The Fall of Constantinople


The year is 1453, and the Byzantine Empire,
the very last figment of Rome’s long-faded glory, is itself in its death throes. Having continued the legacy of Roman rule
for almost fifteen hundred years, the Byzantine empire was once a superpower, but centuries
of constant warfare and a schism between east and west in the Christian church have bled
the empire dry. Constantinople itself, seat of Byzantine empire,
one of the jewels of the ancient world, and the last gasp of the Roman Empire is now threatened
by a massive Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II, who is hellbent on making the legendary
capital his new seat of power. The first Christian capital, Constantinople
had been the seat of imperial power since 330 AD, when the first Christian Roman emperor,
Constantine the Great, declared it his capital. As the shining jewel of European civilization,
Constantinople was no stranger to warfare, and the city had been besieged many times,
falling only once before in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. After each siege though the city added to
its impressive array of fortifications, and was widely considered throughout the world
as all but unassailable. With 12 miles (20 km) of walls that surrounded
the city and sixty foot moats, the city was easily held by a small number of defenders
against a much larger force. On the Bosphorus strait, sea walls prevented
a naval assault of the city, and a heavy chain stretched across the Golden Horn blocked any
ship from entering the city. Yet by 1450 the city had shrunk drastically
in size due to the collapse of the Byzantine empire, and by the time of the Ottoman siege,
it consisted mostly of a series of walled villages separated by fields that were often
planted. The once-booming metropolis and center of
imperial and Chrisitan power was in essence a ghost town, and only had about fifty thousand
inhabitants at the time of its final siege, considerably less than the eight hundred thousand
people who lived there at its peak. Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI had understood
that the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed II, wanted his city for himself. At first he tried to placate the sultan by
sending gifts, but these were returned and the diplomats sent to Mehmed’s court were
executed. Realizing that war was inevitable, Constantine
XI turned to the Christian powers of western europe, but a deep schism between eastern
and western Christianity had split the church in two. Constantine offered Pope Nicholas V to reunite
the two churches, but he had severely overestimated the influence that the Pope had on the Western
powers. Britain, France, and Spain had become wary
of the growing power of the papacy, and for their part, Britain and France were exhausted
after the Hundred Years’ War. Ultimately all that the West would be able
to contribute to the defense of Constantinople would be a few hundred volunteers, along with
about two dozen ships and some supplies. In total the Byzantines were able to marshal
a force of only seven thousand men to defend the city against an estimated fifty to eighty
thousand Ottomans. While the numbers were wildly one-sided, Constantinople
was so well fortified that there was every reason to believe that the city could hold
out until either help from the West arrived or the Sultan expended too many of his troops
and supplies to make the conquest worth the effort. With its incredible system of walls, towers,
and fortifications, the tiny force of seven thousand could have easily held against overwhelming
numbers- were it not for the brilliant mind of one Hungarian engineer. A mysterious figure known only by the name
of Orban, this master craftsman initially offered his services to the Byzantines, but
they had been unable to meet his fees. Taking his services to Sultan Mehmed II instead,
he promised that his weapons would “blast the walls of Babylon itself”. Mehmed decided to gamble on the confident
engineer, and he would not be disappointed as Orban immediately began construction on
a cannon which would take a whopping three months to build. The cannon would be twenty seven feet (8.2
m) long, and could blast a six hundred pound (272 kg) stone projectile well over a mile. This far exceeded the capacity of other Ottoman
cannons, which while formidable could only blast projectiles weighing between one hundred
and two hundred pounds. But this super cannon had some serious drawbacks,
as it took three hours to reload and its cannonballs were in short supply. Nonetheless, knowing that he faced the greatest
fortifications in the world, Mehmed had a foundry established one hundred and fifty
miles (240 km) away to build and supply the massive artillery pieces, which were so big
that each one had to be dragged by sixty oxen all the way to Constantinople. Mehmed was determined to take the city though,
and ultimately had seventy of these large bombards built, with more built while the
siege was happening. Facing the impressive fortifications, Mehmed
decided that his attack would be on the Theodosian Walls, a series of heavy walls and ditches
which protected Constantinople from the west, and was the only part of the city not surrounded
by water. On the second of April, 1453, his army made
camp in front of the mighty walls and officially began the three month siege. The defenders enjoyed the benefit of walls
that had recently been repaired after a long state of disrepair, and were equipped with
various medium cannons. However the recoil of their own cannons could
cause damage to the walls, and thus were only sparingly used. The attack would mostly be repelled with bow
and crossbow, as well as some rudimentary firearms that had been brought in from the
west. A fleet of twenty six ships defended the city
from naval assault, and though Mehmed’s own forces numbered at one hundred and twenty
six ships, a giant sea chain prevented access to the harbor, and venturing too near the
walls could be disastrous for the attackers. On the fifth of April, the Sultan himself
