The Romance of Constantinople
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Oct 1937, p. 29-43

Renison, Right Reverend Robert J., Speaker
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A description of a first view of the Mediterranean Sea: "a little ocean of molten history." The history of Constantinople. The church of Saint Sophia, in some detail. The story of the Eastern Empire, little known to Western people. The rise of Islam. The story of the Crusades. A little-known story in Christian history involving ancient Venice. The great intellectual battle between the Western and the Grecian Church. The fall of the Greek Empire. The conquest of Constantinople not an unrelieved tragedy, and how that is so. A lesson for the Christian nations of the world today of strength in unity.
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14 Oct 1937
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Full Text
Thursday, October 14th, 1937

PRESIDENT: Gentlemen, Dr. Joseph Parker once introduced on outstanding public man of England to a representative audience in the City Temple, London, in these words: "Loose him and let him go." Abrupt as this may seem, it was a great tribute to the speaker's knowledge of his subject and his powers of expression. Before today's address is over you will admit that this would be a fitting introduction to Bishop Renison. This Canadian came to us from Ireland at an early age. He is a product of Trinity College at Port Hope, where he was head boy; Wycliffe College claims him, The Universities of Toronto, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have honoured him. He has served the Church of England in Moosonee, in the North; Hamilton, in the South; and Vancouver, in the West. He was Bishop of Athabaska when Ontario again claimed him. A member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he was affectionately known as "Bobby" Renison, and has always had the problems of the returned man before him. Thus, Dr. Renison has touched life in many centers and at many angles and he brings to his address a trained mind, stored with sympathetic reading and much travel. I shall now loose him and let him go. His subject is "The Romance of Constantinople." I have the honour to call upon Right Reverend Robert J. Renison. Dr. Renison.

(Applause.) RT. REVEREND ROBERT J. RENISON, M.A., D.D.: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: When one who lives in this new and western world crosses the ocean and comes to the gates of Hercules and takes a first view at the Mediterranean Sea the impression that comes to your mind is "That this is a little ocean of molten history." As you look to the right at the towering peaks of North America from which the Moors came over to make their final conquest in Spain, all the way down the northern coast of Africa there is history everywhere. It is difficult to note, apart from applied science, what great gifts we have that have not come from the Mediterranean worldart and history and religion are all there. Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Rome, Greece, Constantinople, Syria-it seems as if the ghosts of sails appear before our eyes as we enter into the Mediterranean Sea. But more especially is this the case when after a long journey (because at Gibraltar you are not half way yet to the end of the sea) when you go down to Egypt and start that last voyage northward fox' a thousand miles you seem to be passing through a corridor of glory. The Isles of Crete, Rhodes and Samos and Delos and Patmos, everyone of them thrills the heart of the traveller with the thought of the romance of history.

Art last you come to the gates of the Dardanelles. On one side just beyond the Island of Tenedos you seem to see in your vision the towers of ancient Troy and you can hear' the shouts of Agamemnon and Hector and the other heroes who are displaying their chivalry before Priam and his family as they are standing on the walls. On the other side at Cape Helles there is a white shadow that brings silence and reverence to every Anglo-Saxon heart. There is the holy ground of Anzac, just as immortal and just as marvellous as the Iliad of ancient Troy. This is the gateway to Constantinople. For a hundred miles and more the approach, as if along a great avenue brings you to one of the most remarkable cities of the whole world. First of all at Chanak you come to the narrows, only about five hundred yards wide, where the British ships were sunk in 1915--It is here that Xerxes built his wooden raft across the Dardanelles when he came to attempt to conquer the ancient youth of Marathon and Salamis. As you go down further the waters open up into the little Sea of Marmora and there comes the Bosphorus itself. Everywhere, there is history. You have just passed the place where Leander made his famous swim to see Hero. On the other' side of the Bosphorus it opens up into the Black Sea, known to the ancients as the Euxine Sea. And, it is on the left as you enter that you approach the City of Constantinople. It was known in ancient days as Byzantium, founded by the Greeks, probably somewhere about Goo B.C. It was looked upon as the extreme outpost of Europe. Its history is rather nebulous in those days but the site of the city, I think, is incomparable in the whole world. Not the Bay of Naples, not any other harbour I have ever seen can compare with the glory and majesty of Constantinople. It is on the left hand side as you come in from the Sea of Marmora, two or three little islands are in front of you and you see the Golden Horn that seems to run like a channel right through the city, where the waters of the Lycus River come and which the Turks call "the sweet waters of Europe." For seven or eight miles the hills and terraces are covered with mosques and with palaces and the shores are lined with the country houses of the old grandees of the Turkish Empire. On the other side, of course, Scutari, the Asiatic suburb, lies. For twenty-five miles or more this little channel, averaging a mile and a half, with a current in it, runs to the waters of the Black Sea.

