 when the Knights of the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople, massacred its population, and desecrated its Church in unspeakable ways. The fifty seven year occupation of Constantinople by the Crusaders destroyed the Empire politically and economically.

The Turkish invasion of Anatolia had been a sequel to the original Islamic invasion of the Byzantine Empire between 620 AD and 641 AD when Egypt, Syria, and Palestine were forever lost to Christendom and subject to the process of Islamicization. The Emperor Heraclius (610-641) who had lost these territories had once been a great and noble man. This former African General was brought to power in Constantinople and in time restored what had been a declining Empire. Having lost Jerusalem to the Persians and with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher having been desecrated, the Emperor’s task was to liberate the Holy Land.

Heraclius liberated Jerusalem and avenged the desecration of the site where Christ had been buried and then resurrected. In addition, the True Cross that Christ had been crucified on was liberated from the pagan Persians. In 626 AD when Heraclius was away fighting the Persians, another foreign people, the Avars attempted to capture Constantinople. Led in prayer and devotion by the Patriarch of Constantinople (who was named Sergius) the people of the City rallied around their beloved Patriarch who carried an icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) and urged her to preserve the freedom of the City. There was a hymn of the Greek Orthodox Church that was said to have been composed during this crisis. “To you, Champion leader, do I, Your City, ascribe thank offerings of victory. For you O Mother of God, have delivered me from terrors. But as you have invincible power, do free me from every kind of danger, so that I may cry to you; Hail O Unwedded Bride.”

Today this hymn is part of the Akathist Hymn that is sung during Great Lent in the Greek Orthodox Church. At the Church of the Panagia (Most Holy Virgin) of Vlachernae in Constantinople the Greek words to this hymn are posted on the wall of the Church. For it is here that the faithful of Constantinople gathered to thank the Mother of God for protecting the City from the Avars. On a pilgrimage to Constantinople in 1992, it was quite a moving experience to visit this same Church with Greeks who sang the hymn. Every year during Great Lent, I think of the Greek Orthodox faithful who still live in Constantinople, along with the Ecumenical Patriarch and reflect on the meaning that this beautiful hymn must have for those faithful worshippers who are the last descendants of the Byzantine Empire living within the City.

The Greek Orthodox Church has a day in the month of May when it commemorates the founding of the City of Constantinople. This glorious City was founded by the thirteenth Apostle, Saint Constantine the Great for whom it was named. Constantine was the Roman Emperor who legalized Christianity and subsequently adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. In 325 AD, he presided over the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea which defined Orthodoxy by condemning the heresy taught by a Bishop named Arius who taught that the second person of the Holy Trinity was a creature and not equal, or coessential (of one essence) with the Father, as Orthodoxy teaches.

The Emperor Justinian, like Constantine is a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Justinian left behind the great laws of the Empire. He was also a great and outstanding theologian. His great legacy is building the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, also known as Saint Sophia. This Church was named in honor of God Himself. Justinian is also responsible for building what was later renamed the Monastery of St. Katherine at Sinai, built on the site where Moses heard God speak to him through the burning bush.

Following the death of the Emperor Heraclius, Islam was on the march in Asia Minor. In 678 and 717 AD the Arabs tried to take Constantinople by sea. “Blocked from Europe by the impregnable walls of Constantinople and the unyielding spirit of the Emperor and his people, the armies of the prophet were obliged to travel the entire length of the Mediterranean to the Straits of Gibraltar before they could invade the continent-thus extending their lines of communication and supply almost to the breaking point and rendering impossible any permanent conquests beyond the Pyrenees. Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than in the fifteenth, all of Europe and America might be Muslim today.” Byzantium, the Early Centuries. John Norwich.

While the Church fought to defend the Church and God’s faithful from outside aggressors, the Saints and the Holy Fathers of the Church defined the dogmas and eternal truths of Christendom. In 726 AD, a heretical movement consisting of people known as Iconoclasts attempted to smash all the holy images of Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. Icons (meaning image in Greek) are referred to by many as the Bible for the eyes. They visually depict the eternal truth of Holy Scriptures and are considered as windows into heaven. Byzantine artists are responsible for depicting some of the most miraculous and outstanding works of art.

