The Fourth Crusade has to stand out as one of the most depressing and destructive events in history. A crusade that was notionally aimed by Christian Europe at the Muslim east but which was cynically diverted by Venice against its maritime and trading competitor – Constantinople.
Constantinople before the Fourth Crusade arrived
Since the division of the Roman Empire and the creation of Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine – first Christian ruler of Rome – “The City”, as it was known, had remained the wealthiest and most glittering urban centre throughout the so-called Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages. There simply wasn’t another city to rival it.
It had been beautified and adorned with monuments, churches and palaces by successive emperors from Theodosius II (who built its thick and impregnable walls) to Justinian (who built the Hagia Sophia cathedral).
The Byzantine Empire had revived and strengthened
Under the Macedonian dynasty, the empire of Constantinople had pushed back the Muslim caliphate in Anatolia and the Levant and been a real power to reckon with. It dominated the Balkans and Middle East and its version of Christianity (what we now call Orthodox) was felt as far as Moscow, the Baltics and the Balkans.
But by the start of the 13th century, the Empire had experienced a more turbulent time. The Seljuk Turks had brought a new unity to the Islamic world and gradually, Armenia and Anatolia slipped out of Byzantine (Constantinople) control.
The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw the emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, captured by the Seljuks – a massive humiliation. And Rome formalised the split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy by excommunicating the empire – from then on, there would be two Christian worlds and not one.
This split and the crusaders’ regular gripe that the Byzantines were shifty and two faced would be used to justify a Christian crusade against a Christian city.
Constantinople becomes a crusader target
By the end of the 12th century, the crusades in outremer had gone badly wrong. Jerusalem had been lost and the situation for the remaining crusader territories was looking pretty grim.
So, Pope Innocent III – often seen as the most powerful pope ever – decided that a direct attack on Cairo was required. Christian Europe would take up the sword once more and defeat the Saracen.
Well, that was the plan. Venice agreed to fit out the crusader navy and this took about a year. The fitting out was not free of charge and when the crusaders prepared to set sail, the Venetians produced a bill for the eye watering sum of 85,000 marks – which the crusaders were unable to pay in full.
There are accounts of what happened next that attempt to present Venice as the aggrieved party but I can’t help feeling that the wily, blind, ninety-something Doge Dandolo – ruler of Venice – had his eye on Constantinople from the outset.
Previous crusades had not been covered in glory and I suspect he didn’t really think invading Cairo was going to achieve much. Whereas smashing up Constantinople would benefit Venice hugely.
Venice goes for the Byzantine jugular!
So the indebted crusaders were ordered by the Venetians to go and besiege the Catholic city (and rival to Venice) of Zara and then proceed on to Constantinople, ignoring the fact that an outraged Pope Innocent III had excommunicated the lot of them.
I won’t go in to all the details of the long siege of Constantinople – but suffice it to say that the city was already weakened by intrigues within its royal court and a failure to maintain its army and navy.
But the citizens of The City still thought their massive walls would keep out the crusaders. They had repelled every invader for nearly a thousand years from Huns to Bulgars to Arabs. Unfortunately, they eventually caved in to the crusaders.
It’s still very sad to wander round the ruins of Constantinople and see very plainly where gold, silver and precious jewels were prized away by the crusaders and buildings put to the torch. The evidence of the great sacking can even be seen in the still standing Hagia Sophia – built by the emperor Justinian in the mid-500s and despoiled in 1204.
Dandolo personally led his troops on the siege – in spite of being in his 90s and blind. He shamed them in to moving forward at a critical moment. But he died in Constantinople and you can still see his grave in the Hagia Sophia.
However, his bones are long gone – as the Latin Kingdom he established was eventually overthrown by the returning Byzantines and then they in turn were destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. At some point, Dandolo’s bones were fed to the dogs.
Here are some images from my visit to what was Constantinople – and is now the modern Turkish city of Istanbul.