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The Tale of Tsargrad (Constantinople)


The Tale of Tsargrad (Constantinople).15 One interesting specimen of historical narrative was The Tale of Tsargrad» whose author humbly describes himself as “the much-sinning and wayward Nestor-Iskander”. In the sixteenth century the Tale was included in an additional section of The Russian Chronograph of 1512; but it has also survived separately.

The Tale of Tsargrad dealt with a major event in fifteenth- century world history, the final collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of its capital Tsargrad (Constantinople) by the Turks in 1453. The author of the Tale says of himself that still as a child he was captured by the T urks and converted to Mohammedanism. He describes the siege from two points of view/ as it were. Scenes taking place in the Turkish camp alternate with scenes in the besieged city. It is difficult to say how much of what the author says of himself is actually true, but the early origin of the tale (latter half of the fifteenth century or beginning of the sixteenth) is beyond question.

The characteristic features of The Tale of Tsargrad are the dynamism and tension of the narrative. The author reduces the story of the siege, which lasted six months, to a few brief scenes, a description of five or six of the tensest days in its defence.

The narrative begins with a description of the storming of the city, which took place on the fourteenth day of the siege. The Turks bombarded the city and stormed the walls. There was hand-to-hand fighting. The battle continued until nightfall, when the Turks were forced to retreat and the exhausted defenders slept like the dead.

The Turks again prepared to storm the city, but new forces appeared to aid its defenders, namely an Italian called Justinian with his army (Nestor-Iskander calls them the “600 brave men”), the only one to respond to Emperor Constantine’s appeal for help. He becomes the true leader of the Greeks during the second storming. The huge cannon on which the Turks have been relying makes a breach in the most vulnerable part of the city wall which Justinian is defending. At night Justinian manages to block up the breach by building a wooden barrier. Next morning the Turks bombard the place again and destroy the barrier, but Justinian “takes aim with his cannon”, returns their fire, and destroys the breech of the Turks’ big cannon. The infuriated sultan cries yagma (charge!) and divides up the city in advance for plundering. Again there is hand-to-hand fighting and again the besiegers retreat and the city’s defenders sleep like the dead.

The third storming of the city begins again with bombardment by the big cannon bound with strips of iron, but after the very first shot it “broke into many parts”. The besiegers fill in the ditches and roll up battering rams, but at this moment the townspeople explode some mines and send the Turks flying. This failure causes the sultan to lose heart and he decides to “retreat and go home”, but then the Greeks make a peace offer to the sultan, thereby revealing their weakness, and the hostilities are resumed.

During the fourth storming the Turks manage to destroy a large section of the wall. This time the defenders cannot repair the damage; they only manage to build a tower behind the destroyed section. Some Turks break in and nearly kill Justinian, who is saved by a Greek general. But just as the Turks are about to rush into the city with victorious cries, the Greeks begin to fire cannons “secretly” placed in the tower. The emperor himself joins in the battle. Alone “with sword in hand”, he drives the enemy back through the breach and out of the city.

Incensed by the failure of their fourth attempt, the Turks prepare a new assault. At this point an event takes place that presages the imminent destruction of the capital: fire comes out of the windows of Hagia Sophia and rises up to the heavens. The patriarch explains to the emperor that this means the Holy Spirit has left Constantinople. When the fifth assault comes all seems lost, but the emperor and Justinian do not consider the battle over “for the hour of judgment was not yet nigh”.

The Turks manage to destroy the tower put up by Justinian, and when he tries to erect it again, he is shot in the chest by a cannon-ball. But the physicians manage to get him back on his feet, and no sooner has he recovered than he sets about building the tower again. He is again hit by a stray cannon-ball. The emperor weeps over the dying Justinian, but does not lose heart and drives the Turks out of the city for the last time.

Even on the eve of the city’s collapse, its destruction does not seem inevitable. The sultan again considers raising the siege. But a “great darkness” gathers over the city and it rains blood, a sign that Constantinople is about to fall.

The day of the fall of Constantinople arrives. In spite of his courtiers’ exhortations to leave the city, the emperor rushes into the final battle on the streets of Constantinople and dies under the swords of the Turks, thus making an old prediction about Constantinople come true: “It was founded by Constantine and with Constantine it will end.” (The first emperor to rule in Constantinople was Constantine the Great and the last Constan­tine XI.) The Tale ends with a description of the sultan’s triumphal entry into the city and a reminder of the prophesy that Constantinople will be liberated by rusy rod, which can be interpreted as blond-haired people or Russians.

The Tale of Tsargrad is rich in factual details and evidently based on the authentic recollections of an eyewitness or eyewitnes­ses (in this connection the author’s stories about himself as someone who participated in these events are worthy of attention).

At the same time, however, the tale shows the clear influence of Russian military tales, The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan and others. We find stylistic phrases here that are characteristic of these tales (“the battle was a great and terrible one”, the blood was running “in torrents”, etc.), although unlike most Russian tales there is no sharp distinction in the portrayal of the belligerent parties, no outright condemnation of the “infidels” (the Turks) and sharp contrasting of them with the Christians (the Greeks). The author is respectful towards both sides. In terms of genre The Tale of Tsargrad is a work of historical narrative, and at the same time a fictional tale similar to those which, as we shall see, occupy an important place in Russian literature of the latter half of the fifteenth century.