The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 3)

In The sack of Constantinople in 1453, I quoted a very vivid description of the sack on Constantinople, found online and attributed to Critobulos, the renegade who served the Muslim attackers and wrote a history of the event.

In The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 2) I gave the Riggs translation of the relevant passages, which seemed rather different.  It looked to me as if the source for the online passage was an English translation by Halliday of a book by Guerdan.

Now I have today received a copy of Rene Guerdan’s Byzantium. So let’s see whether he is indeed the source of the original quote.

I have scanned the last six pages of the book, p.217-222 to PDF, and they are here:

And here is the text that they contain:

… Mahomet uttered a cry of triumph. Victory at last was in his grasp! He leapt forward from the moat and shouted to his Janissaries. ‘The city is ours! It is ours already! See, there is no one left to defend it! Fear not! Follow me! The city is ours!’ The reply was a frenzied howling, and a furious wave struck the wall. It flowed over the emergency wall and the debris of the ramparts.

Now the Byzantines fled in disorder. Some were flung into the moat and killed, others were chased and cut down from behind. There was nothing to stop the incoming tide. The last gates were swept down and a turbulent wave, cascading and roaring, spilled over the city. Yes, this was the end. On this May 29, 1453, fell the empire which had endured for more than a thousand years. And on this day Christianity disappeared from the Eastern sky. What can the thoughts of the last Basileus have been? Why should he live? He dismounted and slowly divested himself of the Imperial insignia, retaining of it only the red campagia—those famous boots ornamented with two- headed eagles—and plunged into the hand to hand fighting. He thrust to right and to left, and then suddenly vanished. Much later they found his body and Mahomet caused it to be decapitated. Then for many months to come, accompanied by forty captive young men and forty captive virgins, it was displayed throughout Asia to announce the triumph of the Crescent to the remotest comers.

* * *

And this is how this precious city was destroyed. . . .

The first picture which history offers us of this Dantesque hell is one of breathtaking violence. This was the feast day of St Theodosia. Slowly a procession of women, children and old men moved out of the rose-covered church dedicated to her. Everyone was wearing his or her best clothes and white-bearded priests held on high the comforting images of Christ and his gentle Mother, the Theotokos. Suddenly there burst on the scene a disordered mass of shouting monsters, their faces streaked with sweat, half-naked and blood-bespattered. What followed may be imagined. The procession broke up, but they were caught almost immediately and a few minutes later thousands of hacked and disembowelled and decapitated bodies reddened the slabs and the gutters.

Such scenes were to be seen everywhere. Drunk with slaughter, the Turks massacred throughout the morning. Nothing, and certainly not pity, stayed their hands. Like madmen the unhappy Christians ran about the streets, shouting, weeping, pleading, until lance, scimitar or knife stretched them on the pavement in their blood. Inside the houses women were dragged by the hair to windows and pushed through, old men were cut down, children were stabbed with pikes under the very beds where they hid.

When the orgy of killing had spent itself, rape took its place. Here is an extract from Critobulus, the Christian renegade who had entered the Sultan’s service.

‘Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge. The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions . . . there were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury. This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses, seized them, dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonoured them, raped them at the crossroads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages. It is even said that at the mere sight of those savages many girls were so stupefied that they almost gave up the ghost. Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten, and beautiful children of noble family were carried off. Priests were led into captivity in batches as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions and a thousand other terrible things happened.’

With senses satisfied the Turks gave themselves up to pillage. Shops, houses, palaces, churches—nothing was spared. Let us turn again to Critobulus.

‘Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints’ shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind. Chalices and cups for the celebration of the mass were set aside for their orgies or broken or melted down or sold. Priests’ garments embroidered with gold and set with pearls and gems were sold to the highest bidder and thrown into the fire to extract the gold. Immense numbers of sacred and profane books were flung on to the fire or tom up and trampled underfoot. However, the majority were sold at derisory prices, for a few pence. Saints’ altars, tom from their foundations were overturned. All the most holy hiding places were violated and broken in order to get out the holy treasures which they contained.’

Amongst all these outrages the profanation of Saint Sophia stood out. In the great church an immense crowd was assembled, praying despairingly. The famous bronze doors had been closed, and full of anguish all awaited the imminent arrival of the conquerors. Suddenly violent blows shook and broke down the doors, and a tide of blood-covered brutes swept into the holy place. To make room for themselves they began by using the pike and scimitar a little; but they were in the grip of covetousness, not sadism. Here, they said to themselves as they looked about, fortune awaits us. In an instant, all who were young, good-looking and healthy were stripped, despoiled and herded. High-born women, young and gentle girls of noble family, now naked under their long hair, fell thus into slavery. Their masters bound them with whatever was at hand: sashes, belts, kerchiefs, stoles, tent ropes, camel and horse reins. With blows and kicks they were herded outside into long columns, to be led to a shameful fate and to all the extremities of the Islamic world.