It is the meeting place of the East and the West and without wasting too much time on its early history I would like to say that it first became famous in the year 332 when Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, chose Byzantium to be the capital of his eastern Empire. After the wars of conquest of the Roman Empire were over it became obvious, owing to the pirates of the Mediterranean and owing to the difficulty of reaching the desert kingdoms in Arabia and elsewhere, that there should be a new Rome, so the new Rome was built in the year 332. Constantine made it his capital. It has seven hills and six valleys. The organization of the city and its walls were 'like the walls of the original Rome and at the beginning the whole of the ancient world was robbed in order to make Constantinople great. In one of his incomparable phrases Gibbons says that the art and .the beauty of Constantinople, from Athens, from Antioch, from Alexandria and from all the cities of the world had everything except the soul of their creators. From Athens and from Olympus, from the banks of the Nile, from Northern Syria, there were brought the greatest statues and the greatest objects of art that the whole world could produce in order to make this city a memorable one. Many of the ancient people of the East flocked to it and many of the grandees of Rome made it their permanent residence. After Constantine the city began to outshine ancient Rome.

I need not remind you of the fact that beginning about the year 4,00 Italy was over-run, time and time again by the northern and western tribes and by the Goths and Huns. Rome became a comparatively insignificant city for a long time but Constantinople grew and prospered and the city about which I am going to speak to you for a few minutes today was probably for a thousand years the greatest city in all the world.

The second builder of Constantinople was the great Emperor Justinian. Before his time, it is true, the city expanded so that its walls had to be enlarged over and over again. It became the great center of Christianity, especially of Eastern Christianity. It was there in the old church of Saint Sophia, that John Chrysostom, the most famous preacher in the ancient world, held his throne as the Patriarch of Constantinople. But when Justinian came to the throne it seemed as if the Roman Empire was to be reborn a second time. Italy was in desperation. The Western Empire was unable to protect itself and the great General Belisarius made conquests in Africa and recaptured Rome itself. He was the greatest warrior of his age, but Justinian was great, not only .as an organizer of victory but he was the man who reorganized the laws of the ancient Roman world and the laws of Justinian today are known wherever there is law in the civilized world. After great riots between the Greens and the Blues, two circus rival factions which half destroyed the City, he determined to build a new church and he called it the Church of Saint Sophia, the Saint of Sacred Wisdom. Saint Sophia is not a lady but I have no doubt whatever, that the Greek type of mind and the tradition that came from Athens, where Pallas Athene was the presiding goddess had something to do with naming the Saint of Wisdom as the name of this great church.

