“I will defend my people to the last drop of blood. ” – Emperor Constantine XI to Sultan Mehmet II
Constantine XI would do just that. He fell in battle defending his city to the very end. The fall of Constantinople had a profound effect not only on the Middle East but Europe as well. The successful Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 was one of the most remarkable events of the Middle Ages. The city had been an imperial capital as far back as the 4th century. The fall of the Byzantines meant that the Ottomans now shared a border with Europe. The Islamic empire was viewed as a threat by the mostly Christian continent to their west, and it took little time for different European nations to start clashing with the powerful Turks. In fact, the Ottomans would clash with Russians, Austrians, Venetians, Polish, and more before collapsing as a result of World War I.
5. The Byzantines were vastly outnumbered
The defending Byzantine army was tiny compared to that of the besieging Ottomans; it totaled about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. At the beginning of the siege there were only 50,000 people living within the walls, including refugees from the surrounding area. The defending army’s Genoese corps was well trained and equipped, The rest of the army consisted of small amounts of well trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors and volunteer forces from foreign communities and finally monks. The garrison used a few small calibre artillery bullets which would have very little impact. The rest of the city repaired walls, stood guard on observation posts, collected and distributed food provisions, and scavenged gold and silver objects from churches to melt down into coins to pay the foreign soldiers.
The Ottomans had a much larger force. Recent studies suggest there were about 50,000-80,000 Ottoman soldiers including between 5,000 and 10,000 Janissaries, an elite infantry corps, and thousands of Christian troops, notably 1,500 Serbian cavalry that the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković supplied as part of his obligation to the Ottoman sultan.
4. Giovanni Giustiniani Longo
The commander of the Byzantine army which defended the last citadel of the old East Roman Empire was an Italian, from Genoa named Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. He was the son of one of the most prominent Genoese families, related to the famous Doria family. When Constantinople was imperiled by the Ottoman forces, he used his own fortune to recruit and equip some 700 soldiers and a naval armada to carry them. He so impressed the Emperor that Constantine XI named him commander of his land forces. It was a wise decision since Giustiniani was an expert at siege warfare and the defense of fortified places.
The courage of Giustiniani and his skill at the art of siege warfare were instrumental in Constantinople holding out as long as it did against the hopelessly large odds against them. When the final attack came, on May 29, 1453, Giustiniani was wounded while fighting on the wall trying to repel the invaders. He was hit by a crossbow bolt in his breastplate armor which temporarily put him out of action. This caused morale to drop among the exhausted defenders on the wall and eventually panic began to set in. Giustiniani was carried out of the combat area and Sultan Mehmed II took notice and ordered an all-out assault. The defenders were finally overwhelmed, Emperor Constantine XI falling in the attack as he rushed headlong into the Turkish columns pouring into the city.
Giustiniani was taken back to his ship by some of his men who had survived but he died of his wounds shortly thereafter. He and his men played a critical part in the historic battle that saw the city of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who envisioned a great capital city there on the banks of the Bosporus, fall to the Ottoman invaders.
3. Impact of Cannons in the Fall of Constantinople
In 1452, a Hungarian cannon founder named Orban arrived in Constantinople, seeking his fortune at the imperial court. He was a highly skilled technical mercenary and offered Emperor Constantine XI one of the most highly prized skills of the age: the ability to cast large bronze guns. Constantine was very interested in Orban’s offer and authorized a small stipend to keep him in the city. But Constantine had few funds available for the construction of bronze cannons as they were incredibly expensive, well beyond the means of the cash-strapped emperor. Orban’s payment from the Emperor was not paid regularly, and soon he was forced to move on. He decided to try his luck with the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.
Orban got to work and began casting one of the largest cannons ever built, while Mehmed stockpiled substantial quantities of materials for guns and gunpowder: copper and tin, saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. Workers excavated an enormous casting pit and melted scrap bronze in the brick-lined furnaces, heating it with bellows and pouring it into the mold.
