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 itself 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.