This May 29, we commemorate the 563th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople, which marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. Let’s take a brief look at what happened, and why this is important history to know.
Many people don’t know about the Fall of Constantinople. Read on to learn this important history — and its lessons.
More than 1000 years of Byzantine rule
In more than 1000 years of Byzantine rule, the city was attacked several times. It had fallen once to crusaders in 1204, in what was known as the Fourth Crusade. This was the first time in more than 800 years that the city was under Latin rule. It was re-captured in 1261, by the Niceaen Emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos. The weak Byzantine Empire now faced threats by Serbs and Bulgarians. The Ottomans began to chip away at the empire, piece by piece, and by 1453, all that remained of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople and part of the Peloponnese, based around the Fortress of Mistra, as well as the independent Empire of Trebizond on the coast of the Black Sea. It was formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.
Mehmed II set his sights on Constantinople
Mehmed II was just 21 years old when he assumed the Ottoman throne in 1451. The capture of Constantinople was at the top of his agenda. It was basically all that was left of the Eastern Christian Roman Empire. Early on, he used “diplomatic” efforts to politically isolate Constantinople, signing treaties with the Venetians and the Hungarians, which were among the emperor’s most important allies. It seemed he hoped that he could strangle them politically and they’d surrender. Obviously, he wasn’t aware of “Greek Spirit.”
The empire begins to weaken
Ottoman Turks captured Nicea in 1329. The empire was weak, and the Osman, a Turkish Emir, set up a base in Northwestern Asia Minor. This base, called the Ottoman Emirate, staked its claims, pulling from both the Byzantines and the Ottomans. This action left little to Byzantium.
A civil war broke out within the Palaiologos Family in 1341, further weakening the remnants of the empire. To make matters worse, the Black Death emerged in 1347. By 1391, most of the territory had been seized by the Ottomans.
In 1397, the Ottomans staged the first siege of Constantinople. The siege ended as a consequence of the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Ankara, at the hands of the Mongols and the Tartars.
Emperor seeks support for Byzantium
In the early 1400s, Emperor Manuel II Palailogos toured Europe, in an effort to drum up support for their cause. He traveled as far as England. Since Europe was beginning to appreciate the Greek heritage more and more, and they were sympathetic, as fellow Christians, to the plight of the Byzantines. They listened, but unfortunately, didn’t lend any real support. During this time, there was a failed attempt to unite the Western and Eastern churches, which had split in the Great Schism of 1054. This was the second attempt (the first happened in 1274), and it accompanied an extensive propaganda campaign. According to Wikipedia, the Byzantine emperor had attempted to negotiate union with the Roman Pope Eugene IV. At a council in 1439 in Florence, a proclamation was issued, called Bull of Union.
“A massive propaganda initiative was undertaken by anti-unionist forces in Constantinople and the population as well as the leadership of the Byzantine Church was in fact bitterly divided. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians stemming from the events of 1204 and the sack of Constantinople by the Latins, also played a significant role, and finally the union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the Roman Catholic Church.”
The Ottomans tried again in 1442, in the Second Siege of Constantinople. Ottoman Sultan Murad II staged a brief battle, nastier than the first; the Byzantines put up quite a fight. In a brilliantly calculated move, secret Byzantine intrusion in Ottoman affairs ended the siege.
The end of Byzantium
Mehmed II was determined to leave as his legacy the final destruction of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, the last of the Byzantine emperors, and strictly speaking, Roman emperors, was at the helm. He had become emperor in 1449, after a proclamation in Mistra. He didn’t have much time to build a defense. Therefore, with the invasion imminent, Constantine wrote to Pope Nicholas V in the summer of 1452, asking for help. He promised to make the union a reality. Though he wanted to help, the pope did not possess the influence that the Byzantines thought. Some help arrived from an unlikely source: 3000 soldiers from Venice and Genoa, who ironically, had previously caused great damage to the empire over the preceding three centuries. This brought the small Byzantine force to 8000.
