Post-classical history

The Siege of 1453

On the twenty-ninth of May, our Lord God decided that He was willing for the city to fall on this day… in order to fulfil all the ancient prophecies… All these three had come to pass seeing that the Turks had passed into Greece, there was an Emperor called Constantine, son of Helen, and the moon had given a sign in the sky.

Nicolò Barbaro, Diary of the Siege of Constantinople

In 1354, a major shift in the balance of power between Byzantium and the Ottomans occurred, when an earthquake destroyed the entire coastline of Thrace. The fortifications of the cities on the European side of the Hellespont collapsed, forcing the population to flee and allowing Orhan’s son Süleyman to cross the Dardanelles with many Turkish troops and families. Meeting no resistance, he began a campaign to secure the permanent occupation of the western provinces of Byzantium from his new base at Kallipolis (literally, beautiful city; modern Gallipoli). Turkish expansion into the Balkans against the Serbs was matched by threats to Constantinople from Thrace. Sultan Murad I (1362–89) captured Adrianople (Edirne), which became the Ottomans’ western capital. In 1371, at the battle of the Marica, he defeated the Serbian king Stefan Uroš IV and proceeded to capture Sofia and Thessalonike, thus incorporating Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia into the Ottoman state. By 1387 Theodore Palaiologos, despot of the Morea, recognized Murad’s authority, although he resisted the Turks’ attempts to capture Mistras.

In less than twenty-five years, the sultan had surrounded Constantinople and was able to exercise a pincer movement on it from both east and west, by land and sea. Yet the city held out for another eighty years, partly because Murad I had made all the Byzantine rulers his vassals and could therefore count on their support. In 1372/3, he obliged John V Palaiologos to assist with his military campaigns against the remaining Christians in Asia Minor. As the historian Chalkokondyles put it:

John entered into an alliance with Murad, who had recently crossed over to Europe… As homage to Murad, John and his sons also had to follow him wherever he campaigned.

The same author reported that this pattern of treatment was also imposed on Dragaš, the Serbian leader, and Bogdan, who had been put in charge of territory near the River Axios. In this way, the sultan accumulated troops and vassals. Some Serbs and Bosnians, however, continued to resist and mounted a combined challenge to Murad I. In 1389, the Turks met this force at Kosovo Polje, where the sultan was assassinated. Historians are divided over which side actually won the battle, but the result was increased Turkish control over the Balkans.

The history of Byzantium in its last century was written from contrasting viewpoints by Doukas, on the Byzantine side, and Chalkokondyles on the Ottoman. Both wrote after the conquest of Constantinople. What Doukas considers humiliation of the emperor, Chalkokondyles passes over as the normal treatment of a vassal by his lord. Both, however, emphasize the almost suicidal rivalry of John V’s many sons, who tried in turn to take power during his long reign (1341–91). The eldest, Andronikos IV and his son John VII, the second, Manuel II, and the third, Theodore, all participated in revolts, using Genoese, Venetian and Turkish allies. The emperor had tried to prevent this by appointing them to rule over the scattered remnants of Byzantium, which gradually became autonomous units: the Morea, with its capital at Mistras; Thessalonike, centre of its remaining Balkan territory; and Selymbria, fortified by John VI Kantakouzenos as his base in Thrace during the 1340s. These little kingdoms, or appanages in which each son could act as an independent ruler, suggest a quasi-feudal system similar to Western Europe, where numerous small kingdoms and duchies vied for territorial dominance. But whereas in the West the nominal kings of France, England, Castile and Germany were trying to extend their authority, the Palaiologoi were dividing the once-united empire of Byzantium into smaller units. In contrast to the centralizing forces that were empowering the states of western Christendom, the opposite centripetal pressure was reducing imperial resources and territory in the East.

