The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople
While visiting Istanbul, I had decided I wanted to walk some part of these walls (eventually I’d like to walk their entire length), so for this first venture, I started at the Edirne Gate, near Edirnekapı rail station, meandering alongside the walls to finish at the Golden Horn.
The sign, next to the Edirne Gate, translates (thanks to my friend Onur) as:
“On this year of Muslim calendar 20th of year 857 and Christian calendar of 29th of May 1453, Fatih’s Army entered the city from a breach opened around here”.
Fatih means “Conquerer”, and is how the Sultan Mehmet, who led the Ottoman Turks, was referred to after this day. The siege lasted weeks, The Sultan Mehmet’s forces numbered well over 100,000 and the city was defended by just 7,000 men. How could 7,000 men hold off such an army? This is not a simple answer, yet it is quite straightforward; the Theodosian Walls.
The Theodosian Walls were the third land-walls to be built to fortify the settlements in this area. The first were built during the reign of the Emperor Severus in the late 2nd Century after he had laid waste to the original fortifications of the town of Byzantium; the inhabitants of which had had the temerity to oppose his ascendency as Emperor. When the Emperor Constantine converted Byzantium to “New Rome” (or Constantinople as the citizens at the time named it) in 330, he also expanded the new city’s boundary, building the walls of Constantine.
The third set, the Theodosian Walls, were erected during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450). The original construction is not entirely clear as these walls (and the Constantine Walls) were badly damaged in earthquakes in the 440′s. The walls are repaired in 448, and after the repairs and rebuilding undertaken at this time the walls take the shape and architecture we see today. Uncertain, because it is not clear whether the original designs incorporated both the small, outer wall, and larger inner wall, or whether the outer wall was added during this reconstruction.
The final form of the walls are impressive and massive. The walls run for over 6kms, from the Sea of Marmara at its southern end, to the plains of the Golden Horn (the old imperial harbour) at its north. A moat/ditch, averaging 18 metres wide lies at the feet of the walls, then there is a smaller outer wall, then a larger inner wall, and a gap between the two walls. Both walls are studded with interleaving towers. There are different gates running along the length of the walls, some for military purpose, others to allow transit in and out of the enclosed city. The city then has about 13kms of sea walls traversing the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. These walls described the boundary of the great City of Constantinople for over 1000 years.
Simple, yet not quite straightforward? Am I being deliberately obtuse? I don’t think so, as their impact is significant, yet not entirely as clear as you might think. The walls repulsed invading armies, hordes of barbarians and their significance is both hard to understand and to over-estimate from that point of view, and of course, that was why they were built. But it is interesting to ponder the consequences of this success.x
So, the Theodosian walls, extended the city boundaries, enclosing it, as the Aurelian walls did for Rome and other walls for other cities in the Empire (Aquileia is a notable example). Yet shortly after the Theodosian walls were completed, the walls (and more particularly the defence they are meant to provide) are in disarray due to severe earthquake damage in the 440′s, and Attila the Hun is not far away in the Balkans. The Romans repair and rebuild the walls in just 60 days; a mammoth and extraordinary effort from all accounts. When Attila approaches Constantinople shortly after, he turns away from the city, defeated by their sheer size and the magnitude of the task that besieging the city would require. He was eventually to ravage much of the Empire, demanding and getting tribute after sacking city after city, until he finally goes west. But Constantinople is untouched. Attila’s army was eventually defeated by the General Aetius in 452 in the Provence of Gaul (modern day France). Well perhaps defeated is too strong a word, but certainly his onward march was curtailed. Aetius did win the battle, Attila did slowly, painfully withdraw from the Western empire, pillaging, sacking, laying waste as he went, casting a broad swathe of destruction in his retreat and withdrawal from the confines of the Empire. While Aetius did not have the strength to truly defeat the Huns, he did stop them, and they did leave. Eventually. The western Empire was to fall a scant 20 years later in 473.
By the 550′s the population of Constantinople, under the Emperor Justinian, is estimated to be about 1 million people. In 537 the Hagia Sophia is built, a building of extraordinary architecture and presence, the greatest, amongst many building projects during his reign. He was also to extend the boundaries of the empire, including excursions into Italy, retaking even Rome itself for a short period of time, and its original heart was once again apart of the larger Empire. During Justinian’s reign the Eastern Empire was to reach its greatest extent and this period marks the zenith of the Eastern empire. It was to prove however, to be unsustainable, and shortly after his reign, the territorial gains were to slowly regress from the rule of Constantinople.
The Arabs, emerging with their newly-minted religion of Islam, were set on a mission to conquer the known world. In 674-78 the Islamic Arabs were first to besiege Constantinople, having already conquered their way through the eastern provinces of the Empire, notably Syria and Palestine. During this siege, Eyup Sultan, the standard bearer and a companion of Mohammed, was killed (the first Mosque built after Constantinople was conquered was dedicated to Eyup Sultan). However, they failed against these walls.
