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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Byzantium - Nova Roma - Constantinople



Flavius Valerius Constantinus, first Emperor of Constantinople (306 to 337 AD)
 Constantinople, the City of Constantine (the "polis of Constantinos"), flourished from its foundation on the classical town of Byzantium in 330 AD. Situated on a strong defensible triangle of land on the European side of the Bosporus strait, strategically placed at the intersection of the Mediterranean basin with the trade routes to the Black Dea and Russia, and on the border between the European and Asian Continents, it was to become a bustling, cosmopolitan city, wealthy as a centre of international commerce, learning, faith and politics. Its quays and harbours along the great waterway on its northern shore became so crammed with goods for trade and made the fortunes of so many that it became known as the Golden Horn.

It's founder, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great had seen it as a “Nova Roma”, the New Rome, but it soon became known instead as the “City of Constantine” after its patron, who had endowed it with many new buildings, a Senate and, as he became the first Roman ruler to tolerate Christianity, many churches and monasteries. When Rome fell to German barbarians in the 5th century, it became by far the greatest city in the western world and the centre of the continuing eastern Roman Empire. The fortunes of both City and Empire would wax and wane for the next thousand years - in paticular, the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D. saw Arab armies sweeping across the Roman lands of Palestine, Syria and northern Africa and eventually striking as far as Constantinople, besieiging it twice before being driven off by the Imperial navy and the Empire's secret weapon of "Greek Fire". But the lost lands, other than parts of Syria, were never recovered.

Although known to history as the Byzantine Empire, its citizens continued to call themselves Romans throughout its history and its ruler, the Autocrator or Basileus, claimed direct continuation of his (and occasionally her) authority from Octavian Augustus, nephew of Caesar and the first Emperor of Rome. In time, though, as Christianity became entrenched as its faith, the Emperor evolved to be God’s representative on Earth and the Patriarch of the City became his appointee as Head of the Christian Orthdox Communion within the Church.

This placed Constantinople at odds with the Pope of the Catholic Church who, in the old imperial capital of Rome, was by the 8th century politically independent of the Empire and seeking to establish his religious superiority over all Christians. Although a long dispute within the Empire over the place of religious images, and especially icons of Christ and the Virgin, was ultimately concluded by agreement with the Papacy, the tension between Pope and Emperor was to remain, especially when the Frank ruler Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the western Holy Roman Empire by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. Although the revived western realm was far from an empire and soon fell into faction, this event marked a huge blow to eastern Roman claims to still be the rightful, God-appointed rulers of the world.

In time this led to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches of 1054 and, through the Crusades of the late 11th and 12th centuries, which were generally unwelcome to the Romans, the tension and distrust between the two grew in spite of a common threat from the Muslim Saracens in the east. In 1204, this reached a climax when the Fourth Crusade under the Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandalo, turned aside from their journey to the Holy Land and instead sacked Constantinople, at the time the wealthiest city in Europe.




The Fourth Crusade turned on Constantinople in 1204
    Although the Romans re-established their Empire again in 1261, it was a hollow husk of what had been. As a new Muslim Turkish power, the Ottomans, grew in Anatolia, gradually pushing the Empire out of Asia altogether, the Romans turned on themselves in a series of civil wars. While there was some flourishing of the arts and learning in both Constantinople and the southern city of Mistra, by the early 15th century, the Empire was confined to an impoverished Constantinople, a scattering of Aegean islands and the Peloponnesian peninsula, known to them as the Morea.


Constantinos Palaeologos Dragas, the last Emperor of Constantinople (1448 to 1453)
  In 1451, a new Turkish Sultan, Mehmet, ascended the Ottoman throne and, keen to make his mark, barely 21 years old, he led his army against Constantinople. The Roman Autocrator, Constantine Palaeologos (pictured above), led a brave defence of the once might city. He patched together some 7,000 defenders to cover 15 miles of walls and resisted stubbornly for nearly 2 months. But the Ottomans used an array of new weapons and military innovation, including powerful artillery, to bring down the once impregnable city walls. In desperate fighting in the early hours of 29 May, 1453, Constantine finally fell along with thousands of his troops and the Ottomans swept into the city.

Mehmet was moved to see the ruins of the city and soon sought to rebuild it, encouraging Christians and Jews to settle there as well as Muslims. It soon became a rich and cosmopolitan city once more. Jews expelled from Christian Spain settled there to find sanctuary, as did many Christians driven east by the Inquisition. Constantinople survived and thrived for centuries, evolving to its incarnation today as Istanbul, the mighty metropolis that straddles the shores of Europe and Asia, still now a bridge between east and west.


Istanbul 2008 set2 080
The sea approach to the Golden Horn from the northern Bosporos strait today