Siege Mentality: The Hungarian Will To Resist & A Turkish Eclipse At Eger

One of the defining aspects of Hungarian history are the catastrophic military defeats the nation has suffered on a recurrent basis. In 1241, the Mongol Invasion decimated the country. Less than three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks inflicted a devastating defeat at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. They repeated the feat again in Buda a mere fifteen years later. In 1711 Rakoczi’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs ended in a resounding defeat. In somewhat the same manner, the 1848 Revolution brought yet another loss to the Habsburgs (with a major assist from the Russians). Then there was World War I. A conflict that involved more than just lost battles, it also saw the nation’s finest men disappear on far flung battlefields. The Kingdom of Hungary disintegrated in the aftermath, losing 72% of its territory in the peace settlement that followed.  Less than twenty-five years later, caught between the Nazis and Soviets, the Hungarian people were among the worst hit by the violent vortex of the Second World War’s final months. In a sort of dark coda, a decisive blow was delivered by the Soviet Union that brought the 1956 Revolution to its knees.

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Stopping Point: The Walls Of Eger Castle
This succession of military calamities might make a person wonder how Hungary has managed to survive up to the present day. Or they might marvel at the nation’s resilience to rise again and again from the ashes, while sustaining a cultural life that has been the envy of Eastern Europe. It certainly says something about the Hungarian people’s character that they have not just survived, but also managed to thrive despite this history. The subtitle of journalist Paul Lendvai’s popular history of Hungary perhaps says it best, “One Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat.” And no place in Hungary is more reflective of that phrase “Victory in Defeat” than the city of Eger, site of a famous siege in 1552.

By the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks controlled a large part of Hungary and were closing in on Eger. Their goal was two-fold, subdue Eger and move on towards Kassa (present day Kosice, Slovakia) where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines. At the same time, this success would also open a new supply route westward for another attempted siege of Vienna. The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men, a load of artillery and surprisingly, a massive herd of 2,000 camels. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women. The defenders withdrew behind the towering walls of Eger castle. They placed their hopes on heavy artillery and the seeming impregnability of the fortress walls.

Siege of Eger Castle - Painting by Béla Vizkelety

Siege of Eger Castle – painting by Béla Vizkelety

Fighting For Kingdom & Birthright: The Siege Of Eger
The vast numerical advantage of the Turks was considerable, but mitigated by the fact that the Hungarians had a fantastic leader in Istvan Dobo as well as an expert tactician, Gergely Bornemissza. Dobo, a land owning noble from northern Hungary, was literally fighting for his family’s birthright. He oversaw the fighting force throughout the battle. His leadership was probably worth several thousand troops. Dobo was able to keep the defender’s morale at a peak level, in contrast to the Ottomans who were riven by infighting. Dobo’s best lieutenant was the infantry commander Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. The most famous turned out to be a water mill wheel filled with gunpowder that would both explode and spread fire. He also developed grenades and powder keg bombs packed with such incendiaries, as oil and sulfur.

Repeatedly the Ottomans found fire raining down on them from the towering castle walls they were unable to scale. Some of this fire came at the hands of female defenders who took to pouring oil on to the enemy, which would then ignite. For thirty-nine bitter and hard fought days, the resourceful Hungarians used every stratagem available to keep the attackers at bay. Finally the Turks withdrew. They had suffered an unexpected defeat. Beaten soundly by a force they had outnumbered nearly twenty to one.

The Women of Eger - Painting by Bertalan Szekely

The Women of Eger – painting by Bertalan Szekely

Defining Traits – The Hungarian Will: Resisting Conquest
The Siege of Eger was a legendary victory that echoed down through the centuries. It became a milestone, often repeated in Hungarian historical lore. Case in point, the most famous literary work on the siege of Eger was written over three hundred years later. In 1899, Geza Gardonyi penned the fictional novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Gardonyi literally walled himself off in his room to maintain focus (and perhaps recreate the same siege mentality of the defenders) while writing the book. It portrays the heroism and courage of the defenders in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Today it is required reading for all Hungarian school students.  Both Eger Castle and Gardonyi’s nearby home can be visited on a trip to the city. Visitors can look down from the castle walls and imagine the Hungarians valiantly fighting off the mighty Ottomans. The Siege of Eger showed the Turks that the Hungarians would not surrender to absolute conquest. This trait, holding out against all odds, gaining small, but important victories among cataclysmic defeats has defined Hungarians in both medieval and modern history.

The Eger minaret

The Eger minaret – all that remains of the Ottoman Turkish presence


The Price They Paid For Not Paying The Price – A Medieval Arms Mercenary & The Fall of Constantinople

We have a saying in the United States that “you get what you pay for.” Of course this is a cliche, but like all cliches there is truth in it. In 1453 this cliche proved especially true as an Ottoman Turkish army besieged the city of Constantinople. Prior to that date, the walls of Constantinople had protected the city – home of the Byzantine Empire – from some 20 plus would be conquerors  over a thousand year period (the Crusaders in 1204 being the notable exception). Besieging armies consisted mostly of barbarian tribes that did not have the technological wherewithal to effect a breach in the walls. Many did not even bother trying. The invention of gunpowder, along with artillery that could magnify this explosive new form of firepower, made the walls of Constantinople vulnerable. This firepower was rapidly developed and put up for sale to the highest bidder. In centuries past the Byzantines would have had the financial means to purchase the latest advancements in weaponry, even if they were unable to develop it themselves. By 1453 the empire had fallen into economic destitution and had been whittled down to a rump state consisting of the city and not much else.

