A Short History



The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is the most striking manifestation of the continued viability, over 1500 years, of the most creative of Byzantine institutions, the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was the Byzantine Church, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, that converted the Goths (the earliest ancestors of the modern Germanic peoples), that brought Christianity to the Slavic masses in Eastern Europe, that evangelized certain of the peoples of Western Asia and North Africa and above all, that fashioned the unique religious ethos which permeated all aspects of Byzantine civilization. Working hand in hand with the Emperor in Constantinople, the Patriarch was instrumental in preserving the Orthodox faith in the perilous times of the repeated assaults on Byzantium of Persians, Goths, Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Patzinaks, Bulgars, Serbs, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. And when Constantinople, the great imperial city, the “city guarded by God,” finally fell before the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was the Patriarch and his clergy who managed to keep alive the Orthodox faith and Hellenism in the face of a long and repressive Ottoman Turkish occupation that saw the destruction of churches, the suppression (in Greece and the Balkans at least) of virtually all schools of learning, and the daily pressures exerted by the conquerors on their subject population.

In the Ottoman period, nevertheless, the Patriarch managed to present a good deal of his authority (though always under the Sultan), while maintaining and sustaining the Orthodox ecclesiastical tradition. In more recent times, however, and especially in the last several decades, the Patriarch has fallen on the most evil times of all. Orthodox esteem for its authority remains high as ever, but the persecution being undergone by the Patriarch and his flock in Constantinople appears to be the most trying ordeal of its entire history.

When and how did the office of Patriarch of Constantinople originate? What were his functions and privileges and what in particular was his relationship to his fellow patriarchs, in particular the Pope (and bishop of Rome)? To understand these complex questions we must revert back to the earliest period of the Christian Church, the Apostolic period immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ. In this first century A.D., Christianity was outlaw ed by the still pagan emperors of Rome. Nevertheless, through the efforts of the Apostoloi (literally those sent out by Christ) it managed to spread throughout the vast Roman Empire, especially in the Greek East. The Apostles tended naturally to carry out their mission in the densely populated urban centers of the Roman Empire. And it is these centers, in which the Apostles were often martyred for the faith, that soon became the leading centers of Christianity. Consequently, there developed the “theory of Apostolicity,” according to which the relative rank of the great sees or bishoprics in the Christian ecclesiastical organization depended on the importance of the particular Apostle who per formed his missionary work there.

Thus, because (as is believed by Roman Catholics and many other Christians) not only Peter, the “chief” of the Apostles, but also St. Paul were martyred and buried in Rome, that city should hold the first rank among all the sees of Christendom. According to Matthew, Christ said to Peter: “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” The Orthodox Church believes that this refers to Peter’s faith and that this faith is shared by bishops of the Church. Constantinople, too, claims Apostolic foundation since it is believed that the Apostle Andrew, the brother of Peter and himself “the first called” Apostle of Christ, travelled and made many conversions in the area surrounding Byzantium (the ancient Greek name for Constantinople), in parts of Greece and what is today southern Russia. After valuable missionary service, Andrew finally died a glorious martyr to the Christian faith in the Greek city of Patras (in the Peloponnesos) where he was crucified in the manner of a common criminal by order of the pagan Roman governor. St. Andrew is of course the patron saint of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

However important the concept of Apostolicity (described above) was in ecclesiastical history, Church historians have shown that antedating this theory was yet another, the emergence of which was due to practical exigency. This was the theory of “accommodation” (the belief that the importance of a great bishopric depended primarily on its rank in the political organization of the Roman Empire, which in turn was imitated by the organization of the Church. Rome according to this criterion, though of importance as the original capital of the Roman Empire, was later equalled in rank by Constantinople when the imperial capital was removed to the ancient city of Byzantium) renamed Constantinople by its founder, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great (in 330 A.D.). This event marks the beginning of what historians call the “Byzantine Empire.”

Five Great Christian Sees: The Pentarchy

By the fifth century the great Christian sees of the Roman (that is the Byzantine) Empire came to number five: one Latin-speaking (Rome) in the West, and four Greek-speaking in the East: Constantinople, Alexandria (founded by St. Mark the Evangelist), Antioch (founded by Peter even before foundation of the see of Rome), and Jerusalem, whose sanctity needs no demonstration since Christ Himself lived and died there. The great importance in this early period of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was, however, soon to be diminished by their permanent conquest by the Islamic Arabs in the seventh century. Henceforth, though Orthodox patriarchs continued to exist there (and still do today), ecclesiastical primacy over the Orthodox East inevitably passed to the capital city, Constantinople. But the patriarchs of these “lost” Eastern centers continued in the Byzantine period to be represented at Constantinople by legates (or in person) and sat with the Synodos Endemousa (standing or permanent synod). The latter was actually a patriarchal council which could be assembled at a moment’s notice in order to adjudicate any ecclesiastical questions that might arise.

According to the Roman Catholic concept of the Church, the pope, himself one of the five patriarchs (the word “pope” means simply in Greek, “father” or “papas”) holds not only titular primacy as primus inter pares (first among equals) over all the patriarchs (a claim always recognized, incidentally, by Byzantine Constantinople), but, from the view of authority and jurisdiction, the right even to intervene and to act as supreme judge in the internal affairs of all other churches. Opposed to this latter theory is the Eastern concept of the “Pentarchy.” That is, instead of a papal “monarchy” governing the entire Church, there exists a supreme body of five heads, the patriarchs above named, each of whom exercises jurisdiction over his own ecclesiastical area and who meets together with the other patriarchs in ecumenical councils to regulate matters of dogma and church discipline. This pentarchic theory was firmly established by the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, as is clearly reflected in his nomocanones (combined civil-ecclesiastical law codes).

In these earlier centuries of the Byzantine Empire, the problem of ecclesiastical polity (government of the church) was rather complex. Complicating matters was the fact that the Pope of Rome was subordinate politically to the Byzantine Emperor, who sat in Constantinople. Up until the eighth century (as is usually not noted) the pope was in fact even appointed by the Emperor or, more directly, through his civil governor in Italy. But at the time of the Iconoclast struggle in the eighth century the Pope declared himself politically independent of the Emperor and set himself up as possessing, in effect, not only ecclesiastical but temporal power over the West. This claim was actually to be implemented in the later medieval period.

