By the middle of the fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks, originally horse nomads from the Central Asian Steppe, had conquered almost all the territory of the once great Eastern Roman Empire, confining Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, within his capital at Constantinople. The city, which stands on the European shore of the Bosphorus, the channel dividing Europe from Asia, is built on two peninsulas separated by the inlet of the Golden Horn. The city proper, surrounding the ‘Great Church’ of Sancta Sophia, occupies the southernmost peninsula and was defended, as it still is, by the monumental Walls of Theodosius.
Constantinople had withstood many sieges, by Avars, Arabs and Bulgars, and once before by the Ottomans. In previous emergencies, however, the Byzantine emperors had been able to call upon reserves from their surviving possessions in Europe and Asia to beat off the attackers, and to seek assistance from fellow Christian states. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, Christian Europe, divided against itself and locked in conflict with Muslim power in Spain and the Balkans, had little help to offer, while Constantinople had become a Christian island in an Islamic sea. After the Ottoman defeat of the Polish-Hungarian ‘Last Crusade’ to the Black Sea coast in 1444, Constantinople survived in effect on the Ottomans’ indulgence, dependent on them even for food supply.
In February 1453 a new Ottoman leader, Mehmed II (‘the Conqueror’), decided to terminate the anomaly of the Eastern Roman Empire’s existence. Assembling an army of 80,000 and a siege train of 70 heavy cannon, supported by a large fleet, he proceeded to impose a close blockade. Venice, which was attempting to sustain its own island empire in Turkish waters, sent a fleet to lend assistance but it was soon driven off. By April the Turks had isolated the city and were battering its massive walls with twelve monster guns, some cast on the spot. The Byzantine emperor had only 10,000 soldiers to defend the perimeter, formed by 10 miles of wall and the water barrier of the Golden Horn. The key to the defence was a great iron chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn, blocking the entrance to the inlet and denying access to the weaker northern shore of the city. As long as it held, the garrison was just sufficient in strength to man the fortifications. Should the Turks find a way into the Golden Horn, the city’s defence was undermined. Andrew Wheatcroft’s description of Mehmed’s solution to the problem of the siege is a brilliant account of a great military operation. It is also an epitaph on the extinction of the power of Rome, which had made Europe a millennium and a half earlier and which still remains, culturally, intellectually and politically, the dominant influence of the life of the continent. The fall of Constantinople — ‘New Rome’ — seemed indeed to contemporaries to threaten the survival of their world, and its eventual subordination to an Asiatic civilization of which Mehmed the Conqueror was the personification.
On the night of 18 April, Mehmed launched his first full-scale assault on the weak points in the walls. The fighting was desperately hard, but the defenders threw back all the assaults. Not a single Turk crossed over the low earthworks plugging the gaps in the great walls. The sultan [Mehmed] determined on another approach. On the day following the assault on the land walls, the Turkish fleet attempted to break the iron chain protecting the Golden Horn. They failed. Two days later, four Genoese ships ran through the blockade to safety in the Golden Horn. Spectators crowded the sea walls of the city to watch this gladiatorial combat between the four tall vessels with the cross of Christ emblazoned on their sails and the hundreds of smaller Turkish craft milling around them like insects. The sultan rode along the shore close to the Golden Horn to watch his ships triumph over the Christians. As the combat went against the Turks, he could be clearly seen from the city walls.
Spurring his horse into the water, splashing through the shallows until his fine robes were soaked through, his shouts of encouragement turned to threats and curses as his seamen failed before his eyes.
