The last liturgy in the Hagia Sophia
Night falls over the Imperial City.
Night is falling over the long-suffering Imperial City that is
about to die. Night is falling on the God-protected City of
Constantine. Night is falling on the anguish of those about
to die. Behind the unending flow of tears, all things take on a
crystalline appearance. I look at the bloodied horizon and shudder.
The last dusk, I say to myself, and my glance turns insatiably toward it,
embraces the Thracian plain, and rushes down to the Sea of Marmara,
to the golden waters of the Bosporus, which carry the seafaring myths
of my race, and to the wounded Golden Horn.
“Tomorrow,” I repeat, trembling, “tomorrow…”
The sweetly-echoing semantra of the Hagia Sophia are
sounding, the glorious bells are tolling, and people are
hurrying from all parts of the Imperial City to take part in
the great liturgy of supplication. They have put on their best clothes,
they hold tapers in their hands and ancient icons, heirlooms, and they
run now toward the Hagia Sophia. The Forum of Augustus and the
royal Mese Hodos are filled all the way down to the half-ruined
Hippodrome. Filled, too, is the huge peribolos of the Hagia Sophia,
which is lined with arcades, and whose nine gates open wide to receive
the long-suffering populace that has borne the cross of its martyrdom
for fifty-seven days.
I make my way into the crowd that is mourning and running about
dazed, to reach the Column of Constantine. That is where my Eleni
will be waiting… there, and I am not mistaken. She is holding
Constantine tightly in her arms and looking around with anguish.
“Here I am… I have come,” and I take them both in my arms, “let’s go,
we’re late,” she says uneasily and pulls me ahead, “the Emperor just
Greeks and Italians. Soldiers and non-combatants. All of them,
united, run toward the Hagia Sophia with tears in their eyes. Today,
yes, today the union of the Churches is taking place, I say to myself,
and I make the sign of the cross. Today, Orthodoxy accepts the
Filioque of Rome, because no one is interested in that any longer….
and all those priests, who have obstinately refused to conduct a service
in the Hagia Sophia for five months now, all the fanatical antiunionists,
now run in silence to pray in the same space with the others,
to celebrate the liturgy together. My Basileus sees these united hordes,
sees the triumph of a “union” that has taken root deep in the soul and
a smile lights up his eyes.
My Eleni takes the stoa-covered uphill path that leads to the
women’s section, and I run to the military retinue of the Emperor.
Demetrios pulls me close. “Where were you? Ioannis was looking for
you…” he said to me and I was puzzled, “Ioannis… but I saw him just a
short time ago… what did he want? “You will be among those who lock
the fortress gates… After the liturgy we are all to go to our posts, in the
peribolos of the Outer Wall, and the fortress gates will be locked
behind us, you know that…”
I shuddered. The hour is approaching, I thought, the final hour…
“Yes, I will see him,” I answered, deep in thought, “who else will be
with me?” “The two of us and Manuelo.. we are to deliver the keys to
the Emperor, those are our orders.”
Those frightening words roused me, it seems. My soul immediately
stirred, seemed to stand upright, beyond the fear that eradicates. My
soul stood up, and was enlarged. “We will prevail or we will all die…,”
Demetrios went on. And I looked at him roughly, “By the faith, we will
I pass through the large, royal gate, with the Emperor’s retinue and
reflect that Justinian, too, passed through it, on December 24, 537,
when it was inaugurated in formal splendor. I close my eyes and try to imagine that winter morning. Perhaps there is freezing rain and biting cold, the streets are icy and the sun’s rays pale. Foaming waves arrive, galloping, on the Bosporus, and bring prophecies and garlands of gods on their backs.
O Lord, my God, thou art very great…
I hear the voice of the priest. I am leaning against the green column
that was brought from the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and I try to
elicit, from the depths of the thousand years, that wintry morning, to
hear the glorious sound, then and now. Will the echoes meet in the
fullness of time… in the completion of the circle?
He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knoweth its going down.
My mind is immobilized. The sun knoweth its going down… One day
or one millennium? What are the laws of longevity? What is their ratio
relative to mortal time? And I? Where am I? What is my path? How
did I reach the wintry morning of the consecration? Or perhaps it is
suspended somewhere on the notches of time? I say to myself… Has
the Hagia Sophia clothed herself in her grandeur tonight in order to
die brilliant, clothed herself in the centuries of her grandeur, before
she clothes herself in the frozen night…
I look around. I am blinded. She is brilliant. The wintry morning is
dull and gray, but hidden suns shine in the sanctuary of her altar and the
lighted votive lamps make the precious stones radiate their inner light.
I know that I must return to the present, to this painful reality moist
with the tears of thousands of men about to die, who are praying
around me in pious concentration. I know that if I raise my eyes I will
meet my Eleni’s eyes; surely she is watching me from the women’s
section. But, a moment longer, I say, one tiny moment to wander
through the desert of negated time… It is as if I am taking my leave of
the Imperial City… Or as if I am trying through the power of my mind
to inscribe this final hour in the collective memory of the world, so that
it is never lost, never forgotten.
I escape. I go further and think. I am a pure Byzantine. When on
September 18, 324, Constantine the Great with his steel-clothed
troops was defeating Licinius on the Asiatic shore of the
Bosporus, I was there. It was then, when ancient Byzantium, which was
colonized by Greeks, descendants of the Megarian Byzas and of the
followers of Antes, opened wide its gates to receive the victor. For a
thousand years before that, since 658 B.C., Byzantium had stood. And
now Constantine, dazzled by its beauty, gave it his name and
proclaimed it his capital. Weary of the corruption of the West, he
preferred to make lovely Anatolia the bulwark of Christendom. And
with a passion he established a New Rome. But I am a Byzantine.
Because I am descended from those Greeks who came from Greece,
the forerunners of civilization in this exquisite cradle.
I press my hands to my temples. I feel faint. All these thoughts
hammer at my mind. A sudden need to trace my roots, my identity, I
am the Greek, I am the Byzantine, I am the Roman – the Greco-
Roman. I look up at my Eleni. Her gaze is upon me, anguished, as if
she wants to take away the historic moment, to negate fate. But I am
elsewhere. I am still wandering through the negated cycles of time. I
want to see my passage. My tracks.
