Dark Light

Yesterday, December 24 at 11:48 at night, I finished reading the third and last volume of Byzantium. It is a story whose melancholy increases as we flip the pages. In this last volume, the Empire is like a bonfire (or a pyre?) whose refulgence is still intense and bright by the time of the arrival of the first Crusaders, when Alexis I Komnenos was emperor and the empire could still be proudly called Empire. And then, gradually and inexorably, the fire begins to fade, and worse: the flames are not extinguished by themselves or by the Islamic powers of Asia but by their Christian brethren of Europe.

By the envy of princelings of Eastern Europe, by the Franks of the Crusades, and to a much larger extent by the commercial empires of Venice and Genoa, for which their main credo was their own economic welfare at the expense of anything that stood on their way. La Serenissima and Genoa lose face in this story. Towards the end, there is a ray of hope when the (until then) invincible Ottoman army is humiliated by Timur and his Mongols, but Constantinople was already weak due to internal fractures, civil war, and low morale. After reading this book, I am left with the impression that the Empire of the East was ultimately a victim of Europe’s jealousy towards Byzantium (the center of Romand and Greek culture and tradition), geopolitical myopia of the kings and princes of Western Europe (why the desire to cripple the bastion of Christendom that protected Europe from the powers of Islam and invaders from Asia?) and the never ending and delirious theological disputes between Latins and Greeks (which at the time seriously affected political decisions).

I want to share the following passage from the book. It is Monday, May 28, 1453. Mehmet II, camped outside the city walls, has ordered his army to dedicate the day to reflection and prayer. The sun is silently setting.

“Dusk was falling. From all over the city, as if by instinct, the people were making their way to the church of the Holy Wisdom [St. Sophia]… St Sophia was, as no other church could ever be, the spiritual centre of Byzantium. For eleven centuries, since the days of the son of Constantine the Great, the cathedral church of the city had stood on that spot; for over nine of those centuries the great gilded cross surmounting Justinian’s vast dome had symbolized the faith of city and Empire. In this moment of supreme crisis, there could be nowhere else to go.
That last service of vespers ever to be held in the Great Church was also, surely, the most inspiring. Once again, the defenders on the walls were unable to desert their posts; but virtually every other able-bodied man, woman and child in the city crowded into St Sophia to take the Eucharist and to pray together, under the great golden mosaics that they knew so well, for their deliverance. The Patriarchal Chair was still vacant; but Orthodox bishops and priests, monks and nuns… were present in their hundreds…”

Imagine yourself crossing the threshold of Hagia Sophia as a random tourist visiting Istanbul. You’re wearing your blue jeans, white sneakers, and a t-shirt with the Nike logo on it.

Now imagine yourself crossing the threshold after having read the above passage. The distance is unmeasurable, isn’t it?

Now imagine you are entering the church on 28 May 1453.


Larger than life

Larger than life
10 10 0 1
10/10
Total Score
The best

Notes

The Normans

  • The Norman Robert Guiscard advances from the south of Italy to the east towards Byzantium. In Durazzo (nowadays Durres, Albania), he is met by Venetian and Byzantine forces.
  • The Varangian Guard perishes in battle, as they advanced precipitately and detached themselves from the rest of the army. 
  • Durazzo resisted for four month but finally opened its gates to the Normans, but after the conquest of this city, the advance of the Normans was steady and quicker. But then Robert Guiscard had to return to Italy due to revolts in Apulia and Calabria. And just a year later, in 1083, the Empire recovered most of the territory in the balkans that had been conquered by the Normans.
  • Upon a second campaign by Guiscard in 1084, an epidemic of typhoid attacks the Normans, killing hundreds of knights, among them Robert Guiscard.
  • With Guiscard’s death, the empire was delivered from immediate danger. However, Guiscard had shown the Normans a direction: East. And in subsequent years they saw territories of the empire as potentially theirs.

General comment

  • “Her western neighbors were at the best of times unreliable, betraying her as they did time and time again; those to the east were almost invariably hostile – and were destined, one day, to deliver her death blow. More continually troublesome than either, however, over the centuries, were those who came from the north: the barbarian hordes — Goths and Huns, Avars and Slavs, Gepids and Bulgars, Magyars and Uzz — who descended in wave after wave from the steppes of Central Asia and who, if they never succeeded in capturing Constantinople, continued by their very existence to threaten it and seldom left the Emperor and their subjects altogether free from anxiety.”
  • Manzikert debilitated the Empire and Alexius Comnenus find himself constantly short of manpower.

