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The 1453 Siege of Constantinople

Constantinople (Κωνσταντινούπολις) is a Greek city on European side of the Bosporus. It was founded as Byzantium (Βυζάντιον) by Greek colonists in about 667 BC, it was renamed Constantinople and became capital of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantium Empire. The city has been under Turkish occupation since 1453; in 1930 they started calling the city Istambul.

Constantinople was founded by Constantine the Great, through the enlargement of Byzantium, in A.D. 328, and was inaugurated as a new seat of government on the 11th of May, A.D. 330. To indicate its political dignity, it was named New Rome, while to perpetuate the fame of its founder it was styled Constantinople. The chief patriarch of the Greek church still signs himself "archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome." The old name of the place, Byzantium, however, continued in use.

The creation of a new capital by Constantine was not an act of personal caprice or individual judgment. It was the result of causes long in operation, and had been foreshadowed, forty years before, in the policy of Diocletian. After the senate and people of Rome had ceased to be the sovereigns of the Roman world, and their authority had been vested in the sole person of the emperor, the eternal city could no longer claim to be the rightful throne of the state. That honour could henceforth be conferred upon any place in the Roman world which might suit the convenience of the emperor, or serve more efficiently the interests he had to guard. Furthermore, the empire was now upon its defence. Dreams of conquests and extension had long been abandoned, and the pressing question of the time was how to repel the persistent assaults of Persia and the barbarians upon the frontiers of the realm, and so retain the dominion inherited from the valour of the past. The size of the empire made it difficult, if not impossible, to attend to these assaults, or to control the ambition of successful generals, from one centre. Then the East had grown in political importance, both as the scene of the most active life in the state and as the portion of the empire most exposed to attack. Hence the famous scheme of Diocletian to divide the burden of government between four colleagues, in order to secure a better administration of civil and of military affairs. It was a scheme, however, that lowered the prestige of Rome, for it involved four distinct seats of government, among which, as the event proved, no place was found for the ancient capital of the Roman world. It also declared the high position of the East, by the selection of Nicomedia in Asia Minor as the residence of Diocletian himself. When Constantine, therefore, established a new seat of government at Byzantium, he adopted a policy inaugurated before his day as essential to the preservation of the Roman dominion. He can claim originality only in his choice of the particular point at which that seat was placed, and in his recognition of the fact that his alliance with the Christian church could be best maintained in a new atmosphere.

Byzantium, out of which Constantinople sprang, was a small, well-fortified town, occupying most of the territory comprised in the two hills nearest the head of the promontory, and in the level ground at their base. The landward wall started from a point near the present Stamboul custom-house, and reached the ridge of the 2nd hill, a little to the east of the point marked by Chemberli Tash (the column of Constantine). There the principal gate of the town opened upon the Egnatian road. From that gate the wall descended towards the Sea of Marmora, touching the water in the neighbourhood of the Seraglio lighthouse. The Acropolis, enclosing venerated temples, crowned the summit of the first hill, where the Seraglio stands. Immediately to the south of the fortress was the principal market-place of the town, surrounded by porticoes on its four sides, and hence named the Tetrastoon. On the southern side of the square stood the baths of Zeuxippus, and beyond them, still farther south, lay the Hippodrome, which Septimius Severus had undertaken to build but failed to complete. Two theatres, on the eastern slope of the Acropolis, faced the bright waters of the Marmora, and a stadium was found on the level tract on the other side of the hill, close to the Golden Horn. The Strategion, devoted to the military exercises of the brave little town, stood close to Sirkedji Iskelessi, and two artificial harbours, the Portus Prosforianus and the Neorion, indented the shore of the Golden Horn

A graceful granite column, still erect on the slope above the head of the promontory, commemorated the victory of Claudius Gothicus over the Goths at Nissa, A.D. 269. All this furniture of Byzantium was appropriated for the use of the new capital.

