The Fall of Constantinople, 1453
The Fall of Constantinople marks the beginning of a new era in history. It was the end of the ancient Roman Empire, and the dawn of a new one. It re-energized the Western world, and unified the Islamic world under one banner. The world was forever changed. The battle itself was bone-chilling, dragging on for 53 days. Here, a few thousand men fought stubbornly against an huge military machine. This was Rome's final hour - an epic showdown that was centuries in the making.
Note: "Byzantines", "Romans" and "Greeks" are used interchangeably, but refer to the same people. Likewise, "Ottomans" and "Turks" are two terms of the same people.
The Quest for Constantinople
"Verily, you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!"
- Muhammad, Prophet of Islam (hadith. Musnad Ahmad, Al Hakim, al Jami’ al Saghir).
For centuries, Constantinople had faced attacks by Islamic Empires. It originated in 628 A.D, when Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, penned a letter to Roman Emperor Heraclius, inviting him to join the religion. "If you become a Muslim you will be safe - and God will double your reward, but if you reject this invitation of Islam you will bear the sin of having misguided your subjects," the letter stated. But Emperor Heraclius ignored him. At the time, he was busy fighting the Sassanid Empire, whom the Eastern Romans had battled with for centuries.
But when Islamic Arab forces swept across Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in 630s and defeated the Sassanids, the Eastern Romans were deeply alarmed. Heraclius assembled the Imperial Army and rushed to defend his borders. But at the battle of Yarmouk in 636, his army was routed by the Arabs. This was a massive blow, clearing the way for the new-born Islamic state ("Caliphate") to invade Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
The Caliphate had no intension of stopping. There were multiple hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) promising the conquest of Constantinople itself (usually in the context of the End of the World):
"They [the Muslims] will then fight [at Constantinople] and a third of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye, would be killed, and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople." (Sahih Muslim).
‘They will conquer Constantinople with Tasbih and Takbir [worship/salutations to God] and will acquire such spoils of war as has never been seen before.’ (Ibn Majah)
Already in 674, Arab ships were at Constantinople's gates. However, the illustrious city was very well fortified, and Greek "fire ships" brought fire and defeat upon the Arab vessels. The Arabs tried again in 678, 717 and 718, the latter with 1,700 war ships, but were always defeated. Taking Constantinople proved to be very difficult.
The Eastern Romans had, nonetheless, gained a new enemy - one that was far more elusive and perilous than previous foes. This time, hostility against Constantinople was prophesised in the sacred hadiths of Islam. Even if the Caliphate collapsed, the religion lived on, and with it, promises of glory, salvation and blessings to those who could capture Constantinople.
The Rise of the Ottomans
In the 13th century, both Greece and Anatolia (modern Turkey) were in turmoil. In Greece, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Latin Crusaders (see my article Sack of Constantinople:1204 for the full story) left the region in a confused tug of war between Serbs, Latins and "Byzantines" (Byzantine is a Western term for the Eastern Romans). Even when the Byzantines reclaimed Constantinople in 1261, they failed to restore power in Greece itself, as their broken Empire was virtually resourceless.
To make matters worse, in 1283, Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos submitted the Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope in an attempt to spare the Empire from further Latin plunder. But this provoked internal outrage. Furious Byzantine nobles and clergymen rebelled, triggering two destructive civil wars that further drained the already depleted Empire. The whole region was now characterised by confused loyalties, ruined economies and greedy warlords, making it very vulnerable to foreign invasions.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the Seljuk Turkish Empire - Byzantium's nemesis - splintered Anatolia into a mosaic of small, Turkish beylics (tribes). This gave the Byzantines a much needed breather from the Eastern threat - but not for long. From the ashes rose a new force: Bey Osman/Uthman I (d. 1323), leader of a tribe in Bithynia, swiftly consolidated the beylics of Anatolia through war and diplomacy. The House of Osman or "Othman" was born. Their state was Islamic by religion and Turkish by design, but, as we shall see, branded itself as the new Roman Empire.
Around 1350, the "Ottomans" dashed over the Aegean and swiftly occupied Thessaly and Macedonia. The Serbs were quick to counter-attack, but were defeated at the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Wars raged on between Christian kingdoms and the Ottomans for decades, until the Ottomans finally defeated them at the battle of Varna in 1444. Within a century, they had secured Anatolia, Greece and the Balkans. All of Eastern Europe now lay bare for Ottoman invasion. There was only one problem left: Constantinople.
Constantinople itself was still a thorn in the Ottoman side. The city was a Christian fortress, securing the Bosporus strait. The Ottomans could not comfortably advance into Europe before Constantinople was secured.
Besides its strategic importance, taking the city would have enormous religious and symbolic value. It would somewhat fulfil Muhammad's prophecy, therefore secure the House of Osman as the true leader of the Islamic world. It would also be the end of the classical Roman Empire, allowing the Ottomans to present themselves as the new Romans - this time not governed by Christianity, but by Islam. Thus, taking Constantinople would complete their identity as the Islamic Roman Empire.
