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Why I Still Refer to “Constantinople”

 

HENRY McCULLOCH writes:

Thank you for your post about Constantinople. The story of the city’s siege and fall to the Turks on May 29, 1453 is an heroic and tragic one, one Christians should never forget.  It is also an object lesson in Moslem savagery we do well to remember, as well as a reminder of the high price of Western division in the face of Moslem aggression.

Sadly both Daniel S. and James Kirkpatrick are right: Westerners, even the ones who still are Christians, have largely forgotten this history.  And if they do remember it they do not grasp its dread significance, nor do most consider it in any way their history.  For a long time, I did not.  After all, it happened out east to those rather odd Orthodox Christians, and the Turks are our NATO allies now.  But the death of the Eastern Roman Empire that had endured as a Christian realm, however battered and reduced over time, for over 1,100 years was an event of terrible import for Christendom and the West.  It led directly to Lepanto in 1571 and Vienna in 1683, when Catholic fleets and armies succeeded — only just — at keeping the Moslem Turks from overrunning what remained of Christian Europe.  The bitter truth of our time is that post-Christian European politicians are now actively abetting the resumed Moslem invasion whose greatest previous victory is the conquest of Constantinople.  In the case of Constantinople William Faulkner spoke truly: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  We are still in the fight in which Constantine XI Paleologos fell, and hardly any of us realize it.

Because I do remember Constantinople as the closest thing Christendom ever had to a capital, and because I remember her Christian and Greek history, I no longer refer to the city by the name the Turks imposed after their conquest.  I made that resolution shortly after Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  I suppose I was in an historical frame of mind as I tried to make sense of what I had so recently witnessed from my office windows in downtown New York — on the 318th anniversary of the Turks’ defeat before Vienna and, as it happens, on the same day of the week as the fall of Constantinople.  Greeks ever since have considered Tuesday an unlucky day.  So far I have not slipped.  While I have not had occasion since to speak of Constantinople with a Turk, even in that case I should not use the Turks’ label.  I have had a few people ask me why I call the city “Constantinople.”  If the questioner is a liberal, the shock on his face at my explanation is always well worth the telling.

As for Hagia Sophia, Westerners should remember that it is a stolen and desecrated church, not a mosque.  (And today, I believe, it truly is not a mosque, as Ataturk turned it into a secular museum.  Nevertheless the ancient church is still fenced in by the menacing minarets later sultans ordered built to reinforce the Christians’ subjugation, and the triumphalist plaques of Moslem imprecations remain aloft.)  Accordingly, when the great church comes up in conversation — not often; when someone is about to go visit or just has – I speak of it as “Sancta Sophia” rather than ”Hagia Sophia.”  I know Sancta and Hagia mean the same thing, and that — as it is a Greek church — Hagia is more correct.  I use the Latin Sancta simply because it sounds more like the English Saint, and is a verbal reminder that it’s a Christian basilica we’re speaking of, not a mere Ottoman mosque.

The Venetians knew very well what a disaster the fall of Constantinople was, and many Venetians suffered for it in later years (search for the name Marcantonio Bragadin, and you’ll see what I mean), but most Western European kingdoms did not pay much attention at the time.  One nation in the East did, however.  After the standard of Orthodox Christianity fell with Constantinople, the Second Rome, a belief grew among the Russians that Moscow should be the Third Rome, with Muscovy taking up Byzantium’s role as leader and defender of the Orthodox.  While that claim was rather grandiose for the 15th century Grand Duchy of Moscow, there was some basis for it: Ivan III, generally accounted first of the Tsars, had married Sophia Palaiologina, niece of the martyred Constantine XI.  At any rate, the Russian Tsars took that duty seriously right up to the murder of Nicholas II by the Bolsheviks.  Indeed, there are those who claim that the old order was decisively destroyed with his murder, as the last direct link with the Roman Empire was thereby broken.

Be that as it may, it’s part of the reason that I, a Catholic Christian, am heartened by the growing revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia after 74 years in Communist bondage.  The Russians, it seems, have not forgotten their religious and cultural debt to Byzantium.  Nor have they entirely forgotten the history of Constantinople’s fall.  Perhaps that is why Russia stands alone among the great European powers in defending her own nationhood, without apology.  And perhaps Russia, despite her differences from the West, can serve us as an example.

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