Among the numerous Christian accounts on the ultimate fall of ‘their’ Constantinople in 1453, a Russian eyewitness (?) report by a certain Nestor-Iskinder occupies a special place, since its author is said to have been partially Turkicized. Several hypotheses exist with regard to the genesis of this report, entitled The Tale of Constantinople (Povest’ o Tsar’grade), and ascribed to a certain Nestor-Iskinder. To the present day, we know of only one version – the so-called Iskinder version – to which we can attach an author’s (or compiler’s?) name. Only at the very end of his text, this ‘author’ in a kind of epilogue reveals that his name is Nestor-Iskinder, an otherwise unknown (Belo- or White) Russian, who as a boy was taken captive by foraying Ottoman Turks in Southern Russia. There is no evidence that this boy has ever been part of the sultan’s Janissary corps, but from his epilogue we know that at some point in the turbulent weeks during which the Byzantine capital desperately tried to resist the nearly continuous attacks, he managed to escape the Ottoman camp. The rest of the siege and the capture on 29 May 1453, he says to have witnessed from the side of the Christian defenders. Basing himself upon what he saw with his own eyes and what he heard from others afterwards, he wrote a report of the historic events, but to what extent this resembles the text that we can still read in the Iskinder version, is impossible to find out now.
As regards its contents, the Tale of Constantinople is a rather heterogeneous work, as is obvious from its extended title: About Its Foundation and Capture by the Turks in 1453. The first of three clearly separable parts describes – at times in a colourless, annalistic way – the (re)foundation of the city in 330 AD, by Emperor Constantine I, its name giver. The far longer and livelier middle part treats the series of attacks, in the spring of 1453, which finally led to the fall of the capital. Here, most of the attention is drawn to the deeds of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI. Regularly, he speaks in direct speech, mostly in anxious consultations with ecclesiastical dignitaries, especially with an unhistorical patriarch. Now and then, the emperor enters the arena himself too, which results in some very epic scenes. From the beginning, however, there can be no doubt about the outcome of the events: because of its many sins Constantinople is doomed to fall, and the hopeful arrival of the Genoese condottiere Giovanni Giustiniani and his troops cannot save the city either. Giustiniani gets injured (which is historical) and the emperor (whose historical fate is uncertain) as a true martyr dies in battle. At the end, we see the Ottoman troops ravaging within the city’s conquered walls. Apart from Giustiniani (Zustuneia in the text) and the evident protagonist, Emperor Constantine (Kostiantin), Sultan Mehmed (Magumet) too is one of the main characters. Since the report is clearly written from a Christian point of view (so, if the eyewitness as a boy had been converted to Islam, we get the impression that he was all the time a Muslim against his will) the sultan’s character is obviously ‘the enemy’. Sultan Mehmed, though, is rather feared than cursed in the text, and the description of his entrance in the city on horseback and of his admiration for the Holy Sophia Cathedral is surprisingly reverential. In the third and again much shorter part, complex predictions are offered – based upon diverse prophecies which then circulated in Byzantium – about the end of the Turkish rule over the city. The whole account, well over forty modern pages, is concluded by the contested epilogue.
The only manuscript (found so far; Troitse-Sergieva lavra, No. 773) containing this epilogue, and thus the name ‘Nestor-Iskinder’, dates back to the early sixteenth century and comes from the Trinity Monastery of Saint Sergius (some 90 km northeast of Moscow, where it is now in the Russian State Library). It was discovered by archimandrite – a high title in Orthodox monasticism – Leonid Kavelin, who changed the second part of the author’s name ‘Iskinder’ into ‘Iskander’, when he told the world about his finding (1886). ‘Iskander’ may indeed sound more ‘oriental’ in Russian ears: ‘Iskandar’ was the Arabic name for Alexander the Great – the ‘Al-‘ being interpreted as an article – from which Turkish sound laws made ‘İskender’. So, although the manuscript reads ‘Nestor-Iskinder’, Kavelin’s choice has brought on that histories of literature mentioning him, usually speak of ‘Nestor-Iskander’. Evidently, there are many speculations on how the self-declared eyewitness report may have ended up in Russia; or did the text come about on Russian soil? More certainty exists with regard to the second, anonymous branch of the textual tradition, the so-called ‘chronographic redaction’. A considerable amount of extant manuscripts (some scholars speak about 200) belongs to this branch: all more or less similar versions of the Tale of Constantinople, many of which have been added to Russian chronicles.
