Five hundred and sixty-three years ago today, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks after an epic siege that lasted fifty-three days. It was one of the epochal events in world history and one in which I have always been deeply fascinated. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it was one of those stories from history that is simply dying to be made into a well-produced cable mini-series. I thought I would take the opportunity to give the reader a quick account of this amazing story.
By the middle of the 15th Century, the once proud Byzantine Empire had faded into near-insignificance. It had persisted for more than a thousand years after emerging from the collapse of the Roman world in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Indeed, as far as the Byzantines themselves were concerned, they were the Romans. It is was they called themselves and they had every right to the title. After the Roman Empire had split permanently into western and eastern halves upon the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, the western half had collapsed under the weight of barbarian invasions in less than a hundred years, while the eastern half had survived and thrived. Eventually it developed its own character, rather more Greek than Roman and entirely Christian rather than pagan, morphing into the Byzantine Empire. But the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who had taken the Byzantine throne in 1449, saw himself as being of a line that went all the way back to Augustus Caesar.
The empire over which Constantine ruled, however, was but a shadow of its former self. In its heyday, the Byzantine Empire had ruled over Asia Minor, the Balkans, southern Italy, and many of the major islands in the Mediterranean. Its army had been respected, its navy feared, the brilliance of its artists admired and envied, the genius of its scholars and theologians held in awe, and the wealth of its capital city on the Bosporus positively the stuff of legends. The violence and upheaval of the Crusades fatally weakened the Byzantine state, however, culminating in the brutal sack of Constantinople by fellow Christians in 1204. Although the Byzantines recaptured their capital in 1261, their empire had been shattered by the experience like a fine china set cast down onto the floor. By the time Constantine XI came to the throne, the Byzantines controlled only the city of Constantinople itself, the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece (then known as Morea) and a few scattered islands in the Aegean. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
Worse, a deadly threat to Byzantine survival had emerged from the Islamic lands to the east. Following the chaos of the disastrous Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 13th Century, a series of small Turkish states had set themselves up in Asia Minor, fighting one another for supremacy. Over the course of a century-and-a-half, beginning around 1300, the mighty Ottoman Empire had emerged as the winner of this Darwinian struggle, subjugating Asia Minor and crossing into the Balkans as it crushed a succession of Christian and Muslim enemies. When a young and dynamic Sultan, Mehmed II, came to the throne in 1451, he let it be known that the fabled city of Constantinople was first on his list of desired conquests.
The Ottoman army mobilized and arrived at the walls of Constantinople in early April of 1453. His army numbered upwards of one hundred thousand men, including thousands of ferocious Janissaries, perhaps the most feared warriors in the world. While the bulk of Ottoman infantry came from the tough hill tribes of Anatolia, many of Mehmed's troops were, ironically enough, Christians from the Balkans, lured to the force by pay or driven by compulsion. Most terrible of all was the artillery that Mehmed brought to the siege. Much of it created by an infamous Hungarian cannon maker named Orban, it was the most extensive and powerful collection of artillery yet assembled in world history.
The Byzantines, by contrast, had a mere seven thousand men to defend the city. Yet their cause was not seen as hopeless, for Constantinople was one of the most easily defended cities in the world. Roughly triangular in shape, it was faced on the south by the Sea of Marmara, the north by the wide bay known as the Golden Horn, and could only be approached by a land army from the west. Its walls had stood for ten centuries and had repelled enemies as diverse as the Persians, the Arabs, the Bulgarians, and the Vikings. Only the Crusaders had managed to break through the walls, and that had been from the sea. The Ottomans themselves had failed to take the city during two previous attempts, in 1411 and 1422.
Moreover, although the defenders were heavily outnumbered, no one could question the quality of their leadership. Emperor Constantine XI was himself quite a competent warrior, having fought against Muslim and Christian enemies in Greece during his time as Despot of the Morea before becoming Emperor. Nor did anyone question his courage, for he could easily had fled the city before the Turks encircled it. Instead, he choose to remain and defend it with his life. As the first Turkish troops appeared over the horizon, the Emperor had clearly already made the decision that the siege would end only when he was either victorious or dead.
