“Civilisation has ever accompanied emigration and conquest - the conflict of opinion, of religion, or of race.” - Alfred Russel Wallace
On this day, in 1453 AD, the Fall of Constantinople (the capital of the Byzantine Empire) occurred, after a siege by the Ottoman Empire, led by 21-year-old Ottoman Turk Sultan Mehmed II. The defending army inside the city was commanded by Byzantine Greek Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. The siege lasted from Friday, 6 April 1453 until Tuesday, 29 May 1453 (according to the Julian calendar), when the city was conquered by the Ottomans.
The capture of Constantinople marked the end of the last remnant of the Roman Empire, an imperial state whose reign and influence had lasted for nearly 1,500 years. It was a massive blow to Christendom, and the Moslem Ottomans thereafter were free to advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear. After the conquest, Mehmed made Constantinople the Ottoman Empire’s new capital. Several Greek and non-Greek intellectuals fled the city before and after the siege, migrating particularly to Italy. It is argued that they helped fuel the Renaissance. Some mark the end of the Middle Ages by the fall of the city and empire.
Constantinople was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world, and was defended by, at most, 10,000 men. The Ottomans had between 100,000 and 150,000 men on their side. During the 50-day siege, the Turks employed various important war tactics in taking over the city. They used huge cannon to destroy the walls and warships were used to counter the city’s sea defences. They also used an extensive infantry to engulf the city.
For seven weeks Mehmed’s massive cannon fired on the walls, but it was unable to sufficiently penetrate them, and due to its extremely slow rate of reloading the Greeks were able to repair most of the damage after each shot. Meanwhile, Mehmed’s fleet could not enter the Golden Horn due to the large chain the Byzantines had laid across the entrance. To circumvent this he built a road of greased logs across Galata on the north side of the Golden Horn, and rolled his ships across. This succeeded in stopping the flow of supplies from Genoan ships and demoralising the Byzantine defenders, but did not help in breaching the land walls.
Mehmed offered to raise the siege for an astronomical tribute that he knew the city would be unable to pay. When this was declined, Mehmed planned to overpower the walls by sheer force, knowing that the Byzantine defenders would be worn out before he ran out of troops. On the morning of May 29 the attack began. The first wave of attackers, the Bashi-bazouks, were poorly trained and equipped, and were meant only to kill as many Byzantine defenders as possible. The second assault focused on a section of the Blachernae walls in the northwest part of the city, which had been partially damaged by the cannon; the attackers managed to break through, but were just as quickly pushed back out by the Byzantines.
The Byzantines also managed to hold off an attack by the more disciplined and highly skilled Ottoman Janissary army, but the Genoan general in charge of the defense, Giovanni Giustiniani, was wounded in the attack, and the Greek troops began to panic. Unfortunately, the Kerkoporta gate in the Blachernae section of the walls had been left unlocked (some say this was the act of some traitor), and the Ottomans soon discovered this. The Ottomans rushed in, and Constantine XI himself led the last defence of the city, dying in the ensuing battle in the streets. The city was looted for three days, in accordance with the traditional punishment allotted on a city that had resisted a siege, but Mehmed restrained his troops out of respect for the ancient but now conquered empire. Mehmed was subsequently nicknamed “The Conqueror”.
Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul. To further glorify the city he built mosques, palaces, monuments and a system of aqueducts. The city was now officially claimed for Islam. New rules and regulations came about for the conquered. The Greeks were to form communities within the empire called milets. The Christians were still allowed to practice their religion, but had to dress in distinguishing attire and could not bear arms. Those who stayed were mostly confined to the Phanari and Galata districts. The Phanariotes, as the Greeks were called, often provided capable advisors to the Ottoman sultans, and were just as often seen as traitors by other Greeks. Even to this day, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople in Phanari, Istanbul, is considered to be the chief seat of the Greek Church.