The Fall of Constantinople
Unbeknownst to many, yet well known to Greeks and Turks, is the historical significance of today. On this day 563 years ago the city of Constantinople, the capital of the once powerful Byzantine Empire, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. On 29 May 1453, after weeks of besieging the city, Ottoman troops breached the great Theodosian walls and captured Constantinople, finally fulfilling a centuries old Muslim aspiration. This momentous event marked the end of the Byzantine Empire yet it also effectively marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries would dominate the Middle East and southeastern Europe, and would be a menace to the rest of Europe.
Today in Istanbul there is great celebration. In Yenikapı Square an estimated 1 million Turks attended a grandiose ceremony to mark the 563rd anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. Obversely for Greeks, today is a rather lamentable one reminding them of the end of the last great flowering of Greek civilization and the start of nearly 400 years of Ottoman occupation. Such feelings are worsened by Greece’s current state of affairs, in which it appears that the nation is once again being enslaved, not by the cannon and sword of the Ottoman, but by the dictates and economic policies of the EU technocrat.
In a sense while the Ottomans brought a hard tyranny to Greece and the other lands of the Byzantine Empire, the EU is bringing a pernicious soft tyranny to Greece. The current situation is also aggravated by the fact that the Greeks are hardly putting up any meaningful resistance to their soft enslavement. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, while producing smoke and noise at times, ultimately has capitulated to the EU and has betrayed the will of the Greek people. In contrast the Emperor Constantine IX Dragases, even though his situation was hopeless and in spite of counsel to flee his besieged capital, instead behaved nobly and fought heroically against the Ottoman hordes.
When Greeks voted over 60% in a referendum to reject the EU bailout package, Tsipras, instead of using the referendum result as leverage to negotiate a better deal for Greece, accepted one that was worse than the initial EU offer. In effect Greece had been economically and politically conquered in the most humiliating of fashions. Interestingly, when I heard of Tsipras’ capitulation, my mind immediately thought of the fall of Constantinople.
The story of the latter is a tragic one. It tells of a once great empire that had atrophied to a few parcels of land and of what was once the largest city in the medieval world, numbering around 1 million inhabitants, becoming a run down partially abandoned city of only 100,000. It ends with this infirmed civilization finally being put to rest by the crushing blows of the Ottomans. But as has already been mentioned it a heroic tale, in which the Byzantine Greeks and their allies fought valiantly against the inevitable. This heroic aspect is what differentiates the fall of Constantinople from the tragedy Greece is now experiencing.
With this in mind I thought it would be appropriate to commemorate the 593rd anniversary of the fall of Constantinople by presenting a brief synopsis of that fateful event. At the very least this tragic and heroic historical story will make for an interesting and educational read and at best it may inspire us and teach us something that may be of use during the travails Greece and the world are now experiencing.
The Byzantine Empire
Some may be familiar with the word byzantine, which connotes a bureaucracy laden with onerous red tape, but beyond that they will have little knowledge of the Byzantine Empire. What many fail to realize is that when Rome collapsed in the fifth century, the Roman Empire continued on in the East as the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople. While the Byzantines can generally be considered as having a Greek culture (although there were a variety of different ethnic groups present) they referred to themselves as Romaioi (i.e. Romans).
Tradition has it that the city of Constantinople was initially founded in the 658 BC by Byzas, from which the city’s initial name of Byzantium was derived. The city’s strategic position, overlooking the Bosporus straights and acting as a junction between Europe and Asia, caught the eye of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who decided to make it the new imperial capital. In AD 330 on May 11, following 40 days of lavish ceremonies, the city was dedicated to God and for the next eleven centuries would be the capital of the Byzantine Empire and during which time it was known by the name of Constantinople.
The near millennium long history of the Byzantines was filled with many vicissitudes. At its apex the Byzantine Emperor was a medieval economic and military superpower. However, as with all civilizations it entered into decline, the turning point generally marked by the Battle of Manzikert. But the real nail in the coffin occurred in 1204 during the fourth Crusade when Constantinople was sacked by the Venetians and Crusaders. This disaster caused the Empire to fracture into multiple principalities, which would never be fully re-unified, except under Ottoman rule.