According to Zosimus, the line of the landward walls erected by Constantine to defend New Rome was drawn at a distance of nearly 2 m. (15 stadia) to the west of the limits of the old town. It therefore ran across the promontory from the vicinity of Un Kapan Kapusi (Porta Platea), at the Stamboul head of the Inner Bridge, to the neighbourhood of Daud Pasha Kapusi (Porta S. Aemiliani), on the Marmora, and thus added the 3rd and 4 th hills and portions of the 5th and 7th hills to the territory of Byzantium. We have two indications of the course of these walls on the 7th hill. One is found in the name Isa Kapusi (the Gate of Jesus) attached to a mosque, formerly a Christian church, situated above the quarter of Psamatia. It perpetuates the memory of the beautiful gateway which formed the triumphal entrance into the city of Constantine, and which survived the original bounds of the new capital as late as 1508, when it was overthrown by an earthquake. The other indication is the name Alti Mermer (the six columns) given to a quarter in the same neighbourhood. The name is an ignorant translation of Exakionion, the corrupt form of the designation Exokionion, which belonged in Byzantine days to that quarter because marked by a column outside the city limits. Hence the Arians, upon their expulsion from the city by Theodosius I., were allowed to hold Walker sc.

their religious services in the Exokionion, seeing that it was an extra-mural district. This explains the fact that Arians are sometimes styled Exokionitae by ecclesiastical historians. The Constantinian line of fortifications, therefore, ran a little to the east of the quarter of Alti Mermer. In addition to the territory enclosed within the limits just described, the suburb of Sycae or Galata, on the opposite side of the Golden Horn, and the suburb of Blachernae, on the 6th hill, were regarded as parts of the city, but stood within their own fortifications. It was to the ramparts of Constantine that the city owed its. deliverance when attacked by the Goths, after the terrible defeat of Valens at Adrianople, A.D. 378.

In the opinion of his courtiers, the bounds assigned to New Rome by Constantine seemed, it is said, too wide, but after some eighty years they proved too narrow for the population that had gathered within the city. The barbarians had meantime also grown more formidable, and this made it necessary to have stronger fortifications for the capital. Accordingly, in 413, in the reign of Theodosius II., Anthemius, .then praetorian prefect of the East and regent, enlarged and refortified the city by the erection of the wall which forms the innermost line of defence in the bulwarks whose picturesque ruins now stretch from the Sea of Marmora, on the south of Yedi Kula (the seven towers), northwards to the old Byzantine palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfour Serai), above the quarter of Egri Kapu. There the new works joined the walls of the suburb of Blachernae, and thus Em ate70tPsamatfii:a Scale, 1:46,000 One Statute Mile 7 Ancient sites are shown by thick lines and lettered thus:-. Hippodrome Wall of Byzantium..,, --?--, Wall of Constantine Byzantine Walls .

5th Milita' Gate of P Gate of S.Romanus 4th. Military Gate Gate of 3rd.1121ltary Gate t ol '-ynegion ' ':Savrour ' _gala angan'- --ar,ui {hog s protected the city on the west down to the Golden Horn. Somewhat later, in 439, the walls along the Marmora and the Golden Horn were brought, by the prefect Cyrus, up to the extremities of the new landward walls, and thus invested the capital in complete armour. Then also Constantinople attained its final size. For any subsequent extension of the city limits was insignificant, and was due to strategic considerations. In 447 the wall of Anthemius was seriously injured by one of those earthquakes to which the city is liable. The disaster was all the more grave, as the Huns under Attila were carrying everything before them in the Balkan lands. The desperateness of the situation, however, roused the government of Theodosius II., who was still upon the throne, to put forth the most energetic efforts to meet the emergency. If we may trust two contemporary inscriptions, one Latin, the other Greek, still found on the gate Yeni Mevlevi Khaneh Kapusi (Porta Rhegium), the capital was again fully armed, and rendered more secure than ever, by the prefect Constantine, in less than two months. Not only was the wall of Anthemius restored, but, at the distance of 20 yds., another wall was built in front of it, and at the same distance from this second wall a broad moat was constructed with a breastwork along its inner edge. Each wall was flanked by ninety-six towers. According to some authorities, the moat was flooded during a siege by opening the aqueducts, which crossed the moat at intervals and conveyed water into the city in time of peace. This opinion is extremely doubtful. But in any case, here was a barricade 190-207 ft. thick, and loo ft. high, with its several parts rising tier above tier to permit concerted action, and alive with large bodies of troops ready to pour, from every coign of vantage, missiles of death - arrows, stones, Greek fire - upon a foe. It is not strange that these fortifications defied the assaults of barbarism upon the civilized life of the world for more than a thousand years. As might be expected, the walls demanded frequent restoration from time to time in the course of their long history. Inscriptions upon them record repairs, for example, under Justin II., Leo the Isaurian, Basil II., John Palaeologus, and others. Still, the ramparts extending now from the Marmora to Tekfour Serai are to all intents and purposes the ruins of the Theodosian walls of the 5th century.