The Ottoman army outnumbered the Byzantines – it equaled about 10 times the number of fighters. Their forces were said to include about 80,000 men, plus as many as 15,000 Janissaries (the sultan’s palace guards and bodyguards). Nevertheless, the Byzantines staged a brilliant and amazing defense.
The Ottomans tried all means possible, including digging tunnels to get through the fortified walls into the city. The first tunnel, dug by the Serbs, was intercepted on May 16. Further tunnels were interrupted on May 21, 23 and 25, and were destroyed with Greek fire (a flammable composition consisting of sulfur, naphtha, and quicklime) and spirited combat. On May 23, two captured Ottoman officers led the Byzantines to the locations of the other tunnels, which were subsequently destroyed.
Mehmed offered to end the battle if they would surrender. There would be no surrender. Mehmed was not deterred, and figured that the Byzantine forces were already weakened, and he could easily overpower them within a few days. Scholar Sir Steven Runciman wrote in 1965, in a book about the Fall:
“Around this time, Mehmed had a final council with his senior officers. Here he encountered some resistance; one of his Viziers, the veteran Halil Pasha, who had always disapproved of Mehmed’s plans to conquer the city, now admonished him to abandon the siege in the face of recent adversity. Halil was overruled by Zaganos Pasha, who insisted on an immediate attack, an advice which the Sultan was glad to follow. Suspected of having been bribed by the Byzantines, Halil Pasha was put to death later that year.”
It was determined that it was time to end the battle and take the city once and for all in an all-out assault. On the morning of May 29, the Ottomans, still outside the walls of Constantinople, launched wave after wave of attacks. Soldiers forced their way in through a small gate. The Byzantines fought bravely to the death. The ensuing melee brought about the final defeat: the emperor and most of the soldiers lay dead. History remembers Mehmed the II as ruthless. When touring the fallen city, he recited the words of a Persian poet:
“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab ….”
After the fall
Following the Fall of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. Spice prices soared in Europe. According to Wikipedia, as a result of the fall, there was a “scholarly exodus of Byzantine Greeks, which caused an influx of Classical Greek Studies into the European Renaissance.” This also emboldened the Ottomans to proceed to further conquests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Historians consider the Fall of Constantinople as the event that ended the Middle Ages and sparked the Renaissance. The fall was a massive blow to Christianity. The pope wanted revenge, but no one in Europe would consider taking part in a war. The pope died soon after, and with him, died the greatest prospect at attempting to re-take the city.
History Channel Documentary on the Fall of Constantinople
Greeks flee Constantinople
Many Greeks fled Constantinople, but those who stayed behind remained in the Phanar and Galata areas. The Phanariotes later became competent advisers to the Ottoman Sultans, and were viewed as traitors by many Greeks. Perhaps they didn’t have a choice if they wished to remain in the city. Perhaps they had their own agenda.
Constantinople becomes Istanbul
Wikipedia also states that the city was not named renamed Istanbul immediately after the conquest. Actually, they used the Arabic translation, “Konstantiniyye,” which is evident in Ottoman historical documents. The city’s new name was derived from the Greek phrase “i stin poli” (in the city), which was already in widespread use prior to the siege. It wasn’t until 1930, when the Turkish state was established, that the city officially took the name of Istanbul.
Never forget the Fall of Constantinople
Today, only a small Greek minority live in the city. The seat of the Patriarchate remains in the city, though it faces adversity and challenges on a regular basis. There are lessons here that still have not been learned, and are important for all Christians to know.
Remembrances will take place throughout the world. The Fall of Constantinople will be commemorated in Chicago on June 2, at 7:00 pm at The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Demetrios, in Elmhurst, IL. The presentation, “Beyond Two Worlds: Imagining Religious Freedoms and Diversity Beyond the Halki Seminary”, will include a screening of the short film, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence and Democracies, former member of the Turkish Parliament, and stalwart advocate for religious freedom in Turkey, will speak.
We must never forget the brave and valiant men who fought to not only save the city, but ultimately, to defend Christianity.
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