The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, 29 May 1453:

Muhammed II decided to make the general attack on 29 May. While the Sultan was marshalling his troops for the fight on the evening before, the Christians, Greeks and Latins together, joined in their last service in the Hagia Sophia. When they had finished their devotions, the defenders returned to their posts and the Emperor went round inspecting the fortifications until late in the night. The assault began in the early hours of dawn and the city was attacked simultaneously from three sides. For a long time the courageous defenders resisted every onslaught and beat back their opponents. The Sultan then threw in his main reserve, the janissaries who were the picked troops of the Ottoman army, and after a bitter struggle they succeeded in scaling the walls. At the decisive moment Giustiniani, who was fighting side by side with the Emperor, was fatally wounded and had to be carried away. This loss spread confusion in the ranks of the defenders and hastened the Turkish break-through. The city was soon in their hands. Constantine XI fought on to the end and was killed fighting, as he had desired. For three days and three nights the Sultan’s troops were allowed to plunder the city as they had been promised just before the final assault to raise their flagging morale. Property of priceless value, works of art, precious manuscripts, holy icons and ecclesiastical treasure were all destroyed. Mohammed II made his solemn entry into the conquered city and Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Empire had ceased to exist.

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 570-571.

On that day, an innumerable multitude gathered in the Hagia Sophia cathedral, at the time, the building with the largest interior space in the world, and the most beautifully adorned of all the Christian churces. They prayed for a miraculous deliverance, but in the midst of the last Divine Liturgy to be celebrated there, vicious Turkish soldiers forced open the doors and began the rape and slaughter of those within. A pious traditions states that the priest holding the Divine Mysteries, the Body and Blood of our Lord, saw the Turks rushing in, turned away from them, and bearing the gifts he simply walked miraculously into the wall of the cathedral itself, only to exit when the Divine Liturgy is once again resumed in the Hagia Sophia. It’s been 556 years since any Christian liturgy has been permitted in the Hagia Sophia. Though the cathedral is now a museum, even now the tour guides outrageously insist that those entering do not pray or cross themselves! There is even now a movement to free the Hagia Sophia, and restore it to Christian Orthodox use.

I think perhaps there is something else to be learned here. There was a time when Orthodox Christians had Constantinople as their imperial and ecclesiastical center, full of treasures reminding them of their long history and great faith, a period of more than a thousand years. This is a new phase, a time of testing of the people as an Orthodox Christian civilization in exile, shorn of its physically binding attachment to a particular center, however wonderful that place may have been, and however much more idealized it has become in its loss. But there is a greater strengthening that takes place in such an exile, a greater potential for spiritual grace developed not as a replacement for the physical loss, but developed rather with the two, spiritual and physical, in proper symbiotic balance. That balance was often lost during the years of the Christian Roman Empire, commonly called the Byzantine Empire. In that sense, awful as it was, the conquest of Constantinople might also be seen as a disguised blessing. Despite Turkish oppression for nearly 400 years, Orthodox Christianity survived, and even thrived. Yet in recent years we see an imbalanced attachment to worldly success to be so attractive to some that they apostasize from the Faith in all but name. In some ways, this age of easy comfort and even easier “spirituality” is a greater time of trial than was the Turkish Yoke. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Hasn’t “the love of many grown cold”? None of us is unaffected by the world around us, yet with effort we can maintain a proper balance in furthering the Faith in ourselves and among others and in our worldly committments. These are the years of the Orthodox Christian exile to Babylon and our diaspora among the nations. Whether we will ever have a return to our Zion, Constantinople, is unknown, but unlikely at the moment. Let that resonate in your readings of the exiles of the Israelites, far from home, far from their Temple, with their lands under the control of others, and their own ways foreign among foreigners.

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