” hills, thou shall not continue a thousand years.”
What made the majority of people in Constantinople believe in prophecies saying that the city would not last forever and that they are doomed? In the years before the Turkish conquest it was known that the reign of anti-Christ could not long be delayed. What made the proud people and ancestors of the Roman Empire lose all hope and will to react? After withstanding 22 previous sieges, the first in 340 BC and the last in 1437 AD, the Ottoman army entered into the capital which Constantine had found as the heart of the Christian Empire. After three days of plundering that caused the city a misfortune comparable only to the fall of Carthage, the Sultan entered the church Hagia Sophia and prayed to Allah saying after proclaiming the conversion of the church into a Mosque: “Here after my capital is Istanbul”.
Constantinople–the city that inspired many great men to admire, praise, and desire it. Since its creation it was a strategic commercial, military, and religious center. Its riches and charms were not only a source of admiration but its attractiveness had necessitated a rigorous fortification and protection from attacks and raids. In spite of being for more than 1000 years the unconquerable and surely the wealthiest city, it stood on the crossroads of the East and the West which proved to be an incessant source of troubles, always being entangled in the interests of foreign peoples. It was the conveyor of eastern and roman culture, the most significant commercial and religious center and it can undoubtedly regarded as the heart of a civilization incredibly contributed to the mankind. A bastion of orthodox Christianity, it was conquered by the Crusaders–the “defenders” of Christianity,
and this colossal blow on it was one of the main causes for the fall of the Empire under the fanatic and irresistible power of the Ottoman Turks. Lead by the zeal of their religion and the skillful leadership of Sultan Mehmed II they succeeded in subduing Constantinople after a fierce siege. The mightiness of the noble city, however, has faded long before that conquest. It had started at the end of the 10 century with the numerous defeats in battles with the Turks and later on the Latin aggression and constant threat from the North. The weakening and losses of the Empire ended up with Constantinople as the only place left not conquered. The church did not manage to resolve its theological debates of whether to unite with the Roman church and receive help from the West, thus the only possibility for survival disappeared.
Its legendary history is goes back as early a 431 BC when it participated in the Peloponnesian on the side of Sparta. It was founded in 667 BC by the Greeks who afterwards were conquered by the Romans in 196 AD after a siege and declared by Constantine I the Great the capital of the Roman Empire in the East. The favorable location of the city was the reason for its numerous sieges and the appetites of different peoples to possess it. As long as it was holding, the existence of the Empire was not threatened. This fact was known by all the invaders who wanted to conquer or rule the Roman Empire in the East. The main objective of Bulgarians, Serbs, Latins and finally Turks was to conquer the great city because it meant power and invincibility, accumulated wealth and culture, security and recognition.
One of the major explanations for the fall of Constantinople in the fatal 1453 is viewing it from the angle of the political consequences of the Latin Conquest and fall of the city in 1204. According to Sir Edwin Pears the capture of Constantinople was the necessary prelude to the Ottoman Conquest and it was the cause that brought about the fall of the Roman Empire in the East.
Being the strongest defense against Asia, the Byzantine Empire received a tremendous blow from the Latin conquest. The main forces of the East Empire were spent withstanding the Asian hordes which were pushed by the Tartar immigration westward. It was continuously weakened by the fight on two fronts. From the North it had for years to resist the constant blows of Bulgarians, Comans, Patchinaks, Uzes and Serbs. This was accompanied by an internal weakness in the Empire due to the transformation that was taking place–the feebleness and impotence of the despotism and its replacement by oligarchic regimes an the civil wars that followed. This lessened the strength and protective power of the Empire and the period of 250 years after the the Latin conquest proved to be insufficient for it to recover. Although it had gained considerable victories against the Second Bulgarian Empire in the late thirteenth century due to the Tartar invasions and was not troubled from the East, in the same period, because of the divisions of the Seljukian Turks, the Empire did not have the resources for a quick revival. In the fourteen century, the successful invasions of the Ottoman Turks in the territories of Roumelia were to great extent due to the weakness that the Empire still experienced from the devastation caused by the Fourth Crusade. The savages of the crusaders had placed an immovable obstacle to the union of the churches of the West and the East. It has caused an antagonism of the Greeks towards the Latins which turned out to be the tragedy of the city in the years before its conquest by the Ottomans.
During the period of a century and a half before the fall of Constantinople, the Roman Empire in the East confronted a mighty enemy with inexhaustible power. The new host1s deficiencies were immediately supplied by newcomers.1 The conquered territory in Asia Minor were the main areas for the recruitment of soldiers for the Empire. More and more it had to depend on mercenaries which was a major cause for the draining of the imperial treasury.
