The Fall of Constantinople

The historians all seem to disagree, but one theory explaining the birth of the Renaissance period was due to the hasty arrival in May 1453 of Greek scholars who had frantically packed their bags and fled the city of Constantinople when it became apparent the blood thirsty Ottomans were up for a bit more pillaging, a bit less Plato.

Constantinople is today’s Istanbul, the eye-wateringly exotic, uber-chic yet ethnically explosive city that bestrides the Bosphorus strait. Fighting off Europe on one side and Asia on the other, the City has a hot-blooded history and today produces the sort of news bulletins that keep Middle England riddled with anxiety about the state of world order.

The Fall of Constantinople in May 1453 though, is one of history’s truly epic events, a siege that marked the last gasp of the Roman Empire. Constantinople back then was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe for over a thousand years. The borders of the Empire shifted about significantly as the fortunes of its despotic leaders ebbed and flowed, but at its greatest, during the reign of the colossal Justinian the Great, the empire stretched across much of the Mediterranean coast including North Africa, Italy and, indeed, Rome itself. Come May 1453 though, Constantinople was pretty much there for the taking, having been ravaged by the Black Plague and after years of endless attack from the Latins, the Serbs, the Bulgarians; basically anyone with a sword and some spare time.

It was against this ratty-tatty state of affairs that the eyes of a young Sultan – Mehmed II – glistened at the delicious prospect of taking a sharp kilij to the soft under-belly of Orthodox Christianity. Now young Mehmed II came across all demure and mild-mannered but for those who doubted his taste for some looting of thy neighbour’s Sunday silver, they were in for a shock. Aged just nineteen Mehmed built a fortress north of Constantinople on the European side of the Bosphorus, a fortress which was set directly across the strait from a similarly imposing stronghold on the Asian side, which had been built by his grand-father, the great Bayezid the First. The Turks basically had complete control of all sea traffic, something which any amateur player of Risk, or even Monopoly would know, was a position that effectively took Constantinople by the short and curlies, blocking off any potential help arriving from the north in the event of a siege. The new fortress was called Bogazkesen, which basically meant ‘throat cutter’, which also sort of gave the game away a bit. It wasn’t long after that young Mehmed II started to get down, and dirty.

The Byzantine Emperor at the time, a one Constantine the XI, and a man not without his own despotic tendencies, soon saw the tea leaves for what they really were and frantically turned to Western Europe for help. Yet it was here that years of hostility, bad-mouthing, and ethnic hatred within the Church came home to roost. The starched taste stemmed from a previous sacking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, which sowed the seeds for years of mistrust and bitterness between the Greeks and Italians.

Now the Eastern and Western Churches had been all over each other for years, but in 1274 a frosty Union was agreed. This agreement was later given more oomph by the ‘Bull of Union’ negotiated by Pope Eugene and the Council of Florence in 1439. The problem for Constantine the XI was that sharply anti-Unionist Orthodox partisans in Constantinople had publicly scorned these efforts of togetherness, a footing which had properly got the wick of the Pope, the same Pope Constantine the XI was now writing to for help. Ever the diplomat Constantine, at the same time, tried to buy Mehmed off with lithe virgins and ornate gold goblets but his efforts came to nothing. Mehmed executed all of the Emperor’s ambassadors in a stark statement of grisly intent.

The army defending Constantinople numbered about seven thousand men which was enough for a good May day parade in the main square but well short in the context of fighting almost eighty thousand souped-up Ottoman soldiers. The strategy appeared to be based around cutting the city off from the sea and then lobbing cannon balls at it. Now the Ottomans had the Giant Haystack of canons, a canon called Basilica, which was eight metres long and able to throw a three hundred kilo stone ball well over a mile. It was made by a mysterious man named Orban who hailed from Hungary – or a country near enough to Hungary given no one can actually say for sure. Orban eyed up Mehmed with his unlimited funds and taste for rubble and suggested they work together, claiming his canon could do things no canon had done before. By the time he finished building Basilica it took sixty oxen to drag it to Constantinople. One obvious problem though, was that it took three hours to reload which enabled the Byzantines to do a fair bit of repair work between hits. If, that is, it managed to hit. Accuracy, was another problem. The Basilica later collapsed under its own recoil.

In addition to a massive canon, the Sultan used greased logs, underground tunnels and lots of cheap, expendable soldiers. His strategic thinking helped shaped the siege and give it an edge. Forty Italians were captured trying to escape their sinking ships after one watery skirmish and Mehmed ordered them to be impaled on stakes in sight of the City’s walls. In retaliation lots of Ottoman prisoners were executed on the very same City walls on by one in front of all the Ottomans. Feelings ran high and on 28th May the Ottomans prepared for the final all-out assault. It worked.

Having breached the outer walls, the attackers ran amok, looting and pillaging with reckless, gay abandon. It was reported that Constantine the XI himself led the final charge against the Ottomans, dying a bloody death in the streets alongside his soldiers. One eye-witness, however, later wrote in his diary that Constantine the XI hung himself as soon as he heard footsteps and shouting in the courtyard. Legend has it that angels rescued him, turned him into marble and buried him in a cave where he waits to be brought back to life. His ultimate fate though, remains unknown.

Make time to visit Istanbul.

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