This week in history: The Fall of Constantinople had profound consequences
Crowley wrote: “For Constantine a successful defense of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet — a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys. But the sea remained ominously empty.”
Throughout April and May actions were launched from both the Ottomans and the Byzantines, as each side sought to gain advantage over the other. Several Ottoman attacks against the city's walls came to nothing, while Byzantine blockade running actions against the Ottoman fleet resulted in only marginal help arriving into the city. Both sides exchanged peace proposals, but neither side could agree. The Ottomans were determined to take Constantinople; the Byzantines were determined to hold it.
On May 26, Mehmed and his generals decided to launch a major assault, and began preparations. The Janissaries, committed Muslim soldiers made up entirely of kidnapped Christian boys who trained for years as the shock troops of the sultan's armies, were held in reserve, waiting to deal the final blow. In Constantinople the next day, a small fleet of Venetian ships arrived, informing Constantine that no relief force was on its way. Constantinople had to defend itself. The next evening, May 28, a maudlin service was held in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople's great cathedral.
In the early hours of May 29, the Ottoman attack began with Christian mercenaries in the employ of the sultan. As the city's defenders strung themselves out to stem the Ottoman tide, the Janissaries launched their assault, taking the walls and overwhelming the Byzantine soldiers. Constantine XI, the 88th Roman emperor by the Byzantines' reckoning, died in a final, gallant attack against the Ottomans.
In his book “Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization,” historian Lars Brownworth wrote of the horrific days that followed the fall the of the city: “The carnage was terrible. Turkish soldiers fanned out along streets that were soon slick with blood, covering the ground so thickly with corpses that in some places it could hardly be seen. The Venetians and Genovese managed to get to their ships and escape but the rest of the population was doomed. Women and children were raped, men were impaled, houses were sacked, and churches were looted and burned.” After three days of chaos, Mehmed restored order and ended the bloodshed and looting.
The significance of the fall of Constantinople cannot be overstated. The sultan soon proclaimed Constantinople his new capital, and Islam gained a foothold in Eastern Europe. For the next 2 1/2 centuries, Christian Europe, which had failed to come to Constantinople's side in its time of dire peril, feared the intrusion of Islam into the continent. Islamic Ottoman armies twice advanced into Europe and laid siege to Vienna — first in 1529 and again in 1683.
Another important legacy of this battle is still present throughout the Islamic world today. The city of Constantinople had a profound hold on the Islamic imagination for centuries. Army after army had failed to take it, and in the Islamic minds the city became the focal point of resistance to their religion and their God. On that Tuesday morning 560 years ago when the city finally fell, a crescent moon hung in the sky. Today, Islamic nations around the world commemorate the military victory of 1453 with crescent moons on their flags.
The fall of Constantinople also had profound consequences for Europe. Many Greeks and other Balkan peoples, fearing death or forced conversion to Islam, fled westward across the Adriatic Sea to Italy. Many of these refugees took with them vast riches of ancient art and knowledge, helping to ignite the Renaissance.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: email@example.com
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