By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Constantinople had stood strong for over 1,200 years, and fended off several attacks on it. So, how did the Ottoman Turks manage to breach the walls of Constantinople? Was Constantinople alone in this battle or did it receive help from the West?
The Ottoman Turks were determined to capture Constantinople. Their nickname for it was the ‘Golden Apple’, the ultimate prize. Like New York, the ‘Big Apple’ of our times, Constantinople, the Golden Apple, was seen at the time as the ultimate metropolis, the ultimate object of desire. Given all this, it was clear that eventually, the city must fall, and the real wonder is how long it had held out, given its deeply weakened state.
Learn more about the fall of Constantinople.
The Siege of Constantinople Begins
Constantinople had weathered the attack of the Christian Crusader army in 1204, but couldn’t fend off the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Turks swiftly conquered the lands in the Near East, until eventually Constantinople was reduced essentially just to its city limits, a capital without its empire.
The young Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, and his armies began their siege on Easter Monday, April 2, 1453. Inside the city walls, Emperor Constantine XI was determined to hold out, even if the situation was hopeless.
The siege, once it began, lasted for eight weeks. The city’s defenders strung a huge metal chain, floated on barrels, across the entrance of the harbor, the Golden Horn. The defenders hunkered down behind the huge thousand-year-old walls of their capital and waited. Seven thousand defenders were matched against some 80,000 invaders.
Outside the city was mustered the huge Ottoman army, which in fact, even included some Christian forces who were fighting with the Ottomans as allies.
The elite of the Ottomans were the Janissaries. The Janissaries were what we today would call shock troops, who as boys had been taken from their Christian parents in the Balkans, under Ottoman rule, had been converted to Islam and then conscripted into the Ottoman army, where they were a kind of supersoldier.
Learn more about Istanbul-Capital of the Byzantine Emperors.
Orban, the Hungarian Artillery Expert
One other figure played a decisive role in the fall of Constantinople, and that was a Hungarian artillery expert by the name of Orban, who gave the Ottomans a dreaded new weapon, a monster cannon using gunpowder.
Gunpowder, with its explosive potential, was actually a Chinese invention, from around the 9th century. Knowledge of gunpowder had reached Europe around the 12th century. Once this technology was perfected by people like Orban, it would devastate the certainties and the traditions and the way of life of the medieval age.
Think of the Middle Ages, and one of the first things that probably would leap to mind for us are castles, those immense, strongly fortified structures that were the power bases of their day. Artillery would change all of that, as the shattering of the walls of Constantinople demonstrated.
The young artillery expert Orban at first offered his services to Constantinople. His native Hungary was a Christian country, so there was this religious affinity, and for a while, Orban worked for Constantinople. But then the money to pay him ran out, so Orban went over to the Turks because they offered him a better salary. It was nothing personal, just better financial incentives.
Now, Orban, the professional artillery master constructed a monster cannon, the largest yet seen, that would be used to pound the ancient walls of Constantinople. The cannon was 27 feet long, and it was able to shoot a 1,500-pound stone ball at the defenses of the beleaguered city.
When this huge artillery piece was actually cast and constructed in faraway Adrianople, it had to be hauled more than a hundred miles to the besieged city. Hundreds of Turkish soldiers and teams of oxen dragged it there, moving two and a half miles every day.
When it finally had been dragged and put into position, the sight must have been awe-inspiring, and clearly very bad news for the defenders of Constantinople. With deafening thunder, the cannon fired. In fact, the cannon could only be fired seven times each day, because it needed to be cooled off in between or risk exploding.
In addition to this monster, guns were many other smaller cannons that continued the bombardment that had begun. This was the sound of a military revolution, making stone walls and towers and battlements largely obsolete.
Learn more about the fall of the Roman Empire.
Despite differences, the West helps Constantinople
Constantinople didn’t really have any hope for help from the West because doctrinal questions and theological disputes had separated the Western Latin Christians from the Eastern Orthodox Christians in the so-called Great Schism of 1054.
So, the defenders were delighted when some reinforcements from the West actually did arrive in spite of the theological differences. These reinforcements came from the Italian commercial city-state of Genoa, and among their number was an expert in fortifications.
That Genoese fortifications expert, remarkably, helped the Byzantines to rebuild or reinforce crumbling parts of the city wall by night after they had been pounded by cannon during the day. During the night, the damage of the day would be made good. Further Genoese ships actually managed to break through the Ottoman blockade and reach the harbor, bringing reinforcements and supplies.
Ottomans Circumvent the Golden Horn Barrier
In an amazing military feat, the Ottomans actually lifted some of their own ships out of the water and rolled them over land and surrounding mountains for around two or three miles. They used logs as rollers, and by brute force transported them over the terrain.
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Next, they set the ships down on the water on the far side of the chain that had been drawn across the entrance of the harbor at Golden Horn. The Ottomans had circumvented that famous defense.
To demoralize the defenders and to stir fear inside the city, the Turks also impaled prisoners within sight of the walls. The Byzantines responded by throwing Turkish prisoners to their deaths from the ramparts.
The Walls of Constantinople Are Breached
After long weeks of siege, after the relentless pounding of the cannon that had been set up and directed by the Hungarian professional Orban, the walls at last broke. The Ottomans’ elite forces, the Janissaries, raced in to exploit the breach, and the defenders started to fall back from the walls. The city was about to be taken.
Through it all, Emperor Constantine refused to surrender and rallied both local inhabitants of the city and Latin Christians from Venice and Genoa, who were merchants who had worked in the city, all fighting together in defense of the beleaguered metropolis.
When the walls were breached, Emperor Constantine did something dramatic. He shouted out to all who could hear, ‘The City is lost, but I live’. With that, he tore off the emblems of his imperial rank, which marked him as the emperor, and like an ordinary soldier rushed into the thickest part of the fighting, and he was never seen alive again.
The Fall of Constantinople
The city of Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453. Mehmet’s forces sacked the city and sold the surviving inhabitants into slavery. The Sultan Mehmet entered Hagia Sophia, what had been a church, and now turned it into a mosque. Geometric designs were painted over the famous mosaics of Hagia Sophia, and verses of the Koran were placed where earlier holy icons had been hung.
Henceforth, the victor of this siege would acquire a new nickname. He would be known as ‘Mehmet the Conqueror’. He would also be called the ‘Sultan of Rum’, that is to say, the Sultan of Rome, of the lands of the expired Roman Empire.
Reactions to the Fall of Constantinople
In the rest of Europe, the news of the fall of the city took some time to spread given what communications were like, how slow they were in those days. In fact, given the confusing situation of war, news of the capture of Constantinople only reached Rome and Italy more than a month after it had happened.
When the news did spread in the West, it was met with shock, disbelief, and a growing sense of horror. Some contemporaries simply refused to believe it, as if the news must be wrong. Others accepted it but were certain that this must be reversed; it must be changed. In fact, fascinating rumors circulated that sort of reinforced the strength of this conviction.
Such rumors are worth considering because they tell us deep truths about what people at the time were feeling, fearing, or wishing. Let me offer two examples.
As mentioned before, Emperor Constantine had rushed into battle without insignia, his body was never identified after the fighting. As a result, legends circulated that Emperor Constantine did not die, but had miraculously been saved, and had fallen into a mystical sleep. The rumors continued; even now, Emperor Constantine is sleeping in a secret underground chamber under the city gates of Constantinople, waiting for the chance to reclaim his empire.
Another legend referred to the church of Hagia Sophia. This story concerned priests who were in the middle of holding Christian services as the siege reached its climax. These priests, according to the legend, were not done with their service as the Turkish warriors broke into the church, and the priests didn’t flee. Instead, they were somehow absorbed into the walls of the church. Someday, the story ends, those priests will step out of the walls, to complete their rituals after a hiatus of hundreds of years.
Common Question about the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople
Constantinople was was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Ottoman army was being commanded by Sultan Mehmet II, who is also known as ‘Mehmet the Conqueror’, and the ‘Sultan of Rum’ or the Sultan of Rome.
The key to the Ottoman Turks conquering Constantinople was the cannon constructed by Orban, a Hungarian artillery expert, that pounded the walls of Constantinople and eventually broke them down, allowing the Ottoman army to breach the city.
The Ottoman siege of Constantinople began on April 2, 1453, and lasted till May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman army sacked the city.
In 1453, the over 1,200 years old imperial city of Constantinople was weak and vulnerable. Its walls were no longer as strong and impenetrable as it once used to be, and the army at the disposal of Emperor Constantine wasn’t too big either. In addition, the Ottoman Turks were very strong and very determined to capture Constantinople. The canon built by Orban proved to be the final proverbial nail in the coffin.