“To Hell or Heaven with the Greeks”: Common Apocalyptic Beliefs Between the Turks and the Greeks in the Late Middle Ages

        The expansion of the Oghuz Turks towards the Levant region in the early to mid- 11th century had crucial importance not only for the Middle eastern region but also world politics. The expansion of the Turkish political dominance in the region culminated in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which paved the way for various Turkish-speaking groups to migrate to Anatolia in the hopes of finding a new financial resource for their nomadic economic structure. The Turks conquereed to the region by the force of arms; however, as time passed, they began to adapt to the cultural, ecologic, politic and socio-economic realities of their new homelands. Their close interactions with the neighboring communities not only reshaped their physical appearances, economic structures, administrative and bureaucratic practices but also introduced them to new spiritual and religious beliefs. Contemporary scholarship in the area of interfaith and several cross-cultural studies have recently demonstrated how the Turks actually borrowed eschatological ideas and notions with respect to the end of the world and the developments that are expected to take place prior to this cataclysmic event.  

        Although interfaith and cultural exchange began taking place between the Greeks and Turks immediately after 1071 (and perhaps even before then), I would argue these interactions noticeably increased alongside the Turkish political expansion towards western Anatolia and Thrace especially after the late 1200s and early 1300s. The missionary activities of Turkish holy men and the tolerant attitudes of the state officials in these Turkish-controlled regions created an environment for Christians and Muslims to discuss various spiritual matters and learn more about each other’s faiths. In fact, one of the most influential Orthodox clerics, Gregory Palamas, was invited by the Ottoman court to converse about religion with a Muslim spiritual figure in the 1340s. Referring to several striking similarities between the Jesus Prayer and Dhikr practice, some scholars even argue that the influence of Islamic Sufi ideology encourages the appearance of Hesychasm in the Byzantine spiritual environment in this period.[1] Besides the Islamic ideological influence over Orthodox Christianity, it seems that some Christian beliefs also disseminated among the Muslim believers.

Christ as the apocalyptic Lamb with the cross on the throne surrounded with seven candlesticks. Chancel mosaic, 6th century CE.

        A certain Ottoman Sufi by the name of Ahmed Bican who lived in fifteenth century Gallipoli seems to have possessed an extensive knowledge about the Byzantine apocalyptic traditions. In his book, Dürr-i Meknûn, not only he did refer to several Byzantine messianic beliefs, but he also refashioned them with an Islamized veneer. For example, although there is no certain date regarding the end of the world in the theology, adopting the Byzantine tradition, adopted the opinion that doomsday will take place in 1492. What is even more noteworthy is his familiarity with the Byzantine liturgical calendar. It seems that he was personally aware of the Byzantine system since he states that Byzantine scholars determined the era of humankind as 7000 years; however, since Muslims use a lunar calendar instead of solar calendar, he notes that it should be regarded as 7200 years by the Muslims. 

        Furthermore, a general belief about the blonde people in Byzantine apocalyptic and messianic expectations can be observed in Bican’s work too. According to these, the Byzantine peoples believed that their capital, the city of Constantinople, will fall to their enemies one day; however, a blonde nation from the northern regions will soon appear to help the Greeks to ‘liberate’ their previous possession, expelling the Muslims as far as Syria. In his work, Bican also stated that one of the “blonde peoples” from the northern regions will indeed recapture Constantinople and expel the Muslims soon but he also made some additions to the story. Attributing a messianic role to the Ottoman ruler, he argued that the sultan will appear in this desperate situation and be able to defeat the blonde people by recapturing Constantinople for the second time, glorifying the religion of Islam.

Georgios Klontzas, “The Last Judgement” (1540-1608).

         Yet lastly, Bican seems to have been aware of a Greek messianic tradition prophesizing “the return of the king” which promises a rightful ruler will reclaim the throne of Constantinople.  The Laskaris dynasty which came to power in Nicaea after 1204 had a special importance for western Anatolians since Laskarid rulers initiated an economic development program in the region and successfully protected the eastern borders against the Turcoman incursions in this period. When Michael Palaeologus usurped the Byzantine throne in 1261 by imprisoning and then blinding John, the last Laskarid ruler of the empire, the western Anatolian Byzantines began developing stories, predicting his expected return. Cyril Mango argues this belief even spread to the European half of the empire since a prophecy which was circulated in the 13th century tells about a civil war that would take place in Constantinople. According to this prophecy, he argues, at the end of the civil war, as an old and shabbily dressed man, John Laskaris would appear in Constantinople to be crowned by the angels. His shabbily dress and his old age refers to the imprisonment case and signals that a civil war will take place in his later years. After the enthronement, the angels will give him a sword, saying; “Take courage, John, vanquish the enemy!”

