Article — From the May 2012 issue

Byzantium

Their ears were uncircumcised

Epiphanius began to interrogate the Blessed One and said: “Tell me, please, how and when the end of this world shall occur? What are the beginnings of the throes? And how will men know that the end is close, at the doors? By what signs will the end be indicated? And whither will pass this city, the New Jerusalem? What will happen to the holy temples standing here, to the venerated icons, the relics of the Saints, and the books?”
Life of Saint Andrew the Simple, tenth century

The Turkish emir Osman I, father of the Ottoman dynasty, had a dream. A tree sprang from his loins, and from its roots flowed the great rivers of the world, and its canopy spread from the Caucasus to the Atlas. In the branches nightingales and parrots cried out. Every leaf was a scimitar. A wind blew up that turned these blades toward the cities that lay beneath the tree; most turned toward Constantinople. That city became the emerald in a ring, and the emir slipped the ring on his finger, and awoke.

The Byzantines had said that when, as at its founding in A.D. 330, they were again ruled by an emperor named Constantine, son of a Helena, Constantinople would fall, which in 1453 they were and it did.

The Muslims foretold that a leader who bore the Prophet’s name would take Constantinople, and in 1453 he did and he did.

When the Turks at last breached Constantinople’s walls it was because someone left the door open. At the moment they entered the great church of Hagia Sophia, the priest conducting the mass disappeared into the walls. They found a golden door high in the wall but their masons could not open it.

No witness was found to the death of Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus, and it is not possible to say with certainty how he died that day or by whose hand or even whether he died at all.

What was Byzantium? The Hellenic east of the Roman Empire had been first provincial holdings and then, with the imperium split between West and East, an equal and conjoined power, and then, with the diminishment of the West, became Rome itself, refulgent.

What were its borders, the appearances of its cities? At greatest extent Byzantium comprised Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, Macedonia, Bulgaria, the Levant, the Sinai, Greece, Illyria, and (when the emperor Justinian I briefly retook the West) Italy and Sicily and Corsica and Andalusia. Pagan classicism — marmoreal, monumental, certain of the primacy of earthly life — yielded to Christian abstraction and introspection. Art was now the ornament and not the celebration of a transitory world; the physical would never again be heroic. And yet what, wondered Bishop Porphyry of Gaza, might Heaven hold if this city of Constantinople could be so grand?

Halfway between Heaven and earth were tollbooths where demons taxed the sins of the Byzantines. Byzantium was efficient in Christ, sophisticated, cautious; a splendor enameled and golden. Its minds were hyaline and humorless. The world was twice as long as it was wide. There was no purgatory.

In 628 the emperor Heraclius summoned Mohammed’s cousin Abu Sufyaan, messenger of the messenger of God, and put to him many questions by which he hoped to weigh the authority of the Prophet. He asked: “Has any among your people ever claimed to be a prophet before him?” He was told: “No.” He asked: “Was any among his ancestors a king?” He was told: “No.” He asked: “Is it the noble among the people or the weak who follow him?” He was told: “The weak.” He asked: “Are his followers increasing or decreasing in number?” He was told: “They are increasing.” He asked: “Does he break his promises?” He was told: “No.” Heraclius concluded: “Verily, if what you say is true, he will rule the ground beneath my feet.”

“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople,” Mohammed promised his followers. “But the Byzantines with horns are people of sea and rock; whenever a horn goes, another replaces it. Alas, they are your associates to the end of time.”

The Byzantines called themselves Greeks (because they were) and also Romans (because they had been). To the Muslims, who had been the Arabs (who had coveted Constantinople even before they were Muslims) but were later the Turks, the Byzantines were usually the Romans (Rum) and sometimes, though these Romans spoke Greek, the Latins (which to the Byzantines meant the barbarians of Western Europe), and sometimes the Children of the Yellow One, who was Esau. The Arabs called the Byzantine emperor (who signed his letters in purple ink emperor and autocrat of the romans) the Dog of the Byzantines, and by the fifteenth century the sultan of the Ottoman Turks (whom the Muslims farther east called Romans and whom the Byzantines called Trojans) called himself sultan i-Rum in expectation that he soon would be and in recognition that he already, for most purposes, was.

