The Siege of Byzantium

The Crescent and the Cross, The Fall of Byzantium: May, 1453

by David Dereksen
Putnam’s, 315 pp., $5.95

In 1453 Constantinople was the capital of a Byzantine emperor who had no empire. Outside the city his authority was accepted in parts of the Peloponese, and nowhere else. Eastwards in Asia Minor, westwards in Thrace and beyond, the lands ruled by his predecessors were firmly held by the Ottoman Turks, who during the fourteenth century had extended those conquests which were to make them, for five hundred years, the major power in south-eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Constantinople was isolated from the rest of Christendom, except by sea. Its population had shrunk to a fraction of its earlier level and some of its finest buildings were in ruins. The fall of the city to the Sultan Mehmet in 1453 was an event which had long been expected and which changed nothing. It was certainly not the starting point of the Renaissance, or of voyages of discovery, or of modern times, or of any of the other phenomena which have been attributed to it.

Yet it is a famous event in world history. It marked the final demise of one empire, the Roman, and a decisive stage in the building of another, the Ottoman, of which Constantinople, as Istanbul, became the capital. It was one of the world’s great cities. It stood on that peerless site on the narrows which divide Europe from Asia, a point of entry into the Mediterranean for trade routes from Russia and the East, Among its churches was Santa Sophia, the greatest in Christendom; its land walls were the most scientifically organized system of defense of any city, ancient or medieval. Since its foundation in the fourth century by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, it had been the capital of the eastern part of the Roman empire, and then of the attenuated remains of that empire, which although it suffered heavy and permanent losses of territory by the inroads of Arabs and Turks in the east, and of Avars and Bulgars in the west, maintained itself down to the end of the twelfth century as the wealthiest, the most civilized, and the best organized and governed of Christian states.

In 1453 Constantinople was already separated from its greatest days by its conquest in 1204 at the hands of western crusaders, by the unhappy episode of the Latin Empire, by the civil wars within the imperial dynasty of the Palaeologi and the irresistible advance of the Ottoman Turks; but it did not succumb without a struggle which measured up to the most heroic episodes of its past. The young Sultan Mehmet formed the siege in the first week of April 1453. After a long bombardment and many attacks by land and sea, and the astonishing feat by the Turks of transporting part of their fleet overland from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, the city was taken by storm on 29th May. The garrison, partly Greek and partly Italian, was overcome by superior numbers and superior technological skill. The last Byzantine emperor, another Constantine …

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