Fall of Constantinople (1453)Fall of Constantinople (1453) - If the Fall of Rome in 476 marks the start of the Middle Ages, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is often cited as their end (however the end of the Middle Ages is less well-defined.  Columbus' voyage forty years later is also often cited).  But besides ending an era, it also ended an empire.  For the Fall of Rome was not the end of the Roman Empire, but the Fall of Constantinople was.  It was not the same Roman Empire founded in 753 B.C., to be sure.  In the intervening centuries its capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople, and it had transformed from a pagan kingdom into a Christian one.  Even its name had changed.  But after 2000 years of continual existence, the Roman Empire was no more.  The now Byzantine Empire had been in decline for centuries, but its walls had always managed to protect it from its enemies.  The Arab Muslims, and the Sassanid Empire before had both tried and failed for centuries to conquer Constantinople.  Many considered the city unconquerable.  Enter the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim Turk kingdom.  It eyed Constantinople as a great prize, just as the Arabs and the Sassanids had.  But the Ottomans had something they didn't...heavy artillery.  They also had a brash young sultan, Mehmed II (see below).  He succeeded his father in 1451 at the age of only 19.  Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI did not consider the new ruler a threat.  But in 1452, Mehmed began building a fortress just north of the city.  This coupled with a second fortress built by his great grandfather on the Asian side gave the Ottomans complete control of traffic through the Bosphorus.  Prior attempts to conquer Constantinople had been foiled by the city's ability to supply itself by sea.  Control of the Bosphorus would make this impossible.  Construction of the second fortress alerted Emperor Constantine that a siege was coming.  He turned to Western Europe for help.  But the Western Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church had grown so far apart, thanks in large part to the Crusades, that the Pope showed little interest in assisting.  The Byzantine Empire had one solid ally in the West, the city-state of Venice; and the Venetian senate did vote in favor of sending a a fleet to help defend the city.  But Venice itself was in decline and there were so many delays in organizing the fleet that it would arrive too late.


Fall of Constantinople (1453)By the summer of 1452, Constantine had become desperate and tried to placate Mehmed by lavishing him with gifts.  Mehmed responded by executing Constantine's ambassadors.  The only "gift" he was interested in was the city itself.  At the beginning of 1453, Constantine knew an attack was imminent and he deployed a massive chain across the mouth of the Golden Horn.  This was meant to prevent an invasion by sea.  Although Mehmed had a large navy and used it to blockade the city, he hardly needed it.  Constantinople had been ravaged by the Black Death, and a century later, had not yet recovered.  Its population had shrunk to about 50,000 with only about 7,000 of them being able bodied warriors.  The Ottoman army was larger than the entire population of the Byzantine capital, with at least 50,000 soldiers.  And its elite forces, known as Janissaries was larger than the Byzantine's entire army.  But the most important man in Mehmed's service was a Hungarian metalcaster named Orban.  He was said to possess the knowledge of forging Medieval superguns.  His most famous was a cannon called 'Basilica' which could make short work of even the mightiest city walls..  It was 27 feet in length (8.2 m) and hurled a 600 lb. ball (272 kg) more than a mile (1.6 km).  The gun was so heavy that it required sixty oxen to tow within range of its target.  The siege began on April 6, 1453.  Mehmed decided to attack the western wall, known as the Theodosian Wall.  It was the only side of the city not surrounded by water, and therefore, the strongest wall protecting the city.  But with the 'Basilica', Mehmed expected no wall to stop him.  Constantine saw the attack coming from the west and decided to deploy his troops on the Theodosian Wall as he had insufficient numbers to protect the entire length of the city's walls.  Despite overwhelming odds, the Byzantines held out hope they could defend the city long enough for help to arrive (primarily from Venice).  And for the first couple weeks their hope looked justified.  The cannon the Ottomans brought was powerful, but clumsy.  It was highly inaccurate, and took three hours to reload.  So the Byzantines would perform makeshift repairs in between shots.  On the water, Mehmed's fleet had the city surrounded, but none of his ships were able to enter the Golden Horn due to the chain across the horn's mouth.  However on April 22, the Ottomans managed to roll several ships around the chain on greased logs.  This cut off the last route by which the Byzantines could slip supplies into the city.


Fall of Constantinople (1453)Back on land, the Theodosian Wall was being further weakened by tunneling under it and planting mines.  By early May, the Ottomans were closing in on breaching the city.  On May 21, Mehmed sent an ambassador to Constantine.  He offered to lift the siege if the emperor surrendered the city.  All citizens would be allowed to leave with their possessions, and those who wanted to stay would be protected from persecution.  Finally, Constantine himself would serve the sultan as governor of the Peloponese.  Constantine apparently rejected the offer (we don't know why) for the siege continued.  The Ottomans did suffer heavy casualties in the attack along the wall, and the Byzantine emperor must have hoped they would eventually abandon it.  But on May 26, the final assault began.  Mehmed consulted with his advisers while his soldiers fasted and prayed.  On the 27th, a fleet of twelve Venetian ships arrived, but it was too late and too small to make a difference.  On May 28, city officials in Constantinople gathered inside the Hagia Sophia to fast and pray.  On the 29th, just after midnight, the cannon finally breached the wall.  Byzantine defenders rushed to the opening to repel the onslaught.  The Ottomans threw waves of their elite troops at the opponent.  They were now fighting hand-to-hand.  A Genoese general named Giovanni Giustiniani commanded the front line, but he was mortally wounded in the combat.  This sent a panic throughout the Byzantine troops.  He was carried away to safety, but later died.  The Byzantines managed to keep the invaders out until dawn, but by then they had become exhausted and the defense eventually collapsed.  Janissaries rushed inside and soon the Ottoman flag was flying from the gate.  At that point the city became consumed by chaos.  Men rushed to their homes to protect their families.  Some residents surrendered, while others killed themselves by jumping from the city's walls.


Fall of Constantinople (1453)Emperor Constantine died, but exactly how is not known.  Some accounts have him leading a last heroic charge against the enemy and dying in the melee.  But one account by an eyewitness says that he hanged himself before he fell into Mehmed's hands.  Some people managed to escape the city.  They were the lucky ones.  The victors were consumed by bloodlust.  Sultan Mehmed had enough foresight to send his personal guards to protect the most important locations in the city.  But outside of that, he pretty much let the soldiers do as they wished.  They looted Constantinople for three days.  Men were killed, women were raped and children were sold into slavery.  The largest congregation of citizens sought sanctuary within the Hagia Sophia.  Ottoman soldiers broke down the bronze gates and entered the church.  There they separated individuals according to the price they would bring on the slave markets.  Much of the city had been plundered and destroyed in the frenzy.  An eyewitness captured Mehmed's reaction: "When Mehmed saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction.  Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. 'What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!'  His soul was full of sorrow.  And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits."  After three days, Mehmed ordered the looting stopped and the city restored.  The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, though the Church of the Holy Apostles was allowed to remain a church.  He renamed the city Istanbul and immediately made it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.  The Fall of Constantinople was of concern to Western Europe as it opened up the east to invasion.  However, when Pope Nicholas V called for a revival of the Crusades to take the city from the Ottomans, there was little enthusiasm among the kings of Europe.  No crusade materialized and Istanbul stayed a Muslim city which it remains to this day.