Archive for March, 2021

“I want to fly like an…”

March 3, 2021

As Mehmed II crossed the threshold of the Bucoleon uttering a centuries-old Persian verse, “Thus the spider weaves the curtains in the palace of Chosroes / and the owl calls the watch in the towers of Afrasiab,” it was like a stone dropped into the mud puddle of human history. Waves propagate in all directions, but, insofar as the Byzantine eagle splits its glare west and east, a word about the west.

Constantine XI died in defense of the city of his namesake. His brother, Thomas Palaiologos, fled the despotate of Morea for Rome, by way of Corfu, with children in tow. Pius II greeted him as rightful claimant to the eastern Roman empire. By the time Thomas died, his eldest daughter was married off to the despot of Serbia, also overthrown by Mehmed. Charles VIII of France bought the third child’s claim to the imperial title. Which left Zoe, the second oldest. After three years of proxy negotiations, she was betrothed to Ivan III. En route to Russia, she renamed herself Sophia Palaiologina and converted to Orthodoxy. Ivan adopted the bicephalous raptor for his coat of arms and declared Moscow the Third Rome. Through years of grim machinations – surviving banishment, poisoning one offspring of Ivan’s first wife and plotting, successfully, against a second – Sophia managed to enthrone her son Vasili when Ivan died. In the fullness of time, Vasili the Adequate developed an abscess, asked to be made a monk named Varlaam, and also died. His son, crowned Ivan IV, proclaimed himself Caesar of all Russia and married a woman, Anastasia Romanovna, whose murder by boyars drove him to become Terrible indeed. Ivan flew a banner on which the Roman eagle had swallowed St. George shish kebabbing a wyvern (a heraldic convention of the Moscow principate derived from a numismatic one: since Alexander Nevsky, the saint figured on Muscovite coinage – hence “kopeck”, from the Russian word for “spear”). So did his son, Feodor. And so – when that last Rurik died childless – did the family of his beloved Anastasia, once Michael Romanov (i.e., “son of Roman”) filled the power vacuum and raised the standard of Thomas Palaiologos’ great-grandson, its once-golden eagle stained black with gore.

I was going to also describe how the fall of Constantinople propagated east, and attenuated backward through time, but I’m tired. Suffice it to say that Mehmed declared himself emperor of Rome, the Ottomans themselves emerged from the ashes of the Sultanate of Rûm, and claimed descent from a tribe that made its way to Anatolia from the steppes after they supported the Tibetan invasion of China during the Tang and helped capture its capital, Chang’an. That is to say: eagle hunters.


It occurred to me yesterday that there might have been a connection between the omphalion in the floor of the Hagia Sophia – upon which Roman emperors were crowned – and the Byzantine eagle. The Omphalos – the “navel” – of Delphi was supposed to mark the center of the world. It’s the spot where two eagles released by Zeus at either end of the earth, flying toward each other at the same speed, crossed paths. The omphalion relocated that center, politically, if not geographically, to Constantinople – the standard of which might not actually be a two-headed eagle; but rather, a frozen moment in which two eagles pass opposite.