The Final Decline and the Fall of Constantinople
“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.”
- Constantine XI Palaiologos, to Mehmed II during the Siege of Constantinople (1453)
Mehmed II came to the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1451. He was nineteen years old and bent on conquest.
His forbearers had already done much to expand the power of their people, taking most of Asia-Minor during the 14th-century and even expanding into Europe, defeating numerous attempts to dislodge them from the Christian nations of the Balkans and beyond.
All their achievements were marred though by an inability to take the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople.
Surrounded now on all sides by the Turks, the Byzantines controlled little more than the city itself. Certainly, a few bastions of Imperial authority survived in Epirus, the Peloponnese and Trebizond – but these places were largely independent; and besides that, could do little to aid the capital at any rate.
The Mother of Cities was, for all intents and purposes, on its own.
The Emperor of the day, Constantine XI Palaiologos, like his immediate predecessors, fought valiantly to win allies to the Byzantines’ side, even attempting a Union of the Churches (with the Orthodox subservient to the Catholic) in order to secure support from the West.
However much he may have tried though, the division by this point was too great; and especially for the Byzantines, who, remembering the atrocities of the Fourth Crusade, are said to have believed as Loukas Notaras (an advisor to the last three emperors in Constantinople) did when he exclaimed, “Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.”
In the end, when Mehmed II finally set out to lay siege to the city in 1453AD, a mere 2000 foreign troops (mostly Genoese and Venetian) came to the aid of the citizens of Constantinople. Though they would prove invaluable (especially those led by Giovanni Giustinani, an expert in siege defence from Genoa), arrayed against them – and the 5000 Byzantine soldiers Constantine was able to muster – was a force of between 50000 and 80000 Ottomans, including (at least) 5000 elite Janissaries.
Also with Mehmed’s forces was a Hungarian (or possibly German) man named Orban, a master founder of one of the newest weapons in the medieval arsenal: cannons. The history of firearms and gunpowder goes back much farther than the 15th-century, especially in the Far East where gunpowder is believed to have been invented in the 9th-century. But Constantinople in 1453 was one of the first European cities to feel the deadly effect of this emerging technology…
Orban had previously offered his services to Constantine, but the Byzantine emperor had been unable to afford him, so instead he sought someone who could: the Ottomans.
Amongst the weapons Mehmed brought against the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople – which had resisted all for a thousand years – was a cannon (or bombard) designed and cast by Orban that took sixty oxen to haul, such was its size and weight.
On the 5th of April, Mehmed II arrived with the last of his troops and the siege began in earnest. The Ottoman army surrounded the city from the west while the navy blockaded it from the east. Access to the Golden Horn was prevented though by a chain strung across the entrance to Byzantium’s natural harbour. And despite the formidable power of Orban’s cannon, its slow rate-of-fire and imprecise aiming meant that the defenders, despite being spread ridiculously thin along the city’s 20km of walls, were able to repair any damage during the long pause between bombardments.
Despite this, the Ottoman Sultan was not about to give up in his attempts. After failing to prevent a small force of Christian ships from running the blockade, Mehmed had his fleet rolled overland on greased logs into the Golden Horn, effectively cutting Constantinople off from the sea. And until mid-May he kept up constant attacks on the Theodosian Walls, sacrificing thousands of soldiers in inconclusive frontal assaults.
When these proved ineffective he decided to try a new tactic, deploying men to undermine the walls. The Byzantines had on their side though a man named Johannes Grant, a Scottish counter-mining expert who helped them locate and destroy the Ottoman tunnels.
By this time it was late-May and Mehmed was considering whether to continue in the seemingly futile attempt to take the city, or withdraw. One of his most senior advisors insisted that the siege must be concluded soon or the Ottomns would risk humiliation and defeat. Thus a final assault was planned for the 29th of May, to commence at midnight and designed to overpower the weary defenders of the city.
News soon reached the Byzantines and both sides knew it would be a bloody – some would say, apocalyptic – affair. Solemn religious proceedings occurred both in the city and in the Ottoman camp.
When the assault came it was led by Mehmed’s disposable Christian and azap auxiliaries, followed by his regulars from Anatolia, and finally, the elite Janissaries. They concentrated their attack on the Theodosian Walls, and eventually managed to overwhelm several sections. When Giovanni Giustinani was wounded trying to fend off the advancing Turks he was carried away by his troops.
His absence demoralized many of the other defenders.
Finally, unable to stem the tide of Janissaries pouring through breaches in the wall, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who had fought bravely and tirelessly throughout the siege, cast off his purple cloak and led a final charge against the enemies of his city and empire. He disappeared in the throng of combatants, and was assumed dead, an anonymous casualty amongst thousands who gave their lives that day.
He was the last Emperor of Byzantium, and by extension, the Roman Empire.
The defence quickly collapsed from there and the Ottomans poured into the city. The Byzantine soldiers who had managed to escape the walls fled back to their homes, to try and defend their families from the coming slaughter, while what foreign troops remained ran to their ships. Quite a few managed to escape this way, running the blockade before Mehmed’s fleet could stop them.
A three-day sack ensued, as was customary. No quarter was given to the Byzantine citizens who tried to hide from the victorious Ottomans, and every form of murder, rape, desecration and theft is recorded to have occurred.
At the end of the third day, Mehmed II ordered his army out of the city, and Constantinople, so long a bastion of Christianity, and the last connection to the old Roman Empire of Constantine, Augustus and Caesar, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Next part: Mopping Up