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
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.