Monday, August 23, 2010

Before the Ottoman Empire

Looking back on a era all but forgotten . . . . . .

In Julian Barnes book, “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters,” he wrote: “Does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that’s too grand. History just burps, and we taste again that raw onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.”

Ambrose Bierce wrote “history is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”

These sneering cynics may or may not be serious, but their mocking take on history is too sarcastic and disparaging for me. I have been a lover of history from the grade school text that started with: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Columbus’ tale has been told by hundreds of historians in many languages from all points of view. Some have seen him as a saint and God’s apostle. While others see him as a savage adventurer-explorer. When you round out the edges, he was definitely both of these and more. He was a man who became a legend. Most of history is a record of facts that evolved from myths and legend, or the village storytellers. After forms of writing developed, someone said: let’s write this down.

Back a few years (when the Byzantines were in charge of most of the “known” world), illiteracy among their middle and upper classes was all but unknown. Citizens of Constantinople could read and usually more than one language. The Byzantium Empire, through its kings and queens, saved a great deal of the ancient (mostly Greek and Persian) literature, mathematics and the sciences from the Iberian Peninsula to the shores of India.

Here is where we have a problem with history. Writers of history are nearly always the winners of wars, we seldom get the losers story. Add to that short-coming is that men did most or all of the recording of history. Finding a woman’s view of anything is of rather recent invention.

The Roman Empire of the East was founded by Constantine the Great on the eleventh of May in the year 330. The Christian faith was made a legal and honored religion. Viewed as a good thing in those days, history has shown worldly, material power has a weakening effect on the faith. The Christian faith may have spread faster with deeper spiritual roots had they not become dominate in politics. In those days a nation or village had to have a god, goddess or some version of religion. Even the pagans seemed to have a union or distinct denominations.

Empires do not last forever. This is evident following Columbus’ “discovery” as all the New World empires slowly disappeared. The Byzantium Empire came to an end on Tuesday, May 29, 1453. During those 1,123 years, the kingdom was led by some great, courageous men and women, who spread the Christian faith as far as Vienna and Moscow (Russ), and eastward to Baghdad and south to Egypt. But mixed with politics lost much of its spirit and true meaning.

Sidelights and footnotes of history are sometimes the most interesting reading. To the Greek world ‘Tuesday’ (the day of the week on which the Turks defeated Constanople) is still believed to be the unluckiest day of the week. That is why the Turkish flag “still depicts not a crescent but a waning moon, reminding us that the moon was in the last quarter when Constantinople finally fell, … [and] stands as the city’s grandest and most tragic monument” (Norwich).

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