In 717-18, the Arabs again besiege the city, and again fail to take it. Historians now see this event as one of the truly significant battles in world history, despite it being passed-over for many centuries. After this war, the boundary between the Arab Hegemony and the Eastern Roman Empire is essentially drawn; the southern boundary of the Asia Provence (modern day Southern Turkey) of the empire. While the fortunes of the Eastern Romans was to fluctuate and they were to take parts of the eastern Mediterranean coast, Syria, etc, and then surrender them again, the Arabs and other Islamic armies did not proceed past this point until the rise of the Ottomans in 1300. The bulwark of the Byzantines shaped the expanding Muslim ascendency, pushing it into the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa and parts of the Iberian Peninsula; forcing them to go “the long way” around the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
The Roman (and Greek) culture that was found in these regions was destroyed, the people converting (whether voluntarily or not) to Islam, to the extent that today, there seems to be little consciousness that these areas were Roman provinces for hundreds of years, and we refer to all of these areas as Arab countries as if this was their native state. The Arab expansion was to halt in Spain, it is thought due to over-extended supply lines and insurmountable logistic problems. Perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the Romans at their height were able to successfully manage this vast area, of which these regions were only a part) for hundreds of years. As the West fell into decay and forgot its past, falling prey to religious dogma and superstition, the so-called “Dark Ages”, it was protected by the city, Constantinople, that was the capital of the (Eastern) Empire for over 1000 years.
Before leaving the Arabs, it is perhaps worth noting that the Turkic tribes who were to become the Ottomans, were themselves conquered and converted to Islam during this period of the Arab conquest. Their original background is thought to be remnants of the Huns and other nomadic tribes, but yes, those Huns, of Attila, the Scourge of God. It seems somewhat ironic that the ultimate conquerers of Constantinople should be the descendants of the original “barbarians” the walls were first to repel.
After 718, Constantinople’s fortunes would wax and wane, with various attacks on the city from states to the north and east of the city, from both Bulgars and Russians, before the Crusades were to leave their indelible mark.
Coincident with the first crusades, the Empire which had fallen into hard times re-emerged with a strong and resilient government and was to flourish again. It was strong enough to stand against the Crusades, to command some respect and deference not just for its history, but for its current organisation and power. This was a difficult period, barbaric westerners ignorant of the past, of the delicate political balances in the East. The tales of the crusaders, the brutality with which they attacked the Muslims (then in possession of Jerusalem) should give one pause.
While the Byzantines could hold their own for a while against the western presence, this was not to last; for with the fourth crusade of 1204 the city was to be sacked, the empire overrun; a fall from which it never truly recovered. The Western crusaders were to venture into, to conquer in some cases, both previous and existing provinces of the Byzantine Empire, taking these for short periods from the Saracens. The relationship between the two Christian powers was fraught with distrust, dissembling and at best an uneasy and guarded relation; both East and West churches ex-communicated each other, each claiming themselves to represent the true faith. The Westerners were coming from societies of illiterates, their Kings could barely read or write, and they were a people unaware of their history. Nearly all knowledge of their Greco-Roman past that had been destroyed (both wantonly and through the ravages of neglect and forgetfulness), and it was a history that was viewed with distrust, either as pagan and misguided, by a Church set upon promulgating a singular, Christian doctrine of an indisputable and singular view of the world. The equivocation of the Greek philosophers and culture, their multitude of truths, speculative philosophy ran directly counter to this dogma, and the church fathers would generally adopt philosophy (most notably Aristotle) that was found to be in general agreement with Christian theology. In the West, the period is rife with the declaration and persecution of heretical beliefs and sects.
So, imagine the Crusaders, in their first forays to the East, arriving in the Christian city of Constantinople. This city, capital of the Christian Roman Empire, in uninterrupted lineage from the first (pagan) Emperor, Augustin; the city of Constantine the Great, the founder of Christian Rome, the emperor who wed the political power of the Empire with the one god of the Christian faith, passing through countless generations, in an unbroken lineage. How must they have felt, confronted first by its massive walls, then by a functioning city enclosed within, a city of unfathomable size and sophistication? A city with heating, running hot water, schools for its children, studying philosophy and literature, a history that is counted in millennia, a practise of medicine, including women doctors. This surely was a city out of the mists of mythology and living legend in unbroken lineage from the “forgotten” classic past. Did the protected even know of their protector’s role in their own salvation?
