Have ye heard of a city of which one side is land and the two others sea? The Hour of Judgement shall not sound until seventy thousand sons of Isaac shall capture it.
The Prophet Mohammed, according to ancient Islamic tradition
John VIII Palaeologus had died childless. His first wife had succumbed to the plague at the age of fifteen; his second he had refused even to look at; his third he had dearly loved, but she too had failed to present him with an heir. Admittedly he had five brothers - too many, as it turned out, since they were endlessly squabbling among themselves and he had proved totally incapable of keeping them in order - of whom the first, Theodore, had predeceased him by four months and the second, Andronicus, had died young in Thessalonica. Of the three survivors - Constantine, Demetrius and Thomas — John had formally nominated Constantine as his heir; but Demetrius, who was consumed by ambition and had already made one unsuccessful bid for the throne after his brother's return from Florence six years before, immediately hurried from Selymbria to Constantinople to claim the succession. As self-proclaimed leader of the anti-unionists - and recognized as such by George Scholarius - he enjoyed a certain popularity in the capital and might well have achieved his objective had it not been for his mother, the Empress Helena; but she at once declared Constantine the rightful Emperor, simultaneously asserting her right to act as Regent until he should arrive from the Morea. Thomas, the youngest of the brothers, who had reached Constantinople in mid-November, gave her his full support; and Demetrius, seeing that he was beaten, finally did likewise. Early in December the Empress sent George Sphrantzes to the Sultan's court to obtain his approval for the newbasileus.
Meanwhile two envoys had sailed for the Morea with powers to invest Constantine as Emperor. Clearly they could not perform a coronation, nor was there any Patriarch at Mistra; the ceremony which was held there on 6 January 1449 was almost certainly a purely civil one, consisting of a public acclamation followed by a simple investiture. Such a procedure had at least one perfectly valid historical precedent: Manuel Comnenus had been similarly invested by his father John II in the wilds of Cilicia. But on that occasion, and even when - as with John Cantacuzenus in 1341 - a coronation had taken place outside the capital, it had been thought proper to have the Emperor crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople in St Sophia as soon as this was practicable. With Constantine XI Dragases - he always preferred to use this Greek form of his Serbian mother's name - no such full ecclesiastical coronation ever occurred. How could it have? The Orthodox Church, since the Council of Florence, was in schism. The Patriarch Gregory III, a fervent unionist, was not recognized - and was indeed execrated as a traitor - by well over half his flock. Constantine himself, though he played down the issue as much as he could, had never condemned the union; if by upholding it he could increase even infinitesimally the chances of Western aid it was, he felt, his duty to do so. But the price was high. The anti-unionists, who continued vehemently to proclaim the folly of seeking salvation from Western heretics rather than from the Almighty, refused to pray for him in their churches. Without a coronation in St Sophia he had no moral claim on their loyalties, or on those of any of his subjects; yet any such coronation would have caused widespread riots and might even have triggered off a full-scale civil war.
When Constantine Dragases first set foot as Emperor in his capital on 12 March 1449 - it is a sad reflection on the state of the Empire that he had been obliged to travel from Greece in a Venetian ship, there being no Byzantine vessels available - this whole impossible situation was immediately clear to him; yet Pope Nicholas V, who had succeeded Eugenius in 1447, was either unwilling or unable to accept it. Ever since ecclesiastical union had first been mooted, the Papacy had insistently refused to see the difficulties involved on the Byzantine side; and Nicholas was no less blind than his predecessors. When in April 1451, in yet another attempt to convince him, Constantine sent to Rome a long and detailed statement by the anti-unionist leaders, he only urged the Emperor to be firm with his opponents: if they spoke against the union or showed any disrespect for the Church of Rome of which they were now members they must be properly punished. Meanwhile, he continued, Patriarch Gregory - who had resigned in despair a short time before must be reinstated; and the decree of the Council of Florence must be properly proclaimed in St Sophia and celebrated with a Mass of Thanksgiving. In May 1452 he finally lost patience and dispatched Cardinal Isidore of Kiev as Apostolic Legate to settle the matter once and for all.
The Emperor, meanwhile, had had other problems to consider, among the most pressing of which was that of the succession. He was now in his middle forties, and twice widowed. Both his marriages had been happy, but neither had proved fruitful. His first wife, Maddalena Tocco, had died in November 1429, after little more than a year of marriage; his second, Caterina Gattilusio - daughter of the Genoese lord of Lesbos -whom he had married in 1441, had survived for only a few months before dying at Palaiokastro on Lemnos, where she and Constantine together had been temporarily cut off by a Turkish fleet. Clearly he must now find a third. Various possibilities were explored. In the West there was a Portuguese princess, who happened also to be the niece of King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples; Isabella Orsini, daughter of the Prince of Taranto, was also considered. In the East, it seemed that either the ruling family of Trebizond or that of Georgia might be able to furnish a suitable bride. The Emperor's old friend George Sphrantzes was accordingly sent off to these last two courts to take diplomatic soundings.
It was while Sphrantzes was in Trebizond, in February 1451, that he heard of the death of Murad II. Immediately, a new idea came to him. The Sultan's widow Maria - in Turkish, Mara - was the daughter of old George Brankovich; although she and Murad had been married for fifteen years she had borne him no children, and it was generally believed that the marriage had never been consummated. She was, however, the stepmother of her husband's son and successor, the nineteen-year-old Mehmet, who was known to be energetic and ambitious and a sworn foe of Byzantium. If she were now to become its Empress, what better way could there be of keeping the boy under proper control? When the idea was put to the Emperor he was distincdy intrigued. The Palaeologi were already connected with the house of Brankovich, Constantine's niece Helena - daughter of his brother Thomas - having married Maria's brother Lazar. An ambassador at once sped off to Serbia to consult the parents of the intended bride. George and his wife were delighted, and readily gave their consent; the only opposition came from Maria herself, but her refusal was absolute. Years before, she explained, she had sworn an oath that if ever she escaped from the infidel she would devote the rest of her life to celibacy, chastity and charitable works. No amount of argument would induce her to change her mind - and subsequent events, it must be admitted, were fully to justify her decision. Poor Sphrantzes was sent back to Georgia to continue negotiations there, and these were soon successfully completed; but the proposed marriage never took place, and Constantine was to remain single for the rest of his short life.
Surprisingly little was known in Constantinople - and even less among the Christian peoples of the West - about the inscrutable young prince who had recently succeeded to the Ottoman throne at Adrianople. Born in 1433, Mehmet was the third of Murad's sons. He had had an unhappy childhood. His father had made no secret of his preference for his two elder half-brothers Ahmet and Ali, both children of well-born mothers, whereas Mehmet's own mother had been merely a slave-girl in the harem, and probably (though we cannot be sure) a Christian to boot. At the age of two he had been taken to Amasa, a province of northern Anatolia of which his fourteen-year-old brother was Governor; but Ahmet had died only four years later and the six-year-old Mehmet had succeeded him. Then, in 1444, Ali had been found strangled in his bed, in circumstances still mysterious. Mehmet, now heir to the throne, was summoned back urgently to Adrianople. Hitherto his education had been largely neglected; suddenly he found himself in the care of the greatest scholars that could be found and with them, over the next few years, laid the foundations of the learning and culture for which he was soon to be famous. At the time of his accession he is said to have been fluent not only in his native Turkish but in Arabic, Greek, Latin, Persian and Hebrew.