What caused an Empire with its roots in the very beginning of human history to crack under the pressure of a newly born formation the Moslem Turks. The reason could be traced back to the teaching of Mohammed. Unlike the Christian religion of humbleness and self-denial, the Moslem ideal suited very well the warlike horde of the Turks. It was expressed in the notion that fighting the unbeliever was the highest duties of all.The sins and crimes of a Moslem would automatically be canceled if he was fighting against the infidels. If he dies in this fight, he does not have to worry because he will immediately go to heaven where women will dance for him and serve him everything he desires. Naturally, the adoption of such doctrines by a barbaric mind will lead to remarkable access of fighting power. Everyone not accepting them, however, is considered an unbeliever or infidel. As Sir Edwin Pears points out: “An amount of fanaticism was created in fighting, which at various times in the history of Moslem states has carried on their armies irresistibly to victory”.This is why even after the Byzantine empire has literally slaughtered and totally destroyed numerous and powerful armies of Turks, the struggle was never ending. The final effect was the loss not only of its Asian territories but by the time of the siege of Constantinople in 1453, the city was standing alone as the only remained territory of the Empire.
Another significant factor that contributed to the downfall of Constantinople was the incapabilty of the church to acceptt a union with the West. First the luring mystical feature of the orthodox church was attacked by the scholasticism of the West and the traditional theory of the church was continuously threatened by new influences. This phenomenon inevitably lead to bitter controversies and divisions in the eastern church itself. When the question of whether a union with the Roman Church should be pursued, the church was divided and did not have a joint strategy and goal when it was obvious that without help from the West, the Empire could not survive. Politicians, philosophers and intellectuals realized the importance and imperativeness of a church union with a Christian adversary instead of conquest by a much worse infidel enemy. Both Michael VIII and afterwards John V saw the political advantages of the union, but soon understood that the tradition is too much imbedded in the minds of the people and the schism between the Roman and the Orthodox church is too wide open to be closed so quickly as the situation required. From early times the two Christendom had gone in different directions and there was an absolute disagreement on many theological issues. They were especially arguing on the Procession of the Holy Ghost, the Western dogma of Purgatory, the Latin addition of the word Filioque to the Creed, is the bread at the Sacrament leaved or unleaved and fundamentally contradicting themselves about the ecclesiastic system. Even when a symbolic union with Rome was reached in Florence in 1439, due to the decisiveness and persistence of John VIII, it was impossible to implement it. It only precipitated internal dissension in Constantinople. Further attempts were abandoned because John feared that this would only increase the division amongst people. The union also meant a submission of the Eastern tradition to the rules and authority of Rome which was quite unacceptable to the majority of people inConstantinople. There was no patriarch, for all the worthy and capable men have left the city. The clergy and the monks were blindlessly antagonistic and too proud of their faith and tradition to accept the union. They were telling the people that the union will lead to eternal damnation. To the ordinary people their fate in the following world was more crucial than the present and they feared that the union will not lead them to salvation. Having in mind the fresh memory of the devastating conquest of the Latins and the importance of religion in the lives of people at that time, we can easily understand their powerful resistance towards the union. In this suicidal way the final death sentence of Constantinople was signed by the hands of its own citizens. They were pessimistically resigned to their fate and preferred to fall in the hands of the infidels, knowing that this is probably the will of God, instead of resorting to union with the heretic West. We can only feel pity that this conflict and drama took place in an “atmosphere of material decay”.
Another reason for the successful conquest of Constantinople by the Turks that could not be left without mentioning is the intelligence, energy and determination of their leader–Mehmed II. He was probably one of the ablest men ever to become a Sultan. Mehmed II was very ambitious and persistent in pursuing his goals. His craving for absolute power was combined with extreme cruelty and no respect for human life. He was a great centralizer of power and an unprecedented military genius. He had no trust in any of his subordinates and no one could predict the nature of his thoughts and decisions. He was, however, very young when he planned the siege of Constantinople and that made the Western world and even Constantine, the last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, to underestimate his potential. From the very start of his accession, Mehmed put much of his efforts in realizing his old ambition–the conquest of Constantinople which in his words was “a grand and populous city, the capital of the Ancient Romans, the very summit of splendor and glory, which has become, so to say, the center of the world”. He also saw in the city the heart of the empire and realized that as long as Constantinople was in the hands of the Greeks, his own Empire was threatened. The city, Mehmed II pointed out in an speech in front of his pashas was the main barrier to further progress. The moment for attack has never been so favorable.
