“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.

Arguing against the Greeks: The Dominican Tractatus contra Graecos of 1252

Fragment of a floor mosaic (13th century) depicting the sack of Constantinople by the Latin crusaders in 1204; Ravenna, San Giovanni Evangelista

The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/39) is considered the last remarkable, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in the Middle Ages to restore church unity between the Latin West and the Greek East. Throughout history, certain events and their enduring consequences had nourished a growing scissure that ever deepened the alienation between the churches – just to mention a few of the most striking: the so-called Photian schism at the end of the 9th century, the mutual excommunications in 1054, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 followed by the Latin Empire of Constantinople until 1261, the Byzantine Emperor’s acceptance of an eventually short-lived church union on the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 (succeeded, though, by its refusal in 1282) etc. Following the history of reception of these events in the Middle Ages and beyond is like dealing with not only one, but several “points of no return”: While this might seem contradictory to itself, it nevertheless helps to understand (1) that dating the breakout of the schism depends on what kinds of sources we rely on, and (2) that, again throughout history, there have been many attempts and frequent parallel endeavours to heal this fracture between the churches.

© Viliam Štefan Dóci OP

One milestone of such an effort was the lifetime achievement of an anonymous Dominican from the year 1252, a learned theologian who dedicated himself to an in-depth study of the Greek language, theology, and church life. Based on this knowledge, he was capable and well-equipped to write a theological treatise “Against the Greeks” (Tractatus contra Graecos) in Constantinople, which eventually became a bestseller in controversial literature dealing with how to argue in Greek-Latin debates. Up to the 15th century, it greatly influenced theology and the Latin church and deeply affected how Latin authors perceived the Greek church. The anonymous Dominican was the first theologian who determined what later appeared on the agenda of the union councils in Lyon (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1438/39): That a number of four issues of conflict – filioque, purgatory, azymes, and Roman primacy – had to be solved in order to proclaim the unity of the church, something which he didn’t see as lost, but as highly at risk. In a manner of fraternal correction, the Dominican author sought to convince the Greeks of their errors by quoting their own reliable sources, i.e. the Greek fathers and church councils, and by demonstrating that they all, in fact, supported the Latin positions. Additionally, he provided his (indented Latin) readers with a dossier of contemporary Greek writings in a Latin translation along with a commentary which was both meant to keep the readers informed about the situation on the spot and to support their argumentation in ongoing debates.

“Tractatus contra Graecos” (Inc.: Licet grecorum ecclesiam); Mantova, Bibliotecta Communale, Ms. Nr. 604 (D. I. 31), fol. 1ra-43rb, here: 1r

From today’s perspective, the actual value and impact of the Tractatus contra Graecos is impaired by the fact that today it is known only based on an early modern edition of 1616[1], which is deficient and at times almost incomprehensible. This is why an updated and reliable critical edition is a particularly urgent task: Based on 30 manuscripts that are known thus far and that are kept in libraries in Central and Southern or Southeast Europe, a critical edition will lead to a reconstruction of the text ranging from the time it was written in mid-13th-century Constantinople up to how it was used as a handout and source of information on the councils of the Late Middle Ages by leading Latin theologians. The surviving manuscripts give evidence that not only in the 15th century, but also already by the author himself, the treatise has been remodelled and shaped according to the needs of time and occasion. Both the critical edition of this Dominican key work and its history of reception contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between Rome and Byzantium in the Middle Ages and, thus, to a more detailed knowledge of the history of today’s Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Dr. Andrea Riedl
Senior research fellow at the Department of Theology/University of Vienna and currently visiting researcher at the Medieval Institute/University of Notre Dame.

[1] Ed. Petrus Stevartius Leodiensis (1549–1624), Tomus singularis insignium auctorum, tam graecorum, quam latinorum, Ingolstadt 1616, 487–574, and reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia graeca, PG 140, 487–574. This is the transcription of a manuscript of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Clm 110 (fol. 1r-88).