Twice, in the last six years of his life, Sultan Murad had abdicated the throne in favour of his son; twice his Grand Vizier Halil Pasha had prevailed upon him to resume the reins of government. Young Mehmet, he reported, was arrogant and self-willed, ever bent on going his own way and apparently determined to ignore the Vizier's advice. On one occasion he had adopted the cause of a fanatical Persian dervish, and had been enraged when the fellow was finally apprehended and burnt at the stake; on another he had ignored dangerous disturbances on the Greek and Albanian frontiers in favour of some crack-brained scheme to attack Constantinople. After Murad's second reluctant return to power he gave up all thoughts of retirement and settled down once again in Adrianople, banishing his unsatisfactory son to Magnesia in Anatolia; and it was there that news was brought to Mehmet that his father had died, on 13 February 1451, of an apoplectic seizure.
It took the new Sultan just five days to travel from Magnesia to Adrianople, where he held a formal reception at which he confirmed his father's ministers in their places or, in certain cases, appointed them elsewhere. In the course of these ceremonies Murad's widow arrived to congratulate him on his succession. Mehmet received her warmly and engaged her for some time in conversation; when she returned to the harem she found that her infant son had been murdered in his bath. The young Sultan, it seemed, was not one to take chances.
But he was only nineteen, and in the Western world there was a general feeling that he was still too young and immature to constitute a serious threat as his father had done - a delusion that Mehmet did everything he could to encourage. Within months of his succession he had concluded treaties with John Hunyadi of Hungary, George Brankovich of Serbia and the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari; messages of good will had been sent to the Prince of Wallachia, the Knights of St John in Rhodes and the Genoese lords of Lesbos and Chios. To the ambassadors dispatched by Constantine Dragases to congratulate him on his accession he is said to have replied almost too fulsomely, swearing by Allah and the Prophet to live at peace with the Emperor and his people, and to maintain with him those same bonds of friendship that his father had maintained with John VIII. Perhaps it was this last promise that put Constantine on his guard; he seems at any rate to have been one of the first to sense that the young Sultan was not all he seemed, but was potentially very dangerous indeed.
Such a degree of perception was certainly not granted to the leaders of the Karamans of Asia Minor, who in the autumn of 1451 thought to take advantage of Mehmet's youth and inexperience - and of his absence in Europe - by mounting an insurrection against him to restore the local Emirates that they had enjoyed in former times. Within weeks he was in their midst with his army; and they soon had good cause to regret their temerity. For all but those directly concerned, this was a relatively unimportant interlude; but for Byzantium it had important consequences. On his return to Europe Mehmet would normally have taken ship across the Dardanelles; but when it was reported to him that an Italian squadron was patrolling the strait he crossed instead by the Bosphorus, a few miles up from Constantinople at the point where Bayezit had built his castle at Anadolu Hisar. Here the great channel was at its narrowest, and Mehmet decided to build another fortress, immediately opposite his great-grandfather's, on the European side. This would give him complete control of the Bosphorus; moreover it would provide a superb base from which Constantinople could be attacked from the north-east, where the Golden Horn constituted virtually its only line of defence.
There was one small technical objection to the plan: the land on which Mehmet proposed to build his castle was theoretically Byzantine. He ignored it. All the following winter he spent collecting his workforce: a thousand professional stonemasons and as many unskilled labourers as they could employ. In the early spring all the churches and monasteries in the immediate neighbourhood were demolished to provide additional materials, and on Saturday, 15 April 1452 the building operations began.
The reaction in Constantinople can well be imagined. In vain did the Emperor send the Sultan an indignant embassy, to remind him that he was breaking a solemn treaty on which the ink was scarcely dry and to point out that, when Bayezit had wished to build his castle on the Asiatic side, he had had the courtesy to ask the permission of Manuel II even though such permission had not been strictly necessary. The imperial ambassadors were sent back to their master unheard. After a brief interval a second embassy, weighed down with presents, followed the first: would the Sultan not at least spare the neighbouring Byzantine villages? Again the envoys were dismissed without an audience. A week or two later Constantine made one last effort: would the Sultan give his word that the building of his castle did not herald an attack on Constantinople? This time Mehmet had had enough. The ambassadors were seized and executed, the Emperor left to draw his own conclusions.
The vast castle of Rumeli Hisar still stands, essentially unchanged since the day it was completed - Thursday, 31 August - a little beyond the village of Bebek on the Bosphorus shore. Even now it is difficult to believe that its building took, from start to finish, only nineteen and a half weeks. When it was ready the Sultan mounted three huge cannon on the tower nearest the shore and issued a proclamation that every passing ship, whatever its nationality or provenance, must stop for examination. It soon became clear that he meant what he said. Early in November two Venetian vessels coming from the Black Sea ignored the instruction. They managed to escape the consequent cannonade, but a fortnight later a third ship, laden with food and provisions for Constantinople, was less lucky. When it too failed to stop it was blasted out of the water; the crew were executed, the captain - one Antonio Rizzo - impaled on a stake and his body publicly exposed as a warning to anyone else who might think of following his example.
In the West, opinions were hastily revised. The Sultan Mehmet II, it seemed, meant business.
The Sultan's treatment of the luckless Rizzo caused consternation throughout Christendom. Pope Nicholas in particular was horrified. By now he was genuinely eager to help; but he was also powerless, and he knew it. Already the previous March he had instructed the new Western Emperor - Frederick III of Hapsburg, who had come to Rome for his imperial coronation - to send the Sultan a threatening ultimatum. No one, least of all Mehmet, had paid any attention. France was still reeling after the damage suffered in the Hundred Years' War; the crusading enthusiasm of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had been considerably dampened by the memory of how his father John the Fearless had been taken prisoner at Nicopolis; England, rudderless under the holy but half-witted Henry VI, was also recovering from the damage wrought by the conflict with France and rapidly falling into the chaos that would lead, only three years later, to the Wars of the Roses; the Kings of Portugal and Castile were engaged in Crusades of their own; the Kings of Scotland and Scandinavia neither knew nor cared. That left Alfonso of Aragon, since 1443 enthroned in Naples, who asked nothing better; but as Alfonso's avowed motive was to seize the Byzantine throne he was not encouraged.
In the summer of 1452, as the towers of Rumeli Hisar rose ever higher above the narrow strait, the former Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, now a Roman cardinal and official Papal Legate to the court of Constantinople, sailed for his new post. He was delayed for some time at Naples, while he recruited two hundred archers at the Pope's expense, and eventually arrived with his Genoese colleague Leonard, Archbishop of Mitylene, at the end of October. His instructions were simple; to see that the union of the Eastern and Western Churches, agreed at Florence thirteen years before, was properly implemented at last. The Emperor, he knew, was in full - if cautious - agreement. Even public opinion in the capital, though still divided, seemed to Isidore more favourable than before. The anti-unionists remained strong; but the chief minister and High Admiral, the megas dux Lucas Notaras, was working ceaselessly to extract concessions from them and it was not impossible that a compromise might be reached. A week or two later, the Cardinal was less optimistic: the former George Scholarius - now the monk Gennadius and leader of the dissidents - published a manifesto emphasizing the folly of apostasy at a moment when the Almighty alone could save the Empire, and agreement seemed as remote as ever. But then, in the nick of time, there came the news of the sinking of the Venetian vessel and the fate of its captain; and the pendulum swung yet again.
