On May 28, 1453, Greco-Christian Constantinople, the last bastion of the once vast Byzantine and Roman Empires, faced the prospect of the imminent fall of the city to the Ottoman Empire. As the sun set on the Roman Empire for what would be its final night, anxious citizens of the city gathered in the magnificent cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, for what would be its final night to date as a functioning Christian church. They were joined in the Hagia Sophia by their Emperor, Constantine XI, who went to church for the final time to pray and ask his subjects for their pardon.
After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the city’s new Turkish rulers converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. So it would remain, in practice, until 1934, when the new Republic of Turkey turned it into a museum open to all faiths. However, on July 10, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the hallowed Hagia Sophia cathedral back into a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia that we know today was completed in 537 under the reign of Justinian I, the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor, and the one who extended the Eastern half of the Roman Empire to its greatest territorial extent. It remained a functioning church until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – a period that makes up well more than half of its existence. In this post, in light of recent events, I will look at a couple of accounts of the final night of prayers in the Christian Hagia Sophia, telling the story of Emperor Constantine XI’s visit.
In an earlier post that you may read here, I discussed the events of May 28 and related several other anecdotes about Constantine XI’s actions during the Siege of Constantinople and his last stand with his men once the Ottomans breached the city’s defenses.
Account from “Constantinople: The Story of the Old Capital of the Empire”
Our first account comes from “Constantinople: The Story of the Old Capital of the Empire,” by William Holden Hutton. This book was published in 1900. We turn to pages 148-49 for the account of the last Roman Emperor’s final visit to the Hagia Sophia.
By May 28, Emperor Constantine XI was well aware that the fall of the city was likely near. He had already sent away the ladies of the imperial household, his sister-in-law, and her attendants. The Emperor addressed his troops for the last time before the final Turkish assault during the day on the 28th. After speaking to his men, he visited the Hagia Sophia. The book describes the occasion as follows:
Constantine for the last time went to the great church, and there, before all the bishops, asked the pardon of all whom he had wronged. Then he received his last communion. For the last time the Holy Sacrifice was offered in S. Sophia, and then the last of the Cæsars and his nobles went forth to die.
Although the account is fleshed out in more detail in our next selection, there are two striking notes from Hutton’s telling of the Emperor’s last visit to the cathedral. First, Hutton made reference to the significance of this final night of prayers at the Hagia Sophia beyond it being Constantine’s final visit: “For the last time the Holy Sacrifice was offered in S. Sophia…” Then, in a line that was the focus of my earlier article on Constantine, Hutton made reference to Constantine XI’s place in the lineage of Roman Emperors, as tenuous as the links to Caesar Augustus may have been by 1453: “[T]hen the last of the Cæsars and his nobles went forth to die.”
Account from “Constantine, The Last Emperor of the Greeks; or, The Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks”
Our second account comes from a book with two names: “Constantine, The Last Emperor of the Greeks; or, The Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks.” Written by Cedomilj Mijatovic, this story upon which I relied heavily for my earlier article on Constantine XI, was published in 1892. As I will quote below, Mijatovic went into more detail regarding the final night of Christian prayers at the Hagia Sophia.
Let us turn to pages 209-210.
Mijatovic, relying on the same sources as Hutton, had the same account of the events leading up to Constantine’s last visit to the Hagia Sophia. For the account itself, we learn a bit more about how sources described Constantine’s visit.
Mijatovic began the account by noting when “[t]he bells rung for Vespers,” being the evening prayer service at the Hagia Sophia. It was upon the ringing of the church bells that “[t]he Emperor proceeded to St. Sophia.” According to this account, “[t]he church was crowded.” Mijatovic left the source material for a moment to speculate about what the Emperor was thinking as he walked into the Hagia Sophia for what would prove to be the final time: “It would have been only natural for him to think that it was, perhaps, the last time he would stand beneath that magnificent cupola, under which so many orthodox Emperors had worshipped in good and evil days.”
Mijatovic then offered a detailed account of Constantine XI’s prayers:
Constantine prayed with great fervour. He left his imperial chair, and approaching the screen separating the altar from the nave, he prostrated himself before the great eikons of Christ and the Madonna, which were on the left and on the right side of the central entrance to the altar.
After concluding his prayers, Constantine XI then proceeded in a manner suggesting that he did not expect to return to the cathedral again:
Having passed some time in prayer, he approached every prelate present in the church, asked them to pardon him if he had ever offended any of them, embraced each of them, and then went to the altar and received the Holy Communion.
Mijatovic placed Constantine XI’s actions in the context of his station:
As a Christian emperor, and as a Christian soldier, he was solemnly, and in the sight of his people, preparing to appear before his God.
As we know, the Christian emperor would, within the day, cast aside his regalia and make his final stand as a Christian soldier, falling with his men.
Mijatovic then described Constantine’s departing the Hagia Sophia:
When he turned to leave the church, the great congregation wept aloud. The vast church echoed with the loud sobs of men and with the wailings of women. And amidst such displays of sympathy from deeply moved human hearts, Constantine, himself, greatly and visibly affected, walked slowly out of the church which his predecessors had raised as a grand monument of their glory and of their piety.
With that, the last Roman Emperor left the cathedral that had been left to him for the final time, resolved to defend it until his last, which would come the very next day.
The Hagia Sophia was built nearly 1,500 years ago as a Christian cathedral during the reign of Greece’s last Latin-speaking Emperor. Its history since then has been a complicated one, including the great schism, a brief period as a Catholic cathedral in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade and the Latin sack of Constantinople, its final years as the center of Eastern Orthodoxy as the remnants of the Byzantine Empire waned, and its time as a mosque under Ottoman and Turkish rule. But just as the ground of Constantinople was “sanctified for ever by the heroic death of the last Greek Emperor,” the Hagia Sophia is forever sanctified by those who built it. Just as the story of Constantine XI’s last stand tied together the heroic ideals of classical and Christian Rome, the Hagia Sophia endures, as a testament to the faith that went into it and as a link to the pinnacle of the Eastern Roman Empire (see final thoughts).