May 29, 1453: The Fall of Constantinople

by Dionysios Hatzopoulos


When, at the age of twenty-one, Mehmed II (1451-1481) sat on the throne of the Ottoman Sultans his first thoughts turned to Constantinople. The capital was all that was left from the mighty Christian Roman Empire and its presence, in the midst of the dominions of the powerful new rulers of the lands of Romania, was pregnant with danger.

The new Sultan demonstrated diplomatic abilities, during his early attempts to isolate politically the Byzantine capital, when he signed treaties with the Emperor's most important Western allies, the Hungarians and the Venetians. He knew, however, that these were temporary measures, which would provide him with freedom of movement for a limited time only.



Artist's depiction of Constantine Paleologos
inside the land walls of the City uder seige.


To give the final blow on the halfdead body of the Byzantine Empire he had to move fast. He was so much preoccupied by his project of conquest that, according to the contemporary Greek Historian Michael Dukas, his mind was occupied by it day and night. A successful expedition against his enemy Ibrahim the Emir of Karamania, in central Asia Minor, postponed briefly his plans. He was back in his capital Adrianople in May 1451, where he set in motion his great project. The first step was to isolate the Byzantine capital, both economically and militarily. Already, during the winter of 1451 he began recruiting competent builders, familiar with military works and fortifications, whose mission would be to build a powerful fortress on the Bosporus. Its construction, supervised by the Sultan, began in the middle of April 1452. Built on the European side, at the narrowest point of the strait, called initially the Cutter of the throat (Boghaz-kesen), it became eventually known as Rumeli Hisar. It was a huge complex of strong fortifications whose task was to shut completely, by its artillery, to Western and Byzantine vessels the route to and from the Black Sea. The new fortress complemented the one that had been built on the Anatolian shore, at the time of Sultan Bayazid I (1389-1402), about six miles south of Constantinople, which was known as Anadolu Hisar. The presence of the two fortresses made clear to everyone that the Sultan was the real master of the straits. From now on, all ships intending to enter the Black Sea had to pay tolls. If they refused they would be sank. Indeed, near the end of 1452 a Venetian vessel attempted to pass without paying the required tolls. It was sunk by the new fortress's guns; its crew of thirty men was taken prisoner. The officers and sailors were brought to the Sultan, who ordered their immediate execution. The act was rightly interpreted by the Venetian and Genoese governments as an indication of hostilities soon to break. However, despite all the indications and the realization that a new siege of Constantinople was to begin at any moment, the two Italian Republics, under political and economic pressures at home, reacted without much enthusiasm.

Help was limited. Indeed, under the command of the brave Giovanni Giustiniani Longo about 700 well armed men sailed, on two Genoese vessels, for the Byzantine capital. The ships arrived in the city on January 29, 1453, Giustiniani was promptly appointed by the Emperor head of the defense. Of the men, 400 were recruited in Genoa and 300 on the Genoese held island of Chios. Giustiniani's men composed the largest Western contingent. Also, Venice allowed the Emperor to recruit a contingent of Cretan soldiers and sailors, who acted heroically during the siege. The former



Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia Isidoros, a Cardinal of the Roman Church, who came to Constantinople as Papal Legate, recruited at Naples, at the Pope's expense, 200 soldiers. A number of brave men joined the Emperor in his final stand: Maurizio Cattaneo, the Bocchiardo brothers, Paolo, Antonio and Troilo, the Castilian nobleman Don Francisco de Toledo, the German engineer Johannes Grant, and also the Ottoman prince Orhan, who lived in Constantinople.


Without hinterland and completely cut off from its maritime routes, Constantinople was doomed. Despite sporadic and desperate Byzantine attempts to prevent its building, Rumeli Hisar was completed in August 1452. The population of the blockaded city interpreted its completion as an unmistakable sign that the final struggle was about to begin. Realizing that all contacts with the Ottoman side were broken Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus (1449-1453) ordered the closing of the city's gates.

The last Byzantine Emperor, born in 1404, was a son of Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1391-1425) and of Helen Dragash, a Serbian Princess. His brother John VIII (1425-1448) hoped that by accepting the union of the Churches, and the expected Western military assistance, he could stave off the collapse of the state. Leading a Greek delegation, which included the greatest secular and religious minds of fifteenth century Hellenism, he traveled to Florence. There, after long and heated discussions, on July 6, 1439, Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini and Archbishop Bessarion of Nicaea read in Latin and Greek the Act of the Union.





