May 29, 1453. Everyone knew it was the last day. The armies of the new God were outside the walls and tonight they would enter into this holy city. All the signs were visible; the sun had turned black in mid-day, a dense fog enveloped the capitol followed by strange lights in the evening sky. The Holy Ghost was leaving, abandoning the city to it’s fate. Those still left in the city gathered in the great church Hagia Sofia to pray for protection and if not protection, then salvation. Incense and chants filled the greatest church in Christendom which had stood for almost a thousand years.
The Emperor Constantine, eleventh of his name, supplicated himself before his God. And then he spoke to those present. “To surrender the city is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.” Stripping off his imperial robes, donning ordinary armor, Constantine XI led his few remaining troops in the defense of Constantinople.
He died like an ordinary soldier on May 29, 1453, fighting in the streets after the walls of the city had been breached by the armies of Mehmet II. His last recorded words were: “The city is fallen and I am still alive.”. Then he led his remaining soldiers into a last charge where he was killed. His body was never identified.
The legend of the Marble Emperor arose; an Archangel rescued the Emperor, turned him into marble and hid the statue near the Golden Horn where he would arise one day to recapture the city for the Christians. The Emperor is considered a national hero in Greece. His death marked the end of the Roman Empire which had survived for 977 years after the fall of Rome in the West.
Meanwhile during the siege of Constantinople, the Emperor’s young niece Princess Zoe, daughter of his younger brother Thomas was living with her family in Morea, (the medieval name for the Peloponnesus in Greece). After the fall of the Capitol, Mehmet’s armies marched on Morea causing the family to flee to Rome.
Princess Zoe was placed under the protection of Pope Sixtus IV and his successor Paul II. Zoe was born into the Orthodox faith. While in Rome the Papacy provided for her welfare and education, undoubtedly including religious instruction in Roman Catholicism.
She was the daughter of the “legitimate” ruler of the East, the Emperor’s surviving brother Thomas. When Thomas passed in 1465 Zoe became a marriageable prize.
Enter Ivan III, Grand Prince of all the Russ. His first wife had died and he was still a young man.
The marriage between Sophia and Ivan III was proposed by Pope Paul II in 1469, probably with the hope of strengthening the influence of the Catholic Church in Russia or the unification of the Orthodox and Catholic churches under Rome. The motives of Ivan III to pursue this union were probably connected with the status and rights of the Greek princess over Constantinople. The idea of this marriage was perhaps born in the mind of Cardinal Basilios Bessarion who was charged by the Pope with Zoe’s welfare.
After negotiations and agreements on details, Zoe with a vast procession of soldiers, priests and the Papal Legate began the journey to Moscow. Even while traveling to Russian lands, it soon became apparent that the Vatican plans to make Zoe their representative of Catholicism failed as she soon demonstrated – Zoe returned to the faith of her ancestors. And she took a new name – Sofia.
When she crossed into Russian territory she was greeted by vast crowds, come to see the new Grand Princess of Moscow – the new wife of Ivan III. Sofia knew how to make points – she greeted the crowds in person, something unheard of at the time. The formal wedding between Ivan III and Sophia took place at the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on November 12, 1472 performed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan. The Papal Legate procession, lead by a Latin cross was forbidden to enter Moscow to attend the wedding.
With his new wife, the dynastic link to Byzantium allowed Ivan to transfer to himself much of the imperial prestige. She brought from Rome and Constantinople a large retinue of priests, scholars, artists and architects. She carried to Russia her Greek and Latin books, priceless manuscripts, icons and art. For Ivan she brought a magnificent ivory throne made in Persia as well as the emblem of the Byzantine emperors for a thousand years—the Double Eagle— which Ivan adopted as the symbol of Russia.
Her position allowed Ivan to make the claim that Moscow was Rome’s direct successor – the Third Rome – Defender of the Faith. Ivan took the title “Tsar” – Caesar, and the autocracy he and Sofia established continued in power until 1917.
“Sophia was apparently not obliged to follow the custom of traditional isolation which was expected of other Russian noble and royal women at the time; it is noted that she was not confined to the women’s quarters, but greeted foreign representatives from Europe similarly as the queens of Western Europe.”
Sophia introduced grand Byzantine ceremonies and meticulous court etiquette in the Kremlin, the pretentious idea of Moscow as a Third Rome evidently pleasing her. Due to her family traditions, she encouraged imperial ideas in the mind of her consort. She supported Ivan when he successfully refused to continue paying tribute to the Mongols. It Is said that she and Ivan found in Moscow a city of wood – and left it a capital city of stone. Sofia’s son Vasilli won out in a series of dynastic rivalries and squabbles and she eventually became grandmother to Ivan the Terrible. The triumph of her son was the last important event in Sophia’s life. She died on April 7, 1503, two years before her husband.
Meanwhile, when Mehmet the Conqueror entered the ruins of the Boukoleon, known to the Ottomans and Persians as the Palace of the Caesars, probably built over a thousand years before by Theodosius II, he uttered the famous lines of the Persian poet Saadi:
“ The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab”
After the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmet also claimed the title “Caesar” of the Roman Empire (Qayser-i Rûm). However, this claim was obviously not recognized by Christian Europe. Mehmet’s claim rested with the concept that Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire, after the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in 330 AD and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Mehmet also had a blood lineage to the Byzantine imperial family; his predecessor, Sultan Orhan I had married a Byzantine princess, and Mehmet claimed descent from John Komnenos, a nephew of the Byzantine Emperor.
Immediately after the conquest, Mehmet ordered Hagia Sofia converted into a mosque. However Mehmed’s main concern with Constantinople had to do with rebuilding the city’s defenses and repopulation. Building projects were commenced immediately after the conquest, which included the repair of the walls, construction of the citadel, and building a new palace.
To encourage the return of the Greeks and the Genoese who had fled from the trading quarter of the city, he returned their houses and provided them with guarantees of safety. Mehmet issued orders across his empire that Muslims, Christians, and Jews should resettle in the city. Mehmet II introduced the word “Politics” into Arabic “Siyasah” from a book he published which claimed to be a collection of political doctrines of the Byzantine Caesars before him. He too gathered Italian artists, humanists and Greek scholars at his court, allowed the Byzantine Church to continue functioning, ordered the patriarch Gennadius to translate Christian doctrine into Turkish.
Mehmet then issued the oldest document of religious freedom on record:
“I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, hereby declare the whole world that, the Bosnian Franciscans granted with this sultanate ferman are under my protection. And I command that: No one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their churches! They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. They may return to their monasteries which are located in the borders of my state. No one from my empire notable, viziers, clerks or my maids will break their honour or give any harm to them! No one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and churches of these people! Also, what and those these people have brought from their own countries have the same rights. By declaring this ferman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the ground and sky, Allah’s prophet Mohammed, and seven prophets that; no one from my citizens will react or behave the opposite of this ferman!”
The original edict is still kept in the Franciscan monastery in Fojnica. It is the oldest surviving document on religious freedom. In 1971, the United Nations published a translation of the document in all the official U.N. languages. The ferman was republished by the Ministry of Culture of Turkey for the 700th anniversary of the foundation of the Ottoman State which ultimately ended after World War I