Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 (5 page)

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2 Dreaming of Istanbul

I have seen that God caused the sun of empire  to shine in the mansion of the Turks, and turned the heavenly spheres around their dominion, and named them Turk, and gave them sovereignty, and made them kings of the age, and placed the reins of the people of the time in their hands.


It was the emergence of the Turks that reawakened the slumbering spirit of jihad. They had first appeared on the Byzantine horizon as early as the sixth century when they sent ambassadors to Constantinople to seek alliance against the Persian Empire. To the Byzantines they were just one of an endless succession of peoples beating a path to the great city; their homeland was beyond the Black Sea and stretched as far as China. They were pagan steppe dwellers of the rolling grasslands of Central Asia, from whose epicentre shock waves of nomadic raiders poured out at periodic intervals to ravage the settled peoples beyond. They have left us their word
– ‘horde’– as a memory of this process, like a faint hoof print in the sand.

Byzantium suffered the repeated depredations of these Turkic nomads long before it knew the name. The earliest Turks to impact on settled Greek speakers were probably the Huns, who surged across the Christian world in the fourth century; they were followed in turn by the Bulgars, each successive wave inexplicable as a plague of locusts devastating the land. The Byzantines attributed these visitations to
God’s punishment for Christian sin. Like their cousins the Mongols, the Turkic peoples lived in the saddle between the great earth and the greater sky and they worshipped both through intermediary shamans. Restless, mobile and tribal, they lived by herding flocks and raiding their neighbours. Booty was a raison d’etre, cities their enemy. Their use of the composite bow and the mobile tactics of horse warfare gave them a military superiority over settled peoples that the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw as the key process of history. ‘Sedentary people have become used to laziness and ease,’ he wrote. ‘They find full assurance of safety in the walls that surround them, and the fortifications that protect them. The Bedouins have no gates and walls. They always carry weapons. They watch carefully all sides of the road. They take hurried naps only … when they are in the saddle. They pay attention to every faint barking and noise. Fortitude has become a character quality of theirs, and courage their nature.’ It was a theme that would soon re-echo in both the Christian and the Islamic worlds.

Repeated convulsions in the heart of Asia continued to propel these Turkish tribes westward; by the ninth century they were in touch with the Muslim populations of Iran and Iraq. The Caliph of Baghdad recognized their fighting qualities and recruited them into his armies as military slaves; by the end of the tenth century Islam was firmly established among the Turks on the frontier zone, yet they maintained their racial identity and language and were soon to usurp power from their masters. By the middle of the eleventh century a Turkish dynasty, the Seljuks, had emerged as sultans in Baghdad, and by its end the Islamic world, from Central Asia to Egypt, was largely ruled by Turks.

The speed of their rise in the Islamic world, far from being resented, came to be widely held as a providential miracle, brought about by God ‘to revive the dying breath of Islam and restore the unity of Muslims’. It coincided with the presence of an unorthodox Shia dynasty in Egypt, so that the Turkish Seljuks, who had chosen to conform to the orthodox Sunni tradition, were able to gain legitimacy as true
– warriors of the Faith waging jihad against the infidel and unorthodox Islam. The spirit of militant Islam suited the Turkish fighting spirit perfectly; the desire for plunder was legitimized by pious service to Allah. Under Turkish influence, Islam regained the zeal of the early Arab conquests and reopened holy war against its Christian foes on a significant scale. Though Saladin himself was a Kurd, he and his successors led armies whose ethos was Turkish. ‘God be praised,’
wrote Al-Rawandi in the thirteenth century, ‘the support of Islam is strong … In the lands of the Arabs, the Persians, the Romans and the Russians, the sword is in the hands of the Turks and the fear of their swords is rooted in men’s hearts.’

It was not long before the war that had smouldered quietly for centuries between Christians and Muslims along the southern frontiers of Anatolia flared back into life under this new impetus. The Seljuks in Baghdad were troubled by unruly nomadic tribesmen – the Turkmen – whose desire for plunder was a discordant note in the Islamic heartlands. They encouraged these tribal fighters to turn their energy west on Byzantium – the kingdom of
. By the middle of the eleventh century marauding
warriors were raiding Christian Anatolia in the name of holy war so frequently that it became essential for the emperor in Constantinople to take decisive action.