In 912, Harun ibn Yahya was taken prisoner by the Byzantines and brought to Constantinople, where he witnessed the emperor in procession from the palace to the great church, followed by fifty-five thousand two hundred and twelve young Khazars and Turks in stripes and middle-aged eunuchs in white and men and youths and boys and servants and patricians in brocade, and “In his hand is a golden box containing dust. He goes on foot. Every two steps he stops, and his minister says the words ‘Remember death,’ and he stops to open the box, look at the dust, kiss it, and weep.”

What were the laws and practices of the lawgivers? The Great Code of Theodosius forbade the impersonation of nuns by female mimes and the trampling of Jews by gentiles; the edicts of Leo VI permitted eunuchs to adopt; the Orthodox patriarchs anathematized the Manichaeans’ belief that all things fermented are alive.

The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act. Sometimes cruelty was intended beyond the enucleation itself, as when the emperor Diogenes Romanus was deposed and “they permitted some unpracticed Jew to proceed in blinding the eyes” and “he lived several days in pain and exuding a bad odor.” In 797 the empress regnant Irene blinded her son Constantine VI and caused an eclipse that lasted seventeen days. Basil II blinded fifteen thousand Bulgarian soldiers, and every hundredth man he left with one eye to lead another ninety-nine, and when these men returned home to their king Samuel he looked upon them and died. Michael V blinded his uncle John the Master of Orphans. The iconoclasts blinded the eyes of the icons.

It was said that the city would fall when ships sailed by over dry land.

 

Constantinople had a thousand churches and insuperable walls landward and seaward. On the main approach to the palace, only the perfume merchants were permitted their trade. In the imperial throne room was a golden tree in whose branches mechanical birds sang and beside which mechanical lions roared. On a fine cushion next to the levitating Throne of Solomon sat a green goose who screamed if the emperor’s meals were poisoned. The emperor alone could pass back and forth through the membrane separating his court from God’s.

Envoys from the Chinese court reported that “there are jugglers who can let fires burn on their foreheads; make rivers and lakes in their hands; raise their feet and let pearls and precious stones drop from them; and, in opening their mouths produce banners and tufts of feathers in abundance”; that there were jade-colored pearls which coagulated in the saliva of flying birds, lambs who sprouted from the ground and had to be startled into breaking their umbilical cords, and dwarves who worked the fields in fear of being eaten by cranes.

The Byzantines sent to the Fatimid court white peacocks, white ravens, and large bears who played music. They performed divination by thunder, lightning, and the moon.

The emperor Leo the Wise prophesied the doom of Constantinople. (The dreams of man may come from God, accorded the science of the Muslims, but they may come also from the Devil, or from man himself.) Leo created a toad, or a marble tortoise, who roamed the streets at night and consumed all the city’s refuse. He built a bathhouse for the poor that was destroyed by its guardian sagittary statue when the bathkeepers began to charge admission.

The emperor Alexius I built within Constantinople a separate city for wretches. The poor were ephemeral, unsurvived by new generations: different persons grew poor and replaced them.

For the Arabs the taking of Constantinople (the City of Infidelity, they called it; the Presumptuous) was to be the last of the Six Portents of the Hour, and so would mark the end of the beginning of the end of time. If they were to have the enjoyment of the city, it would not be for long, and that not until the fires of Hijaz illuminated the necks of the camels of Busra and twelve kings congregated beneath the sycamore trees of Jaffa, not until, as one of their prophets recorded in his history of the future, they appeared before the city one last time and as they waited to bring down the walls with a shout of Allahu akbar the Byzantines (whom the Arabs called also the People of the End of Times) would demand,

“What do you seek, O Arabs!”

We said: “We have come to this town, whose inhabitants are unjust, to have God destroy it by our hands.”

They said: “By God, we do not know whether the book has lied or whether we have been mistaken in our calculations. . . . By God, we know that it is to be conquered one day, but we do not see that the time is now.”

Among those who claim that Constantine XI did die at the fall of his city, it is not agreed how he met the end. He may have said to his subjects that “a man should always be ready to die either for his faith or for his country or for his family or for his sovereign”; or, “The city is taken and I am still alive,” and then begged his men to run him through; or else asked, “Is there no Christian who will cut off my head?” He ran to where the Turks were thickest and there was slain, or hanged himself as they gained the walls, or fled with the crowd and was trampled. There is a tale that he was nowhere near the breach but had conveyed himself to Hagia Sophia and before ordering the decapitation of his wife and children (of which he had neither) together with them took the sacrament.

