THE PROPHECY OF THE SCEPTER AND THE MOON
"The secrets of empires do not vanish with their collapse; they sustain them."
Constantinople, Tuesday, May 29, 1453. The year 6961 of the Byzantine Calendar.
Father Marcellus Popandreau, the last man ever to celebrate the liturgy in the Great Church, looked out over the city from the exterior of its great dome that circled the church like a crown. Within the alcove of the dome, his black robe blended with shadows. With the even temper of a saint, he sat patiently as the frenetic world around him burned off its zealotry in rape, rapine, looting, and fire. Beneath the overcast sky, the destitute multitudes in the streets far below flung themselves at and on one another.
In the distance, he spied a solitary white horse straining to advance through the crowds. As horse and rider closed on the church, Father Marcellus, his green eyes wet with grief at the city’s fall, receded from view into the masonry’s hidden opening.
The pale rider on a white horse, like a solar eclipse, showed the pallor of his being to the dead and dying. Serene in his lunar-like ellipse, he migrated the earthly dominion of the last of the Caesars whose pagan emblem of two thousand years seemed to have melted away in an Icarian display of stupidity and hubris ? the two-headed eagle.
In a slowly shrinking gyre, horse and rider moved on as he imagined the very stones beneath him in wavelike undulations of the sea, pulled loose by his very presence. In a world that to many would seem to be upside down and a precursor to the apocalypse itself, he was drawn by the ripples of the silent surge of history and the gravity of a destiny that pulled him to the center of Greek and Roman spirituality. This city, that Church, is where it had all begun, where it had been sequestered for ages. Here in this city, that Church, is where he would end it. The relics would at last be found and destroyed. In a synchronous movement of earthly ambition and celestial indifference, he advanced to the omphalos of the Byzantine world to which he felt himself tethered from birth. On this day, he would cut the cord so that he might live out his ambition as the man-child of a new civilization.
Mehmet II advanced as the city convulsed. The multitudes, like the shattered remains of a great icon, lay about in a frenzy of vibrating color and grating cacophony that could neither see nor hear in their fellow Greeks the pieces to the harmony that had once ruled over them. The remaining poor, desperate, and isolated soldiers of Byzantium, unable or unwilling to flee the city, could only cringe as they felt themselves breaking.
Mehmet II rode ahead with a green mantle worn about his shoulders, like that of the Prophet, and trailing behind him over his saddle and resting on his horse’s haunches. Now and again it lifted slightly as his mount strained at the tension and smells of battle still lingering in the air. Its nostrils flared at the smell of several nearby burning houses and that of human refuse still scattered about the streets, bleeding, disemboweled, limbless, or just fearfully drenched in urine, sweat and excrement. Some of the living smelled worse than the dead. Only the rats seemed unconcerned and inured to the suffering around them.
Mehmet II, regal, resplendent, and of a harsh visage, glowered as he rode ever more slowly, his horse now and again stutter-stepping at the scream of yet another woman and child separated by their new lords. He turned at last to gaze upon the grandest structure in all of Constantinople. It was not the Hippodrome, the great raceway for charioteers, nor the emperor’s palace, but the greatest structure in all of Christendom.
In a spontaneous surge of triumph, dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands of soldiers, Turks, Syrians, and other fruits of Islam’s manhood began to shout, “Is-tin-poli! Is-tin-poli! Is-tin-poli!” Mehmet II drew closer to the troops concentrated around the greatest architectural achievement of a thousand years, the Magna Ecclesia, the Great Church, called Hagia Sophia by later generations. Steadily, strongly, they engaged in an antiphonal voicing that rang like a mocking humiliation of Greeks of all classes and professions. Even the Genoese merchants and their soldiers and Venetian seamen sought refuge in the basilica that was intended as a monument to God’s wisdom and the maternal affection of his earthly and heavenly mother.
Inside were the relics of untold value and a vial, it was said, of the Virgin’s milk itself. Sacred objects venerated by thousands upon thousands over the centuries?relics which would now fall into the hands of those who might not fear to defile what they could not or would not appreciate or believe. Objects so venerated and so powerful that conquerors sought their possession as validation of their Divine right to rule over humanity.
In another surge of elation, soldiers alternately shouted “Is-tin-poli,” in the city, and “Kayser-I Rum,” Caesar of Rome. The antiphonal chorus sounded a reverberating presence and seismically shifted the earth and echoed in a mocking liturgy that seared into the souls of those crouched down in fear within the sanctuary of Christendom’s greatest exaltation of aesthetics and faith. Completely surrounded by the Turkish army, the Greeks of Constantinople and their fellow Romans had retreated to the center of the city and then gradually into the church itself.
“Is-tin-poli! Is-tin-poli!” and “Kayser-I Rum!” rang from outside. Inside, Kyrie Eleison was intoned by the seemingly placid figure of the patriarch of Constantinople, or, as he was yet called, the patriarch of New Rome. Father Athanasius II repeated Kyrie Eleison amidst the weeping of the fearful survivors. Christe Eleison, Christ, have mercy.