In the Byzantine East basic in the history of the Patriarchate was the fact that the Emperor was always resident in the same city. For centuries the West, the papacy in particular, has claimed that Byzantine imperial authority was “Caesaro-papistic,” a pejorative term signifying that the emperor held in his hands both complete temporal and ecclesiastical authority. The fact is, however, that though the emperor, if he so desired, could almost invariably work his will in matters of church administration, he could never in the end dictate to the patriarch of Constantinople in matters of dogma. Nor did the emperor possess the indelible mark of the priesthood, the power to administer the sacraments of the Church. True, the emperor alone of all laymen could cross before the iconostasis, cense and preach to the congregation, summon ecumenical councils and even administer Holy Communion to himself But noteworthily the Communion had first to be consecrated by a priest. Moreover, however successful some emperors seemed temporarily to be (in the Iconoclastic struggle, for example), they could never unilaterally pronounce on dogma without the sanction of an ecumenical council at which all five patriarchs had to be present. Hence, the Emperor, despite his possession of these remarkable “liturgical” privileges, cannot be said to have been a true “king-priest.” In the later centuries of the Byzantine Empire (1261-1453), when the Emperor seemed willing to pay the papal price (religious union of the Greek Church with Rome) in order to secure military assistance against the Turkish threat, the Byzantine populace, led especially by the monks, lower clergy and of course, the Patriarch, refused to dilute the purity of their faith to secure such aid. For they believed that the wrath of God would descend upon them if the holy pronouncements of the “Seven Sacred Ecumenical Councils,” handed down to them from the forefathers (patroparadoton), were altered by so much as an iota. In all the various struggles waged for the preservation of the purity of the Orthodox faith, whether Orthodoxy was threatened from without by external enemies or from within by heretics, the Patriarchs by their stance stood in the vanguard of the defenders of the Orthodox faith.

The Five-Phase History Of The Patriarchate

The history of the patriarchate of Constantinople may, for the sake of convenience, be divided into five broad periods: 1) that extending from 330 A.D., the founding of Constantinople by Constantine, to the end of the Iconoclastic struggle in the so-called “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843 — an event still celebrated today as the Feast of Orthodoxy; 2) that beginning in 843 and ending with the fall of Constantinople to the Latins in the Fourth “Crusade” of 1204, followed by an occupation of half a century;3) that extending from 1261, the recovery of Constantinople from its Latin conquerors by the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologos, to the final fall of the capital to the Ottoman Turks in 1453;4) the so-called Turkokratia, from the beginning of the Turkish occupation in 1453 to the declaration of Greek independence in 1821, or rather 1833, when the Church of Greece declared its autonomy from the Patriarchate as an “autocephalic” church, and5) the modern period from 1833 to the present day.

Because of its leading historical role, notably in the formation and crystallization of Christian dogma and traditions, and no less in presenting them in the face of continual dangers, the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the person of its chief officer, the Patriarch, has acquired the title among the Orthodox church hierarchy (that is among the present-day Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rumanian, Syrian, etc. churches) of “First among equals.”

Yet, unlike Rome, his hegemony is today far less (if at all) one of actual jurisdiction over the other Orthodox patriarchates and autocephalous churches (which arose in some cases after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in Russia, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Georgia, etc., Cyprus however being autocephalic, or independent, since the very early church). His is rather a spiritual authority, and as such the Patriarch is looked up to by all with deep devotion and respect as upholder of, and principal connecting link among all the sometimes rather disparate Orthodox churches. Bearing this fundamental consideration in mind, let us now look, if only rapidly, at the past history of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

First Phase: The Formative Period

It was during our first period, 33-843, the most formative epoch of the entire Orthodox Church. that the vital questions of the formulation of dogma, the suppression of heresy, the utilization of classical Greek learning by the Church in order to help in explaining dogma, and the relationship of emperor and patriarch over the Church, were solved. Most of this was primarily the work of the famous Cappadocian Fathers (from Cappadocia in Asia Minor) and of St. John Chrysostom (of Antioch).

The late fourth century Patriarch of Constantinople, the Cappadocian St. Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzos, rendered inestimable service to the Christian Church against the first great heresy, Arianism. (Arianism taught that Christ, the second person of the Trinity, was not of exactly the same substance as the Father the first person of the Trinity, and hence, since Christ would then be inferior to the Father, Christ could not be fully God.) He also played a primary role in securing adoption by the Church of belief in the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity and of the con substantiality (the same substance) of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son.

Gregory’s services lay primarily in his eloquent exegesis (interpretation) of such dogmas: hence the Orthodox Church has bestowed upon him (alone) the title of “the theologian.” His intimate friend the great Cappadocian St. Basil, though never patriarch of Constantinople, rather bishop of Caesarea and other sees in Asia Minor, also made a vital contribution in helping to defend the nature of the Trinity. He, in addition, formulated what soon became the definitive rule for the guidance of the many monks (commonly called Basilians, that were beginning to proliferate in the Byzantine East). And, not least, he saved for Christianity the precious legacy of classical pagan Greek literature and philosophy by reconciling it with Christian doctrine and showing how a discriminating knowledge of classical Greek writings was indispensable for a deeper understanding of the Christian faith itself Hence he is considered the patron saint of education in the Orthodox Church. Still another champion of early orthodoxy, the third of the Treis Hierarchai (Three Hierarchs, established as such by the patriarchate in the eleventh century), was John Chrysostom. Originally from the patriarchate of Antioch, he became one of the most celebrated patriarchs of Constantinople. The homilies he preached against heresy and immoral living were so moving, so full of high moral content and characterized by eloquence of style, that he is universally referred to as Chrysostomos (the golden mouthed).