Murad’s death at Kosovo Polje in 1389 intensified Ottoman pressure on Constantinople. His successor, Bayezid I (1389–1402), constructed the fortress of Anadolu Hisar on the eastern shore of the Bosphoros to prevent the Byzantines from bringing in naval reinforcements. When Manuel II was crowned emperor in the city in 1391, he knew he would face an almost immediate siege, and by 1394 the Turks had effectively invested the city by sea and land. News of this stranglehold finally galvanized the Christians in Europe to organize military aid in the form of an international force, led by King Sigismund of Hungary and Marshal Boucicaut of France. The western crusade advanced as far as the Ottoman fortress on the Danube at Nikopolis (modern Nikopol in Bulgaria), and was considered such a serious challenge to the Turks that Sultan Bayezid left the siege to meet it. In 1396, the crusade was crushed with few prisoners taken alive. Among the survivors, Sigismund and Boucicaut were both captured and later ransomed. The French marshal refused to abandon the Christians in the east and persuaded King Charles VI of France to send a small force to relieve Constantinople. In 1399, it successfully broke the Turkish blockade of the city and Boucicaut joined Manuel II in military actions.

At this point, the marshal suggested that the emperor should leave his nephew John VII in charge of the defence and make a tour of western monarchs to raise further military support for Constantinople. John VII had been crowned by his father Andronikos IV and had plotted with the Turks to winsole power against Manuel II’sclaims. But after a period as Sultan Bayezid’s hostage, John was now entrusted with the defence of the capital, while Manuel and the marshal slipped through the blockade in December 1399. Manuel embarked on what proved a lengthy tour of Europe, wonderfully evoked in his letters to the brothers Demetrios and Manuel Chrysoloras, to Euthymios, later Patriarch of Constantinople, and Manuel Pothos.

Since he had visited Venice before, he reserved his most elaborate reports for the other major capitals: Paris, where he was welcomed with lavish ceremonies by Charles VI in the summer of 1400, and London, where he celebrated the following Christmas with Henry IV at the palace of Eltham. From Paris, Manuel described the ‘nobility of soul, the friendship and constant zeal for the faith’ displayed by the king, his kinsmen and officials. He stayed in the palace of the Louvre, where he noticed a fine tapestry and composed an account of its beauty. He hoped that he would shortly be able to return to Constantinople with military aid. Charles VI also invited him to celebrate the eighth day of the feast of Saint Denis at the famous monastery north of Paris. Some criticized this, saying that the Greeks were not in communion with Rome, but the king insisted and Manuel was reminded that his attempts to obtain aid would be dependent on the union of the Latin and Greek churches.

In the winter of 1400/1401, he visited London where he appreciated the hospitality of Henry IV, who

has made himself a virtual haven for us in the midst of a twofold tempest, that of the season and that of fortune… His conversation is quite charming; he pleases us in every way… He is providing us with military assistance, with soldiers, archers, money and ships to transport the army where it is needed.

Adam of Usk, who observed the embassy, wrote of the Byzantines:

This emperor always walked with his men, dressed alike and in one colour, namely white, in long robes cut like tabards… No razor touched head or beard of his chaplains. These Greeks were most devout in their church services, which were joined in as well by soldiers as by priests, for they chanted them without distinction in their native tongue. I thought within myself, what a grievous thing it was that this great Christian prince from the farther east should perforce be driven by unbelievers to visit the distant lands of the west to seek aid against them.

While Manuel II was in the West trying to persuade the rulers of France and England to send troops to defend his capital, an unexpected ally emerged in Asia Minor. Timur (Tamerlane), the Mongol leader, known as ‘the Sword of Islam’, had devastated Georgia in 1399/1400, and ransacked and burned the great cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad. He now turned west to attack Sultan Bayezid with his highly disciplined troops, organized in typical Mongol fashion in units of 100 and dedicated to jihad. They engaged the Turks outside Ankara on 28 July 1402. Not only were the Ottomans defeated, but the sultan and his son Musa were both taken prisoner. Bayezid later died in captivity. While Timur’s success shocked and terrified them, the western rulers Henry III of Castile, Charles VI of France and Henry IV of England sent their congratulations to the victor of Ankara who had destroyed their enemy Bayezid. From Constantinople, the regent John VII Palaiologos promised tribute if Timur would continue to protect Byzantium from the Turks. For the Christians enclosed in Constantinople, the Mongols had performed a great service, but there was still anxiety about what Timur would do next. After destroying the Knights Hospitallers in Smyrna, however, he then returned to the east where he entertained the much greater ambition of conquering China. There he would realize the title that became his epitaph, ‘Conqueror of the World’.