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

The reasons behind the empires desultory state were many. The Crusader force that had breached the walls in 1204 not only plundered the city, but also proceeded to set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople. They then carried out an extensive and thorough pillaging lasting over half a century. By the time the Latins were forced out by the Byzantines in 1261 much of the city and its priceless treasures had been stolen or  lay in ruin. By 1344, the Byzantine Empress Anna had to pawn the crown jewels in order to finance the Byzantine military in a virtual civil war. In 1347, the black death raged throughout what was left of the empire, depopulating Constantinople while leading to the further destruction of its meager economy. It has been estimated that by the mid-14th century the Genoese trading colony in Galata opposite Constantinople had financial revenues six and a half times those of the Byzantine state. Incredibly, Byzantium held on for another hundred years.

The Byzantine ability to hold a vestige of their state together was a tribute to the defensive advantage of the city walls. Yet weaponry was in the works that would make them vulnerable. This technology was being developed all across central and eastern Europe. One notable innovator was a cannon founder and engineer now known to history as Orban. The majority of sources agree that Orban, was a Hungarian from Brasso in Transylvania (Brasov, Romania today). He designed a bronze super cannon. This weapon was the bazooka of the middle ages. It could blast thick land walls into submission. Whoever held this mighty weapon had a distinct advantage in a siege. And it was not just a military weapon, but also a psychological one. An enemy on the receiving end of its barrage, would also be susceptible to an earsplitting, thunderous boom as well as its earth shattering ammunition . There had been nothing like its size or scale in the world up to this time. That made it a weapon of terror as much as anything else. Most importantly, this weapon was for sale to the highest bidder.

Orban offered his cannon as well as his services first to the Byzantines in 1452. The man who would soon become the final Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, would loved to have had the super cannon. The Ottoman Turks were bound to besiege Constantinople in the very near future. The city, which was pretty much the empire at this point, was impoverished. It did not have the manpower to raise a large force that might properly defend it. Only western forces or technology could possibly save it. Constantine XI could not afford Orban the engineer or his bronze super cannon, all he could hope for was generosity. It was not forthcoming. Orban was open to the highest bidder. This happened to be the Ottoman Turks. He soon placed his innovative weaponry in the services of a man who could afford them, Mehmed II, the Sultan who would become Mehmed the Conqueror. What helped make Mehmed the conqueror and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor was Orban.

So many times in history, we want to believe that courage and honor, skill and cleverness led to military victory. To be sure, when it came to the siege of Constantinople all of these were present. Nonetheless, it also came down to what one side could afford and the other could not. Was this reason for the Ottman’s victory? It is probably not so simple. One weapon does not a military victory make, but absent that weapon perhaps the Turks do not break through the walls and the Byzantine Empire goes on a little while longer. In this case, all parties got what they paid for. Orban got money, Mehmed got the super cannon and Constantine XI paid for his poverty with an historic defeat.  Ironically, the first man to lose his life in this martial equation was Orban himself, who is said to have been killed along with his crew when one of his super cannons exploded. The cannon was one of several decisive factors that led to the Fall of Constantinople, even if only its benefactor Mehmed II lived to see its success.

The tale of Orban selling his services to the highest bidder, even to an empire that was quickly growing into an archenemy of the Christianised western world offers a compelling argument that the west was just as much a threat to Byzantium as the Ottoman Turks and Islam were. The Catholic Kingdoms in the west did not feel it was their duty to defend a depraved and faltering empire. It was a belief that in later centuries they would come to regret when the Ottomans appeared on their own doorsteps. There was no love lost between a Byzantine state firmly rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and kingdoms across central and western Europe aligned with Catholicism.  The finest historical example of this was the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 fomented by western forces. The sack dealt the Byzantines a blow from which they never recovered. Then there was a man like Orban, he was a Crusader of another sort, for weapons innovation and arms trade. Orban was a mercenary selling his services to the highest bidder. He did not believe in the power of faith, but the power of the purse. That power finally brought Byzantium to its knees and the Ottoman Turks to their greatest glory.

Who Remembers The Armenians? – The Hall of the Armenian Issue With Documents at the Turkish Military Museum

On August 22, 1939, just a week before the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Adolf Hitler gave a speech to German Army commanders Obersalzberg, his home in the Bavarian mountains. In the speech, he is reputed to have said, “Who after all today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In light of the Holocaust that Hitler fomented against the Jews in the coming years, his quote that day has been seen as a harbinger of not only what was to come, but what the world had largely forgotten. Namely the historical amnesia concerning the massacre of approximately one and half a million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War.

The words of Hitler that fateful day had the ring of truth. It was one of the few times that he ever told the truth about anything. The mass killing of the Armenians languished in obscurity less than twenty-five years after it took place. Today, it’s entirely another story when it comes to remembrance of an event that a majority of historians regard as genocide. The Armenian Genocide is second only to the Holocaust for scholarly as well as popularly studied examples of 20th century genocide. Despite this fact or maybe because of it, a virulent debate still rages today about whether to define what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War One as genocide. To an outsider such as myself, such a debate seems esoteric. If one and half million Armenians lost their lives because of Ottoman policies to marginalize, blame and terrorize them for the Ottoman state’s failures during the First World War, than the state which carried out such actions and the citizens who were party to this act are to blame. If the Armenian community was consciously targeted than it certainly sounds like genocide. If so, then this squarely lays blame at the foot of the Turks, in the same way that blame for the Holocaust is placed upon the Germans. The difference is though, that the Turkish state resists shouldering such blame.

