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May 29th, 2001

  A Day That Will Live in Infamy


No, no, not that one, not December 7th. Among the disciplined legions of NRO writers, each hath his assigned place, and the reviewing of movies — including surpassingly awful movies, as Pearl Harbor is said to be — belongs to some scribbler at a different desk, not to me. Others among us NRO minions till the vineyards of Washington, yet others report from foreign chancelleries, or the halls of high finance. The noble editor summons and dispatches as the spirit moves him: thousands at his bidding speed, and post o'er land and ocean without rest. My mission in this vast enterprise is to lift your eyes from the sordid squabbles of the nation's everyday affairs and point them to higher things: the direction of our culture, the threats to our civilization, and our place in the grand scheme of history. It is in respect of these lofty concerns that today I draw your attention to the date, May 29th, the five hundred and forty-eighth anniversary of the end of the Middle Ages.

To refresh your memory: the Middle Ages began on Saturday, September 4th, a.d. 476, when the last Emperor of Rome, the boy Romulus Augustulus, was dismissed by Odoacer, a rude German, who thereby made himself the first barbarian king of Italy. They ended on May 29th, 1453 (a Tuesday in that year, as in this one), when Mehmed the Second, "the Conqueror," entered Constantinople after a seige of fifty-three days, bringing an end to the Eastern Empire. In the words of Gibbon:

From the first hour of the memorable twenty-ninth of May, disorder and rapine prevailed in Constantinople till the eighth hour of the same day, when the sultan himself passed in triumph through the gate of St. Romanus … At the principal door of St. Sophia he alighted from his horse and entered the dome … By his command the metropolis of the Eastern church was transformed into a mosque … on the ensuing Friday, the muezin, or crier, ascended the most lofty turret, and proclaimed the ezan, or public invitation, in the name of God and his prophet; the imam preached; and Mohammed the Second performed the namaz of prayer and thanksgiving on the great altar, where the Christian mysteries had so lately been celebrated before the last of the Caesars.

There are all sorts of legends, to suit all moods, about that awful day. Here are two of my favorites, one gruesome, one melancholy.

The gruesome one: High up on one of the columns of St. Sophia, on the south-east side, it is said that keen-eyed visitors can make out the print of a hand — the blood-stained hand of the Conqueror, with which he reached out to steady himself while clambering up a huge pile of corpses that blocked his way. (At the end, many citizens of Constantinople had taken refuge in the cathedral, where they were massacred.)

The melancholy one: From St. Sophia, Mehmed rode to the Emperor's palace, which had already been thoroughly looted by the Turkish troops. Wandering the empty rooms, he is supposed to have murmured to himself some lines by the 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi: "The spider spins his web in the Imperial halls, / An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab." (Gibbon gives the second of these but not the first, which I have borrowed from Jason Goodwin's charming sketch of Ottoman history, Lords of the Horizons.)

Mehmed was only 21 when he took Constantinople. He went on to enjoy a long and successful reign, dying at last aged 49, very likely poisoned, while on campaign just 15 miles from the city he conquered. As medieval rulers go, he was not a bad sort. To be sure, he had his little ways. He was cruel, and had a sexual orientation that nowadays would get him an honorary life membership in NAMBLA and a couple of disapproving Derb editorials. At least once, according to Gibbon, the cruelty and the pederasty had the same object: when the 15-year-old son of the historian Phranza refused to submit to Mehmed's lust, the enraged conqueror stabbed him to death. Mehmed had a thoughtful and cultivated side, though. He was well-read, and spoke five languages beside his own. That business about quoting Ferdowsi sounds apocryphal to me, but it wouldn't have been out of character. If Disney were to make a movie about the sack of Constantinople, they'd have no difficulty putting some pro-Turkish spin on it.