The failure of the first assaults by sea and land made it clear to Mehmed that the city would not yield easily. After the Christians had held off the initial assault, there were murmurs in the Turkish camp that Constantinople would never be taken. The sultan responded by tightening his grip around the city. The iron chain still protected the mouth of the Golden Horn, so Mehmed decided to outflank it. In the greatest secrecy he created a rough slipway from the Bosphorus up over the steep heights of Galata to the Golden Horn, a distance of some seven stadia (1,400 yards). This slipway was made of planks and tree trunks laid side by side, sometimes roped together where the incline was steepest. All the planks were greased with sheep’s fat and oil. At the same time his carpenters built large cradle-like sledges on which the keel of a ship would rest. On the morning of 23 April, eighty ships were dragged out of the water on to the cradles; then, with hundreds of soldiers and teams of oxen straining at the ropes attached to the forward corners of the sledges, they were dragged up the greased slipway. As the ships were hauled by brute force up the steep slope, their crews sat at their oars and the sails were unfurled, giving the impression that they were sailing up the hill and on to the plateau above. The commanders even ran along between the ranks of oarsmen whipping them and shouting at them to row harder. As the chronicler put it, ‘It was a strange spectacle and unbelievable in the telling except to those who actually did see it - the sight of ships borne along the mainland as if sailing on the sea.’ But it was real enough. Within a few hours a Turkish fleet was slithering down the hillside into the waters of the Golden Horn. Now the Turks could attack the city on every side.
By the end of the second week of the siege a stalemate had been reached between attackers and defenders. The guns battered away at the walls, and the defenders attempted to repair the breaches. Christian and Turkish ships skirmished indecisively in the restricted waters of the Golden Horn. Both sides tried to undermine their opponents’ morale. The Turks impaled some captive sailors in full sight of the triple walls, so the Christians responded by hanging all their Turkish captives, and dangling them from the battlements opposite the place where the sailors’ bodies lay swollen in the heat. The stench of rotting flesh from the hundreds of corpses overlay both the city and the Turkish camp.
There were dangers for both sides in this stalemate. Disunity threatened the Christians. The garrison was made up of many discordant nationalities, and, as the siege continued and conditions became harsher, violent tensions rose between Greeks and Italians, and between traditional enemies like the Venetians and the Genoese. The Turkish side was just as riven by factions, with the sultan and his closest supporters facing the now open opposition of the great families of Anatolia. The sultan’s will was absolute so long as he was successful, but if Mehmed failed to capture the city he would be deposed. Once deposed, he could then expect a visit from the executioner, who would strangle him in time-honoured Turkish fashion.
As April moved into May, both sides tried every trick to break the deadlock. The Turks attacked the boom, and launched repeated attacks on the walls. At midnight on 12 May 50,000 Turks poured towards a gap battered in the wall at the weaker, northern, end of the fortifications. The situation seemed desperate for the Christians, and ‘most of us believed’, the Venetian surgeon Nicolo Barbaro wrote in his diary, ‘that they would capture the city.’ But, miraculously, this Turkish attack was driven off, as were all the Turks’ other assaults from land and sea. When the Turks attempted to mine underneath the walls, the Christians dug counter-mines; fourteen mining attempts were made, and all were frustrated. The stalemate continued.
Both Turks and Christians began to look for omens of heavenly intervention. The Christians were dismayed when a statue of the Virgin fell to the ground during a procession through the streets. An unseasonal cloud of mist settled over the city, and was immediately taken as an omen that God had withdrawn his light from his people. The sultan Mehmed was similarly despondent when he saw a mysterious shaft of sunlight which seemed to suffuse the great church of St Sophia (Aye Sofya) with a golden glow; this he interpreted as a sign of divine intervention on the side of the city. As the siege stretched into its sixth week, with no sign of a relieving Christian fleet from the west, the defenders came to rely more and more on a miracle. They realized that, as each day passed, their reserves of powder and shot, as well as food and other supplies, were dwindling. Their confidence, likewise, was ebbing away. The shaft of light which so disturbed the sultan was taken within Constantinople as the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy that the city would perish in a pillar of fire, God having abandoned his people.
[The Emperor] Constantine and the Genoese commander Giustiniani read other signs as they surveyed the Turkish camp from the walls of the city. There was great evidence of activity in the Turkish camp and on board the ships in the Golden Horn. The cannons were being manoeuvred so as to concentrate their fire on the temporary stockades and fortifications with which Giustiniani’s soldiers had filled the gaping holes in the walls. Turkish irregulars were to be seen collecting branches and vines, both of which were used to make scaling ladders and fascines (large bundles of brushwood). The fascines would be piled one on top of the other, against the rampart and the stockades, to give attacking troops a foothold. The alert Christian commanders also noticed the sultan in the dawn of Monday 28 May as he rode slowly around the walls and along the line of the Golden Horn, surveying the city for new points of weakness. All the evidence pointed to a major attack in prospect. Before noon, Constantine’s spies in the Turkish camp had confirmed his surmise. They told him that Mehmed had summoned all the commanders to his tent at sunset. The Christian war council concluded that the great assault would not be long delayed.