During the 1400’s the Empire was a shadow of its former shelf. Once composed of territories in northern Africa, the Levant, Turkey and the Balkans, it was reduced to only a few pieces of land in Greece and its once magnificent capital. Byzantine emperors were forced to act as beggars. In 1400 Manual II traveled to the West, including England in an attempt to gather assistance against the onslaught of the Turks. In 1438 John VIII signed a conciliatory political and religious agreement with the Catholic Church at the Council of Ferrara. Then in 1449 when Constantine Dragases succeeded his brother John VII, the new and last emperor sent an ambassador to the West hoping to secure military assistance against the Turks.
To many Byzantines their officials, for communing with the Latin heretical schismatics, had literally sold their souls in return for hardly any reward. For a variety of reasons, no significant Western military aid was given as a result of the 1449 and Council of Florence agreements. However, in all honesty these agreements were never implemented by the Byzantines, partly due to resistance from the clergy of the Orthodox Church. This Orthodox resistance to the Catholic Church was well summed up by a saying which has been attributed to the important Byzantine official Lucas Notaras, “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Cardinal’s hat.” Unfortunately for the Byzantines they would soon become well acquainted with the Sultan’s turban.
The Turks were a nomadic people who came from the area now known as Turkmenistan. Due to a drying climate in their homeland many of them were compelled to wander westward in search of greener pastures. Some of the Turks wandered northwest into the steppes of Russia (the Khazars) adopted Judaism and established a cultured empire. Those who went southwest, into Iran, Iraq and Asia Minor were largely Islamicised. The latter were generally great horseback warriors and their nomadic nature made them adventurous and prone to conquest. In the Islamic world there was a plethora of different Turkic groups, of varying importance, but eventually one would rise to preeminence.
The origins of what would eventually become arguably the most important branch of Turks are obscure. The Ottoman or Osmanli dynasty was founded by Osman who took control of lands in Bithynia following the death of his father Ertughrul in 1281. According to various legends Ertughrul was descended from Noah, the Prophet Mohammad and the Byzantine family of Comnenus.
Regardless of legends what we do know is that Osman was a capable man. He took advantage of a steady stream of Turkic migration to capture most of the remaining Byzantine territory in Asia. His son Orhan continued his work upon his death extending Ottoman presence into Europe. Under Murad I and his son Bayezit, Ottoman power was solidified with victory at the Battle of Kossovo (1389) which gave them control over the Balkans.
The Ottomans were now confident enough to have a go at the once lustrous jewel of Constantinople. In 1402 Bayezit was marching on the city, but abandoned the assault before it began due to a challenge from Tamerlane in the East. Then in 1422 Sultan Murad II briefly besieged Constantinople, but the great walls of the city were too strong and finally he had to deal with a revolt in Anatolia. The Byzantines were fortunate that distractions were keeping the Ottomans from concentrating their full might against them. But during this time the Ottomans were getting stronger, solidifying and expanding their realm, while the Byzantines were unsuccessfully tramping around Europe hoping to garner assistance. The inevitable could not be avoided.
Mehmet II and preparations for the siege
Not only were the fortunes of the Ottomans waxing and those of the Byzantines waning, but the latter’s situation was worsened by the emergence of a new Ottoman ruler, Mehmet II. At the age of 12 (1444) he was given control of the Ottoman Empire by his father Murad II. However, it was not until the death of Murad in 1451 that the 19 year old Mehmet finally had total control as Sultan. Due to his behavior during his teenage years, many thought Mehmet to be an uninspiring leader, but soon his detractors would learn that he was an ambitious, energetic and formidable ruler.
Mehmet’s grand intention was to capture Constantinople. He is reported to have said to his Vizier Halil, “Only one thing I want. Give me Constantinople!” To Mehmet the city was important due to its prestige and its strategic position. To him any empire not possessing it was not worthy of his rule. If Constantinople remained in Byzantine hands it could always be used as an infidel staging point for attacking the heart of his empire. Furthermore there were many Islamic traditions and ‘prophecies’ saying that Constantinople would be captured by Islamic armies and that whoever did so who be greatly honored. The Prophet Mohammed is reputed to have said, “Have ye heard of a city of which one side is land and the two others sea? The Hour of Judgement shall not sound until seventy thousands sons of Isaac shall capture it.” For these reasons Constantinople had to be in the hands of Mehmet.