The value of the work of these much venerated Church Fathers in this early, crucial period of the Orthodox Church and patriarchate of Constantinople cannot be overestimated. Not only were they instrumental in establishing the official dogmas of the entire Church of East and West against the heresies of Arios, Nestorios, Dioscoros, Eutyches, and others, but their dedication and loyalty to the faith and to their office of patriarch (or bishop) has forever served as an inspiring example to their successors.

It was during this same period, in response to the need for reaching agreement on doctrinal beliefs and because of other growing differences in matters of church discipline and religious practice, that the famous Seven Ecumenical Councils were convoked by the emperors. These Ecumenical (universal) Councils (the first at Nicea in 325, the second at Constantinople in 381, the third at Ephesos in 431, the fourth at Chalcedon in 451, the fifth at Constantinople in 553, the sixth at Constantinople in 680, and the seventh and last at Nicea in 787) were all held in the Greek East in or near the imperial City of Constantinople. All five patriarchs, that of Rome and the four eastern ones, were (as came to be required for Ecumenical Councils) present at each council; all were convoked by the emperors; and the pronouncements of all were ratified by both Church and emperors. The adherence and unswerving allegiance of the patriarch of Constantinople and the other eastern patriarchs to the decisions of these councils has resulted in the Orthodox Church’s unique claim to be called “the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.”

Aside from decisions regarding doctrine and disciplinary matters taken by the Councils, it is significant to point out that it was the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople which ratified the canon affirming that “the Bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honor (presveia times) after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is the ‘New Rome’ ” (a fact which granted Constantinople primacy of honor over the three other eastern patriarchs). And the Fourth Ecumenical Council, that of Chalcedon in 451, confirmed that the see of Constantinople shall have “privileges equal to those of Old Rome” and possessed jurisdiction over the churches of Pontos, Asia, and Thrace in the East. It is fair to point out, however, that the Roman Church claims never to have officially accepted this canon of 451.

During this first period the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople gradually increased, though he seemed sometimes to be under the thumb of the emperor. The latter, for political reasons (or as some emperors put it, for the sake of oikonomia, that is survival of the Basileia, meaning the empire), sought occasionally even to alter the dogmas decreed by the Ecumenical Councils in order to placate politically dangerous heretical groups in the East such as Monophysites, Nestorians, or Monotheletes. This tendency of the emperors to seek to interfere in the “inner life” of the Church reached its climax in the acts of the Isaurian Emperors during the famous Iconoclast struggle (726-43). These anti-icon rulers sought to destroy all the icons (representations of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints) on the grounds (they declared) that they were not being properly venerated but instead worshiped by the people virtually as idols. (Some scholars believe that among other reasons motivating the emperors was their belief that the monks, the chief protectors of the icons, were becoming too numerous and an increasingly “unproductive” element in society. They paid no taxes in these difficult times of continual Arab invasions and did not serve in the army.)

In any event, after a desperate struggle of over a century, Orthodoxy and icon-veneration finally triumphed and the icons were restored. The chief inspiration for the Iconodule (pro-icon) party was provided by the efforts of two remarkable monk theologians, John of Damascus and Theodore of Studios, who were primarily responsible for formulating the official Orthodox doctrine on the icons — that the grace from the original prototypes of the icons (Christ, the Virgin, or the Saints) filters down from the original to their copies, the icons. Of course the Christian devotee is forbidden to actually worship the icon (a practice termed latreia). Yet the icon is itself considered a worthy object of veneration (proskynesis) and thus possesses a certain sanctity of its own. Hence the Christian should show it proper reverence. The great feast day commemorating the final triumph of the icons (permanently restored by the Empress Theodora in 843) is still commemorated in the Orthodox Church as the “Feast of Orthodoxy” on the First Sunday of Lent. It is during this service that icons are carried in procession around the church by the clergy and the Archons (the chief laymen supporting the Patriarch), and that the names of all the principal heretics of the Church, including especially those of the Iconoclast emperors and bishops, are formally anathematized. (“May the memory of the Orthodox Fathers be eternal and the memory of the heretics of the Church be eternally damned”).

As a result of the triumph of these Iconodule views, the authority of the Orthodox Patriarchs, who usually led the struggle against the Iconoclasts, became more important in the Byzantine Empire than ever before. This may vividly be seen in the fact that henceforth the Patriarch was depicted by Byzantine artists in their paintings or mosaics as standing on the same level with the emperor instead of below him, as had formerly been the case.

Second Phase: Photios, The Greatest Patriarch

During the second phase of the patriarchate extending from 843 to 1204, Photios, who is usually considered the greatest of all Byzantine patriarchs, occupied the patriarchal throne of Constantinople. Extremely learned in ancient Greek literature and philosophy as well as Christian theology, he was originally professor of philosophy at the famous University of Constantinople — the first university (or “higher school”) to be established in medieval Europe, at a time when the West was still stuck in the mire of the barbaric Dark Ages. Photios was perhaps responsible for a new codification of canon (church) law, the Collection of 14 Titles, and probably for a new legal code, the Epanagoge, which spelled out a new importance for the patriarch with respect to the Emperor. But he is perhaps best known for his leading role in the conversion of the Slavic peoples. It was Photios who, correctly understanding the inner psychology of the semi-barbaric Moravian Slavs (in today’s Czechoslovakia), dispatched to convert them in 862, at their request, the Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril and his brother Methodios, two Greeks from Thessalonike learned in the Slavonic language and, most important, to translate the Greek liturgy into Slavonic. In this way he bound them to Constantinople instead of to Rome which was also seeking to convert them but would not permit the liturgy to be translated into Slavonic. Photios was also primarily responsible for converting the Bulgars, then wavering between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It was Photios’ conversion of the Moravians and Bulgars through the work of Cyril and Methodios that later led to the Byzantine conversion of the Russian Slavs. In addition, Photios established, or reorganized, the patriarchal school in Constantinople for the education of priests in literature and philosophy as well as in theology. (It is the direct ancestor of the modern patriarchal school at Halki.) Lastly, as is not usually realized, he delivered the coup de grace to Iconoclasm — that is to certain intellectuals who continued, though covertly, even after 843 to teach Iconoclasm.