The situation is complicated by several factors, first of which is that the Ottoman Empire no longer exists. The Republic of Turkey which followed it is part of the legacy of that empire, but is also a very different entity. It is national, unlike the multi-cultural Ottoman state it replaced. Secondly, recognition of the Armenian Genocide is interwoven with international politics. Turkey, as a member of NATO and located at one of the most critical strategic points in the world, is a valuable ally that the western world does not want to upset or lose. Thirdly, some Armenians in the Ottoman Empire either actively or passively supported the Russian Empire against their own state. In defense of the Armenians who did this, they were constantly persecuted by the Ottoman state in the decades prior to the war. Nonetheless, this adds a complicating element to the picture. To further muddy the waters, the Turks do not deny that Armenians were massacred. What they deny is that the massacres were genocide. The Turkish position is that it was a product of the war. Of course, massacres occurred, but they were not premeditated. Without going into a long recitation of the historical details, it is enough to say that in sum what we have here is a situation fraught with controversy, vitriol and that has even turned violent at times. The debate continues today.

Headline from a New York Times article dated April 15, 1915

Headline from a New York Times article dated April 15, 1915

This brings me to my recent visit to the Turkish Military Museum. There, deep in the museum, on an upper floor, beyond the exhibits displaying artifacts from centuries of Turkish military conquest, past room after room filled with weaponry used to defeat both eastern and western armies, there is an exhibit area called the “Hall of the Armenian Issue With Documents.” Here I found a retelling of the conflict between the Ottoman Turks and their Armenian subjects that can only be described as horrifying. I think that horror was intended, but not the kind that I experienced.

The exhibition presented provocative documentary evidence of Armenian atrocities against the Turkish population. Photos of the most brutal carried out on Turkish men, women and children. Even in grainy black and white these photos were hard to look at. One showed several children frozen to death, their legs bound to their heads. The exhibition would have us believe that Armenians were attacking defenseless Turkish populations. An uninformed observer would think the Armenians had carried out atrocities of the most brutal nature to ethnically cleanse parts of Anatolia. While I am pretty sure that Armenians did commit violent acts shown in the photos, the exhibition lacks any context whatsoever. The Armenians were a minority under constant threat and were being provoked. They were robbed, pillaged and murdered as scapegoats for an empire in an irreperable state of decay.

My reaction to the “evidence” presented was one of horror, but not so much at the scenes displayed in the photos (sadly I’ve seen the same types of photos in museums detailing the Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing episodes). Instead, I was horrified at how far removed the exhibition was from presenting both sides of the story. It eschewed any contextual information or opposing viewpoint. The vehement one-sided presentation made me actually want to argue the Armenian cause. This is really saying something since I have no Armenian acquaintances or friends. Furthermore, I have always found the Turkish people to be overwhelmingly likable, hospitable and helpful. Nonetheless, this “Hall” with its radically revisionist agitprop displays was a sad commentary on the current state of denial that still plagues Turkish society when it comes to “the Armenian Issue.”

The last casualty of the Armenian Genocide, at least in the Turkish Military Museum, continues to be the truth. The ferocity of denial on display in that exhibition hall would be enough to make even the most ignorant observer suspicious of what was being presented. If the truth is so easily established then why the need to provoke. I certainly hope that the Turkish people take this exhibition down until both sides of the issue can be presented in a dispassionate manner. It is a hallmark of a self-confident society that it can confront even the most uncomfortable truths of its past in a forthright and honest fashion. I spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe and have seen this done well in countries as different as Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine when dealing with the Holocaust and/or the Communist past. The Turkish people certainly have the ability to do the same. They can find the truth about what really happened by studying a wide variety of historical sources. A good place to start would be anywhere outside of this museum.

By Your Neighbors They Will Know You – Understanding Turkey

The Romans had a saying, “By your friends they will know you.” In essence, this meant that you could tell a lot about a person based on who their friends were. Substitute “neighbors” for “friends” and the same could be said of nations. In other words, “By your neighbors they will know you.” If you want to figure out why a nation is the way it is, take a good look at its neighbors.

This is especially true for Turkey. Consider a few of its neighbors: Syria, Iran and Iraq. With neighbors like these who needs enemies. Turkey has to be at turns: tough, worried and extremely vigilant in dealing with these eastern neighbors. The aforementioned three are just problems of the past 30 years or so. Add to this mix, historically bad relations between Turkey and the nations of Armenia, Greece and Bulgaria. There is the potential for a conflict at almost anytime. Turkey’s only really friendly neighbor is Georgia. The situation here has actually gotten better since the Soviet Union imploded. Georgia provides a buffer between Turkey and Russia, at least for the time being. The Turks other neighbor is something known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region (an exclave of Azerbaijan). Any place with a name like that is certainly troubled. Nakhchivan is nominally independent because Turkey and Russia guarantee its independence for Azerbaijan. The Turks do this mostly to annoy Armenia. When a relationship with an ally is this convoluted it certainly says something about the situation. Then again, this is about as normal as it’s going to get between Turkey and its neighbors.

