On Monday May 28, Cory Bernardi tweeted “Mourn/Commiserate the Fall of Constantinople to the hands of the Islamic takeover”. The leader of the Australian Conservatives suggested people visit a “Church (or Cathedral in your vicinity)”, or “watching a film featuring the ancient city such as, the James Bond film Sky Fall, … or From Russia with Love, …” ABC journalist, Osman Faruqi then tweeted an oblique retaliation, which from my paranoid extrapolations, is code, ‘the west is bad’.
Constantinople fell on the May 29, 1453, to the Turkish Ottoman forces. Bernardi though did not direct us to mourn the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade of 1204 from which the city never really recovered. Jonathan Phillips highlights the “brutality and determination; depravity and avarice, political and religious zeal” of these nutters. The Byzantines kept the Crusaders outside the great city walls for months. They may have been Christians but were uncouth, uneducated, extremists, like ISIS. Once they were let in they went berserk, killing, raping, and looting. So depraved were they, that Bernardi’s spiritual leader, Pope John Paul II in 2001 issued a formal apology to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and Greeks, for “the massacre and pillaging of the heart of the Byzantine Empire, beginning in 1204”.
Roman Emperor Justinian, named Constantine, built the ‘the city of the world’s desire’ on the site of the ancient Greek trading city, Byzantium. The location protected it from attacks and opened it to trade between Europe and Asia. Byzantium’s Greek history reaches back to 700BCE and the Greeks left their homeland, modern Turkey, in 1921.
Istanbul, the name, is an amalgam of three Greek words, is tin poli, (ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΟΛΗ) or, ‘to the City’. Bernardi’s West did not come to the city’s rescue in 1453 and a common saying among Greeks is, “Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara.”
Three days after Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople he ordered his men to stop looting, slaughtering and raping. He issued a proclamation that Greeks could return to their homes without fear to be treated with respect and maintain their previous status. Agia Sophia the daunting 1,480-year-old cathedral where Byzantine emperors were crowned was converted into an imperial mosque. It served as pride of place under Ottoman rule for five centuries thereafter and still stands as a wonder.
John Julius Norwich, a preeminent Byzantine and Turkish history scholar, writes that the Ottomans “considered themselves destined to rule a great empire.” They were “demons at war and angels at peace, equally heroic and humane, they were destined to rule the world.”
To Europeans Byzantines were ‘oriental’, conspiratorial and hedonistic. We loved luxury, arts, food, wine and bling and we avoided war, if we could, through alliances, marriages and payoffs. Byzantines created the first stock market using purple silk as the measure of value.
Theodora, Justinian’s wife, c. 500 –548, a Cypriot born in Syria, (we think), a dancer by vocation, became an imposing empress who wielded astonishing influence and power. She worked with Justinian to organise a mess of laws into a unified legal system, thus Justinian’s Code guaranteeing fair treatment for all citizens regardless of faith or culture. She also helped him wipe out 30,000 of those that conspired in a revolution to get rid of him.
The clergy disliked her and Dora was slut-shamed. They accused her of having orgies with men and women – I like her. Constans II c. 641-668 – Boduoli (波多力) as the Chinese called him after his nickname Constantine the Bearded – was the first to set up an embassy in 643 at the court of Emperor Taizong the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Business is business.
Our peers were in the east, they were not the Franks and Saxons in the west, who burned our city on the coin of the Venetians in 1204. We had a big a family bust-up with the Italian when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.
Between 378 and 718 Constantinople had withstood more sieges than any city of its time by, Goths, Huns, Persians, Arabs, Russians and others, and what the Pope did to his kin was not cool. Relations between East and West deteriorated rapidly after that. The Greek Orthodox Church in 1054 severed all ties with Rome and the Catholic Church – from the pope to the Roman Emperor on down. They could no longer hang with us.
The Byzantium is part of our intangible cultural heritage. Even atheists, like me, take part in Byzantine traditions. Byzantine music gave rise to Eastern and Western music cannons while our iconography influenced Hindu and Muslim art. After the Fall of Constantinople many of our political, business and creative classes fled to Europe where they sparked off a little thing called the Renaissance. Others found sanctuary in the academies and courts of the Caliphates, China and India. Others stayed to administer the Ottoman Empire’s politics, military and economy. We did the boring admin work while they colonised the Middle East and Europe up to the gates of Vienna. We still impact, Dolce & Gabbana in 2013 presented a range inspired by the Byzantium.
The wars between a Revolutionary Greece in 1821 and a collapsing Ottoman Empire ended in 1921 in a bloody fashion. Over two million Greeks were expelled, and hundreds of thousands died, as part of Modern Turkey’s ethnic cleansing program. Modernising Greeks inflicted equal horror on five hundred thousand Turks living in Greece. The “Population Exchange” was similar to the catastrophic mass transfer of Hindus and Muslims during the Partition between Pakistan and India after 1947, facilitated by the Brits.
Turks and Greeks, we, share history, culture, music, family values, and food; and should not be played off each other. Belligerent statements from the Turkish PM Mr Erdogan now, and the call by right-wing Islamists to turn Agia Sophia into a Mosque again, make us all very nervous.
Greeks did not suffer occupation by Nazis, Civil War, and leave a devastated nation, to be called ‘wogs’ for sixty years, and now be coded as ‘white’ Christians by fascists, and in undergraduate narratives. Bernardi is elected to the Senate; I can’t do much about that sadly. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Greeks pay for the ABC, so a little bit of our cash can go to educating journalists in the history that formed both the modern west and east.