Conquerors and Conquered. Narrating the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and Tenochtitlán (1521)

Conquerors and Conquered. Narrating the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and Tenochtitlán (1521)

Denise Klein / Thomas Weller, Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz; Barbara Henning, Geschichte des Islams im östlichen Mittelmeerraum, Historisches Seminar, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Richard Herzog, SFB/TRR 138 „Dynamiken der Sicherheit“, Philipps-Universität Marburg
Vom - Bis
07.04.2022 - 08.04.2022
Rike Szill, Historisches Seminar, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Studying processes of historical transformation, such as conquests, continues to be an attractive research field in all historical disciplines. Quite consequently, the broad geographical and temporal range, as well as national narratives gave rise to a variety of focal points and questions. They range – to name but a few – from aspects of historical reconstruction and military studies to questions of diplomatic exchange, economic perspectives and aspects of social and political participation. In this context, the focus has recently also shifted to the perspectives of those who were directly affected by phases of upheaval and conquest themselves. As part of the Leibniz Research Alliance "Value of the Past", the international workshop fitted seamlessly into this growing interest in the points of view of the different groups involved: With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521 during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, two events came into focus that are rightly considered moments of great historical significance in both pre-modern and modern times, as both events forced contemporary people to reassess their worldview and produced new geographies and temporalities as well as new world orders, institutions and identities. As the first of a three-part series, the workshop focused on the question of how contemporaries who were directly affected perceived the fall of these two cities.

After a brief introduction by JOHANNES PAULMANN (Mainz), the Director of IEG Mainz, THOMAS WELLER, and DENISE KLEIN (Mainz) emphasised the potential of the chosen case studies from a European as well as indigenous perspective: Both conquests are undoubtedly important for European history itself – because in the wake of the conquest of 1453, the Ottomans proved their military and political capability in the Mediterranean world for centuries to come, and after the Spanish conquests Mesoamerica became an important trading centre not only for Spain in particular but also for Europe in general. Furthermore, both events produced new geographies and temporalities as well as new world orders, institutions, and identities. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty’s paradigm of "Provincializing Europe", the workshop developed a transregional and comparative perspective through an in-depth discussion of the sources provided.

The importance and potential of this perspective was emphasised by ELENI KEFALA (St. Andrews). Based on her recent book on the two conquests,[1] she discussed how the conquered after the fall of Constantinople and Tenochtitlán saw themselves and communicated cultural trauma, thereby pointing out that experiences of loss are both material and moral. In comparing the Anaklema tes Konstantinopoles and the Nahuatl Huexotzincayotl, she redefined similarities in the use of metaphors and links to other Byzantine respective Nahuatl-sources as trauma claims that posed fundamental threats to communities by making experiences of violence, loss, and death comprehensible for their recipients. Therefore, both sources could serve as theoretical means for the transmission of cultural trauma. The discussion highlighted the benefit gained from taking a comparative approach to the source material and discussed possibilities of representing the past under new rulership. It also stressed the need to put recent scholarship under scrutiny, as legitimation strategies and other explanatory models are often not only shaped by the perspectives of the authors themselves, but also influenced by national research narratives.

This demand found its way directly into the first panel of the workshop, which focused on the narratives of conquest: CHRISTOPHER MARKIEWIECZ (Birmingham) problematised Steven Runciman’s evaluation of the Ottoman sources on the conquest of Constantinople as “peculiarly disappointing.”[2] According to Markiewiecz, this assessment ignores the fact that Ottoman historiographical writing was still a developing genre when the conquest of Constantinople took place. Instead, he emphasised that what is considered Ottoman writing today consisted, in fact, of a wide range of historiographical writings with different foci and intentions in the mid-15th century. In contrast to Runciman’s verdict, he also showed that in the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle – a comprehensive history of the Ottoman dynasty written in Turkish in the late 15th century – the conquest of Constantinople held a privileged position in the temporal order of the world, and was, thus, considered an important part of Ottoman history. In doing so, he also highlighted the importance of discourses on just Muslim rule on the one hand, and the eschatological framework of conquest narratives on the other.

The – at least partly – misled assessment of the conquered as passive and muted party was also discussed by Stefan Rinke (Berlin). He pointed out that perceiving the Aztec Empire as a merely inferior people is, in fact, a powerful master narrative until today. This is, according to Rinke, partly because the Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España continues to figure as the most comprehensive and, therefore, one of the most studied eyewitness accounts on the conquest of Mexico. However, Castillo’s narrative provides only little information on the perspective of indigenous people: They transmitted the events themselves in their own sources in order to create new narratives of the world. Whereas indigenous people adapted and incorporated European values into both their societies and writings, Castillo focuses on the everyday life of the conquistadores and his own legacy. Thus, unlike the indigenous people, he does not see the events as the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one, but rather as the continuity of a chivalric era that contributed to the victory of the Christian faith over the Muslims in Spain. The discussion focused on aspects of legitimacy at various levels: the legitimisation of conquest and justification of violence to different audiences and through different types of media, the creation of a legitimate framework for telling conquest in both historiographical and autobiographical sources, and the over-all framing of the fall of Constantinople and Tenochtitlán as fully completed conquests.

