The battle between Islam and Christianity precipitating the fall of Constantinople was an event that for ever changed the course of history. Breathtakingly rendering the internal struggle of the Byzantine capital under deadly constriction, and the occult high-stake political game surrounding it, The Owls of Afrasiab also tells the story of the dangerous passion uniting the Genoese commander leading the city’s defence with Hadije, one of the wives of the late Sultan Murad, determined to avenge herself for the murder of her baby boy ordered by the young and lethally ambitious Sultan Mehmet II.
One man who had made it his special duty to regularly attend the funeral masses was the learned monk Gennadi, a man renowned for the purity and zeal of his conviction. A sworn enemy to the union of the churches, he nonetheless rendered the Emperor, and thereby the city, a service of sorts by constantly setting the example of a Godloving man possessed by unwavering faith. To Gennadi miracles were not only possible but positively attainable, but only under the condition that all precepts of orthodoxy were strictly observed. He was practically indefatigable in carrying out prostrations. Somewhat more alarmingly, Gennadi had also let himself be convinced that the greatest of all possible miracles to visit mankind would be God’s imminent decision to bring about its demise. In short, he did not hesitate to propound the message that the Sultan’s siege was a tell-tale sign that the Apocalypse of John was about to become reality, and that the reason for this to happen was that God, precisely in the year 1453 AD, had grown tired of the wicked race he had once sired.
Constantine had been alerted to the potentially devastating effects of this fatalistic message – one dangerous implication of which was the idea that Mehmet had been chosen by providence to carry out God’s last will –months before Mehmet had actually turned up outside the walls. In truth, Gennadi’s declaration that the defection of the Orthodox Christians from the one and only true faith, as well as their willingness to allow Catholic ritual to desecrate the holiest of churches, Hagia Sophia, had unleashed riots in the streets threatening Italians in general, and their spiritual leaders, such as the Pope’s special envoy Isidore of Kiev and his right hand, Bishop Leonard of Chios, in particular. Understandably, the Emperor, fearing far reaching complications, was hesitant to impose penalties on the ring leaders, although his Roman guests, who had in fact brought indispensable bowmen and supplies to the city, demanded that they be forcefully suppressed. Attendance in unionist church services was consequently symbolic at
As the siege wore on, however, Gennadi, considered by the faithful as the rightful successor to Patriarch Gregory – who had left Constantinople for Rome two years earlier exasperated at the suicidal stubbornness of its population – had broken his voluntary isolation. He could now be seen actively participating both in the city’s defence and in the services held under oil lamps as numerous and glimmering as the stars of heaven. Whether he had changed his mind about the inevitability of the city’s fall was not to be deduced from his public appearances, but it did give Leonard and Isidore an opportunity to try to converse with him. Consequently, and much to the astonishment of pious Greeks from all walks of life, Leonard and Isidore were on several occasions seen participating in the Orthodox masses for the fallen, humbly adhering to ceremonial minutiae.
It was well into the night when the two of them discreetly caught up with Gennadi making for his monastery in the presence of two monks. The Greek sage at first refused to have anything to do with them, making no secret of that he held them personally responsible for the corruption of his people. It seemed as though that would conclude the matter, since he refused to salute them, turned away and was about to disappear into a dark alley when Isidore, a Greek by birth, suddenly had a bright idea. He ran after him while exclaiming,
– Brother Gennadi! We’re aware that you loathe our presence and thus shun our company, but let me tell you this: the church of Rome does not wish to see its brothers in faith fall prey to the caprices of Allah over a matter of preposition. Please, don’t let the matter of Jesus’ substances obscure the reality of the fact, that to the infidels Jesus is not even the Son of God, but a prophet subordinated to the authority of Mohammed, a common camel driver who eight centuries ago claimed to have received visions from the archangel Gabriel instructing him to disregard the Bible as the ultimate dispenser of truth. In view of the resistance which the laetantur coeli has met with among your flock, the Pope has declared himself willing to reconsider his stance on the question of independence and will issue an invitation suggesting a new council of the churches in view of obtaining, once and for all, a convivial solution to problems raised by local variations in theological interpretation.
It was diplomatic nonsense and the promise little more than a pious lie as the Pope’s conviction in this regard was known to be more solid than the rock of Gibraltar; but it was also, considering the precariousness of the situation, a license taken with regard to the fact that if Constantinople ever fell to the Turks, the Pope’s position on the matter of union between the churches would matter very little anyway. Surprisingly, Gennadi seemed willing to accept this pretext for a chat, but it wasn’t until they had reached the monastery, and the three of them were installed in the refectory for a bowl of soup – the monk’s only meal for the day – that he told them his real reasons for allowing this unprecedented meeting to take place.