The extent of Church-State relations in the Byzantine Empire is symbolized by a great hero named Nikophoras Phokas., a General, who served as regent in place of the young boys Basil and Constantine who were too young to take up their place on the Emperor’s throne. Nikephoras Phokas was fierce in his piety, and was responsible for the building of the Monastery of the Great Lavra, the first Monastery built on the Holy Mountain of Athos in 963 AD. Mount Athos is the center of Eastern Orthodox Monasticism and Monks from all over the Orthodox world reside there in continuous prayer and devotion.

Nikephoras Phokas, during his reign, launched the first counter offensive against Arab aggression which had been constantly attacking the Empire in Asia Minor. Nikephoras Phokas was entirely possessed by his enthusiasm. For him, the war with Islam was a kind of sacred mission. The first two years of his reign were devoted to warfare in the Cilician Mountains which was warfare at its most laborious and exhausting. In the same year, Cyprus was occupied by the same fleet. But the chief importance of the conquest of Cilicia and Cyprus lay in the fact that the way this war was prepared by Nikephoras. He captured Syria. Part of Syria, including Antioch was annexed to the Empire and another part, Aleppo, recognized Byzantine rule. This is taken from the History of the Byzantine State by George Ostrogorsky.

During the ninth century, two Saints, Cyril and Methodios from Macedonia proceeded to bring about the conversion of the Slavic peoples to Christianity. It was at this time that the Byzantine Empire was at the height of its glory under the famed Macedonian Dynasty. And it was under the outstanding Emperor Basil II that Russia was converted to Christianity. The following is a report to Prince Vladimir after his emissaries visited three different centers of religious expression. They said: “When we journeyed among the Bulgarians we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a Mosque while they stand. The Bulgarian bows sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went to Constantinople, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations, for we cannot forget that beauty.”

In the year 1071, there occurred the aforementioned Battle of Manzikert and the decline of the Christian Empire began. Another superb Emperor by the name of Alexios Comnenus attempted with great vigor to reverse the losses, but political tensions between the East and the West led by accident to the formation of the Crusades which would bring disaster to Constantinople one century later

In 1391, Manuel Palaeologos ascended the throne of Constantinople. He would preside over victories against the Ottoman Turks in 1397 and 1442 when the later attempted to conquer Constantinople. During the siege of 1397, the following prayer was attributed to Manuel. Lord Jesus Christ, let it not come to pass that the great multitude of Christian people should hear it said that it was in the day of the Emperor Manuel that the City, will all its sacred and venerable monuments of the faith, was delivered to the infidel.”

The Emperor Manuel traveled to England and France in 1400 to lobby for aid against the Ottoman Turks. He left without any support. In 1422, he defeated the Ottomans and by the time of his death in 1425, he had taken Monastic vows.

Emperor Constantine Dragases Paleologos was the third son born to Emperor Manuel and his Serbian born wife Eleni Dragases. He was married twice, and both wives passed on without leaving an heir to the throne. It has been said that he was a kind, honest, and descent man but that bad luck followed him throughout his life. Constantine was serving as Despot at Mistra when his brother John died in 1448, leaving him the throne of Constantinople.

Constantine was crowned Emperor inside the Church of Saint Demetrios at Mistra. He was not crowned at the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople owing to the factionalism and political turmoil in the City as a result of the acceptance by misguided Bishops of the terms and conditions of the heretical Council of Florence in 1439 which demanded of the Greeks that they throw aside the essential teachings of Orthodox theology by accepting the filioque clause in the Creed which asserts that the Holy Spirit within the Trinity proceeds from both the Father and the Son, rather than the person of the Father alone. According to Orthodox teaching, the filioque clause confuses the hypostatic properties of the Father with that of the Son.

In 1451, Sultan Mehmed came to the Ottoman throne upon the passing of his father who had signed a treaty of peace with the Greeks in 1444. Mehmed was well known as a drunkard and pedophile. The Greeks had under their pay an advisor named Halil who served as a spy for the Greeks and who upon the Emperor’s instructions sought to discourage Mehmed from attacking Constantinople. Halil warned the Greeks of the Sultan’s ambitions, and would later pay with his life for seeking to discourage the sultan from fulfilling his destiny on behalf of the glory of Islam.