Mehmed II, who would capture Constantinople at age twenty-one, had been invested as a child-king but then deemed too callow by his circumspect and peaceable father, Murad II, and was deposed and sent to Anatolia, where like any boy he played at pirates (raiding merchant ships in the Aegean) and invented his own currency (coins adorned with lions and dragons). The Ottomans issued the asper, which overtook the weakening bezant. Besieged by the Turks for eight years, the emperor Manuel II shaved the silver stavraton from eight and a half to seven and a half grams.

“I was led before Nicephorus,” reported Bishop Liutprand of Cremona to his fellow Catholics after visiting the Byzantine court in 968. “A monstrosity of a man, a pygmy, fat-headed and like a mole as to the smallness of his eyes; disgusting with his short, broad, thick, and half-hoary beard; disgraced by a neck an inch long; very bristly through the length and thickness of his hair; in color an Ethiopian; one whom it would not be pleasant to meet in the middle of the night . . .”

“What is this, if it be not contumely?” he continued. “How unworthy, how shameful it is, that these soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, hooded, veiled, lying, neutral-gendered, idle creatures should go clad in purple, while you heroes — strong men, namely, skilled in war, full of faith and love, reverencing God, full of virtues — may not!”

In 1204 Constantinople fell not to the Muslims but to the Crusaders, who tried to bring about the end of the world (having failed to accomplish this previously with the sack of Jerusalem) by placing a singing dancing whore on the altar of Hagia Sophia, and, having failed in this as well, despoiled and deflowered their way through the queen of cities, and then (before they grew poor and disappeared) ruled her for fifty-seven years and squabbled with and killed one another. “And once again,” recorded the contemporary historian Nicetas Choniates, “Polyarchy spread over the East, a three-headed monster constituted of the stupid.”

Late in the eleventh century, in a letter credited to him but which he likely did not write, the emperor Alexius I wrote to Robert of Flanders seeking the aid of the Crusaders to protect against the Muslims the spiritual patrimony of Constantinople (“for it is better that you should have Constantinople than the pagans”), including “the twelve baskets of remnants from the five loaves and the two fishes” and “the entire head of St. John the Baptist with the hair and the beard.” “However,” he added, “if they should be unwilling to fight for the sake of these relics, and if their love of gold is greater, they will find more of it there than in all the world . . .”

Scenes from the Life of Alexander the Great

The melting of the icons was ordered by the emperor Alexius IV to raise funds to buy off the Crusaders, who during the Latinocracy sold some or all of the True Cross, the Lance that pierced His side, and the Sponge that soothed His brow. They sold the Crown of Thorns twice, both times to the French.

Four years before the Crusaders took the city, the nobleman John Comnenus the Fat briefly seized the Throne of Solomon and in sitting upon it broke it.

In 1261, the Crusaders left Constantinople unguarded, and some peasants had happened upon the eligible emperor Michael VIII and suggested he might retake the city, which he did.

Toward the end, once Mehmed II (ambitious adolescent, valiant pederast) reclaimed his throne upon the death of Murad II, Constantine XI (heirless, finely bearded) demanded a doubling of the custodial fee for Prince Orhan, one of the pretenders the sultanate preferred to maintain in exile rather than strangle. “O stupid and foolish Romans,” scolded the vizier Mehmed had inherited from his father. “Leave well alone! The deceased ruler was gentle and to all he was a sincere friend and a man of upright conscience. Our present ruler, Mehmed, however, is not of the same disposition . . .” Byzantine officials once bribed this sympathetic vizier with gold coins hidden in the bellies of fish.

Before the end, the Byzantines sold the city of Argos to the Venetians and offered them Corinth, which found no buyer. John VII offered his throne to the king of France for 25,000 ducats and a castle, and offered Constantinople to Tamerlane should he defeat the Turks who besieged him, and then to the Turks who besieged him should they defeat Tamerlane. The monks at the Kosmidion monastery outside the capital sold their marble flooring.

