5.6. The Turkish doom

5.6. THE TURKISH DOOM

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 caused a deep feeling of insecurity and various theological reactions within Christianity. God’s plans for the Church seemed to be grim. In De pace fidei the German Nicolaus Cusanus appreciated that the end of the world would happen sometime between 1700 and 1734, probably through the destruction of Christianity by the Ottomans.617 The Dominican Giovanni Nanni da Viterbo had a different opinion; in Tractatus de futuris christianorum triumphis in turcos et saracenos from 1480 he debated the issue of identifying Muhammad with the Antichrist, concluding that Christians would reclaim the lost territories through their own efforts or through Christ’s intervention. The Ottoman Empire was the seventh angel of the Apocalypse and the pouring of the vial of wrath, while the Turkish military successes were a necessary divine punishment for Christian unfaithfulness.618 Same as Viterbo, Luther saw the Ottomans as a “plague” sent by God to punish Christians:

“A time, and times, and half a time.” I do not know whether it refers to the Turk, who began to rule when Constantinople was taken, in the year 1453, eighty-five years ago. If I calculate a time to be the age of Christ (thirty years) this expression would mean one hundred and five years, and the Turks, would still have twenty years swing to come … I believe that the angels are all up in arms, are putting on their harness, and girding their swords about them. For the last judgment draws nigh, and the angels prepare themselves for the combat, and to strike down Turk and pope into the bottomless pit. … The predictions of the apocalypse are accomplished already, as far as the white horse. The world cannot stand long, perhaps a hundred years at the outside. … The Turk will go to Rome, as Daniel’s prophecy announces, and then the last day will not be very distant.619

Luther, in particular, regarded Jews, Muslims, the Papacy and heretics as a sort of a wicked coalition assembled against the true Church.620 The Ottomans, in his opinion, were nothing more than a blind multitude which was executing the directives of a false religion invented by “a devil, and a first-born child of Satan” (Muhammad).621 In 1529, at the Marburg Colloquy, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was besieging Vienna, he promoted only the defense, and under no circumstances the offense against the Turks. His position was severely criticized, being accused of defeatism.622 In fact, Luther had a problem with the war carried out on religious grounds. He rejected the idea of a “holy war” or a crusade, reasoning that all men are equal in front of God. Killing heretics is the same thing as the killings ordered by the Papacy. And Christ does not want the death of the sinner, but his repentance.623

The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms (or two reigns) said that God is the leader of the entire world and he rules in two ways. He leads the earthly or the left kingdom through the secular power and law, and his heavenly kingdom or the right one through gospel, grace and peace. The doctrine of the two kingdoms was the Lutheran way of distinguishing between the divine law and gospel. Through this doctrine Luther stated that a war for the national defense is a just war. By contrast, a war against a foreign religion is a different matter, which must be carried out through arguments, prayer and penitence.624 In other words, even though the Muslims were doing the devil’s work, no man had to pay with his life for his religious choices: “Let the Turk believe and live as he will, just as one lets the papacy and other false Christians live.”625

Phillip Melanchthon shared his friend’s opinion, seeing the Turkish invasion as the great tribulation.626 He supported his position on the prophecies of the German monk Johann Hilten. In 1485, 23 years after the fall of Constantinople, Hilten wrote a commentary at the Book of Daniel in which he prophesied that in 1516 “a man against the monastery” would rise to reform the church, the Papacy would decline, in 1600 a tyrant would rule Europe, Germany would be subdued by the Turks and in 1651 the end of the world would come.627 Indeed, although Hilten’s prophecy seems to refer to Luther, the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses was made in 1517, not in 1516.628 But this detail did not stop Melanchthon from depicting Hilten as the prophet of the Reformation in Apologia Confessionis Augustanae. And, given the fact that the Antichrist had his seat in Rome, the Turks were identified with Gog and Magog.629

A widespread prophecy at the time of the Reformation was that of Bartholomaeus Georgievicz, a Croatian fugitive from the hands of the Turks. More exactly, Georgievicz did not formulate a prophecy, but he reproduced an Islamic prophecy heard while he had been in captivity. In Vaticinium infidelium lingua turica he reproduced in Latin a prophecy in which the sultan was depicted taking control of the “Red Apple.”630 In fact, the prophecy brought by Georgievicz was initially called the “Red Apple Tree” and it was of Byzantine origin. The advancement of the Turks toward Constantinople gave birth to legends and prophecies about the inevitable siege and the saving divine intervention. The prophecy of the Red Apple Tree said that the Turks would enter the city, but when they would reach the Column of Constantine an angel would descend from the sky, he would give a magical sword to an unknown Christian and he would urge the survivors to chase away the infidels. In this way the Byzantines would push back the Turks until the border with Persia at the place of the Red Apple Tree.631 Obviously, the events turned out quite differently, and Georgievicz picked the prophecy after the fall of Constantinople in a much altered version.

The Western exegetes intensely speculated regarding what this Red Apple might symbolize, associating it with Rome or Constantinople. The two were sister cities, the centers of medieval Christianity. This invisible connection made Pope Pius II describe the fall of Constantinople as “the loss of one of the two eyes of the church.”632 So, the fall of one city stirred the feeling that it was only a matter of time until the other would fall as well, and thus Christendom would be destroyed. In 1560, in the preface of De origine imperii Turcorum…, a work largely based on Georgievicz’s writings, Melanchthon criticized the actions of the Christian princes and warned about the approaching of the Turks:

We behold the Turkish power being extended over the human race while the kings and other princes of Europe dissipate their strength in domestic warfare. In the meantime the Turks move onward. Eighty years ago [Johann] Hilten predicted that by the year 1600 the Turks would be ruling in Italy and Germany.633

By contrast, other prophecies, especially Eastern-Orthodox, optimistically spoke about the revival of the Byzantine Empire. Same as the German legend of Frederick II – the “last Roman emperor” – who was sleeping in a cave in the mountains of Germany, the Byzantines had the legend of the emperor turned into marble. The death of Constantine XI Palaiologos was shrouded in mystery. This generated a legend which said that the emperor had been kidnapped by an angel, carried into a cave near the Golden Gate of the city and turned into marble. At the right time he would be turned back into human form and he would help Christians regain the control of the city.634

It is interesting that Muslims had their own apocalyptic prophecies regarding the fate of Christian Europeans. As Western Christians tied the destiny of the Universe to the status of the Western Roman Empire in the first millennium, in the same way Muslims had prophecies about an end of the world conditioned by the fate of the Eastern Roman Empire. The hadith Sahih Muslim, written in the 9th century, speaks about the fall of Constantinople in the hands of Muslims, the victory over the infidels and the immediate appearance of Jesus, the Mahdi and the Antichrist:

The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. … would be killed ani the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople. … Certainly, the time of prayer shall come and then Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Mary would descend and would lead them in prayer. … I heard Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would come (when) the Romans would form a majority amongst people (Sahih Muslim 6924-6925).

The work of Georgievicz was translated into English by Hugh Goughe and printed in London, thus becoming available to English readers. Inspired by the preface of Melanchthon, Goughe declared in a letter dedicated to …


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