By George Grant & Gregory Wilbur
“Curse the day,” the fleet messengers announced. “Constantinople has fallen to the Turks. Byzantium is no more.” The shattering news was announced in Genoa at wharf side early in the afternoon on July 8 in 1453. The great city had gone down fighting, with Emperor Constantine bravely positioned at the head of his troops. But the fierce Muslim tide was too much. All Christian resistance was quickly thwarted. The conquest was complete by midmorning. The massacre that followed was utterly horrifying - Byzantine citizens were cut down like grass in a meadow, holy relics were tossed into the sea, diplomatic consuls from the West were tortured and executed, women were raped, children were enslaved, and the once magnificent city was reduced to ruin. Pera, the nearby Ligurian trading post - and the heart of Genoa’s booming foreign mercantile enterprise - had suffered a similar fate, but several ships were able to make good their escape.
It was one of those ships that now brought the shocking news to their home city. The commander had gone to the doge’s palace to give him a first hand report. Meanwhile sailors related the sketchy sordid details to the stunned crowd gathered along the pier facing the harbor. Christopher Columbus would never forget that moment - though he was but a toddler. It was etched in his mind forever. Who could forget? Not since the days of the plague had so much emotion been unleashed in Genoa’s dreary, earnest, and businesslike streets.
The storied Byzantine civilization had long been a symbol of the beneficence of Christian community life. Throughout the Middle East, across North Africa, and deep into the heart of Europe, the stability and steadfastness of the Eastern Empire had spawned a remarkable flowering of culture for more than a millennium. The legal system it had pioneered under Justinian was just and efficient. The form of government it had developed under Constantine was limited and decentralized. The trade it had spawned under Alexius was free and prosperous. It was a model society. Its families had been stable and secure. Perversity and corruption had been suppressed while personal liberty and civil rights were enhanced. Its advancement in the sciences had been unprecedented. Art, music, and ideas had flourished as in no other time in human history. And its literary output had been bedazzling.
The fall of the city was an unimaginable catastrophe. The bulwark of Constantinople was no longer. The site of the Holy Sepulcher had been desecrated by the infidels. And the brightest light that Christian erudition had ever known was unceremoniously snuffed out. Many, both there in Genoa and throughout all the rest of Christendom, would be possessed by that awful realization for the rest of their lives - as would the young and impressionable Columbus, who eventually set out across the sea in an effort to set the world aright.
Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted by permission from THE CHRISTIAN ALMANAC, Cumberland House Publishing; 2 Rev Upd edition (August 2, 2004), p. 402.
Pictured: An artist’s rendering of Constanipople before it was taken by the Turks in 1453.