History books always point out that the fall of Constantinople was, by itself and out of the larger historical context, not a very momentous event. The Eastern Empire had dwindled to pretty much the municipal boundaries of Constantinople by that point, anyway. The city was probably half-empty, having lost its vitality long since. Most of its treasures had been sold, or carried off by previous invaders; for there had been other conquerors — Christian ones — before Mehmed, notably a combined army of Franks and Venetians during the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204. Notes Goodwin of that earlier sack: "The Venetians toyed with the idea of moving Venice there [that is, to Constantinople, a.k.a. Byzantium] lock, stock and barrel, after they captured it in 1204; but perhaps their own city on the Veneto was so stuffed with looted treasures from Byzantium that the business of shipping it all back seemed too much trouble." Another historian, Colin McEvedy, calls the Fourth Crusade "the greatest commercial coup of all time."

You can even argue that, in the long perspective, the fall of Constantinople was a good thing. It put one more obstacle in the way of trading with the East, giving Europeans one more incentive to look for new routes to take them there — the idea that inspired Columbus. While individual human actions have a moral content, large historical processes do not; or if they do, it is at a level beyond our understanding. If Mehmed's assault on Constantinople had been repulsed — if he had not, that terrible twenty-ninth of May, "passed in triumph through the gate of St. Romanus" — the great voyages of discovery to the New World might not have happened when they did, or in the way they did, and this Republic might not exist.

There is nothing more instructive or rewarding than the study of history. People nowadays don't read enough of it. Events like the fall of Constantinople remind us that, Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding, history is not like a chess game or a novel, that has a definite ending, but is much more like the sea, with tides that come and go, and storms, and doldrums. Most people do not understand this. In the U.S.A., which is an optimistic and forward-looking nation, never invaded nor defeated in any important sense, there is a well-nigh universal belief that things will go on getting better, we shall all go on getting richer and more enlightened, into the indefinite future, and the only interesting problems of politics are how to accelerate this process and remove such minor, irritating impediments to it as still remain.

This breezy doctrine is applied to the rest of the world, too. Any time I write something gloomy about China, I am sure to get emails telling me that the Chinese are freer and richer now than they were 20 years ago (which is true), and that therefore in 20 years time they will be even freer and even richer (which I very much doubt). If I write about the Middle East, I am reminded by readers that the Arabs have not actually marched to war against Israel for a generation; that there is no longer a U.S.S.R. to arm them; that Palestinian autonomy, with all its problems, is a great advance over occupation; and that one day soon the Arabs will all wake up and simultaneously realize that a friendly accommodation with Israel is in their best interests. I should just be patient, things are getting better, everything is always getting better. Whenever I write about public attitudes to homosexuality I get emails from homosexuals calling me a pitiable reactionary, hopelessly behind the curve, left standing alone and folorn on the station platform as History's train speeds away into the radiant future; and pointing out that tolerance and acceptance are much more widespread now than they were a generation ago (true), and that therefore in twenty years time we shall have a homosexual President (in your dreams).

In the American imagination, rising graphs rise for ever. Unfortunately they don't. In A.D. 100, most educated Europeans knew that the world was round; five hundred years later, most believed it was flat. Even in the U.S.A., graphs don't always rise: It was not until the late 1950s that the Dow Jones Industrial Average returned in real terms to the value it enjoyed immediately before the stock market crash of 1929. Much more to the point, Americans are less free today, in many important ways, than they were fifty years ago. The soft, creeping tyranny of "political correctness" — of speech codes, anti-discrimination and "hate crime" legislation, race and gender quotas, gun controls, incomprehensible tax rules, overbearing regulation, "environmental"-based restrictions on land use, unrestrained immigration, all the stifling, suffocating sentimentality of the education rackets, and the ever-swelling power, wealth and arrogance of federal bureaucracies and Constitution-twisting judges — is gradually, visibly wearing down the vitality of this nation, indeed of the whole Western world. "Stalinism Lite," this process is called by the infallibly wise Washington Times columnist Fred Reed. It is in the nature of a subversive process like this that it has always, at any point, gone further than we realize. However, I think it might still be possible to turn it back, if people's eyes could only be opened to the danger, and to what lies at the end of this particular road.

Rising graphs do not rise for ever. What goes up must come down, unless held up by a steady effort of faith and will. Or, as someone else expressed it: "Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." The unhappy burghers of Constantinople, those who survived, could have told you all about it, as they were trussed up ("the males with cords, the females with their veils and girdles," says Gibbon) to be driven off into slavery that sad Tuesday afternoon so long ago.