Depiction of a Deviant Dervish from the Early Ottoman Period (Abdal-i Rum), in The Nauigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, trans. T. Washington the Younger, 103r.

        In Bican’s work, I think, it is possible to observe several clues about this late Byzantine apocalyptic expectation since Bican also talks about a civil war that would wake place in Constantinople. According to his interpretation, the fighting parties will be led by two military figures who have these initials in their name: “M” and “S”. Although, I think, “M” might represent Michael Palaeologus, “S” does not match with John’s initial. However, I argue that this letter might be modified in a later period due to Bican’s concern with adjusting it to a specific contemporary ruler. It is also within the boundaries of possibility that “S” stands for the second and last consonants of the dynastic name of John: Laskaris. Although the events were given in a very fragmented nature in this work, Bican also points out an imprisonment case, saying that the imprisoned will soon take the throne by defeating his enemy which has a clear resemblance with John Laskaris’ imprisonment by Michael.

Depiction of a Heterodox Dervish Figure (Portrait of a Qalandar), Timurid, 9th-15th century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Cora Timken Burnett Collection, 57.51.30).

        Messianic and apocalyptical intellectual exchange constitute a small part of interactions between the various groups of Christians and Muslims, who have lived in the Middle East and the Balkans side by side for the centuries. There are many more cultural and religious interactions between these people in this regard including but not limited to spread of brotherhood (futuwwa) institutions from the crusader states to the Muslim world in the Levant region. Although scholars have begun turning their focus to these borrowings in the eastern Mediterranean in the last couple of decades, there are still a long way to traverse since western Anatolia and the Balkans have received less attention so far. Hopefully, as the winds of time are changing, more scholars and students will become curious about the relations, interactions and shared traditions between Christians and Muslims in Istanbul and beyond.

Husamettin Simsir
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Arnakis, G. Georgiades. “Gregory Palamas among the Turks and Documents of His Captivity as Historical Sources.” Speculum, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1951): 104-118.

Bican, Yazıcıoğlu Ahmed. Dürr-i Meknun. Trans. Necdet Sakaoğlu. İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1999.

Karamustafa, Ahmet. God’s Unruly Friends. Utah: University of Utah Press, 1994.

Preiser-Kapeller, J. “Webs of conversion. An analysis of social networks of converts across Islamic-Christian borders in Anatolia, South-eastern Europe and the Black Sea from the 13th to the 15th cent.” Workshop Cross-cultural life-worlds, Institute for Byzantine Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Bamberg 2012.

Şahin, Kaya “Constantinople and the End Time: The Ottoman Conquest as a Portent of the Last Hour” Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010): 317-354.

Shawcross, Teresa. “In the Name of the True Emperor: Politics of Resistance after the Palaiologan Usurpation” Byzantinoslavica 66 (2008): 203-229.

Spanos, Apostolos. “Imperial Sanctity in Byzantium: The case of the emperor John III Vatatzes” Research Gate 10.13140/RG.2.1.3635.6248.

[1] Nicol defines the prayer practice in the Eastern Christian tradition as follows: “in the solitude of his cell, the monk must sit with chin resting on his breast and eyes fixed upon his navel. Then, while carefully regulating his breathing, he must say over the Jesus-Prayer.” Donald M. Nicol, Church, and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 38.

Sex and Marriage between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades

From the start of the First Crusade, Christian men were fascinated with the possibility of marrying Muslim women. In his account of the Battle of Antioch (1097-1098), Peter of Tudebode narrates an incident about the Emir, Yaghi Siyan, offering the Crusaders the following bargain: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands” (pp. 58-59). The bargain included wives.

Image to accompany paragraph 1
Kerbogha, the Atabeg of Mosul and the renowned Turkish soldier, defends Antioch from the Crusaders in 1098

Fulcher of Chartres’s utopian version of the intercultural interaction reads like a propaganda piece meant to attract prospective settlers to the newly established Crusader territories. He provides an idyllic vision of assimilation that took place at the meeting point of the East and the West. According to him, assimilation was achieved through the acquisition of inheritable properties and servants by Occidentals, the mutual blending of languages, and most importantly through intermarriages between Christian men and non-Christian women through baptism as he boasts, “Some have taken wives not merely of their own people, but Syrians, or Armenians, or even Saracens [medieval term for Muslims] who have received the grace of baptism” (p. 281). Fulcher’s account, written around 1125 appeals to the aspirations of prospective male settlers in Western Christendom—their aspirations for property and wives. The two examples provided above, resist a simplistic version of what happened between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Popular portrayals suggest that the Crusades were violent religious conflicts in the Middle Ages with Christianity on one side and Islam on the other.

