The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8

Author: George Finlay  | Date: A.D. 1453

Mahomet II Takes Constantinople;
End of the Eastern Empire

A.D. 1453


By the greater number of historians the fall of Constantinople under the Moslem power is considered as the decisive event which separates the modern from the mediaeval period. From the same event dates the final establishment of the Ottoman empire both In Asia Minor and In Europe. At that moment, when the Moorish power in Spain had been almost destroyed, Christian Europe was threatened for the second time with Mahometan conquest.

From 1354, when Suleiman crossed the Hellespont and captured Gallipoli, the Turks from Asia Minor had kept their foothold on European soil. Under Amurath I (1359-1389), Bajazet I (1389-1403), Mahomet I and Amurath II (1404-1451)—the last of whom, in 1422, unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople—the Ottoman dominions In Europe were much extended. When Mahomet II, son of Amurath II, became Sultan (1451), the Turks were so strongly established, and the Eastern Empire was so much weakened, that he was prepared to finish the work of his predecessors and make the Ottoman power in Europe what it has ever since been.

Mahomet "the Conqueror"—such was his surname—had for his adversary Constantine XIII, the last of the Greek emperors, who was proclaimed in 1448, with the consent of Amurath II, whose power is thus attested. The Empire was torn by the quarrels of political factions and by theological dissensions. When Mahomet succeeded to the sultanate he was but twenty-one years old, but had already given proof of great talents, learning, and ambition, all guided by a judgment of remarkable maturity.

The first object of Mahomet’s ambition was the conquest of Constantinople, the natural capital of his dominions. As long as it was held by Eastern Christians the Ottoman empire was open to invasion by those of the West. The first threatening act of Mahomet was the construction of a fortress on Constantine’s territory, at the narrowest part of the Bosporus, and within five miles of Constantinople. Constantine was too weak to resent the menace with vigor, and Mahomet treated his mild protest with contempt, denying the right of a vassal of the Porte to dispute die Sultan’s will. A feeble resistance by some of the Greeks only gave Mahomet pretexts for further aggression, soon followed by his formal declaration of war.

Both parties began to prepare for the mortal contest. The siege of Constantinople was to be the great event of the coming year. The Sultan, in order to prevent the Emperor’s brothers in the Peloponnesus from sending any succors to the capital, ordered Turakhan, the Pacha of Thessaly, to invade the peninsula. He himself took up his residence at Adrianople, to collect warlike stores and siege artillery. Constantine, on his part, made every preparation in his power for a vigorous defence. He formed large magazines of provisions, collected military stores, and enrolled all the soldiers he could muster among the Greek population of Constantinople. But the inhabitants of that city were either unable or unwilling to furnish recruits in proportion to their numbers. Bred up in peaceful occupation, they probably possessed neither the activity nor the habitual exercise which was required to move with ease under the weight of armor then in use. So few were found disposed to fight for their country that not more than six thousand Greek troops appeared under arms during the whole siege.

The numerical weakness of the Greek army rendered it incapable of defending so large a city as Constantinople, even with all the advantage to be derived from strong fortifications. The Emperor was therefore anxious to obtain the assistance of the warlike citizens of the Italian republics, where good officers and experienced troops were then numerous. As he had no money to engage mercenaries, he could only hope to succeed by papal influence. An embassy was sent to Pope Nicholas V, begging immediate aid, and declaring the Emperor’s readiness to complete the union of the churches in any way the Pope should direct. Nicholas despatched Cardinal Isidore, the Metropolitan of Kiev, who had joined the Latin Church, as his legate. Isidore had represented the Russian Church at the Council of Florence; but on his return to Russia he was imprisoned as an apostate, and with difficulty escaped to Italy. He was by birth a Greek; and being a man of learning and conciliatory manners, it was expected that he would be favorably received at Constantinople.