Until publication of Father Dvornik’s recent work on Patriarch Photios, he was considered by the Roman Church (not of course by the Orthodox for whom he has always been a great ecclesiastical hero) as the arch-heretic, the one most responsible for originating the schism or split between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, the first to formulate Orthodox Greek charges against innovations (kenotomies) in doctrine and practices of the Roman Church. But these were usually teachings propounded not so much by the Latins of Rome as by the recently converted Germans, who had sent missionaries into Bulgaria. In particular they taught the doctrine of the flioque (that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and Son), contrary to explicit pronouncements of the early Ecumenical Councils that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (alone). (Ekporevetai ek tou Patros). The latter is the view of the Orthodox, a belief considered necessary in order to preserve the unitary nature of God — since there can be only one fundamental archic source for the Godhead, not two. If there are two sources, there would in effect be two Gods.

It was the precedents and the increase in patriarchal authority that developed under Photios which enabled the Church and subsequent patriarchs to surmount the difficult times which followed for both the state and Church. Indeed, by the time of the apogee of the Byzantine Empire in the late tenth and early eleventh century when it had become without question the most powerful, richest, cultured, and sophisticated state in the world, the patriarchal court of Constantinople had become second to none in splendor and in the respect accorded it. Within his cathedral church, the incomparable Hagia Sophia, whose dome seemed to “hang suspended as if from heaven itself,” to quote the Byzantine poet George of Pisidia, and whose mosaics glittered from their places on the walls, the patriarch officiated in the most impressive ecclesiastical edifice in all Christendom. To take care of the liturgical needs of the “Great Church” (as the Greeks always called it), Emperor Justinian decreed in 537 that there be constantly in attendance a huge staff consisting of sixty priests, ten deacons, forty deaconesses, ninety subdeacons, one hundred readers, twenty five chanters, and one hundred custodians.

No wonder the Russian envoys, sent to Constantinople in 988 to compare its religious services with those of other religions they were considering adopting, were so awed by the splendor and the sublimity of the Liturgy that, on their return to their capital city of Kiev, they declared to their master Prince Vladimir the Great, that in Hagia Sophia they thought they were “in Heaven itself.” So far-reaching was the fame of Hagia Sophia that it became almost mythical — being known to the far-off Anglo-Saxons of England who borrowed not only aspects of Byzantine art but even the title of Basileus for their king and whose own first Archbishop of Canterbury was in fact a Greek, the missionary Theodore from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Even the Vikings in distant Scandinavia and in Russland referred to Constantinople as Miklegard or Tsargrad (the Emperor’s city), of which the chief jewel was Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia and the Patriarchate were noted in the medieval world of both East and West for the enormous number of relics preserved there and in the church of the Holy Apostles, dating from the time of Christ or shortly thereafter: the true cross, the crown of thorns, the Virgin’s girdle and robe — the latter two in particular looked upon by the Byzantine populace as the palladia (protectors) of Constantinople. Numerous stories remain from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries recounting dangerous journeys made by Russian pilgrims to Constantinople, not to speak of Western clerics who earlier, before the time of the schism in 1054, had come to Constantinople to see the Church of the Holy Apostles (where the Byzantine Emperors were all buried), to participate in the liturgy in Hagia Sophia with the remarkably moving chant of the patriarchal antiphonal choirs, and above all, to worship the sacred relics dating from the time of Christ. Some modern scholars believe that Pope Gregory the Great, after he was papal envoy in Constantinople (before 590), in imitation of the chanting in Hagia Sophia, which he had often heard, introduced into St. Peter’s at Rome the so-called Gregorian chant.

Western Hostility Grows

In the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire began to decline in strength. This was not only because of the parade of external enemies constantly attacking the empire’s territory (often simultaneously on three or even four fronts) but because of internal unrest and decay. Ultimately, owing at least in part to Western (especially Venetian) economic rivalry, even of cupidity for Byzantium’s trade and riches, and to political rivalry with Constantinople, the West became increasingly hostile to the Byzantines. Because of the prevailingly religious temper of the age, this antagonism was most clearly expressed in the growing ecclesiastical rift between the two churches, in the rivalry between the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of Rome. Constantinople as the “New Rome” now claimed an equality of honor with old Rome, while Rome insisted on its jurisdictional authority over the Eastern patriarchs. The Churches differed over the dogma of the filioque, and in the liturgical question of the azyma — that is, the use by the Orthodox of leavened bread in the Eucharist in contrast to the unleavened bread of the Roman Church. Finally, there was the difference in the epiklesis, different beliefs as to the moment when the miracle of metavole — the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ — occurs in the liturgical service.

These theological and especially liturgical differences came to assume even greater importance in the context of the Norman (Catholic) conquest of southern Italy, which was then still Greek speaking and Orthodox in religion. In this period the popes at tempted to Latinize the Orthodox people there, a fact which led to the famous events of 1054, when the so-called “definitive schism” occurred between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. At that time envoys of the papacy, incensed primarily over the opposition of the then patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Kerularios, to “Latinization” of the Orthodox ritual among the Greek Orthodox churches in southern Italy (now under papal jurisdiction), deposited a bull of excommunication against the patriarch on the altar of Hagia Sophia itself. Contrary to what has long been believed, however, only Patriarch Michael Kerularios “and his followers” were anathematized by the papal legates, the Byzantine Emperor and the populace, in fact, being praised for their “Orthodoxy.” Kerularios immediately convoked the Synodos Endemousa, which retaliated in turn by anathematizing the envoys but not — it should be noted — the pope. Nonetheless, though the event in itself was not of great moment (since schisms of this type had not infrequently occurred in the past and had always been satisfactorily healed), in retrospect history has fixed on this date as that marking the final rupture between the two patriarchates. Henceforth, Rome went her way and Constantinople hers. It was specifically in order to annul or cancel these historic mutual excommunications of 1054 (lasting up to modern times) that, largely at the initiative of the late great Patriarch Athenagoras, these mutual personal excommunications of 1054, which have always in symbol marked the final division of the two great branches of the Christian Church were finally lifted in 1965 at the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI. This did not, however, revoke the long-lasting schism between the two churches.