On Tuesday, 12 December 1452 the Emperor and his entire court, accompanied by Cardinal Isidore and the Archbishop of Chios, attended high mass in St Sophia. The Laetentur Coeli was formally read out, just as it had been at Florence; the Pope and the absent Patriarch Gregory were properly commemorated; and, in theory at any rate, the union was complete. And yet for Isidore, Leonard and their friends it was an empty victory. The service, despite the cardinal's somewhat overdone assurances to the contrary, had been poorly attended; according to Leonard -who was apparently a good deal readier to face facts - even the Emperor had seemed half-hearted and listless, while Notaras had been actively hostile. Afterwards there was no rejoicing; the dissidents too held their peace. Not a word was heard from Gennadius, back in his monastic cell. It was noticed, however, that the churches whose priests had espoused the union - including of course St Sophia itself - were henceforth almost empty; the people might have accepted the inevitable, but they worshipped only where the old liturgy remained unchanged, that the God of the Orthodox Church might still hear their prayers.
In January 1453 Mehmet II summoned his ministers to his presence in Adrianople. Byzantium, he told them, was still dangerous. Weak it might be, but its people were natural intriguers who could yet do the House of Othman much harm if they chose. Moreover they had potential allies far more formidable than they; if they decided that they were no longer capable of defending Constantinople, what was to prevent their entrusting it to the Italians or the Franks, who would do so for them? His own Empire, in short, could never be safe while the city remained in Christian hands, nor in such circumstances would he himself wish to be its Sultan. It must consequently be taken; and now - while its inhabitants were deeply demoralized and hopelessly divided among themselves - was the time to take it. Admittedly it was well defended; but it was by no means impregnable, and previous attempts had failed largely because its besiegers had been unable to prevent the arrival of food and supplies by sea. Now, for the first time, the Turks had naval superiority. If Constantinople could not be taken by storm, it could - and must - be starved into submission.
Mehmet spoke no more than the truth. Byzantine estimates of enemy forces are notoriously untrustworthy; but from the evidence of the
Italian sailors present in Constantinople over the weeks that followed, the Turkish fleet seems to have comprised not less than six triremes1 and ten biremes, fifteen oared galleys, some seventy-five fast longboats, twenty heavy sailing-barges for transport and a number of light sloops and cutters. Even many of the Sultan's closest advisers were astonished at the size of this vast armada, which assembled off Gallipoli in March 1453; but their reactions can have been as nothing compared with those of the Byzantines, when they saw it a week or two later, making its way slowly across the Marmara, to drop anchor beneath the walls of their city.
The Ottoman army, meanwhile, was gathering in Thrace. As with the navy, Mehmet had given it his personal attention throughout the previous winter, making sure that it was properly equipped with armour, weapons and siege engines. He had mobilized every regiment, stopped all leave and recruited hordes of irregulars and mercenaries, making exceptions only for the garrisons needed for the protection of the frontiers and the policing of the larger towns. Once again, it is impossible to give more than approximations of their numbers; the Greek estimate of three to four hundred thousand is plainly ridiculous. Our Turkish sources - presumably fairly reliable - suggest some eighty thousand regular troops and up to twenty thousand irregulars, or bashi-bazuks. Included in the former category were about twelve thousand Janissaries. These elite troops of the Sultan had been recruited as children from Christian families, forcibly converted to Islam and subjected for many years to rigorous military and religious training; some had been additionally trained as sappers and engineers. Legally they were slaves, in that they enjoyed no personal rights outside their regimental life; but they received regular salaries and were anything but servile: as recently as 1451 they had staged a near-mutiny for higher pay, and Janissary revolts were to be a regular feature of Ottoman history until well into the nineteenth century.
Mehmet was proud of his army, and prouder still of his navy; but he took the greatest pride of all in his cannon. These weapons, in a very primitive form, had already been in use for well over a hundred years: Edward III had employed one at the siege of Calais in1347, and they had been known in North Italy for a good quarter-century before that.
1 Unlike the ancient vessels of the same name, Turkish triremes and biremes possessed a single bank of oars only. In the triremes there were three rowers to each oar, in the biremes they sat in pairs.
But although useful against light barricades they were in those days powerless against solid masonry. By 1446 - a whole century later - they were effective enough, as we have seen, to demolish the Hexamilion; but it was not until 1452 that a German engineer named Urban presented himself before the Sultan and offered to construct for him a cannon that would blast the walls of Babylon itself.1 This was precisely what Mehmet had been waiting for. He gave Urban everything he needed - together with four times his requested salary - and was rewarded only three months later by the fearsome weapon which, installed at Rumeli Hisar, sank Antonio Rizzo's ship. He then demanded another, twice the size of the first. This was completed in January 1453. It is said to have been nearly twenty-seven feet long, with a barrel two and a half feet in diameter at the front end. The bronze was eight inches thick. When it was tested, a ball weighing some 1,340 pounds hurtled through the air for well over a mile before burying itself six feet deep in the ground. Two hundred men were sent out to prepare for the journey to Constantinople of this fearsome machine, smoothing the road and reinforcing the bridges; and at the beginning of March it set off, drawn by thirty pairs of oxen, with another two hundred men to hold it steady.
The Sultan himself remained at Adrianople until the last detachments of his army had arrived from Anatolia; then on 23 March he left with them for the march across Thrace. Medieval armies - particularly if they were carrying siege equipment - moved slowly; but on 5 April Mehmet pitched his tent before the walls of Constantinople, where the bulk of his huge host had already arrived three days before. Determined to lose no time, he at once sent under a flag of truce the message to the Emperor that was required by Islamic law, undertaking that all his subjects would be spared, with their families and property, if they made immediate and voluntary surrender. If on the other hand they refused, they would be given no quarter.
As expected, he received no reply. Early in the morning of Friday, 6 April his cannon opened fire.
Long before the first Turkish soldier was sighted, the people of Constantinople had known that the siege was inevitable. Throughout the previous
1 Urban had previously approached the Byzantine Emperor with the same offer, but Constantine, unable to provide either the money or the raw materials for which he asked, had been obliged to refuse. Had he accepted, we can speculate endlessly on how the course of the next two years might have been altered; but it seems impossible that the fate of Byzantium could have been changed.
winter they had been working - men, women and children, the Emperor at their head - on the city's defences: repairing and reinforcing the walls, clearing out the moats, laying in stores of food, arrows, tools, heavy rocks, Greek fire1 and everything else that they might need to repel the enemy. Although the main attack was clearly to be expected from the west, the sea walls along the Marmara shore and the Golden Horn had also been strengthened; everyone knew that it was from the Blachernae quarter that the Franks and Venetians had smashed their way into the city during the Fourth Crusade. By the coming of spring preparations were complete. Easter fell on i April. Even on that day of Christian rejoicing the Great Church of St Sophia was avoided by most Byzantines; but all of them, wherever they worshipped and whatever the outcome of the next few weeks or months, could pray for their deliverance in the knowledge that they had done everything they could to prepare for the coming onslaught.
