On May 29, the Orthodox Church remembers the Fall of
Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, in 1453. Named
Constantine the Great, Constantinople was the capital
of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Although
Byzantium’s vast power spanned 11 centuries, its
story is often held hidden.
In his 2006 book, Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost
Empire Shaped the World, Colin Wells describes it:
The successor of Greece and Rome, this magnificent
empire bridged the ancient and modern worlds for more than
a thousand years. Without Byzantium, the works of Homer
and Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and
Aeschylus, would never have survived. Yet very few of us
have any idea of the enormous debt we owe them.
More than just the cultural, economic and political core
of Eurasia, Constantinople was the center of Christianity.
Three of the Seven
Ecumenical Councils, for example, were held there: the
second in 381, the fifth in 553 and the sixth in 680.
Moreover, the Emperor Constantine presided over the
Ecumenical Council and also halted the formal
persecution of Christians with the 313 Edict of Milan.
(To commemorate its 1,700-year anniversary, the Ecumenical
Patriarchate—the center of worldwide
Orthodoxy, which to this day has its See in
Constantinople—organized an international seminar
to discuss religious freedom. His All-Holiness
Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and
Ecumenical Patriarch, opened the conference with a
discerning and insightful keynote address.)
Throughout its history, the Byzantine capital was sought
after: by Persians and Avars in 626; by Arabs in the
seventh and eighth centuries; and, by Russians (who had
not yet converted to Orthodoxy) in 860. Each time,
however, Constantinople was kept in Christian hands.
After the City’s first deliverance from its enemies,
a hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary was
composed as thanksgiving for her protective intercessions
in keeping Constantinople safe. The emotionally stirring
and deeply loved prayer (Ti Ipermaho, in Greek) is chanted
by Orthodox Christians during Great Lent:
Unto You, O Theotokos, invincible Champion, Your City,
in thanksgiving ascribes the victory for the deliverance
from sufferings. And having Your might unassailable, free
me from all dangers, so that I may cry unto You:
“Hail! O Bride
What therefore happened in 1453 that allowed Mehmet II,
surnamed the Conqueror, to capture the Queen of Cities? In
his “Prologue of Ohrid,” Nikolai
Velimirovic, a 20th century Serbian Saint, says that
“Because of the sins of men, God permitted a bitter
calamity to fall upon the capital of Christianity.”
Some say that the Union of Florence, a failed attempt to
reconcile western Christendom with Orthodoxy, was one of
On April 2, 1453, Mehmet and his men reached the city
walls; though different estimates of forces exist, a
compromise figure is that defenders totaled 10,000, while
the attacking force was 250,000 strong.
Despite assorted offensive strategies, the Greeks defended
Constantinople for seven long weeks. The resilience and
fighting ingenuity of the Greeks frustrated the sultan but
in the end it was not enough.
Shortly after dawn on May 29, 1453, the splendid city of
Constantinople was taken.
“For three days and nights,” as the Great
Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church describes, “the
sultan allowed his men to plunder the city …
Property of priceless value, works of art, precious
manuscripts, holy icons and ecclesiastical treasures were
Once ensconced in power, Mehmet was not too unkind to
Christians. In “The Great Church in
Captivity,” Sir Steven Runciman, an eminent British
historian and Philhellene, describes how the “Sultan
was wise enough to see that the welfare of the Greeks
would add to the welfare of his Empire.”
After the Monk Gennadios was confirmed as Patriarch (he,
along with Grand Duke Loukas Notaras, had led the
Church’s anti-Unionist party), Mehmet himself was
present at the investiture. Runciman describes how the
“Sultan handed [Gennadios] the insignia of his
office, the robes, the pastoral staff and the pectoral
cross.” A mosaic depicting this exchange hangs in
the entrance of the Patriarchate today.
Mehmet famously declared, “Be Patriarch, with good
fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the
privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.”
This declaration highlights the importance of, and need
for, religious freedom, including for the present
Ecumenical Patriarch in his ability to exercise his
ecclesiastical authority without interference.
While the Fall of Constantinople marked the end of the
Byzantine Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate persevered;
and while the Fall ushered in a time of martyrdom and
persecutions for Orthodoxy, the One, Holy, Catholic and
Apostolic Church still carries on as the beacon of Truth.