This week in history: The Fall of Constantinople had profound consequences

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 6:45 p.m. MDT

On May 29, 1453 — 560 years ago this week — Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The fall of this great city signaled the end of the Byzantine Empire, the medieval incarnation of the Roman Empire, and saw the armies of Islam spread into Europe from Asia for the first time.

In A.D. 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine founded the city of Constantinople on the Greek village of Byzantine to be the new imperial capital. Sitting on the Bosporus strait, which connects Europe and Asia, the new city was more easily defended than Rome, and it was a Christian city to reflect the emperor's religious preference. Like Rome, Constantinople had seven hills divided into 14 districts.

For centuries, the city stood as the center of imperial power, even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476. Historians refer to this medieval incarnation of the empire as Byzantine. The Franks and the Italians of the time referred to its inhabitants simply as “the Greeks.” The inhabitants themselves, however, continued to refer to themselves as Romans, and saw their emperors as the literal successors to Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and Constantine.

Containing impressive city walls, Constantinople was virtually impervious to attack, such as when an army of Goths approached the city after the battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378. After the rise of Islam, the Byzantine empire lost much of its territory in the Middle East and North Africa, but the city of Constantinople proved an impervious rock upon which wave after wave of Muslim armies couldn't break. As Constantinople held the line against Islam in the East, modern Western civilization developed in France and Western Europe. Though the Franks had defeated Islamic armies from Spain, the loss of Byzantine to Islam may well have seen the creation of a Muslim Europe.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, however, Byzantine power was waning considerably. Practicing Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople had fallen to Catholic knights during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, ushering in nearly 60 years of Catholic rule before an Orthodox emperor was able to retake the throne. The mid-14th century saw the Black Death claim the lives of perhaps half the city's population. By the early 15th century, the Islamic Ottoman Turks had conquered virtually all of present day Turkey, and the Byzantine empire was a shadow of its former self, consisting of a few scattered territories and islands outside of Constantinople itself.

In 1451, Mehmed II succeeded his father to become the Ottoman sultan. In his book “1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West,” historian Roger Crowley described the 19-year-old ruler: “The man whom the Renaissance later presented as a monster of cruelty and perversion was a mass of contradictions. He was astute, brave and highly impulsive — capable of deep deception, tyrannical cruelty and acts of sudden kindness. He was moody and unpredictable, a bisexual who shunned close relationships, never forgave an insult, but who came to be loved for his pious foundations.”

Upon becoming sultan, Mehmed immediately began a new building program for his navy, and soon set about plans to do something that the many sultans before him couldn't — the conquest of Constantinople. In early 1453, he took an army of somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Ottoman troops into Byzantine territory, and on April 6 began major siege operations against the city.

Constantine XI proved to be the last of the Byzantine emperors. Having ruled since 1449, Constantine knew the empire's defenses alone, including more than 12 miles of walls, were not enough to repel a determined Ottoman siege or assault.

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