Relations between the Latin West and Byzantium became worse and worse, not only ecclesiastically but politically, economically, and psychologically. Ultimately, the animosity between East and West, fanned at the same time by economic and military rivalry, became so strong that the inevitable result was one of the greatest tragedies of history, the capture and notorious sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by Western “crusader” armies, ostensibly on their way to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims.

After 1204, with a Latin Empire established on the ruins of the old Byzantine state, that which best preserved the unity of the Byzantine (or Greek) people and gave them a rallying point was their common faith, Orthodoxy, and its guardian, the Patriarch, who sat in Nicea (in Asia Minor), which had escaped the Latin occupation. In 1261, after fifty-seven years of Latin occupation, the Greeks recovered their great capital, Constantinople, under Emperor Michael Paleologos. His very first act after recovery of the Queen City in 1261 was to march in an elaborate procession from the Golden Gate, with the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria at the head, to Hagia Sophia, where he and the entire people gave thanks to God. Thus from its place of exile in Nicea, the Patriarch ate was once more reestablished in its traditional center at Constantinople.

Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

In the third period of patriarchal history, from 1261 to 1453, but increasingly after the late fourteenth century, the last but greatest enemy of the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks of Asia, advanced closer and closer to Constantinople. In this period, the once mighty Byzantine Empire had so shrunk in territory that by 1300, almost all that remained, besides Constantinople itself, was part of what we call today Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and a strip of western Asia Minor. (Asia Minor of course had earlier been entirely Greek and the very backbone of the Byzantine Empire.) The danger from the advancing Turks soon became so pressing that in order to secure military aid, the Emperors were forced to turn to the greatest source of power in the West, the Papacy. But the popes of Rome would offer no aid unless the Greeks accepted the popes as the head of their church, in other words, unless they converted to Roman Catholicism with its beliefs and practices.

The Byzantine common people of course violently objected to this, as did the monks, nuns, almost all of the middle class, and the larger part of the upper class. Some of the upper class, including very few prelates, for the sake of political expediency (or sometimes from even an admiration for the vigor of the Latin Scholastic philosophy) supported these Emperors who were willing to pay the papal price for military aid. Actually, the Greek people soon became split into two factions, the pro-unionists and the far larger group of anti unionists, over the question of whether aid from Rome should be accepted. The problem became so acute that in 1274 (at Lyons in southern France) and again in 1439 at the famous Council of Florence, Italy, religious union between the two churches was (temporarily) achieved, or at least signed. But the Byzantine people in general adamantly refused to accept these two councils. They insisted that since all five of the patriarchs were not present at both these councils (as Byzantine canon law demanded since no subsequent council had declared them to be “ecumenical” and since most Greeks believed the Byzantine delegates were coerced into acceptance, both Councils of Lyons and Florence were invalid. The Patriarch himself, followed by the vast bulk of the Greek populace, therefore refused to compromise his Orthodox beliefs by accepting papal jurisdiction as well as belief in the filioque and the azyma in order, presumably, to save the Empire.

It is a remarkable irony of history that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the power of the Byzantine emperor was sharply declining as a result of the severe territorial diminution of the empire, the authority of the Patriarch, in contrast, markedly increased. Russia, though Orthodox, was never politically part of the Byzantine Empire, but from virtually the beginning of the con version of its Prince Vladimir in 989, the Patriarch of Constantinople governed the Russian Church. Not only did he appoint their chief bishop (the Metropolitan of Kiev and later Moscow) and sent to Russia the chrism when their bishops were ordained, but he was also looked upon by all Slavs of both the Balkans and Russia as the true leader of the Orthodox Christian world. Things were now reversed and, contrary to earlier times, the patriarch had become in effect the protector of the Emperor. This may be clearly seen in the Byzantine Patriarch Anthony’s rebuke to the Russian Tsar, who had written to him in 1395 that “there is now no emperor.” Anthony’s response was that “there can be no church without the emperor.” In any case, the Byzantine patriarchs now performed remarkable work in preserving Orthodoxy, not only from the propaganda of Latin missionaries who seemed to be everywhere in the Greek East, but also in the face of the forced or sometimes even voluntary conversions to Islam of the conquered Greeks of Asia Minor.

Fourth Phase: “The Tourkokratia”

With the tragic fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the fourth period, that of the “Tourkokratia,” begins. And the process of the accretion of power in the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople actually accelerates. The Turkish (Islamic) Sultan now in a sense assumed the function of the former Byzantine emperor and invested him with his authority in much the same manner as before. Under Sultan Mehmet II, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople, Gennadios Scholarios, the learned Greek scholar of philosophy and patriot, was invested as the first Orthodox Patriarch under Turkish rule. A fiery man, uncompromisingly Orthodox, he managed to secure concessions for his church from the Sultan who respected him. Thus, under Mehmet II the patriarch was given authority not only as the religious but also as the supreme head of all the Orthodox peoples subject to the Turks, including Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians, as well as Greeks. The Patriarch had his own court and preserved the old Orthodox liturgical ceremonial, but he was not permitted to retain Hagia Sophia which now became a Turkish mosque. Moreover, he was in all political matters directly subject to the will of the Sultan. Despite his increased authority, the Patriarch nevertheless had to walk a tight rope. On the one hand, he had to appease his Turkish master who was Islamic and on the other hand, seek to nourish the faith among the Orthodox faithful. The actions of the sultans, especially the successors of Mehmet II, were often unpredictable and inconsistent. They deposed patriarchs at will and set up others whose election they manipulated. Sometimes they would punish the Greek population for alleged violations of the Sultan’s will by putting to death a patriarch through strangulation or other violent means. The patriarchal actions, therefore, had to be circumspect in the extreme, often appearing devious to outsiders as they strove to protect their flock and even help themselves to survive. Their so-called “Phanariot” diplomacy (from “Phanar,” the section of Constantinople to which the patriarchate was moved by the Sultan) sometimes had to be more convoluted than that of the Byzantine period itself.