The Cardinal arrived at Constantinople in November, 1452. He was accompanied by a small body of chosen troops, and brought some pecuniary aid, which he employed in repairing the most dilapidated part of the fortifications. Both the Emperor and the Cardinal deceived themselves in supposing that the dangers to which the Greek nation and the Christian Church were exposed would induce the orthodox to yield something of their ecclesiastical forms and phrases. It was evident that foreign aid could alone save Constantinople, and it was absurd to imagine that the Latins would fight for those who treated them as heretics and who would not fight for themselves. The crisis therefore compelled the Greeks to choose between union with the Church of Rome or submission to the Ottoman power. They had to decide whether the preservation of the Greek empire was worth the ecclesiastical sacrifices they were called upon to make in order to preserve their national independence.

In the mean time the emperor Constantine celebrated his union with the papal Church, in the Cathedral of St. Sophia, on December 12, 1452. The court and the great body of the dignified clergy ratified the act by their presence; but the monks and the people repudiated the connection. In their opinion, the Church of St. Sophia was polluted by the ceremony, and from that day it was deserted by the orthodox. The historian Ducas declares that they looked upon it as a haunt of demons, and no better than a pagan shrine. The monks, the nuns, and the populace publicly proclaimed their detestation of the union; and their opposition was inflamed by the bigotry of an ambitious pedant, who, under the name of Georgius Scholarius, acted as a warm partisan of the union at the Council of Florence, and under the ecclesiastical name of Gennadius is known in history as the subservient patriarch of Sultan Mahomet II. On returning from Italy, he made a great parade of his repentance for complying with the unionists at Florence. He shut himself up in the monastery of Pantokrator, where he assumed the monastic habit and the name of Gennadius, under which he consummated the union between the Greek Church and the Ottoman administration.

At the present crisis he stepped forward as the leader of the most bigoted party, and excited his followers to the most furious opposition to measures which he had once advocated as salutary for the Church, and indispensable to the preservation of the State. The unionists were now accused of sacrificing true religion to the delusion of human policy, of insulting God to serve the Pope, and of preferring the interests of their bodies to the care of their souls. In place of exhorting their countrymen to aid the Emperor, who was straining every nerve to defend their country—in place of infusing into their minds the spirit of patriotism and religion, these teachers of the people were incessantly inveighing against the wickedness of the unionists and the apostasy of the Emperor. So completely did their bigotry extinguish every feeling of patriotism that the grand duke Notaras declared he would rather see Constantinople subjected to the turban of the Sultan than to the tiara of the Pope.

His wish was gratified; but, in dying, he must have felt how fearfully he had erred in comparing the effects of papal arrogance with the cruelty of Mahometan tyranny. The Emperor Constantine, who felt the importance of the approaching contest, showed great prudence and moderation in his difficult position. The spirit of Christian charity calmed his temper, and his determination not to survive the empire gave a deliberate coolness to his military conduct. Though his Greek subjects often raised seditions, and reviled him in the streets, the Emperor took no notice of their behavior. To induce the orthodox to fight for their country, by having a leader of their own party, he left the grand duke Notaras in office; yet he well knew that this bigot would never act cordially with the Latin auxiliaries, who were the best troops in the city; and the Emperor had some reason to distrust the patriotism of Notaras, seeing that he hoarded his immense wealth, instead of expending a portion of it for his country.

The fortifications were not found to be in a good state of repair. Two monks who had been intrusted with a large sum for the purpose of repairing them had executed their duty in an insufficient and it was generally said in a fraudulent manner. The extreme dishonesty that prevailed among the Greek officials explains the selection of monks as treasurers for military objects; and it must lessen our surprise at finding men of their religious professions sharing in the general avarice, or tolerating the habitual peculations of others.