And here I am, on May 11, 330, at the inauguration of New Rome,
this beautiful City of Constantine, which is still small, stretching from
the Four Stoas, the ancient agora of Byzantium, to the magnificent
Forum of Constantine. It was then that Constantine, raised on his tall
stele, pointed toward Anatolia, to the spot whence the conqueror
would come one thousand years later.
Ah, how the ancient prophecies came to pass, one by one, those
prophecies written on parchment rotting in moist linen-chests. And
look, I am here again. I, the witness of the confirmation. I, the witness of history. I, who am about to die. I, the innocent one.
our City dedicates to you, Theotokos…
People and clergy are chanting reverently, but I escape
again. I pass by the Bronze Room and proceed to the Gold
Throne Room. Golden birds perched on gold plane-tree leaves
embellish the Imperial throne. On its sides are two rows of preying
golden vultures, and two lions lie on its base. There I am.
Eavesdropping. I hear whispers and the imperceptible rustling of
Imperial robes. I go into the atrium and see the famous fountain.
Upon it sits a huge eagle of finely wrought gold and green stones,
choking the serpent in its claws. The same image is in the palace of the
Porphyrogenete, I reflect. There, too, the green emerald eagle is
slaying the black serpent. For a thousand years, it has been slaying the
serpent – until the serpent turned into a monster, gathered its venom
drop by drop, and is now ready to spit it into the heart of the Imperial
City. I look up and see the new wings of the Sacred palace: Boukoleon,
Trikonchos, Magnaura. All destroyed. Piles of rubble. Those are my
marks, I say to myself. That is my journey through time.
Tears are flowing from my eyes now. The wandering is over,
and I kneel next to Demetrios, who looks at me as if he
guesses. The Hagia Sophia is fragrant, like a soul that has
opened its paradises. The gold and silver and porphyry are fragrant
from the breaths of the rending. And all these fragrant fumes of
incense, of cinnamon, of souls dissolving into grief, make her cyclical
space shudder and rise up high, shudder and waver, like a buffeted
soul that senses its approaching death.
It was at that moment, the moment of the great lamentation, that
her marble and gold were transformed into a shining soul, a soul both
bare and brilliant, in all its thousand year-old splendor. A weeping
soul. A herald to the ages. It was that moment, that lament, which
transformed her stone to tears. And she weeps now. I hear her lament
rolling down from the sweating metal mosaics, raising her above
earthly things, higher than the tallest symbol of the universe. Her silver
lamps shudder and weep, as if they know that this is the last time they
will shine… The reverent visages of the saints weep, their metal weeps for the last miracle of faith. Her semantra weep, too, sounding slowlyand painfully. The priests weep and their hands tremble, hands that hold sacred vessels for the last time. The courageous men around the Emperor weep, the Venetians and Greeks and Catalans all dressed in formal battle attire, purifying their souls for the battle of death.
The people weep, the tormented people, who are about to die. There is a heart-rending moan from one side to the other. And I weep.
Lord, I cry unto thee… give ear unto my voice… Hearken unto the voice
of my cry… hearken… for unto thee will I pray…
There is a fragrance, a fragrance of soul. Incense and
cinnamon and myrrh. Everyone is kneeling now. Warriors
and people. And a reverent voice arises. A voice of entreaty
for the angelic hosts to return, for the Theotokos, the Hodigitria… But
nothing. Not a wing-beat is heard, nor a saintly sword. The Theotokos
weeps. Our Lady weeps tonight, because our destruction is written and
ordained, ordained for a thousand years now, and nothing can change
the fated course of events.
The Emperor, too, weeps. As if he knows that this is the last time
that he will see his people, the last time that the Hagia Sophia, the
splendid monastery, will celebrate the liturgy, as if he knows that the
dawn will not find him among the living. But he weeps not for that; he
weeps for his people, and for his beloved City, The City of Cities, the
brilliant Capital City.
I make my way through the crowd to stand next to him. I want to see
him again, to touch him. His eyes are turned to the heavens and he is
praying. What is he praying for? The death of a courageous man,
perhaps? The salvation of his City, or death?
I see the chief priest come forward with the silver chalice, and the
Emperor draws near. He is wearing white battle-dress and his body –
that proud body – is trembling, as if it is shaken by the wind or by a
dead man’s soul. They say that the body is prophetic and perceives its
death. They say that the soul knows. But I say to myself that his body is
shaking from torment, from grief, all alone and struck by the lightning
He is holding the scepter in his hand, the scepter that a short while
ago he had called “humbled,” and I look at it insatiably. How many
hands of Emperors have held it, I reflect, how much blood has been
spilled for its glory… and now it is useless, a symbol that is dying… and
in my eyes it is transformed bit by bit, becomes an unbearable cross on
his shoulders, and the thin purple cloak he is wearing fills with blood
that drips on the mosaics, blood drips from his crown, and I am taken
aback… I open my eyes wide and the hallucination vanishes… A
hallucination or an image from the relentless day that is coming?
I see him now, advancing slowly; all eyes are upon him. Everyone
watches him with bated breath. Because he wants to say something. He
prepares to say something. He looks around at the huge church, looks
for an entire moment at the thousands of eyes turned toward him and
asks his people for forgiveness of his sins, as he asked his officers
earlier, he seeks remission of his sins from his God, to fulfill his duty as
a Christian and as a king, and he leans toward the chalice to receive the
Body and Blood of Christ.
It is a trembling moment in the crowded church. Only sobs can
be heard. No one can contain his grief any longer. Their
Basileus is entrusting to them his City and his Scepter, to be
guarded. The moment, the great moment has arrived. Their Basileus is
preparing for death. For sacrifice. And now shudders pierce
tormented bodies, a profound shiver, their Basileus marches with
determination toward the fate ordained for him by the gods, that bitter
fate, which is theirs, as well. Mothers hug children to their bosoms.
White-haired old men embrace their brave young lads, who will fight
in the morning before the locked fortress gates.
All his generals, officials, and ministers follow the Emperor. They
receive communion one by one and stand beside him, and no eye is
dry, no heart, even the most hardened and bloodthirsty. Greeks and
Venetians and Ligurians, the head of the defenses, who are sworn to
die at dawn for the honor of the Imperial City and the honor of
Christendom, all receive communion.