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Miniature from the 13th century (original held at the National Library in Paris) depicting the violence between Christians and Muslims during the Siege of Jerusalem

However, violence is only one part of the story. Relations between these two religious groups were much more complex. The writings of both Fulcher and Tudebode suggest that the idea of securing local wives was tempting to the Crusaders and the settlers of newly acquired territories. The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. 

Even though the earliest laws in the Crusader states reveal concerns about the danger miscegenation posed to Christian sexual purity, they focus on sexual acts and do not explicitly forbid interfaith marriages. The Canons of the Council of Nablus of 1120, the earliest laws in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem prescribed draconian measures against the rape of Muslim slave-women by Christian men. Canons 13 and 14 punished sexual activity between Christian men and Muslim slave-women with castration and expulsion. In the same vein, Canon 15 of the Nablus prohibits consensual sex between Muslim men and Christian women. Thus, these Canons reveal an anxiety about intermixing and the impurity incurred by sexual acts between Christians and Muslims. 

However, the Nablus laws were not concerned about interfaith marriage. Marriages between Christians and non-Christians (pagans, Muslims and Jews) were quite common in the initial stages of the Crusades. In fact, there is no law in the Nablus that prohibits consensual or non-consensual sex between Christian men and free Muslim women. There are two possible reasons for this: either every single Muslim woman was enslaved once Jerusalem was captured during the First Crusade or sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women were not considered threats to sexual purity. 

The conspicuous absence of a law prohibiting sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women silently condones the Christian penetration of Muslim culture and, hence, the latter’s subordination through sexual acts with free Muslim women; just as Canon 15 prevents the Muslim subordination of Christians by prohibiting sex between Christian women and Muslim men. The Nablus laws reveal a nuance in how the idea of sexual purity worked in the Crusader states. In a master-slave dynamic, when the Muslim was already in a subordinated state, the fact that she was Muslim was important. A Christian man having sex with a Muslim slave constituted sexual impurity. However, when the Muslim woman was free, the dynamic was dramatically altered. The focus then was on the fact that the Muslim is free, suggesting that a member of an antagonistic religious group had autonomy. The existence of a free Muslim presented evidence that complete subordination of the community was not achieved. Consequently, sex with a free Muslim woman did not constitute impurity. Rather it was an act of nullifying the autonomy of the Muslim community through religious conquest disguised as sexual penetration. 

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Livre des Assises de la baisse Court, c’est de la Court dou Visconte dou Reaume de Chipre; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek, Cod.gall. 51, [S.l.] Zypern, ca. 1315
By the mid-thirteenth century, the Canons of the Council of Nablus fell into disuse and were gradually replaced by the secular law codes Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois. The Assises protected the economic stakes of Christians, that is, wealth tied in property, and consequently prohibited intermarriages. Chapter 177, for instance, states that, “the holy faith prohibits a Christian from marrying a Saracen, because everyone should know that according to the holy foundations of Jerusalem, a woman is entitled to half of all the property that her husband earns with it after they were married, because as a man and a woman are one flesh, all that a man acquires the lifetime of his wife, falls in half possession of his wife legally.” Along the same lines, Chapter 200 states that one third of the property of a baptized former slave without legitimate heirs goes to his former lord and-or lady. This stipulation prevents illegitimate heirs from inheriting the entire estate. Illegitimate heirs of a former slave would likely have been Muslim. Most slaves in Jerusalem were Muslim and while the conversion to Christianity granted them freedom, it also made their marriage to their Muslim partners illicit. Therefore, this law intended to keep at least part of the wealth and property, that the baptized former slave accrued, in Christian hands. Chapter 235, on a slightly different note, authorized the son to “disinherit his father and mother of all his property” if the parent goes to Muslim territories and denies his faith or becomes a “Jew or a Saracen.” 

Thus, the laws pertaining to sex and marriage in Crusader states evolved with the evolving necessities and concerns in Western Christendom. At the start of the First Crusade, the exertion of Christian dominance over Muslim subjects entailed sexual acts and marriage between Christian men and free Muslim women as suggested by Nablus laws. By the mid-thirteenth century, intermixing was increasingly prohibited for economic reasons. 

Ambika Natarajan
Oregon State University

Ambika Natarajan received her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Oregon State University and she specializes in the History of Science and Sexuality in the Habsburg Monarchy. Her research work focuses on multiple aspects of migrant female work, including domestic work and sex work and how working-class women altered the discourse on labor and migration. Her work has appeared in The Austrian History Yearbook and she is currently working on a book manuscript. She also has graduate degrees in English Literature and Biotechnology and diplomas in German, French, and Creative Writing and has taught courses in Biostatistics and graduate-level biology courses, Russian History, American Diplomatic and Religious History, and History of Science and Religion internationally. To learn more about her research, visit her website.