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors - Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors – Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

To give you an idea of the tough neighborhood the Turks live in, I recall a visit I made to Bulgaria three and a half years ago. Nearly every Bulgar I met who spoke English (mostly young people who usually do not have much of an interest in history or a long historical memory) mentioned “the 500 years of slavery under the Turks.” Time after time, the “500 years of slavery” was brought up as though it had just happened yesterday. Wheras in other Eastern European countries I often hear about the “change of system” meaning the fall of communism, in Bulgaria it was the “500 years of slavery” that was the national mantra of choice. Young Bulgars seemed beholden to this legacy. They had nothing good to say about the centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. Conversely, Bulgaria was one place in Eastern Europe where they seemed to have a positive attitude toward the Russians. And why not? After all it was with Russian assistance that they finally gained independence in the latter part of the 19th century. Keep in mind, that in 2010 when I traveled in Bulgaria they were enjoying historically good relations with Turkey. Well if this is the situation when it comes to the Turks vis a vis the Bulgars, one shudders to think of the situation with the Greeks, Syrians or gasp, the Armenians.

It cannot be said that from a historical standpoint that the Turks did not bring these fraught neighborly relations on themselves. One thing a tourist is bound to notice in Turkey is the aggressiveness of the Turks. This even goes for their friendliness. To say these people go a bit overboard is putting it lightly. Turkish hospitality is legendary, but so is Turkish ferocity. I used to think this aggressiveness was the main reason that the Ottoman Turks (forebears of modern Turkey) created an empire stretching from Persia to the Gates of Vienna. I still believe that to be true. This aggressiveness was feared by foe and friend alike. Yet in modern times the aggressive instinct also comes in handy. It is a way to keep the neighbors at bay.

And keeping the neighbors in their place will be Turkey’s great external challenge in the 21st century. When you have one eastern neighbor that has just used chemical weapons (Syria), another (Iraq) that had a dictator who used chemical weapons on a people (Kurds) that call Turkey home and yet another that is in the process of developing nuclear weapons  (Iran) well you better be prepared. Visiting Turkey, one can not help, but notice how the people stare deep into a stranger’s eyes. It’s as though they are sizing you up. They rarely flinch or look away, it is a form of respect and at the same time a show of toughness. I believe it is the same way the Turks look at their neighbors and by extension the world.

Geography As Destiny (Istanbul As Turkey) – Anything & Everything

Coming from the western world I see geopolitics from the perspective of the United States. My second influence is decidedly European, mainly the western side of the continent including the United Kingdom. A third perspective, strangely enough is Eastern European, mainly Russian. This is mainly due to the fact that I grew up during the last twenty years of the Cold War, a conflict that permeated the daily existence of American life. As for Asia, even with the incredible rise of China it still seems a distant and remote place. When I think of Japan, South Korea and China  they seem beyond foreign. They are distinct cultures which require a great amount of time and energy to comprehend. As for Africa and South America, they are little more than an afterthought, even with all the tangible gains both have made during the past decade. Then there is the Middle East, a place of seemingly ancient religious feuds, authoritarian governments, grim prospects for peace and eternal tumult. I am confused by the byzantine politics and infighting of the region.

Then there is Turkey, close to the Middle East, but not quite part of it. In both Europe and Asia, with elements of Europe, but more influenced by the Orient. Turkey is both an outlier and of great strategic importance. An outlier since it certainly has its act together much more than any of its neighbors, including the European ones (Greece and Bulgaria). But where does it fit in. Commentators assign it to the near East, while hoping that it will both move closer to Europe and at the same time act as a bridge that transmits liberal democratic principles to the Middle East. After spending a week in Istanbul, a place literally (the city straddles Europe and Asia) on the cusp of opposing worldviews. The Orient starts here, Europe starts here (at least geographically), the Islamic World takes hold here and the Classical World has left an its indelible mark. There is truly no other nation in such a critical position.

A View From The Bosphorus - One of the most critical places in the world

A View From The Bosphorus – One of the most critical places in the world

When I crossed the Bosphorus from Eminonu on the European side to Uskadar on the Asian side, I felt like I was at the epicenter of the world, between everything and anything. If I headed East, just a day or two away were countries consumed by war, chaos and dictatorship as well as home to ancient world historical traditions. If I headed west both the Slavic world and the cradle of Classicism were just hours from where I stood. Yet these places, European in orientation, were also riven by economic crisis and corrupt politics. And in between was Turkey, a little bit of both.

The view from the middle of the Bosphorus is beautiful, there is a reason Istanbul market’s itself as “the most inspiring city in the world.” A panoramic sweep of the horizon offers a window on two continents, some of the holiest sites in both Islam and Christianity as well as the home of the Ottomans who conquered both east and west, much like the Romans over a thousand years before them. This is a place that human civilization cannot help but leave its historical, political and spiritual marks on. This is a place that has its own inexorable logic, much like the nation that now controls it. For Turkey today, much it has always been for whatever polity possessed this area, geography is destiny. Whether it ascends or descends will greatly impact the future of our world. Here is the place where everything and anything is always possible.

A Search For Historical Interpretation – Istanbul: An Opportunity Lost

The heart of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet District could be described as a World Heritage Site on steroids. The area’s main tourist sites have had a vast and outsized influence on the history of Europe, the near East and Western Civilization. It is hard to think of a place that rival it. Two of the main sights, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque stand opposite one another. The former was once the largest cathedral in the world, a physical representation of the power and prominence of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). The Blue Mosque, so named because of the blue Izmit tiles that cover part of its interior is an outstanding compliment to Aya Sofya. It is surrounded by six minarets, a rarity in the Islamic World. It was the greatest mosque in the Ottoman Empire, which was home to the Islamic Caliphate for many centuries. A visitor standing between the two is confronted on either side by touchstones of human civilization.  These two structures represent religions that not only transformed the world, but continue to shape it.  The area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya is truly the meeting point for east and west. It is said that Istanbul stands on the cusp of both the western world and the orient. This is true geographically, historically and spiritually.