Cannon were beginning to be used in sieges, but stone balls were used in the larger pieces of artillery; and the larger the gun, the greater was the effect it was expected to produce. Even in Constantinople there was some artillery too large to be of much use, as the land wall had not been constructed to admit of their recoil, and the ramparts were so weak as to be shaken by their concussion. Constantine had also only a moderate supply of gunpowder. The machines of a past epoch in military science, but to the use of which the Greeks adhered with their conservative prejudices, were brought from the storehouses, and planted on the walls beside the modern artillery. Johann Grant, a German officer, was the most experienced artilleryman and military engineer in the place.

A considerable number of Italians hastened to Constantinople as soon as they heard of its danger, eager to defend so important a depot of Eastern commerce. The spirit of enterprise and the love of military renown had become as much a characteristic of the merchant nobles of the commercial republics as they had been, in a preceding age, distinctions of the barons in feudal monarchies. All the nations who then traded with Constantinople furnished contingents to defend its walls. A short time before the siege commenced, John Justiniani arrived with two Genoese galleys and three hundred chosen troops, and the Emperor valued his services so highly that he was appointed general of the guard. The resident bailo of the Venetians furnished three large galeases and a body of troops for the defence of the port. The consul of Catalans, with his countrymen and the Aragonese, undertook the defence of the great palace of Bukoleon and the port of Kontoskalion. Cardinal Isidore, with the papal troops, defended the Kynegesion, and the angle of the city at the head of the port down to St. Demetrius. The importance of the aid which was afforded by the Latins is proved by the fact that of twelve military divisions, into which Constantine divided the fortifications, the commands of only two were intrusted to the exclusive direction of Greek officers. In the others, Greeks shared the command with foreigners, or aliens alone conducted the defence.

When all Constantine’s preparations for defence were completed, he found himself obliged to man a line of wall on the land side of about five miles in length, every point of which was exposed to a direct attack. The remainder of the wall toward the port and the Propontis exceeded nine miles in extent, and his whole garrison hardly amounted to nine thousand men. His fleet consisted of only twenty galleys and three Venetian galeases, but the entry of the port was closed by a chain, the end of which, on the side of Galata, was secured in a strong fort of which the Greeks kept possession. During the winter the Emperor sent out his fleet to ravage the coast of the Propontis as far as Cyzicus, and the spirit of the Greeks was roused by the booty they made in these expeditions.

Mahomet II spent the winter at Adrianople, preparing everything necessary for commencing the siege with vigor. His whole mind was absorbed by the glory of conquering the Roman Empire and gaining possession of Constantinople, which for more than eleven hundred fifty years had been the capital of the East. While the fever of ambition inflamed his soul, his cooler judgment also warned him that the Ottoman power rested on a perilous basis as long as Constantinople, the true capital of his empire, remained in the hands of others. Mahomet could easily assemble a sufficient number of troops for his enterprise, but it required all his activity and power to collect the requisite supplies of provisions and stores for the immense military and naval force he had ordered to assemble, and to prepare the artillery and ammunition necessary to insure success.

Early and late, in his court and in his cabinet, the young Sultan could talk of nothing but the approaching siege. With the writing-reed and a scroll of paper in his hand he was often seen tracing plans of the fortifications of Constantinople, and marking out positions for his own batteries. Every question relating to the extent and locality of the various magazines to be constructed in order to maintain the troops was discussed in his presence; he himself distributed the troops in their respective divisions and regulated the order of their march; he issued the orders relating to the equipment of the fleet, and discussed the various methods proposed for breaching, mining, and scaling the walls. His enthusiasm was the impulse of a hero, but the immense superiority of his force would have secured him the victory with any ordinary degree of perseverance.

