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

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The Ottomans were not the first Islamic power to threaten the Byzantine Empire, and in fact the empire was by 1453 a hollowed out husk of its former glory. Successive waves of Turkish and Mongolian invasions had taken almost all of Anatolia out of Byzantine control, and the Ottomans had by this point conquered much of the empire’s former Balkan territory. 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 and the Black Death, and probably only housed about 50,000 by the middle of the 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 brought some of the strongest cannons yet invented, cannons that were powerful enough to penetrate even those impenetrable walls.

The Ottoman guns were the product of a Hungarian engineer named Orban, who initially offered his services to Constantinople as a maker of massive artillery pieces. 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, but ultimately fell apart under its own weight. It’s believed that Orban was killed during the siege when another of his large guns misfired and exploded.

In contrast to the Byzantines, who’d been around for over 14 centuries if you go back to the Roman Empire, and centuries more if you include the Roman Republic, the Ottomans still had that new empire smell. They were still conquering, expanding, growing, which is usually the period when empires are able to paper over their internal weaknesses thanks to a steady inflow of new land and booty. The Ottomans actually suffered an almost catastrophic setback in 1402, when their nascent 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. Murad II opted to abdicate in favor of his son, Mehmed II, in 1444, but a subsequent crisis forced him to return to the throne two years later. Murad 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 Byzantines had hastily tried to fill in, and they 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 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman Empire was no more. The last emperor, Constantine XI, either died in battle or hanged himself. 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. Constantinople’s fall also impacted upon east-west overland trade routes and lit a fire under the the work that western European kingdoms had already begun in pursuing oceanic exploration, to find and open up trade routes to India and China that weren’t controlled by the Ottomans. As you may know, 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 southern Italy that captured Otranto in 1480. That army had to leave Otranto, and Italy, the next year when a Neapolitan army besieged them and Mehmed’s death prevented imperial authorities from sending needed supplies and reinforcements. So the dream of conquering both “Romes” never came to fruition, and the Mahdi still hasn’t shown up, at least as far as I can tell. 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. So Mahdi or no, this was a major victory for Mehmed and his subjects.

Before we go, we should address the whole matter of when the city became “Istanbul,” which people often assume happened when the Ottomans took over. In fact, the name Istanbul, or something very close to it, 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 hē 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.”