If you don't mind, for a few moments I will tell you something about this church of Saint Sophia. I don't think there is any church in the world that ought to be compared to her, for several reasons. First, I want you to remember it was built in the year 532, and although the roof fell, owing to a great earthquake in the year 550, it was completed again in 558 and that church has stood practically intact since that day to the present time. Is there any church in all the world or any building in all the world that has lived for all these centuries? The church was a new idea in architecture. It was the supreme and dying effort of the Greek genius. It is about 185 feet high. It is the shape of a Greek cross. That is to say, the transepts are the same as the nave and it is about ego feet long and 230 feet wide, but the glory of the church is its dome. There was nothing like it in history before. How it was built, God alone knows. When you consider what the engineering equipment of the world was in those days and realize that that great dome, rising on its four pillars with its forty windows, has remained for 1500 years, it seems almost an incredible thing. The church was built of burnt brick. The great pillars in the center, of course, were stone. When it came to building the dome we are told that the builder's went to Rhodes to procure a particular kind of porous pumice stone and some brick that is one-fifth the weight of ordinary brick and on account of that they say in that climate the dome has remained just as it is to the present hour. The outside of the church is not particularly glorious, in fact it is covered with stucco, but the inside of the church must have been magnificent beyond all comparison. Justinian received gifts from all over the world. There are eight pillars there that came from the temple of the sun at Baalbek-scarlet porphyry. There are several more great green marble pillars that came from the ancient temple of Diana at Ephesus, and there are one hundred and nine pillars of the choicest marble that could be found in the ancient world that are the glory of the church today.

The inside of the church is entirely covered with mosaic. It seemed to be the last form of art, ecclesiastically speaking, in the old Grecian days. Pictures of the stories of the Bible, of Christ and his Virgin Mother were to be found there and the colour and glory of the interior of the church was legend in ancient times. The altar was solid gold and, of course, there were relics, according to the custom of those times, assembled from all over the world.

There was the picture of that ancient church and even after 1500 years, I want to say when anybody has once looked at it and compared it with other churches, you are somehow or other impressed with certain characteristics. You axe first impressed with the fact that all the really great churches of the world are imitations of Saint Sophia. For instance, Saint Paul's in London, is given its dome which is an imitation of that at Saint Sophia. Even the great Saint Peter's in Rome departed from the pure Gothic in order that it might carry out the idea of a great congregational church. That came from Saint Sophia. And beyond that is one thing I never realized until I saw it, that every great Mahommedan mosque of the world is almost a literal copy of Saint Sophia. There are five or six great mosques almost the size of Saint Sophia in Constantinople today. There is the glorious blue mosque, the mosque of Sultan Suleiman, the Magnificent. The mosque of Sultan Bayezid, and others. Some a little longer, some with a little more height, but evidently they were all built by men who looked at the standard of this glorious old church.

The story of the Eastern Empire is one, of course, that is hardly known to Western people at all. Even in our colleges today it is passed over in one or two lectures in the ordinary general course, but as a matter of fact for many hundreds of years the Eastern Roman Empire was far more important than the Western Empire from the point of view of the world at large. Constantinople grew when Rome began to decline and was essentially a, sea empire, and the glory of Constantinople as a city and as a capital of the Empire came from the fact that it had two gates on the Bosphorus and the Dardenelles, and as long as she commanded the seas, nothing in the world could touch her and her fleets for a long time were the greatest fleets in fine Mediterranean.

Then, there came that strange phenomenon of the rise of Islam. You remember how it began in Arabia and how that mystic prophet with his vision of God somehow or other had the gift to electrify the desert people who from the beginning of the world had nothing to do with world politics at all. They went like a prairie fire across Africa and swept the Christian churches off the Mediterranean and they went over in the year 700 to Gibraltar sand you can see the old tower built there a few years before the battle of Tours that drove them back under the Christian leadership of Charles Martel in 732. They went into Asia, Minor and one after another of the Greek islands were occupied and when they once had touched the Turks who were not the original Mahommedans, the mahommedan religion seemed to give a vital power to those people which made them for a time the most dramatic and the most vital power in the whole world. It wasn't a very high type of civilization but somehow or other the unity of the Mahommedan world is one of the most extraordinary things to be found in history and one or two things I am going to say, I think will throw a little bit of light on our modern political world. Those were days when the Christian Church was split asunder. About the middle of the eleventh century came the division between the Eastern and the Western Church--apart from the theological questions, a split between the genius of Rome and the genius of Greece. For a long time the two sections of Christendom contested with each other. They couldn't understand each other. They would have nothing to do with co-operation, but the extraordinary power of Mahommedanism seemed to be that it bound to itself every nation that it touched. Like a flying wedge they went through the Eastern world.