The Aya Sofya - What Does It Really Mean?

The Aya Sofya – What Does It Really Mean?

If that was not enough, just a stone’s throw away from Aya Sofya is Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century up until the mid-19th century. A period that saw their rule both expand and contract over much of the Middle East, north Africa and south-central Europe. Here was the place where much of the power politics of the late Middle Ages and early modern era took place. The decisions that were made within the palace had far reaching effects that still resonate today in the lands once under the sway of Ottoman hegemony. These three sites existence today are living proof both a physical and spiritual connection to the past. Their importance cannot be overstated.

So how in the world did I find myself after a daylong guided tour of these sites so upset about the art of historical interpretation. I will not name the company or guide involved. They were not up to par to say the least. Instead I would like to focus on what made this experience so lacking in history. What I would like to hone in on are some of the things that I found so lacking in this less than educational experience. Before I get started let me answer one question: Why does it matter? Quite simply because this may well be the only opportunity that visitors will ever have to learn about the history of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire as well as two major religions: Islam and Orthodox Christianity. These are all of world historical importance. Furthermore, they will be confronted with unique architectural elements that either are seen nowhere else in the world or happen to be the hallmarks of styles that came to permeate both the Middle East and Europe. This is heady, important stuff and it’s all right there in front of the visitor, but to extract the deeper meanings takes both accurate information as well as a gift for interpretation.

A Short Guide to Better Historical Interpretation
1) Information for information’s sake, is neither memorable nor interesting
I could write the shortest book ever from the facts that I remember after today’s tour. I bet thousands of others could have done the same thing this past year. What good is it to know the height of something. For example, if a minaret is 120 meters high, unless I am told why it is that high or it is compared with a structure of similar height that I can associate it with, in essence what I have learned is something pretty much incomprehensible. Now pile on another ten of these facts in a five minute speech and I become bored. These facts mean nothing unless they are used to create a narrative, make a point or cause the listener to become curious. Facts are a foundation. They are a means to an end, not vice versa.

2) Offer context
I heard Justinian’s name mentioned several times on the tour. Two of the more memorable facts were that Justinian commissioned the building of the Aya Sofya and that he killed 20,000 people in the Nika Revolts that took place in and around the Hippodrome. Now why did a guy who was the driving force behind one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders also kill 20,000 people in something known as the Nika Revolts. (Disclaimer: I knew about Justinian and the history mentioned, but my wife did not.) How in the world could she ever understand such a strange series of events surrounding one man without any context whatsoever. What were the Nika Revolts? Why did Justinian commission the building of the Aya Sofya? I believe there are thousands of visitors who ponder this, but then again they will never get the answer on this tour.

3) People make history
Make people present, not anonymous. Justinian, Mehmet the Conqueror, countless Sultans and Valide Sultans were unbelievably complex figures. It is difficult enough to understand the complexity of great men and women, but when visitors are not informed about their personas it is an injustice to understanding history. People make history, it’s not the other way around. By trying to understand these people, we can also come to better understand how we got to where we are at today. That is one of the many uses of the past.

4) Architecture and layout is a portal into deeper meanings and by extension deeper understanding
For instance, there is a reason that Topkapi palace has four courtyards, this is not happenstance, it is by design. The harem’s position on the palace grounds had more of a political meaning than a physical one. The power is in the placement of features. This goes for everything from the library to the fountains to the imperial council chambers. To get a visitor’s head around this takes a skilled guide. Nonetheless, it would be well worth the effort to make that connection.

5) Use visuals
I figure the average visitor is smart enough to know that the way things look today is much different than 1,500 years ago, 500 years ago or even 100 years ago. Looking at a diagram of the original layout and how it changed or more to the point how it was changed and for what purpose these changes were done is revealing. And this would lead to perhaps the most intriguing question of all, why were some things not changed.

6) Identify less obvious, but no less important perspectives
These can be everything from architectural to cultural to religious perspectives. One thing I heard was this intriguing phrase regarding the Ottoman taking of the city in 1453: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” In the west we call it “the Fall of Constantinople.” What an interesting difference in perspective. To be honest since the city is today Turkish, the correct phrase is: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” That catchphrase is both present and past tense. The phrase “The Fall of Constantinople” is past tense. This is only one example of an endless array of possibilities that could be used to counter cliche and ignorance. It takes a seasoned guide to listen to themselves, consider the statements they are making, but this awareness could lead to ways for better engagement with an audience.

I will finish by saying that the overriding disappointment I had with this tour, was the guide’s ignorance. Not of the facts though, but of how to use them. Because of this the opportunity to better educate a curious audience was lost. Until more thought is given to the art of presentation and style, context and perspective, the importance of people and their stories, the substance of such tour will be lacking.

From East To West – Istanbul and Europe

Driving into Istanbul from Sabiha Gokcen Airport, on the Asian side of the city, gives one an understanding of the massive growth that has occurred here over the past sixty years. Kilometer after kilometer of high rises blanket the hillsides, there is barely a square centimeter of ground that is not covered by development. The endless succession of residential areas adjacent to the highway are clean and well kept, in marked contrast to the tumble down, but evocative griminess of the historic inner city districts such as those along the Golden Horn and in Beyoglu. It seems that the outer districts of the city have been able to handle the incredible growth, but the inner city is another story. Highways and streets are clogged to suffocation by traffic jams. A brown fog hangs over parts of the city. Pollution from automobiles leave a permanent haze of smog hanging over much of the city.