His intentions first became evident to the Byzantines in August 1452 when his engineers and masons completed a castle named Rumeli Hisar on the European side of the Bosporus in territory that was ostensibly Byzantine. This fortress was opposite that of Anadolu Hisar, and the two gave the Ottomans control of marine traffic traversing the Bosporus and were to act as staging points for the siege of Constantinople. Around this time Mehmet marched his army before Constantinople where he reconnoitered the city’s great defensive fortifications. Then in November the canons of Rumeli Hisar sunk a Venetian vessel that refused inspection. The captured crew was beheaded while the commander was impaled. It was now obvious that Mehmet was not an incapable peace loving ruler.
Being an astute tactician, Mehmet realized that the key taking Constantinople was a strong navy, without which it was impossible to prevent the city from being resupplied by sea. As such he made a naval armada to blockade Constantinople. It was composed of six trireme, ten biremes, fifteen oared galleys, 75 fustae, 20 parandaria and a number of other smaller vessels.
Of course Mehmet was to need an army for the siege and he assembled a formidable force indeed. Byzantine estimates placed the Ottoman at 400,000 men, but the actual figure was probably closer to 100,000 men. It was composed of elite Janissary regiments, Bashi-bazouk irregulars, Anatolians, and regiments from every land controlled by the Ottomans. It was also equipped with powerful artillery designed and made by the German engineer Urban. The crown jewel of the artillery was a cannon having a barrel over 26 feet in length and firing a ball weighing 1200 lbs. It took 60 oxen to transport the cannon from Adrianople, Mehmet’s capital, to Constantinople.
In March of 1453 this great army set out from Adrianople to Constantinople, while at the same time the Ottoman navy made its way up the Dardenelles. Prior to this, in preparation, numerous Greek towns in Thrace were captured, while an army was sent south to the Peloponnese to tie up the Despotate of Morea, preventing it from sending relief to Constantinople. On April 5 Mehmet and his army reached the walls of Constantinople.
Against this Ottoman force, the Byzantines had 14 miles of walls, around 7,000 men, 2,000 of which were foreigners, and 26 naval warships. While messages of assistance were sent to the West, the only help came from the Genoese commander Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, who on his own volition brought with him 700 soldiers. There were also some Venetians, Catalans and other foreigners who were already in the city before the siege began, and they were honorable and courageous enough to remain and fight. It is little wonder why the Byzantines had a fatalistic attitude towards their future, all they had was 7,000 men and 26 ships to face the hordes of anti-Christ.
However, the one strength that the beleaguered and despondent city had was its formidable array of fortifications. The landward frontier of the city was protected by the impressive Theodosian Walls, the ruins of which can still be seen in Istanbul today. First constructed in 413 during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius and continually strengthened throughout the centuries, the walls stretched 4 miles from the shore of the Golden Horn to the shore of the Marmara Sea. At the time of the siege this defensive line was composed of 3 walls, ranging in height from 25 to 40 feet. The middle and inner walls were punctuated with numerous guard towers some 60 feet high. Entry into the city was through 12 different gates. The seaward perimeter of the city was also protected by almost 10 miles of fortifications, though not as elaborate as the Theodosian Walls, while the entrance of the Golden Horn was blocked by a heavy chain preventing the entry of enemy vessels.
Having only 7,000 soldiers to defend the city’s 14 miles of walls, the Emperor decided to focus the majority of his forces on the Theodosian Walls, so as to repulse Mehmet’s immense army. The seawalls were minimally manned as it was hoped that the chain blocking the Golden Horn would prevent any attacks from the north, while the strong currents of the Marmara would make it difficult for the Ottomans to make large-scale assaults on the rest of the seawalls. With such a defensive plan, the Byzantine manned the ramparts of their great fortifications and awaited the onslaught of Mehmet’s hordes.
The siege of Constantinople
On April 5 Mehmet’s army arrived before the Theodosian walls. The next day an offer of surrender was given, but the Byzantines rejected it. The immediate Ottoman response was to commence the cannon bombardment of the city’s walls. The focus of the bombardment was on the weakest section of the walls, the mesoteichion where the Lycus river enters the city. The day’s bombardment heavily damaged the walls around the Cherisius gate, but during the night men and women labored to repair the damage thereby preventing the Ottomans from entering the city. Over the next few days the bombardment temporarily lessened as the Ottoman army were occupied with capturing a few small fortresses and villages in the vicinity of the city.
