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The Day Constantinople Died

The Day Constantinople Died

Mehmed the Conqueror, the Sultan Mehmed II, wanted to capture Constantinople in 1453, but the city’s defenders fought with all their might.

Early in the morning of Tuesday, May 29, 1453, they came swarming like hungry wolves over the plain between the Turkish palisades and the battered walls of Byzantium. Thousands upon thousands of wild and ferocious men rushed through the darkness upon the exhausted defenders. Scimitars glistened in the flickering light of torches. Monotonous drums, blaring trumpets, and clashing cymbals urged them on with a frenzied beat. Across the besieged city, bells tolled dolefully as exhausted defenders prepared to make another supreme effort, while women and children sought sanctuary in churches and behind bolted doors. But on came the Turks, their shouts audible, their approach like the rushing of a wave. The spectacle was magnificent and terrifying. The Sultan’s army was storming Constantinople.

The first wave of the ferocious assault was soon crashing into the city’s defenses. Bashi-Bazouks, drawn from all over the Ottoman Empire, were desperate for plunder and frustrated by weeks of fruitless siege. They showed astounding energy and valor as they surged beneath the walls, raising ladders, cheering, cursing, baying for blood. The chain-mail-clad Greek and Italian defenders, fighting for their lives, sent stones hurtling down into the warriors below or picked off Turks with crossbow bolts. For “an hour the savagery continued. Ladders were raised only to be sent crashing down into the jostling throng. Turks turned to run, only to find a cordon of Imperial officers cutting down those who attempted to flee. Most fought with a frenzy the defenders were astonished to behold until, finally, the Sultan relented and the first wild wave turned away from the walls and ran back to the Ottoman camp.

“They Shall Conquer Constantinople”

Relieved, the defenders nervously paused for breath, wiping the sweat from their foreheads, tending to the wounded, and cleaning their weapons. Then, nudging each other and glancing out into the Turkish lines, they caught sight of the second wave gathering in the gloom, and again the Turkish musicians broke the silence with their deafening, terrifying din. The Sultan, the youthful Mehmet II, had sworn to take the city; the Prophet’s words, “They shall conquer Constantinople and glory be to the prince and to the army that shall achieve it,” rang in his ears.

For decades the fall of Byzantium had seemed inevitable. Ottoman armies under Murad I had bypassed Constantinople and swept into the Balkans in 1360, conquering Macedonia, devastating Bulgaria, and clashing violently with Serbs and Hungarians. The emperors of Byzantium were mere vassals during the following decades of consolidation, before the Turks again turned to conquest in Europe. In 1388 they clashed with the unbowed Serbs, a decisive battle fought on the “field of the ravens” at Kosovo. There, on the desolate plain, the East triumphed over the West and the Serbs were slaughtered in the thousands. The Balkans passed over to Turkish rule for the next 500 years.

Left Isolated and Vulnerable

This left the last city of the Romans, magnificent Constantinople, isolated and vulnerable, surviving through the humiliation of paying tribute or because the Turks were campaigning against the Tartars. Slyly, in the 1430s, Byzantine power, largely reduced to governing a few Greek provinces, began to reassert itself. Profiting from Western Europe’s concern over the Ottoman successes, and enjoying support from the Venetians, Genoese, and the brilliant John Corvinus Huniades of Hungary, the empire enjoyed an all-too-brief renaissance. In 1451, this optimism was shattered when the young Mehmet succeeded his father, Murad, to the Ottoman throne. For war was in his heart and he longed to conquer Constantinople and thus bond European Ottoman territories more closely to his domains in Asia. When the Greeks attempted to use Orkhan, a Turkish pretender to the Ottoman throne, in a complicated display of Byzantine intrigue designed to threaten the new ruler, the plot backfired and the Sultan was outraged. It was the pretext for conflict.

The Sultan’s first act was a warning the Greeks should have heeded. Ottoman stonemasons and laborers toiled on the construction of a formidable castle north of the city. It was meant to dominate the Bosphorus, and it rose on Byzantine territory. Embassies pleaded with the sovereign. At first they were turned away unheard. Finally, they were arrested and beheaded. In just four months the castle above the strait was completed. It was given the all-too-menacing title “Cutter of the Throat,” and armed with cannon that barred the channel to Christian shipping.