The Ottomans were already familiar with the use of cannon. Amurath II had employed them when he besieged Constantinople in 1422; but Mahomet now resolved on forming a more powerful battering-train than had previously existed. Neither the Greeks nor Turks possessed the art of casting large guns. Both were obliged to employ foreigners. An experienced artilleryman and founder named Urban, by birth a Wallachian, carried into execution the Sultan’s wishes. He had passed some time in the Greek service; but, even the moderate pay he was allowed by the Emperor having fallen in arrear, he resigned his place and transferred his services to the Sultan, who knew better how to value warlike knowledge. He now gave Mahomet proof of his skill by casting the largest cannon which had ever been fabricated. He had already placed one of extraordinary size in the new castle of the Bosporus, which carried across the straits. The gun destined for the siege of Constantinople far exceeded in size this monster, and the diameter of its mouth must have been nearly two feet and a half. Other cannon of great size, whose balls of stone weighed one hundred fifty pounds, were also cast, as well as many guns of smaller calibre. All these, together with a number of ballistae and other ancient engines still employed in sieges, were mounted on carriages in order to transport them to Constantinople. The conveyance of this formidable train of artillery, and of the immense quantity of ammunition required for its service, was by no means a trifling operation.

The first division of the Ottoman army moved from Adrianople in February, 1453. In the mean time a numerous corps of pioneers worked constantly at the road, in order to prepare it for the passage of the long train of artillery and baggage wagons. Temporary bridges, capable of being taken to pieces, were erected by the engineers over every ravine and watercourse, and the materials for every siege advanced steadily, though slowly, to their destination. The extreme difficulty of moving the monster cannon with its immense balls retarded the Sultan’s progress, and it was the beginning of April before the whole battering-train reached Constantinople, though the distance from Adrianople is barely a hundred miles. The division of the army under Karadja Pacha had already reduced Mesembria and the castle of St. Stephanus. Selymbria alone defended itself, and the fortifications were so strong that Mahomet ordered it to be closely blockaded, and left its fate to be determined by that of the capital.

On April 6th Sultan Mahomet II encamped on the slope of the hill facing the quarter of Blachern, a little beyond the ground occupied by the crusaders in 1203, and immediately ordered the construction of lines extending from the head of the port to the shore of the Propontis. These lines were formed of a mound of earth, and they served both to restrain the sorties of the besieged and to cover the troops from the fire of the enemy’s artillery and missiles. The batteries were then formed; the principal were erected against the gate of Charsias, in the quarter of Blachern, and against the gate of St. Romanus, near the centre of the city wall. It was against this last gate that the fire of the monster gun was directed and the chief attack was made.

The land forces of the Turks probably amounted to about seventy thousand men of all arms and qualities; but the real strength of the army lay in the corps of janizaries, then the best infantry in Europe, and their number did not exceed twelve thousand. At the same time, twenty thousand cavalry, mounted on the finest horses of the Turkoman breed, and hardened by long service, were ready to fight either on horseback or on foot, under the eye of their young Sultan. The fleet which had been collected along the Asiatic coast, from the ports of the Black Sea to those of the AEgean, brought additional supplies of men, provisions, and military stores. IL consisted of three hundred twenty vessels of various sizes and forms. The greater part were only half-decked coasters, and even the largest were far inferior in size to the galleys and galeases of the Greeks and Italians.

The fortifications of Constantinople toward the land side vary so little from a straight line that they afford great facilities for attack. The defences had been originally constructed on a magnificent scale and with great skill, according to the ancient art of war. Even though they were partly ruined by time and weakened by careless reparations, they still offered a formidable obstacle to the imperfect science of the engineers in Mahomet’s army. Two lines of wall, each flanked with its own towers, rose one above the other, overlooking a broad and deep ditch. The interval between these walls enabled the defenders to form in perfect security, and facilitated their operations in clearing the ditch and retarding the preparation for assault. The actual appearance of the low walls of Constantinople, with the ditch more than half filled up, gives only an incorrect picture of their former state.