On April 12 an Ottoman naval attack on the chain spanning the Golden Horn was successfully repulsed by Greek ships. A few days later Ottoman troops attempted to breach the damaged walls around the Lycus river, but were fought back by the city’s defenders led by the gallant Giustiniani. Then on April 20, after a dramatic naval battle, 3 Genoese galleys and 1 Byzantine transport were able to dock in the city despite being opposed by 70 Ottoman vessels. Mehmet was furious and had the Ottoman admiral Baltoghlu stripped of his command (he was lucky to survive with his life).
These events gave the defenders of Constantinople some hope that maybe they could survive the siege, but Mehmet quickly regained the initiative through an ingenious ploy. He realized that to capture the city would require control of the Golden Horn. While his navy was not capable enough to break the great chain blocking the inlet, he instead decided to transport the vessels overland via a route that flanked the Genoese colony of Pera. The route was lined with logs and the ships were dragged by oxen and men.
Much to their shock and consternation, on April 22 the Byzantines witnessed about 70 Ottoman vessels entering the Golden Horn through this route. A few days later the Byzantines attempted a nighttime counter attack with the hope of setting the Ottoman vessels ablaze, but the Turks were tipped off and were able to easily beat back the attack. Losing control of the Golden Horn was a great setback for the Byzantines. It demoralized them and allowed the Ottomans to seriously threaten and to bombard the northern seawalls of Constantinople and to make it difficult for relieving vessels to dock in the city’s northern ports.
The bombardment of the land-walls relentlessly continued into May. While the defenders were able to seal breaches in the walls, to sabotage Ottoman attempts at mining and building a road across the fosse (the outer most defense of the Theodosian Walls), they were becoming tired and despondent. The Venetians and Genoese began bickering with one another. Stores of food were becoming low and there was little hope of replenishment.
Then there were the foreboding heavenly signs. There was a lunar eclipse of the full moon. After May 24 the moon was entered its waning phase. There was an unseasonable visitation of dense fog and other severe weather incidences. Lights in an uninhabited area beyond the Turkish encampment were seen by tower guards. And probably the most unusual and interesting occurrence was the observance by both the Byzantines and the Ottomans of a strange flickering light above the dome of Hagia Sofia.
To us secular and materialist moderns, who are in the comforts of safe homes, such omens are of little meaning, but to the religious and mystical Byzantines of the fifteenth century, who were surrounded by Mehmet’s army and navy, they weighed significantly on them. The lights above the Hagia Sofia were believed to signify that the Holy Spirit has left the city. Even the spirits of the Emperor Constantine were faltering. When he was told by a returning Venetian scouting vessel that no Western assistance was in sight he broke down in tears. At another meeting with officials, who were trying to persuade him to flee the city so as to continue the fight against the Ottomans from afar, he fainted from weariness. When he was revived he flatly refused the counsel. If his empire was to fall, then he too would fall with it.
The prelude to the final battle
While the spirits of the defenders of Constantinople were flagging, so were those of the attackers. Mehmet’s army, for all of its formidableness and its constant pounding of the city walls had been unable to breach the Byzantine defenses and in spite of their control of the Golden Horn they had had numerous naval setbacks. Mehmet understood this, but not one to falter easily, he decided after consultation with his military commanders to launch an all out assault on the city.
The artillery bombardment of the city walls was intensified and preparations were diligently made for the final attack. On the Saturday night of May 27 his men worked to fill in a section of the fosse, making it easier to cross it. So that the workers could see, the darkness of night was illuminated by numerous bond fires, which made their work visible to the Byzantines on the city’s ramparts and made them aware that the final blow was near at hand.
The work continued on into Sunday night but when midnight struck all work ceased. Mehmet had ordered that Monday would be a day of rest and atonement. All was quiet. Mehmet finalized his plans, inspected his forces and gave one last motivating speech to his men to prepare them for the difficult task at hand.
Under the difficult conditions inside the city tensions were high between the Greeks, Venetians and Genoese. But with the final assault at hand, they were able to place aside their differences. On the same Monday that the besiegers were resting, those inside the city who could, gathered together–including Greek and Italian, Orthodox and Catholic–to partake in a holy procession, along with relics and icons, through the streets and along the entire length of the walls.
Among the processioners was the Emperor Constantine himself. At the end of the procession he gave a speech to those present to prepare them for the difficulties that lay ahead. Then near the end of the day a church service was held at the Hagia Sofia where communion and confession was administered by both Catholic and Orthodox priests without any hint of schismatic tension. As Runciman remarked “At this moment there was union in the Church of Constantinople.” With this rather remarkable and harmonious scene at hand, it was now time for the fateful battle to begin.