I will take the cup of salvation… I will offer thee the sacrifice of praise…
Receive me today as a partaker of Your mystical feast…
At the same moment, countless priests stand before the altar with
chalices in hand, for the people to receive communion. Embraces and
tears and forgiveness of sins…
In one fleeting moment I see Cardinal Isidore and Leonardo of
Chios with chalices in their hands. Greek and Latin priests together… a
partaker of Your mystical feast, today… The people approach with
reverence and order, as is fitting for those about to die.
Purified by tears, cleansed by suffering, they all receive communion.
They ask for remission of sins. They are those about to die, those
whom the dawn will not find among the living.
I, too, go forward, to wait my turn. Out of the corner of my eye I see
Ioannis standing tall beside the Emperor. He is wearing his black
clothing, and atop his gold encrusted sheath shines the silver handle of
his sword. He is the giant who wept earlier, the demigod who ached
with mortal pain, and he was not afraid to show his tears. Perhaps deep
inside, he felt proud of those tears. Because he was, above all, human.
His gaze passes me over. He is already seeing tomorrow. And I ask
myself, has that fearless and proud body intuited its death? I wonder.
What messages, what dark premonitions had his lion-hearted soul sent
…for I will not disclose the Mystery to Your enemies…
The priest turns to give me communion and suddenly stops. He
looks at me, shaken. The drop of blood is running down my forehead,
running down and tracing a path down my face, and the ochre mark is
glowing, I can feel it. I open my mouth to receive Holy Communion,
but the priest is frightened now. I see an ashen fear in his eyes and his
hand remains suspended. With the back of my hand, I wipe away the
blood, which has now reached my lips, and I wait. This is the blood of
Mystery, I say to him with my eyes and I shudder at the thought that
perhaps it is the same as that blood of Communion.
God becomes flesh out of Your sacred blood…
This is how Your purified creatures will be sacrificed… my God,
thus will they become worthy of the gift of martyrdom. The tears are
streaming from my eyes now, tears that wash away the trickle of blood, I am entirely cleansed I say to him with my eyes, and he brings the communion to my lips. Receive me today…
I try to immobilize time – an isolated moment – to take it with
me. It is the unique moment when man meets history, I reflect,
and I am the witness of this meeting.
I look at the Hagia Sophia. She is resplendent. Her silver lamps
sparkle, her gold mosaics are gleaming, her soul – the hidden sun
–shines brightly. A chant of praise echoes now from one end to the
other. This last Christian liturgy could not end with mourning. And
everyone is standing, chanting, expressions of reverence on their faces.
The immense church trembles; her columns tremble, the Holy Altar
of pure gold trembles, the Altar which tomorrow will be taken by the
fearless, lion-hearted priest aboard his brigantine, to disappear with it
into the waters of the Propontis, lest it be defiled by the infidels.
That reverential grandeur lifts us up and braces us, so that each of
us, alone, can confront his final anguish.
The sound echoes in the gilded dome, rises to the open heavens, to
the angelic hosts, to the Archangel, to the cherubim, who envelop their
swords in hosannas.
I watch the faces that are turned to the heavens and are no longer
weeping. They no longer weep because profound faith, entreaty, the
unassailable wall have turned tears into the sweetness of the angels.
I open my eyes wide to embrace all this scene of grandeur, to
transfer it whole into the time that is to come, this vibrating moment of
praise, in which rulers and nobles, patricians and monks and warriors
and people, Venetians and Greeks and Catalans, join their voices
together with the same reverence and passion, with the same anguish,
to praise God who tomorrow will grant them victory. Because now
they believe it. Their souls are full of hope, full of heavenly light. O, my
God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not… hearken unto my cry…
No, He did not hear. He was absent. Or perhaps He was lamenting
alone, in some invisible dark place.
The Emperor is chanting along with his people. The beloved
Basileus. He chants for a few moments, choking with emotion.
His eyes brim with tears again, and he turns to leave.
I have forgotten my Eleni, I have forgotten my little Constantine,
and I leave with him. Kyr Andronikos and Georgios are parting the
crowd to open a path for him. The people see him leaving and move
toward him. An immense, aching, human mass. They want to touch
him, as if he were a saint, and they stretch out their hands, so that he is
unable to move. He stops and waits. He looks at that huge chanting
crowd with its outstretched hands and slowly raises his scepter, as if he
seeks at that moment to take them all with him on the journey into
legend. He wants to say to them that he is ready to sacrifice his life for
his City, but he does not say a word. His tears are more eloquent. And
he continues on his way. He departs, leaving behind him the crowd with
the outstretched hands. His generals and all his officers, Venetians and
Greeks, follow him; the simple soldiers who came down from the walls
to take part in the great liturgy now return to their places, to their
defensive posts, before the wall gates are locked behind them.
The valiant man has departed, never again to see his people, never
again to see the Hagia Sophia, because the dawn will not find him
among the living. He comes only at nights now, when darkness falls
and an otherworldly chanting is heard. He comes like a breeze and a
shiver. He enters through the secret gate and stands, covered with
blood, sword in hand, beside the two-headed eagle. Many say they
have seen him. Every night, at the same hour, the lamps of the Hagia
Sophia flicker and the mosaics weep in the darkness, because he is
there, repeating over and over again the oath of the valiant man.
Palaeologos takes leave of the palace
People scattered like birds that have lost their way in the storm. We
all made our way back to the walls, to carry out our final duty, to gain
the victory or to die. Night had fallen now, the last dusk had
disappeared and a thick darkness enveloped the Imperial City. The
campfires in the enemy camp, that fiery hell, were not lighted yet.
Soon… soon they would surround us once more – tonight was the third
night – with their huge flames, lighted at the same time on all three
sides of our City, to the sound of shouting and frenzied drums, to cause
panic among us for the colossal assault they were preparing, to weaken
us, to frighten us with their flaming mass.
I raised my eyes to the sky and saw the waning moon, the scarred
moon, whose light turned bitter on that prophetic night. It was waning,
alone and impassive, a curved cold light; the people of Byzantium, the
ancient City, whose symbol it was for centuries, were now marching
alone and without help along the path to their fate.
