28 May, 1453
by Ravi Verma, Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 01:24:03 AM EDT
I would like to take you back to evening of May 28, 1453. This is the evening before the date (29 May, 1453) that is widely associated with the beginning of the renaissance period in Europe. The evening before was, in my opinion, much more significant to current events.
As some of you will recall from history class, May 29 signified the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, which at the time was just left with the city of Constantinople (and which we now call the the Byzantime empire) at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans had laid siege to the city on April 5. The outcome of the war was not preordained on April 5. There were several twists and turns, but on May 28, it was known that the city would fall on May 29.
The Romans (Greeks really) had 5000 fighting men, and the city had about 30,000 inhabitants. What did they all do on May 28, 1453 ?
The prayed. At the Hagia Sophia. Together. And this was a big deal.
Follow me after the jump to find out why.
It was a big deal because in the 1400 years of the Empire, through 88 Emperors, countless usurpers, and government forms spanning from the Republic to an Empire to a Diarchy, a Terarchy; the citizens had never prayed together.
In the beginning, there was a dispute over religion. Paganism was the dominant Hellenistic religion. This was supplanted by Christianity, largely because it afforded an advantage to Constantine (the Emperor who built the walls of Constantinople). Pagans continued to hold some position of influence for another 200 years or so; but paganism's time had passed.
The citizenry had found a new reason to fued, and the feud was on whether Christ was divine, or if he was divine and human at the same time. This is a difference that I cannot understand, but it was of sufficient import to the citizens that they would kill for that difference. Many an Emperor would spend a substantial portion of their energies mediating between the "greens" and the "red" (the colors associated with those two camps). Having the differences dismissed as inconsequential was not acceptable to either the "reds" or the "greens". The Emperor Justinian tried doing just that, and had 30,000 rioting citizens (both reds and greens) baying for his blood as a consequence in AD 532 (in reality, Justinian had committed an additional sin of appointing a pagan tax collector).
The feud between the reds and the greens was never resolved. Until May 28, 1453, that is. But it was joined by several other feuds. Chief among them was the controversy over iconoclasm.
Christianity, if you trace it back to it's basics, forbids you from making and worshipping graven images. A strict literal interpretation of this rule would preclude you from making any replicas of God, or of Christ. Fortunately for our art musuems, the early Christians decided to ignore this rule. But there was always a simmering tension between the iconodules (people who revere icons, and for whom religious worship includes a large dose of icons), and iconoclasts (people who hate icons, as a graven image; and would destroy all icons).
In the absence of an external threat (i.e., until Islam burst onto the scene), the iconodules had the upper hand. After all, icons are pretty; and pretty things (and pretty girls) are reason enough to abandon the 10 commandments. But the advent of Islam was different. Islam burst forth with such speed that it caused the Romans (who, at this point, had lost control of Rome, and had started speaking Greek) to question their own faith. What is it that we are doing wrong, that has pissed of God so much. The Roman Empire, you see, always had God's sanction to rule. Without divine help, it would fall. The wise citizens looked around and decided that God was mad at them because they were making and displaying graven images. God, apparently, does not get upset over stealing, or coveting of the neighbours wife. After all, the Muslims lie and bed their neighbours wife just as much; and God did not appear to be mad at them. And the only thing the Muslims did different was that they interpreted the specific instructions on graven images more literally (well, that, and they believed that Christ was not the last Prophet...but they were clearly wrong about that).
And so, it was out with iconoclasm, and in with the iconodules.
The growth of Islam was stunted by a combination of events; but the wise citizens decided that the underlying reason was God had forgotten his instructions on graven images. And so, iconoclasm was restored in 853 AD by Empress Theodora. Talk about flip flops (John Kerrey would not even come close).
All these changes do not come without hurt feelings, of course. And where feelings are hurt, blood is often spilled.
Life continued for the merry Romans (or Greeks, or Byzantines). They had to deal with the occassional crusaders who wandered by. Regrettably, the founders of the Empire were foolish enough to locate their empire between the crusaders and their goal; and most of the crusaders would end up eating/drinking/looting/raping within the Roman empire. You really cannot expect much more from an army without any top level, or middle level leadership. The crusaders ended up weakening the Roman empire, which was perhaps not far from their original purpose. You see, the crusades had been initiated as a result of a fiery speech given by Pope Urban II in 1095. Some say, it was the fieriest speech ever delivered by a human. The stated goal was to recapture Jerusalem from those Muslims; and the specific excuse was a request made by the "Eastern" Roman Emperor (and at this point, the Eastern Romans were foreigners with strange perfume and unacceptable religions practices) for a small assistance in a specific campaign. Yep...another religious dispute.
And so, on it went into the 1400s. At this point, it was known that the Roman empire would fall at some point. It had too much debt, too many divisions, and too little revenue. There had been too many rampaging crusaders. The thick walls of Constantinople, that had been sufficient protection for 1000 years, were thinned considerably by the discovery of gunpowder, and of the cannon ball. There were, quite simply, too many Muslims. Furthermore, the Muslims were good at Maths, and Engineering.
And so, finally, the Empire initiated a process of resolving differences. The difference between iconodules and iconoclasts was settled forever (hopefully), by the state commissioning an icon that celebrated the Empress Theodora in AD 853 praying before the Virgin Mary. The iconodules had won, and the 10 commandments be damned. There are simply too many pretty things in the world to be bent out of shape over the 10 commandments.
They also attempted, unsuccessfully, to unify the eastern and western churches. This was a futile attempt ~ the western church was too powerful at the time, and was not interested in a unification. It was interested in a surrender. The eastern church did just that ~ it agreed to dissolve itself, and merge into the western church; if the west would help them fend off the Muslims.... with a real Army, and not another group of crusaders.
But what of the original controversy. Is Christ merely divine, or is he divine and human at the same time ? That was not resolved...until May 28, 1453.
That evening, with the Ottomans resting up for a final assault, with certain death within 24 hours being the only possible outcome, the "reds" and the "greens" finally came together during an evening sermon at the Hagia Sophia. For the first time. Also the last time. Evah!!
And that brings me to the Ground Zero Mosque. Can you, logically, figure out the difference between those who believe that Christ is divine, or God's human son, or both, or all (i.e., the Christians), and those who believe that Christ is divine, and God's messenger PBUH (i.e., the Muslims). If you can, then I would like to hear from you. Yes, the Muslims all point to a specific direction when they pray, and they do pray in a strange language other than Latin and Greek and Hebrew. And yes, their beautiful call to prayer sounds intimidating to those who are not invited (and annoying to those who would rather not be invited); but they are praying to the same God.
It is not a dispute over which God (or Goddess) gets to lord over us all. It is not a dispute over the number of God(s) or Goddess(es) that are in existence. Everyone agrees that it is the same God.
Will we have to wait for our own 28 May, 1453 before we can pray together ?
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