Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Travel Journal (6)--Dandolo's Grave

When talking to would-be or first-time visitors to Istanbul, I always advise them to see the Haghia Sophia if they don't see anything else. (This tack was lost on a young American girl I was talking to in the hotel lobby. We were in the very shadow of the Blue Mosque itself, and she had no concept of what it was, much less the Haghia Sophia. She and her sister wanted to go to the beach. What a waste of a perfectly good airline ticket). Of all the must-see sites in Istanbul, the Haghia Sophia tops the list. And that is also the main reason--more so than even Turkey's residual xenophobic nationalism--why Turkey will never, never, never, ever allow it to be returned to the church. For the Haghia Sophia is the very linchpin of the booming Turkish tourism industry. European Union or not, there are some things that they just will not do. I have signed those petitions that appear occasionally online and in our large Greek churches that call for a return of the Haghia Sophia to the Orthodox Church. I will continue to sign them, and encourage others to do so as well. It is a part of the good fight. Just don't expect it to ever happen.

A visit to the Haghia Sophia is bittersweet--or at least it should be to a Christian with any semblance of a historical consciousness. On the one hand, there is the awe-factor, which sets in long before you ever enter inside. But there is always the accompanying sadness: sadness over its desecration in 1204, and then again in 1453, and its 500 years as a mosque. I resent the skewed, bastardization of the sanctuary to accommodate an orientation towards Mecca. The remaining frescoes are achingly beautiful, but then they represent perhaps 5% of what was once there, the rest either lost or covered up. I resent the 4 huge, hideous wooden medallions mounted in the 19th-century to honor the 4 caliphs. But most of all, I am irked by a slab of marble on the upper south gallery; for here lies the remains of Henrico Dandolo.

Henrico Dandolo, of course, presided as doge of Venice at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The fact that he was 90 years old and blind in no way lessened his influence. For it was the Venetians who financed and outfitted the Frankish mission to the Holy Land, and Dandolo accompanied the expedition to protect Venice's investment. The story of how the misguided Crusaders veered from their ostensible goal of liberating the Holy Land from the Muslims, and instead decided to lay siege, capture and loot Constantinople from their fellow Christians has been oft told (best by Runciman).

The scope of the disaster is still difficult to comprehend. London, Paris and Rome were cities of perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 people. Venice, the largest city in the West, approached 100,000 inhabitants. Constantinople, on the other hand, numbered over 400,000 citizens. The Franks had never seen anything remotely comparable. The capture of the city was something of a fluke, and the resultant looting went on for days. A section of the city four times the size of Paris burned to the ground. The Franks seemed more interested in wanton destruction, murder and rape. Meanwhile the Venetians were busy prying the gold, silver and pearls off the icons, dismantling the altars, and boxing up the relics--all to be shipped home. That is why if one really wants to glimpse the glory that was Constantinople, they have to go to Venice. (One has to wonder, what exactly did they have in St. Marks before 1204?) The desecration of the Haghia Sophia was particularly nasty and malicious. The 1453 conquest by the Muslims was a gentlemanly affair by comparison.

I generally do not engage in historical "what ifs." The tides of history are usually inexorable. But this is exactly what makes the 1204 fall of Constantinople so disturbing. It was hardly inevitable. Rather, the capture was a fluke, an aberration, and totally unnecessary. But the consequences, right down to the present, have been incalculable. Some argue that the Byzantines had been on a downward spiral since Manzikert in 1071, and as such, their downfall was just a matter of time. But Alexius I Comnenus stopped the hemorrhaging and re-established Byzantine hegemony in Anatolia. The wise John II Comnenus and Manuel I Comnenus continued to strengthen the Empire. Some historians contend that the rot had already set in, and the Comneni were merely pursuing a defensive game, playing one adversary off against the other. Certainly the Crusading activities of the Latins complicated their diplomacy. Yet the Empire was a going concern, with a stable, defensible frontier against the Seljuks. The fact that they were in the midst of a succession crisis in 1204 was nothing new. The Byzantines seemingly thrived on this sort of thing. So, if the Crusading horde had sailed on to the Holy Land as planned, there is no reason to believe that Constantinople could not have remained a Christian bulwark in the East through the coming centuries.

The Byzantines did regain control in 1261. And while Constantinople saw something of a cultural renaissance under the Paleologi, the society as a whole was a shell of its former self. They were no longer equipped to stop the Islamic advance--now at the Bosphorus. The fact that they held on until 1453 is at once a testimony to Byzantine diplomacy, as well the sudden appearance of the Mongol menace, breathing down the necks of the Turks from the East.

And so the disaster of 1204 is a tragedy, and the wily Dandolo one of the great villains of history. The fact that he is buried at the Haghia Sophia is particularly, and cruelly, ironic. These were the thoughts going through my mind as I stood by his grave. I turned my heal on the corner of his slab and walked on. That doesn't say anything particularly noble about myself, but it sure felt good.


D.I. Dalrymple said...

John, I just loved this post. Of course, I love all of your travel posts. If you wrote a travelogue and published it, I'd buy more than one copy.

John said...

You are too kind, but thanks.

Mimi said...

I agree with Ian, this was a brilliant post, and I'd buy one too!

Gina said...

I've really enjoyed reading through your travel essays. Having lived in NYC for 3 years and Istanbul for 4 1/2, I appreciate seeing them through different eyes. I also completely understand why you're going to "Istanbul... again"!

John said...

Thanks, Gina. When I left Istanbul last month, I resolved that this would probably be my last visit, or at least my last visit for a long, long time.

Well, that resolve is crumbling. I miss it already!

Anonymous said...

As others have said, thank you for taking us on this journey with you, and with such vivid descriptions and wonderful words.