The first time I ever read about this – well, it’s just one of those events you wish could somehow have been reversed, stopped from ever happening. There in the eastern Mediterranean was “The City” – the most opulent metropolis of the Middle Ages. Standing at the end of the Silk Route, a collection of golden domed edifices built by the Roman emperor Constantine and further embellished by rulers like Justinian and the great Byzantine emperor Basil. Constantinople was beyond doubt the greatest city of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, it had a deadly rival in Venice – an emerging maritime power in the medieval period. The Doge – ruler of Venice – funded the Fourth Crusade but finding the crusaders unable to cough up what they owed him, he ordered them to sack Constantinople. Even though the eastern Christians of the city had rejected papal power and formed what we now call the Orthodox church, the pope was still sufficiently scandalized by what he now saw as an abuse of the crusades. He condemned their actions repeatedly but to no avail.
Here was a military venture that was supposed to push back Islam and reassert Christian power in the Middle East. Their original target was supposed to be Muslim Cairo. Instead, the crusaders were heading off to beat up the largest Christian power in the east because they owed money to the Doge. Tragically, they did indeed manage to breach the city’s walls – built in the 400s and thought to be impenetrable. The multi-layered walls had repelled everybody from the Huns to the Arabs and Bulgars. But not this army.
A weak and divided Byzantine leadership crumbled. The crusaders set fire to large parts of the city – and you can still see evidence of the damage in modern Istanbul today, as I have done – and then moved in to the Hagia Sophia. This was the massive cathedral built by Justinian in the mid-500s that still inspires awe today.
Gold and silver and jewels were stripped off the walls and altars. A contemporary chronicler recounted the events with horror:
“For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour.”
Stealing wasn’t enough for the crusaders as they decided to defile the church by crowning a prostitute as bishop:
“Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch’s seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”
If you visit Venice, look up at the four horses above St Mark’s church – they were looted by crusaders in this year. A so-called Latin kingdom was established that lasted a few decades before the Byzantines were able to reassert control. However, Constantinople would never fully recover from this battering and sank into an irreversible decline.