The story of the Crusades is a fascinating study. The people who were most interested in the Crusades were the Western nations of Europe, England and France and Germany. It was there that the Knights came and the Eastern churches had little to do with it. The only interest they had was the picture of the Crusaders as they passed by. One of the things that comes to man today when he travels in a. comfortable steamship or with motors or on express trains, is to think of the vitality, of the spirit of people who lived seven hundred years ago. When you think of the first Crusaders, crossing France and Germany, going through Austria, coming through Roumania, right down to the Black Sea and then marching down to the Dardanelles and crossing over and going along that rocky coast of Asia Minor, all the way down to Northern Assyria, building their castles as they went, how they had the power and how they had the spirit for the long march is beyond comprehension. Yet, they conquered Jerusalem. But after the third Crusade, made famous by Sir Walter Scott, the Crusade in which Richard, the Iron-Hearted, took part, the philosophers and the leaders of the Christian Crusading ideal in Europe felt it was a wrong thing to march thousands of miles on foot when they should have gone by sea. So, a fourth Crusade was planned and Innocent, the Third, one of the great Popes, was very anxious that this should be a final and successful Crusade and the idea was that it was to be transported by sea instead of travel by land, and the only great maritime Christian power at that time in the Mediterranean was Venice. I will say a word or two about Venice later on. So, it was arranged that this Fourth Crusade which was to be headed by Richard, of England, who, unfortunately, died in the year 1199, should march to Venice and from The Lido embark to Egypt, the Achilles' heel of the Turkish Empire. Everything was carefully planned. Then came the terrible betrayal of Christendom by the Venetian Republic.

We hear so much about the art, and so much about the glory and enterprise of ancient Venice that we sometimes forget one of the greatest betrayals in Christian history, a story very well concealed for hundreds of years. It is only in the last few years that it has really become known, owing to the incomparable skill of that Artistic liar Marshal Villchardouin. Chosen by the Venetian Republic to write the story he told such a plausible story to exonerate the Venetians that no one knew the truth of the matter until modern historians got down to some other facts of history.

Here is the story: The Crusaders came to Venice and many having gone by other routes, they found they were not able to fill all the ships the Venetians hoped to give them. Nevertheless, five hundred Venetian ships were filled. Every Prince had a ship. They were to sail but they didn't have money to pay the passage.

By the way--very much by the way--I don't know whether many of us know that the word 'saunter' that we use comes to us from the Crusades to the Holy Land. In the old days when the Crusaders travelled along they used to beg their way or steal their way from one town to another, not caring whether they made a direct line or not. When anybody asked in a foreign language where they were going, they said that they were going to "Santa Terra.," to the Holy Land. So the word 'saunter' with its modern significance comes from the old days of the Crusades.

When they came to Venice they found that they couldn't saunter any more. The Venetians were first class business men. They had a marvellous way of combining religion and business and they decided they were going to make the Crusaders pay for their trip out of the profits of the expedition and they also decided that it was not much use going to Egypt, which after all was a rather poor place from the financial point of view and it would be much easier to attack Constantinople in a Christian country, the capital of a Christian Empire. At that time Venice was in an extraordinarily favourable position in relationship to Constantinople.

In the little story I am trying to tell you I should try to picture to you that during the years after the spread of Mahommedanism along the shores of the Mediterranean it not only went into Europe, and into the Balkans and got beyond where Constantinople was, but nearly all the Greek Islands were one after another picked up. It was something of a miasma, an intellectual, physical degeneration after the ninth century in the old Greek Empire. Therefore, when the Empire, still incomparably rich, wanted protection they decided to make Venice the protector of the Empire and the Venetian fleet for a long time was looked on gas the defence of the Eastern Empire and for this were given special concessions in Constantinople. The Pisans and the Genoans had to pay for their trading rights in Constantinople but Venice had a monopoly. Therefore, they were very close to the situation in Constantinople and what they really wanted was to conquer Constantinople itself and, first of all, making a pretence of conquering a city called Zara, in one of the Adriatic Islands, and planned the Crusade for the winter and by some extraordinary magic got the Crusaders to come to the walls of Constantinople which for seven hundred years had never been penetrated or conquered in the many times the Empire had been attacked and which somehow some strange power of protection made inviolate. This Christian Crusade in the year 1204, after two attacks, sacked Constantinople and put the city to the sword. The orgies of licentiousness were beyond description. There was a prostitute enthroned in the place of the Patriarch and she danced before the Crusaders. They robbed the church of Saint Sophia and the relics were sent all over the world. Do you know that the bronze horses to be found over Saint Mark's today were taken at that time from Constantinople? The paintings of Christ, reputedly by Saint Luke, which had been for hundreds of years in Saint Sophia was taken to Genoa. I saw it there last summer. The bones of John the Baptist are in the Cathedral in Genoa and countless cities in France and Italy were made rich and prosperous because of the relics stolen from Saint Sophia. It was one of the greatest betrayals in the history of Christendom and the already moribund Empire never recovered from that blow.