Mahomet had made his preparations for the siege with so much skill that his preliminary works advanced with unexpected rapidity. The numerical superiority of his army, and the precautions he had adopted for strengthening his lines, rendered the sorties of the garrison useless. The ultimate success of the defence depended on the arrival of assistance from abroad; but the numbers of the Ottoman fleet seemed to render even this hope almost desperate. An incident occurred that showed the immense advantage conferred by skill, when united with courage, over an apparently irresistible superiority of force in naval warfare. Four large ships, laden with grain and stores, one of which bore the Greek and the other the Genoese flag, had remained for some time wind-bound at Chios, and were anxiously expected at Constantinople. At daybreak these ships were perceived by the Turkish watchmen steering for Constantinople, with a strong breeze in their favor. The war-galleys of the Sultan immediately got under way to capture them. The Sultan himself rode down to the point of Tophane to witness a triumph which he considered certain and which he thought would reduce his enemy to despair. The Greeks crowded the walls of the city, offering up prayers for their friends and trembling for their safety in the desperate struggle that awaited them. The Christians had several advantages which their nautical experience enabled them to turn to good account. The good size of their ships, the strength of their construction, their weight, and their high bulwarks were all powerful means of defence when aided by a stiff breeze blowing directly in the teeth of their opponents. The Turks were compelled to row their galleys against this wind and the heavy sea it raised. In vain they attacked the Christians with reckless valor, fighting under the eye of their fiery sovereign. The skill of their enemy rendered all their attacks abortive. In vain one squadron attempted to impede the progress of the Christians, while another endeavored to run alongside and carry them by boarding. Every Turkish galley that opposed their progress was crushed under the weight of their heavy hulls, while those that endeavored to board had their oars shivered in the shock, and drifted helpless far astern. The few that succeeded for a moment in retaining their place alongside were either sunk by immense angular blocks of stone that were dropped on their frail timbers, or were filled with flames and smoke by the Greek fire that was poured upon them. The rapidity with which the best galleys were sunk or disabled appalled the bravest; and at last the Turks shrank from close combat on an element where they saw that valor without experience was of no avail. The Christian ships, in the mean time, held steadily on their course, under all the canvas their masts could carry, until they rounded the point of St. Demetrius and entered the port, where the chain was joyfully lowered to admit them.

The young Sultan, on seeing the defeat of his galleys, lost all command over his temper. He could hardly be restrained from urging his horse into the sea, and in his frantic passion heaped every term of abuse and insult on his naval officers. He even talked of ordering his admiral, Baltaoghlu, to be impaled on the spot; but the janizaries present compelled even Mahomet to restrain his vengeance. This check revealed to Mahomet the extent of the danger to which his naval force was exposed should either the Genoese or Venetians send a powerful fleet to the assistance of the emperor Constantine.

This naval discomfiture was also attended by some disasters on shore. The monster cannon burst before it had produced any serious impression on the walls. Its loss, however, was soon replaced; but the Ottoman army was repulsed in a general attack. An immense tower of timber, mounted on many wheels, and constructed on the model used in sieges from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, was dragged up to the edge of the ditch. Under its cover, workmen were incessantly employed throwing materials into the ditch to enable the tower itself to approach the walls, while the fire of several guns and the operations of a corps of miners ruined the opposite tower of the city. The progress of the besiegers induced them to risk an assault, in which they were repulsed, after a hard-fought struggle: and during the following night John Justiniani made a great sortie, during which his workmen cleared the ditch, and his soldiers filled the tower with combustible materials and burned it to the ground. Its exterior, having been protected by a triple covering of buffalo-hides, was found to be impervious even to Greek fire.