Before the end, local oysters when shucked dripped blood, celestial fires appeared above Hagia Sophia, thunder and hail and earthquakes were pervailent, and a dreadful serpent attacked farmers in their fields. Five nights before the end the full moon rose as if three days old. A darkness congealed above the city “like glances from the majestic buffalo” and fell to the earth as a red cloud and when this vapor departed so with it did the Holy Ghost and Its protection of the city. The Virgin had been carried to the ramparts to be paraded but fell to the ground and when men tried to lift her up again she was heavy as lead. On the last night she commanded Constantine surrender his crown and scepter, and he offered no argument.

The prophecies of the Muslims had by then shied away from Constantinople, not because of its capture by Western barbarians (which upset their sensibilities more than it did their predictions), but because of the subsidence that resulted. “It was as a shadow in a vineyard,” wrote a Russian present at the fall, “and as a vegetable storehouse in a garden.”

Moreover the Byzantines, reduced now to vassals paying yearly tribute, their “empire” now comprising the capital itself and trifling possessions ultramarine, belonged to the Ottomans already. The sultan Bayezid I, standing before the land walls in 1394, told the Greeks: “Shut the gates and reign within. Everything outside is mine.” When the Turks took Constantinople it was so denuded of men that fewer than five thousand could be found to defend her, so denuded of Greeks that afterward they grew in number by the intervention of Mehmed II.

After the end, a Byzantine refugee sold the Florentines pieces of the Cross and the robe of the Mother of God and bread crusts from the Last Supper. The scholar Argyropulus was forced to sell off his books in Italy and died there in 1487 from eating too much watermelon. The Venetians declined Christ’s tunic at a price of 10,000 ducats. An impostor-emperor named Andreas sold to France his claim to Solomon’s throne for an annual pension. Constantine’s brother Thomas purchased the protection of the pope with the head of St. Andrew.

For the end, the Byzantines were in good practice. “O City, City, chief of all cities!” mourned a Greek nobleman afterward. “O City, City, placed at the center of the world’s four corners, the glory of the Christian faith and destruction of the barbarians!” (This was an exact plagiarism of Nicetas Choniates’ threnody for the fall of the capital to the Crusaders two hundred and fifty years earlier.) “Where are your beauties now, O paradise?”

“They go continually about the city howling as if in lamentation,” wrote a Spanish visitor to Constantinople in 1437, “and thus they long ago foreshadowed the evil which has befallen them.”

The Byzantines had drawn a massive chain across the entrance to the harbor, but toward the end Mehmed ordered that the ships be hauled ashore. They sailed on dry land and thereby reached the deep calm waters of the Golden Horn.

As the Turks made their way inside before dawn on the twenty-ninth of May, the fish the Greeks were cooking leapt from their pans and escaped into the Sea of Marmara, where they now swim with singed scales. Dogs ate the bones of St. Theodosia. Mehmed entered the city, and it has been said that he spun Hagia Sophia around his thumb to face Mecca, and that on its altar he raped the emperor’s daughter (who did not exist), and it has been reliably reported that he attempted to rape a young nobleman (who stabbed him in the thigh and hid in a tree, and whose older brother was Vlad the Impaler and whose father was Dracula).

After the end, Mehmed concerned himself with the emperor’s head. It was brought to him by a scribe, or a Serb, or a janissary named Sarielles. The sultan kissed the head and proclaimed: “This was all I lacked to demonstrate the glory that we have won,” or else “Clearly then God has brought forth the world; it is right for me to rule. Why should all this perish?” He sent the head to the patriarch to have it preserved in a vessel of silver and gold, or else ordered it stuffed and sent with forty youths and twenty virgins to the sultan of Egypt, or with forty youths and forty virgins to the pasha of Babylon.

Toward the end, the Byzantines sold their souls. The Romans now sought help from Rome, once more hoped that a Crusade could save them. Only the pope could approve this and would not do so until the Byzantines submitted to the Catholic Church’s terms for Union, which they did. In negotiating their surrender they stood firm on a few points. The Orthodox patriarch (whose predecessor had excommunicated the pope three hundred and eighty-five years earlier) refused to disembark in Italy without exemption from kissing the foot of the pope (whose predecessor had excommunicated the patriarch three hundred and eighty-five years earlier; the crucial quarrel had been that Catholics insisted the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son and the Byzantines said it was from the Father alone and in the bargaining they agreed that it was from the Father and by the Son). The Byzantines still refused to accept purgatory. Following his personal conversion at the hands of Pope Urban V, the emperor John V, as he sailed back to Byzantium, was arrested for debt in Venice.

