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The Fall of Constantinople

This Day in Church History – May 29, 1453

In the late thirteenth century, a Turkish ruler known as Osman began the military expansion of the Ottoman Empire. A century later, Ottoman forces were making excursions into imperial Byzantine territory. Ottoman expansion was doggedly focused on one overriding objective: the capture of the “Queen of Cities,” (Constantinople), and the subjection of Christian Europe.

The emperor Constantine, who legalized the Christian Faith in the early fourth century, created the Queen of Cities by moving the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium. Originally known as “New Rome,” the city was later renamed “Constantinople” for its imperial founder. Constantine spared no expense in building his new capital. St. Jerome, in the next century, quipped that “in clothing Constantinople, the rest of the world was left naked.”

The civic importance and strategic location of the new city assisted in its growth, so that by the end of the fifth century it boasted a population of half a million. Constantinople was a formidable city: it encompassed a perimeter of twelve miles, eight of which were ringed by the sea, and boasted a massive defensive wall, built a thousand years earlier. Many armies, including numerous Islamic hordes, had tried to take the impregnable city and failed. As a result, the city was known among the Turks as “a bone in the throat of Allah,” and among Christians as “the bulwark against Islam.” The city had been conquered only once before by the misguided warriors of the Fourth Crusade, who were invited to the city by a renegade Byzantine prince desirous of the imperial purple. Nearly 250 years later, another army was poised to breach the ancient yet sturdy walls, and lay waste to the Empire.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, Mehmet II, a successor of Osman as sultan, was able to fulfill the great Ottoman dream. Known as the “Drinker of Blood,” Mehmet had dreamed of conquering Constantinople from boyhood and as sultan, he initiated plans designed to end the Byzantine Empire once and for all.

Mehmet learned from the past failed sieges of Constantinople and realized a successful plan required naval and land superiority. In particular, Mehmet knew he had to gain possession of the Golden Horn, a horn-shaped estuary near the city. The sultan ordered a major shipbuilding campaign in order to defeat the Byzantine navy, which was in a state of serious neglect and decline.

Mehmet’s naval plan centered on his fleet blockading the city and preventing any Christian relief and reinforcements from the sea. He realized that control of the Golden Horn would require the Byzantines to guard both the land and sea walls, thereby stretching the city’s defenders and military resources. Previous land sieges failed because the besieging armies could not find a way past the massive defensive walls of Constantinople. So, Mehmet devised a plan to knock the walls down with the use of cannon, but he knew available cannons could not destroy the walls.

Fortuitously, a Hungarian engineer named Urban, who had been rebuffed by the Byzantines, arrived at the sultan’s court offering his services. Urban convinced the sultan that he could cast a cannon large enough to shatter the walls of Constantinople. Once hired, the Hungarian worked for three months to produce the largest bronze cast cannon in the world. It measured twenty-seven feet long with an eight-inch barrel and was thirty inches across the muzzle. The cannon fired a solid shot eight feet in circumference, weighing fifteen hundred pounds, a full mile. The cannon was so large it required sixty oxen and two hundred men to move. Firing the gun was a complex and labor-intensive effort, which limited its effective rate of fire to only seven times a day. With his super gun in tow, the “Drinker of Blood” mobilized his troops and ships and began his march to the walls of the Queen of Cities and on destiny.

The massive Turkish army of 200,000 men arrived outside the walls of Constantinople on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1453. The Byzantine defenders were heavily outnumbered. After arrival at the city and establishing camp, Mehmet offered terms for the surrender of Constantinople, but Constantine XI rejected them. Mehmet ordered his artillery to begin the bombardment of the walls on April 12 and the sixty-nine artillery pieces including Urban’s super cannon battered the walls continuously for six days. Urban’s super cannon unleashed fury on the Constantinopolitan walls but it developed cracks early in the siege and exploded. After the continuous bombardment, Mehmet ordered the commencement of mining operations, in order to weaken a section of the walls, cause a collapse, and result in a breach.

The outnumbered Byzantines fought bravely, but after a month, the situation in the city was desperate. An imperial council of war pleaded for Constantine XI to flee but the stalwart emperor refused. The Ottomans continued their mining operations and assaults, even constructing a siege tower, which the Byzantines destroyed with explosives. The siege continued for another month and, despite the valiant defensive efforts, the city was at the breaking point. On May 29, the sultan ordered the final general assault in the early morning hours. The initial wave was defeated but the Ottoman troops steadily assaulted the walls in wave after wave. A shot from an Ottoman cannon succeeded in breaching the inner enclosure and into the gap poured hundreds of Turkish troops, but they were rebuffed by the Byzantine defenders.

Although his city and his troops were exhausted, Constantine XI believed the tide had turned and victory was near. However, in war, the smallest of actions and the bravery of a few can determine the course of victory. Some Ottoman troops found a postern gate near the Blachernae Palace unguarded, they opened the gate and poured into the defenses where they invested the wall, tore down a Christian banner, and replaced it with the Ottoman standard. Within fifteen minutes, thirty thousand Muslim warriors were in the city. Horrified at the sudden change in the situation, Constantine rushed to the wall to defend his beloved city and empire but perished among the throng.

The twenty-one-year-old sultan had defeated the forty-nine-year-old emperor and became known as Mehmet the Conqueror. Muslim troops ran through the undefended city slaughtering its inhabitants. A large group of citizens sought refuge in Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church built by Justinian the Great and the largest church in Christendom. Mehmet entered the city triumphantly and rode for the church, which he entered and declared a mosque. The sack of Constantinople continued for three days and witnessed the killing of thousands and the enslavement of tens of thousands.

The Queen of Cities, now in the hands of Islam, became known as Istanbul. Despite the pleadings of a series of popes, including Pius II, who personally took the Crusade vow but died before the expedition began, Western rulers were not interested in undertaking crusades to liberate the city.

The fight against Islam was not over. Future battles between Islam and the West were fought on European soil over the next several centuries.

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