All the divine powers, those of the idols and those of the saints, had
departed that night. Neither the goddess Rhea, nor the goddess Tyche,
protectresses of ancient Byzantium, nor the Theotokos, nor the
Archangel Michael were there. Yet we came out of the Hagia Sophia
our souls filled with hope. Our tears and prayers had raised within us
the false sense of divine aid. Our God-protected City could not
become prey to their savage hands… And it was with joy, almost, that
we ran to the walls, certain that this time, too, we would prevail…
Certain? Those were the moments of courage that exalted us, deified
us… We will annihilate them, yes, we said, they will be fighting against
thunder and lightning… against gods and heroes of myth… against
giants. Ah, that pride, that exaltation that lasted for a few moments
only, to give way to anguish and fear.
I was running with the other officers to the Mese Hodos, when Kyr
Andronikos stopped me.
“The Emperor is going to the palace of Vlachernae; go there
quickly with his retinue,” he said to me.
I looked at him questioningly.
“Ioannis is waiting for me, to lock the inner wall-gates,” I answered.
He leaned his heavy hand on my shoulder, “we have time for the
wall-gates… most of the men are not back yet… they were at the
I ran to my horse, when I heard a desperate voice behind me,
“Porphyrios… Porphyrios…” I turned and saw my Eleni, near the
Column of Constantine, the sleeping, exhausted child in her arms, and
I was shaken. I had totally forgotten her.
I am ashamed. I embrace them both, “forgive me…,” I say to her,
and she is puzzled, thinks that I am asking forgiveness of my sins, as I
had earlier, at the hour of Holy Communion. I reflect that, yes, that is
why I am seeking forgiveness; I am going to my death. I feel her tears
on my face, warm tears, tears of anguish, “forgive you?” she asks, the
sobs choking her, “only God… only God can forgive us our sins now…”
I stand there, in the middle of the street.
“Listen to me, I say to her, I don’t have much time, I need to leave…
Take Zoe and stay at home… do not go out tonight… And remember
that we are innocent… we are innocent, whatever tomorrow may
bring… we are burdened by no sin, do you hear me? Only if the cross of martyrdom is a sin or expiation for the sins of others… only if unjust suffering ordained by fate is considered a sin, only then may God forgive us… so that we, too, can forgive Him.”
Her eyes filled with horror “don’t…. don’t blaspheme at this hour,
do not sin, you mustn’t…” she says to me severely. And I lean over and
rest my head on the stone… I am a human, not a god, how can I bear
She is holding the heirloom that I had placed on my Constantine,
that miracle-working heirloom from the hand of Athanasios, “you, you
wear it tonight…,” she says and tries to place it around my neck. I take
it and place it again on my son, who is still sleeping, “Eh, warrior… eh,
warrior… why were you late?” Something jars my mind, where am I
leaving him? What is in store for him? “You, you wear it tonight…,”
she says again, and a chill courses through my blood, “no, not I, no…
the child must be saved…,” I say to her quickly and start to leave. She
looks at me, trembling. “Will the wall-gates be locked? Is it true that
they will be locked soon?” “It is true.”
As I turn to leave quickly, I see the glow out of the corner of my eye.
I look at Constantine’s chest. The small ancient icon is glowing. I am
blinded for a few seconds. Then I bend over to venerate it and to kiss
my sleeping son one more time. I see the mark on his forehead
glowing, tracing its own cycle on the orbit of the incomprehensible. As
I pass by the Acropolis to go up to Vlachernae, I see the triangle of the
Imperial City surrounded by flame and my soul tightens. The waters
are shining in the reflection of the countless fires lighted by the infidel,
a moving surface, grooved by the shimmering reflections, like breaths
of hell. The ominous sound of cymbals disturbs the calm of night.
I gallop through the empty, deserted streets of The City. Its houses are
dark; I see flickering lights only in the churches, and I hear chanting.
No one sleeps tonight. The occasional window is dimly lit by a tired
lamp. I reach the fortress of Petrion and look to the right to see the
shores of the Golden Horn and the accursed seventy-two, minus one,
fustae that were brought overland to the Golden Horn from the hills of
Pera, and cold chills roll through my body. It is the first time I hear
such frenzied shouts, such orgiastic merrymaking.
I look at the pontoon bridge in the distance; it is aflame, and I hear
other noises, the dragging of metal and hurried orders. I see huge
masses that are being dragged toward our walls, and I look more
closely. There are arched screens and tall scaling ladders and mounds
of missiles and arrows and harquebuses. All Holy Lady, watch over
us…, I whisper quickly, as if seeking pardon for my earlier anger at my
God. Watch over us, whether we be innocent or sinners, watch over us.
When I reached the palace, the Emperor was dismounting from
Whitefoot, his Arabian mare. I ran up to Demetrios, “You are here,
too?” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, “In an hour we
must be at the St. Romanus Gate…,” he whispers, as we walk behind
The Emperor’s men run quickly to the palace. His elderly servants,
devoted officials from the time of his father, Manuel, greet him with
tears in their eyes. He asks them all to gather in the great throne room,
because he wants to address them there.
I see Georgios, who had known all these devoted, panic-stricken
people from childhood, calling them by their names –Kyr Nikodemos,
Kyr Nikitas, Bardas, Eudokia, Theodora – directing them to the ruined
hall. Some are holding lighted double-lamps, because night has
already enveloped the ruined rooms, others are holding some sacred
vessel to exorcise the calamity.
I stand with Demetrios to one side and look at a mosaic that
represents the two-headed eagle on the emblem of the Palaeologi,
with the cross shining in the circle. The light from the candelabra
sparkles on the gold and gives life to the symbol, rousing its soul to
resist the oblivion that is to come. Through the half-ruined arched
windows come snatches of light every so often from the huge fires in
the enemy camp.
Palaeologos, his eyes brimming with tears, turns to all those faithful
servants of the palace, his kindly and humble men and women, some of
them he remembers from his childhood, others he came to know
during the barely four and one-half years of his tormented reign. He
looks at them one by one and the tears choke his voice. He asks their
forgiveness, remission of sins, if ever he had hurt them unwittingly – as
he earlier asked forgiveness from his people – and then he embraces
them one by one, and the lamentation is heart-rending.
I see Georgios go to an empty corner of the hall, alone, to hide his
face in his hands. I approach him discreetly. I want to shout, but I am
silent. He turns his head and looks at me with such affliction that I
think he will faint. I tell myself he cannot endure it, and reach out my
hand to hold him up.