This is not the case in regard to the other parts of the fortifications of the city. The walls along the Marmora and the Golden Horn represent the great restoration of the seaward defences of the capital carried out by the emperor Theophilus in the 9th century; while the walls between Tekfour Serai and the Golden Horn were built long after the reign of Theodosius II., superseding the defences of that quarter of the city in his day, and relegating them, as traces of their course to the rear of the later works indicate, to the secondary office of protecting the palace of Blachernae. In 627 Heraclius built the wall along the west of the quarter of Aivan Serai, in order to bring the level tract at the foot of the 6th hill within the city bounds, and shield the church of Blachernae, which had been exposed to great danger during the siege of the city by the Avars in that year. In 813 Leo V. the Armenian built the wall which stands in front of the wall of Heraclius to strengthen that point in view of an expected attack by the Bulgarians.

The splendid wall, flanked by nine towers, that descends from the court of Tekfour Serai to the level tract below Egri Kapu, was built by Manuel Comnenus (1143-1180) for the greater security of the part of the city in which stood the palace of Blachernae, then the favourite imperial residence. Lastly, the portion of the fortifications between the wall of Manuel and the wall of Heraclius presents too many problems to be discussed here. Enough to say, that in it we find work belonging to the times of the Comneni, Isaac Angelus and the Palaeologi.

If we leave out of account the attacks upon the city in the course of the civil wars between rival parties in the empire, the fortifications of Constantinople were assailed by the Avars in 627; by the Saracens in 673-677, and again in 718; by the Bulgarians in 813 and 913; by the forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1203-1204; by the Turks in 1422 and 1453. The city was taken in 1204, and became the seat of a Latin empire until 1261, when it was recovered by the Greeks. On the 29th of May 1453 Constantinople ceased to be the capital of the Roman empire in the East, and became the capital of the Ottoman dominion.

The most noteworthy points in the circuit of the walls of the city are the following. (1) The Golden gate, now included in the Turkish fortress of Yedi Kula. It is a triumphal archway, consisting of three arches, erected in honour of the victory of Theodosius I. over Maximus in 388, and subsequently incorporated in the walls of Theodosius II., as the state entrance of the capital. (2) The gate of Selivria, or of the Pege, through which Alexius Strategopoulos made his way into the city in 1261, and brought the Latin empire of Constantinople to an end. (3) The gate of St Romanus (Top Kapusi), by which, in 1453, Sultan Mahommed entered Constantinople after the fall of the city into Turkish hands. (4) The great breach made in the ramparts crossing the valley of the Lycus, the scene of the severest fighting in the siege of 1453, where the Turks stormed the city, and the last Byzantine emperor met his heroic death. (5) The palace of the Porphyrogenitus,long erroneously identified with the palace of the Hebdomon, which really stood at Makrikeui. It is the finest specimen of Byzantine civil architecture left in the city. (6) The tower of Isaac Angelus and the tower of Anemas, with the chambers in the body of the wall to the north of them. (7) The wall of Leo, against which the troops of the Fourth Crusade came, in 1203, from their camp on the hill opposite the wall, and delivered their chief attack. (8) The walls protecting the quarter of Phanar, which the army and fleet of the Fourth Crusade under the Venetian doge Henrico Dandolo carried in 1204. (9) Yali Kiosk Kapusi, beside which the southern end of the chain drawn across the mouth of the harbour during a siege was attached. (10) The ruins of the palace of Hormisdas, near Chatladi Kapu, once the residence of Justinian the Great and Theodora. It was known in later times as the palace of the Bucoleon, and was the scene of the assassination of Nicephorus Phocas. (11) The sites of the old harbours between Chatladi Kapu and Daud Pasha Kapusi. (12) The fine marble tower near the junction of the walls along the Marmora with the landward walls.

