An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
|— from “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats (1927)|
In the late spring of 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II besieged and overthrew the city of Constantinople, ringing the curtain of history down on the Byzantine Empire.
Mehmed was completing a process begun more than two centuries before. Decade after decade the Turks had nibbled at the edges of the empire, and now, as the marches of Byzantium tightened until they enclosed scarcely more than the capital city, the Sultan prepared to take the final bite.
The event was long expected within the city. Many inhabitants had fled to Venice or other points west; those who remained either had no place to go or were too brave or too foolhardy to leave. The last Christian days of the city were spent in a twilight of foreboding, with citizens laboring to shore up the defenses along the walls or melting down the gold ornaments from churches and cathedrals in order to make coins to pay the soldiers defending them.
By superior force and ingenious stratagem the Turks breached the defenses and overran the city. After the statutory three days of murder, rape, and pillage, the Turks controlled the city and the Sultan prepared to turn it into Istanbul, his new imperial capital. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque, the surviving Christians were forced to pay the jizyah, and the last outpost of the Roman Empire came to an end.
The word “Byzantine” came to its modern meaning with good reason. It connotes elaborate bureaucratic complexity, subtle political intrigue, and a cynical and amoral style of living, all of which were characteristic of the Empire in its last stages. The Byzantines had access to the superior technology of Europe, but they lacked the cultural vitality of the Turks. Just as the barbarian Goths had overthrown the more powerful and sophisticated Romans a millennium earlier, so the Islamic barbarians overthrew the more civilized capital of Eastern Christendom.
A few generations later the Sultan’s heirs would succumb to the same weaknesses as their Christian forebears, and Turkey eventually became the “sick man of Europe.” But in the 15th and 16th centuries the Turks had their moment in the sun. Istanbul became the center of the most sophisticated culture in the world, and the Sultan’s court was the most important seat of power of its time.
Not that all of the Byzantines lacked strength of character. The last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Drageses, died with a sword in his hand fighting for Constantinople, as did so many others. But the larger processes of history were against him, and the culture of the Eastern Empire was not strong enough to stand against the vigor and might of the Ottoman Turks.
The Turks were the most recent in a series of nomadic invaders migrating to the West from Mongolia via the steppes of Central Asia. As they passed through Persia they converted to Islam before arriving in Anatolia. The Ottomans were most powerful and successful of the Turkish tribes, supplanting the Seljuks and eventually subduing all of Anatolia, as well as Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa.
All through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries the Turks pressed on into Europe, overrunning Greece and the Balkans, taking Hungary, and threatening the heart of the Holy Roman Empire in Austria. Sultan Süleyman I was determined to conquer Austria and become dominant in Europe, and for a while it seemed inevitable that he would. But in 1683 the Europeans somehow managed to overcome all their internal strife and betrayal long enough to unite and throw back the Turks at the gates of Vienna. After that the Ottoman tide gradually receded.
The Sultan of the Turkish Empire, in addition to his political office, held the title of Caliph, and was charged with the protection of all Muslims. This was the Turkish justification for many of the Ottoman military incursions: defending the faithful. Even the attacks on other Islamic states were rationalized as necessary to return apostate Muslims to the true faith.
Raising our gaze from the 15th century to the 21st, we see that the Ummah — the collective of all Muslims — lacks a Caliph. Osama bin Laden had his ambition for the position, and so may Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Each of them has viewed himself as the defender of all Islam — the true Islam, that is; the pure faith of the first four Caliphs.
Does our time also lack its Byzantium? Or do we have our own Constantinople, just waiting to have its walls breached by the siege engines and cannons of the barbarians?
The political culture at the center of the greatest world power is certainly Byzantine enough. Betrayal and intrigue; corruption and excess; a lust for power at the expense of anything else: all these we have in abundance.
Perhaps we are currently reprising 1453 rather than 1683, and this blog should be called “Walls of Constantinople” instead of “Gates of Vienna.”
And, although they spread a vile culture of death, the barbarians gathering outside the walls are certainly vital. They are vigorous and fecund, and plan to breed more Muslims than we do Christians or Jews or Hindus or atheists. From a military or technological standpoint they have no chance. But when the cities of Europe empty of Europeans, and fill up with Turks and Somalis and Arabs and Pakistanis, who wins?
In a much-noted essay last week, Mark Steyn discussed the demographic disaster facing Europe as its native population fails to replace itself and Islamic immigrants move in to sustain the swollen welfare state. In two or three decades Europe will become unrecognizable if present trends continue, and by the end of the century will no longer exist as we have known it.
Referring to Ireland, Yeats said, “That is no country for old men.” Yet Europe is fast becoming a country of nothing else. Those dying generations at their song of self-indulgence and luxury are coming to end, one way or another. So what will come next?
As Mr. Steyn repeatedly asks, “What do you leave behind?”
We monuments of unageing intellect in the blogosphere should consider carefully our answer to this question. We can leave behind a strong and civilized culture, or we can leave an archive of material to picked over by our Muslim successors while they blow up all our infidel monuments.
As Yeats wrote in the final stanza of his poem,
|Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.