The years went on. It became obvious to a great many people that the power of the Greek Empire was gone, but still it didn't seem to be possible to shake Constantinople itself. Of course, there was the great intellectual battle between the Western and the Grecian Church. Many times the leaders of the Western Church, the Pope himself, had held out hope of material paid and men and money from the Western nations as a defence against Mahommedanism, if and when the Greeks would consent to union and in the year 1438, at the great Council of Florence, the unfortunate Emperor, seeing the end in sight, with some of the greatest nobles came to the Council and there, on behalf of the Eastern Church, he pledged union with the Western Church, but as soon as it became known in Constantinople there was a riot and the Emperor was nearly assassinated. The common people of the Eastern church refused to have anything to do with the Western Church. In the meantime the growing power of Mahommedanism made its way. In the words of an historian that I looked at just this morning, to the axion of Gregory, the Seventh, "Rather Islam than Schism," the Greeks of Constantinople replied, "Better Mahommed than the Pope."

In the meantime, Islam ruled. There is something extraordinary about the pictures of the early Mahommedan warriors. You can see their portraits in the palaces of the Sultans in Istambul, which is the modern name of Constantinople. They look like men who were conquerors. They seem as if they were made of chilled steel. Their eyes seem to glint fire. Their harems were not their chief interest and their men were always in training. They were electrified with the conception that Islam should conquer the world and one after another the Greek islands were occupied by the Turks. Yet, the Turks were not actually sailors at all. The time came when they landed in the Balkans and they occupied Adrianople. Still, like an island in its incomparable site, Constantinople stood secure. Of course, there were all kinds of treaties between the great Sultan and the Emperor but they were only biding their time.

At last, Mahommed, the Second, came to the trone, as the Sultan of Turkey. He was the second great founder of Islam. He was a young man, a man with a great deal of culture, according to those days. He spoke not only several eastern languages but Latin and Greek and he quoted Persian poetry, but he had a very violent and uncontrollable temper. The first thing he did, as a boy when he came to the throne, was to strangle his baby brother in his bath and as soon as he became Sultan he determined he was going to conquer Constantinople.

There is something pathetic in the various attempts made by the dying Empire to forestall the inevitable. It just happened there was a hero, a saint and a philosopher Emperor at the time. He was Constantine, the last. There were embassies sent call over Europe but the people in Western Europe were not much interested. Those were not the days of the radio and the telegraph. Nobody paid much attention to what was going on and every little European kingdom had its own axe to grind. There was no unity, even in the western part of Christendom and gradually the power of Islam drew nearer and nearer to Constantinople and the final crash came when Mahommed decided to build a fort within three miles of Constantinople on the shore of the Bosphorus. The idea, was that it was to protect Constantinople from the pirates who might be there. Finally, the crash came. Constantine did everything that any one could do to prevent the war. He even offered to sign submission to the Sultan as his successor and at last, when war was declared, these words were written by Constantine. I think they are worth quoting. These words are from a personal letter that was written to the Sultan: "That thou desirest more war than peace is clear. As I cannot stay thee either by my protestations of sincerity or by my readiness to swear allegiance, so let it be according to thy desire. I turn now and look alone to God. Should it be His will that this city be thine, where is he who can oppose His will? If it should be His will to inspire thee with a desire for peace, I shall be happy. In the meantime, I release thee from thy oath and treaties and closing the gates of my capital I will defend my people with the last drop of my blood and in happiness until the all-just and supreme judge calls us both before His judgment seat."