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Throughout 1452 the Sultan worked hard marshalling his forces, assuring peace and security in his Asian possessions. He constructed ships and founded cannon—the Turks eventually dragged 200 guns with them. One monster, built by a Hungarian engineer in Ottoman service, was 26 feet long. Its detonation could, so contemporaries report, be heard 10 miles away. Those besieged in Constantinople would have reason to fear such formidable artillery.

Byzantium Fully Under Seige

While his army gathered in the Balkans, the Sultan studiously planned, examining his best maps of the city. In March 1453 he sent his fleet, commanded by a Bulgarian admiral, into the Sea of Marmara, driving off Greek and Italian ships and effectively blockading the city from the sea. Meanwhile, his huge land army of 100,000 men was on the march, moving through Thrace and camping before the city’s 14 miles of walls. By Easter, Byzantium, which had seen many sieges by many hostile nations, was well and truly besieged.

The population of the city was horrified by the arrival of the Sultan’s host. The Emperor Constantine could only muster some 6,000 Greeks, 2,000 Italians, and the crews of the ships trapped in the great harbor. The 1,000-year-old walls were protected by 70 guns—all the city could afford—but even then gunpowder was lacking. Although few in number, the defenders’ chances were at least augmented by the skill and resourcefulness of their commander, the great Giovanni Giustiniani.

Fortunately, he was an expert in defending fortified places. He set about tapping the desperate energy of the population to improve the defenses and prepare for the mighty onslaught. A boom was placed across the mouth of the Golden Horn, a narrow channel that protected the city’s vulnerable northern flank. The Emperor placed himself where the walls crossed the Lycus valley, opposite the Sultan’s camp and in the center of the city’s defensive perimeter. Giustiniani joined him there.

A Venetian named Minotto commanded on the extreme right by the Golden Horn, while to the left of the Emperor was Cattaneo and Genoese troops. To their left—on the extreme left of the Byzantine position—stood Paleologue and the pick of the Greek troops, with more Italians under Contarini. Few troops could be spared to man the sea walls, but lookouts were placed and a mobile reserve positioned in case it was needed. Finally, to protect the crucial boom, Venetian and Genoese sailors, many armed with crossbows, stood ready. In contrast to the Sultan’s big guns, the besieged relied on a few culverins, light cannon, and mangonels for hurling stones.

The Sultan’s troops were soon in action. First he attacked and took the little fort of Stoudion outside the city walls. His soldiers killed most of the garrison in the assault, but captured 36 survivors. These unfortunates were dragged before the walls of the city and, in full sight of the defenders, impaled on sharpened stakes as a warning not to resist. At the same time, the Turkish fleet reduced the Princes Isle, a small fortified position in the Marmara, by bombarding it and setting it on fire. The Turks even fanned the flames by throwing sulphur into the defenses. A few Christians swam ashore, but they were met on the beach and beheaded. The scene was set for the most merciless of sieges.

“Their Shouts Could Be Heard on the Distant Shore of Asia”

The Turks first built a palisade, excavating a ditch and fashioning a rampart topped with a wooden wall. On April 6, their guns, supported by catapults, opened up on the miserable city. For days the bombardment continued. Then on the 18th, they launched their infantry assault. Nicolo Barbaro, a Venetian naval surgeon, witnessed the scene: “On the 18th day of the said month of April I saw a great mass of Turks storm towards the walls. This was at two in the morning and the attack continued until six. In the struggle numerous Turks died but, as they first approached at night, they came unexpectedly and took our troops by surprise. There were so many shouts and cries and the beating of drums that there seemed far more of them than in reality there actually were. Their shouts could be heard on the distant shore of Asia, 12 miles from their camp. While they shouted so, Emperor Constantine, full of anxiety, cried tearfully that such a general assault could hardly be beaten off by the Christians as we were not fully prepared to meet it. But God did not wish for such an abomination to take place yet and at six quiet was restored. The Turks lost 200 of their men while, due to the grace of God, we did not lose one dead or even any wounded.”