A tale of blood and slaughter: the fall of Constantinople
“... at sunrise the Turks entered the city near San Romano, where the walls had been razed to the ground by their cannon … anyone they found was put to the scimitar, women and men, old and young, of any conditions… When their flag was raised and ours cut down, we saw that the whole city was taken, and that there was no further hope of recovering from this.”
With these words, the Venetian Nicolo Barbaro recorded the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453 after a 53-day siege. The fall of the city marked a turning point in history, and had consequences that still resonate today.
For centuries the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was a huge prize due to its status as the centre of a huge empire. Its wealth, which spawned magnificent monuments and elegant streets, together with its reputation for being completely impregnable made it a desirable acquisition for potential invaders.
The city dedicated by Constantine I in 330 had endured countless attackers and invasions in its history, which spanned more than 1000 years. Goths, Persians, Avars, Bulgars, Russians and Arabs had all pitted themselves against the capital at one point and some were successful - but the city was always recaptured by Christian forces.
Arab forces in particular had long desired to make the Byzantine Constantinople their own capital since a first attempt in the seventh century. Their aim was to use the city as a base to extend their influence across Thrace and the Balkans into Europe - the same way they’d conquered Spain and North Africa.
By 1453, the provinces around the city had been chipped away by Ottoman forces, and the city stood isolated.
Two charismatic leaders
Each side of the battle was led by men who had never expected to become rulers. Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan born in 1432, became sole heir after the death of his two elder brothers. In 1453 the Sultan was just 21 years old.
Byzantine emperor Constantine was the eighth of ten children. He grew up in Constantinople and became governor of Selymbria - now a district of Istanbul. When his eldest brother died, Constantine vied with another brother for the position of emperor - and with support from the current sultan, Murad, and his mother, the Empress Helena, he ascended to power in 1449.
The Ottomans prepare for onslaught
The Ottoman Turks evolved from a tribe of warriors who over time became organised, eventually evolving into one of the most successful empires in history. A series of military successes and invasions in the 14th century placed the Turks in a unique position to threaten Constantinople from the Bosphorous Strait in the west, and overland from the east.
The build up to the invasion took many years. Sultan Mehmet II ordered the blockade of the city, building castles by the mouth of the Bosphorus on the Asian and European shores, to prevent Byzantine allies arriving by way of the Black Sea. The garrisons would fire upon galleys entering the Bosphorus, not relenting until they lowered their sails.
Mehmet planned the attack methodically, gathering intelligence and amassing weapons. The Ottomans had their supporters within the city: afraid of the Catholic pressure against them, the Orthodox community living in Constantinople passed valuable information to the sultan. The Orthodox saw the Ottomans as saviours, as the empire granted religious freedom to Christians wherever they conquered.
The Byzantines look for help
Meanwhile, Constantine appealed to Western powers for aid. However, these other Christian centres were depleted by years of crusading, and support was slow to materialise - or never arrived. However, the emperor did manage to stockpile food for the upcoming siege and repair some city walls.
Help did arrive from a few quarters. A group of archers, paid by the papacy - who of course had a vested interest in seeing the city remain a Christian centre - arrived. They were followed by Genoese and Venetian fighters. The republics of Genoa and Venice had a vested interest of their own - strong trade links with the city. Armenians and Catalan defenders also arrived and ships from Ancona, Provence and Castile came to boost the naval forces.
The arrival in January 1453 of Justinian - or Giovanni Giustiniani Longo - a friend of the emperor, gave great cheer to the inhabitants of Constantinople. Justinian managed to defy the blockade with two of his ships and 700 men, and was put in charge of the weakest part of the land defence. However, the last-minute rallying was not enough. Constantine’s city of 50,000 was defended by - at the most - 10,000 men. In comparison, the Turks had an estimated 100,000 soldiers. The Byzantines were vastly outnumbered.
Constantine XI, realising the city fortifications couldn’t stand up to the impending cannon bombardment, employed a Hungarian cannon engineer named Urban to protect the city against this new technology. However, the emperor failed to pay Urban enough, and the engineer defected to the Turkish side, who was happy to pay Urban whatever he wanted.
This was the city’s undoing. The Hungarian subsequently made the largest cannon ever made, a 29-foot beast that could fire stones weighing as much as 1200lbs. It was so heavy it took 60 oxen to move it, and could only be fired seven times a day due to overheating. But positioned correctly, seven times was enough: it had enough power to bring down ancient walls, and created the breach through which Ottoman forces broke into the city on the morning of May 29, 1453.
The siege commences
The action begun the day after Easter Sunday, on April 2. The Emperor ordered a protective boom to be set in place, guarding the city harbour and preventing ships from entering. Mehmet ordered several ships to be rolled overland to surround the city. The inhabitants of Constantinople braced themselves for the siege.
On April 11, the cannon bombardment began, and on the following day 145 Turkish ships positioned themselves two miles from the city to wait out the siege.
The siege lasted for 53 days. Towards the middle of May, the Sultan sent an envoy into the city to negotiate. Mehmet II told the Emperor he would lift the siege and allow the citizens and he, the leader, to leave unharmed, with all their possessions. He also demanded an annual payment of 100,000 gold bezants. The Emperor refused the deal.
May 29, 1453: the walls are breached
The final battle began early in the day. Using heavy artillery to break the wall, Constantinople was finally breached on May 29, at 1am by the Bashi-bazouks, mounted Ottoman soldiers. The shout of the men could be heard miles away. The attack was unsuccessful, but the soldiers were quickly followed by the Anatolian Turks, who were also unsuccessful, with many being massacred by the Christian defenders.
Later in the day, the Janissaries launched the third attack, using arrows, missiles, bullets, stones and javelins in a well-orchestrated offensive. The battle was noisy: the Ottomans advanced to the din of castanets, tambourines, cymbals, pipes, trumpets and chilling war cries. In response, the Emperor ordered the city’s bells to be rung, boosting the Byzantines’ morale.
The Christians fought fiercely against the invaders. Women fought alongside the men, and even children joined in, throwing bricks and stones at the Turks once they were inside the city. but the city's inhabitants were vastly outnumbered, and tiring. The last-ditch defensive was not enough. The Ottoman troops flooded out of the waiting ships and into the city, sealing the Christian defenders’ fates.
The aftermath and legacy
Emperor Constantine disappeared during the final day of fighting. His body was eventually discovered on the city walls. However, myths sprung up around his death: a head was presented to Mehmet, and a corpse given to the Greeks for burial, but rumours that the body was not the emperor’s, and that Constantine had escaped.
Almost overnight, those who had fought during the siege and battle of Constantinople became heroes. Mehmet became Mehmet the Conqueror, and his fame spread across the Islamic world. Today, there are few Muslims who do not know his name.
The Ottomans developed Istanbul, building mosques, palaces, monuments and aqueducts. The city’s wealth and fame grew - as did its religious and cultural diversity. As an Orthodox protector, Mehmet gained strength against the Catholics. He turned the city’s biggest church - the Hagia Sophia - into a mosque, but other churches were left as Christian centres of worship. The Greeks formed communities within the empire called milets, and the Christians were left to worship in peace, although they were not permitted to bear arms.
The fall of Constantinople was also a turning point in world history. All of Europe was opened up to the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman armies reached as far as Vienna, introducing Islam to a number of new countries. What's more, because the Sultan did not persecute the city’s Christian defenders, these chevaliers were free to go. This freedom of movement saw Europeans spreading East, into the New World, opening up the world and triggering the Renaissance.