The Turkish plan was to attack along the whole line of the walls, by land and sea simultaneously. The bashi-bazouks (Turkish irregulars, noted for their brutality] would go first. Then the Anatolian feudal levies were to attack on the southern sector of the land walls, while the janissaries [regular infantry] were to be massed in the centre opposite the most damaged section of the fortifications, which was the weak point in the Christian defence. The Turkish ships were to mount a concerted assault all along the sea walls. The flotilla in the Golden Horn was to shower the defenders with spears and arrows, to prevent any reinforcements being drawn from the sea walls to the main battle. The Turkish ships cruising endlessly back and forth in the Sea of Marmara were loaded with soldiers and scaling ladders ready to exploit any weakening of the Christian defence.
After sunset on 28 May an unnatural silence fell over the Turkish camp, broken only by the sound of the evening prayers. The Venetian Barbaro saw how both Turk and Christian now put their trust in God, ‘each side having prayed to its God, we to ours and they to theirs, the Lord Almighty with his Mother in Heaven decided that They must be avenged in this battle of the morrow for all the sins committed.’ In Constantinople it was now the eve of St Theodosia. In her church on the Golden Horn a curious air of normality prevailed. The church was filled, as for centuries past, with an abundance of roses and wild flowers. The worshippers began gathering as normal, although it was noted they were now mostly women: the bulk of the men were serving on the walls.
But this year there was a Turkish fleet anchored within hailing distance of the church, and plainly making ready for battle.
The congregation’s prayers were now for the deliverance of the city. Throughout the day the icons and holy relics of the city had been brought out from their shrines, paraded through the streets and up on to the walls to invoke the aid of God and His saints. The churches tolled their bells, and the words of the Kyrie Eleison were chanted endlessly. At sunset, the emperor and the notables formed a long procession to the great church of St Sophia. Before he entered the tall bronze doors of the church, the emperor Constantine turned and spoke to his people for the last time: ‘The Turks have their artillery, their cavalry, their hordes of soldiers. We have Our God and Saviour.’
As the night drew on, the Turkish camp came to life. Cannon and huge war machines were dragged closer to the walls. Their fire was pinpointed on the weak points. Long lines of bashi-bazouks came forward carrying fascines to fill the ditch in front of the rampart. Many of these ‘expendable’ irregular soldiers were killed by the Christian soldiers firing from the walls, but more came forward to replace them, all apparently oblivious to the hail of missiles around them. About half-past one in the morning, the sultan, now satisfied with the preparations, ordered his war banner to be unfurled. At this signal, the word went out along the line: begin the main attack.
In the centre of the line, Giustiniani and his soldiers had agreed to man the stockade and the Outer Wall. Behind them the gates through to the city were locked. Giustiniani and his men were trapped between the advancing Turks and their own fortifications. They had to win or die. Through the darkness they heard an explosion of sound, of drums beating, a clamour of cymbals and cries of ‘Allah, Allah,’ as the bashi-bazouks rushed forward in a confused mass. Flares were lit, and cast a flickering light over the pulsing Turkish horde below them. The Christians poured a devastating fire down on to the irregulars battering against the rampart. The fiercest attack came along the valley of the Lycus. Like Giustiniani and his men, the bashi-bazouks were trapped and unable to retreat, because Mehmed had placed his janissaries behind them, with orders to kill any who fell back from the walls. After two hours, the sultan judged that the irregulars had sapped the strength of the defence and allowed them to retire.
The Anatolians and the janissaries pushed forward over the bodies of the fallen bashibazouks. Where the irregulars had wavered under fire, the janissaries advanced file by file in a solid disciplined mass. When one fell, another took his place. But even they could find no chink in the Christian defence. Some succeeded in lodging their scaling ladders against the stockade, and a few even reached the top, but none survived for more than a few seconds. The sultan, who had led his crack troops to the edge of the ditch, finally ordered them to withdraw. As they fell back, the Turkish guns began to batter away again at the defences, drowning out the church bells now tolling over the city. For four hours, until just before dawn, it seemed that a miracle might be accomplished. Every Turkish assault had been thrown back. The temporary stockades of wood and earth had proved an effective barrier — as good as the walls themselves. But the unrelenting pressure of the attack eventually uncovered a weak point. At the northern end of the walls, close to the Golden Horn and the imperial palace, a small side gate called the Kerkoporta had been used to launch night attacks on the Turkish lines. After the last raid, it had not been properly secured. At the height of the battle, some alert Turks noticed that it was open, and burst through. They were eventually killed, and the gate was shut, but not before they had pulled down the Christian flags from the towers and raised Turkish banners in their place. Roughly at the same time, in the heart of the battle, a chance musket shot wounded Giustiniani. He decided to leave the battle. The emperor begged him to stay, for he had inspired the defence, but he refused. Constantine reluctantly unlocked the gate through the Great Wall, and Giustiniani was carried away by his men-at-arms to a Genoese ship in the Golden Horn. The simultaneous loss of their leader and some of their best soldiers dismayed the remaining Christians. Some shouted that the Turks had taken the city, as they saw the enemy banners flying over the towers near the Kerkoporta, and Constantine galloped off along the space between the walls to rally the troops on the northern flank. Rumours spread that the Turks had broken through the walls, and the fighting around the stockade slackened. This sudden weakening was noticed by the sultan, who was close to the fiercest part of the battle. He pushed the janissaries back into the attack, promising riches and fame to the first man into the city. This time a huge janissary named Hassan clambered up the stockade and held the defenders at bay while more Turkish soldiers joined him. Eventually the Christians cut him down, but the defensive line had now been breached. Once the janissaries had secured a foothold on the Christian side of the stockade, their discipline began to overwhelm the exhausted defenders. They pressed the Christians back to the Great Wall. There the janissaries’ scimitars rose and fell remorselessly. Soon a heaving pile of dead, dying and wounded Christians was piled up shoulder high at the foot of the Great Wall.
The tenor of the battle changed immediately. The Turks clambered up the Great Wall unopposed, and broke open the Military Gate of St Romanus; long lines of janissaries trotted through into the defenceless city. Within a few minutes, the Turks had penetrated the walls in two other places and were pouring through into the city beyond. Dawn was breaking, and along the sea walls the Turks saw their flags replacing the Christian banners on the towers and high buildings to the north. They pressed their attack forward with increased zeal.
The defenders began to abandon their posts, running home to protect their families. The Turkish scaling ladders were no longer pushed away, and the attack triumphed in every sector.
The emperor Constantine preferred to die with his city rather than survive as a captive. He threw away his helmet with the imperial eagle, and his emblazoned surcoat, and sought an anonymous death in the heart of the fighting. The city finally fell: as Edward Gibbon expressed it, ‘after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes [the Persians], the Chagan [the Avars], and the caliphs [the Arabs], was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mohammed the Second.’
The consequences of the Turkish victory were horrifying. In April, with his army gathered before the walls, the sultan had summoned the city to surrender and had guaranteed the lives and property of all within. When the offer was turned down, he promised his soldiers, in accordance with the customs of warfare, that they should make free with the city for three days after its capture. Their passions were already inflamed, both by the prospect of plunder and by a desire for revenge. The Turkish troops had suffered from the long siege almost as much as the Christian defenders, and they had not forgotten the bodies of Turkish prisoners hanging from the towers and battlements. The chronicler Kritovoulos tells how the janissaries and other soldiers killed ‘without rhyme or reason’, because they had been roused by the ‘taunts and curses’ hurled at them from the walls all through the siege. Once they had entered the city, ‘they killed so as to frighten all the City and to terrorize and enslave all by the slaughter.’