The greatest cannons in the world were brought forth for the seige. The attack was from the interior, although the Turkish fleet lying outside threw a cannon ball of a thousand pounds of granite. The cannon was built of copper and built by a Christian artisan and one of the greatest tragedies of the whole final scene is this, that in this great city only ten thousand men could be found fit to bear arms. There were 250,000 Turks from all pats of the Mahommedan world and among them, and let us as Christians hang our heads to hear it, there were 35,000 Christians in the opposing army.

The story of the last days of that seige is one of the most heart-trending misery. Constantine was a hero and to the very end it seemed as if the inevitable might be prevented, but at last, on the 29th day of May, in the year 1453, 'the walls were battered down and Constantine was cut to pieces at the head of his men. There was .the end of the Roman Empire. It was the end of the Middle Ages, the turning point in .the history of the world.

After 500 years that church still endures. You know, it was turned into a Mahommedan mosque. Every vestige of Christianity was taken out of the inside of it. Every statue was broken and the mosaics were covered with a thick coat of plaster but today, under the liberal policy of Mustapha Kemal Pasha they are beginning to take down the plaster again and this ancient church--it is no longer a church, of course, it is no longer a mosque, it is a museum now, is revealed to us as one of the wonders of history.

The conquest of Constantinople was not an unrelieved tragedy. For the first time in hundreds of years, Greek scholarship was released anal its scholars fled for refuge to Western Europe. This fact combined with the discovery of printing began .the Renaissance, which was the birth of modern learning in the civilized world.

Islam very soon began to recede and its story for the last 300 years has been the ebbing of a tide which at one time threatened to engulf all Europe. On land the Battle of Vienna, when John Sobieski, King of Poland, forever halted the Turkish advance in Southern Europe, and on sea, the Venetian victory of Lepanto writes the end of the chapter.

The luxury of the Sultans in their harems did not suit the conquering sons of the desert and so it came to pass that from the days of Catherine, the Great, the Russian Empire which inherited the name and the genius of the Greek Church looked with crusading eyes on the old city of Constantine. In the days of Disraeli, if it had not been for the intervention of England and other Christian powers, the Czar would have avenged the tragedy to the Greek Empire of 1453. In the days of the Great War, the Turkish Empire met its doom and once again it was the division of material interests among the Christian conquering nations which prevented modern Greece making its capital at Constantinople. In the last twenty years the only link which binds the former provinces of Islam is their common religion. The modernized Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk, while it has no political relationship to the Arab kingdoms, is the hope of Islam in our strange, bizarre world of today.

The lesson that the Christian nations of the world today may well learn is that unity is strength. We can understand the feelings of the modern Turkish stare in building its new capital of Ankara in the highlands of Asia Minor. Istambul is an ancient Queen, weeping beside the straits, dreaming of her past and awaiting the trumpets of Justinian.

My time is up. I am sorry to have kept you so long but I thought perhaps a few words concerning this little-known story of the Eastern World might justify itself.

(Hearty applause.) PRESIDENT: Dr. Renison, owing to your wonderful gift of expression, we have travelled with you through the ages. You have given us of your knowledge in this beautiful and instructive address and we wish to carry your words and not mine away with us, so I very simply say, on behalf of the Empire Club of Canada and your radio audience, that we are very grateful to you and I express our sincere thanks.

The meeting is adjourned. (Applause.)

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The Romance of Constantinople

A description of a first view of the Mediterranean Sea: "a little ocean of molten history." The history of Constantinople. The church of Saint Sophia, in some detail. The story of the Eastern Empire, little known to Western people. The rise of Islam. The story of the Crusades. A little-known story in Christian history involving ancient Venice. The great intellectual battle between the Western and the Grecian Church. The fall of the Greek Empire. The conquest of Constantinople not an unrelieved tragedy, and how that is so. A lesson for the Christian nations of the world today of strength in unity.