THE LAST YEARS OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE

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On May 29, 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, bringing to an end the 1,123-year history of the Byzantine.

The rescuing monarch from the East did not look like the Prester John of legend, but his actions had a similar effect. Timur (Tamerlane) rose to power by violence and treachery in Transoxania. He was a Muslim, half Turkic and half Mongol. By 1360, he was ready to begin his own conquests, building a new empire from the scattered remains of the original Mongol conquests. With enormous brutality, he conquered Persia and invaded India. Behind him he left rivers of blood and towers of skulls. By 1399, he had returned to his capital at Samarkand and was examining the situation in the West. During Timur’s campaigns, Bayazid and the Mamluk sultan of Egypt had seized some of his lands. He was determined to punish them for that. In 1400, he marched into Syria and stormed Aleppo. The following year, he captured Damascus. In 1402, he seized Baghdad, massacring twenty thousand of its inhabitants. That was enough for the Mamluks. The sultan offered his submission to Timur, promising to pay an annual tribute.

Sultan Bayazid, however, had no intention of groveling before this Mongolian upstart. When Timur invaded Anatolia, Ottoman forces were waiting for him at Ankara. An epic battle took place on July 20, 1402. At the end of the day, the Turkish army was annihilated, and Bayazid himself had been captured and killed. The defeat was a stunning blow to the prestige and power of the Ottomans. The death of the sultan plunged the Turks into a destructive civil war. The Ottoman threat, for the moment, was neutralized. Satisfied, Timur began his planned invasion of China. On the march, in 1405, he died. Although it was by no means his intention, Timur’s defeat of the Turks may well have saved Christendom.

In the West, there was no move to take advantage of the Turkish disarray. France, the traditional homeland of the crusades, was itself torn by civil war and on the brink of conquest by England. The Great Schism, which did not end until 1417, took up much of Christendom’s attention, as did the problem of the Hussites, a heretical sect in Bohemia. A number of crusades were directed against the heretics, but none met with much success.

Timur’s defeat of the Ottomans also gave a last-minute reprieve to the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1391–1425) seized every opportunity to bolster Byzantium’s position while the Turks were down. He reclaimed Thessalonica as well as other areas in Greece. With extraordinary diplomatic skill, he became a central figure in the Ottoman dynastic disputes, playing various sides off the others while retaining pretenders to the sultan’s throne in Constantinople as bargaining chips. He regularly requested aid from the West while dangling the promise of the reunion of the churches before both the Roman and Avignonese papal courts. Neither pope, however, was in a position to launch a major crusade.

By 1422, the embers of rebellion were dying down in the Ottoman Empire, and the aged Manuel II retired to a monastery. His son, John VIII (1421–48), quickly began making poor decisions. Upon assuming full power, John promptly released and supported a rival to Sultan Murad II (1421–51). When the sultan defeated the pretender and solidified his control over the empire, he was obviously not well disposed to the Byzantines; indeed, he was determined to crush the troublesome Roman Empire once and for all. Byzantine ambassadors who attempted to convince Murad that it was all a misunderstanding were sent back to Constantinople with the ominous message, “Go and tell the emperor that I will be coming soon.” On June 8, 1422, Murad began a massive attack along the Theodosian land walls of Constantinople. All the citizens of the capital, including women and children, manned the fortifications. Their heroic efforts saved their city. Despite his numbers, Murad had no effective means to deal with Constantinople’s ancient fortifications. Sappers were useless against their sheer size. It was widely rumored among the Turks that the walls of Constantinople were made of solid steel.

The siege of 1422 made it clear to John that the empire could not survive without Western aid. With the Great Schism at an end in Europe, a single pope could stir the forces of the West to come to the rescue of Byzantium. At least that is what the popes claimed. Military assistance, however, carried a price. Although the papacy was committed to preserving a Christian Constantinople, they rather doubted that the warriors of Europe could be stirred to fight for schismatics who did not recognize the primacy of Rome. John was eager for aid but wary about reunification with Rome, fearful that his citizens would be opposed to it. When Murad captured Thessalonica in 1430 and imposed a naval blockade on Constantinople, the emperor realized that he no longer had any choice.

The Byzantine emperor, patriarch, and upper clergy traveled to the West to attend the Council of Florence in 1437. There the various questions of theology, authority, and ritual that separated East from West were honestly and frankly debated. But no amount of debate could change the basic calculus that the Byzantine Empire would fall without Western help. At last, the emperor and patriarch accepted every position of the Western church, including papal primacy. Amid great celebration Pope Eugenius IV (1431–47) and Emperor John II formally signed the document of union on July 5, 1439. The long separation between the Greek and Latin sides of Christianity had finally come to an end—at least on paper. The emperor and his clergy were sincere enough, but they misjudged the power of certain factions in the Byzantine East, some of whom would accept no union with the West, no matter the conditions. Yet those problems lay in the future. For the moment, Christians rejoiced that East and West were reunited and looked forward to a new crusade to drive the Turks from Europe.

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