On the day after Orthodox Easter in 1453, the Ottoman siege began. The Sultan had offered the Emperor and his people safe passage if they willingly surrendered; otherwise he warned that Constantinople would be subject to the fate of all infidel cities that resisted conquest by the Muslims. The people of Constantinople backed the Emperor in his defiance of the aggressors. The Christians of Constantinople held out with great devotion and enthusiasm for fifty seven days. Monks, elderly people, children and women brought food and water to the soldiers who were at the walls defending the City. At one point, a procession carrying an icon of the Theotokos resulted in the icon falling to the ground and being smashed. This was considered a terrible sign.

The Emperor himself remained as much as he could. Before the end came, his Italian ally, the General Giustiniani, sustained serious injuries and withdrew from the fight. There were seven thousand men fighting in defense of Constantinople. Five thousand were Greek and two thousand were from Venice and Genoa. The Sultan in contrast, had eighty thousand soldiers including unscrupulous Christian mercenaries of Greek, Serbian, and Hungarian background. There were also Turks fighting on the side of the Emperor. Prince Orhan had been used by the Greeks in a failed effort to blackmail the Sultan since Orhan himself had a claim to the Ottoman throne. Now Orhan knew Mehmed’s ruthlessness and he and his followers recognized that their lives depended on a successful defense of Constantinople.

Sir Steven Runciman writes the following about the Fall of Constantinople. The Christian troops had been waiting silently; but when the watchmen on the towers gave the alarm the Churches near the wall began to ring their bells, and Church after Church throughout the City took up the warning sound until every belfry was clanging. Three miles away, in the Church of the Holy Wisdom the worshippers knew that the battle had begun. Every man of fighting age returned to his post; and women, nuns amongst then, hurried to the walls to help bring up stones, beams and water to strengthen the defenses the defenses. Old folk and children came out of their houses and crowded into the Churches, trusting that the Saints and Angels would protect them.”

Emperor Constantinos XI Dragesas Paleologos, loyal servant of Christ humbled himself in his final hours. He asked forgiveness from all those whom he may have offended at any time. Up to the very end, he encouraged his soldiers to fight and not to be afraid. During the siege, he had been encouraged by the Church to choose exile to ensure the Paleologian line would survive, and perhaps one day an heir might liberate the City. His response was simple, “As my City falls, I shall fall with it.” And so he did. Constantinos XI Dragesas Palaeologos, last successor to Constantine the Great, weakest of all Emperors politically but great in terms of his dedication and bravery fell defending the holy and imperial City of Constantinople against the Turkish Jihad.

The horror of the fall of the City is best described by the following two citations. The first is an eyewitness account from George Sphrantzes, a close friend of the Emperor Constantine and one of his ministers.

As soon as the Turks were inside the City, they began to seize and enslave every person who came their way, all those who tried to offer resistance were put to the sword. In many places the ground could not be seen, as it was covered by heaps of corpses. There were unprecedented events: all sorts of lamentations, countless rows of slaves consisting of noble ladies, virgins and nuns, who were being dragged by the Turks by their hair, and braids out of the shelter of Churches to the accompaniment of mourning. There was the crying of children, the looting of our sacred and holy buildings. What horror can such sounds cause! The Turks did not hesitate to trample over the Body and Blood of Christ poured all over the ground and were passing his precious vessels from hand to hand;

“Christ our Lord, how inscrutable and incomprehensible is your wise judgments! Our greatest and holiest Church of Saint Sophia, the earthly heaven, the throne of God’s glory, the vehicle of the cherubim and the second firmament, God’s creation, such an edifice and monument, the joy of all earth, the beautiful more beautiful than the beautiful, became a place of feasting, its inner sanctum was turned into a dining room; its holy altar supported food and wine, and was also employed in the enactment of their perversions with our women, virgins, and children. Who could have been so insensitive as not to wail Holy Church?

The following passage pertains to the horrible fate suffered by the Grand Duke Lukas Notaras and his family. The quote comes from Franz Babinger’s Mehmed the Conqueror and his Time:

“The Sultan prepared a great banquet near the imperial Palace. Drunk with wine, he ordered the chief of the black eunuchs to go to the Grand Duke’s home and bring back his youngest son, a handsome lad of fourteen. When the order was transmitted to the boy’s father, he refused to comply, saying he would rather be beheaded than allow his son to be dishonored. With this reply, the eunuch returned to the Sultan, who sent the executioner back to bring him the Duke and his sons. Notaras took leave of his wife and accompanied by his eldest son and his son-in-law Cantacuzenos, followed the executioner. The Sultan ordered all three to be beheaded. The three heasd were brought to the Sultan; the bodies remained unburied. Notaras popularly known as the pillar of the Rhomaioi (Romans) had once declared “Rather the Turkish Turban in the City than the Roman miter. His wish had been fulfilled.”