Then came the turn of the Church where generations of the pious had added to the store of sacred treasures. There were vases of gold and silver studded with pearls and precious stones, sacerdotal garments of prodigious richness, reliquaries, icons and luminaries. All were broken open, pillaged and destroyed. To amuse their comrades some capered about in priests’ robes, holding up a crucifix surmounted by a turban. The famous relics which had protected the town—the bodies of the most illustrious martyrs, the most glorious champions of orthodoxy, and the most celebrated icons—were wrenched from their settings of precious metal and thrown out amongst the dead bodies and wandering dogs. In all history only the sack of Jerusalem can compare with this! To make their attitude quite clear the Turks stabled their camels there and installed their public women; and the Church of the Holy Wisdom became a stable and a brothel.

The orthodox still recount a legend which has come down to them from this tragic time. At the very moment that the great church was attacked the wall behind the altar opened and the priest who was officiating disappeared into it, bearing the holy chalice, and the wall closed up again. When at last an orthodox ruler returns to Constantinople, that priest will emerge from the wall and complete the mass which was so tragically interrupted many centuries ago.

As for the Sultan, he was sensual rather than acquisitive, and more interested in people than in goods. Phrantzes, the faithful servant of the Basileus, has recounted the fate of his young and good-looking family. His three daughters were consigned to the Imperial harem, even the youngest, a girl of fourteen who died there in despair. His only son, John, a fifteen-year-old boy, was killed by the Sultan himself for having repelled his advances. The Basileus was survived by his brother, the Grand Duke Lukas Notaras, the second personage of the Empire and a man of great intelligence and ability. At first the Sultan covered him with honours and discussed with him the possibility of his becoming governor of the town, with responsibility for clearing up and repopulation. One night, having been told of the graces of Notaras’ youngest son, he sent a eunuch to fetch him. When Notaras told the Sultan that his religion did not permit him to consent to so ignominious a proposal, the Sultan was seized with anger and caused both the boy and his brother and father to be brought before him. Then he summoned the executioner. Notaras asked to be put to death last in order, says Critobulus, ‘that his children perhaps fearing death, might not be tempted to renounce their faith to purchase their lives’. Standing there pale-faced, but without lowering his eyes, Notaras saw his two sons decapitated. He prayed and in his turn bowed his head to the blade. As for the Sultan, it pleased him to stare for some time at the faces of his three victims.

Critobulus has assessed the impact on Byzantium of the events of those few days in spring 1453.

‘Constantinople seemed to have been visited by a hurricane or to have been burnt in some fire. It became suddenly silent. . . . The Turkish sailors were extremely active in bringing about this destruction for they upset, undermined and turned upside down everything more thoroughly than the Persian Datis at Eritrea. They broke temples, chapels, ancient shrines, tombs, crypts, vaults and all the most secret hiding places. They examined everything. They pulled everybody and everything out of their hiding places. . . . The whole army, both of land and sea, flooded through the town from break of day till nightfall, pillaging and wrecking and carrying booty back to camp and ship. Nevertheless there were some like hawks who took hold of things, crept away stealthily and returned straight home. In this manner was the whole city emptied and depopulated and destroyed as though by a fire and changed into a tomb. Seeing it thus one would have found it hard to believe that it ever contained men’s homes, wealth, abundance or any goods or ornaments, and that in a city which had been so brilliant and great. Now there were only deserted dwellings, which by their tomb-like appearance instilled terror in the minds of those who contemplated them.

The same author tells an interesting story about the Sultan. ‘When he saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. “What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!” His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.’

It was, we said at the beginning of this chapter, over a simple question of winds that Byzantium fell. The Christian fleet bearing reinforcements had been off Chios for a month, waiting for a wind. The little brigantine had passed nearby without seeing it. During a whole month it would have sufficed if the weather had been favourable for just one day; then would the Turks have raised the siege and hastily withdrawn. One windy day— on such things hang the fate of empires and the course of history.

The book is a popularisation of Byzantium, and in fact a very good one, which I recommend.  We need not cavil at details of accuracy.  It is intended for people who know nothing of the Eastern Empire.  Doubtless the text of “Critobulos” has suffered in being translated from Greek into French and then into English.  But the author’s object was not dry scholarship, but to inspire interest, and emotion involvement in his readers.  In this he has succeeded admirably.  I wish the book were online.