Two of the most striking patriarchs during this period of Turkish domination were Jeremiah II of the sixteenth century and the famous Cyril Lukaris of the seventeenth. Jeremiah was patriarch during the early period of the Protestant Reformation; indeed, several of the Protestant reformers, notably the nephew of Reuchlin, Melancthon, hoped to reach an understanding with the Orthodox East now that they too had broken with Rome. Melancthon, therefore, sent the Lutheran profession of faith he had drawn up to Jeremiah in Constantinople, expecting approval from the Orthodox patriarch. But Jeremiah, far from approving, sent back a letter condemning a number of the new Protestant beliefs. He was against the Lutheran belief in the “real presence” in Holy Communion. He also condemned the Lutheran belief in justification by faith alone and affirmed the need for “good works” as well as God’s grace in human salvation. Nevertheless, Jeremiah did engage in friendlier exchanges with various Protestant groups and welcomed to Constantinople (often in secret) certain Westerners with whom he had instructive conversations and carried on a lively correspondence.

Cyril Lukaris, the famous Cretan patriarch of the seventeenth century, is often accused of seeking covertly to “Protestantize” the Orthodox Church. During his studies in western Europe, he had come into contact with Protestant Calvinist ideas. And when later he became Patriarch of Constantinople, he extended his favor to Protestant envoys in Constantinople. In 1629, there was published in Geneva a Confession of Faith attributed to Patriarch Cyril and which unequivocally expressed Calvinist beliefs. Cyril himself as an individual may well have been attracted by certain Calvinist beliefs, but that he wished to impose these beliefs on the Orthodox Church is doubtful. In any event, the Geneva Confession of Faith (whose attribution to Cyril many of his own clerical associates denied) was condemned as heretical by several local Orthodox councils subsequently held in the East.

It should not be overlooked that one of Cyril’s primary aims was to enlighten and uplift the educational level of his clergy and flock, which in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century had sunk to an extremely low point because of the long Turkish oppression. Aside from the patriarchal school in Constantinople, the Turks by now permitted almost no other school on the Greek main land. The only schools in fact that were operating in what we to day call “Greece” were those schools in the Greek areas then under Venetian domination, such as in Crete, Corfu, or the Ionian Islands. Lukaris had constantly to be wary of his volatile Turkish masters who in fact removed him from office several times, only to reinstate him again and again. He finally died a martyr’s death of strangulation at the hands of the Turks. Out of his attempts to educate his Orthodox flock resulted the foundation of the Greek printing press in Constantinople.

The experience of these two patriarchs was to be duplicated by the even worse experience of succeeding patriarchs. Nevertheless, each patriarch without exception performed his duty to the Church while at the same time always working for preservation of a sense of community among the Greeks of Constantinople and those of the mainland. There were other Orthodox of course in the Balkans and in Russia, but only the Greeks possessed the precious heritage of both ancient Greek and Byzantine culture. In no small way, then, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, even unwittingly, helped to bring to birth the modern Greek sense of national consciousness which finally burst forth in the Greek revolution of 1821. To be sure some scholars believe that the patriarchs, perhaps unwisely, adhering primarily to the old Byzantine (or “Roman”) imperial heritage in the manner of the so-called Megali idea, always sought a restoration of all the Greek-speaking areas, in contrast to the idea held by such heroes of the Greek Revolution as Koraes, of a modern Greek nation. But the contrast can certainly be overdrawn when one considers the aim of both to preserve both the Orthodox faith and the Hellenic tradition.

As is often overlooked by historians, a significant role in the birth of the modern Greek nation was also played by the many Greek refugees who had fled from the Turkish occupation to areas of the West after 1453 and as late as the later sixteenth century. They established important Greek colonies in Naples, Toledo (Spain), later in Paris, Odessa, Budapest, Vienna, and above all, earlier in Venice — some of whose scholars and painters (for example the great El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-ruled island of Crete) contributed remarkably to the development of the Italian Renaissance. Sometimes for reasons of expediency (such as to secure employment in the West), a few of these Greek exiles nominally accepted allegiance to the Papacy, but they always retained their beloved language and ecclesiastical Greek ritual, which for them now represented the quintessence of the Orthodox religion. It was this combination of the Orthodox Church and ancient Greek culture, that they were now consciously reviving, which acted together to strengthen their growing sense of Greek ethnicity.

As the nominal head of the Greek millet (Turkish for “ethnos” or people), the Patriarch carried on in his court as much as possible of the elaborate ceremonial of the old Byzantine imperial as well as patriarchal courts. Many, if not most, of the traditional Byzantine imperial and ecclesiastical titles were preserved. Thus titles assigned by the late Patriarch Athenagoras and present Patriarch Demetrios to the Archons of the Order of St. Andrew, (laymen honored for service to the Patriarchate) revert back to Turkish times, or in some cases, even 1,000 years earlier to the early Byzantine era. The following are examples of such titles carried on from the patriarchal court of the Byzantine and Turkish periods, most of which are still utilized today in the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Megas Hartophylax was an old title which by the fourteenth century designated the chief patriarchal official who, along with his other duties, administered the patriarchal chancery (that, is kept the records). Megas Protekdikos was a title which was eventually held by one who protected the rights of ecclesiastical property. The Megas Referendarios (the second word is Latin), mentioned in the ecclesiastical sources from very early times, held the delicate position of liaison officer between the Patriarch and the Byzantine Emperor.

Besides these, in the Byzantine and Turkish periods, there were, surrounding the Patriarch, other dignitaries whose particular function it was to help him carry out his many duties. For instance, the Megas Rhetor (Grand Orator) was a professor at the patriarchal school who was especially skilled at biblical interpretation. Other dignitaries helped in keeping the patriarchal records, were in charge of the holy vessels of the church and the vestments worn by the high prelates and, more important, of the sacred relics of Christ and the Apostles. Of these relics, as we have noted, Constantinople, before its sack by the Latins in 1204, had possessed more than the rest of the world combined. These relics were the subject of many pages written by several Western knights who participated in the expedition that seized Constantinople. These eyewitnesses refer especially to the true cross, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the shroud of Christ (so talked about today) and the relics that served as the special protectors of the “Queen City,” the Virgin Mary’s robe and girdle.

Among this latter group of “service” officials at the patriarchal court was the Megas Skevophylax (Grand Sacristan, keeper of the holy vessels and ecclesiastical robes), and also the Mirepsos (overseer of the Holy Chrism). Aktouarios (court physician) is an interesting title utilized in the patriarchal court after 1453, which had been applied earlier to the imperial court physician. (Obvious is its connection with the English word actuary (he who assigns insurance rates according to a calculated life span.)

Certain titles in the Byzantine and Turkish periods were reserved specifically for those contributing to the furtherance of education in the Orthodox Church, especially laymen. Beside Megas Rhetor (Grand Orator) there is the title of Didaskalos tou Evangeliou (Teacher of the Gospel), Didaskalos tou Apostolou (Teacher of the Epistle), and Didaskalos tou Genous (Teacher of the People), the latter an old title held, among others, by the great Greek patriot of the nineteenth century Greek Revolution, Adamantios Koraes. The Orphanotrophos (literally “caretaker of orphans”), a Byzantine ecclesiastic in the civil service of the imperial court, was, especially in the twelfth century, in charge of what one today would call “social work.” He had headed the great Orphanage in Constantinople, which had a hospital attached to it, then the most advanced in Europe, with special doctors and wards for various diseases. Naturally, in both the Byzantine and Turkish periods, certain offices of the patriarchal court were reserved for those in charge of the liturgical ceremonies and chanting. These held such titles as Protopsaltis (first chanter), Lambadarios (in charge of candles) and so on. Another title of honor, granted to laymen as recognition of special service to the Church, was that of Ostiarios, the person in charge of the great doors of Hagia Sophia. The various modern ecclesiastical officia (Latin for offices), as they still exist today in the Ecumenical Patriarchate and many of which have been granted to the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, reach back at least five hundred and sometimes as far as a thousand years. These titles originally had some significant historical association either with the Byzantine Church or with the Byzantine imperial court, both of which played closely related roles in the formation of Byzantine civilization. As we have seen, the Patriarch during the earlier Turkish period preserved the patriarchal school, and there trained many of the subsequent prominent Greek hierarchs. The patriarch also maintained close relations with the various Greek communities of the “diaspora” in the West, assisting them as much as possible in whatever struggles they might have with the papacy or the local authorities to “Catholicize” them (as for example in Venice, the Ukraine and among the Balkan Slavs). Not infrequently, of course, a patriarch’s life was endangered or even forfeited if he seemed to the Sultan overly independent. At any rate, in the period of the deepest cultural darkness for the Greek people during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was to the Church, headed by the Patriarch in Constantinople and represented by the local parish priests, that the chief credit goes for the preservation of the Greek “ethnos” and the Orthodox Church (“ethnos kai ecclesia”), two institutions and concepts that were now becoming more intertwined than ever before. Their union in this period is one reason why the modern Greek finds it so difficult to conceive of the Greek Orthodox Church without Greek culture, a traditional identification which had existed for centuries before this.

To reemphasize, the Patriarch was instrumental in preserving the Greek cultural heritage along with the Orthodox liturgical and ecclesiastical tradition. Nevertheless, when the Greek War of Independence finally broke out in 1821 (and it was a local Greek bishop of Kalavryta who first raised the flag of revolution, a cross) the Patriarch in Constantinople with the Sultan standing right above him, could hardly, for obvious reasons, openly bless the moment. Yet his sympathies were always clear. So much so that the Sultan had the Patriarch Gregory V hanged from the grand door of his Patriarchate.

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

In 1883, after the winning of Greek independence in more of the Greek-speaking areas, a new phase be~an for the Patriarchate, the modern period. Now the Church of Greece, owing to the grave difficulty of existing under a patriarch who sat in the very shadow of a repressive sultan, declared itself autocephalic (virtually independent). Yet relations between the Church of Greece and the Patriarch remained close, much closer in fact than between the patriarchate and any of the many other (“national”) branches of the Orthodox Church.

A meaningful event in patriarchal history was the opening by the Patriarch in 1844, on the island of Halki within the city of Constantinople, of a high level theological school for the education of Greek clergy. Owing to the low state of education in the Orthodox East, in particular the desperate need for adequate theological education, this marked the first time since the end of the Byzantine period that such an institution had been establish ed. ( It was in this period that the Oikonomos of Hagia Sophia, Constantine had sorrowfully declared: “The simple reading of the service books, and very badly at that, as long as it was done in a melodious voice, was the sole qualification for the position of Priest, Deacon or Archon.”) The school in Halki was to retain its theological importance for the patriarchate until its forced closing by the Turks in 1972. There had of course long existed in Constantinople a few schools for the education of laymen (in particular the Megale tou Genous Schole), which were in many ways directly or indirectly connected with the Patriarchate and which trained such leading modern Greek figures as Adamantios Koraes.

With the more overt, moral support the Patriarchate inevitably began to give the new nation of “Hellas” and, more importantly, with the emergence of a secular Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk in 1921, the position of the Patriarch in Constantinople (soon to be renamed Istanbul by Kemal) became more precarious than ever. The Patriarch’s position was naturally affected by the number and condition of the Greek population of the city, that is by the parishioners immediately surrounding him. As late as 1920 there were probably over 100,000 Greeks in Constantinople. But with the end of World War I and especially the debacle of the Greek army at Smyrna in 1922 after the Greco-Turkish War and the Megale Katastophe (destruction of Hellenism) in Asia Minor, the fate of the Patriarch of Constantinople hung precariously in the balance. It was clear that the Turkish government now wished to be rid of the Patriarchate entirely.

In 1923, one year later, as a result of the intervention of the great powers, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, according to which all of the Greeks in Asia Minor and most of the Turks of Greece were expelled. The sole exception to this exchange of population was the Turks of western Thrace and the Greeks living in Constantinople, both of whom were permitted to remain where they were. But most important for the Orthodox Church, the treaty guaranteed the continued presence of the patriarchate in its historic home, Constantinople, unhampered by restraints or restrictions. Not only did Turkey and Greece sign the pact but also France, England, Italy and the United States. It would seem that the future of the patriarchate in Constantinople was henceforth guaranteed. But the Patriarchate soon became a pawn, a hostage, in the political relations that developed between Greece and Turkey. Especially was this true with the emergence to prominence of the thorny Cyprus problem. In order to put pressure on Greece, the Turkish government has found it expedient to subject the Patriarch ate to intermittent, sometimes continual harassment. In 1955, climaxing years of subtle and not – so – subtle harassment, Turkish policy erupted into a wanton attack organized by Turkish authorities on the Greek community in Constantinople, its churches, schools, homes, cemeteries and shops being savagely vandalized or destroyed. This barbarous event, amazingly, passed over almost unnoticed in American newspapers.

The then Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, probably the outstanding Orthodox patriarch of modern times, had long believed reconciliation was possible between Greeks and Turks. So to insure the survival of the Patriarchate in Constantinople, he thought it best to exercise great restraint vis-a-vis the Turks in measures he pursued with regard to the Greek community and Patriarchate. Though his courageous plan with respect to the Turks did not bear the fruit he sought, Athenagoras’ visionary policy of achieving reconciliation between the Orthodox and the other great churches of Christendom did open a new and historic chapter in Christian ecumenical relations. Thus in 1964 he and Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem, in the first meeting of pope and patriarch in over half a millenium. The result was the mutual annulment in both Rome and Constantinople on December 7, 1965, of the historic, mutual excommunications of 1054. (This act, however praiseworthy, abolished only the individual anathemas launched in 1054 but did not actually end the schism.) In preparation for negotiations and the hoped for eventual reunion between the Greek and the Roman Churches, Athenagoras also took the unprecedented step of convoking a number of pan-Orthodox conferences in order to come to agreement in matters hitherto tending to separate the various Orthodox and “dissident” Orthodox Churches such as the Copts of Egypt (Monophysites). the Jacobites (generally Syrian), the Armenians, and others. Athenagoras’ bold imaginative steps now forcefully brought the Patriarchate to center-stage in Christian ecumenical affairs.

Unfortunately, despite the guarantees stipulated by the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turks have not ceased rendering the Patriarch’s position in Constantinople as difficult as possible. By now many of the Greek churches in the city’s Greek community have been suppressed or closed, and the Patriarch and his court have been compelled to endure humiliation after humiliation along with specially contrived constraints. It has been at times forbidden to the patriarchal clergy to go abroad in order to carry out their ecclesiastical duties, to repair patriarchal buildings, and, much worse, the historic theological school at Halki, the pride of the Patriarchate and bastion of its theological leadership, was in 1972 permanently closed by the Turks. Only a few thousand (some 4,000) of the Orthodox faithful now remain in the Phanar, where the l Patriarch resides. Clearly it is one of the most critical times in the entire two thousand year history of the Patriarchate. And yet that venerable institution has somehow managed, as it must, to carry on its mission of leadership over the Orthodox Churches of the world. including the Orthodox Church of America which is directly under patriarchal jurisdiction. All of the world’s Orthodox regard it as “the first among equals” among the Orthodox Churches. But to fulfill its high mission properly in these critical times, it requires continuing assistance and ever-vigilant attention to its particular needs. In the last few years, however, there have been a few signs of x a better future for the Patriarchate. The Turkish authorities have, finally, granted permission for the reconstruction of a new administrative building to replace the wing of the old patriarchal building consumed by fire in 1941. This imposing new structure was dedicated in late 1989 at a ceremony attended by many notables from around the world. Meantime, following in Patriarch Athenagoras’ footsteps, the incumbent Patriarch Demetrios I in 1987 travelled to Rome where he was warmly received by Pope John Paul II. At a solemn ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, the patriarchs of East and West together recited, in Greek, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of the Church as originally expressed without the filioque. Then, for the first time in modern history, Pope John Paul and Patriarch Demetrios, standing together on the outside balcony of the papal apartments of the Vatican, blessed the immense throng of people gathered below them in St. Peter’s Square, an unprecedented gesture of respect between the two great hierarchs of East and West.

Let us hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, guided by the present Patriarch Demetrios I and by all future successors of St. Andrew the first-called Apostle, may continue in perpetuity to exercise in Constantinople its hallowed, traditional leadership over the Orthodox faithful of the world.

About The Author

Dino J. Geanakoplos, an internationally known scholar, was the Bradford Durfee Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Italian Renaissance history and Orthodox Church history at Yale University. He was the official historian of the Archons of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarch who awarded him the patriarchal title of Didaskalos tou Genous. A fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, he was in 1983 elected president of the American Society of Church History. Geanakoplos is the author of 13 books and c. 100 articles. For his scholarship the Greek government in 1966 awarded him the Gold Cross of the Order of King George I. In 1989 the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America bestowed on him the medal of honor for the “Highest Paideia” in Hellenic studies. His books have been published in Greek translation in Athens, and two in Italian by the Academy of Palermo and the University of Rome. Dino passed away in 2007.

Additional Books Which Relate, At The Least Part, To The History Of The Ecumenical Patriarchate

Constantinople and the West/ Essays on the Late Byzantine (Palaeologan) Renaissance and the Byzantine and Roman Churches (University of Wisconsin, 1989), paperback.

Byzantium/ Church, Society, and Civilization Seen from Con temporary Eyes (University of Chicago, 1986), paperback. Translation and commentary of original sources.

Byzantine East and Latin West (Oxford, 1966). Republished by Shoestring Press, Hamden, CT.

Interaction of the Sibling Byzantine and Western Cultures in the Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance (Yale, 1976).

Emperor Michael Palaeologos and the West (Harvard, 1959).

Greek Scholars in Venice (Harvard, 1962).

All titles above, except the first, have also been published in Greek in Athens.