Today in European history: the Fall of Constantinople (1453)

I like to write (and read, for that matter) “this day in history” kinds of things, but I’m extraordinarily bad about actually checking to see if anything interesting happened on any given day. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it is only slightly less silly than commemorating the 561st anniversary of something, which is pretty silly in its own right. But, you blog in the year you’re in, not the year you might want or wish it to be, so here we are, 561 years since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the end of the Roman Empire, unless you count the Holy Roman Empire, and who really does that? I’m not going to write a full account of the campaign and the fall of the city–people have written entire books on that particular subject. But there are a few interesting tidbits about the day worth mentioning.

The Ottomans were not the first Islamic power to threaten the Byzantine Empire, and in fact the empire was by this point in 1453 a hollowed out husk of its former glory. Successive waves of Turkish and Mongol invasions had taken almost all of Anatolia out of Byzantine control, and the Ottomans had by this point conquered considerable portions of the empire’s Balkan territories. Constantinople itself, whose population may once have been as high as 800,000 people (500,000 is more realistic), never recovered from the Fourth Crusade’s sacking and the Black Death, and probably only had housed about 50,000 by the mid 15th century. But the city had survived several sieges by Islamic armies (including the Ottomans) in the past, because of its seemingly impenetrable walls. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, this time the Ottomans came packing some of the strongest cannons yet invented.

The Ottoman guns were the product of a Hungarian engineer named Orban, or Urban, who initially offered his services to Constantinople as a maker of massive artillery pieces but, when the impoverished Romans told him they couldn’t afford his services, he turned around and offered himself to the Ottomans. I guess he wasn’t too wrapped up in the whole religious war aspect of things. Orban made a cannon so big that it is estimated that it could have shot a 600 pound ball a full mile; it had to be pulled to Constantinople by a team of 60 oxen, only to fall apart under its own weight. It’s believed that he was killed during the siege when another of his large guns exploded.

In contrast to the Romans, the Ottomans were still in an early, vibrant period of expansion and conquest. They’d actually suffered a major setback in 1402, when their growing empire was crushed, and their sultan (Bayezid I) captured and later killed, by Timur at Ankara. Their Anatolian territories were broken up and returned to the various Turkic tribes who had governed them before the Ottomans showed up. They were unable to hang on to the Balkan territory they’d already conquered. And, most problematically, they spent the next decade mired in a civil war between Bayezid’s five sons. The civil war ended in 1413 when Mehmed I achieved undisputed control over what was left of the empire, and under Mehmed I and his son, Murad II, the Ottomans went about rebuilding their former glory. I’ve written about Murad II’s curious decision to abdicate in favor of his son, Mehmed II, and the subsequent crisis that forced him to return to the throne two years later, but he died in 1451, and Mehmed II (“Mehmed” from here on out) was sultan on his own for the second time.

Upon reassuming the throne, Mehmed, maybe conscious that he needed a great triumph to get the army in his camp, resolved to finally conquer Constantinople. So (with Orban’s help) he built up his siege engines and navy and then advanced on the city in April 1453. Even with those preparations, Constantinople held out, and it became clear by the middle of May that the two sides were in a battle of wills. Ottoman naval activity forced the Byzantines and their Genoese allies to divert precious resources to defending the city’s sea walls. Ottoman sappers tried to undermine the land walls, but the Byzantines dug their own tunnels under the city and ambushed the Ottomans. A storm the night of May 24 and a thick fog that set in the next morning seems to have been interpreted as a bad omen by the Byzantines, and then a strange event (probably an electrical storm, but who knows?) on the night of May 25 convinced many of them that God had abandoned them. Witnesses reported seeing a light flickering over the Basilica of St. Sophia (the Hagia Sophia today) that suddenly rose into the sky and disappeared.

On May 28, Mehmed ordered his exhausted army to launch an all out attack along the entire length of the city’s land wall, figuring (correctly, as it turns out) that the Byzantines just didn’t have enough men to defend the entire thing, but also knowing that if the attack failed he would likely be forced to lift the siege. The two month long cannon bombardment had opened up gaps in the wall that the Romans had hastily tried to fill in, and would be the focus of the attack. It began after midnight on May 29. Mehmed sent his irregular forces in first, knowing that they would suffer heavy losses but that they would also tax the defenders, then followed up by sending his heavy infantry, who attacked furiously but still couldn’t break the defenses. After hours of fighting, Mehmed sent everything he had left, including his personal bodyguard, in one last onslaught, and finally this wave of attackers broke through the walls and swarmed into the city.

Mehmed entering Constantinople, by Italian painter Fausto Zonaro (via)

The Roman Empire was no more. The last emperor, Constantine XI, either died in battle or hanged himself–although of course Mehmed immediately styled himself “Caesar” in an effort to appropriate Roman history for his own legacy. His subjects, meanwhile, began to refer to him as Fatih Sultan Mehmet or “Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.” Several European states also cast themselves as “heirs” to the Roman legacy–Venice, Serbia, and Bulgaria were among them, but none did so more emphatically than the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, soon to become Russia. It’s not a coincidence that Russia and the Ottomans became great rivals moving forward. Also, the loss of the city impacted upon east-west overland trade routes and helped to spur European kingdoms in the west to pursue oceanic exploration, to find and open trade routes to India and China that weren’t controlled by the Ottomans. That had some rather important effects upon world history.

Legends on both sides suggested that the fall of the city was the harbinger of the Last Days. For Christians, there’s a story that two priests who were conducting a final liturgy in St. Sophia were somehow sucked into the wall of the basilica as the first Ottoman soldiers broke into the city; it was believed that when the city was back in Christian hands, they would return to finish the service. Similarly, Constantine XI was supposed to have been turned to marble by an angel and buried beneath the city, to return when the time was (is?) right.

For the Muslims, it was believed that the capture of “Rome” was a necessary precursor to the arrival of the Mahdi, and since Constantinople was “the new Rome,” they expected that this was the big moment. When nothing, you know, happened, Mehmed declared that it was actually the conquest of both Romes that would bring about the Mahdi’s arrival, so he sent an army to Italy that captured Otranto (in Italy’s “boot heel”) in 1480. That army had to leave Otranto, and Italy, the next year when a Neapolitan army besieged them and Mehmed’s death prevented needed supplies and reinforcements from being sent. So the dream of conquering both “Romes” never came to fruition, and the Mahdi apparently still hasn’t shown up. But in Constantinople, the Ottomans did finally have a true capital city, one that was strategically placed at the junction of their European and Asian territories and that would serve them well for another 470 years, give or take.

By the by, there’s the whole matter of when the city became “Istanbul,” which people often assume happened when the Ottomans took over. In fact, the name Istanbul had been in use in common speech well before 1453, deriving from the Greek phrase “to the city” and from the Romans’ colloquial habit of referring to Constantinople as  Polis or “The City.” Officially, the Ottomans continued to refer to the city as “Constantinople” (Konstantiniyye or Qustantiniyah) and it was only in 1930 that the Republic of Turkey formally renamed the city “Istanbul.”

Further reading:

Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, translated from the original Mehmed der Eroberer und seine Zeit

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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