However, for purposes of controversy – which I think is the origin of the internet use – it would be better to use Riggs’ translation of the whole of Critobulos.

That said, Guerdan’s book was published in 1962, when men were free to say what they thought, in a way unthinkable today.  This led me to wonder whether Guerdan dressed up Critobulos’ description of the rape of the city, in order to sell more copies; or whether Riggs played it down, in deference to modern politics?  Let us hope the former.

The sack of Constantinople in 1453 (Part 2)

A commenter queried the outcome of an investigation that I began in The sack of Constantinople in 1453, and asked whether the “quote” with which I started was, or was not, found in Critobulous.

Here is the Riggs’ translation of the passage describing the sack of Constantinople, which must be the passage in question (p.71 f.):

§ 237. Then a great slaughter occurred of those who happened to be there: some of them were on the streets, for they had already left the houses and were running toward the tumult when they fell unexpectedly on the swords of the soldiers; others were in their own homes and fell victims to the violence of the Janissaries and other soldiers, without any rhyme or reason; others were resisting, relying on their own courage; still others were fleeing to the churches and making supplication – men, women, and children, everyone, for there was no quarter given.

§ 238. The soldiers fell on them with anger and great wrath. For one thing, they were actuated by the hardships of the siege. For another, some foolish people had hurled taunts and curses at them from the battlements all through the siege. Now, in general they killed so as to frighten all the City, and to terrorize and enslave all by the slaughter.

§ 239.  When they had had enough of murder, and the City was reduced to slavery, some of the troops turned to the mansions of the mighty, by bands and companies and divisions, for plunder and spoil. Others went to the robbing of churches, and others dispersed to the simple homes of the common people, stealing, robbing, plundering, killing, insulting, taking and enslaving men, women, and children, old and young, priests, monks-in short, every age and class.

§ 240. There was a further sight, terrible and pitiful beyond all tragedies: young and chaste women of noble birth and well to do, accustomed to remain at home and who had hardly ever left their own premises, and handsome and lovely maidens of splendid and renowned families, till then unsullied by male eyes-some of these were dragged by force from their chambers and hauled off pitilessly and dishonorably.

§ 241. Other women, sleeping in their beds, had to endure nightmares. Men with swords, their hands bloodstained with murder, breathing out rage, speaking out murder indiscriminate, flushed with all the worst things-this crowd, made up of men from every race and nation, brought together by chance, like wild and ferocious beasts, leaped into the houses, driving them out mercilessly, dragging, rending, forcing, hauling them disgracefully into the public highways, insulting them and doing every evil thing.

§ 242. They say that many of the maidens, even at the mere unaccustomed sight and sound of these men, were terror-stricken and came near losing their very lives. And there were also honorable old men who were dragged by their white hair, and some of them beaten unmercifully. And well-born and beautiful young boys were carried off.

§ 243. There were priests who were driven along, and consecrated virgins who were honorable and wholly unsullied, devoted to God alone and living for Him to whom they had consecrated themselves. Some of these were forced out of their cells and driven off, and others dragged out of the churches where they had taken refuge and driven off with insult and dishonor, their cheeks scratched, amid wailing and lamentation and bitter tears. Tender children were snatched pitilessly from their mothers, young brides separated ruthlessly from their newly-married husbands. And ten thousand other terrible deeds were done.

§ 244. And the desecrating and plundering and robbing of the churches – how can one describe it in words? Some things they threw in dishonor on the ground – ikons and reliquaries and other objects from the churches. The crowd snatched some of these, and some were given over to the fire while others were torn to shreds and scattered at the crossroads. The last resting-places of the blessed men of old were opened, and their remains were taken out and disgracefully torn to pieces, even to shreds, and made the sport of the wind while others were thrown on the streets.

§ 245. Chalices and goblets and vessels to hold the holy sacrifice, some of them were used for drinking and carousing, and others were broken up or melted down and sold. Holy vessels and costly robes richly embroidered with much gold or brilliant with precious stones and pearls were some of them given to the most wicked men for no good use, while others were consigned to the fire and melted down for the gold.

§ 246. And holy and divine books, and others mainly of profane literature and philosophy, were either given to the flames or dishonorably trampled under foot. Many of them were sold for two or three pieces of money, and sometimes for pennies only, not for gain so much as in contempt. Holy altars were torn from their foundations and overthrown. The walls of sanctuaries and cloisters were explored, and the holy places of the shrines were dug into and overthrown in the search for gold. Many other such things they dared to do.

