The Tale on the Taking of Constantinople by the Turks - some unresolved issues


There are about 15 eyewitness accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453. "The Tale on the taking of Constantinople by the Turks" written by Nestor-Iskander clearly stands out among the others. But it provides more questions than answers.

The Tale

The earliest extant text of the Tale is the manuscript of the early 16th century written in Muscovy. It is derived from an original now lost or still not found. The text must have been edited, or even re-written, as it apparently lacks accuracy but still contains a lot of valuable information. Besides, it is a real masterpiece of medieval Slavonic literature, and here lies is a good starting point for further considerations.

The Language

By the time the original Tale was written (most probably, soon after the events of 1453), its language was referred to as Ruthenian. Based on the Old Bulgarian literary tradition, it has been largely modified to better suit the needs, styles, vocabulary, and grammar of medieval Ruthenia - Belarus and Ukraine of our time. Called "old Ukrainian", "old Ruthenian'', "old Belarusian", "Chancery Slavonic" and even "old Russian" (in fact, it is Ruthenian, and not Russian), it was the official language used in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. There is an enormous aggregation of the extant documents of the 14th-18th century related to every sphere of life: administration, law, diplomacy, trade and commerce, sciences, education, etc.

In the photo above you can see the fragments of two texts: the first one is from the Ordinance of Duke Svitryhailo (Kyiv, 1432), the second - from the earliest available version of Nestor's Tale (beginning of the 16th century). The calligraphy styles look a bit different as the texts are about 70 years apart, and the first one, the duke's ordinance, just had to look "fancier". But the language is still the same, showing much more references to Ukrainian and Belarusian than to modern time Russian.

Literary tradition and style of the Tale

It belongs to a rich bed of Ruthenian literature of Kyiv origin generally referred to as "the Tales" (Ukrainian повість - "tale", from повідати - "to narrate" or rather "to share knowledge"). Unlike chronicles and ordinances, the Tales are real literary works, rich in vocabulary, lengthy, and pretty stylish. This style later transformed into what we usually call "Ukrainian folktales", and heavily influenced some other genres, even the folk songs.

The text itself, even after being re-written and edited in Muscovy, still can be attributed to Kyiv Ruthenian literary tradition. It has many linguistic and formal properties which clearly mark out literary works from non-literary texts.

Accuracy and redacting

This obvious literariness, perhaps, misled many researchers as they made a conclusion that the Tale is a literary fiction rather than an accurate historical account. In a way, the Tale is a strange mixture of very valuable observations, important facts and critical insights - and, at the same time - statements which are not consistent with the reality. Besides, the 16th-century text omits many important facts an eyewitness of what happened in Constantinople must have mentioned, at least.

Thus, the Tale mentions "The Patriarch of Constantinople" as one of the leaders of the city defense more than 30 times. But we know that in 1453 the Patriarch, Gregory Mammas, was in Rome. The highest church official in Constantinople was Isidore, the Metropolite of Kyiv, who had taken 200 Italian archers sent by the Pope of Rome to defend the city walls. Isidore was a very important figure, of which fact many other written accounts report. He was a close supporter of the emperor Constantine XI and gave the last Christian service in Hagia Sophia in the evening before the last assault on May 28, 1453. But Isidore is never mentioned in the Tale.

Editing the original "Iskanderine" text, Moscow scribes must have simply replaced "Isidore" with "The Patriarch". In 1448, the duke of Muscovy, Vasyli The Dark, engineered a church schism - he created a separate "Moscow metropoly" severing Muscovy from Kyiv metropoly. Isidore has spent about a year in the duke's prison for opposing this scheme. Early documents of so-called "Moscow metropoly" (not recognised by anyone in the Orthodox world for more than 200 years), contain a lot of false and inveracious statements tarnishing the image of Isidore. The Metropolite of Kyiv, who kept on fighting against this schism till his death in 1463, was considered a dangerous enemy of Muscovy. This explains why his name was 'redacted'.

Another name rubbed out of the text is Gregory the Bulgarian. Gregory was a disciple and friend of Isidore who took his cathedra and had been serving as the Metropolite of Kyiv till 1473 - just another "enemy of the state" for the Muscovites. Nestor-Iskander must have mentioned Gregory: in 1453 the latter was the hegumen of St. Demetrios monastery in Constantinople and led the monks who joined the city's thin defense line.

Isidore and Gregory were captured by the Turks after the city fell, but managed to escape soon afterwards and fled to Rome through Crete. The names of Isidore of Kyiv and Gregory the Bulgarian are never mentioned in the text of the Tale, while many other people who fought in 1453 and whose roles were of lesser significance, are vividly depicted in many important details. This inconsistency does not seem to have anything to do with the "literarity" of the Tale - rather, it is a clear sign of politically motivated editing and re-writing of the original text.


With this in mind, we shall come back to other questions, issues, or maybe even mysteries of the Tale of the Taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and certainly to its author, Nestor-Iskander - an outstanding late medieval writer.


You may want to find the earliest text of the Tale. Physically, it is located in the Trinity Lavra of st.Sergius about 70 km to the North-East from Moscow, and, theoretically, can be found online. But it is next to impossible. The item is not searchable at all. Interesting to mention that it is found under the abstruse entry Ф.304/І №773 titled "cotton paper manuscripts, mixed" (sic!), squeezed between other assorted writings in a well-thumbed volume under a featureless and worn-out 150 y.o. cover. That is how they 'keep' one of the most important pieces of the historic and literary heritage of Ruthenia.

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