WHILE the Italian scholars were wishing that they had more of the precious old manuscripts, there were exciting times in the country known as Turkey in Europe. This country had been part of the Eastern Empire even after the fall of Rome in 476, but it had come to be so little Roman and so completely Greek that it is spoken of as the Greek, or Byzantine Empire. It was destined, however, to belong to neither Romans nor Greeks, for the Mohammedans were pressing hard upon its boundaries. They had won Asia Minor and the lands lying directly south of the Danube. Gradually they got Greece, north of the Isthmus, into their power, and in 1453 Mohammed II. led the Ottoman Turks, who were of the same race as Attila and his Huns, against the capital of the Eastern Empire, the great rich city of Constantinople.
Gunpowder had been invented before this time, but the cannon were small. When the great Turkish gun fired its heavy stone balls, men and women rushed into the streets, beating their breasts and crying aloud, "God have mercy upon us!" Day after day the besiegers continued the attack. They used arrows, and catapults for throwing stones. They wheeled a two-story tower covered with hides near enough to the city so that archers in the second story could shoot at the defenders on the walls. But the Greeks threw their famous Greek fire upon it and it was consumed. Both parties dug mines. Sometimes these were blown up, sometimes the workers in them were suffocated by smoke or gas.
ST. SOPHIA, CONSTANTINOPLE
(THE FAMOUS CHURCH BUILT IN THE 6TH CENTURY BY THE EMPEROR JUSTINIAN. IT HAS BEEN USED AS A MOSQUE SINCE THE CAPTURE OF CONSTANTINOPLE BY THE TURKS)
Finally the Turks dug a narrow canal five miles long from the Sea of Marmora to the harbor of Constantinople. They paved it with beams, well greased, and one morning the Greeks found thirty Turkish ships lying almost under their walls, for the oxen of the Turks had dragged them to the shore during the night. Then the people of the city were in despair and begged their emperor to escape and flee for his life, but he refused. "I am resolved to die here with you," he declared.
When it was seen that the city must fall, thousands of the citizens crowded into the vast church of St. Sophia, for there was an old prophecy that some day the Turks would force their way into the city, but that when they had reached St. Sophia an angel would appear with a celestial sword, and that at sight of it the Turks would flee. The emperor knelt long in prayer, received the Holy Communion, and then begged the priests and all the members of his court to forgive him if he had ever wronged them. The sobs and wails of the people echoed in the great building.
The Turks made their way without hindrance into the city. They did not stop at the church; and no angel brought a miraculous weapon to drive them back. The emperor fell, sword in hand, fighting to the last for his empire and the Christian faith. The Turkish commander gave over the city to his soldiers, and they stole everything worth stealing,—wonderful treasures of gold, silver, bronze, and jewels. Thousands of citizens were roughly bound together and dragged off to the boats to be sold as slaves. The cross was torn down from beautiful St. Sophia, and the crescent, the emblem of Mohammedanism, was put in its place.
The emperor's body, however, was buried by the Turks with all honour. A lamp was lighted at his grave. It is still kept burning, and at the charge of the Turkish government. This was commanded by the Turkish ruler as a mark of respect and regard for Constantine Palæologos, the last Christian emperor in the Empire of the East.
At the coming of the Turks, many of the Greeks had seized their most valued treasures and fled. The scholars carried away with them the rare old manuscripts of the early Greek writers. More went to Italy than anywhere else, and the Italian scholars gave them a hearty welcome. There had been learned Greeks in Italy long before this time, and the Italian scholars had been interested in the Greek literature; but now such a wealth of it was poured into the country that the Italians were aroused and delighted. They read the manuscripts eagerly; they sent copies to their friends; and gradually a knowledge of the literature of the Greeks and a love for it spread throughout Europe.