Today in history, on May 29, 1453, the sword of Islam conquered Constantinople. Of all Islam’s conquests of Christian territory, this was by far the most symbolically significant. For not only was Constantinople a living and direct extension of the old Roman Empire and current capital of the Christian Roman Empire (or Byzantium), but its cyclopean walls had prevented Islam from entering Europe through its eastern doorway for the previous seven centuries, beginning with the First Arab Siege of Constantinople (674-678). Indeed, as Byzantine historian John Julius Norwich puts it, “Had the Saracens captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.”
When Muslim forces failed again in the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718), conquering the ancient Christian capital became something of an obsession for a succession of caliphates and sultanates. However, it was only with the rise of the Ottoman sultanate—so named after its eponymous Turkic founder, Osman (b.1258)—that conquering the city, which was arguably better fortified than any other in the world, became a possibility, not least in thanks to the concomitant spread of gunpowder and cannons from China to Eurasia. By 1400, his descendants had managed to invade and conquer a significant portion of the southern Balkans—thereby isolating and essentially turning Constantinople into a Christian island in an Islamic sea.
Enter Sultan Mehmet, or Muhammad II (r. 1451-1481)—“the mortal enemy of the Christians,” to quote a contemporary prelate. (Note: “Mehmet” is simply 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 spring of 1453 the city watched helplessly as Ottoman battalion after battalion made its way to and surrounded Constantinople by land and sea. One contemporary remarked that Muhammad’s “army seemed as numberless as grains of sand, spread . . . across the land from shore to shore.” In the end, some one hundred thousand fighters and one hundred warships came.
Few Western Europeans came to Constantinople’s aid. In the end, less than seven thousand fighters, two thousand of whom were foreigners, made ready to protect fifteen miles of walls, while only twenty-six Christian ships patrolled the harbor.
Muhammad commenced bombardment on April 6. Although he tried to go over, through, and under the walls, he made little headway. Some six weeks after he had started bombarding Constantinople, he was no nearer his goal. At his wit’s end, the sultan held council with his senior officers. Although there was some discussion of withdrawing, in the end, Muhammad decided on vomiting forth every last man he had against the walls in one last-ditch effort.
But first he would need to inflame his men.
So he assembled and exhorted them: “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.”
Any Muslim still uninspired by the boons of the here or hereafter was left with a final thought: “[I]f I see any man lurking in the tents and not fighting at the wall,” warned the sultan, “he will not be able to escape a lingering death,” a reference to Muhammad’s favorite form of punishment, impalement (which Vlad the Impaler—“Dracula”—was introduced to while a “ward” in the sultan’s court). 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.”
The all-out assault was set for May 29. 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.”
After two hours of this, thousands of the Ottomans’ most expendable raiders lay dead beneath the wall. Having served their purpose of wearying the defenders down, Muhammad—now mounted near the wall and directing traffic with a mace in his hand—ordered another wave of fresh Anatolian Turks to crash against the wall. They built and clawed atop human pyramids of their own dead and wounded, all while cannon balls careened and crashed— to no avail. Having the high ground, the Christians slew countless. “One could only marvel at the brutes,” conceded a defender. “Their army was being annihilated, and yet they dared to approach the fosse again and again.”
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.
A small detachment of Turks entered the city through a minor doorway which the defenders had left open during the chaos. They quickly planted the Islamic flag, causing consternation among the defenders.
Playing on their worst fears, the sultan cried aloud, “The city is ours!” and ordered his best Janissaries to charge. One Hassan—“a giant of a beast”—slew all before him and inspired other Turks to press in behind him. When a well-aimed stone took him down, he continued swinging his scimitar on one knee until riddled and “overwhelmed by arrows” he was welcomed into paradise by the houris. “By then, the whole host of the enemy were on our walls and our forces were put to flight.” Thousands of invaders flooded in and slaughtered the outnumbered defenders; others were trampled underfoot and “crushed to death” by the press of men.
Crying, “The City is lost, but I live,” Emperor Constantine XI stripped and flung off his royal regalia and “spurred on his horse and reached the spot where the Turks were coming in large numbers.” With his steed he “knocked the impious from the walls” and with “his drawn sword in his right hand, he killed many opponents, while blood was streaming from his legs and arms.” Inspired by their lord, men shouting “Better to die!” rushed into and were consumed by the oncoming throng. “The Emperor was caught up among these, fell and rose again, then fell once more.”
Thus “he died by the gate with many of his men, like any commoner, after having reigned for three years and three months,” wrote a chronicler. And on that May 29, 1453, the 2,206-year-old Roman state died with him, 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].’”
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.