The ancient city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople, today known as Istanbul in Turkey, was dedicated by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD and functioned as the centre of the East Roman (or Byzantine) Empire for over 1000 years. Let’s learn about what Constantinople was like and how the city fell.
The decline and eventual fall of Constantinople, began with its first fall to the Frankish knights of the 4th Crusade in 1204. These crusading armies desecrated and pillaged the city to such an extent, that even when the city was later liberated under the Paleologi Dynasty in 1261, it never fully recovered from the damage.
The re-established Empire, for the next two centuries, struggled against both Western expansionism and Ottoman incursions. This undermined the Empire’s ability to defend its land and its people. So by the late 1440’s the East Roman (or Byzantine) Empire was so weak that the scene was set for its eventual fall.
The Fall of Constantinople
In terms of its enduring legacy, the fall of Constantinople has long been regarded as a watershed event in world history. Indeed, most historians maintain that this turning point in military history marked an abrupt end to the Middle Ages and heralded the dawn of our modern era. The year 1453 is still regarded as the beginning of modern history. This event also caused the Renaissance to flower in Italy, as the artisans and craftsmen who fled Constantinople after 1453 took their crafts and skills with them to Western Europe and this legacy is still being felt today.
In the final years leading up to the decline and eventual fall of Constantinople, the last Emperor ruling at this time was Constantine XI, who inherited a remnant of an Empire of past glories, surrounded on all sides by Ottoman Turks. In spite of Constantine continuing with his predecessor’s policy of trying to force religious Union with Rome in exchange for military support, the West never sent any help. Constantine was left to rule over a deserted city protected by only five thousand citizens, and a small army of Genoese mercenaries.
Against this backdrop, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II began planning for the siege of the City. Almost a year before the attack, Mehmed slowly went about controlling and restricting all trade routes around Constantinople.
From his new naval forts, he maintained a strict blockade of the City and he built earthworks to surround the city and support the establishment of heavy artillery.
With the help of the Hungarians, he built the largest canon in the world.
How Constantinople fell
With 150,000 troops at his disposal, Mehmed began his siege of Constantinople in April 1453 which would last for 54 days.
The walled city was attacked almost constantly from Ottoman canons on both land and sea, until a part of the walls was finally breached under the constant bombardment.
Constantine XI, the last Roman Emperor, rushed to the breach in the walls, and supported by his Varangian Guard, facing an enemy a thousand-fold their size, fought valiantly to the very end. Emperor Constantine died whilst fighting in battle amidst his fellow townspeople on this fateful day of 29 May.
Following the fall of the city, Mehmed allowed three days and nights of murder, rape and pillage by his Turkish soldiers. No one was spared. Even priests, bishops, nuns, monks and women and children were attacked and killed in the onslaught.
Mehmed then entered the city, and rode into the famous Cathedral of Hagia Sophia on a horse, trampling over the dead bodies of those who had sought sanctuary inside this Great Church. Even he could not believe that such a beautiful city, once known as the Queen of all Cities, was given over to so much pillage and destruction, resulting in its final end.
Each year, in the same way that we remember our brave ANZAC soldiers who fought against the Turkish army in Gallipoli, we also commemorate those who gave their life defending Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks, and whose bravery will be remembered for years to come.
May their memory be eternal.
“The Fall of Constantinople 1453” by Steven Runciman, Cambridge University Press.
Byzantium lived for a thousand years, not by some freak of fortune, but gloriously, governed and administered by great emperors, brilliant statesman and diplomats, and fine generals, under whose guidance the Empire accomplished tremendous things.
That the Byzantine Empire was great both as a political and military power and as a centre of civilisation, there is today little doubt. It endured for a thousand years, a fact which, when viewed in the light of the external pressure to which the Empire was continuously subjected, is by itself sufficient proof of its greatness.
(Charles Diehl, Author and Byzantine scholar)
Then we went to Constantinople and the Greeks led us into the great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there.
(Envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, 988 A.D.)
So far from being a moribund society... [Byzantium] was the greatest, most active and most enduring political organism that the world has yet seen.
(F.M. Powicke, English historian)
For nine centuries the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from Antiquity and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen.
(Sir Steven Runciman, British historian and Author)
One could not believe there was so rich a city in all the world. All those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed with astonishment at the city. They had never imagined that anywhere in the world there could be a city like this. They gazed with wonder at its rich palaces and mighty churches, for it was difficult for them to believe that there were indeed so many of them. As they gazed at the length and breadth of that superb city there was not a man, however brave and daring, who did not feel a shudder down his spine.
(Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Medieval French crusader)
The Dark Ages are only dark if you look at Western Europe, for long centuries a back-water: decaying towns, isolated manors, scattered monasteries, squabbling robber barons. In the East blazed the light of Byzantium, studded with cities such as Thessalonica, Antioch, and Alexandria, more cosmopolitan than any Western society before the modern age.
While Charlemagne could barely scrawl his name, and only clerics had clerical skills, many Byzantine Emperors were scholars. Even laymen knew their Homer as they knew their Psalms. While men in the West for centuries tested guilt by ordeal — picking up a red-hot iron (you were innocent if you didn’t burn your hand) — Justinian set scholars to compiling his famous Corpus Juris Civilis, the foundation of Roman law in continental Europe today.
Such was the Byzantine world-view: a God-centred realm, universal and eternal, with the emperor as God’s vice-regent surrounded by an imperial entourage that reflected the heavenly hierarchy of angels, prophets, and apostles. One God, one world, one emperor. Outside this cosmos was only ignorance and war, a fury of barbarians. The emperor had a divine mandate to propagate the true Faith and bring them under his dominion.
(Merle Severy, Assistant Editor, National Geographic)
Not for nothing was it known as the “God-guarded City,” for within its walls lay the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified, the drops of blood He had shed at Gethsemane and innumerable other relics of great power. They ranged from the stone on which Jacob had laid his head to sleep, the rod of Moses, and the head of John the Baptist, to fragments and relics of almost every apostle and saint in the history of the church.
(Ernle Bradford, English author)
Article prepared by John Kakos, Parish Secretary of The Good Shepherd Mission