Remember Constantinople

Article excerpt

Remember Constantinople 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley (HYPERION/MIRAMAX, 320 PAGES, $25.95)

THE WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE FELL (officially) in the year 476 A.D. when the German general Odoacer deposed a boy emperor grandiosely named Romulus Augustus. But the Eastern Roman Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, lived on. In fact, in the 6th century, the emperor Justinian reconquered Italy and North Africa for the Empire. But by the time that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, on May 29,1453, the Eastern Roman Empire (known to us as the Byzantine Empire) had long been in decline and had not been a meaningful power for centuries. Still, its final fall was cataclysmic to the Western psyche.

By the 1400s, the principal holdings of the Byzantine Empire had dwindled to a portion of the Peloponnese in southern Greece, a narrow stretch of land on the western shore of the Black Sea, and the immediate environs of Constantinople itself. After the sack of the city by the wayward crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, earthquakes, and plague, Constantinople was, literally, only a shell of its former grandeur.

Roger Crowley's 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, chronicles Constantinople's final days as a capital of a Christian empire. But Crowley also puts the story of the final siege in historical perspective, starting with a brief history of Constantinople's precarious existence from the first onslaught of Muslim holy warriors in 669 A.D.

After the armies of Islam swept out of the Arabian peninsula over North Africa and up through Syria, the great infidel capital of Constantinople was an obvious target. Mohammed had declared that the armies of Islam would be invincible, and so far they had been. After several years of holding the Arabs at bay on the doorstep of the great city, the Byzantines turned the tide with a technological breakthrough. By/antine ships attacked the Arab fleet with what became known as "Greek fire"-essentially the world's first flamethrower. The Arab assault force was destroyed. The Arabs would try again, but by 727 A.D. they had had enough.

Constantinople was uniquely situated to give it great advantage against besieging armies. The city was a triangle of land, one side of which was bordered by the Sea of Marmara, one side by a narrow stretch of sea forming its harbor ("the Golden Horn"), and the third side, facing land to the west, was guarded by the famed "land walls" also known as the Theodosian Wall-an eight-mile long, three-tiered defensive bulwark consisting of a brick-lined trench, followed by an outer wall, and a larger inner wall. The height from the base of the trench to the towers on the inner wall was 100 feet. No invading force had breached the land walls since their construction in the 5th century (the knights of the Fourth Crusade were able to break into the Golden Horn and breach the weaker sea walls).

THE RISE OF THE OTTOMAN TURKS, however, brought another threat from Islam. The Turks gladly took up the call of jihad against the infidels and swept through Byzantine Anatolia and then across the Bosphorus into what is now Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece (down to the Gulf of Corinth). Its walls had kept Constantinople safe (it survived Ottoman sieges in 1422, 1430, and 1446), but after a crusade led by the Hungarians ended in disaster at Varna on the Black Sea in 1444, its position was extremely tenuous.

The man destined to become the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine Palaiologos (Constantine XI), was crowned in Mistra in the Peloponnese (where he had proved an able military man) upon the death of his father Manuel II in 1449. His counterpart in the historic showdown would be the young Mehmet II, who succeeded his father Murat in 1451 at the age of 19. Though some of his father's advisers were leery of starting a war against Constantine, fearing that it would unite Christian Europe in a new crusade against them, Mehmet was less timid. …