The relationship between the brutish and ignorant Westerners (a reading of the history really leaves little room for any other characterisation) and the sophisticates of the Eastern empire was a difficult, uncomprehending relationship. The Westerners seem arrogant, barbarous, the Easterners timid and dissembling. This was to lead to the eventual application of that brute force, with the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the 4th Crusade. The brutality of the event is so succinctly summed up by Steven Runciman (History of the Crusades, pp111 on)
“For nine centuries the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen. The Venetians, wherever they could, seized treasures and carried them off. But the Frenchmen and Flemings were filled with a lust for destruction: They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine-cellars. Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In St Sophia itself, drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank from the altar-vessels, a prostitute sang a ribald French song on the Patriarch’s throne. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes continued until the huge and beautiful city was a shambles. Even after order was restored, citizens were tortured to make them reveal treasures they had hidden.”
One frenchmen of the time was reportedly to have remarked that while a sixth of the city was to burn during these three days, even this was larger than the totality of any city then existent in the West.
Despite this barbarity, one has to imagine that some in the crusading armies took a more thoughtful approach to the discovered past. Constantinople was not unknown to the West, but it does seem like it had more of a mythic quality, than as a real city, of people, of a culture. But surely, despite all of this, surely some of the crusaders would stay, taking wives and bearing children, taking lessons, learning the ways of the city, and then at some point to return to their homes, to the West, and spread the knowledge of centuries; not only Christian knowledge, but the texts of philosophers, the statutory and art of the classic world. There are existent records of Byzantine scholars giving lectures in Italian universities, and consequently of Greek being introduced as a language of study given all of the learning, the literature, to be found in that language, but I think one should think of the “common man” and the affect those experiences and tales would have.
After the 4th Crusade, for a period of 60 years the Latins ruled the city and its empire, the so-called Latin Emperors, but their rule is characterised by ignorance, by an indulgence and neglect that bears witness to the totality of their ignorance, they had no clue what was involved to run a state of the complexity of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were to take the city back with a few men one night, as the city lay, stupefied and unguarded. However, the consequent restoration of the empire was a poor shadow of its former self, with the city and indeed its culture, lay in ruins, barely able to preserve its heritage, its culture and the surviving remnants of its territories. In all truthfulness, you are left with the impression that the ultimate conquest of the Crusades was not the “heathen Muslims”, but rather the “Byzantine heretics”, and in many respects one has to wonder if this was not, eventually, to become their goal. The real riches and wealth of the East lay not in Jerusalem, or in the broader Middle East, but in Constantinople. I don’t believe the history really bares out any surviving idealism of the Crusader’s original religious zeal, but became, like most wars, about the acquisition of wealth and power.
The Byzantines return to a denuded city in the 1260′s. It was also at this time that the Ottoman power rose and slowly encroached upon the lands of the former empire. Despite the crusades, the Byzantines were, again and again, to seek help from the West. From their point of view the larger threat was to Christian civilisation from a re-ascendent Islam under the aegis of the Ottomans. The price of assistance was forever, unequivocal, submission to the Catholic church; the renunciation of the orthodox heresy. The Catholic disdain would rather see the Christian East fall, and the East would ultimately chose conquest over renunciation.
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks is itself a long tale, of heroism, of bravery, of the unrivalled unity of purpose of the Sultan’s army, the unremitting valour of the few who remained to protect the city, the last remaining vestige of the Roman empire. The siege itself was to take several weeks, with the armies of the Sultan concentrating on the area to the north of the Topkapi Gate, in the valley of the Lycus River. The sultan had also had the services of a Hungarian, who was able to build and design cannon large enough to batter down the walls. Previous versions of this gun were used to block the Bosphorus, and thus cut-off the trade and supply routes to the city from the north.
In the night before the final assault on the city, there was a special call to prayer, and the invading army, in the early hours of the 29th of May, 1453, to a man prayed as one. It is not hard to imagine, after weeks of exhausting, never ending siege, that such a show of unity would be overwhelming, yet still the Byzantines would fight to their bitter end. Finally, the city was to fall. While three days of sacking were to ensue (seems that three days was the traditional sacking period!), the sacking was not as destructive nor to lead to as many deaths (rapes, etc) as was endured under the 4th Crusade. Critical buildings in the city, such as the Hagia Sophia, were to have their Christian identities stripped bare, replaced, converted, built-over, re-crafted as embodiments of the conquerer’s Islamic faith, but the damage to the city itself was kept to a minimum. The muslims had come not to destroy, but truly to conquer, to remake the empire in their own image.
With Constantinople now theirs, the Ottomans would expand and build their empire, as much inspired by, and in the spirit of, the Romans, yet cast in the confines of Islam. The Ottoman empire was to become the largest Islamic caliphate the world has seen until its ultimate demise in the 20th century, and it seems to embody much of the ideal of the Byzantine empire, in culture and even in the territories that it would conquer; its territories having a similar shape to them as the Eastern Roman empire, and of course, the city at the heart of both was the same (and the name remained: Constantinople).
