About the Author
Carol Delaney received an MTS from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Chicago and is a graduate of Boston University. She was the assistant director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and a visiting professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. She is now a professor emerita at Stanford University and a research scholar at Brown University. Delaney is the author of several books, including The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Criticism, and Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem CHAPTER ONE
OMENS OF THE APOCALYPSE
Christopher Columbus was born two years before an event that would change the world and, in large part, would set the course of his life. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 was a blow to Christendom from which it has never really recovered. That glorious city—home to the Byzantine Empire for more than a thousand years and to Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), Christendom’s most famous church—lay in ruins, its emperor dead and its people slain or taken prisoner. When news of the sacking reached Europe, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II a few years later, described the fall of the city as “the loss of one of the two eyes of the church”—the other being Rome.1
Constantinople had been a major stopping place for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, primarily because it was the repository for a number of holy relics. Pilgrims yearned for a glimpse of objects like pieces of the True Cross; the remains of Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary; and the bones of Saint Luke, brought back from Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, the founder and first emperor of the eponymous city. Helena, who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326, had also found the location where Jesus had been buried and had ordered a church, the Holy Sepulchre, to be built on the site.
In addition to its religious heritage, Constantinople was also home to European merchants, especially the Genoese who had come to dominate trade with the East through its outposts at ports on the Black Sea. Now, in the mid-fifteenth century, with the fall of Constantinople, the trade route to the East and the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem was virtually closed to the West. Constantinople, like Jerusalem, was in the hands of Muslims. In the struggle between Christianity and Islam, Islam seemed to be winning. Many Christians read this as a sign the end of the world was fast approaching. A pall settled over Europe.
The Ottomans, however, were jubilant; they had finally captured the “Kizil Elma”
(Red or Golden Apple) of their dreams.2 Although Muslims had been sweeping across Asia Minor for some time, the Ottomans, known among themselves as ghazis
or holy warriors, had pushed the farthest. By 1326, they had reached the Sea of Marmara across which they could almost see Constantinople. They lusted after that prize not only because of its opulent buildings, its luxury and learning, and its symbolic importance, but also because of its strategic position.
Strategic location of Constantinople. Map prepared by Lynn Carlson, GISP.
Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, is situated on hills that overlook the place where three waterways meet: the Sea of Marmara, which flows through the Dardanelles out to the Aegean; the Golden Horn, an inlet off the Marmara that divides the city; and the Bosphorus, a strait that leads up from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Thus, whoever controlled Constantinople controlled travel and trade from ports in the Black Sea to those in the Mediterranean and beyond. Although the Byzantine Empire had contracted considerably over the years to contain barely more than the city itself, Constantinople was thought to be impregnable. It was protected by miles of stone walls that were fifteen feet thick and more than forty feet high, with evenly dispersed towers that were twice as high. There were three sets of walls in all, one inside the other, each separated by a fosse or moat. These fortifications would be put to the test. Ottomans had tried several times to take the city, but had been unsuccessful. They had kept sight of their goal, however, and had made long-term plans; in preparation for the siege of Constantinople, they had conquered a huge swath of territory in Europe: from Gallipoli to Adrianople, from Varna on the Black Sea, to Greece, and then to Kosovo and Bosnia, across the Adriatic from Italy, until Constantinople was effectively surrounded.
The ambitious young sultan known as Mehmet II decided that the “Apple” was finally ripe for the plucking. Late in 1452, he took his army of more than eighty thousand soldiers and marched from his capital in Adrianople toward Constantinople. He quartered his troops at Rumeli Hisarı, a fortress his workmen had quickly constructed on the shores of the Bosphorus, a few miles north of the city walls. Rumeli Hisarı, or “Roman fortress,” was built at the narrowest point on the Bosphorus, known as Boğazkesen (throat-cutter), directly across from the Anadolu Hisarı, the Anatolian fortress, built by his great-grandfather Beyazit I. From these two forts, the Ottomans could seize any ships coming from the Black Sea, collecting tariffs or confiscating their goods and capturing their crews. By the beginning of 1453 they were ready to begin the siege.
In the Ottoman camps, the fires burned all night and the men were whipped into fighting mood by the beat of drums, the shrill high notes of the zurna,
and shouting songs that made it difficult for people inside the city to sleep. They also set up their cannons and began an incessant bombardment of the walls in a strategy of “shock and awe.”
