King, I shall arise from my enmarbled sleep,
And from my mystic tomb I shall come forth
To open wide the bricked-up Golden Gate;
And, victor over the Caliphs and the Tsars,
Hunting them beyond the Red Apple Tree,
I shall seek rest upon my ancient bounds.
—DONALD M. NICOL, The Immortal Emperor (1992)
When the sun rose on the shattered capital of Christendom the following morning of Wednesday, May 30, 1453, the Ottoman conquest of the empire was all but complete. Constantine’s squabbling brothers were still holding out in the Peloponnese and the descendants of Alexius Comnenus were still ruling in Trebizond on the Black Sea coast. But these were empty shells, splintered fragments existing at the whim of the sultan, and by the late summer of 1461, the last of them had surrendered. The Turks had at last fulfilled the cherished dream of Islam to claim the city, and its capture took a profound hold on the Ottoman psyche. Constantinople became the Ottoman capital in imitation of the mighty empire that had come before, and Mehmed took the title of Caesar, appointing a patriarch and clothing himself in the trappings of Byzantium.* The Turks never forgot the magic of that victory, and even today their flag still proudly displays a waning moon to commemorate how the early morning sky appeared on a Tuesday in 1453.*
The consciousness of the Orthodox world was also seared with the images of that terrible May, and over time memory began to transform into legend. The priests officiating in the Hagia Sophia when the Turks had burst in hadn’t been slaughtered but had stopped in midchant and miraculously melted into the southern wall of the sanctuary. When the city was again in Christian hands, they would reappear and take up the service from where it had been interrupted. As for the last heroic emperor, he hadn’t perished in the fighting but had been rescued by an angel and turned to stone. There, in a cave below the Golden Gate, the marble emperor awaits, like a Byzantine King Arthur, to return in triumph and once more rule his people. In the five centuries of Ottoman domination that followed, Constantine’s doomed stand against impossible odds became the talismanic symbol of the Orthodox Church in exile. His statue still stands in Athens, sword arm defiantly raised, the first proto-martyr and iconic, unofficial saint of modern Greece.†
Byzantium’s long resistance to Islam had finally ended in defeat, but in carrying on the struggle for so long, it had won an important victory. The great walls of Constantine’s city had delayed the Muslim advance into Europe for eight hundred years, allowing the West the time it needed to develop. When the Ottoman tide washed over Byzantium, it was nearing its crest; the armies of Islam would soon falter before the walls of Vienna, and the Ottoman Empire would begin its long retreat from Europe.
The fall of Constantinople may have extinguished the last vestige of the Roman Empire, but the immense light of its learning wasn’t snuffed out. Refugees streamed into western Europe, bringing with them the lost jewels of Greek and Roman civilization. The first blush of humanism was just stirring the West’s collective soul, and it received Byzantium’s precious gift with enthusiasm. Partial copies of Aristotle’s works had been well known for centuries, but now Europe was introduced to Plato and Demosthenes, electrified by the Iliad, and captivated by Xenophon and Aeschylus. Byzantine émigrés tutored luminaries as diverse as Petrarch and Boccaccio and the wealthy Cosimo de’ Medici was so impressed by a Byzantine lecturer that he founded the Platonic Academy of Florence. The result was a “rebirth” or “Renaissance,” as it was soon called, during which western Europe was reintroduced to its own roots.
Other exiles fled to Russia, the last great free Orthodox state, and tried to re-create the Byzantine dream. The kings of those vast northern lands already had a Byzantine alphabet and an eastern soul, and they welcomed the newcomers, taking the title of tsar—their version of Caesar—and adopting the double-headed eagle as their symbol. Byzantine art combined with local styles and continued to flourish throughout the Balkans and the north. The Russians could never forget the dazzling vision of Constantinople that was passed on to them, and the yearning for it became the long unfulfilled dream of the Russian Empire. They drank so deeply of Byzantium that even Stalin, flushed with the victory of Communism, embraced its memory, passing along both the lessons of its history and the dark mistrust of the West that still haunts the Kremlin.
The greatest heir of Byzantium, however, is undoubtedly the Orthodox Church. Pressed into service by the forces of nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the church provided a cultural repository linking the peoples of the former empire with the glorious epochs of their past. Today the Byzantine eagle flutters proudly from the flags of nations from Albania to Montenegro, and though each state has its local version of the church, the heritage they all bear is Byzantine.*
Only in the West was the story largely forgotten, though without Byzantium the history of the Middle East and Europe is at best incomplete and at worst incomprehensible. When the smoke cleared from the Turkish cannons that awful Tuesday, it revealed a world that had profoundly changed. The Middle Ages had ended, and western Europe was on the brink of an extraordinary cultural explosion. Only thirty-five years after the fall of Constantinople, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening up a sea route to India, and just four years after that, a little-known Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus—using a translated Byzantine text of Ptolemy’s Geographia—discovered America.
In the heady Age of Discovery that was dawning, there was little room for the tangled memories of Byzantium. The great bastion that had sheltered Europe for a millennium sank into obscurity, and the word “Byzantine” became a caricature of its people, conjuring up images of unnecessary complexity and vaguely sinister designs. Such accusations were as undeserved as they were untrue, and successfully denied the West the lessons afforded by the empire’s history and example. Though it sprang from the same cultural fountainhead that birthed western Europe, Byzantium found its own unique balance to the familiar tensions of church and state, faith and reason. Its empire stretched over lands long considered inherently unstable, and though it frequently stumbled, it left behind a legacy of stability and even unity for more than a thousand years.
The greatest tragedy in its vast and glorious tapestry is not the way in which it fell, but that it has been consigned to irrelevance, its voices unheeded and its lessons unlearned. For those who have eyes to see, however, the lonely Theodosian walls still stand, battered and abused, marching the long miles from the Sea of Marmara to the waters of the Golden Horn. There they serve as a fitting testament to that epic struggle five centuries ago, an unwavering reminder that the Roman Empire didn’t expire in the humiliation of a little Augustus, but in the heroism of a Constantine.
*The name was not officially changed to Istanbul until 1930.
*The crescent moon had actually been chosen by the citizens of Byzantium as the symbol of their city as early as 670 BC in honor of the patron goddess Artemis. Mehmed adopted it for his own banner and—once adapted to show a more appropriate waxing moon—it soon spread to become the official Islamic standard.
†The identification with the Byzantine past was also shown linguistically, since up until the nineteenth century the Greek word for themselves was Romioi, not Hellene.
*The eagle is also the symbol of Iraq and Egypt—a dim reflection of a time when Justinian’s empire embraced most of the known world.