During the siege of Constantinople in 1453, there were two different parties advising the Sultan. One was represented by Halil, who was working for the Greeks and tried to discourage Mehmed’s ambitions to conquer the City. The other party was represented by the views put forward by the General names Zaganos Pasha who was reportedly a Greek that had converted to Islam. Zaganos Pasha took a hard line and encouraged the Sultan to move against Constantinople, and encouraged Mehmed’s view that it was his destiny to capture Constantinople for Islam.

Zagaros Pasha was to end his life in a very tortured and painful way nine years later when the Sultan made the mistake of waging war on the infamous Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Wallachia. Vlad the Impaler would be the only Christian Prince (Orthodox or Cahtolic) who would rise to fiercely resist the Ottoman threat. Zagaros Pasha ended up among those Ottoman soldiers that were impaled and found out why Prince Vlad was referred to as the Impaler.”

In 1448, the Russian Orthodox Church declared itself autocephalous (independent) as a result of the Greek Church’s acceptance of the theological terms and conditions laid down by the Pope at the Council of Florence in 1439. In 1589, Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II visited Russia and healed the division with the Russian Church. Russia subsequently became known as the Third Rome and heir to Constantinople. During the dark centuries of Ottoman rule, Russia alone among Orthodox countries was not conquered by the Ottomans, and was in fact feared by the Turks. In 1774, Catherine the Greats’ armies smashed the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were forced to accept the terms of the Treaty of Kachuk-Kanarji which required all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire to receive equal treatment. Russia alone felt sympathy for the captive Christian nations suffering under the Turkish yoke.

In the history of modern Greece, it has been falsely stated that the Orthodox Church has undertaken a political role, and arguments have asserted that Modern Greek nationalism is an abandonment of the Byzantine legacy. This I believe to be thoroughly untrue. On March 25, 1821, Archbishop Germanos of Patras raised the standard of revolt against the Ottoman Empire and the Greek War of Independence was begun. From my perspective the Archbishop was in effect emulating Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople during the Avar siege of Constantinople in 626 AD. The difference was that in 1821 there was no Emperor nor a Christian Empire, but the Archbishop’s blessing and support for independence was consistent with the Patriarchs and Bishops of Byzantium who blessed the armies of the Emperor.

During the dark centuries of the Ottoman Empire generations of boys were lost as a result of conversion to Islam upon being abducted into the Janissaries. Greeks, together with Armenians, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Rumanians were given an inferior status under the Ottoman theocracy. The Greek Orthodox Church helped to preserve the teachings of the faith, the language and the national consciousness of the nation. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, and its Churches and Monasteries protected the Greek nation as much as it could against the evil of the Ottomans. It is necessary to mention the Bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church who gave their lives for Jesus Christ and the nation. These include the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril Lukaris, Parthenios III, and Gregory V who was hanged with twelve Bishops at the gate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Easter Sunday following the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. Mention must be made of Archbishop Kyprianos of Cyprus who was also executed for supporting Greek independence. In 1922, Chrysostom Archbishop of Smyrna was slaughtered by the Turks.

The Orthodox Church has served as the Church of the Greek people, and the defender of Christianity against foreign ideas and ideologies from Ottoman times to the present. Archbishop Damaskinos during the Second World War, together with Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos condemned Nazism and resisted the German invaders. Most recently, the late Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and all Greece was a defender to the great annoyance of Greek secularists who sought to erase the history of the Turkish conquest from Greek history books and to attempt what the Ottomans never succeeded in doing, eliminating the devotion of the Greek nation to the Orthodox Church. In modern Greece, the Byzantine tradition lives.


Constantinople the City physically was conquered in 1453. Realistic hope and dreams for the liberation of the City remained alive until 1922. Great Britain, France, Italy, Soviet Russia, and the United States all contributed to the rise of Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists and prevented a Greek liberation of Constantinople. The torment of the Greek Orthodox faithful did not end after the three days of slaughter that accompanied the fall of the City nor with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. A new and insidious Turkish State was established which completed the job of destroying Greek Orthodoxy in Asia Minor.