§ 247. Those unfortunate Romans who had been assigned to other parts of the wall and were fighting there, on land and by the sea, supposed that the City was still safe and had not suffered reverses, and that their women and children were free-for they had no knowledge at all of what had happened. They kept on fighting lustily, powerfully resisting the attackers and brilliantly driving off those who were trying to scale the walls. But when they saw the enemy in their rear, attacking them from inside the City, and saw women and children being led away captives and shamefully treated, some were overwhelmed with hopelessness and threw themselves with their weapons over the wall and were killed, while others in utter despair dropped their weapons from hands already paralyzed, and surrendered to the enemy without a struggle, to be treated as the enemy chose.

The extremely vivid language of the original quotation is not, therefore, found in the original.  I suspect that it is a modern rewriting of Critobulos.  One would have to look at “Guerdan and Halliday” to see whether that text was theirs.[1]

UPDATE: I have ordered a copy of Guerdan, so we will find out.

  1. [1]Byzantium: its triumphs and tragedy, by R. Guerdan, trans. by D. L. B. Halliday, Allen and Unwin (1954).

Facsimile edition of the ms. of Critoboulos’ History of the Fall of Constantinople to be published

I have written before about the history of Kritoboulos of Imbros, which describes the sack of Constantinople in 1453.  The author was a Greek renegade who entered Turkish service.  The text was published in a critical edition in 1983. An English translation from an earlier edition exists by Charles Riggs.  From the latter I learn that:

The original manuscript of this valuable work is one of the treasures of the Seraglio Point Museum Library in Istanbul today, and it is carefully guarded as such. It was discovered in the Library in 1865, and five years later was transcribed by Herr Karl Mueller and printed in Paris in Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, Vol. V. The dedicatory Epistle to Mehmed was published separately by Tischendorf in 1870.

It seems that the Greek consul in Istanbul, Vasilis Bornovas, is an enterprising man who is interested in promoting the study of Greek in Istanbul.  According to this report, he started a school in Istanbul to teach Greek in 2009:

The General Consul of Greece in Istanbul Vasilis Bornovas, realized the Greek language and cultural interest by the Turks.  He opened a Greek language school in Sismanogleio Megaro, in Istanbul. According to the Greek Consul: “The first year of opening we had 50-60 students, but last year their number reached 200. This year we expect to have 500-600 students. As I am informed, Greeks express great interest about learning Turkish and in Greece there are 150 schools, while many people come to Istanbul in order to have lessons in TOMER (Turkish Language Learning Center)”.

From the website of the Canellopoulos Foundation here, I learn that he has now arranged for the publication of a photographic copy of the Istanbul manuscript, with Turkish facing translation, doubtless in the same cause of promoting mutual understanding.  The funding is mainly coming from this foundation, who are to be commended for such an interesting project.

The Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Foundation is contributing to the costs of publishing the Histories of Critoboulos of Imbros, in response to a proposal by Vasilis Bornovas, Embassy Attaché First Class and former Greek Consul General to Constantinople.

The book contains a Turkish translation of the historical writings of Critoboulos, and is expected to deepen understanding of the historical period of transition from the Byzantine to the Ottoman era.

I learned of all this today when I encountered a rather confused article here, which makes an announcement about this work.

An important manuscript was discovered in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. … The manuscript found is of significant meaning, because it consists of information regarding the years before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, but it also describes the early years after Constantinople was turned into Istanbul and became capital of Turkey.

The document belongs to Michael Critovoulos, a Greek politician, scholar and historian, who lived between 1410 and 1470. His birth-name was Kritopoulos, but he changed it to sound more ancient Greek-like.

He experienced the Siege and Fall of Constantinople and wrote about Mehmed II the Conqueror. … The chronicle of destruction and looting of the city by the Ottomans, in order to make it their capital, is also mentioned.

His book, according to the Turkish website Hubermonitor.com, was printed with the contribution of the Pavlos and Alexandra Kanellopoulos Foundation. This will be a bilingual issue, having the original manuscript and the Turkish translation by Aris Tsokonas on the one page and the colourful photocopy of the text on the other.

The consul is to be commended.  Fostering understanding is doubtless part of his job; but what an imaginative way to do this!  Long after all diplomatic endeavours have proven vain, and perhaps in centuries to come, when the names of Greece and Turkey have become merely a historical curiosity to some Chinese overlord of the world, the book that he made possible may transmit the work of Critoboulos to a remote future.