I do not speak. I have nothing to say, and words are useless. And he
leans on a reclining seat, a faraway look in his eyes, as if he was writing
at that hour the chronicle of our struggle, as if he stepped over time
and found himself on the opposite bank… In his deep voice he speaks
these words, to be carried away by the winds of the calamity.
“Who can recount the weeping and lamentation in the palace? Even
if a man were made of wood or stone, he would grieve…”
Surely he is living the moment that is to be; he is already writing the
chronicle of suffering, I reflect hastily – so learned was he, the personal
secretary to the Basileus — and a shudder runs down my spine, as if
the future is ready and planned in detail
I approach the Emperor. I want to see him again, to touch him, as if
he were a saint, yes, because there is no one more saintly at this hour, I say to myself, no one more of a martyr, and I fall at his feet, kneel, and kiss his hands, forgive me, I want to say to him, forgive me for not
being capable of the impossible, for not being capable of annihilating
the enemy, of burning him like a lightning bolt, but the words do not
come; deep suffering has no words.
He looks at me for an entire minute. His eyes look at me, unmoving,
as if they were elsewhere. Did those bright moments when we first met
on Lemnos, on that August morning, near the grave of Catherine… did
those moments pass through his mind? Behind the flow of tears I see
his aristocratic hand, that slow movement as he removed the gold cross
and gave it to me, “Remember me…” I was still a tender boy then,
looking at him in shock, I, who had gone to the fresh grave at dawn, to
seek the mystery of strength from the tears of the valiant man.
“Catherine… he whispers, Catherine…”
I am trembling. He remembers it, yes, the crystal-clear morning on
Lemnos, that fated meeting, when I found myself before him,
prompted by an inexplicable power, he remembered it, I tell myself.
He is calling Catherine, his beloved wife, whom he buried there, in the
earth of Lemnos, twelve years earlier. I, I reminded him of that hour of
suffering, and perhaps that calmed him, I tell myself. If The City is lost,
tomorrow will not find him among the living, and perhaps that bitter
smile that appeared on his lips and calmed his expression, perhaps, I
think, it was because he will meet her… That thought perhaps freed
him from the anguish of crucifixion… Or perhaps, for a moment, he
saw in my face his son who was never born… the son who would now be
a twelve-year old lad, as I was then… He opened his arms, and
embraced me on both sides, “You, you…,” he said, “have climbed up to
Golgotha with me, since then… since…” His voice broke, ended in a
sob and only his tears now touch my roughened face. Ah, those tears
will never dry. Two wells of tears would be his memory, forever, and
only legend could make them into silver droplets from the moon of
prophecy or white drops of wax from an Easter taper… Only legend, I
think now, seventeen years later, could change them into marble in
other palaces, those made of fresh holy water and the trumpeting of
It was because the pre-ordained night was controlling us, and we
could not turn back the foaming torrent that was coming at us. We
were not able to negate what was written.
I see the Emperor touch the throne, his hand shaking. A touch of
gold that shudders. His fingers remain motionless for a few moments.
Perhaps they are in other zones, touching the hosannas of the
triumphs. I feel the desire to touch his golden throne, to take it as a
point of reference, to carry it on my body into the memory of the
I shake all over. Thoughts of despair, I tell myself.
The palace staff head back to their rooms with heart-rending
moans, but he, the martyr-Basileus, is strangely calm now. I look at his
face and do not dare to believe it. That unrelenting anguish, the terror,
the endless tears, gave way to calm. His face is peaceful, kindly, as if he
was receiving his death as a gift. Yes, I say to myself, now. He has made
peace with God and with men. He has carried out his duty as Basileus,
and fulfilled his duty as a Christian. He is no longer afraid. He is ready,
and calm. He is climbing the Mount of Olives, humble and proud, and
I admired him.
As we were leaving with Demetrios, I turned around to look
at him one more time. He was standing next to his throne,
alone, and looking at the palace. He was saying farewell to
it. He looked at the mosaics and at the coat of arms of the Palaeologi
and the rooms, where the lament still echoed, and at the purple that
was dying… He looked at all those things insatiably. As if he knew that
it was the last time. Or as if he wanted to take them with him like an
imprint of soul, to preserve them in the other dimensions of the
immutable – on the journey to legend.
As we came out with Demetrios and were about to mount
our horses, we heard some protesting voices. “No, you
Greeks should have brought them this afternoon… All day
long we have been struggling to repair them… and now it is dark, we
cannot see well enough to set them up…”
“You would do better to ask who will look after our families… We
have families here, that are hungry…”
I approached and saw about thirty Venetian warriors who had
carried seven wooden turrets for the battle on the walls. The Greeks,
they said, had refused to transport them without compensation, if that
is true. “You must not quarrel among yourselves at this hour, by the
faith…” I had a difficult time calming them, and I reflected bitterly that
even in the final moments, petty quarrels were not lacking.
We rode with Demetrios into the night, beside the dark mass of our
walls, which were lit by the fires from the enemy camp. When we
reached the St. Romanus Gate, a strange calm made our hearts
uneasy. We climbed up to the rampart to look. All of our warriors were
already out on the great peribolos of the Mesoteichion.
Soon, the wall-gates would be locked.
The wall-gates of the inner wall are locked
There is no longer a way out. The bolts and the rusty latches lock the
brave men outside the inner wall, where the ruined Mesoteichion
leaves them almost without cover and exposed, behind the makeshift
wooden barrier. The night is dark, the moon is in its third quarter,
nineteen days old, a waning arc suspended in the indifferent sky. Only
the flames, those huge flames, blind us every so often, making our
weakened walls appear like bare souls that fear death.
I am standing on the rampart of the tower. I want to look on this
scene. On the one side are fires and shouts and sundry noises, hasty
whispers and harsh orders, the feverish preparation of the infidels; on
the other side is The City that is dying, the Capital City that is
sleepless, filled with reverent chanting and tiny flickering flames of oil
lamps in half-dark churches, and with savage fear.
This is the scene I want to take with me when I die, I reflect, this
earthly vision, infamy and the prayer of pain. O Lord, save thy people…
save, Lord, save… I cannot pray any more, it is as if my words are
striking an impenetrable wall and bouncing back. I am alone. God has
left, or I have left; I must find my mystical powers and become a god. I
look at all my fellow soldiers, whom I will soon lock outside the wall, to
gain the victory or to die, and I am totally beside myself with horror.