Attempting such a siege was nonetheless very risky. In 1394 and 1422, the Ottomans besieged the city with a superior force, but still failed. In 1451, Sultan Murad II lay on his deathbed and allegedly urged his successor not to wage war on Constantinople, as this would curse him. The son allegedly replied: "Even if you wish to curse me, father, I shall begin a war against the Emperor of Constantinople the moment you have expired, since, if I defeat him, I will become Master of the entire world."
The ambitious young man who spoke these words was Muhammad II (Mehmet II). At the age of 21, he was eager to write his name into history. He believed that by taking Constantinople, he would symbolically inherit the Roman destiny to rule over the world.
Aware of the incoming siege, the current Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, called for aid from the Western world. But the call for aid was poorly answered. The Genoese promised a war ship, and it was rumoured that the Pope would send a war fleet, but no one knew if this was true. Others simply sent their sympathies and best wishes.
A Byzantine diplomat later complained: "No aid whatsoever was dispatched by other Christians..." (Courtier George Sphrantzes)
When the Ottomans arrived on 2 April 1453, Emperor Constantine had only 5,000 men at his disposal. He took personal command of the soldiers, supported by the Genoese mercenary Captain Giovanni Giustiniani. Meanwhile, the Ottoman army tallied a staggering 100,000 to 200,000 men, including 40,000 Janissaries - Ottoman knights.
Besides being numerically superior, the Ottomans also brought new technology to tare down Constantinople's Theodosian Walls: massive 9-meter long cannons. These were capable of shooting 500kg cannon balls over 1.5km. However, they were so mammoth that they needed several hours of cooling each day, and so could only fire seven times a day. The Ottomans therefore brought hundreds of smaller cannons to maintain bombardment.
On 5 April, Sultan Mehmet began the attack, firing volleys of cannon-balls hours-on end. The Byzantines hurriedly repaired the walls at night, before facing the same thundering bombardment the next morning. Mehmet ordered multiple infantry charges, but to his surprise, they were all repulsed. The walls withstood every attack.
On 20 April, three Genoese ships arrived to reinforce the city. Mehmet ordered his entire fleet of 120 war ships to stop them, but the tall European war galleys simply ploughed through and safely reached the Byzantine bay of the Golden Horn. A barrage was then raised to block Ottoman entry into the Horn (see map). A frustrated Mehmet ordered his men to haul 70 war ships on a railed route on land to circumvent the chain and relaunch them in the Golden Horn. It worked seamlessly. However, despite all this effort, the Ottomans failed mount the walls from their ships, rendering the operation useless. On 29 April, Mehmet ordered another all-out-charge - but it, too, failed.
Panic must have seethed into the young Sultan. With vastly superior numbers and technology, he still couldn't take the city. Morale was waning. Unrest spread in Anatolia as local governors questioned his leadership. Sultan Mehmet offered to lift the siege and grant the Byzantines safe passage to the Peloponnesian peninsula if they surrendered the city, but Emperor Constantine vehemently refused. He wrote back:
"As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives."
This was actually a very bold move by Constantine to reject the Sultan's offer, as he was in deep financial trouble at the time. His treasury was bankrupt, and his Latin mercenaries threatened to abandon him unless they were paid immediately. Without these men, defeat was a certainty. Hard-pressed, Constantine made the grim order of looting Orthodox churches and smelt their ecclesial treasures into gold coins. It enabled him to pay the mercenaries, but at a high cost. To the Christian citizens, this was dangerous sacrilege.
An apocalyptic atmosphere descended upon the city. At first, it unnerved the Turks, who saw an inexplicable light hovering over the city for days while the Romans repelled Turkish attacks. Sultan Mehmet even considered abandoning the siege altogether. But then, a lunar eclipse shattered the Roman confidence. The witness, Niccolo Barbaro, relates:
"When we Christians and the heathen saw this miraculous sign, the emperor of Constantinople conceived great fear (as did his entire retinue of barons), because the Greeks knew of a prophecy which declared that Constantinople would always endure provided that the moon, in its full circle, did not give a sign in their sky; this was the reason for the terror that came upon the Greeks. But the Turks celebrated a great festival throughout their camp, out of joy for this sign, because it predicted victory for them...” (quoted in Philippines and Hanak, pg. 226-27)
From May 22nd to May 27th, a thick fog covered the city in darkness. Greeks compared it to the gloom that befell Jerusalem as Christ was crucified. A feeling of impending doom spread across the city. On May 28th, panic erupted. A bright light was seen leaving Hagia Sophia, like electrified incense departing from its very stones. Desperate lamentations ensued, as it was interpreted as irrefutable sign that the divine grace had departed. To the Muslims, who allegedly also witnessed this light, it was undoubtedly a good omen. It lifted their morale significantly, and Mehmet seized the moment. On May 29th, the Ottomans began their final all-or-nothing charge.
The initial assaults were again repulsed, but the Ottomans kept charging with ferocious intensity. Then, the Ottoman artillery suddenly managed to breach a weak-point in the Blachernae walls. Ottoman Janissaries poured in, inflicting heavy casualties and wounding Captain Giustiniani. A few Janissaries climbed a tower and raised the Ottoman flag, a sight that rejuvenated the Turks. They dived into the gap, applying extreme pressure on the defenders. Suddenly, the disheartened defending militia broke, and the Ottomans poured into the city at will. The walls were taken. The city was lost.