Alongside him, Constantine XI had a remarkable assembly of Christian warriors. There was the Castilian nobleman Don Francisco de Toledo, who would serve bravely and faithfully. There was the Venetian sea captain Gabriele Trevisano and several other Venetian sailors. There was the mysterious military engineer alternately named Johannes Grant or John Grant, who was said to be a German but whom some historians (including Steven Runciman, one of my favorite historical writers) had speculated might have been a Scot, whose genius would prove pivotal in the fighting to come. Indeed, of the seven thousand defenders, fully two thousand were volunteers from overseas, willing to come and fight even as their own governments shamefully turned a blind eye to what was happening.
Of all the foreign fighters who came to the defense of Constantinople, however, none was as legendary as Giovanni Giustiniani. He was a Genoese soldier renowned throughout the Christian world for his military skill and daring. Having recruited hundreds of men at his own expense and sailed from Italy to Constantinople to protect the fabled city, the Emperor gave him the command of the land wall defenses. He would be the pillar around which the other defenders of Constantinople would rally in the difficult weeks to come.
The Turks quickly overran two forts that had long ago been built beyond the city walls. The prisoners, rather than receiving mercy from the Sultan, were impaled within full view of Constantinople. If Mehmed II thought that this would terrify the defenders, he was sorely mistaken. By seeing what their fate would be if they failed, Constantine and his men steeled themselves for the storm that was about to break upon them. They had to conquer or they would perish.
The siege artillery Mehmed had brought to the fight began a long, slow, but steady bombardment of the walls. It was unlike anything that had ever been seen before in warfare. Thought the Christians did everything they could to repair the damage at night, the walls that had withstood so many previous attackers were steadily worn down into rubble. Several infantry assaults were made against the walls as well, but these were repelled with heavy losses, Giustiniani knew his business well and led his troops with exceptional skill and courage.
A long chain drawn across the entrance to the Golden Horn had prevented the Turkish fleet from gaining access to that body of water, allowing the Byzantines and their allies to leave the sea walls on the north side of the city comparatively undefended. Numerous Turkish naval attacks on the chain had been repelled by Trevisano. Indeed, Turkish naval actions had been humiliating for Mehmed, for several Christian supply ships had managed to slip through his blockade, much to the delight of Constantinople's defenders. However, on April 22, the Turks put their effectively unlimited manpower advantage to good use and simply hauled their ships across land to a portion of the northern coast of the Golden Horn under their control, thereby establishing a Turkish naval presence in the bay. An attempt by the defenders on April 28 to attack the Turkish fleet with fireships turned into a fiasco. From that point on, the Turkish ships controlled the Golden Horn and the Christian defenders were stretched ever more thinly along the walls.
It was probably obvious by this point that the defenders had little chance of actually winning the battle. Their only hope was to hold out long enough for a relief force to arrive from the Christian powers to the west. The powerful city-states of Venice or Genoa, many of whose citizens were in the ranks of the men lining the walls, could each have dispatched a fleet laden with reinforcements and supplies, almost certainly securing the city from Turkish capture. Neither bothered. Pope Nicholas V pleaded with Christian rulers to send assistance to Constantinople, despite the theological quarrels between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Nobody bothered. The defenders of Constantinople were on their own.
As their artillery continued to steadily erode the strength of the walls, the Turks also sought to undermine them. Soldiers brought from the silver mines of Serbia were put to work digging tunnels underneath the walls in order to collapse them. It was at this point that the mysterious man Grant made his mark for the defense. He dug countermines and broke into the Turkish tunnels. Some were destroyed by flooding them with water. In others, there was nightmarish underground combat in the dark as Grant's men attacked and killed Mehmed's diggers. The thought of dying in such conditions raises a chill in me even as I type these words. But the undermining effort was defeated.
