When Constantinople Was Taken

Aaron Taylor recently posted a translation of a Hebrew lament written by Rabbi Michael ben Shabbetai Kohen Balbo of Candia in Crete, dating most likely to early July 1453. The news of the fall of the city arrived in Crete on 29 June 1453, a month after the City fell. I’ve been meaning to post this interesting Hebrew piece, but have been otherwise occupied (gainfully, mind you).

As is immediately obvious to anyone familiar with the Bible, particularly with the Prophets, this text is a florilegium, combining excerpts from various books of the Bible, though mostly from the Prophets. Some of the verbs and pronouns are adapted to this context by the author.

Some readers might be puzzled by the reference to “Bela”, in quotation from 1 Chronicles 1.44. Bela was a king of Edom. The Rabbinic “callsign” for the Roman Empire was “Edom”. The fallen emperor, Constantine XI, is “Bela”, following this reckoning.

The following text, citations (following RSV versification; corrected and added to by myself), and translation are from Excursus D, pages 341-343 of Steven B. Bowman’s highly informative The Jews of Byzantium: 1204-1453 (University of Alabama Press, 1985). I combined the notations and the Hebrew text, separating the latter according to the sources. The notations in Bowman are only in the translation. I include the Bowman translation at the bottom, for comparison with the one posted by Aaron. Neither translation quite captures the pathos of the Hebrew, with its very strong language of lamentation and mourning rooted in Prophetic mourning for the sins and punishment of Israel. The punishment theme is here too, preserved by the author, indicating a punishment of both the Romans and the Israelites in the City: a great and murderous destruction has overtaken them all. Even though it’s at the hand of God, that’s no reason not to be shocked and to mourn! And I think if more people knew what kind of treatment was coming their way for the next several centuries, they might have shared some of the Prophets’ and the good Rabbi’s emotion!

This was a fun (if somewhat gloomy in subject) afternoon project!

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