The Serbian version of the Tale also reaches back to this tradition: it was translated (and somewhat adapted) in 1585 near Mount Athos by the priest-monk Vasilije. Much younger, dating from the second half of the eighteenth century is the Bulgarian version, actually a translation of the text as it appeared in the first Russian printed edition (1713). The Bulgarian Tale is part of the damaskini, anthologies named after the sixteenth-century Greek bishop and teacher Damascenus Studites, whose many works were translated and collected in Bulgarian compilations. All these versions, too, belong to the chronographic branch, the manuscripts (and early prints) of which are all (except for one isolated late 15th-century folio) younger than the one manuscript with the epilogue. Given its particular position the Iskinder version thus remains curious and indeed questionable. Is the epilogue – the small piece of text which lends this version of the Tale its own identity, which indeed makes it unique – a falsification? Certainly, the Tale of Constantinople contains some historical details that are not mentioned in any other account. Overall, though, historians cannot rely too much on it, but what makes the text so intriguing is precisely that it presents itself as an eyewitness account. The last decades have definitely seen a memory boom, and to the average reader putative (eye)witnesses have often turned out to be at least as fascinating as fully reliable witnesses.
Even among Slavists, the Tale of Constantinople is not yet very widely known. The sheer amount of extant texts (from the chronographic branch), however, indicates the importance it must have had among the Slavs throughout the centuries. The anti-Turkish purport of the account turned it for the Russians and the Balkan Slavs into a suitable instrument in support of their political propaganda against the Ottoman Empire. The Russian 1713 edition (see above) was printed in the context of Peter the Great’s campaign near the Sea of Azov and the river Prut, while the Bulgarian translation must of course be connected with the Bulgarians’ demand for independence and the overthrow of the so-called ‘Ottoman yoke’. Within their literary history, the Tale could patriotically be regarded as a kind of epic of the oppressed. Especially the apocalyptic third part of the Tale, in which Constantinople is prophesied to fall in the hands of a ‘blonde race’ (rusii rod, sometimes changed into ruskii rod, the ‘Russian race’), was very useful to the Russians, for it served their well-known, albeit currently somewhat questioned ‘theory of Moscow as the Third (and ultimate) Rome’ – after the First (ancient) Rome, and the Second Rome, Constantinople. Apart from histories of the 1453 fall and literary-historical surveys, it is exactly within Russian nationalist(‑orthodox) discourses of this kind that we now, in postcommunist times, might still bump into Nestor-Iskinder’s name.
Atanasov, Petăr, Bălgaro-ruski literaturni vrăzki prez XVII i XVIII v., Sofiia: Nauka i izkustvo, 1986.
Azbelev, Sergei Nikolaevich, “K datirovke russkoi Povesti o vziatii Tsar’grada turkami”, Trudy otdela drevnerusskoi literatury, 1961, vol. 17, pp. 334-337.
De Dobbeleer, Michel, Het epos van 1453? Nestor-Iskinders middeleeuws-Russische Verhaal over Constantinopel via literatuurwetenschappelijke (om)wegen, Gent: Universiteit Gent, 2011.
Hanak, Walter K., “One Source, Two Renditions: The Tale of Constantinople and Its Fall in 1453”, Byzantinoslavica, 2004, vol. 62, no. 1 pp. 239-250.
Nestor-Iskander [Nestor-Iskinder], Povest’ o Tsar’grade (ego osnovanii i vziatii Turkami v 1453 godu) XV veka: po rukopisi Troitse-Sergievoi lavry nach. XVI veka, No 773 (izd. & predisl. arkhimandrit Leonid), Sankt-Peterburg: Balashev, 1886.
Tvorogov, Oleg Viktorovich, “Nestor Iskander”, Slovar’ knizhnikov i knizhnosti Drevnej Rusi (vyp. 2: vtoraia polovina XIV – XVI v., chast’ 2), ed. D.S. Likhachev, Leningrad: Nauka, 1989, pp. 124-125.
Tvorogov, Oleg Viktorovich, “Povesti o vziatii Konstantinopolia turkami v 1453 g”, Slovar’ knizhnikov i knizhnosti Drevnej Rusi (vyp. 2: vtoraia polovina XIV – XVI v., chast’ 2), ed. D.S. Likhachev, Leningrad: Nauka, 1989, pp. 195-197.
Unbegaun, Boris, « Les relations vieux-russes de la prise de Constantinople», Revue des études slaves, 1929, vol. 9, pp.13-38.