At the end, according to the Fourth Imam of the Shia, the archangel Israfil would sound his trumpet to kill first the living of the earth and then the inhabitants of Heaven and then the lesser angels and then one by one the other archangels and then himself. If the Hour does not come, then each day is the end of time.

Among the Muslims some have said that the city never properly devolved to them by the terms stipulated and therefore is yet to be conquered, that because he was not pious, Mehmed (though bearing the Prophet’s name as predicted) the Conqueror (despite the appellation) could not rightly take Constantinople. That indeed the Turks are now the infidel, having entered into a treaty with the powers of the North Atlantic, and that the end will not begin (here again the Muslims and the Greeks agree) until they are pushed out by the righteous. Lately one Muslim prophet claimed that nineteen lesser signs must yet pass before the true Signs of the Hour, that before the end begins beasts will speak and wantonness will be general and men will come to learn of the infidelities of their wives (who will number fifty to each man) by the tongues of their own shoes. It was said among the Muslims that the Christian prophet Jerry Falwell knew many of the secrets of the end, what signs and wonders would precede and accompany it, but he died without revealing them.

Among the Greeks some have said that Constantine neither died nor was spirited away but was turned to stone by an angel of God, that he sleeps in a vault under the Golden Gate of the city, awaiting the signal to rise and deliver the Greeks, chase the Turks as far as a lonely apple tree in the East, match their rout with rout and their ruin with ruin, restore his empire and transport himself to Jerusalem to surrender his authority to the Son of Man. A rainbow will come upon his place of rest and the angel will stir him — last Roman emperor; immortal bachelor; perfect changeless heart, as sure in its strange purpose as any marble tortoise. “Awake, O sleeper and arise from the grave, and Christ will give you light, for he summons you to tend his peculiar people.”

“Wherefore have I enriched my tongue with the ample and lavish enumeration of such evils?” asked Choniates after the fall of the city to the Latins. “Why with loud voice have I transmitted these writings to those afar?”

“What I am proposing to do has utility,” said a Florentine merchant after the fall of the city to the Turks. “I am not attempting to write comedy but tragedy.”

“But what tongue would have the power of describing in words the calamity which overtook the city, the awful captivity and the bitter migration which came to pass . . . ?” asked the nobleman plagiarist of others’ elegies.

“It is impossible to describe, one by one, all the things that occurred,” concluded Nicephorus Gregoras, astronomer and architect of calendars. “Moreover, it would bring forth a river of tears from the eyes of those tender in heart and sensitive, and we shall think that we are writing a lament rather than narrating a history.”

“After writing these verses,” ended Bishop Liutprand’s report, “on the sixth day before the Nones of October, at the tenth hour, I entered my boat with my guide, and left that once most rich and flourishing, now half-starved, perjured, lying, wily, greedy, rapacious, avaricious, vain-glorious city . . .”

On the twenty-sixth of March in the Year of Our Lord 922 (309 Hijra, Anno Mundi 6430), the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, having declared himself one with God, was scourged and dismembered by the Abbasid caliphate (the Byzantines called the Muslims “cutters of God,” because they sundered from God the Spirit and the Logos). On the four hundredth lash he said to his tormentors: “At this very moment, Constantinople is being captured,” and on the six hundredth lash he told them: “I have a counsel that equals the capture of Constantinople.” But the prefect in charge of the proceedings replied: “I was warned by the vizier that you would make the Euphrates flow with gold in order to interrupt the flagellation.” And so continued the execution in full sight of the assembled of Baghdad, the great city which is Ishmael’s.

Single Page
Share

More from Rafil Kroll-Zaidi:

Findings From the November 2014 issue

Findings

Findings From the October 2014 issue

Findings

Findings From the September 2014 issue

Findings

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Hyssop

    This piece is as informative as it is side-splitting. [no one has commented yet?]

    I need to read it again to tease out history from irony and to bask in the pleasure of a superbly written piece.

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content