The noise and vibration of the massed guns, the clouds of smoke, the shattering impact of stone on stone dismayed seasoned defenders. To the civilian population it was a glimpse of the coming apocalypse and a retribution for sin . . . [it was] according to one Ottoman chronicler, “like the awful resurrection blast.”3
Seeing all this activity, the Byzantines inside the city became terrified; Emperor Constantine XI wrote a desperate letter to Pope Nicholas V, promising to unify the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches if he would quickly send reinforcements. Although both Catholic and Orthodox were nominally Christian, their enmity was of long standing, ever since the two branches of the Church had split in the eleventh century. “Unity,” however, would not mean equality between the two branches, but submission of the Orthodox church to the primacy of Rome. Many Byzantines felt that was too high a price to pay for Rome’s support, but they were vastly outnumbered. Although the population of the city was about forty thousand, they could count at most five thousand Greek men available to fight. To be sure, there were also about two thousand foreigners—some Venetians and Florentines, but mostly Genoese who lived in Galata across the Golden Horn from the Greek part of the city—but their loyalty could not be assumed since they were Latin Christians, not Orthodox Christians like the Greeks.
Nevertheless, according to a letter written to the pope by Archbishop Leonard, who had been called from Chios to help negotiate the union, the emperor and his senate had agreed to the union and it was apparently confirmed in mid-December 1452.4 For a short time hostilities thawed somewhat, if not among priests and theologians, at least among the people imperiled in the city. They celebrated when a Genoese ship arrived in January 1453 filled with food, supplies, and seven hundred soldiers—four hundred from Genoa and three hundred from their colony in Chios, an island in the Aegean. Their arrival provided a much-needed boost to morale to those in the city, especially when they learned that one of the Chian soldiers was Giovanni Giustiniani, who knew how to fortify and repair damaged walls. Knowing that his skill would be essential during the impending siege, Constantine XI, the Byzantine emperor, quickly made him his second-in-command. Some of the Genoese in Galata rushed to join and fight alongside Giustiniani, while others rushed to the ship, hoping to catch passage back to Genoa. But the majority of the Genoese in Constantinople did not want to lose the lucrative trade from their Black Sea colony at Caffa in the Crimea. Luciano Spinola, one of the leading merchants, convinced them to remain neutral in the hope that the Ottomans, like the Byzantines, would appreciate the luxury goods such as caviar and sturgeon that they supplied from that trade.
Spring came; the storks returned from their winter sojourn in Africa, and the scent of roses filled the air and the churches. But these joyful signs could not dispel the unease felt by the people trapped inside the city. To add to their anxiety, at the beginning of April, Easter Week, a couple of small earthquakes rattled their already frayed nerves. For weeks, Mehmet’s soldiers had provoked small skirmishes along the length of the walls as a way to tire the Christians before the onslaught. For a time, the Christians had the advantage, despite their numbers. Ottoman cannon fire had damaged but not destroyed the walls, and when the soldiers tried to scale them, the Christians could knock them down with stones. Still, the continual assault and the constant vigilance had exhausted them.
As an alternative strategy to breaching the walls, the Ottomans began to dig tunnels under them. The Byzantines soon discovered some of the tunnels and set fire to them, capturing soldiers and forcing them to give the locations of other tunnels. They were also aware that there were two vulnerable places along the land walls—one at the St. Romanus Gate, located in a depression caused by the Lycus River, and the other at a point where the walls met at right angles, behind the Blachernae Palace. The Ottomans decided to focus on the St. Romanus Gate because the depression rendered the towers lower than hills opposite and also because the riverbed had made it difficult to construct a deep moat. Immediately, they moved their monster cannon into place. It was twenty-seven feet long—probably the largest cannon ever constructed at the time—and could lob a stone cannonball weighing a thousand pounds against the wall or over it. Never had anything like it been seen. It demolished part of the wall, but at night Giustiniani and his helpers were able to repair it and the assault continued.
Near the Golden Horn, the Ottoman fleet was similarly stalled. Aware that their city was most vulnerable through the Golden Horn, the Byzantines had laid a huge chain boom, designed, in fact, by a Genoese, across its entrance to prevent Ottoman ships from entering and attacking both sides of the city. That was a clever strategy but hardly a panacea; they desperately needed more soldiers and supplies from Europe.