After the defeat of 1402, Manuel returned to Constantinople while the four sons of Bayezid immediately began a struggle for supreme power, which was resolved in 1413 when Mehmed I triumphed over his brothers and resumed the campaign against Byzantium. Manuel commissioned a copy of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysus, with a fine group portrait of the imperial family, which he sent to the monastery of Saint Denis as a way of thanking Charles VI (plate 40). But no military aid came to Constantinople as it faced another serious Ottoman siege in 1422. In that year, Manuel suffered a stroke and John VIII took over control of Byzantium, now reduced to the capital city without hinterland, no longer Queen of any empire. In 1453 Mehmed I’s grandson would ride into Constantinople as the Conqueror.

The creation of Ottoman power took place over many centuries in continuous interaction with Byzantium. As the former expanded and grew stronger, the latter shrank and became weaker. The long period of political rivalry, coupled with close relations, led to mutual influence. The Byzantine princesses sent to marry Turkish husbands introduced a Christian presence into their courts. The Byzantine system of land grants (pronoia) was transformed into the Ottoman timar, while Muslim tax registers continued to be maintained by Christian officials in the Byzantine style. For social services, Byzantines and Ottomans adopted similar patterns of philanthropy, although the Islamic insistence on giving alms meant that a proportion of every Muslim’s income would be set aside for this purpose, while in the Christian world it was left to the individual’s conscience. Institutions like the Muslim wakf closely resembled the Christian monastery with its myriad social functions. But during the Ottoman conquest, Christian resources, population, church property and taxes were redirected to Islamic institutions: caravanserais, medressehs and mosques, often staffed by Christian converts (gulams). Although they provided free accommodation and food for travellers of all faiths, wakf foundations strengthened Islam at the expense of Christianity.

This is evident from the number of active metropolitans and bishops in Asia Minor, which declined sharply as churches were converted into mosques, church property was confiscated by the conquerors, and Christian peasants found it more profitable to renounce their faith and convert to Islam. As Kydones reported in a speech urging the emperors to seek western aid:

The entire region which used to sustain us, extending to the East from the Hellespont to the mountains of Armenia, they have stripped away. They have completely destroyed cities, despoiled churches, looted graves and filled everything with blood and corpses. They have even polluted the souls of the inhabitants, forcing them to reject the true God and to take part in their own filth.

Episcopal sees in the European provinces replaced the traditional dominance of Asia Minor in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical centres. In 1324, when the Patriarch of Constantinople appealed for financial assistance, only three major sees were named: Kyzikos, Proikonessos and Lopadion. Many clerics appointed to churches in Asia Minor were unable to reside in their sees and became refugees in the capital, dependent on patriarchal support. And by the late fifteenth century, an official notitia (list of churches) records that in Asia Minor ‘fifty-one metropolitanates, eighteen archbishoprics and four hundred and seventy-eight bishoprics are desolate’. Only one archbishop and three bishops survived.

In artistic terms, the Seljuks had already adopted the double-headed eagle from Byzantium and, inspired by Hagia Sophia, fourteenth-century mosques had adapted domes and ceramic tiles for their own use. The Green Mosque at Bursa, built with a fine dome in 1424 by Mehmed I, served as a model for many later mosques, for example at Edirne, and achieved a new distinction in sixteenth-century buildings built by the architect Sinan, notably the Blue Mosque in Constantinople–Istanbul. Sinan, born a Christian, was enslaved by the Muslims in their regular forced recruitment of boys for palace service (devşirme), and attained great honour through his designs for magnificent baths and secular structures, as well as mosques.