The weakness of the city whose population and defensive powers were greatly reduced by the constant Turkish sieges, could crack under the enormous power of the Turkish army. Mehmed has made everything possible to accelerate the coming of this favorable moment. He prevented the anticipated from Constantinople aid from the two brothers of the Emperor who were ruling Peloponnesus by sending an army there. He erected a formidable fortress on the European side of the Bosphorus at the narrowest point, thus completely commanding the Straits. To the protest of the Greek Emperor, Mehmed answered: “Have you the right or the power to prevent my doing what I wish on my own territory? The two sides of the Straits are mine–that of Asia Minor because it is peopled by Ottomans, that of Europe because you are unable to defend it”. From these words, we can see the confidence of Mehmed in the superiority of his power and on the other hand the extreme weakness of Constantinople to respond adequately to the increasing menace of the Turks. To the people of Constantinople it seemed that nothing could stop the advance of the Ottomans. They were expecting more a miracle to happen and safe the city than that a reasonable help would come from the West. Even the Grand Duke Notarus himself stated publicly that he would rather see the turban of the Turks at Constantinople than the hat of a cardinal. The inevitable was about to happen. The two enemies were preparing for the decisive confrontation. The population of the city which had numbered about a million in the past, was now no more than a hundred thousand of which six thousand took arms to defend the city. The depopulation of the city was due to the plague it had experienced and because many citizens, especially the intellectuals found a more rewarding and secure means of living in the West. Mehmed II knew very well that the city was in a considerable decay. It was full of ruins and walls were guarding an almost empty territory with many abandoned quarters. The predominant population was living in misery and poverty. In many parts of the city you had the feeling that you are in the country side. It is logical that Constantine was not able to recruit enough men to defend the city walls, and although he spent all the available money to repair and strengthen the walls it was not enough, knowing they were ill-kept from his predecessors. The city was protected by a triple line of massive walls and flanked by towers built by the Emperor Theodosius II about thousand years ago. They were the most solid fortification in the Middle Ages–impregnable to any enemy. Constantine, however did not have the needed number of men to protect it adequately. Eight thousand men were very insufficient and some historians think that if there were one or two thousand people more, Constantinople could have withstood the attacks of the Turks. Men were needed at the four miles of walls directly attacked by the Ottoman Army and at the same time Constantine had to send more men to the defenses along the line of the harbor where Mehmed had successfully brought his ships, dragging them, by land. He did that cleverly going around the chain that was stretched across the entrance to the Golden Horn and was blocking the way of the Ottoman ships to the harbor.
Mehmed had, long before the actual siege, realized he would not be able to conquer Constantinople using only conventional methods. A significant reason for the victory of the Ottomans in 1453 was the use of cannons or employing the gunpowder against the strength of the walls. The might of his army consisted of a large fleet of war vessels, an army of about 150 000 men, including 12 000 janissaries–soldiers taken as little children from their families (even from families of infidels) and specially trained in military skills to serve as the lite army of the sultan. There were 50 000 soldiers as regular army and the rest were irregulars and camp followers. The determination of Mehmed to conquer the city should not be overlooked. The Sultan knew that if he does not manage to make a successful assault on the city soon, new reinforcements would come as did the four Genoese galleys that broke the blockade of his ships and brought provisions from Chios to the city. This is why he did not waste his time and decided that the final assault would be made on May 29th after the bombardment made serious breaches in the walls at three points. Before the fatal for the people of Constantinople day, in a speech to his army leaders he said: “I give it Constantinople over to you to pillage, to seize its incalculable treasure of men, women, and boys, and everything that adorns it. You will henceforward live in great happiness and leave great wealth to your children. The great gain to all the sons of Othman would be the conquest of a city whose fame was great throughout the world. The greater its renown, the greater would be the glory of taking it by assault. A great city which had always been their enemy, which had always looked upon them with a hostile eye, which in every way had sought to destroy the Turkish power, would come into their possession. The door would be open to them by its capture to conquer the whole of the Greek Empire.” According to Lord Eversley from this speech we assert that one of the major incentives for the Moslem conquest is plunder and not religious fanaticism. The plunder of the city and the capture of men, women and boys for the sale in their harems was, however, not desired by Mehmed since this was going to be his future capital and he did not want to have it totally devastated by his warriors and populated only by Moslems. He was obliged to grant three days of pillage which was required by the Religious Law seriat. It could be said, however that the capture of Constantinople is not because of the will of the Sultan and his subjects to spread Islamism because the cases in which the people of the city were forced to convert to the Islam were rare. The victory of the Islam, however, was an immense shock to Christiondom. The fall of the city secured its permenant foothold in Europe as well as the longevity of the Europen part of the Turkish Empire.
The siege lasted fifty long days and the fall of Constantinople marked the final tragedy and end of the Empire. With it, one of the most glorious civilzation was wiped out. It was doomed because it did not have the economic and political potentiality to cofront an empire which spread its territory on almost all the Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor, an empire which had the best military machine of the age, fighting the Holy War against the unbelievers. For eleven centuries it has been the center of this magnificent civilization of Bizantium which has preserved the legacy of the Ancient world and gave the world the priceless knowledge of Roman law, Greek literature, philosophy and learning. The Byzantine Empire did not fully extinguished–its political and spiritual traditions survived and still live. The effects of this significant cultural contribution can be observed even today. The material environment that has to support this splendid culture, however was not present. The city simply did not have the capacity to maintain it.
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