Early Christianity developed several centers of gravity. The first was Rome, home of Catholic Christianity (and from it, Protestantism). Another came to be Constantinople, source of the Eastern or Orthodox branches of the church.

Constantinople was born in 324 when Emperor Constantine, believing the future lay in the East rather than the West, decided to move his capital from Rome to Byzantium, a site on the eastern flank of Europe, astride the Bosporus. He led his aides, engineers, and priests on a march around its harbor and hills, tracing the boundaries of his envisioned capital. He imported thousands of workers and artisans to build its walls, buildings, palaces, squares, streets, and porticoes. He placed sculptures in the parks and fountains in the forums. Before long there was a fabulous hippodrome, a prized university, five imperial palaces, nine palaces for dignitaries, 4,388 mansions, 322 streets, 1,000 shops, 100 places of amusement, splendid baths, magnificent churches, and a swelling population. It was a city that shimmered in the sunshine.

The New Rome was dedicated as capital of the Eastern Empire on May 11, 330. Paganism was officially ended, Christianity was embraced, and the bishop (or patriarch) of Constantinople rivaled the bishop of Rome. Here the world’s most beautiful church was built—the Church of Holy Wisdom, St. Sophia.

For 1,000 years, Constantinople preserved the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire). Christianity moved along parallel tracks, Catholic and Orthodox. The pope and the patriarch rivaled each other, then rejected each other. The greatest division in Christianity was not the Reformation in 1517, splitting Catholics from Protestants, but the Great Schism in 1054, splitting apart the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. From Constantinople came great Eastern Orthodox families of the church, such as the Russian and Greek Orthodox traditions.

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The Church of St. Sophia was converted to a mosque, then to a museum. Constantinople is now called Istanbul, and Turkey, once the bastion of Christianity, is the largest “unreached” nation on earth.

All of you nations, come praise the Lord! Let everyone praise him. His love for us is wonderful; His faithfulness never ends. Shout praises to the Lord! (Psalm 117:1,2)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 11.

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