In order to counteract the effect of these defeats, which had depressed the courage of the Ottomans and raised the spirits of the Greeks, the Sultan resolved to adopt measures for placing hid fleet in security, and facilitating the communication between the army before Constantinople and the naval camp on the Bosporus. The Venetians had recently transported a number of their galleys from the river Adige overland to the lake of Garda. This exploit, which had been loudly celebrated at the time, suggested to the Sultan the idea of transporting a number of vessels from the Bosporus into the port of Constantinople, where the smooth water and the command of the shore would secure to his ships the mastery of the upper half of that extensive harbor. The distance over which it was necessary to transport the galleys was only five miles, but a steep hill presented a formidable obstacle to the undertaking. Mahomet, nevertheless, having witnessed the transport of his monster cannon over rivers and hills, was persuaded that his engineers would find no difficulty in moving his ships overland. A road was accordingly made, and laid with strong planks and wooden rails, which were plastered over with tallow. It extended from the station occupied by the fleet at Dolma Baktshe to the summit of the ridge near the Cemetery of Pera. On this inclined plane, with the assistance of windlasses and numerous yokes of oxen, the vessels were hauled up one after the other to the summit of the hill, from whence they descended with difficulty to the point beyond the present arsenal, where they were launched into the port under the protection of batteries prepared for their defence. Historians, wishing to give a dramatic character to their pages, have attributed marvellous difficulties to this daring exploit. It was a well-conceived and well-executed undertaking, for a division of the Ottoman fleet was conveyed into the port in a single night, where the Greeks, at the dawn of day, were amazed at beholding the hostile ships safe under the protection of inexpugnable batteries.

To establish an easy and rapid communication between the naval camp on the Bosporus and the army before Constantinople, Mahomet ordered a floating bridge to be constructed across the port, from the point near the old foundry, on the side of Galata, to that near the angle of the city walls, near Haivan Serai, the ancient amphitheatre. The roadway of this bridge was supported on the enormous jars used for storing oil and wine, numbers of which were easily collected in the suburbs of Galata. These jars, when bound together with their mouth inverted in the water, formed admirable pontoons. Artillery was mounted on this bridge and the galleys were brought up to the city walls, which were now assailed from a quarter hitherto safe from attack. The Genoese under Justiniani on one occasion, and the Venetians on another, were defeated in their attempts to burn the Turkish fleet and destroy the bridge. The fire of the artillery rendered the attacks of the Italians abortive, and their failure afforded a decisive proof that the defence of the city was becoming desperate. To avoid the admission of their inferiority in force, the defeated parties threw the blame on one another, and their dissensions became so violent that the Emperor could hardly appease the quarrel.

During all the labors of the besiegers in other quarters, the approaches were pushed vigorously forward against the land wall. Though the activity in other and more novel operations might attract greater attention, the industry those engaged in filling up the ditch, and the fire of the breaching batteries, never relaxed. Though all attempts to cross the ditch at the gate of St. Romanus were long baffled by the Greeks, and the mining operations at Blachern were discovered and defeated by Johann Grant, still the superior number and indefatigable perseverance of the Ottomans at last filled up the ditch, and the fire of their guns ruined the walls. A visible change in the state of the fortifications encouraged the assailants, and showed the besieged that the enemy was gradually gaining a decided advantage. At the commencement of the siege, the Ottoman engineers had displayed so little knowledge of the mode of using artillery to effect a breach that a Hungarian envoy from John Hunyady,1

who visited Mahomet’s camp, ridiculed the idea of their producing any effect on the walls of Constantinople. This stranger was said to have taught the Turks to fire in volleys, and to cut the wall in rectangular sections, in order to produce a practicable breach.

The batteries at length effected a practicable breach at the gate of St. Romanus. Before issuing his final orders for the assault, Mahomet II summoned the Emperor to surrender the city, and offered him a considerable appanage as a vassal of the Porte elsewhere. Constantine rejected the insulting offer, and the Sultan prepared to take Constantinople by storm. Four days were employed in the Ottoman camp making all the arrangements necessary for a simultaneous attack by land and sea along the whole line of the fortifications, from the modern quarter of Phanar to the Golden Gate. The Greeks and Latins within the walls were not less active in their exertions to meet the crisis. The Latins were sustained by their habits of military discipline, and their experiences of the chances of war; the Greeks placed great confidence in some popular prophecies which foretold the ultimate defeat of the Turks. They felt a pious conviction that the imperial and orthodox city would never fall into the hands of infidels. But the emperor Constantine was deceived by no vain hopes. He knew that human prudence and valor could do no more than had been done to retard the progress of the besiegers. Time had been gained, but the Greeks showed no disposition to fight for a heretical emperor, and no succors arrived from the Pope and the western princes. Constantine could now only hope to prolong the defence for a few hours, and, when the city fell, to bring his own life to a glorious termination by dying on the breach.

