|The Great Conflagration of Constantinople (Commemorated on September 1)|
"The wrath of God burns like fire," said Moses,
A great conflagration burned the city.
In Byzantium, the danger of a fire was an imminent threat. The reason it caused such great destruction had to do with the fact that the city was built close together with much timber. The great city at the Bosporos had in every quarter a fire brigade (which consisted of the so-called collegiati), who were under the authority of the eparch, the prefect of the city. However, in the long history of Constantinople, as Nikephoros Gregoras points out, numerous fires were recorded. It has been estimated that about thirty-nine major fires broke out in Constantinople, from 388 the earliest to 1434 the latest.
On the 2nd of September in the year 465 (though the Chronicon Paschale says it was 464), during the reign of Emperor Leo I the Great (457-474), a great fire burned through Constantinople, which began in the proximity of the arsenal, near the Neorion, caused by an old woman's mishandling of a burning lamp (some believed this was a malignant demon who took the form of an old woman). The fire spread eastwards to as far as the old Temple of Apollo, southwards to the Forum of Constantine, and westwards as far as the Forum of Taurus. The conflagration is said to have lasted from between three and seven days, although the Chronicon Paschale says: "After thirty days, eight regions of the city were burnt as result of God’s wrath." The senate-house on the north side of the Forum of Constantine was destroyed, and the Nymphaeum directly opposite to it, a building in which those who had not large enough houses of their own used to celebrate their weddings. Many magnificent private residences were burned down. It is said that the patrician and general Aspar, a rival of Leo, ran about the streets with a pail of water on his shoulders, urging all to follow his example and offering silver coins to encourage them. There is no hint of the existence of a fire-brigade. The Emperor, alarmed by the disaster, withdrew across the Golden Horn to the Palace of Saint Mamas and remained there for six months. It was the most devastating of all infernos in the history of Constantinople. It's impact on the city's economic and civic life cannot be overestimated.
The most detailed account of this great fire is Evagrius Scholasticus, who in his Ecclesiastical History (2.13) records: "The account is, that about dusk-hour, a demon of destruction in the form of a woman, or in reality a poor woman incited by a demon, for the story is told in both ways, carried a light into the market for the purpose of buying pickled victuals, and then, having set down the light, stole away. Catching some tow, it raised a great flame, and in a moment set the apartment on fire. The conflagration, thus begun, soon consumed everything within its reach, and afterwards continuing to spread for four days, not only over the more combustible materials, but buildings of stone, notwithstanding every effort to check it, at last destroyed the whole heart of the city from north to south, a space of five stadia in width, and fourteen in length; throughout which it left no building standing, either public or private, nor pillars nor arches of stone; but the hardest substances were as completely consumed as if they had been combustible. The ruin, at its northern extremity, which is where the docks are situated, extended from the Bosporium to the old temple of Apollo; at the southern, from the harbor of Julian as far as the houses near the oratory of the church of Unanimity; and in the center of the city, from the forum of Constantine to the Forum Tauri, as it is called: a pitiable and loathsome spectacle; for all the most conspicuous ornaments of the city, and whatever had been embellished with unrivaled magnificence, or adapted to public or private utility, had been swept together into huge heaps and impassable mounds, formed of various substances, whose former features were now so blended in one confused mass, that not even those who lived on the spot could recognize the different portions, and the place to which each had belonged."
Three contemporary saints of Constantinople had foretold this fire - Saint Elizabeth the Wonderworker, Saint Daniel the Stylite and Saint Markellos the Akoimetos.
Saint Elizabeth was abbess of the Convent of Saint George in Constantinople, and a renowned wonderworker and visionary. In her Life we read: "With foreknowledge from a divine vision, she forewarned the Roman emperor at that time, the most pious Leo, of a violent conflagration to come upon the city from a God-driven rage; these things and other similar things she proclaimed in advance to Daniel the Stylite in Anaplous. In fact, if these two had not prayed to God beforehand, virtually the entire city would have been wasted by fire." According to the Life of Saint Daniel the Stylite, this fire was foretold five months before it took place, during Holy Week, by Daniel.
We are told that when Saint Daniel the Stylite was conceived, that night his mother received a waking vision of two bright lights, which foreshadowed his prophecy of the great fire in Constantinople. Thus, five months before the great fire, it was revealed to Daniel on his pillar in Anaplous outside Constantinople that a great wrath from heaven would descend upon the city of Constantinople. Daniel, in turn, told the Patriarch Gennadios and the Emperor Leo so that they could warn the people and advise them to order public prayers to be said twice a week. However, they neglected to let the people of the city in on the warning. The fire overtook the city and its inhabitants. Daniel spent much of his time after the disaster helping people to heal both mentally and physically, for they ran with haste to his pillar, and the Saint, moved with their affliction, burst into tears, and advised them to have recourse to prayer and fasting. Stretching out his hands to heaven, he prayed for them. We read in his Life:
"And it came to pass shortly afterwards that there was a great fire in the capital. So all the inhabitants were in great distress and the majority had to flee from the city. They made their way to the holy man and each of them implored him to placate God's anger so that the fire should cease. At the same time they would relate to him the personal misfortunes they had suffered; one would say, 'I have been stripped bare of great possessions;' another, 'As the fire was far off I felt no uneasiness but slept with my wife and children; but suddenly the catastrophe overtook me and now I am a widower and childless, and have barely escaped being burnt alive.' Or again another, 'I ran away from that terrible danger only to suffer shipwreck of my scanty belongings.' The holy man wept with them and said, 'The merciful God wished to spare you in His goodness and made these things known beforehand and He did not keep silence concerning it; you should therefore have importuned God and escaped His terrible wrath. For once upon a time when the Ninevites were warned by the prophet that destruction threatened them, they escaped it by repenting. I was not vexed by the thought that God's mercy might prove me to be a false prophet; for I had as an example the prophet who was angry because of the gourd; and now I beg you bear with gratitude that which God has sent. For a master is most truly served when he sees his servant bearing chastisement gratefully; and then he deems him worthy not only of his former honor but even of greater by reason of his goodwill towards him.' And many other words of counsel he spoke unto them and turned their hopelessness into hopefulness and then dismissed them saying, 'The city will be afflicted for seven days.'
When the fire had ceased, fear seized upon all the citizens. And then the most blessed Emperor Leo of pious memory took his wife and went up and did reverence to the servant of God and said, 'This wrath was caused by our carelessness; I therefore beg you pray to God to be merciful to us in the future.' Now consider, dear reader, how the saying of the holy man's mother was fulfilled. For now he received the adoration of the two lights which his mother had seen over her bed in a vision of the night. After all had with one accord received a blessing, the Emperor lodged in the palace of St. Michael, which was about one mile distant near the sea."
Saint Markellos the Akoimetos was abbot of the Eirenaion Monastery at Constantinople. His monks were called Akiometoi (Sleepless Ones) because they organized in groups that rotated singing in chapel so they were singing God‘s praises 24 hours a day. After likewise foretelling the conflagration of 465, he is also credited with saving Constantinople from the disastrous fire that destroyed half of the city, by praying for the city to be spared.
And Saint Markianos the Presbyter of Constantinople, during the conflagration in 465, prevented the destruction of the church he established dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ by climbing its roof with the Holy Gospel in hand, and with prayers and tears caused the fire to cease before it. Theophanes writes of him: "Markianos, the oikonomos, went up on to the roof-tiles of Holy Anastasis holding the Gospel and preserved that church from harm by his prayers and tears."