The interior arrangements of the city were largely determined by the configuration of its site, which falls into three great divisions, - the level ground and slopes looking towards the Sea of Marmora, the range of hills forming the midland portion of the promontory, and the slopes and level ground facing the Golden Horn. In each division a great street ran through the city from east to west, generally lined with arcades on one side, but with arcades on both sides when traversing the finer and busier quarters. The street along the ridge formed the principal thoroughfare, and was named the Mese (Mr), because it ran through the middle of the city. On reaching the west of the 3rd hill, it divided into two branches, one leading across the 7th hill to the Golden gate, the other conducting to the church of the Holy Apostles, and the gate of Charisius (Edirneh Kapusi). The Mese linked together the great fora of the city, - the Augustalon on the south of St Sophia, the forum of Constantine on the summit of the 2nd hill, the forum of Theodosius I. or of Taurus on the summit of the 3rd hill, the forum of Amastrianon where the mosque of Shah Zadeh is situated, the forum of the Bous at Ak Serai, and the forum of Arcadius or Theodosius II. on the summit of the 7th hill. This was the route followed on the occasion of triumphal processions.

Of the edifices and monuments which adorned the fora, only a slight sketch can be given here. On the north side of the Augustaion rose the church of St Sophia, the most glorious cathedral of Eastern Christendom; opposite, on the southern side of the square, was the Chalce, the great gate of the imperial palace; on the east was the senate house, with a porch of six noble columns; to the west, across the Mese, were the law courts. In the area of the square stood the Milion, whence distances from Constantinople were measured, and a lofty column which bore the equestrian statue of Justinian the Great. There also was the statue of the empress Eudoxia, famous in the history of Chrysostom, the pedestal of which is preserved near the church of St Irene. The Augustaion was the heart of the city's ecclesiastical and political life. The forum of Constantine was a great business centre. Its most remarkable monument was the column of Constantine, built of twelve drums of porphyry and bearing aloft his statue. Shorn of much of its beauty, the column still stands to proclaim the enduring influence of the foundation of the city.

In the forum of Theodosius I. rose a column in his honour, constructed on the model of the hollow columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius at Rome. There also was the Anemodoulion, a beautiful pyramidal structure, surmounted by a vane to indicate the direction of the wind. Close to the forum, if not in it, was the capitol, in which the university of Constantinople was established. The most conspicuous object in the forum of the Bous was the figure of an ox, in bronze, beside which the bodies of criminals were sometimes burnt. Another hollow column, the pedestal of which is now known as Avret Tash, adorned the forum of Arcadius. A column in honour of the emperor Marcian still stands in the valley of the Lycus, below the mosque of Sultan Mahommed the Conqueror. Many beautiful statues, belonging to good periods of Greek and Roman art, decorated the fora, streets and public buildings of the city, but conflagrations and the vandalism of the Latin and Ottoman conquerors of Constantinople have robbed the world of those treasures.

The imperial palace, founded by Constantine and extended by his successors, occupied the territory which lies to the east of St Sophia and the Hippodrome down to the water's edge. It consisted of a large number of detached buildings, in grounds made beautiful with gardens and trees, and commanding magnificent views over the Sea of Marmora, across to the hills and mountains of the Asiatic coast. The buildings were mainly grouped in three divisions - the Chalce, the Daphne and the " sacred palace." Labarte and Paspates have attempted to reconstruct the palace, taking as their guide the descriptions given of it by Byzantine writers. The work of Labarte is specially valuable, but without proper excavations of the site all attempts to restore the plan of the palace with much accuracy lack a solid foundation. With the accession of Alexius Comnenus, the palace of Blachernae, at the north-western corner of the city, became the principal residence of the Byzantine court, and was in consequence extended and embellished. It stood in a more retired position, and was conveniently situated for excursions into the country and hunting expeditions. Of the palaces outside the walls, the most frequented were the palace at the Ilebdomon, now Makrikeui, in the early days of the Empire, and the palace of the Pege, now Balukli, a short distance beyond the gate of Selivria, in later times. For municipal purposes, the city was divided, like Rome, into fourteen Regions.

