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April 9, 2022

Eyewitness Testimony of an Anglican Minister Concerning the Martyrdom of Saint Gregory V, Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1821

Robert Walsh (1772-1852) was an Anglican priest of the Church of Ireland who was resident in Constantinople as a chaplain to Lord Strangford's Embassy from 1821 to 1824 and from 1830 to 1835. In 1836 he published his two volume work, Residence at Constantinople during the Greek and Turkish Revolutions. There we read his eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Saint Gregory V, Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1821.

Easter was now at hand, and the Turks either pretended, or really did believe, that it was the period fixed on for the general insurrection of the Christians of Constantinople, and the massacre of the Mahomedans. The Greek church still adheres to the calculations of the old style, and have not adopted the reformation of the calendar made in the Latin church; its festivals, therefore, do not correspond with ours.

On this year, however, there was an accidental coincidence; and the 22d of April was Easter Sunday in both churches. I had sat up late on the eve preceding, preparing my sermon for the occasion; and just after midnight, as I was about to go to bed, I was surprised by a sudden explosion of cannon, which, in the stillness of the hour, sounded as if the peninsula of Pera was attacked with artillery. My impression was, from the rumours circulated for the week before, that the Moslems had actually commenced their threatened attack upon the Christians, and anticipated what they pretended to fear from them. It was not till next day that I learned the cause: it was only an intimation of the Turks that they were prepared for what they apprehended, and an indication that they were on their guard, and ready to repel any attempt of their enemies. I also found that the idea of such a thing was so universally circulated among the populace, that the better classes were obliged to yield an acquiescence in the apprehension; but notices had been conveyed to the foreign diplomatic bodies, not to be alarmed at any display the people should make of this feeling on Easter Eve.

I had proposed to pass over with a friend to the Fanal [Phanar], to see the ceremonies of the Greek church, and receive from the venerable Patriarch the salutation of Χρίστος άνεστε, “Christ is risen," the joyful announcement made by all Christians of the Eastern church to one another on this day. Our own service was longer than usual; and as we were preparing to set out, we were stopped by a terrified Greek, announcing the dismal intelligence of what had just occurred. The Patriarch and his bishops, in the consciousness of their own blameless conduct, and the full confidence that they had been absolved from all suspicion by the strong and decisive pastoral address they had drawn up and promulgated among their flocks, had met in the patriarchal church as usual, to celebrate their high festival, with no apprehension or other feeling than that which the day inspired. The Patriarch was attended by several of his prelates who had signed the pastoral address, and the service of the day was performed with an additional solemnity, which the state of things naturally imposed. The cathedral was full; the general disposition for religious consolation, under the impressions of danger and the feeling of security in a crowd, had drawn the whole population of the Fanal together, and every one that could get entrance was collected in the church and precincts of the patriarchate. Exhortations were again made to the assembled multitudes - the advice of the patriarchal address was repeated, and the people were about to disperse, strongly impressed with what they had heard, when suddenly some chouashes entered the patriarchate, and having with difficulty forced their way through the mass, who thought no more of them than as persons sent as was usual to keep order in a crowd, they rudely seized the Patriarch, who had just given his benediction to the people, and his officiating bishops; and, dragging them along by the collar into the courts, they tied ropes round their necks. A janissary was present who had been appointed to attend at the palace, like one of those at the residences of the foreign embassies, and had conceived the highest respect and regard for the venerable man. When he saw the person he was appointed to protect thus treated, he rushed forward in his defence, and resisted the violence offered to him, till he was stabbed by the yatagan of an other. The old man was then dragged under the gateway, where the cord was passed through the staple that fastened the folding doors, and left to struggle in his robes with the agonies of death. His person, attenuated by abstinence and emaciated by age, had not weight sufficient to cause immediate death. He continued for a long time in pain, which no friendly hand dared to abridge, and the darkness of night came on before his last convulsions were over. His two diacres, or chaplains, were dragged to other doorways of the patriarchate, where they were hanged in a similar manner.

Athanasius of Nicomedia, with the bishops of Ephesus and Anchialos, were hauled through the streets with ropes about their necks, and hanged in different parts of the Fanal; while those of Derkon, Salonichi, Tornovo, and Adrianople, with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who were all seized at the same time, were cast into the dungeons of the Bostandjee bashi, to await their doom.

The body of the Patriarch was suffered to remain suspended at the doorway, so that every one who went in and out was compelled to push it on one side. Among the rest who had occasion to pass was the unfortunate person appointed to succeed to his dangerous eminence. He was led to the patriarchate by the hand of a chouash; and while bringing him through, and removing the body, the Turk bade him look on it, and take warning by the fate of his predecessor. He was a timid, nervous man, and did not long survive his elevation. It was generally supposed that the shock he received at this brutal exhibition was the proximate cause of his death.

Whenever the Turks intend anything particularly insulting and contemptuous to Christians, the Jews are made the instruments. Balata, the Jews' quarter, was immediately in the rear of the Fanal, so they took from this district some of the meanest and basest they could find even among the degraded populace. The Greeks had humbly begged the body of the venerable head of their church to inter it decently, when the period of its exposure was past; but this was denied them. The body was taken down at the end of three days, and the rope by which it was suspended was put into the hands of those Jewish chiffûts, who were ordered to drag it by the neck down to the water. The distance was not far, but the way was through a very dirty market, where offals of all kinds were lying about in foul masses. Through these they drew it with gratuitous insult, exulting, as it were, in the detestable employment in which they were engaged; and after defiling the body in every way, it was cast into the harbour, where the waters closed over it. The conduct of the Jews on this occasion was considered as an indication of the deadly hatred they bore Christians, by thus treating the Oriental head of that church which had subverted their own; but it is probable that the creatures chosen for the purpose were incapable of sense or feeling on such a subject; they were as ignorant as they were abject — they acted under the impressions of terror and stupidity, and any exultation they showed was to gratify their more brutal and ferocious masters.

But the end was defeated, and that burial which the Turks denied was accorded to the Patriarch. In a few days after, a rumour of a miracle was spread abroad, that the body was found in the Euxine Sea. When, after a certain time, it became buoyant from putrescence, it floated out of the harbour, and the current of the Bosphorus would naturally carry it, as it did every other, into the Sea of Marmora. It was reported, however, to have been first discovered floating in the Black Sea, where it could not have been carried in the ordinary course of things. Wherever it was originally taken out of the water, it was certainly recognized as the remains of the Patriarch. It was brought to Odessa, where it was received with profound respect and veneration by the Greek residents and fugitives who then filled the town, and buried with all the pomp of the Greek and Russian churches united.

This venerable man, the head of the Oriental Christian church, was a native of the Morea, and had first been consecrated Bishop of Smyrna, where he left many testimonials of his piety and virtue. About the time of the French invasion of Egypt, he was translated to Constantinople, and elected Patriarch. The Turks, by a strange perversion, either thought, or affected to think, that the Greeks had in some way promoted this, in order to embarrass the government, so they proceeded to make them responsible, and levied severe exactions on them as delinquents. Gregory, by his spirited but prudent representations, protected his countrymen from this injustice, but he was himself deposed for his interposition, and banished to Mount Athos. A few years after he was recalled and reinstated; but as the jealousy of the Turks never sleeps, every Greek of an elevated rank is more or less suspected of communication with whomsoever may be the existing enemy. The Patriarch was exposed to great peril when the Russians commenced hostilities, and when the English fleet, under Admiral Duckworth, appeared before the Seraglio, he was charged with holding an intercourse with them also, so he was again deposed. His life was spared as an especial favour, but he was exiled a second time to Mount Athos. In conformity, however, to the anticanonical practice of the Porte, in frequently changing the heads of the Greek church as a source of revenue, because they receive a large sum on the election of every new Patriarch, they soon deposed his successor, and once more reinstated himself on the patriarchal throne. He knew he held it on a very precarious tenure; but he fearlessly made every exertion to approve himself a good pastor, and do all the service he could while he kept his unstable dignity.

The Patriarch left behind him various MSS. which evince his piety and learning. They consist of pastoral letters and homilies; but the only work he committed to press was the Epistles, rendered into modern Greek, with annotations. He was anxious to have the whole of the Scriptures so translated for general use, and became for that reason a patron and promoter of the plan proposed by the British and Foreign Bible Society.

According to Oriental usage from the earliest times, an inscription is placed upon every malefactor, to intimate to passengers the cause of his punishment. The Turks call this a yafta, or writing, and one was placed over the hanging bodies of the Patriarch and his bishops: they contained accusations of holding communications with the insurgents, and promoting their wicked designs “against the religion and might of Mahomet, established before God, more than a thousand years ago, and which will continue till the day of judgment, as is ascertained by prophecies and miracles from heaven." No shadow of proof, or just ground of suspicion, were ever stated against the Patriarch, though two causes were assigned by the Greeks for his death: the one was, that the family of Morousi, the dragoman of the Porte, who were, after his death, placed under the care of the Patriarch, were suffered to escape; and the other, which was the real cause, was that he was a Moreote. The Turks carry their idea of the liability of hostages to such an extent, that they make every man responsible for the actions of every other man of his nation. The insurrection had at this time spread to the Morea; and news had just arrived that the Greeks had taken Calavrita. The Patriarch was born in that district, and he was executed for the offences of his countrymen.

The effects of this wanton and causeless outrage upon all the Greeks held sacred excited the profoundest horror and hatred among every member of their church. The Russian Ambassador, as belonging to it, thought he had a right to demand some explanation, which he did in a strong and energetic manner.

He received for answer an assurance, that in punishing a subject of the Porte, no insult was intended to any religion, and that the political guilt of the Patriarch was established by various letters of his. The Ambassador required to see them, but the Turks denied his right to make such a demand, and they refused to show them. What gave a colour, however, to the charge was this: the Patriarch had been desirous for some time of establishing schools in the Morea, from a laudable and natural wish to improve and enlighten his own country in particular; and a person had been sent from thence to the capital to collect money for the purpose. The Patriarch gave him letters to others, who might wish to contribute to so desirable an object, and he was returning with the money, when he was arrested at Varna on some information. There were found on him, besides the Patriarch's letters, others from the adherents of Ypsilantes; and it was inferred that the sums collected for establishing schools were intended to be applied to the purposes of the insurrection.

Though this, I believe, was the first instance of the public execution of a Greek Patriarch by the Turks, others had been put to death by them; and they justified the present act by former precedent. Kioprili Mehmed Pasha, the celebrated Vizier of Mahomet IV., had caused two Patriarchs to be strangled in prison. This, however, did not reconcile it to the Greeks; the execution of the venerable head of their church in such a manner seemed to move them to an energy which they had not felt before. The sad news was rapidly conveyed over every place where a Greek population existed; and was probably the proximate cause of the expansion of the insurrection, which suddenly followed wherever it was possible for the spirit to show itself. The Sultan, who hitherto was called Hunker, or Hun-kair, “the Man-slayer," a dignified name, which implied his absolute power over the lives of all his subjects, was now denominated Kassápi, “the Butcher,” the lowest and most degrading term which hatred could invent.