In this final hour of Roman history, Emperor Constantine was offered a secret tunnel to escape with the Genoese mercenaries, but he reportedly scoffed with resentment: "the City is dead, and I live!" Instead, he gathered his guard, held a thundering speech, tore off his Imperial regalia and charged head-first into the Ottoman army. He disappeared in the fray of battle. This was the final act of the Roman Empire's last Emperor.
The Fall of Constantinople
"The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a
sudden storm...In many places the ground could not be seen, as it was covered by heaps of corpses." - Nicolo Barbaro, an Italian mercenary and eye-witness.
Chaos ensued. Citizens took up arms to defend their homes, but were easily cut down. Fear and anxiety gripped the entire population. Many committed suicide to avoid being captured and raped. Others barricaded themselves in churches, including in Hagia Sophia. But since churches were prime targets for looting, they were no safe havens. The Ottomans breached in and butchered them. Thousands of civilians were killed. Virtually all of the city's art was destroyed or lost. Holy relics disappeared. Everything with a Christian meaning was hacked to pieces and treated as loot, except for a few frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Countless books were burned. Captured citizens and clergy were subjected to gross atrocities - mass rapes, sacrilegious debauchery and executions. It is estimated that 5,000 civilians were slaughtered, and 50,000 enslaved - virtually the entire population at the time.
When Sultan Mehmet II entered Constantinople at the end of the first day, he immediately ordered the butchering to stop. Legend has it that when he saw the ruins of the great city, he mournfully murmured: "What a city we have given up to plunder and destruction!"
The Sultan commanded that Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Thus, the sacred home of Christian spirituality was made an abode for Islam - a huge turning point in history. The Fall of Constantinople - prophesised and sought after for centuries - had ultimately happened. This was the end of the Roman Empire.
Despite their previous apathy, Western rulers reacted with shock and disbelief at the Fall of Constantinople. Constantinople had, for centuries, kept the Turks at bay. With its fall, the Turks had free range into continental Europe. As reports of the city's destruction became widespread, an urgent sense of horror pulsated through Europe. Crusader-like sentiments resurged, as European states formed new alliances to repulse the Ottoman threat. This united front ultimately defeated the Ottomans at the battle of Vienna in 1683.
The Fall of the Byzantine Empire was a major accelerator of cultural and scientific progress in Western Europe. Byzantine artists, poets and scientists, brewing on millennia of ancient knowledge, fled to Italy and reintroduced the Latins to classical studies. This was a major cause of the Renaissance, which changed Western Europe forever.
For the Ottomans, the victory cemented their prestige and authority. Mehmet, known as the Conqueror, styled himself a Sultan of Rum - a Roman Sultan - added Kesar (Caesar) to his name and dreamed of conquering the Vatican next. Constantinople underwent reconstruction, repopulation and transformation. It became the Ottoman capital, and soon known simply as Istanbul, meaning "to the city" (derived from Greek, Stinpolis).
Meanwhile, political defeat was cemented for the Byzantine Christians. Willingly outside of the Pope's fold, and unwillingly under the yoke of Sharia rule, Orthodox Christendom eventually became a minority in the lands it once called home. Moscow picked up the symbolic baton as the new earthly bastion of Orthodoxy, but Russia was too remote to comfort the millions of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, Greece and Middle East.
“At present Christendom is as it was before Constantine [the Great, d. 337]. For now, at least, we have no emperor, no free Church and no freedom of speech.”
- Patriarch Scholarios of Constantinople (d.1473).
Despite these setbacks, Ottoman rule still ensured the existence of the Church. Sultan Mehmet allowed the Patriarchate of Constantinople to survive as the ecumenical seat of the Church, and many churches and monasteries remained open. Christians were usually the majority of taxpayers, so it was important not to provoke them unnecessarily.
Although the following centuries were marked by suppression, they were not unbearable. This allowed Byzantine Christianity to be preserved within its humble churches and remote monasteries to this day.
As for the Roman glory - it was forever gone. The Ottoman claim to be Rome's successor went unrecognized, as such boastful claims were nothing new. The Franks also styled themselves as Roman (Holy Roman Empire), and the Russians called Moscow the Third Rome. The British Empire, too, appropriated classical Roman symbolism, aesthetics and art. "Rome" was simply a self-aggrandizing theme, a faint attempt of tying one's identity with the once-glorious Empire. But in all of history, there had been only one true Roman state - and it died in 1453.
Muslim commentary on Constantinople before 1453:
Islamic hadiths on Constantinople and the wars on the city:
Patriarch Scholarios as Patriarch under Mehmet and the Ottomans:
Orthodox Churches under Ottoman rule:
How Heraclius' hubris led to a paradigm shift advantageous to Islam's rise
Hadiths on Muhammad's prophecies on Constantinople
Eye-witness account of Niccolo Barboro, mercenary:
Eye-witness account of Thomas the Eparch:
Eye-witness account of Bartolomeo de Giano, Latin monk:
Eye-witness account of George Sphrantzes, Imperial court clerk: