Jewel of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople (map available) was a beacon of light and culture until the Fourth Crusade sacked it in 1203. Founded in ancient times by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, it gradually grew in importance and wealth becoming a city of art, culture and richness.
For nine centuries the city was the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen.
During the sack by the Crusaders, the Venetians, wherever they could, seized treasures and carried them off. But the Frenchmen and Flemings were filled with a lust for destruction: They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine-cellars. Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In St Sophia itself, drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank from the altar-vessels, a prostitute sang a ribald French song on the Patriarch’s throne. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes continued until the huge and beautiful city was a shambles. Even after order was restored, citizens were tortured to make them reveal treasures they had hidden.*
Now, the City is the seat of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine nobility have scattered. Only time will show what will become of the city now.
*Steven Runciman, History of the Crusades, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1965, vol 3, pp. 111-128.