Reality is so unbearable that it slips through my mind and takes on
other dimensions, and my fellow soldiers become mythical figures…
mythical gods… All of us who will soon throw ourselves into a certain
death for the honor of Christendom and for the salvation of our City
are gods, yes, I repeat, and the thought horrifies me, You have deified
us with Your abandonment, my God. You, You sought to annihilate us
while raising us up.
I hear his footstep. I recognize it now. It is Ioannis. He is coming
toward the rampart where I am standing. He sees me in the reflection
of the light. My heart is bursting. We will go to Lemnos, even dead…
that is where our souls will wander…, I say to him in my mind. He is
uneasy. The continuous struggle against impossible odds has broken
him. His unbridled efforts, his responsibility as field commander,
seeing to every need, addressing the shortage of weapons, the repairs…
ah, the anguish, the anguish for all these daily details, the harsh
struggle has broken him, yes, has buried him, made him a wild animal
in a burning forest. Yet, his body stands tall and proud. He is a
handsome god, a mythical giant. I see him standing before me, and say
to myself that we will gain the victory this time, too… we cannot but…
“I will find you on Lemnos…,” I hear his deep voice, “in my duchy…
I want this victory alone… this victory, by the faith… after it, the infidel will go away, will disappear…”
How much did he believe that? How afraid was he? I will never
know. That fearless man needed, in that moment, to believe in victory.
Because the matter out of which a god is made is miracle, I think now.
And all of us, on that fated night, were made out of the matter that
created You, my God, and that is why You came to hate us. We were
Your lowly creatures, whom you magnified by forsaking, whom You
nourished in your bosom for centuries, whom You deified and feared
and laid low… Forgive me the sinner, the pain is driving me to
Perhaps my mark was glowing in that hour; it had bled since dawn,
perhaps it glowed and bled at the same time. The courageous man
stretched out his hand and touched it, as he did each time. That was
our oath, now I know that, Ioannis…
“You will lock the wall-gates, down to the Charisian Gate. You will
also lock the ancient postern gates, including the one I opened, all of
them, and you will hand the keys to the Emperor,” he said slowly, as if
his words were unbearably heavy. He continued, “you will enter
through the Fifth Military Gate, the one that locks from the outside, or
through the secret gate of the tower… Demetrios and Manuelo will be
Even now, seventeen years later, I feel the same chill, the same
horror flowing through my bones. I remember that I looked
at him for a few moments, and then grasped the hilt of my
sword, “By the faith, the infidels will have to fight with lions,” I said. As
I made to leave, angry, I saw in the light of the flame a smile that
crossed his steely expression.
They will fight with lions, yes, with monsters that have seven lives, I
said to myself the entire way, as I leaped over the ramparts, to look for
They were waiting for me at the central gate.
Ah, that prodigal night. The burnt odor on the one side, the odor of
flame and of buffalo meat roasting for their mindless feasting. The
fragrance of a church on the other side, of frankincense, and of
wailing. The odor of a soul burning in sacrifice.
I look around and see my fellow warriors. Greeks and Venetians
and Genoese, all brothers. Some are lying on the wall, others on the
ground, in battle-dress, armed, ready. As the fires are extinguished
now and the drums grow silent, each one of them sinks into his own
thoughts… or tries to escape from the anguish and to steal a few hours
of sleep. Some sing softly or finish their spare dinner; others, with eyes
wide open, are with their loved ones. Soon they will hear the sound of
the bolt and the heavy latch, the sound of the key, they will hear it even
asleep, because that sound pierces all zones of sleep to enter the flesh.
Soon they will hear the trumpet and leap to their feet… They know that
victory is impossible, considering the numbers of the enemy… Soon…
Soon… We have only miracle on our side… But miracle has no mass to
contend in the mind with the mass of the enemy hordes… and only
fear, a relentless wild fear dominated us, a fear that simultaneously
emboldened us, made us fearless, and also chilled us.
Now I think that even if only this night were to survive of our
struggles during the siege, if only this hour were to remain, with the
sound of the key commanding the fate of our death, that would suffice.
That metallic sound alone, the metallic message that traced the
interdependence of events would suffice, I think, to bear eternal
witness to the grandeur and the steely resolve of all those brave men
who had stretched out on the walls, awaiting the trumpet call.
“Let’s go… our mission is difficult…,” I heard Demetrios beside me.
The bolts and rusty latches were secured from the inside. The
huge hammer-driven keys locked from the outside. The
sounds of other times; metallic sounds of a negated glory
that time had rusted horribly. “We will meet the Emperor at the tower
of his headquarters; we will wait for him there…,” I hear the voice of
Demetrios, as we head toward the Charisian Gate, the last gate in our
defense. I do not reply. I can say nothing, and I know that he spoke
only to break the silence, that unbroken deadly silence that has
weighed on us for some time now, since the first creaking wall-gate was
closed and bolted. No one, not one of us speaks, we only watch.
At that hour the cymbals and the shouting had died out in the
Ottoman camp. The fires that had surrounded the wasted triangle of
our City for three nights now were extinguished. The huge
encampment was silent, and the well-fed troops went to sleep,
dreaming of riches and blood.
The silence that descended, the black darkness, was more
nightmarish than the frenzied shouting and the fires. Now, only a few
soft orders were audible, a few shadows were discernible, as they
completed, like ghosts, the filling of the foss, a few movements of bulky
weights whose backs shone. In the silence, while spring breezes
competed with the smells of burning and the monotonous barking of
dogs, the last bolts were drawn and the metallic sound of the key was
heard one more time, the sound that still pierces my sleep at night and
locks me outside, in a gray, barren space, running about speechless in
nightmares, looking for the dead Emperor.
The metallic noise. The sound that traced our path toward death in
apocalyptic tones. It was not that thousands of human creatures had
not traversed that same path without return; but that moment was
ours. In that hour we were the world’s courageous men, those beside
whom death waited, sleepless, walking lightly in the flowering gardens.
“You take the keys… you hand them over…,” the voice of Demetrios
again brings me out of my reveries, as we return hastily to our positions
at the St. Romanus Gate. I take them in my hands. I, yes, until my last
breath I will live through that difficult day. “Yes, I will hand them
over…,” I answered quickly and sank again into my thoughts.
