Post-classical history

Constantinople, Siege of (1453)

An Ottoman military operation lasting fifty-four days (5/7 April to 29 May 1453), which culminated in the conquest of the Byzantine imperial capital (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) by Sultan Mehmet II Fatih. For almost two months the 7,000 Greek defenders, assisted by about 3,000 Western mercenaries (mostly Genoese under Giovanni Longo Giustiniani), held out against an enemy whose numbers were nearly ten times greater, as well as a devastating artillery pounding that destroyed a significant section of the city’s western walls.

Ruined land walls of Constantinople, battered by Ottoman cannons. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

Ruined land walls of Constantinople, battered by Ottoman cannons. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

This was the third Ottoman siege of Constantinople following earlier abortive attempts by Sultans Bayezid I in 1394-1399 and Murad II in 1422. The inevitable fate of the city had already been heralded following the Turkish defeat of the Varna Crusade of 1444.

Preparations for the impending siege became apparent with the construction by the Turks from March to August 1453 of the massive castle of Rumeli Hisar (“Castle of Europe”), known also as Boghaz Kesen (“Throat Cutter”), on the western shores of the narrowest part of the Bosporus, facing the older Anadolu Hisar (“Castle of Anatolia”), built in 1395/1396 by Bayezid I. Mehmet proceeded to isolate the city from possible help by sending his general Turakhan Begh to invade the Morea and by having Karadja Begh dismantle Byzantine fortifications in the Sea of Marmara and on the Black Sea coastline (autumn 1452). A belated and minimal Western force consisting of Venetians and Genoese, who had the support of Pope Nicholas V, arrived in Constantinople in late 1452 or early 1453, just before the huge Ottoman forces assembled before its western walls (March and early April). The siege commenced on 5/7 April. Despite a temporary respite in the blockade brought about by the Genoese Francesco Lecanella (called “Flan- tanellas” in Byzantine sources), who succeeded in entering the Golden Horn (mod. Haliç) with one Byzantine and three Genoese ships (20 April), it became even tighter when the Turks managed to haul seventy-two vessels on oiled wooden planks overland behind the suburb of Galata from the Bosporus into the Golden Horn (22 April). This move thus neutralized the protective Byzantine chain that had sealed the Golden Horn since 2 April, and allowed the besiegers to build a floating bridge across the inlet, consequently forcing the besieged to divide their attention. Even then the stout defense of the city made Mehmet oscillate between the advice of his generals Zaghanos Pasha and Shi- habeddin to proceed tenaciously and the counsel of his grand vizier Khalil Pasha Djandarli to lift the siege (25 May). The latter was suspected of consulting with the besieged (he was later executed), and so Mehmet carried on with the operations.

The end was precipitated following the breaching of a large section of the ramparts and the controversial opening of a small secret underground gate on the northern section of the walls called Kerkoporta (probably because of careless defending on the part of some Byzantines), through which the Ottomans, who also breached the Charisios Gate further to the north, entered the city. Giustiniani received a serious wound and was forced to leave his post, while Emperor Constantine Palaiologos (who had flatly refused to capitulate on Mehmet’s terms on 21 May) was killed along with a handful of defenders near the Gate of Romanos, at about the center of the western walls, on the early afternoon of Tuesday, 29 May. Some of the defenders succeeded in fleeing in Venetian and Genoese ships.

The fall of Constantinople caused consternation in western Europe. The victorious sultan entered the city, which was to become his empire’s new European capital in succession to Adrianople (mod. Edirne, Turkey). Following a period of looting lasting three days, during which Mehmet gave strict orders against the destruction of monuments, he began to colonize his new capital with Muslim populations from his eastern provinces as well as Christians from the recently conquered Greek and Balkan territories. Finally, in 1454 the conqueror granted important privileges to the Greek Orthodox patriarch Gennadios II, who was thus recognized as the eth- narch (head of the community) of the Orthodox peoples within the Ottoman Empire.

The capture of Constantinople is generally considered to mark the final fall of the Byzantine Empire, although some outposts of medieval Hellenism actually outlived Constantinople by several years: the despotate of Morea until 1460/1461, the empire of Trebizond until 1461, the semiau- tonomous state of Thessaly until 1454/1470, and the autonomous state of Epiros until 1449/1479.

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