As the seat of the chief prelate of Eastern Christendom, Constantinople was characterized by a strong theological and ecclesiastical temperament. It was full of churches and monasteries, enriched with the reputed relics of saints, prophets and martyrs, which consecrated it a holy city and attracted pilgrims from every quarter to its shrines. It was the meeting-place of numerous ecclesiastical councils, some of them ecumenical (see below, Constantinople, Councils Of). It was likewise distinguished for its numerous charitable institutions. Only some twenty of the old churches of the city are left. Most of them have been converted into mosques, but they are valuable monuments of the art which flourished in New Rome. Among the most interesting are the following. St John of the Studium (Emir= Achor Jamissi) is a basilica of the middle of the 5th century, and the oldest ecclesiastical fabric in the city; it is now, unfortunately, almost a complete ruin. SS. Sergius and Bacchus (Kutchuk Aya Sofia) and St Sophia are erections of Justinian the Great. The former is an example of a dome placed on an octagonal structure, and in its general plan is similar to the contemporary church of S. Vitale at Ravenna. St Sophia (i.e. `Ayla /o(Pia, Holy Wisdom) is the glory of Byzantine art, and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. St Mary Diaconissa (Kalender Jamissi) is a fine specimen of the work of the closing years of the 6th century. St Irene, founded by Constantine, and repaired by Justinian, is in its present form mainly a restoration by Leo the Isaurian, in the middle of the 8th century. St Mary Panachrantos (Fenari Isa Mesjidi) belongs to the reign of Leo the Wise (886-912). The Myrelaion (Bodrum Jami) dates from the 10th century. The Pantepoptes (Eski Imaret Jamissi), the Pantocrator (Zeirek Kilisse Jamissi), and the body of the church of the Chora (Kahriyeh Jamissi) represent the age of the Comneni. The Pammacaristos (Fetiyeh Jamissi), St Andrew in Krisei (Khoja Mustapha Jamissi), the narthexes and side chapel of the Chora were, at least in their present form, erected in the times of the Palaeologi. It is difficult to assign precise dates to SS. Peter and Mark (Khoda Mustapha Jamissi at Aivan Serai), St Theodosia (Gul Jamissi), St Theodore Tyrone (Kilisse Jamissi). The beautiful façade of the last is later than the other portions of the church, which have been assigned to the 9th or 10th century.

For the thorough study of the church of St Sophia, the reader must consult the works of Fossati, Salzenburg, Lethaby and Swainson, and Antoniadi. The present edifice was built by Justinian the Great, under the direction of Anthemius of Tralles and his nephew Isidorus of Miletus. It was founded in 532 and dedicated on Christmas Day 538. It replaced two earlier churches of that name, the first of which was built by Constantius and burnt down in 404, on the occasion of the exile of Chrysostom, while the second was erected by Theodosius II. in 415, and destroyed by fire in the Nika riot of 532. Naturally the church has undergone repair from time to time. The original dome fell in 558, as the result of an earthquake, and among the improvements introduced in the course of restoration, the dome was raised 25 ft. higher than before. Repairs are recorded under Basil I., Basil II., Andronicus III. and Cantacuzene. Since the Turkish conquest a minaret has been erected at each of the four exterior angles of the building, and the interior has been adapted to the requirements of Moslem worship, mainly by the destruction or concealment of most of the mosaics which adorned the walls. In 1847-1848, during the reign of Abd-ul-Mejid, the building was put into a state of thorough repair by the Italian architect Fossati. Happily the sultan allowed the mosaic figures, then exposed to view, to be covered with matting before being plastered over. They may reappear in the changes which the future will bring.