Istanbul's growth as seen from the air

Istanbul’s growth as seen from the air

A first time visitor could be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul has been this way for quite some time. This is not true. According to historical population statistics, in 1950 the city had less than one million residents (983,000 to be exact), this was actually down from 1.12 million  at the start of the First World War. In the early 1950s the population once again hit a million, twenty years later it had doubled, then in less than 15 years it doubled again to nearly 5.4 million in 1985. But wait, almost unfathomably it doubled yet again by 2000. The last census in 2010 put the figure at 13,256,000. This is by far the largest city in Europe, whether Europeans think it is European or not really is beside the point. Istanbul may not be of Europe, but it is still considered to be in Europe. The population explosion came from internal migration, as Turks made their way from the countryside to the ever growing urban metropolis in search of job opportunities. There has been great consternation in Europe about Turkey becoming a part of the European Union sometime in the future. With EU nation’s in demographic decline, soon to be in crisis, an influx of Turks to Europe is inevitable – in some places it has already occurred.  Where will all the Turks go? Well we know where must of them have gone so far, not to Europe, but Istanbul, which continues to grow about ten percent each decade.

It is strange to see a city with such a rich past, also becoming a city of the future. The world is growing increasingly urban and Istanbul continues to be part of that movement. The city is part of a dramatic demographic shift that  has transformed Turkey, moving its people from East to West. As the population movement continues will the Turks continue their movement westward. The border of Bulgaria and the EU is not that far away. If Istanbul can grow from a million people to thirteen times that figure in just sixty years, who knows what the future may hold.

Grasping For Greatness, Heading Towards Ruin – Justinian to Justin II

But the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonor the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigor of memorable crimes.” – Edward Gibbon, The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire

As absolutely brilliant as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire happens to be(and yes I did actually read the whole thing), I must take exception with the latter part of the above quote. The “vigor of memorable crimes” committed at the highest levels of the Byzantine Empire was most certainly animated. The Byzantine royal court was beset by decadence, degeneracy and intrigue. It offers tales equally lurid and fascinating. A long litany of machinations, assassinations, and usurpations occurred in the various struggles for the throne.

Before I recount one indicative example of this degeneracy, it should be noted that the Byzantines have long suffered from condescension by western scholars who see the empire in much the same way as Gibbon: totally corrupt and fueled by treachery. The reality, at times, is the opposite of this stereotype. Just to provide one example, the transmission of the Classical heritage to the western world would not have occurred but for the efforts of the Byzantines in literature, the arts and scholarship. Western historians would do well to keep this in mind when they gloss over Byzantine achievements. If not for these successes what would these same scholars of the ancient world have to write about? Certainly not their barbarous forebears who inhabited western and central Europe at that time. This was where even the best were barely literate and society was in the throes of a perpetual dark age. As the Byzantine scholar Sir Steven Runciman so aptly stated, Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.”

Despite this caveat, there is a legitimate basis for the stereotype. During its 1,100 plus year history (330 AD -1453 AD) 94 emperors ruled the Byzantine Empire. Not surprisingly nearly one-third (31) of these were deported. A variety of methods were used, some quite violent, everything  from palace coups to outright revolts. 23 emperors suffered violent deaths, some killed on the spot, others died from wounds after being mutilated, in one case by orders from his own mother. An oft-repeated criticism of the Byzantine’s is that they were not warlike. Well compared to Roman society it was not nearly as martial, but at the highest levels, violence was definitely used as a tool for change.

Counter intuitively, changes could also occur in a surprisingly peaceful manner despite or even because an emperor was depraved. This brings us to the fascinating story of emperor Justin II (565 -578), a man who came to power at a watershed moment in the empire’s history and descended into the depths of insanity. Those who have at least a cursory knowledge of Byzantine history, will be familiar with the predecessor of Justin II, the famous Justinian (527 – 565). His time on the throne is seen as the golden age of the empire. Justinian put into place a massive building program which left an architectural legacy, such as the Hagia Sophia, that has stood the test of time. He led a codification of Roman Law that set in place a system of justice, which is the foundation of law in the western world today.  He expanded the empire’s boundaries to their greatest extent. Taking back most of Italy, parts of North Africa, the Balkans and even a piece of southern Spain. Justinian’s vision was to reconstitute the Roman Empire in and around the Mediterranean. He was somewhat successful.

Justinian in close up from a mosaic

Justinian in close up from a mosaic

Less well known though is the fact that Justinian nearly bankrupted the empire with his grandiose vision. Continuous military campaigning and expensive building programs depleted the treasury. He also neglected the eastern frontier. Instituting a policy of paying bribes to keep the Persians as well as barbarian tribes on several others frontiers at bay. Justinian’s policies may have achieved greatness for Byzantium at times, but they also setup whomever was to follow him for failure. And who would be his successor. He had no male heirs. There were seven nephews that could possibly be chosen for the throne. There was definitely the possibility of a chaotic succession crisis.

Justin II as represented on a solidus (golden coin) from his reign

Justin II as represented on a solidus (golden coin) from his reign

The man who would become emperor is known to history as Justin II. He was the son of Justinian’s sister, the exquisitely named Vigilantia. It is said that Justinian’s last words were to place Justin II on the throne.  We do not know whether this is true though. The man who supposedly heard this order was Callinicus, an ally of Justin II. Of course this would have been to his liking. Callinicus was the only one with Justinian at the time of his death.

