Constantinople’s Last Night

Yesterday, I wrote that I’ve been spending some of my commute time listening to the Modern Scholar series from Recorded Books – specifically the volumes from Thomas F Madden, a Medievalist and chair of the History department at Saint Louis University. The lecture set I probably learned the most from was Empire of Gold: A History of the Byzantine Empire. I knew very little about this culture, and the lectures helped me to piece quite a few things together – in both the political and religious spheres.

As the lectures wound down, I must confess that I was growing a bit weary of the Michaels, Constantines, Alexioses, and others. In part, that may have been because the lectures could sometimes move through several reigns in the space of a minute or two – lending a sense of having a revolving door leading to the throne room. But I also had a sense of frustration at the way imperial politics and palace intrigues seemed to lead almost invariably toward the eventual demise of this culture, which was so drenched in Christianity. I get a similar – but much more profound – discomfort reading the book of the prophet Jeremiah. What was especially frustrating to listen to was the ways unity between the Greek and Latin churches was repeatedly torpedoed by various circumstances – even when unity had been formally agreed upon.

siege_of_constantinople.jpgSo it was with a palpable sadness that I listened to Madden describe the Fall of Constantinople. The worst of it, though, was listening to his description of the preceding evening. As Madden tells it, it was clear to all involved on the night of Monday, May 28th, 1543, that the city would fall the following day, and that the Roman Empire was about to come to an end. So the defenders of the city gathered in the great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy. This included, not only the Emperor Constantine XI and his men (Greeks), but also the Venetians and Genoese (Latins) who had come or stayed to defend this bulwark of Christendom.

I was flabbergasted when I heard that. When all was finally lost, when the Muslims were poised to take permanent possession of, not only Constantinople, but also of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria – of all the major patriarchates of ancient Christianity except Rome – the Greeks and the Latins in the great city decided it was time to put aside their doctrinal differences, and share the Eucharist together. There had been struggles over union going on for some time, and maybe the sharing of Communion was not as unusual as I suspect it was at that time. But still, I can only wonder how differently history would have played out had the Greek and Latin churches not been at such cross-purposes over the preceding 800 years or so. What a shame. What a shame.