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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 12 September 2015
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 12 SEPTEMBER 2015 15 FEATURE Mosque and street, Scutari, Constantinople. By the time the Greeks, led by Michael VIII Palaelogus, had recaptured their capital of Constantinople in 1261, it was a shadow of its former great self, though it still produced a great number of artists and leaders over the next 200 years. When the city fell to the Ottomans on Tuesday 29 May, 1453, there were no more than 50,000 people residing in the city. These vastly outnumbered defenders of the city nearly turned back the Ottoman tide in a courageous and inspiring defence. The emperor, Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus, died a national hero. Never once did he consider abandoning Constantinople, and when the invaders had taken the city, he threw off his imperial regalia and fought bravely to the death. It was said by the Greeks that the first emperor of Byzantium would be a Constantine and the last would also bear the same name. It appears that this prophecy was fulfilled. Since then, every 29 May, the church bells in the Byzantine-built Mistra (Peloponnese) ring aloud to remember the fall of the leading Greek city of the Middle Ages. The siege of Constantinople was a turning point in history. It was more than just Greeks versus Turks; it was two great empires fighting for the east. It was a fight that began in the 1000s with many Ottoman and Byzantine Greek skirmishes. Imagine the ‘fear’ of the 8,000 brave defenders of the city (which included Italian, Ukrainian, one Scotsman named Grant, and yes, Turks) took on the terrifying 200,000 troops of the Sultan. It was in the early hours of a Tuesday morning that a sea of Ottoman warriors was almost defeated by the gallant Byzantine defenders. I should point out that these troops included Serbian and other Balkan ethnicities. For six weeks Constantinople held out and won every battle to that point. Had it not been for the new Hungarian invention called the cannon, which began blasting the walls on 6 April, plus a small door being accidentally opened, Constantinople would have been saved. The sultan was on the verge of quitting... Just one more day! The Italian states had finally decided to send aid, but it arrived too late, as the city finally fell. What if Constantinople had held out - would the Balkans be different today? I wonder too if Constantinople would have remained the capital of the Greek world instead of Athens. Despite the general massacre and pillage that took place as soon as the city was captured, it must be said that Mehmet, like most of the sultans who would rule from Constantinople, was pragmatic and sought to rule a harmonious, multi-ethnic empire. He encouraged the Greeks to return to Constantinople and respected the office of patriarch, who became the leader of the Orthodox people in the Ottoman Empire. This was also the end of the Middle Ages and the start the modern epoch. Until the 1800s the Ottoman rulers were mainly gracious, allowing freedom of worship. The Greek community grew strong economically, despite paying high taxes and occasionally providing young boys for the Janissary regiment. (This was the sultan’s highly-trained military unit made up of former Christian boys who were forcibly converted to Islam.) GREEK AREAS IN THE CITY TODAY Despite the decline and virtual extermination of Hellenism in the former Greek city, it is certainly worth a visit. The Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeous still leads the people and the Greek areas are noticeable. You can visit Agia Sophia, built by Justinian in the sixth century, a number of Greek Orthodox churches, the old fortifications of Constantinople and the Hippodrome, the scene of many sports contests. There are a number of Greek schools in existence with approximately 260 pupils across all grades made up of Greek and Arab Christians. Greeks can be located in the modern areas of Nisantasi, Sisli, Kadikoy, Heybeliada (the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church), Buyukada, Burgaz, Yenikoy, Arnavuza, Kuzguncuk, Hatay and Adaraz, or the old areas of Kumkapi, Karagumruk, Samatya and Balat. It is worth mentioning that the Greeks of Constantinople (circa 1453) always said that it would better to be ruled by the Turks than the pope, in reference to the hatred that existed between Catholics and the Orthodox following the great schism of the 11th century and numerous religious differences. The pope’s 2006 visit to the patriarch resulted in a very symbolic announcement that the old ‘schism’ between churches was officially over. In the same way that this so-called millennium old feud between the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople and the Catholics of Rome is over, it is hoped that the feuds between Greeks and Turks also belong to the past. As Greeks, we should always remember the end of Constantinople. Arguably one of the greatest cities of all time, it is a key reason why Greece exists today. * Billy Cotsis is a freelance writer and short film director. His grandparents survived the horrors of the Asia Minor catastrophe. Constantinople, Turkey, 1890s. The Middle Ages to the last Crusades. Inside the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul map at Jerusalem University.
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