Fall of Constantinople a victim of culture wars

It is a good time for Cory Bernardi and Osman Faruqi to hit the history books

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 “watch 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 his oblique retaliation. He didn’t say much, but from my possibly paranoid observation, could be read as code for: it’s the West, it’s bad.

Constantinople fell on 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 the Western Christian nutters. The Byzantines kept them outside the great city walls for six months. They may have been Christians but they were uncouth, uneducated, ill-tempered extremists, like ISIS.

Once they were let in they went berserk, killing, raping, and looting. The Crusaders were so debauched 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 by the West, thus Constantinople, built the ‘the city of the world’s desire’ on the site of the ancient Greek trading city, Byzantium. Between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the location protected it from attacks and opened it to trade between Europe and Asia. Just to note, Byzantium’s Greek history reaches back to 700BCE and the Greeks left their homeland, modern Turkey, in 1921.

Istanbul, 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 the looting, slaughter and rape. He issued a proclamation that Greeks could return to their homes without fear to be treated with respect and maintain their position and status.

Agia Sophia, the daunting 1,480-year-old cathedral, which stood for 1,000 years and 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, the preeminent Byzantine and Turkish history scholar, writes that the Ottomans “considered themselves destined to rule a great empire.”  They began as nomads in Central Asia and were “demons at war and angels at peace, equally heroic and humane, they were destined to rule the world.”

European historians took a dim view of Byzantines up until recently. We were ‘oriental’, conspiratorial and hedonistic. We loved luxury, bling, arts, great food, wine 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, the Cypriot, a dancer by vocation, became an imposing empress who wielded astonishing influence and power. She worked with Justinian to organise a jumble of laws into a unified legal system, named Justinian’s Code which guaranteed fair treatment for all citizens, regardless of faith or culture. She also helped him wipe out 30,000 of those who conspired in a revolution to get rid of him.

Dora was slut-shamed by the priesthood who did not like a woman leading them. They accused her of having orgies with men and women – she sounds like fun. Later, Constans II c. 641-668 – Boduoli (波多力) as the Chinese called him after his nickname Constantine the Bearded – was one of the first from that far West to set up an embassy in 643 at the court of Emperor Taizong of the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Business is business for Greeks and Chinese.

Our peers were in the East. They were not the uneducated Franks and Saxons in the West, who burned our city on the coin of the Venetians in 1204.

We split with our Italian cousins – a big family fight – when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

Between 378 and 718 we had withstood more sieges than any city of its time by Goths, Huns, Persians, Avars, Arabs, Russians and others. And what the Pope did to his kin, who were protecting the Holy Roman Empire, was not cool.

Relations between East and West rapidly deteriorated 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. We sort of made up in 2001.

The Byzantium is our intangible cultural heritage. Even atheists, like me, take part in Byzantine traditions such as Easter. Byzantine music gave rise to Eastern and Western music canons while our iconography influenced Hindu and Muslim art. After the Fall of Constantinople our intellectual and creative elites 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. Many stayed to administer the Ottoman Empire’s politics, military and economy. The Turks let us do the boring work while they colonised the Middle East and Central Asia and Europe up to the gates of Vienna. We still make an impact. In 2013 Dolce & Gabbana presented a range inspired by the Byzantium.

The terrible wars between a Revolutionary Greece in 1821 and a collapsing Ottoman Empire ended in 1921 in a most bloody fashion.

Over two million Greeks were expelled, and hundreds of thousands murdered or starved to death as part of Modern Turkey’s ethnic cleansing program. Modernising Greeks inflicted equal horror on 500,000 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 we should not be played off each other.

Belligerent statements from the Turkish PM Erdogan 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’ by the Anglos for 60 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. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have and continue to pay for the ABC, so maybe a bit of our cash can go to educating Oz in some history that formed the modern West and East.

4 responses to “Fall of Constantinople a victim of culture wars

    1. You are right it was Augustus not Justinian that Constantine was also called. My mistake and it will be sorted.


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