The pope in Rome had dawdled in sending aid. He had assumed the city was well fortified and couldn’t believe God would let it go to the infidels, and he was waiting for assurance that a “union” between the Greek and Roman churches would be consummated before he sent aid. At the end of March, the pope finally dispatched three Genoese ships, but they got caught in a storm near Chios and did not reach Constantinople until April 20, when they confronted a fleet of Ottoman ships and triremes. Those on land, including Constantine and Mehmet, could only watch as a vicious battle ensued. Against the odds, the Genoese sailors managed to fight off the Ottoman ships and slip through the boom that was opened for them, into the Golden Horn, where they unloaded much-needed supplies.5 This success of the Genoese greatly embarrassed Mehmet II. In response, he devised an ingenious way to circumvent the boom.
In the dead of night, on April 22, the Ottomans carried out one of the most amazing military maneuvers of the time, perhaps of all time. On greased logs they rolled seventy-two ships overland up from the Bosphorus, over the hill of Galata, and down into the Golden Horn inside the boom, from where they could easily barrage the city. When the Christians awoke and saw this, they must have felt they were doomed. Yet, miraculously, they would continue to hold the Ottomans at bay for another month.
On the twelfth of May, the Ottoman forces came against the palace walls with thousands of soldiers and, according to Nicolò Barbaro, an eyewitness, “these Turkish dogs” let loose with “fierce cries according to their custom, and with sounds of castanets and tambourines . . . they made a strong attack against the walls of the palace, so that the majority of those in the city thought that night that the city was lost.”6 Yet the Christians clung to their belief that God would not allow the city to fall to the “wicked pagans,” at least not until a prophecy, attributed to the first Constantine, was fulfilled. He had prophesied that the city would never fall until the “moon rose darkened,” and since that had not yet occurred the people inside the city continued hopeful.
Two weeks later, however, their hope ran out. On May 24, there was a lunar eclipse, followed by torrential rain, fog, and a strange light that hovered over Hagia Sophia. Among the terrified citizens a rumor spread that “the time of the Antichrist had arrived,” meaning that the end of the world was nigh. In the Bible, the Antichrist is identified as a powerful leader who will come in the last days to tempt people away from their faith.7 A huge battle will ensue, the Antichrist will be defeated. Christ will come again to judge both the quick and the dead, and the world will end. For the people in Constantinople, it was easy to imagine that Mehmet was the Antichrist and that the end-time was upon them.
At this crucial moment, Mehmet tempted Emperor Constantine with terms of surrender. Constantine refused, and summoning the people to Hagia Sophia, he warned them that the great battle for the fate of the world was imminent. He told them that they should be ready to die for their faith, their country, their family, and their sovereign. Encouraged by his words, Greek and Latin Christians united against their common enemy, the Muslims. After taking communion together, the men went back to their posts, and the women carried water to refresh them and collected stones for them to rain down upon the enemy.
On the night of May 28, after fifty-four days of continual siege, the Ottoman camp was deathly quiet. The Greeks hoped against hope that the Ottomans had given up. But at dawn, when the sun was shining directly into the Christians’ eyes, the elite Janissary corps8 of the Ottoman forces stormed the walls and a ferocious battle ensued. Still, the Christians held on. When the emperor saw that his commander-in-chief was missing, he “went in great distress to see where he had gone” and learned that Giustiniani had been wounded by an arrow and had left his post on the ramparts. When he found him, he pleaded, “I beg you; your flight will encourage others to do the same. Your wound is not mortal; bear the pain and stay at your post like a man, as you promised to do.” But Giustiniani fled, and “as he fled, he went through the city crying ‘the Turks have got into the city!’”9 Hearing this, many of the people panicked and abandoned their posts to follow him, hoping to escape on the ships. Many later believed that had he remained, their city might not have been lost. Constantine and his men continued fighting bravely. It is said that the emperor, proclaiming he would rather die fighting for his city than live among the infidels, dismounted his horse and joined the fray. He was last seen, sword in hand, disappearing into the crowd. Not long after his disappearance, the wall was breached. Ottoman soldiers swarmed in and soon their banner flew from the ramparts. The city had fallen to the Muslims. The date was May 29, 1453.
Later in the day, Sultan Mehmet, forever after known as “the Conquerer,” rode directly to Hagia Sophia ...
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