Whatever the case, Justin II took charge in 565. He was a man of rigid views, who adhered to principle over pragmatism. He set about paying off Justinian’s debts. This made him well regarded at the beginning of his reign, but it was not long before he ran into trouble. He flatly refused to pay any more bribes to keep the peace with barbarian tribes. This brought on war and then defeat. On the northern and western frontiers of the empire, the Lombards and Avars went on rampages. The empire soon lost most of the gains acquired at so much cost over the preceding four decades. Justin II’s lack of flexibility brought him and the empire an undo amount of stress that neither could handle. He began to crack under the pressure of keeping the empire afloat.

Then the situation on the eastern frontiers turned disastrous. The Persians defeated Byzantine forces on multiple occasions. Finally in 572, the Byzantines lost the frontier fortress of Dara. Justin II had had enough, he soon lost touch with reality. He became stark, raving mad. Aides would push him around his palace in a wheeled throne while he tried to bite them or anyone else who came close. As John of Ephesus, relates in his Ecclesiastical History:

the evil spirit filled him with agitation and terror, so that he rushed about in furious haste from place to place, and crept, if he could, under the bed, and hid himself among the pillows; and then, when the horror came upon him, he would rush out with hot and violent speed, and run to the windows to throw himself down. And his attendants, in spite of their respect for him as king, had to run after him, and lay hold of him, to prevent him from dashing himself down and being killed: and the queen was obliged to give orders for carpenters to come, and fix bars in the windows, and close them up on the whole of that side of the palace on which the king lived. Moreover they selected strong young men to act as his chamberlains and guard him; for when they were obliged, in the way I have described, to run after him and seize him, as he was a powerful man, he would turn upon them, and seize them with his teeth, and tear them: and two of them he bit so severely about the head, as seriously to injure them, and they were ill, and the report got about the city that the king had eaten two of his chamberlains.”

Here was an emperor whose bite was truly worse than his bark! Now we know Justinian would have been a tough act to follow under the best of circumstances. Yet Justin II’s behavior was a bit much even by the standards of those times. Something had to be done. He was still physically healthy and did not seem to be anywhere close to death. The empire’s difficulties called for a lucid mind at the helm just as much as the emperor’s aides might have needed a rabies shot. Justin II’s wife, Sophia impressed upon her husband in one of his sane moments that he had to relinquish power. Strangely despite his mad fits, he agreed. This was no ordinary madman. Like the insanity that consumed his mind, he was tragically unpredictable. In a humble, pathetic and sadly endearing spectacle the sources tell us that in his final act as emperor, he gave the following speech to his assembly:

You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honor them, and from them you will derive honor. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, (and we pointed to his ministers,) who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendor of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.

He then transferred power to a general named Tiberius. Sophia in effect acted as a regent. Justin II went into retirement, where he died four years later in 578. By this time, Justinian’s dream of a reconstituted Rome was in shambles. The empire was not up to the task. Even if Justin II had been perfectly sane and more flexible, it is doubtful he would have met with much more success. The real madness may well have been Justinian’s vision. Justinian could not escape the internal logic of Byzantium, always caught in one of three trends: trying to reclaim lost glory, just holding on or in decline. The pity is that Justin II let the whole thing drive him over the edge.

Following in the footsteps of historical giants is often an exercise in futility. Rarely has a man been setup for such a historical fall as Justin II was by Justinian. The grand madness of Justinian led to the fragile madness of Justin II. There cannot be one without the other. Both of these men represent the essence of Byzantium, grasping for greatness while at the same time heading toward ruin. Possibly the most amazing feat of Byzantium, is that the empire somehow resisted the clutches of fate for over 1,100 years.

Indivisible Enemies – The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs In Venice

Just outside Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice is where I first noticed them. I could hardly believe my eyes. Could this actually be the Portrait of the Four Tetrachs? No, the sculpture must have been some kind of reproduction. Surely, the public would not be allowed so close to such a historic antiquity. Tourists devouring gelato were almost leaning on the sculpture. They seemed utterly oblivious to what was right beside them. No one other than me was taking photos of the sculpture.  And getting a photo was not easy, as milling tourists wandered past. It was hard to blame the masses for their ignorance, there was so much else to see in and around the Piazza San Marco. The Gothic infused spires of the basilica caught the eye as they shot skyward, an architectural fantasia. Then there was the thick, rangy shadow cast by the towering Campanile. And the otherworldly symmetry of the Doge’s palace was barely a stone’s throw away. With all this architecture, all this culture, all this civilization why should anyone notice a little four foot three inch tall sculpture consisting of two pairs of long forgotten Roman emperors embracing each other.  When something as historically important as the Portrait of the Four Tetrachs is dwarfed by the surrounding magnificence, it tells you something about the greatness of Venice. Nonetheless, the sculpture is worth studying in its own right. It provides not only a commentary on a failed Roman political experiment, but also on the history of Venice itself.

Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs in Venice

Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs in Venice

Who were the Tetrachs, what does this sculpture represent and why was something nine hundred years past its prime brought to Venice? The Tetrachs came about quite simply because of the creation of a system of leadership known as the Tetrachy. Prepare yourself, because that’s about the only simple thing that can be said for this experiment in dual leadership. By the late 3rd century, the Roman Empire was trying to recover from a crisis that had lasted for fifty years. By one account there were forty-nine emperors (or at least that many who proclaimed themselves as such) between the years 235 to 284 AD. Many of these were pretenders struggling to gain the throne and an almost certain death sentence that went with it.