Constantine too had done his best. The previous autumn he had sent further embassies to the West, but as usual to little avail. Three months after the death of Antonio Rizzo, in February 1453, the Venetian Senate had finally woken up to the seriousness of the situation and had voted to send two transports, each carrying four hundred men, to Constantinople, with fifteen galleys following as soon as they were ready; but on 2 March they were still discussing the flotilla's organization, on 9 March they passed a further resolution urging the greatest possible speed, and on 10 April they wrote to Rome pointing out somewhat self-righteously that all relief cargoes should reach the Dardanelles by the end of March, after which the prevailing north wind made it difficult for captains to beat their way up the straits. Their own vessels finally left the lagoon on 20 April, by which time three Genoese ships, chartered by Pope Nicholas and filled with food and war provisions at his own personal expense, had - as we shall soon see - already reached Constantinople.
Fortunately for the honour of the Serenissima, the Venetian colony in the city - who had given, it must be said, more than enough trouble in the past - responded nobly to the present challenge. The bailo1 Girolamo Minotto, had written to his government as early as26 January begging for a relief expedition, and regularly assured the Emperor that it would arrive before long. Meanwhile he promised every support, and further
1 See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Greek fire had been Byzantium's secret weapon for eight hundred years, and seems to have been as effective in the fifteenth century as it was in the seventh.
undertook that none of the Republic's vessels would leave the harbour without his express permission. Two Venetian merchant-captains, whose ships chanced to have anchored in Constantinople on their way home from the Black Sea, also agreed to remain to give what assistance they could. In all, the Venetians were able to provide nine merchantmen, including three from their colony of Crete. How many men they managed to put at the Emperor's disposal is uncertain. In his vivid eyewitness account of the siege the Venetian naval surgeon Nicolo Barbaro specifically lists sixty-seven 'noble'1 compatriots who were present, but there was presumably a fair number of commoners as well.
The defenders also included a Genoese contingent. Many of them came, as might have been expected, from the colony at Galata - which, in the event of a Turkish victory, seemed to have little hope of survival; but in addition there was an honorable group from Genoa itself, consisting of young men who, appalled by the pusillanimity of its government - which had promised Constantine just one ship - had determined to fight for Christendom. Their leader, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, was a member of one of the Republic's leading families and a renowned expert in siege warfare. He arrived on 29 January with a private army of seven hundred, including a mysterious engineer whose name, Johannes Grant, strongly suggests Scottish origins. Finally there was a single elderly Spanish grandee — Don Francisco de Toledo, who claimed descent from the Comneni - and a small party of Catalans, mostly permanent residents in the city but also including a few sailors who had voluntarily joined their ranks. These signs, such as they were, of international solidarity must have given the Emperor some encouragement, but another severe blow was in store for him: on the night of 26 February seven Venetian ships - all but one of them from Crete - slipped secretly out of the Golden Horn and down the Hellespont to the island of Tenedos, carrying with them some seven hundred Italians. Only a few days before their captains had sworn a solemn oath to remain in the city. To Constantine, the loss of so many potential defenders - effectively offsetting Longo's contribution of just a month before - was little short of catastrophic; but the faithlessness of those whom he had believed to be his friends was, perhaps, more wounding still.
1 The word 'noble' needs some explanation here. The Venetian nobility was based (for obvious reasons) not on feudal land tenure but on the antiquity of the individual families. Towards the end of the Republic's history it was occasionally possible for nouveau-riche families to buy their way into this nobility; but in the fifteenth century it was strictly limited to members of those families listed in the 'Golden Book', published some hundred and fifty years before.
Now and only now was it possible for the Emperor to make a precise assessment of the resources available to him for the defence of his capital. Moored in the Golden Horn were eight more Venetian vessels (including three Cretan), five Genoese and one each from Ancona, Catalonia and Provence, together with the ten which were all that remained of the Byzantine navy - a total of twenty-six, pitiable in comparison to the armada of the Sultan. But it was only when he came to assess his available manpower that Constantine realized the full gravity of his situation. Towards the end of March he ordered his secretary Sphrantzes to make a census of all able-bodied men in the city, including monks and clerics, who could be called upon to man the walls. The final figure was worse than he could have imagined: 4,983 Greeks and rather less than two thousand foreigners. To defend fourteen miles of walls against Mehmet's army of a hundred thousand, he could muster less than seven thousand men. These figures, he told Sphrantzes must on no account be revealed: only God could save the city now.
On Monday, 2 April, when the look-outs reported the first advance parties of Turks on the western horizon, the Emperor ordered the gates of the city to be closed, the bridges over the moats destroyed and the great chain stretched across the entrance to the Golden Horn from a tower just below the Acropolis (on what is now Seraglio Point) to another on the sea walls of Galata. There was nothing more to be done but to pray - and to await the final onslaught.
The walls in which Byzantium put its trust during that fateful spring of 1453 ran from the shores of the Marmara to the upper reaches of the Golden Horn, forming the western boundary of the city. They were already more than a thousand years old. Known as the Theodosian Walls after the Emperor Theodosius II in whose reign they were built, they were in fact completed in 413 when he was still a child; their true creator was his Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, who for the first six years of his reign was his guardian and Regent of the Eastern Empire. Unfortunately, only thirty-four years later in 447, no fewer than fifty-seven of Anthemius's towers were toppled by a violent earthquake - at the very moment moreover when Attila the Hun was advancing on the capital. Reconstruction had begun at once, and within two months the fortifications had been completely rebuilt, with an outer wall and moat added. Attila turned back when he saw them — as countless other enemies of Byzantium were to do over the centuries that followed - and no wonder; for in terms of medieval siege warfare the Land Walls of Constantinople were indeed impregnable. Any attacking army had first to negotiate a deep ditch some sixty feet across, much of which could be flooded to a depth of about thirty feet in an emergency. Beyond this was a low crenellated breastwork with a terrace behind it about thirty feet wide; then the outer wall, seven feet thick and nearly thirty feet high, with ninety-six towers at regular intervals along it. Within this wall came another broad terrace, and then the principal element of the defence, the great inner wall, about sixteen feet thick at the base and rising to a height of forty feet above the city. It too had ninety-six towers, alternating in position with those of the outer wall. The result was probably the most elaborate bastion ever constructed in the Middle Ages. Only at the northern end, where the walls ran up against the imperial Palace of Blachernae, did a single bulwark replace the triple, but this was itself considerably strengthened by the enormously thick wall of the palace itself and was further protected by a moat, first constructed by John Cantacuzenus and recently redug by some of the galley crews.
By the morning of Friday, 6 April most of the defenders were deployed along the walls, the Emperor and Giustiniani in command of the most vulnerable section, the so-called mesoteichion, which crossed the valley of the little river Lycus about a mile from the northern end and which was clearly the point at which the Sultan intended to concentrate his attack. The sea walls along the Marmara and the Horn were less heavily manned, but their garrisons served the additional purpose of look-outs, keeping a close watch on Turkish ship movements. They reported to the Emperor that the Turkish admiral, a Bulgarian renegade named Suleyman Baltoglu, was not only maintaining a continuous patrol of the Marmara shore - thus effectively sealing the small harbours dotted along it - but was also massing his fleet at the mouth of the Bosphorus opposite the quay known as the Double Columns.1 Some three days after the siege began he led a number of his heaviest ships to ram the great chain in an attempt to break it; but the chain held.