The foregoing is a coarse overview, a generalised telling (though I hope not inaccurately so) of a complex history that spanned centuries and many peoples. This is a newly discovered history for me, and I think for many in the West, and the consequences of its fall are as equally dramatic I think, as its previous existence. It is worth noting that our very idea and characterisation of “West” and “East” is a Roman concept, first formerly defined by the Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century, as he first divided the empire into western and eastern administrations.
The fall of Constantinople coincides with an emergent spirit in the West, an exuberance of discovery and cultural expansion that was to become the Renaissance as the Byzantines flee their fallen city and find refuge in Italy. That the Renaissance should explode with such force is telling, for it shows how much the West had forgotten of its own roots, its own history. As we go from Renaissance to Enlightenment, we see the emergence of newly minted knowledge and ideas, the emergence of science, of philosophical thought and enquiry, of new social structures leading to the eventual separation of church and state, church and knowledge, church and morality, and ultimately the modern, secular societies that characterise the West today.
As the West emerges from its slumber it seems though to have little tolerance for the East, seeing the Byzantines as a civilisation of questionable value and corruption, with no lesser figures as Voltaire and Gibbon both dismissing it as essentially a degenerative culture. That the Ottomans sought to embody the spirit of the East, taking this as the model for their Empire, and as that empire, an embodiment also of Islam, an empire that enriched upon the boundaries of the West, probably didn’t help! The term “Byzantine” itself was a modern coinage used to refer to the Easter Roman Empire, and as a verb – byzantine – has come to mean effeminate and dissembling. We should bear in mind that the Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, their city Constantinople. As you look at these walls, can you truly believe this characterisation of the people who both built them and then defended the city they protected for over a thousand years?
I knew little of the importance of the East for the Roman empire. I also knew little of the poisoned chalice that was to mark the Catholic Church for the Byzantines, who were ultimately to chose their own demise over the surrender of their culture, the denial of their religion, to it. And the west, not only sacking and looting in the 4th Crusade, but ultimately to demand this complete and unconditional supplication as a precondition of any aid in their final hour of need, or perish. Perish they did.
From all of this there are two questions that come to my mind. The first in the form of a speculation about the ultimate role and influence of the walls for the Eastern Empire, and for Constantinople in particular. It cannot be argued that the walls defended, protected and preserved the empire through many centuries, against many enemies. In that they achieved their objective, indeed surpassed it. The Aurelian walls of Rome, though perhaps as formidable, ultimately would fail to preserve Rome itself from misfortune.
As time progresses, for many reasons, the Byzantines continue to be wracked by civil wars, by internal strife and division; internal discord amongst the Byzantines was even to play its part in the success of the Ottomans. You start to form an impression of an empire that slowly turned in on itself, that it sees around it a vast array of armies, religions, kings, that for one reason or another wish their destruction. None of these contained the ultimate cultural diversity, the architectural richness, the historical record that was present in Constantinople and other cities of the empire. Yet, Constantinople had no longer the strength to impose their will, as the Romans of old had done so successfully. Even as the Byzantines would expand into Italy, Sicily and other former territories of the empire they did so as invaders, as foreigners, and seemed unable to knit together a broader society which the earlier Romans had been so successful at doing.
Ultimately failing, that is too harsh I think, but not ultimately succeeding to engage with those that were not Byzantine, do we see the Byzantines slowly withdrawing from the world, withdrawing behind their protective walls, preserving what they can, not only of their religion, but of their culture, their knowledge, their way of life? One wonders if the walls might have encouraged an isolation, why venture out into a hostile world, putting life at risk? As Gibbon and others have observed, you have to wonder the place of monotheistic religion in this failure, a fundamental flaw of a singular truth, when others adhere to their own singular version of the world, opposed, different, Easter or Western Christian, Christian or Muslim. To embrace many truths is a form of polytheism, an alien notion in a monotheistic religion that denounces a diversity of truth and belief. And yet, of course, the paradox of the Byzantines is that they were not ignorant of the ancient worlds philosophy, of Greek thought. Perhaps the byzantine culture was an expression of this ultimate and fundamental paradox!
And the second… One is left to wonder about the influence of the Byzantine culture on the Ottomans themselves. There are obvious signs, the architecture of the great Mosques of Istanbul owe their principle design and inspiration to the Hagia Sophia. But of culture? I don’t know, as they did not embrace the surging knowledge and discovery of the West’s Renaissance and Enlightenment, and their actions, essentially blocking the trade routes to the East, led to the West’s explorations of alternate pathways to the far East, first sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, and then Columbus’ search for a quicker route to the Far East led to his discovery of the Americas. Perhaps seeing themselves as the inheritors of Rome, remaking the Empire after their fashion, including its transformation from Christian to Islamic ideology (one singular truth for another singular truth) actually served to narrow their view, to miss the true significance of the classic knowledge, culture and art they had inherited, the true empire, which the West, with their centuries of darkness, embraced with the fervour of a people starved.