Fall of Constantinople

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Fall of Constantinople

Taking place on May 29, 1453, this turning point in European history marked the final conquest of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turkish Empire, a domain that covered territory in southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa. Since the capture of Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire, by members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city and the realm had suffered a slow decline as the Ottoman Turks stepped up their attacks on Byzantine cities and ports in the Levant and Asia Minor. By the turn of the fifteenth century the Turks had built a stronghold on the southern side of the Bosporus, the strait dividing Constantinople from Asia Minor proper. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, established another fortress on the European side of the Bosporus to prevent reinforcements from reaching the city from allied Black Sea ports.

As the Turkish siege began, Constantine sent for help to the nations of western Europe. But the division between the Latin and Greek (eastern) Christian churches, dating to the Eastern Schism of 1054, persuaded the pope and many Christian kings to ignore the urgent pleas. Europe had also been weakened by centuries of fighting and civil war, with the Hundred Years'War between England and France still burning in its final years.

Constantinople was protected by a ring of walls on both the land and the seacoast, but its defenders numbered only about ten thousand in the face of an enemy that, by some accounts, had as many as three hundred thousand men as well as a fleet of several hundred ships attacking from the waters of the Bosporus. Mehmed drew up his forces in early April and began a heavy cannonade of the walls on the western side of the city. A large boom placed by the Byzantines across the entrance to the Golden Horn, a waterway on the northern side of Constantinople, prevented Turkish ships from attacking on this front; to counter this Mehmed ordered a row of logs set down on which his ships could be rolled forward to block resupply of the city from the north. Meanwhile, Turkish sappers dug tunnels underneath the walls in order to penetrate and sabotage the city defenses; the Greeks counterattacked by digging their own tunnels and sending troops into them to fight hand to hand.

The final assault took place on May 29 in several waves of troops that attacked the western wall at its weakest points. The Turks found an unlocked gate and rushed into the city, and in the melee that followed Constantine XI died. The Turks renamed the city Istanbul and converted the Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built under the Byantine emperor Justinian, into the mosque. The last Byzantine strongholds in Greece were conquered in 1460. Istanbul remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until this state was dissolved after World War I.

See Also: Mehmed II