|1422 map of Constantinople|
Defending the CityAgainst the massed might of the Ottoman Empire Constantine could only find 4,983 men to man the twenty kilometres of city walls[i], studded with 110 defence towers and 16 gates. The defenders, included a company of Genoese mercenaries, trusted to the walls to keep the infidel out. The city housed sixty churches but, as Mehmet told his men, Constantinople was;
‘No longer a city, but in name, an enclosure of plants and vineyards, worthless houses and empty walls, most of them in ruins.’[ii]But the stark reality was emphasised by Mehmet’s demand on 5th March 1453 for surrender of the city. The following day the bombardment started. Orban’s cannon could only fire seven times a day, but each cannonball smashed curtain walls and defensive towers.
The defenders repaired the city walls each night with a desperation borne from the knowledge that very few had answered the calls for help. A number of Genoese were among those who did venture to Constantinople and Giovanni Giustiniani, who arrived with 700 men, was placed in command of the city walls. Mehmet’s red and gold tent was erected outside the Gate of St Romanus; one of the many gates studding the city walls.
A Battle at Sea
The Turkish navy sailed on the Sea of Marmara , ordered to stop all shipping from reaching the city. The Golden Horn, a natural harbour, was protected by a chain that could be dropped to allow boats inside and the chain was now raised. The commander of the Ottoman navy, one Suleiman Baltoghlu[iii], was ordered to ensure that no relief reached the city from the Marmara side. A convoy of three galleys, laden with corn, was able to slip inside the boom after a battle that lasted all afternoon. Mehmet was seen on horseback shouting instructions to Baltoghlu, from the water’s edge.
|Greek fire in use in a naval battle|
Back to the Wall
The defenders were unaware for some time of the stratagem that was to bring the deadliest blow to Constantinople. In early April Mehmet had ordered the building of a road from the Bosphorus over the Golden Horn. On the 22nd Mehmet’s engineers used teams of oxen to drag seventy two warships down to the shore of the Golden Horn where their guns were replaced. The Byzantines were;
‘Astounded at the impossibility of the spectacle, and were overcome by the greatest consternation and perplexity. They did not know what to do now, but were in despair.’[v]An attempt to assault the invading navy was rebuffed with the loss of two of the attacking ships. The ninety sailors were beheaded in full view of the defenders who immediately retaliated by beheading two hundred and sixty Turkish prisoners. But this defiance was to no avail; the Turks now had control of the Golden Horn.
The defenders were subject to infighting between the Venetians and the Genoese, so much so that Constantine was forced to remind them that;
‘The war outside our gates is enough for us.’[vi]
There were those who sought to persuade Constantine to leave the city, he refused saying;
‘It is impossible for me to go away: how could I leave the churches of our Lord, and his servants the clergy, and the throne and my people in such a plight?’[vii]
Attempts were made to undermine the walls, but these failed. Halil persuaded Mehmet to make one last bid for a peaceful solution, but the proposal was rejected. In return Mehmet responded that the only end now for the Byzantines was death or conversion to Islam.
The Fall of Constantinople
|Fall of Constantinople|
Mehmet ordered an all out assault; the planning of which was undertaken by Zaganos Pasha[viii], on the city for the 29th May 1453. Mehmet promised his soldiers the rights to pillage the city for three days and nights[ix]. The fosse[x] around the city had been filled in over the previous two days; the Monday before the attack was spent in prayer and contemplation, while Mehmet toured the camp offering encouragement to his men.
Three hours before dawn on Tuesday 29th three armies led separate attacks on the walls, where the defenders were succoured by nuns bringing water. The irregulars were the first to be thrown at the walls of Constantinople; Slavs, Hungarians, Kurds, Yörüks[xi], Germans, Italians and Greeks, urged on by whips and maces as the Janissaries closed ranks behind them. They attacked for two hours before being withdrawn and replaced by professional Anatolian infantry, to be replaced in turn by the Janissaries.