Despite this long process of mutual influence, major differences in the realm of family law and customs continued to set Islam apart. Against the Christian insistence on monogamy and reluctance to permit remarriage, Muslim men were allowed four wives, if they could support them appropriately. Sultans indulged their sexual preferences not only with their official wives but also with numerous concubines who formed the core of their harem. These women hoped to produce a large number of sons, who all wanted to inherit their father’s power. The result was a tremendous rivalry among the mothers, as well as fratricidal warfare among the brothers and half-brothers when a sultan died. Islam did not recognize the medieval practice of primogeniture, which ensured that the eldest son inherited his father’s land. The sultan might favour a younger son born to his favourite concubine over his older half-brothers. The civil war of 1402–13, between Bayezid’s sons, was a portent of many similar struggles to come.

Of course, such conflicts were also familiar in Byzantium and the West. Andronikos II had been challenged by his grandson Andronikos III in the years 1321–8, and John VI Kantakouzenos provoked a six-year struggle when he claimed the throne inherited by John V (1341–7). When John VIII (1425–48) and Constantine XI (1449–53) called on their younger brothers Theodore and Demetrios for help in defending the capital, the despots of Morea were too busy fighting each other. But in the Muslim world, the court structure and harem encouraged greater competition and instability at moments of succession. And since the Ottomans had adopted monarchy as their political form, one ruler had to establish his authority over all his rivals. Each sultan usually came to power after a series of fratricides and murders, which heightened his own determination to survive. And each wanted to be the Ottoman ruler who captured the Christian metropolis of Constantinople.

In 1422, Murad II anticipated this triumph and gave precise instructions regarding the expected booty. An eyewitness records:

The despot of the Turks also dispatched heralds to proclaim to all the ends of the earth that the emir promised to deliver all the riches and people of the city to the Muslims. This he did to gather all the Muslims… they came to profit, not only the profiteers in looting and war, but the adventurers and the merchants, perfumers, shoemakers, and even some Turkish monks… Some came to buy prisoners, some women; others came to take the men and still others, the infants; others came to seize the animals, and others goods; and the Turkish monks came to get our nuns and free booty from the despot of the Turks.

On this occasion, according to John Kananos, who witnessed the siege, the Mother of God protected Constantinople; even the Turks saw her fighting on the battlements. Emperor Manuel, however, managed to secure the proclamation of a rival sultan in Bursa, which forced Murad II to abandon the siege.

Thwarted in his ambitions, the sultan turned his attention to the Morea and forced Demetrios and Thomas Palaiologos to pay tribute. While Demetrios welcomed this alliance with Murad II, Thomas led an anti-Turkish coalition in alliance with his Genoese relations, the Zaccaria family. In 1448, when Emperor John VIII died, his mother Helena insisted that Constantine, who was older than Demetrios and Thomas, should be crowned emperor. Since it was clear that Constantinople was threatened more seriously than ever before, Constantine immediately appealed to his brothers for military help. But they refused and by 1451 it was already too late.

In that year Mehmed II succeeded his father Murad as sultan. He was only nineteen but determined to complete the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Both he and Constantine XI knew that the survival of Byzantium was at stake. The construction of a second major Ottoman castle at Rumeli Hisar on the European shore achieved the Ottoman aim of controlling all shipping in the Bosphoros, and prevented any large-scale military aid from reaching the city. From that point on, Constantinople’s fate was decided. Had Constantine XI been able to pay the Hungarian engineer who offered to cast new cannon for the defence of the city, it might have survived for a few years. But the Byzantine ruler was very short of money, and so the engineer took his invention to the Turks. It was this giant weapon, larger than any previous cannon, that ensured their victory. No late antique city walls of the fifth century, built in a straight line of triple fortifications, could withstand the power of gunpowder at this fifteenth-century strength.