Crusades

  • “Alexius Comnenus on the other hand, when he heard of the proceedings at Clermont [where pope Urban preached the crusade], was appalled. A crusade such as Urban had preached was the last thing he had in mind. To him as to his subjects, there was nothing new or exciting about a war with the infidel; Byzantium had been waging one, on and off, for the nest part of five hundred years. As for Jerusalem, it had formerly been part of his Empire —to which, so far as he was concerned, it still properly belonged— and he fully intended to win it back if he could; but that was a task for his imperial army, not an obligation on Christendom in general. Now at last the Anatolian horizons were brightening and there seemed to be a real chance of regaining his lost territory; but instead of being allowed to do so in his own way, and in his own time, he was faced with the prospects of perhaps hundreds of thousands of undisciplined Western brigands pouring across his borders, constantly demanding food while almost certainly refusing to recognise any authority but their own. He needed mercenaries, not Crusaders.”
  • The one element that was essential to the Crusaders’ success in Outremer was the constant influx of soldiers, knights, and enthusiasts from the West. After the second Crusade had been crushed by the Muslims, the enthusiasm waned and the supply of soldiers diminished noticeably. 
  • For this reason, in early 1005 Bohemund, Prince of Antioch, travels to Europe to recruit more crusaders. Bohemund meets with the pope in Apulia and he convinces him that the arch-enemy of the Crusader states was neither the Arab nor the Turk, but the Byzantine Empire.
  • This conversation was a turning point in history, as “those Crusaders —and they constituted the vast majority— who disliked the Byzantines, whether for reasons of jealousy or resentment, puritanical disapproval or sheer incomprehension, now found their prejudices endorsed by the highest authority and given official sanction. As for Alexius and his subjects, they saw their worst suspicions confirmed. The entire Crusade was now revealed as having been nothing more than a monstrous exercise in hypocrisy, in which the religious motive had been used merely as the thinnest of disguises for what was in fact unashamed imperialism.” 

Debacle of the remnants of the First Crusade and the Anti-Byzantine League

  • The second crusade, comprised of French and German crusader armies, failed to capture a single city. They disingenuously decided to siege Damascus, the only muslim city that was unfriendly to the Muslim confederation. After only five days, the crusaders gave up. It was a complete humiliation. 
  • Louis, King of France, assigned all the blame for their failure to Manuel Comnenus and his empire. His hatred of Byzantium was pathological and, upon his return to France, he proposes the King of Sicily (who already was fighting Manuel) to launch a third crusade, this time not against the Muslims, but against the Empire.
  • They convinced the pope, but Conrad, king (or rather emperor) of the romans, opposed the proposal. He was good friends with Manuel and hated Roger, the king of Sicily. So the league came to nothing.

The Normans of Sicily invade the Empire

  • Under the reign of Andronicus The Terrible, the Empire faced one of its oldest and most determined enemies: Norman Sicily.
  • In 1185 the Normans sieged and conquered Thessalonica, the second city of the Empire. 
    • Norwich estimates that the Sicilian army, given its size, must have included hundreds of soldiers of Greek extraction, and hundreds more must have grown up near Greek cities. Then he laments “it would have been pleasant to record that these men had exerted a moderating influence on their less enlightened comrades; but they did nothing of the kind –or, if they tried, they failed. The Sicilian soldiery gave itself up to an orgy of savagery and violence unparalleled in Thessalonica since Theodosius the Great had massacred seven thousand of its citizens in the Hippodrome eight centuries before.
    • Nicetas Choniates writes “these barbarians carried their violence to the very foot of the altars, in the presence of the holy images… It was thought strange that they should wish to destroy our icons, using them as fuel for the fires on which they cooked. More criminal still, they would dance upon the altars, before which the angels themselves trembled, and sing profane songs. Then they would piss all over the church, flooding the floors with their urine.

Semantron (p.159; note: write a snippet about it)
Fourth Crusade

  • Frank Crusaders ally with Venetians and, instead of going after the Muslim territories in Egypt or Asia Minor, they instead turn to Constantinople. That city that they so much believed had betrayed them in their prior expeditions to the East.
    • They break through in April 1204, the carnage was horrible, and the Franks set the city on fire. “Never, since the barbarian invasions some centuries before, had Europe witnessed such an orgy of brutality and vandalism; never in history had so much beauty, so much superb craftsmanship, been wantonly destroyed in so short a space of time… helpless, horrified, almost unable to believe that human beings who called themselves Christians could be capable of such enormities…”
    • Nicetas Choniates: “I know not how to put any order into my account, how to begin, continue or end. They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour. These heralds of Anti-Christ seized the chalices and the patens, tore out the jewels and used them as drinking cups … As for their profanation of the Great Church, it cannot be thought of without horror. They destroyed the high altar, a work of art admired by the entire world, and shared out the pieces among themselves . . . And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne, and the pulpit, and the doors, and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure. A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch’s chair, to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place . .. nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God … In the streets, houses and churches there could be heard only cries and lamentations.”
    • Emperor Alexius Ducas escaped to Thrace to plan his counter attack.
  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, a knight of the Fourth Crusade and future historian, writes that when the crusaders arrived in Constantinople:
    • “You may imagine how they gazed, all those who had never before seen Constantinople. For when they saw those high ramparts and the strong towers with which it was completely encircled, and the splendid palaces and soaring churches – so many that but for the evidence of their own eyes they would never have believed it – and the length and the breadth of that city which of all others is sovereign, they never thought that there could be so rich and powerful a place on earth. And mark you that there was not a man so bold that he did not tremble at the sight; nor was this any wonder, for never since the creation of the world was there so great an enterprise.”