The Sultan, meanwhile, had subjected the Land Walls to a bombardment unprecedented in the history of siege warfare. By the evening of the first day he had reduced to rubble a section near the Charisius Gate, whence the Mese, Constantinople's central thoroughfare, ran the whole length of the city to St Sophia. His soldiers made repeated attempts to smash their way through, but again and again were forced to retreat
1 The site of the present Dolmabahce Palace.
under a hail of missiles until nightfall sent them back to their camp. By morning the wall had been completely rebuilt, and Mehmet decided to hold his fire until he could bring up more cannon to the spot. To fill in the time he ordered attacks on two small fortresses outside the walls -one at Therapia, a village just beyond his great new castle on the Bosphorus, and one at the little village of Studius. Both fought gallantly, but were ultimately obliged to surrender. The survivors were all impaled - those from Studius within sight of the Land Walls, as a lesson to those watching. Further orders were sent to Baltoglu to capture the Princes' Islands in the Marmara. Only the largest of these, Prinkipo, offered any resistance; the admiral finally put the fortress to the torch, adding sulphur and pitch as fuel to the fire. Those of the garrison who escaped being burned alive were immediately put to death; the civilian population were sold into slavery. The lessons to be drawn from such brutality were plain, as they were meant to be: the Sultan was not to be trifled with.
By 11 April all his cannon were in place and the bombardment resumed, to continue uninterruptedly for the next forty-eight days. Although some of the larger pieces could be fired only once every two or three hours, the damage they did was enormous; within a week the outer wall across the Lycus had collapsed in several places, and although the defenders worked ceaselessly to repair the damage behind makeshift wooden stockades it was already clear that they could not do so indefinitely. None the less, a surprise attack on the night of the 18th was courageously beaten off; after four hours' heavy fighting the Turks had lost two hundred men, at the cost — according to Barbaro - of not a single Christian life. At sea, too, the Emperor's ships scored a notable success: a second attempt by Baltoglu on the chain - using this time a number of heavy galleys recently arrived from the Black Sea — proved no more effective than the first. These were also armed with cannon, but they could not achieve sufficient elevation to harm the tall Christian ships - while the Greek, Genoese and Venetian archers, loosing a hail of arrows from their crow's nests, inflicted huge damage on the Turkish vessels and forced them to retreat whence they had come.
Shortly afterwards that same stretch of water saw another, far more fateful engagement. The three Genoese galleys hired and provisioned by the Pope, having been delayed by the weather in Chios, finally arrived off the Hellespont. There they were joined by a heavy Byzantine transport with a cargo of corn from Sicily, made available by Alfonso of Aragon. In his anxiety to mass the strongest possible naval force outside Constantinople, Mehmet had ill-advisedly left the straits unguarded, and the ships were able to make their way without hindrance into the Marmara. The moment they appeared on the horizon - it was early in the morning of Friday, 20 April — the Sultan rode around the head of the Golden Horn to give his orders personally to his admiral. On no account were they to reach the city. The must be captured or, if capture proved impossible, sunk.
Baltoglu prepared at once to attack. His sailing ships were powerless against the fresh southerly breeze; but the biremes and the triremes — several of which were armed with light cannon - were immediately mobilized and in the early afternoon the great fleet bore down upon the four approaching ships. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, to the casual onlooker these would have seemed to have little chance; but the steadily strengthening wind was in their favour, and the growing swell made the heavy Turkish vessels hard to manage. The others, moreover, had the advantage of height. Once again the Turkish captains, finding themselves virtually defenceless against the unremitting deluge of arrows, javelins and other projectiles that rained down upon them whenever they came within range, were forced to watch in impotence while the four galleys advanced serenely towards the Golden Horn. But then, just as they reached the entrance, the wind dropped. Acropolis Point, where the Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara meet, has been known since the days of antiquity for the strength and variety of its currents; and as the sails of the Christian ships flapped desultorily in the sudden calm, the crews felt themselves swept northward towards the Galata shore.
The advantage was now with the Turks. Baltoglu, still wary of coming in too close, brought his heavier armed vessels as near as he dared and opened fire with his cannon. But it was no use. His guns lacked the necessary elevation; the balls all fell short. A few flaming missiles landed on the Christian decks, but the fires were extinguished before they did any serious damage. Desperate now - for he knew that with the Sultan in his present mood failure could be fatal - he gave the order to advance and board. His own flagship bore down upon the imperial transport, ramming it in the stern. The Genoese in their turn were quickly surrounded; the crews continued to loose their showers of arrows, but with thirty or forty Turkish vessels milling around each of theirs there was a limit to what they could achieve. It was, once again, the superior height of their ships that saved the day. Grappling and boarding an enemy ship can never have been easy; to do so when that ship stood substantially higher in the water than that of her attackers, making it necessary for them to climb up the side in the face of heavy resistance from above, was almost impossible; and the Genoese sailors were equipped with huge axes with which to lop off the heads and hands of all who made the attempt. Inevitably, too, the Turkish oars became increasingly entangled, making the ships themselves an easy prey.
The imperial transport, meanwhile, was still in difficulties. Fortunately she was well provided with Greek fire, and consequently able to give a good account of herself; but though she managed to repel boarders she could not shake herself free of the Turkish flagship, and was moreover running short of arrows and other weapons. Seeing her trouble, the Genoese captains somehow manoeuvred their ships alongside and lashed all four vessels together, till they stood like a great sea-girt castle amid the chaos and confusion that surrounded them. The crews, now united in a single body, fought like heroes; but it was clear that they could not do so for ever against an enemy that had an apparently limitless number of vessels to throw against them, and the courage that they showed seemed more and more to be the courage of despair. Then, just as the sun was setting, the wind got up again. The Christian sails billowed out, and the great floating fortress began to move again, slowly but inexorably, towards the entrance to the Horn, splintering any Turkish ship in its path. Baltoglu, who had been severely wounded in the eye by a projectile - hurled, it was said, from one of his own ships - realized that he was beaten; in the gathering darkness he could only order his fleet back to its anchorage. A few hours later in the dead of night, the boom was opened and the four ships slipped quietly into the Golden Horn.
The Sultan had watched every moment of the battle from the shore, occasionally in his excitement riding his horse out into the sea until his robes were trailing in the water. He was famous for the violence of his rages; such was his fury when he saw the humiliation of his fleet that those around him began to fear for his health, and indeed his sanity. The next day he summoned Baltoglu, publicly vilified him as a fool and a coward and ordered his immediate execution. The unfortunate admiral gained a reprieve after a deputation of his subordinate officers had testified to his courage; but he was bastinadoed and deprived both of his public offices and his private possessions — which Mehmet distributed among his beloved Janissaries. He was never heard of again.
The Byzantines, that fateful Friday, had been luckier than they knew. The arrival of the Genoese ships had brought the Sultan round to the Double Columns. He was still there on the following day, when his cannon brought down a huge tower, the Bactatinian, on the Land Walls above the Lycus valley, and reduced to rubble much of the outer rampart at that point. Had the besiegers mounted an immediate assault, Constantinople might have fallen more than five weeks earlier than it did; but Mehmet was not there to give the order, and the opportunity was missed. That night the Greek engineers rebuilt the damaged section of the wall, and by the following morning it stood as firm - or almost as firm - as ever.