The final Ottoman assault on the city started on Monday evening as the Sun was beginning to set. Men poured forward to fill the remaining gaps in the fosse and the cannons and war machines were brought into position. At about 1 in the morning the assault commenced. First the fierce yet undisciplined Bashi-Bazouks were unleashed. These were irregulars composed of a hodgepodge of ethnicities including Christians. For two hours they stormed the city’s defenses but made no headway, yet their purpose was to weary the defenders.
Then came a wave of Muslim Anatolian fighters, who were much more disciplined and better equipped than the Bashi-Bazouks. They too, in spite of fierce fighting and their scaling ladders made little progress. Although a contingent of them managed to enter a breach in the outer wall made by the ‘monster’ cannon they were soon cut to pieces by the defenders.
After about two hours the Anatolians were beginning to falter. Mehmet saved his best troops, the Janissaries, for the third and final assault. They marched in perfect formation towards the walls to the beat of their fear inspiring war music, ignoring the arrows and missiles raining down on them. The defenders of Constantinople, tired from four hours of fierce fighting, were holding there own against the fresher Janissaries who like the Bashi-Bazouks and Anatolians were unable to make any head way.
It seemed possible that the prayers made during the procession and service at Hagia Sophia were to be answered. Unfortunately one little error would lead to the downfall of the city. Near the junction of Blachernae and the Theodosian Walls was a small sally port called the Kerkoporta. The Genoese defenders in that sector were using it effectively against the attacking Turks. During one of these sallies, a returning soldier forgot to close and lock the door. Some Ottoman soldiers noticed this and about 50 of them forced their way into the defenses.
A breach of 50 men may not seem overly serious, but at that moment, Giustiniani was seriously wounded by a culverin bullet. Against the pleas of the Emperor, he was taken from his position on the outer wall and brought to a Genoese vessel in the Golden Horn. The other Genoese soldiers manning the wall, after seeing their commander being removed from the battlements, panicked, thinking he was either dead or that the Turks had entered the city, and fled their posts. With an important sector of the wall unmanned, the Ottomans began streaming into the city through the undefended Kerkoporta.
Constantine tried his best to rally his troops, but it was too late as panic was spreading. Realizing the fate of the city had been sealed, he and his comrades (Don Francisco, Theophilus Palaeologus and John Dalmata), rather than face the humiliation of surrender plunged themselves into the thick of battle. The Emperor was never seen again. His fate became the matter of legend, although it is certain he was killed in combat and was inconspicuous among the dead.
Some of the Ottomans who had entered the city, fanned out along the walls and opened every gate they came across, so as to let more of their comrades enter the city. Soon the entire length of the land walls were breached, and the city was Mehmet’s. In accordance with Islamic tradition the invading soldiers were allowed three days of plundering, but they finished their work in only a day. The inhabitants of the city were either killed where they were found or taken into captivity to be sold as slaves. Churches, monasteries, libraries, palaces and homes were all looted of valuables and many of these places were significantly damaged in the process.
The great Church of Hagia Sofia was immediately converted to a mosque. In the presence of Mehmet one of his ulema (clerics) proclaimed from the church’s pulpit “that there was no God but Allah.” With those words reverberating through the great space of Hagia Sofia, the Byzantine Empire came to an end, as does our story of the fall of Constantinople.
Runciman, Sir Steven. The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge 1954.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries (330-800). London 1988.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Apogee (800-1081). London 1991.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1081-1453). London 1995.
References and Notes
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/istanbulites-to-mark-ottoman-conquest-of-city-with-grand-ceremony.aspx?pageID=238&nID=99765&NewsCatID=341 , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/istanbul-marks-1453-ottoman-conquest-of-istanbul-with-grandiose-ceremony.aspx?pageID=238&nID=99825&NewsCatID=341
 For a fuller account of this dramatic scene read pp. 424-426 of Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.
 According to Byzantine prophecy, Constantinople would not be captured during a waxing lunar cycle.
 He also made one last agreement with the Byzantines, that as long as they would pay an annual tribute of 100,000 bezants (which the Byzantines could not afford) he would leave them be or he would allow them safe passage if they turned over the city to him (of course the Byzantines would not agree to this).
 To get a fuller feel of the emotional scene read pp. 129 to 132 in The Fall of Constantinople 1453.