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This article describes a wondrous tour in Constantinople to investigate credible information on an exciting scenario regarding the burial ground of Constantine Palaiologos. The information we gathered is astounding! Even though we were wandering around for several hours without finding exactly what we were looking for, we at least had the chance to daydream for a while. To us Greeks, Constantinople is the legendary city of our hearts, where we are allowed to daydream without the risk of being misjudged as stargazers.
The lit candle
In Fatih, a district of Constantinople, stands the Gül mosque, housed in the former Byzantine temple of Saint Theodosia, which was transformed to a mosque by the Ottomans after the Fall of the city. Saint Theodosia was adored by the residents of Constantinople, therefore they used to decorate the temple with roses on May 29th of every year, in her honor.
In 1453, just like every year before that, the pious filled the temple of Saint Theodosia with roses on the eve of the celebration. During that dreadful year, however, roses flooded the temple. People were on their knees praying that Constantinople would be saved, trying to block out the war drums that could be heard in a distance. The enemy Turkish soldiers were beating the drums harder than ever before, signaling they were ready for their final attack on the city.
On the 29th of May, the sun rose and Constantinople fell. The Turkish soldiers, who were wandering around the streets shouting and pillaging, burst into the temple of Saint Theodosia.
The countless roses stopped them in their tracks. "Gül tzami, Gül tzami!" they exclaimed. In Turkish the word gül means rose and the word tzami means mosque, so they were probably saying admiration: "a church of roses".
The Greeks of Constantinople - since the Fall of the city and up until today - have connected this mosque to Constantine Palaiologos’ grave. They say that there is a tomb with a stone on its headrest in a grassy plot thereabout, which probably belongs to the emperor.
A candle was continuously lit by the grave, burning on years on end, but they dared not ask who kept lighting it. Some say that Muhammad the Conqueror himself ordered his men to never let the candle's flame quench and personally paid for the oil.
The Gül mosque's legend doesn't end here; on the contrary, it gets more and more fascinating. In the mosque's yard there is a grave of someone named "Gül Baba", a sort of saint for the Muslims.
There are many people who connect this grave to the last emperor. They believe that Constantine Palaiologos might have been buried headless, since the sultan ordered that his head was to be displayed to the public on a pillar in a building near Hagia Sophia for a couple of days.
If it is true that the sultan gave the emperor's body to the Greeks for burial, then the most likely scenario is that they buried him near the temple of Saint Theodosia who was being celebrated during those days. How can this be verified, however? Who would dare to ask for the opening of a Muslim saint's tomb, in order to investigate if it contains a headless Byzantine skeleton?
The 13th Apostle
The most important testimony connecting the Gül mosque to the possibility of a very important Byzantine personality having been buried there, comes from the renowned byzantinologist Maria Theocharis, sister of the celebrated academician Pericles Theocharis.
A few years ago, this scientist, managed to go down in the basement of Gül mosque, where she saw a tomb with the Greek inscription: "Here lies the 13th Apostle".
She was allowed to go down there because she was a professor at an Italian university and the Turks believed she was Italian.
Of course, she wondered which great personality this grave belonged to. Since Constantine the Great had been called that centuries ago, which descendant would deserve such an title after his passing?
Why is the grave in the basement and not in a prominent place outdoors? Why didn't the men who buried him carve his real name in the inscription? Did they want to misguide someone or imply something?
Maria Theocharis, who has since passed away, studied archaeology, Byzantine art and museography in Athens, Sorbonne, Louvre and Munich, while she taught Byzantine iconography in Bari and Ravenna of Italy.
She also donated her personal library, which contained 3.000 tomes and objects of historic value, to the Byzantine Museum of Athens. She was the academic who after thorough research in San Lorenzo in Campio of Italy, discovered of the remains of Saint Demetrius and paved the way for their return to Thessaloniki.
Consequently, her witness is totally reliable, and she also documented it, fearing that some intolerant people might destroy the tomb.
Knowing her findings, related to us by family members and very close friends of her, we tried to enter the Gül mosque but were rudely turned away when the keepers got wind of our profession and nationality.
Behind the show case
Enchanted by the legends and the testimonies about the Gül mosque, we wore down our shoes walking around the streets of Fatih. We tried to enter the neighboring and ruined monastery of Saint Theodosia, which had been turned into a hammam bath and then left to rot.
In order to enter the monastery, however, though, one had to go through houses and gardens, which proved very difficult, as there are families living in there. We then looked for the open grave without an inscription in street near the mosque, the location of which had been marked on a map by a prominent Greek of Constantinople.
Unfortunately, this grave has since been destroyed, possibly because the road was constructed or some structure was built upon it. There was only a small mosque in the street and a tomb to the roadside, with some imam's information carved on it.
Alongside with our quests in Fatih, we saw images of the modern Turkey that are not shown in TV series and tourist brochures; densely populated neighborhoods, women with headscarves doing their housework on the road outside their houses, children playing ball in the middle of the street among cars, tiny grocery selling dried vegetables and salted foods, Kurdish refugees from eastern Turkey fretting because of the racial discrimination against them.
We didn't see any squares, parks, benches or trees. The secular Turkish state is barely apparent in the crowded neighborhoods of Constantinople, with the serious social and cultural inequalities and the unsurpassed minority problems.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS