When Worlds Collided: The Fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Order
The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks brought the final curtain down on the Roman epoch, of which the Byzantine Empire was the final, glorious manifestation. When Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople in 330 A.D., he re-constituted the old Roman order along a new East/West axis. Henceforth, the beleaguered empire would be administered from two capitals, but few could foresee that this arrangement would create a religious and political schism that would make rivals of the two great cities. Gradually, the Byzantines eclipsed Rome by virtue of Constantinople’s mighty walls and the city’s ready access to trade from both Europe and Asia. The wealth of Constantinople became a matter of legend throughout the known world and, not surprisingly, its riches and prestige drew the attention of many powerful enemies. The conquest of the city by soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 sounded the death knell for the Byzantine Empire, though Constantinople was eventually re-established. However, by the 15th century, the empire’s borders had contracted to the walls themselves – Asia Minor was solidly in the possession of the Ottoman Turks who, by 1452, had enveloped the city by both land and sea. On Tuesday, May 29, 1453, Constantinople was in the possession of the Turks and one of history’s great geo-political power shifts was complete (La Caduta di Constantinopoli, 1976).
The Turks employed a truly impressive array of war machines, troop strength, naval strategy and mining operations in breaching walls that had for 1000 years protected one of the world’s greatest empires. The Turks’ military innovations included massive war vehicles that could be used to attack the city while protecting Turkish archers with heavy “leather and skins,” according to authoritative Byzantine sources (La Caduta di Constantinopoli, 1976). “The war machine was square like a house and moved on wheels. The Turks hid inside and began to dig underground up to the walls of the city; there they constructed a wooden shelter and retreat with openings on the sides through which they shot” (La Caduta di Constantinopoli, 1976). In this way, the Turks could bring overwhelming numbers to bear within close proximity of the walls. Nevertheless, by late April the Turkish Sultan realized that the assault would have to be coordinated by both land and sea, and that an assault only on the walls could not succeed.
The Venetian surgeon Nicolo Barbaro has left a firsthand account of the Turkish siege, in which he speaks of the Turkish engineers using huge rollers to transport warships across Galata between the Dardanelle strait and the harbor of Constantinople itself, thus allowing the Turks to avoid the heavy defensive naval measures adopted by the Byzantines. Barboro marvels that such a thing could be accomplished on such a large scale. “no one would ever have thought it possible that that dogs such as these should drag these (ships) over the hill, bringing as many as seventy-two into the harbor of Constantinople and settling them in the harbor in the basin of Pera” (Barboro, 1969). In this way, the Turks bypassed the huge boom that guarded the entrance to the harbor, a man-made wonder that only the men of the Fourth Crusade had succeeded in overcoming.
Barboro’s account of the Turkish conquest is perhaps the most detailed of any that have ever been found. The Venetian began his diary on April 5, the day that Mahomet Bey’s army first appeared before the walls of Constantinople, a force numbering approximately 160,000 (Barboro, 1969). From April 5 to the day the Turks breached the wall and took control of the city, Barboro provides a highly detailed and compelling account of the empire’s final days. One of the most useful and interesting aspects of his history is the role played in the siege by men of the Italian city states Venice and Genoa; the Venetians helping defend Constantinople, the Genoese providing vital aid and intelligence to the Turks. Barboro notes that his countrymen did great service in the desperate battle on the last day of the Byzantine Empire. “Our men of Venice did marvels of defence in the part where the bastion was, where the Turks were concentrating their attack, but it was useless” (Barboro, 1969). (There is a certain poignancy to a Venetian chronicling the great city’s demise, Venice having been instrumental in the overthrow of Constantinople in 1204.)
Constantinople had been attacked countless times over the centuries by enemies who tried many different strategic approaches to the combined challenge of the walls and the city’s heavily defended seaward approaches. The Turks’ determined and systematic assault was indicative of their determination to bring what remained of the empire to its knees and their knowledge that the once-unassailable Byzantine capital was vulnerable. The Turks’ initial attacks against the mighty and easily defended Theodosian Walls were frustrated, but Sultan Mehmet II refused to relent. His army continued probing until, during preparations for an assault on the south walls, it was learned that the Kerkoporta gate had been left open. The Emperor
Constantine XI Palaiologos himself led the defense in this sector, but when the Turks began pouring through the breach – and opened others – the city was doomed.
The great cannons that the Turks employed against the city were massive, many of them having been engineered by a Hungarian munitions expert named Ourvanos (this was in keeping with the international nature of the Turkish assault, which included aid from other Byzantine enemies, such as the Bulgars and Serbs) (Agiasofia.com, 2012). Mehmet II initially concentrated his artillery fire against the St. Romanus Gate, though some of the greatest damage done during the Turks’ continuous barrage was at the Gate of St. Charisius, where the city’s defenders were hard-pressed to repair the damage and defend the gap (2012). The 1000-year-old walls gradually began to crumble before the Turks’ massed fire, though the city’s defenders, led by the Venetian Giustiniani, repelled every foray for more than a month. On May 12, the Byzantines faced an attack aided by an intensive mining operation at the junction between the Blachernae and the Theodosian Walls, where the Turks sought to undermine the foundation of a perceived weak spot in the walled defenses (2012).
The Christian world reacts
Initial reaction in the West to the city’s downfall was one of shock and horror, though considering the touchy relations that had long existed between Constantinople and the European states, there is a certain disingenuous element to the expressions of dismay. In a letter to Cardinal Firmanus in Rome, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini wrote of the “horrible news” about the Turkish conquest, adding erroneously that Christian troops had retaken the city from the Muslims (Il Mondo Medievale, 1983). A letter from the Knights of St. John on Rhodes to the Margrave of Brandenburg in Jerusalem provided a more detailed and gory account of the
tragedy. “After the great Turk had besieged Constantinople by land and sea, on the twenty-ninth (of May)he seized the city by force of arms, killed the emperor of Constantinople, cut off the heads of many nobles, gave the entire city over to plunder, and cruelly tortured many” (Carile, 1983).
On nearby Crete, which had been a bastion of Byzantine power, there was outright
disbelief. An annotation to a 15th century Greek manuscript reports that “on the 29th of May, the third day of Saint Theodosia, at the third hour of the morning (9 am), the Hagarenes, that is the troops of Mehmet Celebikilled the emperor, the Lord Constantine Dragas and Palaiologos” (Carile, 1983). By all accounts, the Byzantine emperor had died honorably, choosing to perish at the head of his troops in defense of his city and his throne. On May 23, a Venetian ship which had been sent out under cover of dark to locate the expected Christian relief force returned to report that Constantinople stood alone. Realizing that all was truly lost, Constantine’s lieutenants urged him to escape while he still could in hopes that the Byzantine royal dynasty could be preserved and the empire one day reestablished. Six days later, the Byzantine state and its emperor were no more.
While the Byzantines and their allies prepared to make a last stand, they were unaware that the Turkish forces, demoralized and frustrated at their lack of success, had actually considered raising the siege. The situation was exacerbated on May 20 when four ships, laden with provisions for the defenders, unexpectedly escaped a massive flotilla of Turkish warships in the Golden Horn. Mehmet himself had begun to question whether the city could be taken, and there were fears, aided by rumors circulating in the Turkish camp, that a huge Venetian war
fleet was en route, and that Christian Slavic reinforcements could be expected to join the battle, with the possibility that the Turkish forces would be caught between the city walls and a new attacking force. Finally, at a meeting held May 25, the Sultan’s Vizier Halil Chandarli officially advised Mehmet to call off the attack. The psychological effect of Constantinople’s defensive advantages and its centuries-long history of turning back invaders should not be underestimated: Chandarli believed all along that the city simply could not be taken by an invading army (Agiasofia, 2012).
Among Christian nations there were calls for instant mobilization in order to win the city back, though it seems that centuries of conflict with the Muslims had extinguished the crusading spirit. Constantinople was lost forever to the Christian world, and lost to the West. It is a measure of the Byzantines’ profound influence on the medieval world and on the development of dozens of nations that the dream of liberating Constantinople from the Ottomans prevailed for hundreds of years. The Russian nation owed its alphabet and its church to the direct influence of the Byzantines and the rulers of the burgeoning Russian empire, who considered themselves the inheritors of Byzantine civilization, the Roman tradition and of the Byzantine Orthodox church. In fact, as late as the 1780s Catherine the Great’s nobles advocated the liberation of Constantinople with the intention of making it the capital of the expanding Russian empire (Montefiore, 219).
Impact of the conquest
The conquest of Constantinople signaled a tectonic shift in the religious and geo-political balance of power between Europe and the Middle East, and between Christianity and the militarily aggressive proponents of Islam. For 1000 years, Constantinople had been the Christian
bulwark against the jihadists who had succeeded in extending their authority through North Africa and as far as Spain and would eventually reach the gates of Vienna. In practical terms, the loss of Constantinople and of Byzantine power meant that Europeans could no longer trust the old trade routes through Anatolia into the Middle East and Asia. But the empire’s fall probably was more of a cultural and symbolic loss. European rulers had for hundreds of years considered that their Christian realms were secured by the presence of the Byzantines and their inviolable capital. Likewise, the Byzantine emperor was a person of awesome power and mystique, the inheritor of an ancient tradition to which Western Europeans belonged only peripherally in the Middle Ages.
Once Constantinople became the capital of the Turks - renamed Istanbul – the Ottomans assumed the same defensive-offensive power that the city’s defenses and general physical orientation had once afforded the Byzantine Greeks. And like their predecessors, the Turks established a great empire that lasted hundreds of years and held sway over wide swaths of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. For Europe, Byzantium’s great legacy lay in its transmission of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks. Had Byzantine scholars and theologians not preserved the works of Aristotle, Plato and countless others from the Golden Age of Greek sophistry, an immeasurable source of learning would have been lost to the Western world and the Renaissance, with its flowering of new artistic sensibilities and creativity, could not have occurred. As well, the beauty and grandeur of the Greek Orthodox church, another important legacy of the Byzantine Empire, has played a formative role in the development of cultural and religious societies from Syria to Russia.
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