The center of the Church, which itself lay at the center of the Eastern Roman Church, the very citadel of the faith, echoed with nervous talk amidst the incantation of prayer. The icons and the mosaics, which exalted the glory and beneficence of God in his Trinitarian manifestation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, looked down from the walls and the great dome with indifference. Mary herself had lost her tenderness, and her eyes no longer seemed to follow those who moved anxiously about the crush of bodies in the church. Instead, they looked blankly out into space. The solace of God’s abiding strength and wisdom seemed to have abandoned all. On this day, even God and the angels seemed about to submit to the Turk.
For a thousand years, prayers had wafted up to the great dome of the basilica of the Great Church, then through its mosaic firmament into the heavens themselves. From here, prayers as multitudinous as the stars themselves had sought the beneficence of God and the intercession of Mary, the mother of Christ. From this location, the imperial family from the days of Constantine, from the days of Justinian and Theodora, had prayed to God for wisdom to guide the Romans of the West as well as those of the East. But on this day, the lamentations of the vanquished mixed with prayers that seemed to hover like the heavy smoke of Greek fire beneath the dome of Magna Ecclesia. Their prayers had no wings. For on this day, the sun itself was blotted out by the darkness of a solar eclipse that saw the rising of the crescent symbol of Al-Lat, the ancient pagan moon goddess of the Arabs and the symbol of Islam. Green banners, the color of the Prophet Mohammad himself, and the symbol of Islam’s mighty Turkish forces, appeared everywhere throughout the city while the banner of the two-headed eagle, the symbol of imperial Constantinople, lay on the ground both trampled and defiled.
Locked in the church that lay at the center of the eastern Christian world, three thousand believers called upon the Hammer of God to smite the Mohammadans upon the anvil of faith. But this was Constantinople and not Tours. On this day, there was no hammer borne by God or his minions. On this day, the Beast of the Balkans, unaware of their prayers, but ever mindful of his own, conquered in the name of Allah. Each group huddled and cringing within the Church, families and neighbors, friends and slaves, fixed upon some semblance of hope, some talisman that would offer protection or even the crass similitude of divine protection that infidels and the blasphemous called luck. Amidst their consternation, they bargained with God. If only the Turk would now be miraculously barred from the Holy of Holies where they sought solace, each would in kind offer some form of eternal thanks in prayer, supplications, or alms.
As thousands of anguished cries converged into a maelstrom, like a raging river newly born and sweeping all before it in a near climactic surge, Mehmet II was as much pushed by the intoxication of victory as he was restrained by decades of careful planning. He approached the imperial entrance of the Great Church and lighted from his saddle as his most trusted cavalier and confident, Machmood bin Ben, took the reins of his horse in hand. He ascended the steps with his entourage, his personal bodyguards now pushing aside his own wild-eyed soldiers and dismounted cavaliers.
As Mehmet II entered beneath the canopy and arched entrance, he felt the thrill and anticlimax of reality itself. He moved forward with an eye to the future retelling of this moment as he bade his warriors to stand back as he himself displayed both the mercy of the Prophet and the wrath that God might exert on those who knew not submission. But at this moment, he could not restrain his own men.
Amidst the killing, men with special gifts rushed past Mehmet II with the gaze of those who can mercilessly and precisely gauge the commercial value of human life. Even as Mehmet II shouted, the exaltation of his troops increased in volume to blend with the shrillness of mothers shorn of their legacy and their husbands, their aged mothers, and crippled fathers. Here would be the final lot of a hundred Anchises without the sons to bear them up and there the lot of hundreds more of aged wisdom that now felt the pangs of the Virgin Mary. They looked to a semblance of divine maternalism in stony mosaic that stared blankly and horribly at their pain like that which she, too, once felt and about which she on this day did nothing.
The compressed multitude now pushed and crushed breath from matrons, who had once given them life, as soldiers cut and severed limbs. And Mehmet II, ever mindful of history, called out as his cavaliers joined in the frenzy. Like the others, they cracked skulls and pulled the beautiful from among the forlorn. The majesty of the moment fell to murder and mayhem. He turned and walked back out as his chief accountant passed him to assess the price of the lovely and soon-to-be debauched, deflowered, and deranged by pain inflicted by their conquerors and the seeming indifference of God. But as he did so, one Genoese soldier who fought back valiantly, and who he was inclined to save, suddenly was struck by a sword that cleft his bearded lower jaw so that it fell on the floor. Yet he continued to fight. Mehmet paused at the novelty of a jawless warrior fighting with a severed tongue, until another blow from a cudgel from behind brought him to his knees. He lifted both arms with his sword still in hand and his body began to shake uncontrollably. It continued to shake in frightful spasms as he fell sideways to the indifferent floor.
Hours later, Hazrat Bilal, so named for Mohammad’s slave, the first man ever to utter the call to prayer, sang out from the steps of the Great Church, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is his Prophet.”
Throughout the city, soldiers fell to their knees and the enslaved did likewise for fear of inviting retribution while others sat numbly, too afraid to pray even in the way they already knew.