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

The Ottoman Empire was 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. The Arab caliphates tried several times to besiege the city but never succeeded in taking it. But the Ottomans were the last Islamic power to threaten the Byzantine Empire (see what I did there?), due in large part to two things: the decrepit state of the Byzantines in 1453 and the introduction of siege cannon. 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. So things were pretty rough by this point.

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 Byzantines 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 the Byzantine-Ottoman conflict. Orban made several large weapons for the Ottomans, who finally had guns that could breach Constantinople’s stout defensive walls. His crowning achievement, of sorts, was a cannon so big that it’s 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, though we can’t be sure, that Orban was killed during the siege when another of his large guns exploded.

In contrast to the Byzantines, the Ottomans were still in a vibrant period of expansion and conquest. They’d suffered a major setback in 1402, when their growing empire was crushed, and their sultan (Bayezid I) captured and later killed, by Timur at the Battle of 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 much of 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. It’s conceivable that they could have taken Constantinople years earlier had they won at Ankara, but obviously we can’t really know that for certain. The Ottoman civil war ended in 1413 when Mehmed I achieved undisputed control over what was left of the empire, and it was under Mehmed I and his son, Murad II, that 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 a skeptical army fully in his camp, resolved to finally conquer Constantinople. So (with Orban’s help) he built up his siege engines and his navy and then advanced on the city in early April 1453. Even with those preparations, and the aforementioned decrepit state of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople held out for nearly two months. The Ottoman guns pummeled the walls, but the city was so well fortified that its defenders were still able to beat back attempted incursions. Ottoman naval activity forced the Byzantines and their Genoese allies to divert precious resources to defending the city’s sea walls, but still the Byzantines kept the attackers out of the city. Ottoman sappers tried to undermine the land walls, but the Byzantines dug their own tunnels under the city and ambushed the Ottomans. You get the idea.

Things finally shook loose in late May. A storm on 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 left 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 Byzantines had hastily tried to fill in, and these 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 Byzantine Empire–the Roman Empire, going all the way back to antiquity–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, and more importantly that once skeptical army, began to refer to him as Fatih Sultan Mehmet or “Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror,” which is the name by which he’s still known today. Several European states cast themselves as “heirs” to the Roman Empire–Venice, Serbia, and Bulgaria were among them–but none did so more emphatically than the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, soon to become Russia. The loss of the city, meanwhile, impacted heavily 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. As you may know, that pursuit 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 as the fabled Last Roman Emperor when the time was (is?) right.

The Muslims, meanwhile, 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 their big moment. When the End of Days didn’t, you know, arrive, 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 caused a breakdown in Ottoman logistics. So the dream of conquering both “Romes” never came to fruition, and the Mahdi (apparently) still hasn’t shown up.

Eschatological elements aside, in Constantinople the Ottomans finally had a true capital city, one that was strategically placed at the junction of their European and Asian territories and that would serve them quite well for another 470 years, give or take. There’s the whole matter of when the city became “Istanbul,” which people often assume happened as soon as 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 Byzantines’ 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.”

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Author: DWD

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