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.
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 protected]