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 Otto