And I think that this moment alone of metallic noise, of locking the
heavy wall gates and of armed bodies that lay down to rest, awaiting
the call of the trumpet, this huge, compacted moment alone would
suffice to maintain the wakefulness of time, to maintain the
wakefulness of the night that will cover us.
We separated at the small gate of the tower. We embraced silently
and each of us went to find a place to lie down. I stood at the entrance,
confused. I did not want to sleep that night, not yet. Suddenly, a
familiar footstep approached, and a lamp lighted the darkness of the
walkway. I turned and saw Kyr Andronikos.
He was the one I wanted to see, he alone. “All the wall gates are
locked and bolted… here are the keys,” I say to him and show him the
ring of keys. “Only the secret postern gate remains, which leads to the
tower of the headquarters…,” I say to him and reflect that the Emperor
will be the last one to enter… he will pass by here. “I must wait for
His hand is on my shoulder. The night breeze is blowing. I take a
deep breath of the fragrant breeze, moist from the night’s frost. “He
will come in and lock the postern gate himself, he says, go and rest…”
I look at him, shaken. “Not before I turn over the keys.” “I will
wait… you go and sleep a bit.”
I embrace him on both sides and lean on his shoulder. I am his slain
son at this hour – twice over. But no, I, I will hand him the keys… I will
see him one more time… Will his expression still maintain its calm, I
wonder, that calm that contains suffering, that contains the ultimate
anguish and the acceptance of the inevitable? “Where is he? Where
can he be now?” I ask.
He sighed. “With Georgios… he was making his last mounted
inspection of the walls… By now he must be at Caligaria…”
Nothing could hold me back. I looked at the desolate dark mass of
the walls, which crept like a wounded reptile into the night. I looked at
the flickering baneful lights that glowed in the windows of the churches
where the people were keeping a vigil. I heard the hasty commands of
the Ottomans and the hair-raising sounds of preparation.
The breeze was still blowing, whispering the final secrets of the
ravaged spring. “I want to go and find him… to give him the keys
myself… to tell him that all is ready… Don’t deny me that… I want to be
the last one who will be locked outside the walls tonight.”
Kyr Andronikos was shaken. “No, by the saints… no, it’s late… Go
and rest a while… Only a few hours remain…”
“You stay here… at this gate, here… and wait for me, I won’t be
long… I want to ride one more time… You see this may be the… I just
want to ride one more time…”
He did not have time to reply. In two leaps I was already on my
horse riding next to the darkened walls. I do not even know what drew
me; passing by the small church of St. Romanus, which was near our
Military Gate of the same name, I stopped. I heard the chanting and it
was as if something strange kept me there… I dismounted and looked
in the dark window. What was the nagging desire, the attraction that
made me search… Ah, inexplicable powers, tiny moments which have
been called chance, but which hide the inexplicable in your depths.
I look in and a premonition tells me that somewhere there, among
the kneeling crowd, I will see my Eleni. And I am not wrong. She is
there, praying, there, mourning, there, chanting with the others, Our
Lady, aid us…
For a moment, I want to run to her side, to hold her in my arms
one more time. But, no. I say, no, by the saints… And I do not
even know why. Nor do I have the time to think. Soon she will
leave, I tell myself. It is late now, they will all leave… She will go to little Constantine, to Zoe, she will lock the house and stay there, waiting. All my thoughts lead to fear, and I shudder. I turn to look at the church as I ride away; it is dark.
I ride as fast as I can, gallop into the night… and as soon as I reach
Caligaria, I see the Emperor and Georgios, who are dismounting at
that moment, two tragic figures in the dark.
I hand the keys to Georgios and as I turn to return quickly to my
station, I pause for a second.
I want to see him one more time, one last time.
The final night ride of the Emperor
It is the first cock-crow. I am standing at the Caligarian Gate and see
the Emperor with Georgios ascending the tower at the end of the wall,
the one from which one can look to the left at the Mesoteichion down
to the Lykos Valley, and to the right at the Golden Horn. I approach,
and in the dull light I see him alone now, a tragic figure in the night,
who at that moment and at that cosmic point, commanded the mystical
sequence in the unfolding drama of history.
I pause for one second longer. I want to hear the same sounds he is
hearing, to see the same scene he is seeing. Later, I will try to imagine
his tears, the last tears of the valiant man, to imagine his thoughts, his
human agony. The night breeze blows on him, cools him perhaps, he raises his hand to his face.
I gallop in the night, back to the St. Romanus Gate, and I am alone
in the silence. Now I know what he is seeing. I know the sounds that he
is hearing. I close my eyes and see him standing there still, raising his
hand every so often, looking. I am still alive, I say. And I am; I am
beyond blood. I look at The City, which is about to die. A dark mass,
wet with unending tears, the tall crosses of its churches shining
strangely, shimmering, as if they suspect that in barely a few hours,
they will fall with a frightening noise, thrown down. Some windows and
a few churches are still lighted. No one is sleeping tonight, I tell myself,
they are awake, my Eleni is awake, she is on her knees praying, beside
the sleeping little Constantine.
I cannot look to the other side, the wall blocks my view, but I know.
The dark, huge, camp becomes more nightmarish when you imagine
it… when you say: it sleeps here beside me like a creeping bloodthirsty
beast, which will soon rise up hungry and attack with shouts and
drums, to tear us apart.
I run, dazed, toward the small gate of the tower. Kyr Andronikos is
waiting for me. We do not speak. Each of us finds a corner and lies
down. But I do not want to sleep. I think. I will wait for my Basileus, to
hear the sound of the last key… I will wait, yes, with eyes open, I will
imagine him on his last night ride.
It was when he said farewell to his staff at the palace of
Vlachernae. When he bid farewell to the throne room… It was
when he had made peace with God and with men, and his face
was calm. For a while… Soon after, the anguish left its marks again,
along with the struggle against the impossible. Time was passing; the
night was relentless, and he had to hurry. He quickly mounted his
horse, the lovely Arabian mare with the white feet, and accompanied
by his faithful secretary Georgios, made his last night-time inspection
of the walls, to insure that all the wall gates were locked tightly, bolted,
to say an encouraging word to the night guards, to the key-keepers, to
the commanders of every defensive position.
He left the St. Romanus Gate until last, he would take the keys
himself when he came, but I had already handed them over to Georgios.
All was ready now. The valiant man would come, would lock this last
small gate of the tower and then he would go to his room, to rest.