arrived at his war camp, and stood with his army opposite Constantine XI and his defenders,
the last Byzantine emperor standing on his walls alongside his men. As the siege began, Mehmed sent teams of elite
troops to assault the remaining smaller Byzantine strongholds outside of the city. Within a few days these forts were taken and
Mehmed’s rear was secure against an unexpected counterattack from outside the city. The massive cannons began their terrible bombardment,
hurling giant stone balls at the mighty walls. However the three hour reload process, poor
accuracy, and small numbers allowed the city’s defenders to repair damage to their walls
caused by the artillery. For weeks the mighty guns would relentlessly
fire, and the titanic stones they hurled would slowly erode even Constantinople’s mighty
walls. At sea the Ottoman fleet encountered the giant
chain that had been stretched across the entrance to the Golden Horn and barred approach into
the city. Unable to destroy the mighty chain, the ships
were largely excluded from the siege, and instead would serve as guards to ensure that
no Christian ships exited or entered the city. Against all odds though on the twentieth of
April a small flotilla of four Christian ships broke through the huge Ottoman army after
heavy fighting, deeply embarrassing the Ottomans and boosting the morale of the defenders. Commander of the Ottoman fleet, Suleiman Baltoghlu,
was spared his life for his humiliating failure only after his subordinates testified to his
extreme bravery during the fighting. With supplies slipping into the city and the
Ottomans unable to break past the mighty harbor chain, Sultan Mehmed decided that if his ships
couldn’t sail past the chain and into the Golden Horn, then they would simply go around
the chain. He set thousands of his soldiers to cutting
down every available tree in the area and greased hundreds of logs which he had laid
side by side. This created a road of greased logs, and he
then commanded his men to manually pull each and every one of his ships up a hill and down
the other side to settle them back in the water, effectively bypassing the mighty chain. In a desperate attempt to destroy the massing
ships, the defenders sent out a wave of fire ships to attack the Ottoman ships. Sporting few weapons but loaded with barrels
of oil, fire ships were meant to be piloted into the midst of an enemy fleet and then
set on fire, which would in turn set the rest of the enemy fleet on fire. Yet the Turks had advance warning of the attack
and were prepared for the fire ships, forcing the Christians to retreat with heavy losses. Swimming to shore and fleeing their sinking
ships, forty italian sailors were captured by Ottoman forces and Sultan Mehmed ordered
that they be impaled in full view of the city’s defenders. In retaliation, the Byzantines gathered two
hundred and sixty Ottoman prisoners and executed them upon their walls one by one. The bypassing of the chain upon the mouth
of the Golden Horn meant that the defenders now had to reposition a large number of their
forces to defend the sea walls, lowering the strength on the western walls which faced
repeated heavy attacks. After several unsuccessful frontal attacks
which left thousands of Ottoman dead, the Sultan ordered the construction of underground
tunnels to be dug below the walls and filled with barrels of gunpowder. The ensuing explosion would devastate the
walls above and leave the city open for invasion. However, a German engineer, Johannes Grant,
who had volunteered to defend Constantinople, had envisioned this turn of events and was
quick to have counter-tunnels dug, which let the Byzantines flood the Ottoman tunnels with
Greek fire. On the twenty third of May, two Turkish officers
were captured and tortured until they revealed the location of all the Turkish tunnels which
were quickly destroyed. About this time, opposition to Mehmed’s siege
had begun rising amongst his war council. Casualties were mounting and despite the stunning
bypassing of the sea chain, the city was still not any closer to falling. The dragging siege was also putting the Turkish
forces in a precarious position, as it was feared that any day now reinforcements from
Western Europe would arrive and trap the Turks between themselves and the city’s walls. Yet Mehmed was determined to take the city,
and thus he mobilized his remaining troops for one last massive attack. Shortly after midnight on May 29th, the attack
began. The walls in the northwest portion of the
city had suffered heavy damage from the giant cannons, as they had been built earlier than
the rest of the walls and were thus much weaker. A force of Turks managed to breach this section
of the walls, only to be pushed back out by a brutal counter-attack by the city’s defenders. At this time though, the Genoese general in
charge of Constantine’s defenders was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated from the ramparts,
causing panic amongst the Genoese troops. Those troops retreated from their positions
along the walls and towards the harbor, and in that retreat Constantinople’s fate was
sealed. Constantine XI is said to have died leading
his troops against the Turkish defenders, while other sources say that he had hung himself
when he saw that defeat was inevitable. Constantinople’s fate however is well documented,
as the Sultan rewarded his victorious troops with three days of unlimited looting and violence. Thousands of women were raped and everything
of value was stripped from the city. Turkish troops murdered anyone they pleased,
and after the three days the Sultan ordered an end to the violent free-for-all. The surviving population of Constantinople
was shipped off as slaves, and it is said that when the sultan overlooked the massive
destruction his men had caused on the legendary city after the three days, he was moved to
tears, commenting, “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.”

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