What finally emerged was “a horrifying and extraordinary monster.” It was 27 feet long. The barrel, walled with 8 inches of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast, had a diameter of 30 inches, enough for a man to enter on his hands and knees and designed to accommodate a stone shot weighing something over half a ton. Orban’s foundry continued to turn out cannon of different sizes.
By the time of the battle, Mehmet had approximately 70 cannon of different dimensions. When the huge stone balls hit the walls, the effects were devastating. “Sometimes it destroyed a complete portion of wall,” an eyewitness reported, “sometimes half a portion, sometimes a greater or smaller part of a tower, or a turret, or a parapet, and nowhere was the wall strong enough or sturdy enough or thick enough to withstand it, or to hold out totally against such a force or the velocity of the stone ball.” The great Walls of Theodosius, the product of two millennia of defensive evolution, crumbled wherever it was hit. The defenders were utterly amazed and horrified by what they saw.
The non-stop bombardment caused great psychological damage on the defenders also. “On the 11th of May,” recorded a defender, “nothing happened either by land or at sea except a considerable bombardment of the walls from the landward side….On the 13th of May, there came some Turks to the walls skirmishing, but nothing significant happened during the whole day and night, except for continuous bombardment of the unfortunate walls.” This pattern gradually drained the defenders of energy and morale. By May 28, the guns had been firing continuously for 47 days, expending 55,000 pounds of gunpowder and delivering an estimated 5,000 shots. Gunners had blasted nine substantial holes in the outer wall, only to be replaced piecemeal by the defenders.
One of the big cannons finally opened a huge hole and the Ottoman troops moved quickly into the breach. Mehmed’s men soon overwhelmed the defenses and the terrible massacre began.
2. Fate of the Byzantine Citizens
Once inside the walls, the Ottoman soldiers gave no quarter. According to one eyewitness, “Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge.”
They began stealing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests and people of all sorts and conditions. Priests were led into captivity in droves, as well as virgins, hermits and recluses. Many were dragged and killed from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs. Children were brutally taken from their mothers and girls were given up to strange and horrible unions. It’s estimated some 30,000 citizens were enslaved and deported.
According to an ancient belief among the inhabitants of the city, Constantinople would fall only when the moon gave a sign. During the seige, on May 22, 1453, the ancient myth appeared to come true. As the city lay besieged by the forces of Mehmet II, the moon went into a long and dark eclipse. Constantinople’s defenders were filled with paralyzing despair; outside the walls, Ottoman troops enjoyed cautious hope. It turned out to be a partial lunar eclipse.
Four days later, the whole city was blotted out by a thick fog, a condition unknown in that part of the world. When the fog finally lifted, a strange light was seen above the dome of the church Hagia Sophia, which they interpreted as the Holy Spirit departing from the city. According to the author of History of Mehmed the Conqueror, “This evidently indicated the departure of the Divine Presence, and its leaving the City in total abandonment and desertion, for the Divinity conceals itself in cloud and appears and again disappears.” A few days later, more “signs” appeared. Just as the Byzantines were seeking divine favor with a religious procession through the city, a tremendous thunderstorm began. Dangerous floods and pelting hail brought a quick end to the ceremony.
500 fears later, it appears that the four days of fog were caused by a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific—half a world away from Byzantium. Evidence points to the eruption of the volcano Kuwae in the year 1453. When it erupted, Kuwae spewed out more than six times as much molten rock and ash as did the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991.
The volcanic cloud would have shrouded the earth thickly enough to darken the moon above Constantinople beyond the usual, dulled-copper appearance of a lunar eclipse. Also, the cloud of suspended particles could be responsible for the unseasonably cold weather, with rain and snow, and for the bizarre optical effects reported by various chroniclers at Constantinople, all of which are phenomena now known to be associated with volcanic eruptions.
Kuwae may have been unique in that it may have thrown its volcanic veil over one of the great turning points of world history.