The Sultan, however, had other preoccupations. The fiasco he had recently witnessed had focused his attention on a single objective: somehow, he must gain control of the Golden Horn. The idea had been in his mind since the beginning of the siege, when he had set his engineers to work on a road running behind Galata, from a point near the Double Columns on the Marmara shore over the hill near what is now Taksim Square and down to the Golden Horn at Kasimpasa. Iron wheels had been cast, and metal tracks; his carpenters, meanwhile, had been busy fashioning wooden cradles large enough to accommodate the keels of moderate-sized vessels. It was a herculean undertaking; but Mehmet had enough men and materials to make it a possible one. On 21 April the work was complete; and on Sunday morning, the 22nd, the Genoese colony in Galata watched dumbfounded as some seventy Turkish ships were slowly hauled, by innumerable teams of oxen, over a two-hundred-foot hill and then lowered gently down into the Horn.
Their consternation was, however, nothing to that of the Byzantines, who had known nothing of the Sultan's plan and found it hard to believe the evidence of their own eyes. Not only was their only major harbour no longer secure; they now had three and a half more miles of wall to defend, including the section breached by the Crusaders in 1204. A week later they made a determined effort to destroy the Turkish ships; but the Turks, forewarned by one of their agents in Galata, were ready for them. In the ensuing battle only one Turkish vessel was sunk, while fifty of the Christians' best sailors were killed; another forty who had swum ashore were executed on the spot, within sight of the city. The Greeks, in revenge, brought their own 260 Turkish prisoners down to the shore and beheaded them before the eyes of their compatriots across the Horn. Thenceforth, no quarter was given or expected.
Even then, it was some time before the Emperor recognized the full significance of Mehmet's achievement. Encouraged by the bailo Minotto, he still had hopes of the long-awaited relief expedition from Venice; but now, even if such an expedition were to arrive, how could it be received in safety? Gradually, too, he came to see the full extent of the treachery shown by the Genoese of Galata. A few of them, admittedly, had rallied to their compatriot Giovanni Giustiniani Longo and were doing heroic work along the walls; but the majority had not lifted a finger to assist - far less to save - their Christian brethren. It might have been impossible for them to sabotage the Sultan's preparations to move his ships overland into the Golden Horn; but could not at least some warning have been sent or signalled? The truth of the matter was, as Constantine well knew, that the Genoese had never liked the Greeks and felt absolutely no loyalty towards them. The Christian religion should have been a bond, particularly since the two Churches had been theoretically reunited; but to most Genoese (as to most Venetians) trade remained paramount. The important thing was to end up on the winning side, and there was no doubt in anyone's mind which that side was to be.
As if to prove the completeness of his control over Galata, Mehmet now threw a pontoon bridge over the Golden Horn, only a few hundred yards north-west of the Palace of Blachernae. Previously all messengers between his army beyond the walls and his fleet at the Double Columns had been obliged to make a long detour around the top of the Horn; henceforth they would be able to complete the journey in less than an hour. And the bridge had other uses too: broad enough for a regiment marching five abreast, it could also accommodate heavy carts and - on special rafts attached at intervals to the sides - cannon which could be used either to cover the soldiers' advance or to bombard the sea walls of the city.
By the beginning of May the Emperor knew that he could not hold out much longer. Food was running seriously short; fishing, long impossible in the Marmara, was since the arrival of the Turkish ships almost as dangerous in the Golden Horn; more and more of the defenders along the walls were taking time off to find food for their families. Only one hope - and that a faint one - remained: a relief expedition from Venice. It was now more than three months since Minotto had sent his appeal, and no word had come from the lagoons. Was there a fleet on its way, or not? If so, how big was it, and what was its cargo? Most important of all, when would it arrive? On the answers to these questions the whole fate of Constantinople now depended. And so it was that just before midnight on Thursday, 3 May a Venetian brigantine from the flotilla in the Horn, flying a Turkish standard and
carrying a crew of twelve volunteers all disguised as Turks, slipped out under the boom.
On the night of Wednesday the 23rd it returned, tacking backwards and forwards up the Marmara against a sharp north wind, with a Turkish squadron in hot pursuit. Fortunately, however, Venetian seamanship was still a good deal better than Turkish, and soon after nightfall it succeeded in entering the Horn. The captain immediately sought an audience with the Emperor and Minotto. His news was as bad as it could be. For three weeks he had cruised through the Aegean, but nowhere had he seen a trace of the promised expedition, or indeed of any Venetian shipping. When he realized that it was useless to continue the search, he had called a meeting of the sailors and asked them what they should do. One had advocated sailing back to Venice, arguing that Constantinople was probably already in Turkish hands; but he had been shouted down. To all the rest, their duty was clear: they must report to the Emperor, as they had promised to do. And so they had returned, knowing full well that they would probably never leave the city alive. Constantine thanked each one personally, his voice choked with tears.
By now, too, the omens had begun. For months already pessimists had been pointing out that just as the first Emperor of Byzantinum had been a Constantine born of a Helena, so would the last; but shortly before the full moon on 24 May the portents took a more sinister turn. On the 22nd there was a lunar eclipse; a day or two later, as the holiest and most precious icon of the Virgin was being carried through the streets in one last appeal for her intercession, it slipped from the platform on which it was being carried. With immense difficulty - for it suddenly seemed preternaturally heavy - it was replaced, and the bearers continued on their way; but they had gone no more than a few hundred yards further when a thunderstorm burst over the city, the most violent and dramatic that anyone could remember. Such was the force of the rain and hail that whole streets were flooded and the procession had to be abandoned. The next morning the people of Constantinople awoke to find their city shrouded in thick fog, something quite unprecedented at the end of May; the same night the dome of St Sophia seemed suffused with an unearthly red glow that crept slowly up from the base to the summit and then went out. This last phenomenon was also seen by the Turks in Galata and at the Double Columns; Mehmet himself was greatly disturbed by it, and was reassured only after his astrologers had interpreted it as a sign that the building would soon be illuminated by the True Faith. For the Byzantines there could be only one explanation: the Spirit of God itself had departed from their city.
Once again, as they had done so often in the past, George Sphrantzes and his fellow-ministers implored the Emperor to leave Constantinople while there was still time, to escape to the Morea and head a Byzantine government in exile until he could lead an army to recover the city, just as his great predecessor Michael Palaeologus had done nearly two centuries before. Such was Constantine's exhaustion that he fainted as they spoke; but when he recovered he was as determined as ever. This was his city; these were his people. He could not desert them now.
On Saturday, 26 May Mehmet II held a council of war. The siege, he told those around him, had continued long enough. His Grand Vizier, old Halil Pasha, who had never approved of the campaign - or indeed of the headstrong young Sultan himself - enthusiastically agreed, and pressed his master to retreat before the arrival of the expected relief fleet or the army of John Hunyadi - long rumoured to be on the march -made retreat impossible; but Mehmet would have none of it. The Greeks, he maintained, were half-starving and utterly demoralized. The time had come for the final assault. His younger generals agreed with him, Halil was overruled and the decision was taken. The following day would be given over to preparations, the day after that to rest and prayer. The attack would begin in the early hours of Tuesday, 29 May.
