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Today in History: A Fateful Islamic Siege Begins

Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro. (Public Domain)

Today in history, April 6, 1453, the Ottoman Turks began their fateful siege of Constantinople.

What prompted it?  After all, the Turks and Byzantines had preexisting peace treaties.  Did the Turks have a “grievance” against New Rome?

No, it was just a good old fashioned jihad, prompted by the same exact logic that had prompted countless jihads before it: convert to Islam, submit as a second-class dhimmi, or die.  And the jihadi to lead it was the supreme head of the Ottoman state, Sultan Mehmet, or Muhammad II (r. 1451-1481)—“the mortal enemy of the Christians,” to quote a contemporary prelate. (Note: “Mehmet” is an English transliteration of the Turkish pronunciation of “Muhammad.”)

On becoming sultan in 1451, Constantinople sent a diplomatic embassy to congratulate him; the 19-year-old responded by telling them what they sought to hear.  He “swore by the god of their false prophet, by the prophet whose name he bore,” a bitter Christian contemporary retrospectively wrote, “that he was their friend, and would remain for the whole of his life a friend and ally of the City and its ruler Constantine [XI].”  Although they believed him, Muhammad was taking advantage of “the basest arts of dissimulation and deceit,” wrote Edward Gibbon.  “Peace was on his lips while war was in his heart.”

What was in his heart soon became apparent.  Throughout the early spring of 1453, Constantinople, which had roughly seven thousand defenders, watched helplessly as one hundred thousand jihadis and one hundred Ottoman warships made their way to and surrounded it by land and sea.

And so Muhammad commenced bombardment today, April 6. Although he tried to go over, through, and under the walls of the city, he made little headway.  So, some six weeks later he assembled and exhorted his men: “As it happens in all battles, some of you will die, as it is decreed by fate for each man,” he began. “Recall the promises of our Prophet concerning fallen warriors in the Koran: the man who dies in combat shall be transported bodily to Paradise and shall dine with Mohammed in the presence of women, handsome boys, and virgins.”

Even so, Sultan Muhammad knew that rewards in the now were always preferable to promises in the hereafter. As Sheikh Akshemsettin had earlier told him, “You well know, that most of the soldiers [particularly the dreaded Janissaries] have in any case been converted [to Islam] by force. The number of those who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the love of Allah is extremely small. On the other hand, if they glimpse the possibility of winning booty they will run towards certain death.”

So the “Sultan swore … that his warriors would be granted the right to sack everything, to take everyone, male or female, and all property or treasure which was in the city; and that under no circumstances would he break his oath,” wrote a Catholic prelate who was present. “He asked nothing for himself, except the buildings and walls of the city; all the rest, the booty and the captives, would be theirs.”

Muhammad’s “announcement was received with great joy,” and from thousands of throats came waves of thundering cries of “Allahu Akbar!” and “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet!”

“Oh! If you had heard their voices raised to heaven,” wondered a Christian behind the wall, “you would have been struck dumb with amazement… We … were amazed at such religious fervor, and begged God with copious tears to be well disposed towards us.” All this “most terrible shouting,” echoed another eyewitness, “was heard as far as the coast of Anatolia twelve miles away, and we Christians were very fearful.”

Atonement, ablutions, prayers, and fasting, “under penalty of death,” were ordered for the Ottoman camp the previous day. Fanatics of all sorts were set loose to inspire the men to jihad. Wandering “dervishes visited the tents, to instill the desire of martyrdom, and the assurance of spending an immortal youth amidst the rivers and gardens of paradise, and in the embraces of the black-eyed virgins [the fabled houris],” writes one modern historian.  Criers swept throughout the camp to horn blasts:

Children of Muhammad, be of good heart, for tomorrow we shall have so many Christians in our hands that we will sell them, two slaves for a ducat, and will have such riches that we will all be of gold, and from the beards of the Greeks we will make leads for our dogs, and their families will be our slaves. So be of good heart and be ready to die cheerfully for the love of our [past and present] Muhammad.

Finally, on May 29, around two a.m., Muhammad unleashed all hell against Constantinople: to blasting sounds of trumpets, cymbals, and Islamic war-cries, cannon fire lit the horizon as ball after ball came careening into the wall. Adding to the pandemonium rang church bells and alarms. After the initial wave of cannon fire, the sultan implemented his strategy: “to engage successively and without halt one body of fresh troops after the other,” he had told his generals, “until harassed and worn out the enemy will be unable further to resist.”

On and on, wave after wave, the hordes came, all desirous of booty or paradise—or merely of evading impalement. With ladders and hooks, they fought, clawed, and clambered onto the wall. “Who could narrate the voices, the cries of the wounded, and the lamentation that arose on both sides?” recollected an eyewitness. “The shouts and din went beyond the boundaries of heaven.”

By four a.m. nonstop cannon fire had made several breaches, which the Ottomans’ elite shock troops, the Janissaries—composed of abducted Christian boys indoctrinated in jihad—charged, even as their former coreligionists held firm. An eyewitness offers a snapshot:

[The defenders] fought bravely with lances, axes, pikes, javelins, and other weapons of offense. It was a hand-to-hand encounter, and they stopped the attackers and prevented them from getting inside the palisade. There was much shouting on both sides—the mingled sounds of blasphemy, insults, threats, attackers, defenders, shooters, those shot at, killers and dying, of those who in anger and wrath did all sorts of terrible things. And it was a sight to see there: a hard fight going on hand-to-hand with great determination and for the greatest rewards, heroes fighting valiantly, the one party [Ottomans] struggling with all their might to force back the defenders, get possession of the wall, enter the city, and fall upon the children and women and the treasures, the other party bravely agonizing to drive them off and guard their possessions, even if they were not to succeed in prevailing and in keeping them.

But it was too late.  The Muslim army prevailed, and a sadistic bloodbath of the citizens of Constantinople—many of whom were tortured, raped, and slaughtered—followed.  And “the saying,” observed another contemporary, “was fulfilled: ‘It started with Constantine [the Great, who founded Constantinople, or “New Rome” in 325] and it ended with Constantine [XI, who died defending his city].’”

Note: The above account was excerpted and adapted from the author’s recent book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes come from contemporary eyewitnesses and primary sources documented therein.