I say to myself, what a sad ride… what melancholy thoughts, what
bitter thoughts must have crossed his fearless mind, as he rode in the
spring night with the sea breezes and the fragrances of the
hedgerows… with the cries of the wild animals that smelled blood…
I want to hear the sound of the last key, I say to myself again, and I
know that it is madness, as if I am seeking to feel even more pain, to
stretch my soul beyond its endurance, or as if I wanted to inscribe upon
it even the slightest sound, to cross to the other side of despair, where
My eyelids are closing from weariness, but I keep them open to look
a while longer. He is alone at the tower of Caligaria and he is looking.
He sees the Golden Horn on his right. Small fires sparkle. Fustae and
biremes slip silently by in the dark waters of the inner bay, to draw near to our shore. Small lights flicker as they creep like fading candles over the smooth surface of the water. He listens to the hurried commands and the irregular sound of oars and the creaking of chains. Other noises come from the pontoon bridge, as materiel is unloaded, huge ladders and mounds of arrows and harquebuses and arbalests.
He now casts a weary glance toward the Mesoteichion, in the Lykos
Valley. The same rapid preparations there, too. The bronze masses
with their curved backs are shining, accursed cannons that are being
dragged in the night, to position them closer to our walls. Some of the
enemy are filling the rest of the foss like demons. Others are moving
their materiel, sounds of haste, hair-raising sounds, repeated sounds,
rough orders, human shadows that slip like ghosts into the frenzied
Everything is ready, whispering. And he turns his head to look at his
City now, to bid it farewell. If he is killed, tomorrow night… and he
shudders, certainly… shudders in horror.
This is his City, the Queen City, the pitiful relic of the great, worldruling
Empire. And these are his people who lie awake tonight. His
tormented people with the invincible soul, the people who have
struggled with him for fifty-seven days now, who have climbed to
Golgotha with him. Soon, they will be slaughtered in the sacrifice.
Innocent people. In all times, the innocent pay the price of history.
His body is surely trembling, alone… If I could see, if I could see in
the dark, I would know that he kneeled there, on the stones moist with
the night’s frost, kneeled and prayed. I am as a man that hath no
strength… Hear me speedily, O Lord… Stretch out Your invincible hand
and crush my enemies.
My eyelids are heavy from the great struggle, transporting
me into a deep sleep. Waves break over my exhausted
body, and as I sink deeper, as I lose myself in those waves
of oblivion, I hear the sound of the key. A slight horizontal sound,
traced by a metallic arc in my mind, defining the path of fate.
He came… he came, I reflected, and try to sit up, to hear more
clearly. I hear his footsteps on the stone inner stairway. He is going up
to his room to rest. He is the martyred Emperor, I say to myself. He
still is. What is he thinking, as he lies down, sorrowful, as he lays his
weary, tortured body down, what must he be thinking? Perhaps of his
son. The son who was never born, whom he buried twice: once with
Theodora at Mystra and once with Catherine on Lemnos…
Constantine XII Palaeologos, the Conqueror, was never born. He only
died. Later, he took in the fragrance of my son in the Hagia Sophia, the
son of Eleni who was his blood-relative, and he named the child
Constantine. Ah, with what longing he held the child in his arms… how
he hugged the infant to his barren chest, poor, unfortunate man. Now I
say to myself, perhaps he ordained it at the hour of the sacrament, I
mean, perhaps secretly and mystically, he assigned to the child the
place of his own son, to walk the path of his own fate, which was the
fate of the Empire.
My mind aches. But I do not want these huge waves of sleep to
overwhelm me, these waves that flow back and forth over my body, I
do not want to lose myself in oblivion, no, I want to stay awake, to live
every moment of the dawnless night.
I say to myself perhaps he is kneeling now alone in the stone room,
wanting to pray one more time. Or perhaps he wants to forgive all
those who abandoned him in his hour of need, to make peace even
with those. But would he be able to, I wonder, would he forgive the
Christian leaders of the West or his brothers, the despots of the
Peloponnesus, who abandoned him with such mindless callousness in
this critical hour? Would he forgive all those in The City itself, who
abandoned him, alone and without help: the clergy and the wealthy
monasteries which, when he was struggling to find funds, locked away
their treasures more securely, under double locks in moist dark
cellars… or the other men of wealth, the nobles of the Imperial City
who, with the same passion, alas, hid their treasures, which the starved
birds of prey found the next day… I think, yes. He would have been
able to forgive. He could. Because his magnanimous heart had no
place for hatred, and because he knew that these errors would be paid
for in the same currency. If the Imperial City, this breakwater of
Christianity, was lost, the furious ocean of Islam would pour forth with
the same savagery. Yet, he felt great sadness. He felt great sadness
because all of them were blinded and unable to see.
My eyelids are heavier and heavier, but I saw him. As my
eyes closed – I was unable to keep them open any longer –I saw him. He looked at the half-light of dawn with a smile and rushed out to battle. His sword was a lightning bolt that mowed down the infidels, annihilated them, trampled them… and I was beside him, we will prevail this time, too, we will annihilate them…
And the Theotokos was on the walls, ah, Lady, aid us… Protector of our City,
you came… And I fall asleep.
I sink into a deep and dark sleep, and I cannot say whether that
strange intermittent noise I heard, which terrified me, was in my sleep
or outside it. Was it a dream or a hallucination… even today, I wonder.
I leaned over the tower and was horror-stricken. Our emblem, the
banner with the two-headed eagle, which until now was fluttering in
the night breeze, kept falling, repeatedly, and rolling in a mud of
blood; then it would rise up again, breathing heavily, and fall once
more. I was trying to run to pick it up, to raise it proudly once more,
but I could not move, my legs were paralyzed and my anguish was
great. And I remained there, stuck on the tower like a chained
Prometheus, watching. Until this strange thing happened. The eagle
came to life, its wings were freed from the blood and they stirred,
freeing themselves from the gold embroidery. That purple eagle with
the two heads came to life, straightened his powerful body, moved his
wings strongly and flew away before my stunned eyes, disappearing
high up, becoming one with the infinite.
It wasat that moment that I heard the savage cries from the
enemy camp, and then the trumpet signal of our guards.
“The Turks… the assault…”
And I leaped up.
635 – 663 pages from the Greek publucation book