The Byzantine emperor sent copious appeals to the West, to which some allies responded. In the autumn of 1452, the papal legate Cardinal Isidore (previously Bishop of Kiev) and Leonard of Chios arrived in the city with the body of archers recruited and paid by the cardinal. Ships from Ancona, Provence and Castile added to the naval forces, and a group of Greeks from Crete elected to remain in the city, though six ships later slipped away. The inhabitants were greatly cheered by the arrival in January 1453 of the Genoesecondottiere, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, who braved the Turkish blockade and got through with his two ships and about seven hundred men. Constantine XI put him in charge of the weakest part of the land walls, the section by the Gate of Romanos, and

he invigorated and even instructed the people so that they would not lose hope and maintain unswerving trust in God… All people admired and obeyed him in all things.

In his diary of the siege, Nicolò Barbaro, a surgeon from Venice, records his experience of living through the last days of Byzantium. When people realized that only a miracle could save them from ‘the fury of these wicked pagans’, they wept and prayed and

when the tocsin was sounded, to make everyone take up their posts… women, and children too, carried stones to the walls to put them on the battlements so that they could be hurled down upon the Turks.

His vivid account is naturally biased in favour of the Venetians, and he accuses Giustiniani of abandoning his post at the Romanos Gate. After master-minding the defence with the emperor, the Genoese leader had been hit by an arrow and died later at Chios.

Constantine XI’s appeals to General Hunyadi resulted in an embassy which arrived to negotiate with Mehmed II in April 1453. But by that stage the sultan sensed victory and dismissed the Hungarian threat to attack him. He had assembled a vast army of perhaps 60,000 soldiers and up to 140,000 extras, while Constantine could muster at most 8,000 defenders. With the boom in place across the Golden Horn, the emperor concentrated on defending the 19 kilo-metres of perimeter wall against overwhelming Turkish forces. The siege was dominated by the sultan’s new longer-barrelled cannon, nicknamed ‘the imperial’, which fired cannon balls weighing between 12,000 and 13,000lbs at the walls. Despite valiant efforts to repair the defences with barrels, rubble and any other material, after twenty days of bombardment a breach was opened through which the Turks forced their entry. On 29 May 1453, they raised their flag over the city.

The heroic emperor, Constantine XI, who inspired the resistance, was lost during the attack, and his body was never found, creating a Byzantine rumour that he had been swallowed up into the walls and would return. The night before the final attack, he rode out on one last tour of the walls with his adviser, Sphrantzes, who records how they saw the vast encampment of the Ottomans, their bonfires and preparations, and knew that only divine intervention could save Byzantium. Instead, the city was subjected to a three-day plunder, in which Sphrantzes and many others were taken prisoner. When Mehmed II finally entered the city, some reports claim that he wept at the losses and at the beauty of the buildings; others note that the Turks dressed themselves and even their dogs in ecclesiastical robes, threw all the icons onto a huge bonfire over which they roasted meat, and drank unwatered wine from chalices.

The sultan ordered what remained of the population to stay in the city under Ottoman rule, and organized 5,000 extra families to move in, thus beginning the process of Islamicization. He installed the well-known scholar and monk Gennadios Scholarios as patriarch in 1454. As leader of the Greek millet (an ethnic grouping employed by the Ottomans to control conquered people), he tried to protect the orthodox from injustice. To this day, his successor, now Patriarch Bartholomeus of Constantinople, resides in his see, through terms negotiated with the first ruler of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal – better known as Atatürk – at the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Although there are few Christians in the city, the Church of New Rome, recognized by Constantine I and elevated to the same position as Old Rome by Theodosius I, persists as a beacon of orthodox faith. But it is the young Mehmed the Conqueror whose victory is commemorated in the Mosque of the Conqueror, Fatih Camii, erected on the site of the church of the Holy Apostles. With this symbolic replacement, he made Byzantium the capital of what became the Ottoman Empire.

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