On the night before the assault, the Emperor rode round to all the posts occupied by the garrison, and encouraged the troops to expect victory by his cheerful demeanor. He then visited the Church of St. Sophia, already deserted by the orthodox, where with his attendants he partook of the holy sacrament according to the Latin form. He returned for a short time to the imperial palace, and, on quitting it to take his station at the great breach, he was so overcome by the certainty that he should never again behold those present that he turned to the members of his household, many of whom had been the companions of his youths and solemnly asked them to pardon every offence he had ever given them. Tears burst from all present as Constantine mounted his horse and rode slowly forward to meet his fate.

The contrast between the city of the Christians and the camp of the Mahometans was not encouraging. Within the walls an emperor in the decline of life commanded a small and disunited force, with twenty leaders under his orders, each at the head of an almost independent band of Greek, Genoese, Venetian, or Catalan soldiers. So slight was the tie which bound these various chiefs together that, even when they were preparing for the final assault, the Emperor was obliged to use all his authority and personal influence to prevent Justiniani and the grand duke Notaras from coming to blows. Justiniani demanded to be supplied with some additional guns for the defence of the great breach, but Notaras, who had the official control over the artillery, peremptorily refused the demand.

In the Turkish camp, on the other hand, perfect unity prevailed, and a young, ardent, and able sovereign concentrated in his hands the most despotic authority over a numerous and well-disciplined army. To excite the energy of that army to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, the Sultan proclaimed to his troops that he granted them the whole plunder of Constantinople, reserving to himself only the public buildings. The day of the battle was regarded as a religious festival in the Ottoman camp, and on the previous night lamps were hung out before every tent, and fires were kindled on every eminence in or near the lines. Thousands of lanterns were suspended from the flagstaffs of the batteries and from the masts and yards of the ships, and were reflected in the waters of the Propontis, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus. The whole Ottoman encampment was resplendent with the blaze of this illumination. Yet a deep silence prevailed during the whole night, except when the musical cadence of the solemn chant of the call to prayers showed the Greeks the immense numbers and the strict discipline of the host.

Before the dawn of day, on the morning of May 29, 1453, the signal was given for the attack. Column after column marched forward, and took up its ground before the portion of the wall it was ordered to assail. The galleys, fitted with towers and scaling-platforms, advanced against the fortifications of the port protected by the guns on the bridge. But the principal attack was directed against the breach at the gate of St. Romanus, where two flanking towers had fallen into the ditch and opened a passage into the interior of the city. The gate of Charsias and the quarter of Blachern were also assailed by chosen regiments of janizaries in overwhelming numbers. The attack was made with daring courage, but for more than two hours every point was successfully defended. In the port, the Italian and Greek ships opposed the Turkish galleys so effectually that the final result appeared to favor the besieged. But on the land side, one column of troops followed the other in an incessant stream. The moment a division fell back from the assault, new battalions occupied its place. The valor of the besieged was for some time successful, but they were at last fatigued by their exertions, and their scanty numbers were weakened by wounds and death. Unfortunately, Justiniani, the protostrator or marshal of the army, and the ablest officer in the place, received a wound which induced him to retire on board his ship to have it dressed. Until that moment he and the Emperor had defended the great breach with advantage; but after his retreat Sagan Pacha, observing that the energy of the defenders was relaxed, excited the bravest of the janizaries to mount to the assault. A chosen company led by Hasan of Ulubad, a man of gigantic frame, first crossed the ruins of the wall, and their leader gained the summit of the dilapidated tower which flanked the breach. The defenders, headed by the emperor Constantine, made a desperate resistance. Hasan and many of his followers were slain, but the janizaries had secured the vantage-ground, and, fresh troops pouring in to their aid, they surrounded the defenders of the breach. The Emperor fell amid a heap of slain, and a column of janizaries rushed into Constantinople over his lifeless body.

