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 The conquest of Constantinople: an atavic wound
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6 Posts

Posted - 10 Jun 2015 :  15:49:14  

I wish to make a few comments about the way some Greeks today look at the loss of Constantinople, the Muslims and the evils perpetrated by them at the time of the conquest.
I am Christian and a deep admirer of the Greek civilization, with which I fell in love in high-school in Italy, a long time ago. I also learnt ancient Greek. I loved it, I still love it and I still read it today , 60 years after my high-school days .
The ancient Greek language, in the complexity of its syntax and verbal forms, often untranslatable (or approximately translatable) reflects the complexity and the depth of the collective Greek mind which brought it into being and which I admire. On this I share the pride of the modern Greek epigons for thrusting their roots into the rich soil of ancient and byzantine Greece . As a Christian, too, although of Roman Catholic rite, I also share the pride of today’s Greeks for their Christian heritage, its contribution to the arts and to the fundamental ethos of our Western civilization (America aside..). I am also aware that during the dark centuries of the Ottoman rule, if it was not for the underground work of the Greek Church, which kept alive the Greek language and culture, often at great risk, the Greeks would not have re-emerged at the end of the Ottoman rule in the fullness of their national identity and culture .
If it were not for the Church, probably six centuries of Ottoman rule, would have been more than enough for the Greeks to lose their identity and gradually slip, fully assimilated, into the Ottoman-Turkish fold.., as so many other members of other Ottoman Christian communities did , principally by dint of the Ottoman devshirme.
Having said this and in the full understanding of the collective wounds inflicted to the Greeks by their Ottoman masters, A LONG TIME AGO , I think that many Greeks ought to heed less the ancestral “ raisons du coeur” and have a more detached and less acrimonious look at the historical events of the distant past..
There is a tendency to vilify and diabolize the Turks and hold them responsible for the actions perpetrated by their Ottoman ancestors..Years ago , when I was about to travel to Turkey, a Canadian-born acquaintance of Greek origin warned me against… going to Turkey, because, he said, “ I might not come back”(?). Where did he get this idea? Probably from his family, coming from one of the islands formerly under the Ottoman empire..
One often hears or reads Greeks depicting the Turks and the Moslems as barbarians, who, in conquering Constantinople, “ snatched away” the soul of Christian Greece, perpetrating atrocities of all kinds against Christians , destroying churches and monuments..It may well be so, but those were also the days of the Crusades and of the Holy Inquisition, which did no less evil than the Moslems of the day. The Christians, had indeed their share of impaled or stuffed Moslem warriors, of burned down mosques with hundreds of people inside, etc… One also recalls that Constantinople had already been ruthlessly sacked in 1260 by the CHRISTIAN Latin crusaders, who committed no lesser atrocities than the subsequent hordes of Mehmet the Conqueror…
I also think that one should not judge historical events or the deeds of men in the past by today’s criteria Those who decry the barbarism of the Ottoman Turks perhaps overlook the fact that even OUR holy Christian kings of medieval Europe and their “ holy” knights were rude, blood-thirsty , war-mongering brutes who did not hesitate to torture or gut their enemies or their political adversaries.
If the Ottoman would-be sultans did not hesitate to lock up for life, blind, maim and execute their brothers and family members to “ prevent” competition in the family, many self-righteous, Christian byzantine emperors did the same…
More importantly, it is futile to try to undo history: at the time that Greece, inspired by the MEGALE IDEA tried to conquer back Costantinople at the end of WW1, after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople had been Turkish for 400 years! I am not too sure that the Greek claims of ownership of Constantinople in the early XXth century were more legitimate than those of the Turks who had it for 400 years! It is a bit as if today’s Italy tried to conquer back Greece because it belonged to the Roman Empire 2000 years ago.
Traditionally,( at least until the period of decline of the Ottoman Empire in the XVIII and XIX cent. ) the Ottomans were a multi-national and tolerant society, the only obligations of their Christian minorities being to pay their taxes and to keep peace. But, as any Greek well knows, they were also brutal against those who rebelled or tried to subvert the state. This falls, however, within the logic of any empire. We all recall the ruthlessness of the “Pax Romana” ( the Roman idea of peace) distilled in the phrase : " Treat well those who submit, crush those who rebel." And crush them they did!
Until the onset of the European nationalisms in the XIX century, inspired by the Romantic movement, Ottoman Christians, principally Armenians and Greeks, had lived for 400 years in full harmony with the Ottoman-Muslim society , Greeks being essentially in charge of diplomatic and commercial activities…Unfortunately, towards the end of WW1 the western powers, led by the British, promised the Ottoman Greeks to give them back Constantinople and the Aegean coast if they sided with them and helped them to defeat the Turks. And help they did, but they were also slaughtered by Ataturk!
Much the same had happened earlier with the Ottoman Armenians: they helped twice the Russian army to invade Anatolia, lured by Russia’s promise to to give them back their ancient homeland, then within the Ottoman Empire. The consequences have been dire: both Armenians and Greeks were considered and treated as traitors, witness the Armenian genocide . Perhaps one can object to the way the Turks made them pay for their betrayal, but these ways reflect more the ethos of the time than an intrinsic barbarism of the Turks: similar atrocities have happened after all in the west, with Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain, Argentina, Bosnia…Not until our modern “ civil rights” ethos, have prisoners, sometimes even the worst criminals, "enjoyed "their punishment with the full panoply of all modern commodities in their cells : TV, DVD players, maybe cell phones..Before, in other times and places, not only under the Ottomans, but also in the Christian west, they would have known the niceties of unspeakable tortures , like the “strappatio” or” squassatio” practiced by the Inquisition ( basically they would tear your body apart by pulling off arms and legs from their sockets until death ensues.. )
I am neither blaming the Greeks or the Armenians for their patriotism nor condoning the atrocities s of the Ottoman reprisals. Above all, what I utterly deplore and condemn is the cynicism of those powers, whether the Allied in WW1 or, earlier, the Russian Empire, which played upon the nationalistic feelings of the Armenians and the Greeks with the sole purpose of using them for THEIR OWN interest of winning the war and thus gaining control of Anatolia, the Middle East and its oil fields. In this, the lives of thousands of Greeks and Armenians were used and lost as expendable ammunitions..Who is more to blame: the Turks who took revenge or our self-righteous Christian nations, like England or Russia who threw them into the lion’s den?
For all the atrocities against Armenians and Greeks of which he was directly or indirectly part, if it was not for Ataturk, Turkey, HIS country ( and I cannot see why he should have not viewed it as HIS , after 400 years of Turkish presence ! ) would not exist today, partly dismembered among the western powers or reduced to a small, insignificant nation the size of…Massachusetts.
We cannot use two weights and two measures : the Turks were as justified to fight for THEIR land at the time of WW1 as the Greeks were justified to defend Constantinople against them in 1452 . .. Patriotism and national identity cannot work retroactively, by twisting and undoing history in the name a utopic ideal, which has no legitimacy in international law .
WE may all mourn the loss of Constantinople,and I certainly do , but we have NO REASON to hold it against today’s Turkey and Turks.