Despite the official document and the Emperor's willingness to implement it, the end could not be avoided. The agreement was seen by the people, back home, as submission to the Papacy and betrayal of the Orthodox faith. The promised crusade, to save Constantinople, collapsed on the battlefield of Varna, in Bulgaria, on November 10, 1444. Four years later, on October 31, 1448, John VIII, depressed and disillusioned, passed away. As he had no children the imperial crown passed on to his brother Constantine, who was, at the time, ruler of the Peloponnese, the Despotato of Moreas. Crowned in the Cathedral at Mystra, his capital, on January 6, 1449, the new and last Christian Roman Emperor entered, two months later, on March 12, the isolated Imperial capital.

Militarily insignificant, economically depending on the Italian maritime Republics, hoping for Western assistance and a new crusade, the Byzantine Empire, or rather its capital –a head without body– waited for the inevitable. Thanks to the strong, dignified and proud personality of its last ruler, who in other times might have been a fine Emperor, the political end of the Medieval Greek state and the physical end of its leader acquired the dimensions of an apotheosis.

Behind the ancient walls of Constantinople the new Emperor followed his late brother's policies; He could not do much else. Thus, amid hostile reactions by most of the city's population, he attempted to revive the Union (with the Papal Church) by proclaiming it in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia on December 12, 1452. No practical results came out of the enforced proclamation. Despite Constantine's final appeals to the Pope and to his Western allies, no crusade and no substantial help ever materialized. Promises and expressions of sympathy were all that was sent to him, and in any case he did not live long enough to receive them. As a matter of fact, in the middle of May of 1453 the Venetian Senate was still deliberatingabout sending a fleet to Constantinople. Even the Genoese colony of Pera, facing the capital, attempted to stay neutral. It did, but neutrality did not help it when the Sultan succeeded the Roman Emperors. To the people of the capital, the only thing that mattered now, at the end of political freedom and at the beginning of the long darkness of foreign occupation, was holding on to the ancestral faith.

When the siege began the population of the capital amounted, including the refugees from the surrounding area, to about 50,000 people. Behind the enormous walls were inhabited areas separated from each other by fields, orchards, gardens, or even by deserted neighborhoods. Most inhabitants lived near the port area, along the Golden Horn, in view of the Genoese colony of Pera. The city's garrison included 5,000 Greeks and about 2,000 foreigners, mostly Genoese and Venetian. Giustiniani's men were well armed and trained; the rest included small units of well trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors, volunteers from the foreign communities and also monks. What the defenders lacked in training and armament they possessed in fighting spirit. Indeed, most were killed fighting. A few small caliber artillery pieces, used by the garrison proved ineffective. Despite disagreements over religious policies, and what was seen as capitulation to the Pope, the civilian population supported the Emperor overwhelmingly. The alternative was disastrous. The people, men and women, participated in the repairs of the walls and in the deepening of the foss, volunteers manned



The inner terrace between the inner and outer walls was called the perivolos and
accommodated the soldiers who defended the outer wall. It was between 50 and 64
feet wide. Beyond lay the outer wall, which was a modest structure compared with
the inner wall. This plate shows a memorable moment during the Ottoman siege An
apparition of Virgin Mary on the wall was believed to have heartened the citizens

observation posts, food provisions were collected, gold and silver objects held in the churches were melted to make coins in order to pay the foreign soldiers, the city's harbor, the Golden Horn, was shut by a huge chain. With the exception of about 700 Italian residents of the city who fled on board seven ships, on the night of February 26, no one else imitated them. The rest of the population –Greek and foreign– fought until the bitter end.

At the beginning of 1453 the Sultan's army began massing on the plain of Adrianople. Troops came from every region of the Empire. Possibly well over 150,000 men, including thousands of irregulars, from many nationalities, who were attracted by the prospect of looting, were ready to assault the city. The regular troops were well equipped and well trained. The elite corps of the Janissaries composed of abducted Christian children, forcibly converted to Islam, and subsequently trained as professional soldiers, constituted the spear-head of the Ottoman army. The besieging army included a number of artillery pieces, of which one, facing the Military Gate of St. Romanos, was particularly huge and was expected to cause heavy damage to the walls in that area. The army, accompanied by crowds of fanatic Dervishes, started moving slowly towards Constantinople. A few small towns, still in Greek hands, near the capital were soon occupied by the Sultan's army. Of those towns Selymvria resisted longer.

During the first week of April the Ottoman troops began taking their assigned positions in front of the city walls. The Sultan had his tent installed north of the civil Gate of St. Romanos, near the river Lycus, facing the 5th Military Gate, also known as Military Gate of St. Romanos. He ordered the big canon to be installed in the same area. To protect the troops, a protective trench was opened in front of the Ottoman units, the earth from it was accumulated on the city side and on top of it was erected a palisade. On the 12th the Ottoman fleet arrived from Gallipoli. Composed of approximately 200 ships of various sizes and displacements, it sealed the Byzantine capital from the sea. Mehmed's admiral was the Bulgarian renegade Suleiman Baltoghlu. On his side the Emperor distributed his troops as best as he could. It was impossible, with the available garrison, to cover the entire walled circumference of the capital, about fourteen miles long. However, it was clear to all that the main attack would be delivered by the enemy along the land-walls, about four miles long. With the exception of the Vlachernae section of the walls, at the north-eastern end of the land side, the city was protected, on the land side, by a triple wall, with a deep foss in front of it. On the sea side, including the Golden Horn port area, the city was protected by a single wall.

Given the availability of troops and the critical sections of the walls, Giustiniani, with most of his men, as well as the Emperor and his best troops, took position in the Military St. Romanos Gate sector, where heavy damage was expected to be inflicted by the canon and the main Ottoman assault to be launched. The Venetian Bailo (the Head of the Venetian Community at Constantinople) Girolamo Minotto and his countrymen were charged with the defense of the region of Vlachernae, where the Imperial Palace was located. Minotto and his men faced the European troops of Karadja Pasha. Across the Golden Horn, to the left of Pera, ready to intervene, stood the troops of Zaganos Pasha. Along the southern section of the land-walls the defenders faced the Anatolian troops under the command of Ishak Pasha. The Grand Duke Lukas Notaras, with a reserve unit took position near the walls, at the Petra neighborhood, in the north-eastern section of the city. Another reserve unit was stationed near the church of the Holy Apostles, near the center of the city. Most units were positioned on and behind the land-walls. The sea-walls were thinly manned. To protect the entrance to the port the Venetian commander of the small fleet of the defenders, Alviso Diedo, ordered ten ships to take position behind the chain.

According to Islamic tradition the Sultan, before the beginning of hostilities, demanded the surrender of the city, promising to spare the lives of its inhabitants and respect their property. In a proud and dignified reply the Emperor rejected Mehmed's demand. Almost immediately the Ottoman guns began firing. The continuous bombardment soon brought down a section of the walls near the Gate of Charisius, north of the Emperor's position. When night fell, everyone, who was available, rushed to repair the damage. Meanwhile Ottoman troops were trying to fill the foss, particularly in areas in front of the weak sections of the walls which were now constantly bombarded. Other units began attempts to mine weak sections of the wall. On the port area a first attempt by the Ottoman fleet to test the defenders' reaction failed.

Until the end of the siege the Ottoman guns did not stop pounding the walls. Heavy damage was inflicted. The defenders did their best to limit it. They hanged bales of wool, sheets of leather. Nothing could help. The section of the walls in the Lycus valley, near the Emperor's position, was heavily damaged. The foss in front of it was almost filled by the besiegers. Behind it, the defenders erected a stockade, night after night men and women came from the city to repair the damaged sections.

The first assault was launched during the night of April 18. Thousands of men attacked the stockade and attempted to burn it down. Giustiniani, his men, and their Greek comrades fought valiantly. Well armed, protected by armor, fighting in a restricted area, they succeeded after four hours of bloody struggle to hold off the enemy.

– to be continued –

Dionysios Hatzopoulos is professor of Classical and Byzantine Studies, and chairman of Hellenic Studies Center at Dawson College, Montreal, and Lecturer at the Department of History at Universite de Montreal, Quebec, Canada.



(Posting date 11 July 2006)

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