Who Are We? Reflections on May 29,1453

Hellenic News of America

It was that many years ago when my mother made me superstitious by telling me that I could not do something because it was Tuesday. "On a Tuesday," she said, "the City fell, and nothing good can start that day." So it was, coincidentally, this past Tuesday, May 29, that we commemorate the grim end to the second critical chapter in our history. Five hundred and fifty-four years ago, Constantinople fell, extinguishing the Eastern Roman Empire we know as Byzantium.

The Roman Empire we had inherited was by then no longer Roman, but Greek; Christian, not pagan; and no longer the indispensable superpower. Through the mismanagement of the family Comnenoi, who outsourced the armed forces and the merchant marine (tragically, our President has done the same thing with the U.S. military today) and the treachery of the Crusaders, we lost our entire, rich Asia Minor homeland and most of the one in Europe before the Ottoman Turks administered the coup de grace that fateful day.

On that Tuesday, at least, we exited history with class. The "barbarians at the gates" of the City that day were the Turks, under a great leader, Mehmet II. "The Conqueror." They began their third siege on Easter Monday in April 1453. By all accounts, they outnumbered the defenders by at least 10 -1. Armed with new high-tech Western technology provided by mercenary Europeans, the Turks struck with impunity. They did not fear a rescue attempt from die West because the last Roman Emperor had rejected the humiliating conditions of the Papacy for the rescue: "Submit to us, or you fight and die alone."

Constantine XI led a force of less than 10,000 Greeks, Genoese and Christian Turks to die with dignity and courage on the walls of the City which shared with him the name of its founder.

Constantine's last recorded speech called on his fellow countrymen to remember what all our ancestors have died for since the first wave landed at Troy: faith, nation, family and philotimo. Like all Greek politicians before and since, he reminded his subjects that they were a great and noble people, the descendents of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and that he had no doubt they would prove themselves worthy. Like all Greeks before and since, they fought and died for "Freedom or Death," even if that "freedom" was the freedom to live under their own homegrown autocrats.

The Ottomans pounded the walls with the new-fangled Austrian artillery. The Greeks filled in the gaps as quickly as they collapsed. Mehmet's engineers constantly tunnelled under the walls but Greek cunning, skill and courage tunnelled into his tunnels and drowned his troops in fire and water. But there was no amount of cunning, skill or courage which could hack out victory against wave after wave of overwhelming numbers.

Finally, some Turkish troops found an improperly closed gate and drove through it, raising the Turkish flag on the tower above (being Greek, of course, we must raise accusations of conspiracy and treachery about the unlocked gate; truthfully, however, Mehmet had such overwhelming force that his victory was never in doubt). The 300 who fought at Thermopylae at least had a good strategic justification for their death. They held die pass until the main force of the Greek army escaped to fight and win another day. At Constantinople, no such strategic justification existed. The Empire had already succumbed. Even more poignant, the Greeks knew that cities which surrendered without a fight were always treated leniently. But still they fought.

My mother delighted me with stories of the loss of the Great City: the fish which flipped alive in the frying pan at Limnos the moment the Turks entered Hagia Sophia; the priest who ran into die Holy Altar with the Eucharistic Host and disappeared, but who would reappear to finish the liturgy when the city would be liberated once again. Mostly, she convinced me that the motto, "Constantine built her; Constantine lost her; Constantine will retake her," conveyed absolute certainty, and sent me into dreams of hope every time Greece produced a leader named Constantine.

Sadly, we seem to have turned our back on arguably a third of our history, and perhaps the most formative part of who we are today. How many of us remember that our elders referred to Greeks as "Romioi," and to the language as ;”Romeika?" The East has not forgotten as much as we have. In Arabic, the word "rum" still means both Greek and Orthodox Christian, and in pre-Kemalist Turkish, "Rumeli" meant Europe. But we seem to prefer to imitate Europeans rather than manifest who we truly were, are, and can be.

In many subtle but overwhelming ways, we have been made to feel embarrassed about this vital part of our history. "Byzantine" is a Western pejorative built out of the envy which possessed the Franks when they encountered the complicated but efficient, powerful and capable Eastern Roman Empire. The heroic and patriotic Philiki Etairia, which financed and inspired the 1821 Greek Revolution, unfortunately also played its part in denigrating this vital history. We stem-educated and steeped in the vitriol and poison of Sir Edward Gibbon and Ms blatantly anti-Greek "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," the leaders of the Etairia tried to impress their Western patrons by reviving a poor imitation of Classical Greece, rather than reasserting our immediate birthright. The first King of Modem Greece, a Bavarian Catholic (like the current Pope), revived die lost towns of Athens and Sparta and relegated gems Like Mis-tra to obscurity. When the enemies of Cyprus claim that island was nev?er part of Greece, they propagate the lie that the Eastern Roman Em?pire was not Greece. And far too many modern Greeks fail to gainsay them.

{Why do we accept, without argument, that the Empire was at best a passive vessel for the preservation of Ancient Greek culture?}

Why do we accept, without argument, that the Empire was, at best, a passive vessel for the preservation of ancient Greek culture and, at worst, a mystical, backward and crushing autocracy? How many of us know of the enormous technological innovations of the Byzantine Greeks? Isidoros and Anthemios, the architects/engineers of Hagia Sophia, designed an unprecedented load-bearing dome of stone which modem builders would not attempt without a steel skeleton. The chemist Kallinikos developed the famous "Wet Fire," known to the world as "Greek Fire," which burned on contact with water. He then designed and manufactured a "siphon," or flamethrower, for the "wet fire" which made die Greek Navy the master of the Mediterranean for seven centuries. An unknown naval architect in the Ninth Century designed and built the first fully framed and keeled sailing ships which could most effectively use die "Lateen" sails developed a few centuries earlier to sail against the wind. The great General Belisarios revolutionized ground warfare in the Sixth Century by developing the first armored horseman who, in turn, became the Medieval Knight and master of the battlefield.

Beyond technology, the Empire built and expanded on the ancients, and did not simply pass the classics on, preserved and untouched. Greek scholars in the Empire used the tools of classical learning to clarify and elucidate simplistic Semitic teachings and develop virtually the entire body of Christian theology. Byzantine Greeks not only republished the classics, but generated vast libraries of sacred and profane works which informed the Renaissance. The Emperors may have closed the Academy in Athens, but die Empire fostered scholarship unrivaled at the time. The Byzantines set the standards of the world for almost a thousand years in language, literature, pop culture and, above all, religion. With its final defeat, the Empire fostered the Renaissance.

If readers wish to understand the transformational nature of Byzantine Greek civilization, they should look for a short, easily readable tome: "Sailing from Byzantium" by Colin Welles. This book effectively outlines how the Byzantines midwifed Western, Slavic and Muslim civilization. One critic wrote that this book makes a learned and convincing argument that the scholars of the Byzantine Empire saved Western Civilization.

One can easily argue that, if the Byzantine rulers had not made serious mistakes in the late 11th Century, the Empire would have defeated the Turks; turned back the Crusades; and prevented the Renaissance. For me, this is a heritage I treasure, and one I hope to transmit to those who follow.

The Hon. Ambassador Theros served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 36 years, mostly in the Middle East, and was American Ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998. He also directed the State Department's Counter-Terrorism Office, and holds numerous U.S. Government decorations."

(Posting date 4 July 2007)

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