Post-classical history

THE BATTLEFIELD TODAY

The Fourth Crusade is unusual because, despite having extended over a very considerable distance, virtually all the places involved are in what might be considered mainstream tourist areas. Even areas where the preaching of a new crusade was most vigorous, and from which the largest number of participants or their leaders came, are often visited for entirely different reasons. This is true of the Champagne and Artois regions of France, the historic cities of Belgian Flanders, the Piedmont area around Montferrat in north-western Italy and, more obviously, the fabulous city of Venice. All these areas have abundant hotel accommodation in all classes, as well as an astonishing variety of historical buildings surviving from before, or around the time of, the Fourth Crusade.

The campaign itself was a naval expedition with three major sieges. Unfortunately, the majority of us who enjoy tracing medieval campaigns do not have private yachts. For those that do, the author suggests that this would be the voyage of a lifetime! For the rest of us, the best way to travel ‘in the wake’ of the crusade is by car along the nearby coasts. The Crusaders themselves camped for months on the Lido, just across the lagoon from Venice. This has a large number of excellent campsites, while the problem of summer mosquitoes has largely been solved. Travelling along the northern and eastern coasts of the Adriatic is necessarily slow, but offers some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. The route also passes picturesque beautiful and historic coastal towns. Zadar is not one of the most scenic but it can boast interesting early modern fortifications as well as a number of magnificent medieval buildings, including two churches from before the Fourth Crusade. Furthermore, the short coast of Slovenia and the longer Dalmatian coast of Croatia have abundant hotels and other tourist facilities.

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The members of the Fourth Crusade were astonished by the massive Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The minarets date from after the Ottoman conquest. (Fred Nicolle photo)

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Impressed as they might have been, the men and women of the Fourth Crusade nevertheless devastated the interior of the Hagia Sophia. (Author’s photograph)

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Until the 20th century, most buildings in Constantinople (Istanbul), other than churches and palaces, were constructed of wood, but today only a handful survive. (Author’s photograph)

The Crusaders paused for some time on Corfu, which is of course a major tourist destination. Their next significant landfalls were on the large island of Evvoia and the neighbouring smaller island of Andros, both of which have all necessary facilities, not to mention harbours for our fortunate yachtsmen. The most important events of the Fourth Crusade nevertheless took place in Turkey. Once again these were within the touristically developed northwestern part of the country, being centred upon the magnificent city of Istanbul (Constantinople). Before reaching that destination, however, the Crusader fleet stopped at Abydos, which is one of very few places on this voyage that is partly inaccessible to visitors because the town of Abydos, known as Mysia in ancient times and now called Naru Burnu, was located on the promontory and harbour of Nara Burnu, part of which remains a closed military zone.

The invaders then sailed to Chalcedon (now Kadıköy), which is now one of the suburbs of Istanbul lying on the Anatolian shores of the Bosporus, before going slightly farther north to Skoutarion (now Üsküdar). Both of these Asiatic suburbs have a variety of hotels in all price ranges, some excellent restaurants and bustling traditional Turkish markets. They are also connected to the old city of Istanbul by frequent ferry services, which make this Anatolian suburb a good centre from which to visit the city. Furthermore, there are reasonably priced long-term parking facilities in Üsküdar.

Militarily, the Fourth Crusade focused upon three distant parts of Istanbul: Galata, the fortifications along the Golden Horn and the Blachernae Palace. Virtually nothing remains from the middle Byzantine period in Galata, since the great tower now known as the Galata Tower is a late-medieval structure located on the top of the hill rather than down at the water’s edge like the tower attacked by the Fourth Crusade. The beach where the Crusaders came ashore has also changed out of all recognition, having been consolidated into a series of quays. Amongst them are terminals for some of the many ferry routes that operate up and down the Bosporus.

In contrast, the medieval Byzantine fortifications along the Golden Horn shore of Istanbul are remarkably well preserved, especially towards their western end. In many places walls, towers and even gates still have later structures such as houses and workshops attached to their inner faces and upper parts. The narrow open ground between these fortifications and the waters of the Golden Horn has, however, been cleared and extended so that it is difficult to imagine the superstructures of Venetian ships getting entangled with the towers, or even to see the Crusaders bringing their horses ashore under heavy fire from Byzantine defenders.

The Blachernae Palace area, where the Golden Horn fortifications meet the more famous landward walls of Constantinople, is easy to observe and understand, despite the network of modern main roads which apparently cover the place where the main Crusader encampment and siege works lay. To the west the land still looks wooded and green, though this is an illusion created by the trees, which partially obscure suburbs farther west. The latter include Eyüp, which covers what was the Monastery of Sts Kosmas and Damian. Inside the massive 12th-century fortifications of the Blachernae area the Palace of Porphyrogenitos (Tekfur Sarayı) is the main surviving element of the palatial complex.

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