Mehmed, far from a patient man, had become increasingly angered and frustrated by the stubbornness of the defenders. Moreover, he was worried that a Christian relief force might arrive before he could take the city. He sent an offer to Emperor Constantine, telling him that the people of the city would be spared and could leave without hindrance if they gave up Constantinople. The Emperor sternly refused, having long since decided to fight to the end. On May 27, the cannonading stopped and Mehmed let his men rest for a day, telling them that they would soon unleash a final, overwhelming attack. The Christians huddled in their churches, including the majestic Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century, praying earnestly for deliverance. Constantine, the last in the long line of Roman Emperors, met with his key commanders and swore to defend the city to the last.
The night of May 28 passed quietly. Shortly after midnight, however, there came a terrifying cacophony of sounds from the Turkish camp as trumpets blared, drums pounded, and cymbals clanged. Wave after wave of Turkish infantry stormed forward and hurled themselves on the weakened defensive walls. The Christian warriors met them in furious combat and the sounds of battle filled the air. Mehmed had planned his attack carefully, with the first wave being made up of irregular and loosely disciplined troops known as bashi-bazouks. The Christians repelled them in bitter fighting, but suffered casualties in doing so and became tired and worn out. A second wave, made up of tougher Anatolian infantry, was likewise repulsed, but it was a near run thing and the Christian defenders were weakened further.
Finally, Mehmed sent his third wave forward. It was made up of his Janissaries, his elite shock troops. Nothing was held back; Mehmed was committing all his resources to this final assault. The Christians fought on, however, and for a time it appeared that this wave, too, would be turned back. It was at this moment that two terrible pieces of ill fortune befell the Christians. First, some Turkish troops discovered that a small sally port in the wall was still open and scurried through it to the other side, raising their banner on the small portion of the wall they had captured. At almost the same moment, Giustiniani was badly wounded (the accounts differ on whether it was a crossbow bolt or a fragment of a cannonball) and carried from the wall in agonizing pain. The Christian defenders lost heart. Exhausted, massively outnumbered, and finally giving in to terror, the soldiers abandoned the wall and fled back into the city.
The Turkish soldiers swarmed over the wall, now emptying of defenders. Some were already pushing their way into the streets of the city, beginning the traditional three days of looting and rape that befell a captured city during this period of history. Constantine XI saw that all was lost. He drew his sword and charged into the Turkish horde, slashing away at them until he was inevitably cut down and killed. With him died the last remnant of the Roman Empire. As some of the Christians fled to their boats, the city was given over to sack. The victorious Turks ran wild through the city, looting churches and homes, raping women, rounding up men, women, and children to be sold into slavery, and wrecking havoc. Terrified Christians crowded into Hagia Sophia, praying for a miracle, but the doors were hacked open by Turkish axes and the people within suffered the same fate as their fellows. The priests refused to stop conducting their holy liturgy and were killed.
The siege was over and the Turks were victorious. Mehmed soon rode his white horse through the gates and into the city, restoring order. It was the first step in the process by which Constantinople would be reborn at the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, which would last into the 20th Century. It would regain its former glory and become again one of the chief cities of the world, filled with people from all over the world, a center of trade and diplomacy. But it would forever after be a self-consciously Islamic city, having been made so by the man who would forever after be known as Mehmed the Conqueror.
The body of Constantine XI was never found, but there was no suggestion that he survived the battle. At least, not in any normal state. There was, however, an oft-repeated legend that is still remembered in Greece today. According to some, Constantine XI was rescued by an angel and turned into a marble statue. He was then taken to a secret cave somewhere near Constantinople, where he remains to this day. He will remain in his frozen state, so it is said, until the time comes for him to come back to life, reclaim Constantinople for Christianity, and restore the Byzantine Empire.