Uncertain Unity of the Churches

  • Emperor Michael Palaeologus, looking for an alliance to protect his (by now diminished) empire from King Charles of Sicily and the Latins, reaches an agreement with the pope in which the Greek church accepts the supremacy of the Latin church. This way, the moral justification to invade Constantinople was removed. 
    • In practical terms, nothing was to change, as the distance between Rome and the Eastern Empire was so vast that the Greek bishops will effectively continue to rule their churches as they had always been.
    • In principle, however, this was seen by the people and clergy of Constantinople as treason. “Their Empire was, and had always been, a theocracy, their Emperor the Vice-Gerent of Got on earth, Equal of the Apostles… He symbolised the religious faith of his people… by what right, they demanded, had he consented to an alteration to the very cornerstone of their religion, the Orthodox Creed itself?”

Hesychasts and Silent Meditation

“…a crisis that could have arisen only in Byzantium. It concerned a small group of Orthodox hermits, mostly on Mount Athos, known as the hesychasts.Hesychasm – the Greek word means ‘holy silence’ – was nothing new. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Orthodox Church had maintained a strong tradition of mystical asceticism whose adherents had spent their lives in silent and solitary meditation. Then, in the 13 30s, a monk named Gregory of Sinai had wandered through the eastern Mediterranean spreading the word that by following certain physical techniques it was possible to obtain a vision of the divine, uncreated Light that had surrounded Jesus Christ at his Transfiguration on Mt Tabor. Gregory’steachings had found particular favour on the Holy Mountain [Mount Athos], which quickly became the centre of the hesychast movement. Unfortunately, however, they also aroused the age-old Byzantine passion for religious disputation; particularly since the recommended techniques – which included the lowering of the chin to the chest, the fixing of the eyes on the navel, the regulation of breathing and the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer – were all too obviously open to criticism and even to ridicule.”

Empress Anne pawns the Byzantine crown jewels to Venice. Year 1343.

Go down fighting

“By the last decade of the fourteenth century the Ottoman conquest of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor had acquired a momentum that it was no longer possible to check. Of the Sultan’s Christian enemies, Serbia and Bulgaria had been effectively annihilated. Only Byzantium remained; but it was a Byzantium so reduced, so impoverished, so humiliated and demoralised as to be scarcely identifiable as the glorious Empire of the Romans that it had once been. And yet, doomed as it was, it was never to give up the struggle. Three more Christian Emperors were to reign in Constantinople, all three of them men of determination and spirit. Thanks to them, it was to last another six decades –and, at the end, to go down fighting.”

Letter from Manuel II to a friend when assisting (by obligation) Ottoman Sultan Bayezit in a campaign in the Black Sea coast

“The plan [where we are encamped] is deserted, as a result of the flight of its inhabitants to the woods and the caves and the mountain-tops as they tried to flee from what they are unable to escape: a slaughter that is inhuman and savage and without any formality of justice. No one is spared –neither women nor children, nor the sick, nor the aged…There are many cities in these regions, but they lack the one thing without which they can never be true cities; they have no people… And when I ask the names of the cities, the answer is always ‘we have destroyed these places and time has destroyed their names’…What is indeed unbearable for me is that I am fighting beside these people when to add to their strength is to diminish our own.”

Vigil the night before, Monday 28 May 1453

“Dusk was falling. From all over the city, as if by instinct, the people were making their way to the church of the Holy Wisdom [St. Sophia]… St Sophia was, as no other church could ever be, the spiritual centre of Byzantium. For eleven centuries, since the days of the son of Constantine the Great, the cathedral church of the city had stood on that spot; for over nine of those centuries the great gilded cross surmounting Justinian’s vast dome had symbolized the faith of city and Empire. In this moment of supreme crisis, there could be nowhere else to go.

That last service of vespers ever to be held in the Great Church was also, surely, the most inspiring. Once again, the defenders on the walls were unable to desert their posts; but virtually every other able-bodied man, woman and child in the city crowded into St Sophia to take the Eucharist and to pray together, under the great golden mosaics that they knew so well, for their deliverance. The Patriarchal Chair was still vacant; but Orthodox bishops and priests, monks and nuns… were present in their hundreds…

The service was still in progress when the Emperor arrived with his commanders. He first asked forgiveness of his sins from every bishop present, Catholic and Orthodox alike; then he too took communion with the rest. Much later, when all but the few permanent candles had been put out and the Great Church was in darkness, he returned alone and spent some time in prayer; then he returned to Blachernae for a last farewell to his household. Towards midnight, accompanied by George Sphrantzes, he rode for the last time the length of the Land Walls to assure himself that everything possible had been done for their defence. On their return, he took his faithful secretary to the top of a tower near the Palace of Blachernae, where for an hour they watched together and listened. Then he dismissed him. The two never met again.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts