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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

The Byzantine Legacy in Folk Life and Tradition in the Balkans

From The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe, edited by Lowell Clucas, East European Monographs, Boulder,New York, 1988.
2. Constantinople-Istanbul

That the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 constitutes a major landmark in the history of the eastern Mediterranean is of course such a well known commonality of history that its mention occasions no surprise. Yet, that which is of interest to us here is whether or not its long pre-existence as the center of Greek and Christian culture and politics had any effect on the nature of the new city, Ottoman Istanbul, which replaced the Greek Christian city of Constantinople.(3)

The Ottoman conquest of the city was a brutal and bloody event in which the Ottoman sultan turned the city over, by sultanic decree, to a three day pillaging and sack (yagma) by his victorious troops. The destruction was most extensive and when, after the three days of sacking, it terminated and Mehmed inspected the ravished city, he found it completely uninhabited.(4) The 60,000 Byzantines who had survived the killing were all taken out of the city as the slaves of the victorious troops. Many, though not all, of the buildings, particularly churches, were sacked and abandoned. Mehmed immediately turned to the rebuilding and settling of the city with sürgüns after deciding to make of it the capital city of the Ottoman empire and his official residence. The new city which was built, over the next century, soon reached splendid and magnificent proportions, both in terms of the numbers of the population and of the newly built mosques, bazaars, palaces and other official buildings.(5)

Was there, then, anything of the past that survived in Ottoman Istanbul and which would preserve memories and the culture of the past? First, it would seem that the sultan's policy of repeopling the city included provision for the return of a portion of the original population: those who had fled the city prior to the siege, as well as those who had gone into hiding in Galatia, and finally, those of the Constantinopolitans who had been taken prisoner in the final capture but who had been allowed to return either as a result of ransoming themselves or of being allowed to work toward the paying off of the ransom. These constituted the original Greek population that was allowed to return to Constantinople. They were given houses in the city and along with Muslim and other Christian immigrants whom the sultan brought from all over the empire, constituted the original population of Ottoman Istanbul.(6) Thus there was en element of demographic continuity, though its proportion to the total population of the new city was of course considerably diminished. The sultan also provided for the re-erection of the patriarchal institution around which the life of the Greek population of the city was to center, and he temporarily assigned the Church of the Holy Apostles as the Patriarchal church and residence. Thus at the level of living institutions, i.e. demographic and religious, there is this thread of continuity from the past, and with these two institutions, elements of both the popular and formal culture of Byzantium survived in a functioning form. We do not know a great deal about the popular and formal culture of the Greek Christians of the Ottoman Istanbul during the first century of their existence. The history of the patriarchate at this time unfolded at a much-reduced level in terms of the prestige, glory and economic resources, which it had once known. Nevertheless it presided over what little was left of the formal aspects of the culture of the Greek Christians... we know that one century after the conquest Theodore Zygomalas was ordered to draw up a catalogue of the manuscripts still in the patriarchal library, but only a portion of this catalogue, listing some 174 ms. has survived so that we do not know what its extent was.(7) The patriarchate eventually lost control of all Byzantine churches save one, the churches having passed into the hands of Muslims, were either converted into religious establishments, or into residences, or stables for animals.(8) As for the historical memories of the Greek Christians, it is difficult to know what they preserved during this early Ottoman period, what they recalled of the glorious Byzantine past of the city of Constantinople. Daily they saw the mining of the old Byzantine monuments, which were used as stone quarries for the building of the palaces, mosques and medresses of the new city, and is seems that with the disappearance of the monuments many Greeks gradually lost the memory of these monuments from the past. It is this, which we seem to imply from the complaints of the European student of the Byzantine monuments of the city in the early sixteenth century, Pierre Gyllius. In this important archaeological survey of what remained of Byzantine Constantinople, Gyllius relates that he went about the city in search of these monuments, but when he asked the Greeks of a given neighbourhood as to the identity of this or that ruined structure often they did not know. On other occasions they seemed to know the identity.(9)

Nevertheless folklore of legends and vague historical remembrances did survive and evidently came to constitute a very definite body of popular lore that survived over the centuries of Ottoman rule and into the twentieth century. The final siege and destruction of the city by the Turks was firmly fixed in the popular memory of the Greeks of Istanbul as in the memory of a large part of the Greek nation, and gave rise to a body of popular literature and lore that are well known to all students of Greek folklore. One such legend has as its subject the last liturgy performed in the great church of St. Sophia, and according to which legend the Turks' sudden entrance into the church prevented the termination of the liturgy, the priest having disappeared into the walls of the church during the celebration of the liturgy. The great altar of St. Sophia also disappeared. According to another legend the last emperor Constantine Palaeologus did not perish in the fighting but disappeared, went into underground hiding and went into a deep sleep and/or was turned to marble, the marmaromenos vasilias. In all these tales the resolution of each individual story, i.e. the return of the priest to finish the liturgy in St. Sophia, the return of the great altar, the awakening of the last Emperor will occur at that time when God has decided that Constantinople, the empire, and St. Sophia shall all be returned to the Greeks. This will occur when God's angel will awaken the emperor, arm him with the sword and he will remove the Turks. This is of course the folklore basis for the historical construction of the most powerful Greek ideology in the late eighteenth, throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries: the Megale Idhea, the reconstitution of Greek political power in Constantinople and Asia Minor.(10)

I have not studied this particular body of popular legend and belief in terms of its knowledge among Muslim Turks in the early Ottoman period. But as for the Greeks, the fall of Constantinople was a momentuous tragedy, so for the Muslim Turks it was the most felicitous occasion in their long history of conquests. The conquest is celebrated in the chronicles, in poetry, and in prose because of its glory and because of the extension of the domain of Islam. No less was it commemorated or remembered as the occasion of great enrichment. The chronicler Neshri records the popular Turkish memory of the great wealth that fell into the hands of the conquerors in 1453. He writes of the booty taken on that occasion:

"Since that time was the proverb that they say to one who is wealthy, 'Did you participate in the pillaging of Istanbul'?"(11)
(Neshri, II, 705-707)

Before entering into a discussion of the passage of Byzantine folklore into Turkish we need to pause and to say a word about the fate of the Byzantine buildings of Constantinople and also of the attitude of the sultan Mehmed II to this Byzantine patrimony.

The studies on the period of Mehmed II are sufficiently detailed so that scholars have now begum to focus rather sharply on his personality and his historical actions. The Ottoman chronicles record that though he gave over the city and its inhabitants to the pillaging of his troops he retained the claim and title to all of the buildings and the walls. His first official act upon entering the city was to enter the great church of St. Sophia, to smash the altar, and to have the Friday prayer of the Islamic faith recited.(12) He thus picked it to be the central and official mosque in his empire and bestowed upon it great wealth through the waqf foundation, including, 1,428 Byzantine houses.(13) Second, he ordered the repair of the great land walls which had been breached by his cannon. Third, he eventually ordered the demolition of the Church of the Holy Apostles, for centuries the official burial place of the Byzantine emperors, and built there his own kulliyet, complete with his own turbe. Thus he appropriated buildings and sites with Byzantine traditions and functions and adapted them to his own desire and needs. Within his new palace on the Saray Burnu he brought together an important collection of Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syrian and Slavonic manuscripts. These included manuscripts of Homer, Arian's account of the exploits of Alexander the Great, Polybios, Ptolemy's Geography, Xenophon, Hesiod, Pindar, Diogenes Laertius, to mention the more important of the classical authors.(14) Among the Byzantine Greek texts were to be found John Cantacuzenos' history, the Geoponica, the Old Testament, the New Testament, Zonaras, the nomocanon, hymnal and psalters, and the texts known as the Diegesis (building of St. Sophia) and the Patria Constantinoupoleos (an account of the history and monuments of Byzantine Constantinople).(15) Further, it has been established that Mehmed was an avid collector of Christian relics, to which he attributed religious efficacy.(16)

In his reign he had Persian and Turkish translations made of a popular reworked Greek version of the Diegesis, the Byzantine text that describes the history of the building of the great church of St. Sophia. The Persian text was executed 28 years after the capture of Constantinople by the devish Shemseddin. Indeed, not only do we know from the catalogue of the Greek and other non-Muslim, manuscripts of the palace library of Muhammed that he had in his library the Greek texts on the history of St. Sophia and of the monuments and the city of Byzantine Constantinople. We are told, further, that he had a great interest in the history of the city, which he was transforming into an Islamic world capital. The texts and knowledge, which were recorded in or rather translated into Turkish and Persian in his reign, were based on popular Greek lore that had been written down in Byzantine times. Their passage into Persian and Ottoman Turkish constitute an interesting phenomenon. They testify not only to the survival of Greek popular lore about the great city and its monuments and thus its passage into Islamic knowledge. They represent also the transformation of what was a popular body of folklore in the Greek milieu, into a formal and learned tradition in the Islamic milieu. Thus the Greek legends and lore were transformed from something appertaining to popular culture in one society into something appertaining to formal literary culture in the second society.

