Tuesday, January 12, 2010


This is a year that should come to mind when thinking of the epochs of history. 1066, 1492, 1620, 1776, 1860-5, 1914, 1939-45, 1989, 2001. These years speak of beginnings of epochs. History itself does not end; it simply moves from one moment to the next. The moment of 1453 is a foundation on which American history finds its deepest roots. If the dawn of America was Columbus stumbling upon a New World, then what happened nearly forty years previously was the waning moon before the sunlight.
On May 29th, 1453, the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine capital city, Constantinople. The inevitable fall of the empire had been coming for a long time.
Constantinople sits on a strip of land between the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It is the only city in the world to straddle two continents. Its place in geography, as well as that of most of the Byzantine Empire, were what made it so susceptible to enemies.
Once Constantinople fell, the trade routes used by western Europeans on their way to the Orient were closed. To get to the exotic East, made famous by Marco Polo (originally from Venice, once a Byzantine province) their only directions were south or west. The Portuguese had begun sailing south along the coast of Africa early in the 15th century. However, sailing around Africa was not a viable choice. Its coast was too long, ports were too few (then, as now, travelers needed a decent amount of rest areas), and if an adventurer made it through the stormy southern tip, there were pirates and other dangers to contend with in the Indian Ocean.
So the Europeans headed to the West to reach the East. The history of the Western Hemisphere is the result of their choice, brought on by the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
Constantinople still stands. Its name now is Istanbul. The flag flown there is the Turkish flag. It is red, with a star and a waning moon.

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