Thanks for hearing me out




44 Posts

Posted - 11 Jun 2015 :  15:56:02  


Thank you for your thoughts. Indeed May 29th is a day of grief for many of us. Our "Queen City" for over 1000 years, lost.
Note: the crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. But no matter.

I have Turkish friends here in the USA and while they know their history fairly well and we get along, the version of history taught these young men is incomplete. Anti-Hellenic Pogroms as late as the mid 1950s in "Istanbul" belie any innocence in post-Ottoman Turkey. The invasion of Cyprus, another naked wound.
Furthermore, the current government is not exactly what we are led to believe. Direct confrontation with officials not long ago in NYC displayed a continuing animosity towards Hellenes to me. The cameras were not rolling. But my memories are fresh, still. In short, while real Greeks may feel quite differently from this American descended from roots in Trapezounta and Constantinple, I do have reason to find fault.

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615 Posts

Posted - 13 Jun 2015 :  23:42:21  


Dear Ittiandro,

It is one thing not to hold grudges against a person or a people, and a different thing to want and be able to communicate and share a life. We wrong the others not when we feel bitterness (in this case we just want them better, according to our criteria of course), but when we are indifferent, wanting them to just go their way and leave us in peace! Therefore, the crucial question would be in my opinion: have the Turks any features we, as Greeks and "Westerners", should admire, immitate and adopt?

What would provide a solid and real ground for our friendship, when they don't care, e.g. about Homer? We may want for them a free and prosperus life, as we do for all the peoples in the world, but a real friendship needs much more than that, it needs to share the deepest values and aspirations.

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