Rise and Fall: Everest and Constantinople


May 29th is the anniversary of two world changing events: The first was the reaching the summit of Mount Everest, the top of the world at 29, 029 feet, five miles up of pure ice, snow, glacier and rock, which had taken the lives of those who first attempted the climb – George Mallory and Andrew Irvine went for the top on June 8, 1924 and never returned – Mallory’s perfectly preserved body was not found until seventy years later, in 1999. It was Mallory who purported answered when asked why he was risking his life to climb such a forbidding edifice, ‘because it’s there’. The race for the top began after World War II, with the opening of Tibet, and permits granted to various nations – the Swiss nearly got there, but the British beat them, aided by their own team of indomitable Sherpas, on this day in 1953, when Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary – the latter scaling the fearful rock chimney now known as ‘Hilary’s Gap’ just below the ridge to the summit. The news reached Britain on the eve of the coronation of Elizabeth the Second, and the hope and optimism of a new age was palpable. Would that we might again capture some wisp of that spirit of courage. For a riveting account of the story, here is a BBC documentary, which I for one quite enjoyed – but maybe that’s just me:

May 29th also commemorates the tragic fall on Constantinople, when the great Byzantine city state was finally taken after a fearful and fateful struggle by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Second, with great chains across the harbour, huge ships dragged across land, giant cannons which the world had never seen before to smash the thick mediaeval walls, the valiant defense of the Christians right to the bitter end. The Emperor himself, Constantine XI, died fighting in the melee, identified by his purple royal slippers sticking out of the pile of corpses. The usual murder, rape, enslaving, pillage and destruction followed, with the great church of Hagia Sophia – one of the wonders of the world – turned into a mosque (it’s now a museum), and the great city transformed into an Islamic fortress (with its name eventually evolving by custom to Istanbul – derived from the Greek ‘eis tin polin‘, or, quite prosaically, ‘into the city’).

On the 500th anniversary of the fall, the novelty song Istanbul not Constantinople was penned in 1953. I’m not sure of making light of such a tragic event, but from the perspective of half a millennium, and at a time when the threat of Islamic domination was not on anyone’s mind anymore:

Yet God brings good out of all things, besides catchy slightly silly swing songs, and the flight of the Christians from Byzantium brought much of the treasures of East, spiritual, intellectual, artistic, over to the West, prompting the renaissance (which, yes, had its own issues).

If you do get the chance, peruse John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium, which is also riveting, with a cast of characters in an age in some ways more brutal than our own, in some ways not, but at least they were more honest about their brutality, done for noble ends. They saw things more sub specie aeternitatis, as I suppose one gets some hint of at the top of Everest, now that I think of it, which is really the only way to see and live our life on this earth, with all its tragedies and triumphs.