During the merry month of May, the Ottoman Turks, under their Sultan, Mehmed the second of that name, pulled up their britches and got to work finishing off the Byzantine Empire which by then had been reduced to the City of Constantinople. In April they had pulled up in front of the place; Sultan and all Sultan’s horses and all Sultan’s men, plus a few dozen thousand Christian slaves to carry the bags and another few dozen thousand Christian slave girls and boys to keep the troops comfortable. Oh, and I forgot to mention the several tens of thousands of crack troops, the Janissaries of well earned reputation, every one of them having been kidnapped from Christian homes as youths and raised, brutally, to be warriors and that’s it; killing machines.
Against this force of armed fanatics, the last Christian Emperor of the East, Constantine XI Paleologos had the city’s walls, about 5,000 soldiers of his own, and a few dozen hundred others from around the neighborhood, including 700 fellows from Venice and Genoa, who must have been crazy, since everyone else West of the Adriatic was busy studying the dirt under their fingernails while all hell was about to break loose a few hundred miles to the East.
Not, I mean, that they didn’t have any reason to wonder just what the Sam Hill was going to happen to them once Mehmet’s maniacs finished with Constantinople. The Ottomans and various other followers of the religion of peace had for the past 700 years been eating up bits and pieces of what had once been the Roman Empire. Now they were getting ready to swallow the last morsel. Dessert? That was Europe, just waking up to the renaissance, if you believe your history teachers.
Anyway, Mehmet’s artillery had been pounding away for a months at the walls, and the folks ind side were getting tired, hungry and discouraged. The last straw occurred a little before the end when a Venetian crewed ship, which had slipped between some blockading Turk ships to look for at promised relief from Venice returned with the sad news that folks back there were all too busy to worry about the end. Sound familiar?
Constantine, it is said, broke down and wept. Then he picked himself up, brushed himself off and started all over again…ready to die. Here is the speech he gave after he had ordered the population to pray; and they had gathered at Hagia Sophia after a procession through the city to do just that:
“Gentlemen, illustrious captains of the army, and our most Christian comrades in arms: we now see the hour of battle approaching. I have therefore elected to assemble you here to make it clear that you must stand together with firmer resolution than ever. You have always fought with glory against the enemies of Christ. Now the defence of your fatherland and of the city known the world over, which the infidel and evil Turks have been besieging for two and fifty days, is committed to your lofty spirits
Be not afraid because its walls have been worn down by the enemy’s battering. For your strength lies in the protection of God and you must show it with your arms quivering and your swords brandished against the enemy. I know that this undisciplined mob will, as is their custom, rush upon you with loud cries and ceaseless volleys of arrows. These will do you no bodily harm, for I see that you are well covered in armour. They will strike the walls, our breastplates and our shields. So do not imitate the Romans who, when the Carthaginians went into battle against them, allowed their cavalry to be terrified by the fearsome sight and sound of elephants.
In this battle you must stand firm and have no fear, no thought of flight, but be inspired to resist with ever more herculean strength. Animals may run away from animals. But you are men, men of stout heart, and you will hold at bay these dumb brutes, thrusting your spears and swords into them, so that they will know that they are fighting not against their own kind but against the masters of animals.
You are aware that the impious and infidel enemy has disturbed the peace unjustly. He has violated the oath and treaty that he made with us; he has slaughtered our farmers at harvest time; he has erected a fortress on the Propontis as it were to devour the Christians; he has encircled Galata under a pretence of peace.
Now he threatens to capture the city of Constantine the Great, your fatherland, the place of ready refuge for all Christians, the guardian of all Greeks, and to profane its holy shrines of God by turning them into stables for fits horses. Oh my lords, my brothers, my sons, the everlasting honour of Christians is in your hands.
You men of Genoa, men of courage and famous for your infinite victories, you who have always protected this city, your mother, in many a conflict with the Turks, show now your prowess and your aggressive spirit toward them with manly vigour.
You men of Venice, most valiant heroes, whose swords have many a time made Turkish blood to flow and who in our time have sent so many ships, so many infidel souls to the depths under the command of Loredano, the most excellent captain of our fleet, you who have adorned this city as if it were your own with fine, outstanding men, lift high your spirits now for battle.
You, my comrades in arms, obey the commands of your leaders in the knowledge that this is the day of your glory — a day on which, if you shed but a drop of blood, you will win for yourselves crowns of martyrdom and eternal fame.”
Folks who were there and wrote this down, and other things that happened, report that Constantine joined the people and the clergy in Hagia Sophia for a final Mass. Both Latin and Orthodox clergy were there. Call this a little footnote to history, but it’s interesting to pay it some attention, since as the saying goes, imminent death wonderfully concentrates the mind. You see, on that one day, in that one place, for that short time, the then hundreds of years old Great Schism between the East and West in Christianity, was healed. The emperor received Communion in a unified Church.
Then he went out to fight and die. That happened on May 29, 1453, early in the morning after the Turks had finally broken through the walls. Leading a small group of defenders, Constantine rushed into the advancing Janissaries, the slave warriors of Mehmet, the children of Christians, and died.
Not too long after that on the same day, the Turks broke into Hagia Sophia, that gem, and slaughtered everyone in the place, or carried them off, then despoiled it. And things have never been the same, since.
It seems like yesterday. No wonder it rained.