In March 1071, the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes set out personally to the east to repair this situation. In August he met, not the Turkmen, but a Seljuk army led by its brilliant commander Sultan Alp Arslan, ‘the heroic lion’, at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia. It was a curious affair. The sultan was unwilling to fight. His key objective was not war against Christians but the destruction of the detested Shiite regime in Egypt. He proposed a truce, which Romanus refused. The ensuing battle was a shattering Muslim victory, decided by classic nomad ambush tactics and the defection of Byzantine mercenary troops. Romanus survived to kiss the ground in front of the conquering sultan, who planted a foot on his bent neck in a symbolic show of triumph and submission. It was to prove a tipping point in world history – and a disaster for Constantinople.

For the Byzantines the Battle of Manzikert was ‘the Terrible Day’, a defeat of seismic proportions that was to haunt their future. The effects were catastrophic, though not immediately understood in Constantinople itself. The Turkmen poured into Anatolia unopposed; where they had previously raided and retired again, they now stayed, pushing further and further west into the lion’s head of Anatolia. After the hot deserts of Iran and Iraq, the high rolling plateau was a landscape that suited these nomads from central Asia with their yurts and two-humped camels. With them came both the structure of Orthodox Sunni religion and more fervent Islamic strands: Sufis, dervishes, wandering holy men who preached both jihad and a mystical reverence for saints that appealed to the Christian peoples. Within twenty years of
Manzikert the Turks had reached the Mediterranean coasts. They were largely unresisted by a mixed Christian population, some of whom converted to Islam, while others were only too glad to be rid of taxation and persecution from Constantinople. Islam held Christians to be ‘People of the Book’; as such they were afforded protection under the law and freedom of worship. Schismatic Christian sects even gave Turkish rule a positive welcome: ‘On account of its justice and good government, they prefer to live under its administration,’ wrote Michael the Syrian. ‘The Turks, having no idea of the sacred mysteries … were in no way accustomed to inquire into professions of faith or to persecute anyone on their account, in contrast to the Greeks,’ he went on, ‘a wicked and heretical people.’ Internal quarrels in the Byzantine state encouraged the Turks; they were soon invited to help in the civil wars that were fragmenting Byzantium. The conquest of Asia Minor happened so easily and with so little resistance that by the time another Byzantine army was defeated in 1176, the possibility of driving back the incomers had gone for ever. Manzikert was irreversible. By the 1220s Western writers were already referring to Anatolia as
. Byzantium had lost its resources of food and manpower for good. And at almost the same moment a matching catastrophe overwhelmed Constantinople from a more unexpected quarter – the Christian West.



The matter of the crusades had been conceived as a project to check the militant advance of Turkish Islam. It was against the Seljuks, ‘an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God’, that Pope Urban II preached his fateful sermon at Clermont in 1095 ‘to exterminate this vile race from our lands’ and set in motion 350 years of crusader warfare. Despite the support of their Christian brothers in the West, this enterprise was to prove a lasting torment for the Byzantines. From 1096 onwards they were visited by successive waves of marauding knights, who expected support, sustenance and thanks from their Orthodox brethren as they blundered south across the empire towards Jerusalem. Contact brought mutual incomprehension and distrust. Each side had the opportunity closely to observe differences in customs and forms of worship. The Greeks came to see their heavily mailed Western brethren as little more than uncouth barbarian adventurers; their mission a hypocritical exercise in imperial conquest disguised as piety: ‘they are indomitable in pride, cruel in character …
and inspired by an inveterate hatred of the Empire,’ complained Nicetas Chroniates. In truth the Byzantines often preferred their settled Muslim neighbours, proximity with whom had bred a certain familiarity and respect over the centuries following the initial burst of holy war: ‘we must live in common as brothers, although we differ in customs, manners and religion,’ a patriarch in Constantinople once wrote to a caliph in Baghdad. The crusaders, for their part, saw the Byzantines as depraved heretics who were dangerously oriental in outlook. Seljuk and Turkish soldiers regularly fought for the Byzantines; the crusaders were also appalled to discover that the city dedicated to the Virgin contained a mosque. ‘Constantinople is arrogant in her wealth, treacherous in her practices, corrupt in her faith,’ declared the crusader, Odo de Deuil. More ominously, the wealth of Constantinople and its fabulous treasury of gem-studded relics left the crusaders open-mouthed. An oblique note of jealousy crept into the reports sent back to the small towns of Normandy and the Rhine: ‘since the beginning of the world’, wrote the Marshal of Champagne, ‘never was so much riches seen collected in a single city’. It was a vivid temptation.

Military, political and commercial pressure from the west had been building on the Byzantine Empire for a long time, but by the end of the twelfth century it had taken on a very visible shape in Constantinople. A large Italian trading community had been established in the city – the Venetians and Genoese were accorded special privileges and benefited accordingly. The profiteering, materialistic Italians were not popular: the Genoese had their own colony at Galata, a walled town across the Horn; the Venetian colony was considered ‘so insolent in its wealth and prosperity as to hold the imperial power in scorn’. Waves of xenophobia swept the populace; in 1171 Galata was attacked and destroyed by the Greeks. In 1183 the entire Italian community was massacred under the eye of the Byzantine general Andronikos ‘the Terrible’.

In 1204 this history of mutual suspicion and violence returned to haunt Constantinople in a catastrophe for which the Greeks have never fully forgiven the Catholic West. In one of the most bizarre events in the history of Christendom, the Fourth Crusade, embarked on Venetian ships and nominally bound for Egypt, was diverted to attack the city. The architect of this operation was Enrico Dandolo, the apparently blind, eighty-year-old Venetian doge, a man of infinite guile, who personally led the expedition. Sweeping up a convenient pretender to the imperial throne, the huge fleet sailed up the Marmara in June 1203; the
crusaders themselves were perhaps startled to see Constantinople, a city of great Christian significance, forming on the port bow rather than the shores of Egypt. Having smashed their way through the chain that protected the Golden Horn, the Venetian ships rode up onto the foreshore and attempted to breach the sea walls; when the attack faltered the octogenarian doge leaped down onto the beach with the flag of St Mark in his hand and exhorted the Venetians to show their valour. The walls were stormed and the pretender, Alexios, duly enthroned.

The following April, after a winter of murky internal intrigue during which the crusaders became increasingly restive, Constantinople was comprehensively sacked. An appalling massacre ensued and huge portions of the city were destroyed by fire: ‘More houses were burned than there are to be found in the three greatest cities of the Kingdom of France,’ declared the French knight Geoffrey de Villehardouin. The city’s great heritage of art was vandalized and St Sophia profaned and ransacked: ‘They brought horses and mules into the Church’, wrote the chronicler Nicetas, ‘the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne and the pulpit, and the doors, and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure.’ The Venetians made off with a great trove of statuary, relics and precious objects to adorn their own church of St Mark, including the four bronze horses that had stood in the Hippodrome since the time of Constantine the Great. Constantinople was left a smoking ruin. ‘Oh city, city, eye of all cities,’ howled the chronicler Nicetas, ‘you have drunk to the dregs the cup of the anger of the Lord.’ It was a typical Byzantine response; but whether the agent of this disaster was human or divine, the consequences were the same: Constantinople was reduced to a shadow of its former greatness. For nearly sixty years the city became the ‘Latin Empire of Constantinople’, ruled by the Count of Flanders and his successors. The Byzantine empire was dismembered into a scattered collection of Frankish states and Italian colonies, whilst a large part of the population fled to Greece. The Byzantines established a kingdom in exile at Nicaea in Anatolia and were relatively successful in barring further Turkish incursions. When they recaptured Constantinople in 1261 they found the city’s infrastructure close to ruin and its dominions shrunk to a few dispersed fragments. As they tried to restore their fortunes and to face new dangers from the West,
the Byzantines again turned their back on Islamic Anatolia, and paid an ever-deepening price.

BOOK: Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453
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