Varangian Guards and Their Traces in Istanbul: Runic Inscriptions in Hagia Sophia

Since its foundation in around 657 BC by the colonists of the city-state of Megara in Greece, the city of Constantinople was inhabited by people from different ethnicities and cultures. One of the most interesting inhabitants of the city could be worded as a group of “northern” mercenary soldiers who were later assigned as the personal guards of the Byzantine emperor. Several primary sources from the tenth and the eleventh centuries tell about their military and socio-political activities in the Byzantine empire in general and in Constantinople in particular. Although the Byzantine historians and chronicles regarded them as the “axe-bearing” barbarians who descended from the freezing regions of the northern countries, they also had an implicit—and sometimes explicit—admiration for these soldiers regarding their “unshakable courage” and “strong loyalty” to their patron, the Byzantine emperor.

The earliest records about the presence of the Varangian guards in the Byzantine army date back to the end of the ninth century. In this period, the Kievan Rus tribes, which crossed from Scandinavia to Northern Russia and then poured into the Dnieper region, established their first settlements north of the Black sea. Although they came into conflict with the Byzantines by besieging the city of Constantinople on two separate occasions, as time went by, these northern warriors also built political and merchandise ties with the Byzantines. As a result of growing political relationships, the Byzantines began to import a considerable number of Kievan Rus soldiers who were gradually employed as the personal bodyguards of the emperor.

The Varangian guards’ functions differed in times of war and in times of peace. It is possible to see in tenth and eleventh century Byzantine sources that these units were often used in campaigns against the Muslim political entities in the east. In a campaign season, since they were the most valuable and important military units in the Byzantine army, they intervened in a battle during the most critical moments. In times of peace, however, they stayed mostly in the capital and at other strategic points, serving as a police force to provide security.

The Varangian guards who were employed in Constantinople as security forces appear to have left their remarks in the city. Today it is possible to encounter the vestiges of their existence in the former Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia. In Hagia Sophia, there are two partially readable inscriptions, written in runic form. The first one is called the Halfdan Inscription. Unfortunately, the inscription is so worn down that only a portion of the name can be clearly read. In her article, Elisabeth Svärdström deduced that the readable part “-ftan” must indicate the Nordic name “Halfdan”. She further noted that the remainder of the inscription is illegible, but it probably followed a common formula such as “X carved these runes.”

Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes.
Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes. Public domain.

A second inscription was discovered by Folke Högberg in 1975. An article regarding this new discovery was published by Mats G. Larsson in his article “Nyfunna runor i Hagia Sofia.” According to Larsson’s interpretation, the inscription could be identified as follows: “Ari m(ade these runes).” Later, an archeologist from the University of Bergen, Svein Indrelid, announced the discovery of five other Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia, although these have not yet been published. She further stated that it is within the boundaries of possibility that there may well have been more inscriptions in Hagia Sophia that await discovery.

Hagia Sofia runic inscription
The “Halfdan inscription,” photographed by Hermann Junghans, 2014.

With the relative weakening of the Byzantine political, economic and military systems throughout the thirteenth century, we encounter the traces of the Varangian guards rarely compared to the previous periods. It is known that the Varangian guards were the main components of the defensive army which was employed by the Byzantines in Constantinople during the siege of 1204. Although it has been argued that the Nicaean emperors, who took refuge in the west of Asian minor after the 1204 catastrophe, tried to raise up a Varangian unit to boast their legitimacy against other rival Greek states such as the Despotate of Epirus—if it genuinely existed—it might have been just a mere ceremonial company since they played no important role in ongoing military encounters. Unfortunately, we know very little about the structure of the royal guard units in the Byzantine Empire after the recovery of the city from the Latins in 1261; however, several scholars including Savvas Kyriakis assert the idea that the some of the Cretan refugees, numbering less than 500, who escaped from Venetian rule and took refuge in Byzantium in the fourteenth century, were employed as royal guards who protected city gates and strategic locations in the capital. Also, there are several reliable reports that these troops were employed in the defense of Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1453. Further, in the late 1300s and the early 1400s, some people still identified themselves as Varangians in the city of Constantinople.

Image of the Hagia Sofia

In conclusion, the runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia still stand as witness to the existence of the Varangian Guards in Constantinople. Located on the parapet on the top floor of the southern (the first one) and the northern gallery (the second one), these inscriptions gives their visitors an exclusive opportunity to perceive Istanbul’s unique cosmopolitan and cross-cultural historical heritage.

Husamettin Simsir
Ph.D. Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame