Written by Jon-Jo Armstrong.
The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 shocked the late medieval world. It was an event of seismic proportions which would redefine relations between the Christian West and the Muslim East. For Western Europe, the threat posed by the Arabs was no longer distant, on the far side of the Mediterranean. The old Byzantine empire had finally been vanquished. Its crown jewel, Constantinople, surrendered to its enemies. The siege and its success were a crucial development in the Ottoman enterprise, its lands now encompassing most of Asia Minor, the Balkans, and large swathes of Greece. With Mehmed’s victory, the Ottomans emerged as a foremost European power. To understand the importance of Mehmed’s achievement, however, we must situate the Ottomans in a broader context, their history, and Turkish history.
Mehmed II conquering Constantinople by Fausto Zonaro.
All image credit goes to: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Conquest_of_Constantinople,_Zonaro.jpg
The Building towards the Siege
The establishment of the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to the arrival of Turkic Nomads in Anatolia during the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 11th century. The Seljuk Turks conducted intermittent raids in the area, encroaching on Byzantine territories. This activity provoked a response from the Byzantines, who had moved to end the threat once and for all. In 1071, that response (a large Byzantine force under the command of Emperor Romanus), was unequivocally beaten at the Battle of Manzikert by the united Seljuks nomads. The battle was significant as it permanently ended Byzantine control of Asia Minor and allowed the Turks to penetrate the territory unchecked. This battle cemented the Seljuks as a new power in the region for the next two centuries, however, the Ottomans would eventually emerge out of the disintegration of the Seljuk Empire.
The Ottomans derived their namesake from the House of Osman and their first emperor, Osman I. They defeated and subsumed their rival power bases, continuously expanding and then engaging their nearest political rival, the Byzantines. Through the first half of the 14th century, the Ottomans rapidly gained the upper hand which culminated when Murad I surrounded Constantinople in 1372 and received the Byzantine Emperors as his vassals. At the turn of the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to a rump state on the edge of Eastern Europe, a buffer between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Reduced to Constantinople and the immediate lands surrounding it, the Sultans increasingly saw the city as ripe for the taking with Byzantium cash strapped and having few allies abroad.
In 1451 Mehmed became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (for the second time, having ruled briefly from 1444 – 1446), becoming Mehmed II. His ascension would prove to be fatal to the fledgling Byzantines as Mehmed himself had admitted that he had been possessed from childhood with the conquest of Constantinople, modelling himself on Alexander the Great, the great unifier of the East and the West. Mehmed knew it would be difficult to take Constantinople with its famed ‘Theodosian Walls’, a tri-partite walled fortification that protected the city’s western land perimeter. To punch through this successfully, the Ottomans would have to use the latest military technology: gunpowder.
By the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire had become a ‘gunpowder’ empire. They had become assiduous users of gunpowder, having used canons and firearms to great effect against a crusader fleet in 1444 and having salaried firearm troops from 1380 onwards. Mehmed understood the devastating effects of such weaponry. As part of his preparation, he enlisted the help of a Hungarian canon maker (a Christian who was originally approached by Emperor Constantine XI), to construct him 70 canons, one of which weighed around 19 tonnes and could only fire three 800-pound rounds per day. These cannons would be pivotal in Mehmed’s battle plan, especially in breaking down the city’s extensive defences. By 1453, his preparations were complete, and his forces moved towards Constantinople.
In early April 1453, Mehmed had set up his forces on either side of the Golden Horn, an estuary on the eastern flank of Constantinople. With him, he had amassed some 60,000 fighting men with 160,000 extras arrayed against the 8,000 defenders packed within the city’s walls. Both sides also had access to naval forces, containing an assortment of war galleys, smaller galleys, and transports, although Mehmed’s naval forces dwarfed those of the Byzantines. The West had provided limited support to the desperate Byzantines. Amongst those that answered the emperor’s call were a Genoese Captain, Giovanni Longo with two ships and 700 men, Cardinal Isidore with his body of archers, and an assortment of vessels from Castile, Provonce, and Ancona. For several weeks, the Ottomans engaged the Byzantines both on land and at sea. Utilising their canons and positioning, the Ottomans had attempted to smash through the Theodosian Walls for long periods of the siege, whilst their naval forces attempted to restrict supplies and reinforcements reaching the besieged defenders. The defenders, for the most part, had repaired the walls and repulsed Ottoman efforts, including their attempts to mine underneath the city. The situation, however, had started to look bleak for the Ottomans.
The Siege of Constantinople as depicted by Jean Le Tavernier.
All image credit goes to: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_si%C3%A8ge_de_Constantinople_(1453)_by_Jean_Le_Tavernier_after_1455.jpg
By late May, and after almost 53 days of continuous siege, the outer walls were in terrible shape. Yet the Byzantine defenders had stayed resolute, repeatedly throwing back the Ottomans. Mehmed had begun to contemplate ending the siege and cutting his losses at the behest of some of his advisors. After an extensive debate with his divan (high council), they agreed that an all-out general assault should be launched against the city during the morning hours of the 29th of May, targeting weakened sections of the wall, such as the Romanus gate. For most of the assault, the defenders had bested Ottoman auxiliaries, and Christian troops until the Janissaries (the Sultan’s elite infantry ) forced their way inside the city putting any remaining defenders to the sword. The slaughter was eventually stopped when it was realised that there had been no organised army kept in reserve inside the city walls as originally thought. The Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was lost in the final assault as it reported that he tore off his purple regalia, joined with his men, and threw himself at the oncoming Ottomans. Within hours of the assault’s success, and after two months of fighting, Mehmed triumphantly rode into Constantinople and headed straight for the Hagia Sophia to proclaim his victory.
Aftermath and Reaction to the Siege:
Mehmed rode into Hagia Sophia and had an imam declare the Muslim faith from a pulpit, whilst a temporary Minaret was erected to demonstrate the site’s new transformation, a symbol of his divine achievement. In the immediate aftermath of the conquest, the city was plundered for several days followed by the introduction of several thousand settlers to begin the Islamification of the city. Within several years, other more distinctly (triumphalist) Ottoman landmarks would be erected, including the Fatih Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. By the end of the 15th century, the city had been renamed (now Istanbul) and its visual transformation into the seat of Ottoman power had been complete.
Contemporary reaction to the city’s capture was decidedly mixed. Within Christendom, observers were torn. The Greek Orthodox Church had been embroiled in a bitter dispute against the Latin Church for several centuries, dating back to the Great Schism of 1054., Constantinople had been sacked in 1204 by Western Crusaders in direct response to atrocities committed against Catholics by Andronikos I Komnenos in 1184. Relations between the two (although united under the umbrella of Christendom) were bitter. For many Byzantines, the conquest by the Turks was divinely ordained, a punishment for their dealings with the Latin Church. Others believed they would rather live under the boot of an Ottoman Turk than a Latin Pope. In the East, the news was celebrated warmly, as Muslims saw this as a victory against Hellenism and Christianity.
In both the East and the West, however, the conquest had a distinctly apocalyptic flavour to it. Kaya Sahin emphasises that the end of the Empire was suffused with apocalyptic expectation, that once Constantinople fell God’s plan would be revealed to the world. This fervour had been accelerated, especially as the Empire disintegrated throughout the preceding centuries. Nevertheless, reactions by contemporary observers to the successful capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans stoked fear and adulation on both sides of the Bosporus Strait, with contemporaries acutely aware of how the dynamic of their political reality had changed.
Until the early 20th century, the conquest of Constantinople had been readily celebrated in what is now modern-day Turkey, as Istanbul had been the centre of Ottoman power until the Sultanate’s abolition in 1922. Only with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Kemel Ataturk’s rise to power did Istanbul’s role in the national consciousness change. Ataturk made a concerted effort to break with the Ottoman past. He moved the nation’s capital to Ankara, closed the various mausoleums of the Sultans, and then closed the Hagia Sophia mosque, converting the building into a museum. The old landmarks that had defined the preceding regime were abandoned. Turkey eventually broke with Kemalist ideology in 1953 to celebrate the quincentenary of the conquest. Ten full days of celebration were carried out from May 29th, with fireworks displays and remembrances conducted for the martyrs that took the city 500 years previously. The quincentenary celebration demonstrated a re-acceptance of the conquest of Constantinople into the Turkish national psyche and the rehabilitation of its history. With the celebration of the quincentenary, we are reminded of the importance of the siege and those involved. More importantly, we are reminded of the impact the Ottomans and their leaders have had on European history.
Jon-Jo Armstrong is a History Graduate from Sheffield and owner of Hearing History, a history blog bringing the past to life. If you want to read more, check out www.hearing-history.co.uk. Between reading and writing history he enjoys spending time in the gym, on video games, and with his friends.
 Richard Fletcher, The Cross and the Crescent (London, 2004), p.53  Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (London, 2008), pp.311-312.  R. Fletcher, Cross and the Crescent (2004), p.87  William MacDonald, ‘Constantinople 1453’, Archaeology Vol 6 (1953), p.131  Gabor Agoston, ‘Firearms and Military Adaptation: The Ottomans and the European Military Revolution, 1450-1800.’ The Journal of World History Vol 25 (2014), pp. 90-93.  Katherine Fleming, ‘Constantinople: From Christianity to Islam’, The Classical World Vol 97 (2003), p.69  J.Herrin, Byzantium (2008), p.319  Ibid., p.318  Marios Philipppides and Walter K Hanak, The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 - Historiography, Topography and Military Studies (London, 2011), p.517  Ibid., pp.521-539 – The full timeline of events shows how Giustiniani, a Genoese Warlord, had commanded this sector of the wall and, that when he was mortally wounded the defence fell apart.  Ibid., p.518  Wlliam Emerson and Robert L. van Nice, ‘Hagia Sophia and the First Minaret Erected after the Conquest of Constantinople’, The Journal of Archaeology Vol 54 (1950), p.28  Gavin D Brockett, ‘When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and its Contribution to World History’, The American Historical Review Vol 119 (2014), p.403  K. E. Fleming, ‘Constantinople: From Christianity to Islam’, The Classical World Vol 97 (2003), p.75  Ibid., p.69  Kaya Sahin, ‘Constantinople and the End Time: The Ottoman Conquest as a Portent of the Last Hour’, The Journal of Early Modern History Vol 14 (2010), p.322  G.D Brockett, ‘When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and its Contribution to World History’, The American Historical Review Vol 119 (2014), pp.409 -410  Ibid., pp.414-421, crowds were estimated to have been between 100,000 – 500, 000.