Friday, 17 September 2010

The last day of Constantinople - Runciman's account

"“On this Monday, with the knowledge that the crisis was upon them, the soldiers and citizens forgot their quarrels. While the men at the walls worked to repair the shattered defences a great procession was formed.

In contrast to the silence in the Turkish camp, in the city the bells of the churches rang and their wooden gongs sounded as icons and relics were brought out upon the shoulders of the faithful and carried round through the streets and along the length of the walls, pausing only to bless with their holy presence the spots where the damage was greatest and the danger most pressing; and the throng that followed behind them, Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic, sang hymns and repeated the Kyrie Eleison.

“The Emperor himself came to join in the procession; and when it was ended he summoned his notables and commanders, Greek and Italian, and spoke to them. (…)

“Constantine told his hearers that the great assault was about to begin. To his Greek subjects he said that a man should always be ready to die either for his faith or for his country or for his family or for his sovereign. Now his people must be prepared to die for all four causes.

“He spoke of the glories and high traditions of the great Imperial city. He spoke of the perfidy of the infidel Sultan who had provoked the war in order to destroy the True Faith and to put his false prophet in the seat of Christ. He urged them to remember that they were the descendents of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome and to be worthy of their ancestors.

“For his part, he said, he was ready to die for his faith, his city and his people. (…)

“All that were present rose to assure the Emperor that they were ready to sacrifice their lives and homes for him. He then walked slowly round the chamber, asking each one of them to forgive him if ever he had caused offence. They followed his example, embracing one another, as men do who expect to die.

“The day was nearly over. Already crowds were moving towards the great Church of the Holy Wisdom. (…) Barely a citizen, except for the soldiers on the walls, stayed away from this desperate service of intercession. (…) The golden mosaics, studded with images of Christ and His Saints and the Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium, glimmered in the light of a thousand lamps and candles; and beneath then for the last time he priests in their splendid vestments moved in the solemn rhythm of the Liturgy. (…)

“Later in the evening the Emperor himself rode on his Arab mare to the great cathedral and made his peace with God. Then he returned through the dark streets to his Palace at Blachernae and summoned his household. Of them, as he had done of his ministers, he asked forgiveness for any unkindness that he might have shown them, and bade them good-bye.

“It was close on midnight when he mounted his horse again and rode, accompanied by the faithful Phrantzes, down the length of the land-walls, to see that everything was in order and that the gates through the inner wall were closed.

“On their way back to Blachernae the Emperor dismounted near the Caligarian Gate and took Phrantzes with him up a tower (…) from where they could peer out into the darkness both ways (…).

“Below them they could hear noises as the enemy brought up their guns over the filled-in foss. This activity had been going-on since sunset, so the watchmen told them. In the distance they could see flickering lights as the Turkish ships moved across the Golden Horn.

Phrantzes waited with his master for an hour or so. Then Constantine dismissed him; and they never met again. “

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From The Last Days of Constantinople by Steven Runciman, 1965 - pp 129-132

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Although the Byzantine Empire, in its fullest sense, could be said to have ended in 1204 when Western Christian crusaders sacked the city of Constaninople - there was always hope for a recovery until Tuesday 29 May 1453, the day after the above account; when the Turks took the city, the Emperor was killed along with thousands of others; and Byzantium was lost to Islam, and the most devout Christian civilization in history was crushed, and the Roman Empire finally ended.

In a sense, nothing has been the same since, nor ever shall be.