In the second panel, the perspective shifted to narratives of loss and destruction. ASLIHAN AKIŞIK (Istanbul) discussed the emergence of an Ottoman Hellenism in the works of the late Byzantine authors Critoboulos of Imbros and George Amiroutzes. Based on the established assumption that both authors provide a pro-Ottoman view of Sultan Mehmed II, she emphasised that Hellenistic interests proved relevant not only for Mehmed himself but for the Ottoman capital and the Ottomans as a whole: Critobulos not only transmitted the sultan’s admiration of the ruins of Troy during his visit in 1462, he also linked the Ottoman victory to the concept of the four world empires. Hellenistic interests were also reflected in the Fatih’s Patria Manuscript through the recourse to Byzas, the mythical founder of Byzantion. By hellenising him alongside the founding city itself, Kostantiniyye/Istambul became also associated with the city’s Hellenic past. This is also to be found in the poems of George Amiroutzes that have survived in manuscript collections from the 16th and 17th centuries in which Mehmed is portrayed as Heracles. Therefore, both Byzas and Heracles appear as significant figures who were used by Byzantines and Ottomans alike – placing the Ottoman Sultan in a direct line with mythical heroes and kings.

The fact that both conquerors and conquered could make use of a common repertoire of narrative patterns was also shown by RICHARD HERZOG (Marburg) who dealt with different temporalities of the Nahua after the conquest of Mexico. To this end, he pointed out ruptures in time after the conquest, in that, for example, the political use of indigenous calendar systems was quite quickly suppressed by the Spaniards, introducing European calendar systems or ways of social and individual time perception, such as (tower) clocks, instead. However, Herzog also identified continuities. Though prohibited officially, indigenous calendar systems continued to be used in communities and communal writings and, thus, were not completely replaced. Furthermore, Herzog showed that, in the works of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, a mestizo historian of early colonial Mexico in the 16th century, indigenous elements of faith were mingled with Christian elements.: Alongside cyclical notions of time one can also find linear perceptions and biblical connections. Herzog ultimately argued for a coexistence of different time frames that were, above all, central to the transmission of time concepts as Nahua legacy. The discussion focused on questions of language and audience, different purposes of writing, questions of orality and genres, further adaptations of European concepts in Ottoman and Mesoamerican contexts as well as the respective keepers of knowledge.

The third panel was dedicated to the narratives of the neighbours. PHILIP BOCKHOLT (Leipzig) focused on the transmission of knowledge from the West to the East by presenting Iranian perspectives on the conquest of Constantinople. He compared two 16th century chronicles: the Ḥabīb al-siyar and the Nusakh-i jahān-ārā written by the Ṣafavid historians Ghiyās al-Dīn Muḥammad Khvāndamīr and Ghaffārī Qazvīnī Kāshānī respectively. Bockholt argued that although both works do inform about the capture of the city merely in one chapter, this is not due to a lack of interest but rather to a lack of information: Khvāndamīr apparently wanted to speak about the Ottoman conquest of 1453 but did not have much information on the western parts of the Islamic world from the 13th century onwards and, therefore, handed down a short but generally positive depiction of the events. Similar observations can also be made for the Nusakh-i jahān-ārā. According to Bockholt, Qazvīnī wanted to give details about the conquest of Constantinople but also lacked further information. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that Qazvīnī does not give the correct date of the Ottoman conquest and perceives Rumelihisarı and Anadoluhisarı – the two Ottoman fortresses built on the Bosphorus – as one.

ANTJE GUNSENHEIMER (Bonn) focused on the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. She not only emphasised the coexistence of indigenous and Christian elements in Nahua sources already discussed at the workshop, but also identified forms that can be seen as a mixture of both, forming a genre of their own. Taking the Chilam Balam of Chumayel as example – the best known of the Yucatecan Maya text collections called Books of Chilam Balam –, Gunsenheimer showed that their inherent narratives represent a local and deliberately compiled perspective on the conquest. In particular, she discussed the combination of historical and prophetical elements. These not only represent life in the colonial empire as the daily experience of the local Maya. The truth and undeniability of the conquest are also used to affirm the coming of a new era that productively combines elements of Christian apocalyptic belief with Maya faith in change. The discussion further highlighted issues of self-identification, the need to include other types of sources, such as legal texts and writings by missionaries, and the identification of shared worldviews with nonetheless different meanings.

The final discussion assessed the diverse findings of the different papers from an overarching angle, highlighting scope for further research. It is necessary to consider not only written sources but also visual, performative, ritual, and other material dimensions. The conveying of conquest also proves to be a question of concepts, for what the actors understood as legitimate conquest sometimes turns out to be quite different. Also coping strategies should be studied with the means of social science, as they offer an interesting angle that brings together several aspects of coping, such as the stress of rupture, trauma, the activation of resources and aspects of material dimensions. The final discussion, therefore, raised a multitude of further questions and aspects to be further addressed in the future.

Conference overview:
Johannes Paulmann (Mainz): Welcome

Thomas Weller and Denise Klein (Mainz): Introduction

Eleni Kefala (St. Andrews): Strangers No More: Constantinople, Tenochtitlán, and the Trauma of the Conquest

I. Narratives of Conquest

Christopher Markiewicz (Birmingham): Constantinople, Conquest, and the Order of the World in Ottoman Historical Writing

Stefan Rinke (Berlin): Bernal Díaz del Castillo and the Fall of the Great City of Tenochtitlan: A Tale of Inevitability

II. Narratives of Loss and Destruction

Aslıhan Akışık (Istanbul): Forging an Ottoman Hellenism in the Aftermath of 1453: Kritoboulos and George Amiroutzes

Richard Herzog (Marburg): Understanding Nahua Temporalities and Cosmogony through the Works of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl

III. Narratives of the Neighbors

Philip Bockholt (Leipzig): A Turning Point in History? The Fall of Constantinople from the Perspective of the Islamic East

Antje Gunsenheimer (Bonn): The Conquest as Traumatic Experience, Described by Colonial Yucatec Maya Authors

Final Discussion

[1] Eleni Kefala, The Conquered. Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Extravagantes 1). Washington D.C. 2020.
[2] Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople. Cambridge 1965, p. 196.