Giustiniani was shot at close range through his breastplate and insisted on being carried to his ship, causing much angst amongst the defenders. The Genoese mercenaries fell back in confusion even as Turkish troops ran in through a postern gate left open after a sortie. The Janissaries poured over the walls and through the breaches made by Orban’s cannon.
Many of the citizens made their way in desperation to pray in the Church of Holy Wisdom[xii], where an ancient prophecy said that an angel would appear to beat back the infidel invaders.
‘The whole huge sanctuary was full of men and women…..an immeasurable multitude. And shutting the gate, they stood there fervently hoping for deliverance by the angel.’[xiii]
After the Storm
|Gate of Charisius through which Mehmet entered the city|
‘After this the Sultan entered the City and looked about to see its great size, its situation, its grandeur and beauty……..when he saw what a large number had been killed, and the wreckage of the buildings and the wholesale ruin and desolation of the City, he was filled with compassion and repented not a little at the destruction and plundering.’[xvi]
As he intended to move the capital of his empire from Adrianople to Constantinople, Mehmet did not want too much damage to be done to the city’s infrastructure. Inside the Church of Holy Wisdom Mehmet was displeased to find a soldier hacking at the floor. Striking the soldier with a sword, Mehmet informed him;
‘For you the treasures and the prisoners are enough. The buildings of the city fall to me.’[xvii]
Having released the few remaining citizens hiding within the church precincts and letting the priests go free, Mehmet ordered that the church be converted to a mosque. Order was restored after just one day’s looting.
One of Mehmet’s first acts after the fall of the Byzantine capital was to remove the hated Halil Pasha. Halil was replaced by Zagan Pasha, one of his rivals, and was executed on 1st June; just two days after the fall of the city, whose capture he had so often advised against.
Mehmet, never popular with his Janissaries, now adopted his lifestyle to echo the etiquette and ceremonial of the Byzantine court, further alienating himself from his troops and his people. Mehmet started the process of making the Sultan inaccessible to his subjects, withdrawing behind his court officials, who ever increasingly came from slave stock.
On 2nd December 1459 one of Mehmet’s concubines named Çiçek[xx] gave birth to a boy Jem; the first male of the Ottoman ruling family to be born in the city. Both of Mehmet’s elder sons were sent away to govern, as he himself had been; Bayezid had been sent to Amaysa and Mustafa to Magnesia.
Mehmet was very much aware of the strategic sighting of his new capital, now renamed Istanbul. Its position athwart the entrance to the Black Sea and across the land route to Jerusalem and Egypt ensured a dominance over affairs at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
The Grand Turk – John Freely, I.B. Tauris and Co Ltd, 2009
The Janissaries – Godfrey Goodwin, Saqi Books 1994
Lords of the Horizons – Jason Goodwin, Henry Holt & Co 1998
The Ottoman Empire – Halil Inalcik, Phoenix 1994
The Ottoman Empire – Lord Kinross, Folio Society 2003
Byzantium, The Decline and Fall – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 1995
A History of Venice – John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books 1982
The Ottoman Empire – Andrina Stiles, Hodder & Stoughton 1989
[i] Recently repaired with a grant from Durad Branković, who also sent troops to fight in Mehmet’s army
[ii] Lords of the Horizons - Goodwin
[iii] A Bulgarian convert to Islam and Governor of Gallipoli
[iv] The Byzantine version was squirted on enemies through a nozzle from a cheirosiphōn. Their recipe was a state secret that has since been lost
[v] The Grand Turk - Freely
[vi] Lords of the Horizons - Goodwin
[vii] The Ottoman Empire - Kinross
[viii] Mehmet’s former tutor
[ix] As required by religious law
[xi] Nomads from Anatolia and the Balkan peninsula
[xii] Now the Hagia Sophia
[xiii] The Ottoman Empire - Kinross
[xv] A diplomat who oversaw the affairs of Venetians in Constantinople
[xvi] The Grand Turk - Freely
[xvii] The Ottoman Empire - Kinross
[xviii] Completed in 1458
[xix] Now the Topkapi Palace