But this passage occurred also at the level of popular Turkish culture and folklore. And here we come back to both the Byzantine monuments that the Ottomans found still standing at the time of the conquest, but also to the body of Greek folklore which survived among the Ottoman Greek population of Istanbul, and which had as its unifying theme the reversal of political fortunes which would once more bring Constantinople into the hands of the Greeks. This has to do with the lore, in Turkish, of the kizil elma, the red or the golden apple. In Turkish lore it became associated with supreme political power and sovereignty, and the kizil elma (this symbol of power) changed its location, moving from one city to another. This Turkish legend of the kizil elma, seems, so far as I have been able to ascertain, to go back to an old and rich Byzantine legend that was associated with the famous equestrian statue of Justinian the Great in the Augusteum just near the entrance to the great palace. This statue is described by Procopius as presenting Justinian seated on the horse, with the globus crucifix in his left hand and his right hand directed toward Asia. Procopius gives us the earliest, in a long series, interpretation of this monument. The globe signifies his world dominion, and his outstretched hand is intended to halt the nations of the east (Persia at that time) from advancing. The globus, which symbolized world dominion, eventually fell from the hands of Justinian's statue in the fourteenth century and its fall was interpreted as signifying that political dominion would pass from the hands of the Greeks to the hands of the Turks. The globus came to be called the golden apple and eventually it passed into the hands of the Turks. Thus for the Turks the golden apple, kizil elma, was the symbol of political sovereignty. In modern Greek folklore the golden apple tree, kokine melia, came to be associated with the origins of the Turks, and with the tradition of chasing the Turks back to their place or origin.(17)

In all of this lore centring about the golden apple it is of interest to look at one of the Persian versions-translation of the Diegesis on the construction of St. Sophia. It records elements that are missing from the extant Greek text. It attributes to Justinian a conversation purportedly addressed to his successor Justin prior to his death, instructing him to erect a bronze equestrian statue to himself.

"...When you have consigned my body to the earth you shall erect an equestrian statue of myself, gilded in copper. In my hand I shall hold an apple (according to version B; a ball according to the other version) and I shall hold the other hand open so that those who gaze on me shall realize that I ruled over a quarter of the inhabited world in the very same manner that I hold the apple (ball) in my palm".(18)

What is of further interest to note is that this great statue of Justinian was one of the relatively small number of classical and Byzantine statues to have survived into the fifteenth century and beyond into the period of Ottoman rule. It was, for some years, a prominent landmark in the landscape of early Ottoman Istanbul, and thus the Ottomans had not only the Turkish and Persian translations from the Greek recording the meaning of the "golden apple" held in the hand of Justinian, but they had a view of the statue itself until it was toppled from atop its column by lightning in the latter part of the fifteenth century. It was finally melted down for the casting of cannon in the Ottoman ordinance where the European observer Pierre Gyllius saw it and measured its leg, nose, and the horse's legs and hoofs, all that remained of this Byzantine wonder.(19)

Coming back to the city of Constantinople and Istanbul we thus see the Byzantine legacy in the folklore of both Turks and Greeks during the Ottoman period. This folklore, in the hands of the Muslim Turks, was often given a twist, which would allow its incorporation more readily into the body of Islamic folklore. Such an example emerges again from the Persian translation of the Greek text on the building of St. Sophia and on the wonders of Byzantine Constantinople.

"It is related that during the night when Muhammad was born, several churches and statues of idols crumbled... At that same time half of the dome of Saint Sophia fell..."(20)


3. See the forthcoming, Vryonis "Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul: Evolution in a Millenial Imperial Iconography".

4. For a martialing and detailed analysis of the copious evidence, Vryonis, "S.J. Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey... Α Critical Αnalysis" (Thessaloniki, 1983), 215-238.

5. Η. Inalcik, "Istanbul". ΕI.2

6. Inalcik, op, cit., 224-225.

7. Κ. Manaphes, Ai en Konstaninoupolei vivliothekai autokratorikai kai patriarchikai kai peri ton en autais cheirographon mechre tes aloseos 1453 (Athens, 1972), 148. This catalogue was published by S.R. Forster, De antiquitatibus et libris manuscriptis Constantinupoleos (1877), 10-23.

8. R. Janin, Constantinople byzantine. 2nd ed. (Paris, 1964) S. Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge, 1968).

9. Ρ. Gilles, The Antiquities of Constantinople, with a Description of its Situation, the Conveniences of its Port, its public Buildings, the Statuary, Sculpture, Architecture and other curiosities of that City, tr. J. Βall (London, 1729),127-Ι30, passim.

10. Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism. 437-38.

11. Neshri tarihi, ed. F. Unat and Μ. Koymen (Ankara, 1957), ΙI, 705-707.

12. Ducas, Istoria Turco-bizantina (1341-1462), ed. V. Grecu (Bucarest, 1958), 375. 13. Inalcik, op. city., 224-225.

14. Α. Deissman, Forchungen und Funde im Serai mit einem Verzeichnis der nichtislamischen Handschriften im Topkapu Serai zu Istanbul(Berlin-Leipzig, 1933).

15. F. Tauer, "Notice sur les versions persanes de la legende de l' edifιcation d'Aya Sofya," Fuad Koprulu Armagani (Istanbul 1953), 487-494; "Les versions persanes de la construction d' Aya Sofya". Byzantinoslavica, XV (1954), 1-20.

16. J. Raby, "Mehmed the Conqueror's Greek Scriptorium", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XXXVII (1983), 15-34.

17. Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism, 436-38.

18. Tauer, "Les versions persanes..." 17.

Ι9. Ρ. Gilles, op. cit., 127-130.

20. Tauer, op. cit., 19.

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