The exterior appearance of the church is certainly disappointing, but within it is, beyond all question, one of the most beautiful creations of human art. On a large scale, and in magnificent style, it combines the attractive features of a basilica, with all the glory of an edifice crowned by a dome. We have here a stately hall, 235 ft. N. and S., by 250 ft. E. and W., divided by two piers and eight columns on either hand into nave and aisles, with an apse at the eastern end and galleries on the three other sides. Over the central portion of the nave, a square area at the angles of which stand the four piers, and at a height of 179 ft. above the floor, spreads a dome, 107 ft. in diameter, and 46 ft. deep, its base pierced by forty arched windows. From the cornice of the dome stretches eastwards and westwards a semidome, which in its turn rests upon three small semi-domes. The nave is thus covered completely by a domical canopy, which, in its ascent, swells larger and larger, mounts higher and higher, as though a miniature heaven rose overhead. For lightness, for grace, for proportion, the effect is unrivalled. The walls of the building are reveted with marbles of various hues and patterns, arranged to form beautiful designs, and traces of the mosaics which joined the marbles in the rich and soft coloration of the whole interior surface of the building appear at many points. There are forty columns on the ground floor and sixty in the galleries, often crowned with beautiful capitals, in which the monograms of the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora are inscribed. The eight porphyry columns, placed in pairs in the four bays at the corners of the nave, belonged originally to the temple of the sun at Baalbek. They were subsequently carried to Rome by Aurelian, and at length presented to Justinian by a lady named Marcia, to be erected in this church " for the salvation of her soul." The columns of verde antique on either side of the nave are commonly said to have come from the temple of Diana at Ephesus, but recent authorities regard them as specially cut for use in the church. The inner narthex of the church formed a magnificent vestibule 205 ft. long by 26 ft. wide, reveted with marble slabs and glowing with mosaics.

The citizens of Constantinople found their principal recreation in the chariot-races held in the Hippodrome, now the At Meidan, to the west of the mosque of Sultan Ahmed. So much did the race-course (begun by Severus but completed by Constantine) enter into the life of the people that it has been styled " the axis of the Byzantine world." It was not only the scene of amusement, but on account of its ample accommodation it was also the arena of much of the political life of the city. The factions, which usually contended there in sport, often gathered there in party strife. There emperors were acclaimed or insulted; there military triumphs were celebrated; there criminals were executed, and there martyrs were burned at the stake. Three monuments remain to mark the line of the Spina, around which the chariots whirled; an Egyptian obelisk of Thothmes III., on a pedestal covered with bas-reliefs representing Theodosius I., the empress Galla, and his sons Arcadius and Honorius, presiding at scenes in the Hippodrome; the triple serpent column, which stood originally at Delphi, to commemorate the victory of Plataea 479 B.C.; a lofty pile of masonry, built in the form of an obelisk, and once covered with plates of gilded bronze. Under the Turkish buildings along the western side of the arena, some arches against which seats for the spectators were built are still visible.

The city was supplied with water mainly from two sources; from the streams immediately to the west, and from the springs and rain impounded in reservoirs in the forest of Belgrade, to the north-west, very much on the system followed by the Turks. The water was conveyed by aqueducts, concealed below the surface, except when crossing a valley. Within the city the water was stored in covered cisterns, or in large open reservoirs. The aqueduct of Justinian, the Crooked aqueduct, in the open country, and the aqueduct of Valens that spans the valley between the 4th and 3rd hills of the city, still carry on their beneficent work, and afford evidence of the attention given to the water-supply of the capital during the Byzantine period. The cistern of Arcadius, to the rear of the mosque of Sultan Selim (having, it has been estimated, a capacity of 6,571,720 cubic ft. of water), the cistern of Aspar, a short distance to the east of the gate of Adrianople, and the cistern of Mokius, on the 7th hill, are specimens of the open reservoirs within the city walls. The cistern of Bin Bir Derek (cistern of Illus) with its 22 4 columns, each built up with three shafts, and the cistern Yeri Batan Serai (Cisterna Basilica) with its 420 columns show what covered cisterns were, on a grand scale. The latter is still in use.' Byzantine Constantinople was a great commercial centre. To equip it more fully for that purpose, several artificial harbours were constructed along the southern shore of the city, where no natural haven existed to accommodate ships coming up the Sea of Marmora. For the convenience of the imperial court, there was a small harbour in the bend of the shore to the east of Chatladi Kapu, known as the harbour of the Bucoleon. To the west of that gate, on the site of Kadriga Limani (the Port of the Galley), was the harbour of Julian, or, as it was named later, the harbour of Sophia (the empress of Justin II.). Traces of the harbour styled the Kontoscalion are found at Kum Kapu. To the east of Yeni Kapu stood the harbour of Kaisarius or the Heptascalon, while to the west of that gate was the harbour which bore the names of Eleutherius and of Theodosiur I. A harbour named after the Golden gate stood on the shore to the south-west of the triumphal gate of the city.


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Part of this article consists of modified text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition of 1911, which is no longer restricted by copyright.
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