The city of Constantine, Constantinople, was founded by the Greeks of Megara in 657BC, and became an important trading colony and link between the city-states and kingdoms of Greece and the new settlements in the Black Sea.
In AD324, the Roman Emperor Constantine made the momentous decision to rename the city after himself and move the empire’s capital to ‘Constantinople’.Over the next few decades, the city grew in importance, and as the Roman Empire crumbled, with Rome itself being overrun by barbarians, Constantinople soon became the capital of what was to be known as the Byzantine Empire; the Greek empire of medieval times.
The empire at its peak would rule over the Mediterranean, including southern Spain in the east, Syria and Persia in the west, North Africa in the south and the Balkans.
The peak came through conquests in the sixth century and again in the 11th century. Other than those centuries, the empire ruled over what was called the Greek world, places that included southern Italy, the Black Sea, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Alexandria and of course, Constantinople.
There were two things that distinguished Greeks of the empire from the non-Greeks; the term ‘Romai’, which meant Greek citizen of Rome and Christianity, which would evolve to become the Greek Orthodox religion. I have been to places in the Ukraine where people still speak the old language and call themselves ‘Romai’. I will never forget the first time I heard this term – I was in the village of Sartana in the Ukraine and a man said to me, “we are the Romai”. It sent a chill through my entire body.
The achievements of the Byzantine Empire include the formulation of a new language for the Slavic peoples, who appeared in the Balkans in the sixth century AD. The Cyrillic alphabet was devised by the brothers Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius and is now spoken by approximately 400 million people. Thus, Christianity flourished and was spread across the empire, Byzantine architecture was in a word, amazing, public buildings were of the highest order, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes were captivating, and art and literature had a profound impact on civilisation. (For example, the Renaissance had its foundations in the work of the Greeks of Byzantium.) Today, you can still see some of the Byzantine achievements in Italy. I have been witness to them in Venice, Ravenna, Calabria, Apulia, as well as in Tunisia, Alexandria, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
Throughout its 1,100 year Byzantine history, Constantinople was the envy of the entire world; it was a cultural and economic phenomenon.
At its peak, the population was 500,000, with the overwhelming percentage being of Greek descent. However, there were people of all ethnicities that resided or traded in the city, including Arabs, Persians, Spaniards, Venetians and other Italians, English, French, Russians, Germans and the list goes on.
In fact, when the great siege took place in 1453, all of these nationalities played a role in either the city’s defence or capture – it wasn’t solely a Byzantine (Greek) versus Ottoman (Turkish) battle.
The people of Constantinople copied the classics and kept alive many of the ancient Greek philosophies and thought processes.
In the 200 years leading up to the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II the Conqueror, Constantinople had seen a series of catastrophes.
A plague, which wiped out half the population, a number of Greek civil wars, various sieges and the Latin (Italian states’) betrayal and capture of Constantinople for 60 years. It is this last point which had a lasting impact on Greeks and the history of Constantinople.
The Latins not only massacred Greeks in the city (a reprisal for the Greek attacks in the previous century), they brought about the decline of the Byzantine economy and stole countless treasures from the city. In fact, the two great horses in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice were brought there by the Latins in the 1200s. (By the way, the church of Saint Mark was originally built by the Byzantines.)
By the time the Greeks, led by Michael VIII Palaelogus, had recaptured their capital of Constantinople in 1261, it was a shadow of its former great self, though it still produced a great number of artists and leaders over the next 200 years.
When the city fell to the Ottomans on Tuesday 29 May, 1453, there were no more than 50,000 people residing in the city. These vastly outnumbered defenders of the city nearly turned back the Ottoman tide in a courageous and inspiring defence.
The emperor, Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus, died a national hero. Never once did he consider abandoning Constantinople, and when the invaders had taken the city, he threw off his imperial regalia and fought bravely to the death. It was said by the Greeks that the first emperor of Byzantium would be a Constantine and the last would also bear the same name. It appears that this prophecy was fulfilled.
Since then, every 29 May, the church bells in the Byzantine-built Mistra (Peloponnese) ring aloud to remember the fall of the leading Greek city of the Middle Ages.
The siege of Constantinople was a turning point in history. It was more than just Greeks versus Turks; it was two great empires fighting for the east. It was a fight that began in the 1000s with many Ottoman and Byzantine Greek skirmishes.
Imagine the ‘fear’ of the 8,000 brave defenders of the city (which included Italian, Ukrainian, one Scotsman named Grant, and yes, Turks) took on the terrifying 200,000 troops of the Sultan. It was in the early hours of a Tuesday morning that a sea of Ottoman warriors was almost defeated by the gallant Byzantine defenders.
I should point out that these troops included Serbian and other Balkan ethnicities.
For six weeks Constantinople held out and won every battle to that point. Had it not been for the new Hungarian invention called the cannon, which began blasting the walls on 6 April, plus a small door being accidentally opened, Constantinople would have been saved.
The sultan was on the verge of quitting… Just one more day!
The Italian states had finally decided to send aid, but it arrived too late, as the city finally fell. What if Constantinople had held out – would the Balkans be different today?
I wonder too if Constantinople would have remained the capital of the Greek world instead of Athens.
Despite the general massacre and pillage that took place as soon as the city was captured, it must be said that Mehmet, like most of the sultans who would rule from Constantinople, was pragmatic and sought to rule a harmonious, multi-ethnic empire. He encouraged the Greeks to return to Constantinople and respected the office of patriarch, who became the leader of the Orthodox people in the Ottoman Empire.
This was also the end of the Middle Ages and the start the modern epoch.
Until the 1800s the Ottoman rulers were mainly gracious, allowing freedom of worship. The Greek community grew strong economically, despite paying high taxes and occasionally providing young boys for the Janissary regiment. (This was the sultan’s highly-trained military unit made up of former Christian boys who were forcibly converted to Islam.)
READ MORE: How to talk to your kids about Byzantium
GREEK AREAS IN THE CITY TODAY
Despite the decline and virtual extermination of Hellenism in the former Greek city, it is certainly worth a visit. The Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeous still leads the people and the Greek areas are noticeable. You can visit Agia Sophia, built by Justinian in the sixth century, a number of Greek Orthodox churches, the old fortifications of Constantinople and the Hippodrome, the scene of many sports contests.
There are a number of Greek schools in existence with approximately 260 pupils across all grades made up of Greek and Arab Christians. Greeks can be located in the modern areas of Nisantasi, Sisli, Kadikoy, Heybeliada (the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church), Buyukada, Burgaz, Yenikoy, Arnavuza, Kuzguncuk, Hatay and Adaraz, or the old areas of Kumkapi, Karagumruk, Samatya and Balat.
It is worth mentioning that the Greeks of Constantinople (circa 1453) always said that it would better to be ruled by the Turks than the pope, in reference to the hatred that existed between Catholics and the Orthodox following the great schism of the 11th century and numerous religious differences.
The pope’s 2006 visit to the patriarch resulted in a very symbolic announcement that the old ‘schism’ between churches was officially over.
In the same way that this so-called millennium old feud between the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople and the Catholics of Rome is over, it is hoped that the feuds between Greeks and Turks also belong to the past.
As Greeks, we should always remember the end of Constantinople. Arguably one of the greatest cities of all time, it is a key reason why Greece exists today.
* Billy Cotsis is a freelance writer and short film director. His grandparents survived the horrors of the Asia Minor catastrophe. This article is republished from an article in 2015.