No attempt was made to conceal the plan from the defenders within the city. Some of the Christians in the Turkish camp even shot arrows over the walls informing them of the Sultan's intentions, but such measures were hardly necessary. For the next thirty-six hours the preparatory work continued without interruption - filling the ditches, positioning the cannon, drawing up the catapults and siege engines, laying in stores of arrows, gunpowder, food, bandages, water for extinguishing fires and all the other innumerable needs of a great army in action. At night huge flares were lit to help the men at their labours, while drums and trumpets encouraged them to still greater efforts. Then, at dawn on the 28th, a sudden silence fell. Work ceased. While his men prepared themselves, physically and spiritually, for the morrow Mehmet set off on a day-long tour of inspection, returning only late in the evening to take his own rest.
Within the city, the anxiety of the past few weeks had strained tempers to breaking point. Relations between Greeks, Venetians and Genoese - never easy at the best of times - had now reached a point where the three communities were barely on speaking terms. Even on vital matters of defence, every order was questioned, every suggestion argued, every motive suspected. Then, it seemed from one moment to the next, on that last Monday of the Empire's history, the mood changed. As the hour approached for the final reckoning, all quarrels and differences were forgotten. Work on the walls continued as always -though the Turks might enjoy their day of rest, there could be no respite for the defenders - but elsewhere throughout the city the people of Constantinople left their houses and gathered for one last collective intercession. As the bells pealed out from the churches, the most sacred icons and the most precious of relics were carried out to join the long, spontaneous procession of Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic alike, that wound its way through the streets and along the whole length of the walls, pausing for special prayers at every point where the damage had been particularly severe, or where the Sultan's artillery might be expected to concentrate its fire on the following day.
The procession was soon joined by the Emperor himself; and when it was finished he summoned his commanders to address them for the last time. Two versions of his speech have come down to us, one by his secretary Sphrantzes and one by Archbishop Leonard of Mitylene; and though they differ in detail and phraseology they are sufficiently similar to give us the substance of Constantine's words. He spoke first to his Greek subjects, telling them that there were four great causes for which a man should be ready to die: his faith, his country, his family and his sovereign. They must now be prepared to give their lives for all four. He for his part would willingly sacrifice his own for his faith, his city and his people. They were a great and noble people, the descendants of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and he had no doubt that they would prove themselves worthy of their forefathers in the defence of their city, in which the infidel Sultan wished to seat his false prophet on the throne of Jesus Christ. Turning to the Italians, he thanked them for all that they had done and assured them of his love and trust in the dangers that lay ahead. They and the Greeks were now one people, united in God; with His help they would be victorious. Finally he walked slowly round the room, speaking to each man in turn and begging forgiveness if he had ever caused him any offence.
Dusk was falling. From all over the city, as if by instinct, the people were making their way to the church of the Holy Wisdom. For the past five months the building had been generally avoided by the Greeks, defiled as they believed it to be by the Latin usages that no pious Byzantine could possibly accept. Now, for the first and last time, liturgical differences were forgotten. St Sophia was, as no other church could ever be, the spiritual centre of Byzantium. For eleven centuries, since the days of the son of Constantine the Great, the cathedral church of the city had stood on that spot; for over nine of those centuries the great gilded cross surmounting Justinian's vast dome had symbolized the faith of city and Empire. In this moment of supreme crisis, there could be nowhere else to go.
That last service of vespers ever to be held in the Great Church was also, surely, the most inspiring. Once again, the defenders on the walls were unable to desert their posts; but virtually every other able-bodied man, woman and child in the city crowded into St Sophia to take the Eucharist and to pray together, under the great golden mosaics that they knew so well, for their deliverance. The Patriarchal Chair was still vacant; but Orthodox bishops and priests, monks and nuns - many of whom had sworn never to cross the threshold of the building until it had been formally cleansed of the last traces of Roman pollution - were present in their hundreds. Present too was Cardinal Isidore, formerly Metropolitan of Kiev, long execrated as a renegade and traitor to his former faith, but now heard with a new respect as he dispensed the Holy Sacrament and intoned once again the old liturgies.
The service was still in progress when the Emperor arrived with his commanders. He first asked forgiveness of his sins from every bishop present, Catholic and Orthodox alike; then he too took communion with the rest. Much later, when all but the few permanent candles had been put out and the Great Church was in darkness, he returned alone and spent some time in prayer; then he returned to Blachernae for a last farewell to his household. Towards midnight, accompanied by George Sphrantzes, he rode for the last time the length of the Land Walls to assure himself that everything possible had been done for their defence. On their return, he took his faithful secretary to the top of a tower near the Palace of Blachernae, where for an hour they watched together and listened. Then he dismissed him. The two never met again.
Constantine Dragases can have had little sleep that night, for Mehmet did not wait till dawn to launch his assault. At half-past one in the morning he gave the signal. Suddenly, the silence of the night was shattered - the blasts of trumpets and the hammering of drums combining with the blood-curdling Turkish war-cries to produce a clamour fit to waken the dead. At once the church bells began to peal, a sign to the whole city that the final battle had begun. The old people and children flocked to their local churches, or down to the Golden Horn where the church of St Theodosia,1 decked with roses, was celebrating its patron's feast-day; the men - those who were not already there - and many of the women sped to the walls, where there was work to be done.
The Sultan never underestimated his opponents. He knew that if he were to take the city he must first wear down its defenders, attacking in wave after wave, allowing them no rest. He first sent forward the bashi-bazouks, Christian and Muslim alike, from every corner of Europe and western Asia. His army included many thousands of these irregulars. Largely untrained and armed with whatever weapons they happened to possess, they had little staying power, but their initial onslaught could be terrifying indeed. To Mehmet they also possessed a further advantage: they were expendable, ideal for demoralizing the enemy and making it an easy victim for the more sophisticated regiments that he would send in after them. For two hours they hurled themselves against the walls, and particularly against the most strategic section across the Lycus valley; yet somehow, thanks in large measure to the heroic efforts of Giovanni Giustiniani Longo and his men, the great bastion held firm. Shortly before four in the morning, the Sultan called them back. They had failed to breach the walls, but they had served their purpose well, keeping the defenders busy and draining them of energy.
The second wave of the attack followed hot on the first. It was provided by several regiments of Anatolian Turks, all - unlike the irregulars - fully trained and superbly disciplined. Pious Muslims to a man, each was determined to win eternal rewards in Paradise by being the first to enter the greatest city of Christendom. They fought with outstanding courage and on one occasion - after one of the largest cannon had pulverized a great stretch of the wall - came within an ace of forcing an entry; but the Christians, led by the Emperor himself, closed round them, killed as many as they could and drove the rest back across the ditch. When he heard the news, the Sultan flew into his usual rage; but he was not unduly disturbed. Fine soldiers as they were, he would not have wished the laurels of battle won by the Anatolians. That honour must be kept for his own favourite regiment of Janissaries; and it was these whom he now threw into the fray.
