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The Sack of Constantinople, 1204
By Monk Andrew
Source: Doxa - Date: Pentecost 2001

The negative and widely publicized reaction of many Greeks against the Pope's recent visit has very much to do with the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. However one feels about their reaction, to assess it fairly, we need to understand why the Sack of Constantinople stirs up more emotion than weighty theological differences with Rome. American newspaper articles have pooh-poohed Greek feelings, saying in effect, "Really! Such a long time to hold a grudge." But writers in these same papers will grieve over long-ago tragedies such as the Spanish pillage of the Aztec and Inca cultures. They support the Jewish taking of Jerusalem after an absence of nearly 2,000 years. But Greek heartbreak over the pillage and conquest of their incredible City is dismissed as fanatic.

In 1204, Constantinople, New Rome, Byzantium, the Capital of the surviving half of the Roman Empire had for nearly 900 years been the Queen City of the world. It far outshone Old Rome, for many centuries but a shadow of its former self. The Greeks kept alive the leaning and the language of their pagan ancestors. Ancient wisdom was alive and well in Constantinople: Aristotle, Plato, and the other giants of Greek thought were still read and studied in the original tongue. Constantinople was filled with beautiful churches and priceless icons. The government promoted Christian values. The Byzantine Emperors even displayed a remarkable social conscience. There were public hospitals, and homes for the poor and for reformed prostitutes. Monasteries for men and for women offered education, spiritual counsel and refuge. There was even tolerance for minorities, including the Jews. Constantinople was unique in the ancient World.

Constantinople was known far and wide as "the City." Even after the Turks conquered it, they continued to call it by that name, "Istanbul," a corruption of the Greek, "Eis tin Polin," "To the City." But in 1204 the Fourth Crusade deviated from its intended course towards Palestine, and attacked Constantinople. By all accounts the Sack of The City by Italian, German, French, English, Irish and Scottish Crusaders was overwhelmingly barbarous and cruel. Thousands of ancient manuscript books were burned, and much pre-Christian learning was wiped out. It was the Tailban destruction of the ancient statues of Buddha multiplied thousands of times. Artistic treasures were stolen or simply destroyed. Plundered treasures from Constantinople are still found in museums and churches all over Europe. (Perhaps, like the gold stolen by the Nazis, it is time these treasures are returned to the descendent of their rightful owners.) Then the Crusaders ruled the Byzantine Empire for the next 57 years.

True, the Byzantines themselves, like all peoples ancient and modern, were guilty of atrocities, but never anything even remotely close to the mindless destruction in Constantinople. The effect was as if some huge army of modem hooligans devastated Paris or New York. Constantinople never fully recovered, and its conquest by the Crusaders in 1204 set the stage for the Turkish conquest in 1453. Western Europe jeopardized its own existence by weakening its main bulwark against the Islamic jihad. The sophisticated Greeks, with a history as ancient as that of the Chinese and the Jews, could only think of the Western Europeans as witless barbarians.

The traumatic effect of the Sack of Constantinople on the Greeks was and is deep. The medieval Papacy was indirectly complicit in the Sack. The Byzantine Church, considered "schismatic," needed humbling. (Numerous Orthodox feel that attitude still exists in Roman because of efforts to transform Orthodox communities into "Byzantine Catholics.") Little wonder, then, that so many Greeks resented the Papal visit. Pope John Paul II's heartfelt expression of sorrow for the Sack of Constantinople indicates he acknowledges the complicity of his predecessors and of his Church. One hopes that, backed by actions, it will open doors to honest dialogue.

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