The crisis finally subsided with the accession to the throne of the Emperor Diocletian. His rule, which would last for twenty-one years, provided a stabilizing influence for the empire.  Just two years after coming to power, in the year 286, Diocletian decided to appoint a co-Emperor, Maximian. This was done in order to try and get a handle on an empire that stretched from the deserts of Syria to the moors of northern Britain. It was extremely difficult for any one emperor to handle all its problems, especially if there were wars on two fronts, spread hundreds if not thousands of miles apart. Furthermore, in case of disaster or treachery there would now be a legitimate successor to the throne as Diocletian did not have a son. Diocletian was to handle the Eastern portion of the empire, while Maximian was placed in charge of the West.

Diocletian - The Emperor Who Created The Tetrachy

Diocletian – The Emperor Who Created The Tetrachy

In 293 AD Diocletian expanded this idea with the creation of the Tetrarchy or rule of four. There would not only be two senior emperors, who were known as Augusti, but there would now also be two junior emperors as well with each known as a Caesar. Diocletian chose Galerius and Constantius Chlorus respectively for the east and west. This was seen as a workable system at the time, mainly because Diocletian was well respected by all the other emperors. In 305 Diocletian and Galerius retired and the two Caesars rose to Augusti, the choices for junior emperors cut out Constantius’ son Constantine from the succession. The soldiers Constantine was leading at the time proclaimed him emperor. Before long, there were several others claimants for the throne as well. To make a long story short, the whole thing descended into chaos. Multiple civil wars ensued, with the upshot that Constantine would finally emerge triumphant. In 313, just twenty years after it started, the Tetrarchy was abolished. Diocletian’s system had failed.

The Tetrarchy was a prominent event in ancient history, but one would not expect it to leave a physical legacy. Yet this unique system also left a unique piece of art which still today transmits the ideas of that time and system.  The Portrait of the Tetrarchs is a history lesson sculpted in stone. First there is the stone itself, porphyry. It came from Egypt where it had been used in sculpture by empires since the time of the great Pharaohs. The stone which is a dark purple was known as the color of royalty. The material is not fragile or easily eroded unlike the Tetrarchy it represents. The sculpture was a consciously symbolic effort to show the Tetrarchy as an ideal that would stand the test of time.

The representations of the emperors on the Portrait of the Tetrarchs are nearly identical, to the point that with the exception of the beards worn by the senior emperor of each pair, there is no difference in them whatsoever. Their dress, posture and expressions are the antithesis of individualism which had heretofore dominated the world of Roman sculpture. The conforming style is a way of showing unity and determination. It represents the Tetrarchs as indivisible from one another. It is a system that exists precisely because of their unity and equality. The most striking feature of the Portrait may well be the four pairs of identical eyes with trance like stares. They communicate an eerie stoicism. It is not so much that they are looking at you; it is more like they are looking through you.  Another intriguing aspect of the sculpture is how the representations are the antithesis of the usual classical style. Some commentators have opined that this is because the crisis of the third century had disrupted or destroyed the transmission of classical art styles into the era of the Tetrarchy. There may be some truth in this, but the sculpture also seems to represent a transformation in both style and substance. The portrait shows that a watershed has been crossed, from antiquity to late antiquity.

Philadelphion with Portrait of the Tetrarchs attached to adjacent columns

This reconstruction of the Philadelphion in Constantinople shows where the Portrait of the Tetrarchs may have been attached to adjacent columns

There is one thing missing though in the experience of viewing the statue in Venice. We can never see the Portrait in its original context.  What we do know is that in 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. During that tragic event, the Venetians did not take part in wanton destruction the way the Crusaders did. Instead, they practiced a modicum of self-restraint. They spent their time clinically removing valuable art and treasures that were then carried back to Venice where it would adorn the city. The Venetians did not just make out like bandits, they were bandits. The sculpture is believed to have been at the entrance to the Philadelphion in Constantinople. The two pairs of emperors were attached to separate, but adjacent columns. How fitting that they were placed at an entrance. It is a show of power, unity and harmony. In Venice they were also placed at an entrance, in this case to the Doge’s Palace. Were they a warning? A form of intimidation? Did the Venetians want to showcase this prize of conquest? Perhaps they wanted to provoke reverence or solemnity? Maybe it was a complex mixture of all of these together. The Portrait certainly communicates power and presence.

What does that tell us about Venice? To some it means that the Venetians, were mere thieves, advancing their empire at the expense of another. Then again, are not all empires guilty of such acts. The Venetians wanted to connect themselves with the traditions of the Roman Empire. They also wanted through theft, imitation or exploitation to co-opt the greatness of Byzantium. Imitation after all is the sincerest form of flattery. And the statue is not the only Byzantine influence one will find in Venice, it is everywhere. When they didn’t steal, they copied. Byzantium lives on in the art and architecture of Venice today, just as the Roman Empire lived on in Byzantium.  In a sense all history is an amalgamation for better or worse of the past.
I came into contact with this past in the shadow of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is where I felt the singular presence of these identically sculpted figures. Those emperors, arms around each other, hand to the hilt of their swords, abstract and remote looked right through me at something distant and deeper. Maybe they were looking at their enemies. Maybe they were looking at themselves.