1 Under its Turkish name of Gul Camii, the Mosque of the Roses, the curiously tall church of St Theodosia - now islamicized and to some extent reconstructed - still stands today. There is a legend that it was the last resting-place of Constantine XI
The Christians had no time to regroup or recover themselves before this third attack began. It opened with a hail of missiles — arrows, javelins, stones, even the occasional bullet — and hardly had this ceased when, in that steady, remorseless rhythm that had long struck terror into the hearts of all who heard it, the crack troops of the Ottoman army advanced across the plain at the double, their ranks unbroken and dead straight despite all the missiles that the defenders could hurl against them. The military music that kept them in perfect step was almost a weapon in itself, so deafening that it could be heard at the furthest end of the city and even across the Bosphorus. In wave after wave they came, flinging themselves furiously against the stockades, hacking away at the supports, throwing up scaling-ladders wherever the opportunity arose and then, at a given command, making way without fuss for the following wave, while they themselves waited and rested until their turn came round again. But for the Christians on the walls there could be no such alternation. The fighting had already lasted for well over five hours, and was now frequently hand-to-hand; and although they had so far been remarkably successful in keeping the besiegers at bay they knew that they could not last much longer.
Then disaster struck. Soon after dawn a bolt from a culverin struck Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, pierced his breastplate and smashed through his chest. The wound was not mortal, but Giustiniani — who had been holding the line where the pressure was at its greatest since the fighting began — was already exhausted and unable to continue. Collapsing on the ground and obviously in excruciating pain, he refused all the Emperor's entreaties to stay at his post and insisted on being carried down to a Genoese ship lying in the harbour. Constantine's attitude to a gravely wounded man may sound unreasonable; but he was well aware of the effect that Giustiniani's departure would have on his compatriots. Before the gate leading from the walls out into the city could be relocked, the Genoese streamed through it.
The Sultan, watching closely from across the ditch, may or may not have seen Giustiniani fall; but he knew at once that something was amiss, and immediately launched yet another wave of Janissaries. They were headed by a giant named Hassan, who smashed his way through to the broken stockade and was over it before the defenders could stop him. He was killed a moment later; but by now more and more of his companions were following where he had led, and soon the Greeks were retreating back to the inner wall.Caught between the two rows of fortifications, they were easy prey to the advancing Turks and many of them were slaughtered where they stood.
At this point those Janissaries who, having reached the inner wall, were congratulating themselves on being the first into the city, saw to their astonishment a Turkish flag flying from a tower a short distance away to the north. An hour or so before, a group of about fifty Turkish irregulars on patrol had found a small door in the wall, half-hidden at the foot of the tower and insecurely bolted. It was in fact a sally-port known as the Kerkoporta, through which the commanders of that particular stretch of the wall - three Genoese brothers called Bocchiardi - had organized several effective raids on the Turkish camp. The bashi-bazouks had managed to force the door open, and had made their way up a narrow stair to the top of the tower. Such an action, with no army to give them support, was virtually suicidal; but in the confusion after the wounding of Giustiniani they encountered no resistance and were able soon afterwards to hoist a Turkish standard, leaving the door open for others to follow. It was almost certainly they, and not the Janissaries, who were the first of the besiegers to enter the city.
By now, however, the Turks were pouring through the open breaches. Constantine himself, having seen that the situation at the Kerkoporta was hopeless, had returned to his old post above the Lycus valley. There, with Don Francisco de Toledo - who, despite his age, had shown superb gallantry throughout the campaign - his cousin Theophilus Palaeologus and his friend John Dalmata, he fought desperately for as long as he could to hold the gate through which Giustiniani had been carried. Finally, seeing that all was lost, he flung off his imperial regalia and, still accompanied by his friends, plunged into the fray where the fighting was thickest. He was never seen again.
It was early morning, with the waning moon high in the sky. The siege of Constantinople was over. The walls were strewn with the dead and dying, but of living, able-bodied defenders there was scarcely a trace. The surviving Greeks had hurried home to their families, in a desperate attempt to save them from the rape and pillage that was already beginning; the Venetians were making for their ships, the Genoese for the comparative security of Galata. They found the Golden Horn surprisingly quiet: most of the Turkish sailors had already left their ships, terrified lest the army should get the best of the plunder. The Venetian commander, Alvise Diedo, encountered no resistance when he set his sailors to cut through the thongs attaching the boom to the walls of Galata; his little fleet, accompanied by seven Genoese vessels and half a dozen Byzantine galleys, then swung out into the Marmara and thence down the Hellespont to the open sea. All were packed to the gunwales with refugees, many of whom had swum out to them from the shore to escape the fate that awaited those who remained.
They were well-advised to do so, for that fate was horrible indeed. By noon the streets were running red with blood. Houses were ransacked, women and children raped or impaled, churches razed, icons wrenched from their golden frames, books ripped from their silver bindings. The Imperial Palace at Blachernae was left an empty shell. In the church of St Saviour in Chora the mosaics and frescos were miraculously spared, but the Empire's holiest icon, the Virgin Hodegetria, said to have been painted by St Luke himself,1was hacked into four pieces and destroyed. The most hideous scenes of all, however, were enacted in the church of the Holy Wisdom. Matins were already in progress when the berserk conquerors were heard approaching. Immediately the great bronze doors were closed; but the Turks soon smashed their way in. The poorer and more unattractive of the congregation were massacred on the spot; the remainder were lashed together and led off to the Turkish camps, for their captors to do with as they liked. As for the officiating priests, they continued with the Mass as long as they could before being killed at the high altar; but there are among the Orthodox faithful those who still believe that at the last moment one or two of them gathered up the most precious of the patens and chalices and mysteriously disappeared into the southern wall of the sanctuary. There they will remain until the day Constantinople becomes a Christian city once again, when they will resume the liturgy at the point at which it was interrupted.
Sultan Mehmet had promised his men the three days of looting to which by Islamic tradition they were entitled; but after an orgy of violence on such a scale, there were no protests when he brought it to a close on the same day as it had begun. There was by then little left to plunder, and his soldiers had more than enough to do sharing out the loot and enjoying their captives. He himself waited until the worst excesses were over before entering the city. Then, in the late afternoon, accompanied by his chief ministers, his imams and his bodyguard of Janissaries, he rode slowly down the principal thoroughfare, the Mese, to St Sophia. Dismounting outside the central doors, he stooped to pick
1 Its normal home was the church of St Mary at Blachernae, next to the palace; but it had been transferred to a church even nearer the walls, the better to inspire the defenders.
up a handful of earth which, in a gesture of humility, he sprinkled over his turban; then he entered the Great Church. As he walked towards the altar, he stopped one of his soldiers whom he saw hacking at the marble pavement; looting, he told him, did not include the destruction of public buildings. He had in any case already decided that the church of the Holy Wisdom should be converted into the chief mosque of the city. At his command the senior imam mounted the pulpit and proclaimed the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate: there was no God but God and Mohammed was his Prophet. The Sultan touched his turbaned head to the ground in prayer and thanksgiving.
Leaving the Great Church, he crossed the square to the old, ruined Palace of the Emperors, founded by Constantine the Great eleven and a half centuries before; and as he wandered through its ancient halls, his slippers brushing the dust from the pebbled floor-mosaics - some of which have survived to this day - he is said to have murmured the lines of a Persian poet:
The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;
The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.1
He had achieved his ambition. Constantinople was his. He was just twenty-one years old.
1 The author is unknown.