On September 6, 1955 a pogrom was carried out against the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople. There was not one protest from the civilized world. Some things did not change in five hundred years. What did change was that in 1955 Turkey was a member of the NATO alliance and a recipient of American military assistance. Despite all this, the Ecumenical Patriarchate referred to by Greeks as “The Greek Church of Christ” has survived and continued to endure under the most difficult circumstances. The twentieth century brought with it the worst of suffering yet for the Church of Constantinople.

And now, the Great Church is on the verge of extinction deprived first of its flock in Asia Minor, and later of the flock within the City itself. Between 1993 and 2007 there were six assassination attempts on the life of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The theological school of Halki is today for the Greek Orthodox what Saint Sophia was in the fifteenth century. It was closed by the Turkish government in 1974 following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Saint Sophia represents the past, Halki represents the future, and so Halki is the direct target of Turkish harassment and persecution. From Saint Sophia and other Churches in Turkey, the Turks get their blood money in the absence of congregations they slaughtered, from unsuspecting tourists.

Much publicity has been given to the problems of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the closure of the Halki Seminary. But, there is no will to act on the part of any civilized powers. Short of serious international pressure, including sanctions, the Turks will not refrain from seeking the destruction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Henceforth, what began in 1453 is ending today in our own day. Those who lament the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate today can imagine what agony must have been felt by the Emperor and the people of Constantinople in 1453 when they realized they were left to their fate by the Christian West.

Today, the consequence of Greek Orthodoxy’s terrible plight in Constantinople will not be restricted to the Greeks. The consequences of this plight also impact the United States and Europe whose citizens have been deceived by propaganda emanating from the powerful Turkish lobby which has been successfully manipulating events and has deprived our citizens from knowing who is influencing their governments. I believe all Christians in America and Europe would be outraged if they knew the extent to which Turkish interests influence American policies to the detriment of American interests and ideals. Turkey today is in the midst of an Islamic Revolution, and so the Turkish lobby is in effect a Jihadist lobby.

One would like to believe that the Ecumenical Patriarchate will remain in Constantinople, and that Greek Orthodoxy will survive there. The Patriarch himself has a heavy burden on his shoulders. He is the successor of Saints Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Saint Photios the Great. Unfortunately, in the politically correct atmosphere of today, the powerful of the world who believe they must make apologies to certain religions do not know who these great Christian Saints are, or what the Ecumenical Patriarch represents.

The fight for Constantinople did not end in 1453. The City itself has passed on. Although there are various prophecies attributed to Saint Cosmas Aitalos and a few Monks from Mount Athos which predicts that Constantinople will be Greek again. What Christians must emulate are the virtues and ideals that Constantine Paleologos and his followers fought for. The ideals of 1453 are today transferred in the struggle to save the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the last remaining Greek Orthodox Christians in Constantinople. The ideals are transferred also in the struggle for a Cyprus free from Turkish Muslim rule, the security of the borders of Macedonia and Thrace, and the rights of all Christian people suffering under Muslim rule from Kosovo to Sudan.

If those fighting on behalf of religious freedom for all persecuted Christians, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, maintain a principled stance in opposition to the enemies of Christendom, they can prevail. If they pursue the policies of opportunism and collaboration with those who actively support the enemies of the faith such as Turkey, they will achieve nothing.

The anniversary of May 29th, 1453 should be commemorated by Greeks, by Orthodox Christians in general, and by the Christian West as well. It is the date upon which the great Christian Empire of Byzantium was engulfed by murderous tyrants. But the examples of the Greek Orthodox Emperor and those who fought and who fell with him, serve as an inspiration for all people who desire their independence, their freedom, and above all, their faith.

In remembrance of Constantine Paleologos and the people of Constantinople, and all their descendents throughout Asia Minor and Cyprus who have shared their fate in the centuries since 1453 the following old Greek folk song is descriptive. It may also be considered to symbolically serve as a message to the West today not to forget the Great Church of Constantinople or its long suffering flock of believers who continue to experience great suffering in the modern Turkish Republic even as Ankara moves steadily closer to joining the European Union.

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