About the same time another corps of the Ottomans forced an entrance into the city at the gate of the Circus, which had been left almost without defence, for the besieged were not sufficiently numerous to guard the whole line of the fortifications, and their best troops were drawn to the points where the attacks were fiercest. The corps that forced the gate of the Circus took the defenders of the gate of Charsias in the rear, and overpowered all resistance in the quarter of Blachern.

Several gates were now thrown open, and the army entered Constantinople at several points. The cry that the enemy had stormed the walls preceded their march. Senators, priests, monks, and nuns, men, women, and children, all rushed to seek safety in St. Sophia’s. A prediction current among the Greeks flattered them with the vain hope that an angel would descend from heaven and destroy the Mahometans, in order to reveal the extent of God’s love for the orthodox. St. Sophia’s, which for some time they had forsaken as a spot profaned by the Emperor’s attempt at a union of the Christian world, was again revered as the sanctuary of orthodoxy, and was crowded with the flower of the Greek nation, confident of a miraculous interposition in favor of their national pride and ecclesiastical prejudices.

The besiegers, when they first entered the city, fearing lest they might encounter serious resistance in the narrow streets, put every soul they encountered to the sword. But as soon as they were fully aware of the small number of the garrison, and the impossibility of any further opposition, they began to make prisoners. At length they reached St. Sophia’s, and, rushing into that magnificent temple, which could with ease contain twenty thousand persons, they performed deeds of plunder and violence not unlike the scenes which the crusaders had enacted in the same spot in 1204. The men, women, and children who had sought safety in the building were divided among the soldiers as slaves, without any reference to their rank or respect for their ties of blood, and hurried off to the camp, or placed under the guard of comrades, who formed a joint alliance for the security of their plunder. The ecclesiastical ornaments and church plate were poor indeed when compared with the immense riches of the Byzantine cathedral in the time of the crusaders; but whatever was movable was immediately divided among the soldiers with such celerity that the mighty temple soon presented few traces of having been a Christian church.

While one division of the victorious army was engaged in plundering the southern side of the city, from the gate of St. Romanus to the Church of St. Sophia, another, turning to the port, made itself master of the warehouses that were filled with merchandise, and surrounded the Greek troops under the grand duke Notaras. The Greeks were easily subdued, and Notaras surrendered himself a prisoner. About midday the Turks were in possession of the whole city, and Mahomet II entered his new capital at the gate of St. Romanus, riding triumphantly past the body of the emperor Constantine, which lay concealed among the slain in the breach he had defended. The Sultan rode straight to the Church of St. Sophia, where he gave the necessary orders for the preservation of all the public buildings. Even during the license of the sack, the severe education and grave character of the Ottomans exerted a powerful influence on their conduct, and on this occasion there was no example of the wanton destruction and wilful conflagrations that had signalized the Latin conquest. To convince the Greeks that their orthodox empire was extinct, Mahomet ordered a mollah to ascend the bema and address a sermon to the Mussulmans, announcing that St. Sophia was now a mosque set apart for the prayers of the true believers. To put an end to all doubts concerning the death of the Emperor, he ordered Constantine’s head to be brought and exposed to the people of the capital, from whence it was afterward sent as a trophy to be seen by the Greeks of the principal cities in the Ottoman empire.

1The great Hungarian leader, who long fought against the Turks, and signally defeated them at Belgrad in 1456.—ED.


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Chicago: George Finlay, "Mahomet II Takes Constantinople; End of the Eastern Empire," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2023,

MLA: Finlay, George. "Mahomet II Takes Constantinople; End of the Eastern Empire." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Finlay, G, 'Mahomet II Takes Constantinople; End of the Eastern Empire' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2023, from