A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

560 Years Ago Today, a City Fell ...

Constantine XI
To the Byzantines it was often simply "the city," a capital that had endured for 11 centuries since its foundation by Constantine the Great. Western Europe mght hold that the Roman Empire had fallen  centuries before, but Emperors still reigned at Constantine's  New Rome on the Bosporus. It had resisted sieges by Arabs, by Tamerlane, and its walls were landmarks, running from the Golden Horn to the Bosporus, protecting the city from the landward side. It had endured a period of Latin rule under the Fourth Crusade, and for centuries had watched as its Anatolian hinterland first, and later its European hinterland as well, came under Ottoman rule. The Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus, seeking aid from the West and seeking to rally his people against the big siege guns of the Ottomans, still reigned in Constantinople until a date that echoes in the history of all the Orthodox Christian countries, and of Turkey: May 29, 1453, 560 years ago today. (Leaving out some pesky calendar changes.)

Mehmet II (Fatih Sultan Mehmet)
In many European countries, 1453 was once considered the end of the Middle Ages; certainly the Fall of Constantinople, followed in 1492 by Columbus' discoveries and soon after that by the Protestant Reformation, all served to draw a line under the centuries preceding. And the fall certainly underscored the lesson that siege cannon would mean an end to the static fortification of walled cities. Another invention, the printing press, came to the West at the same time, fueling change.

Constantine XI died on that fateful Tuesday 560 years ago, to be venerated by many Orthodox as a saint, and as the "Marble Emperor" to become a figure in Greek folklore who will come again when Constantinople is Greek again, and Orthodoxy returns to Hagia Sophia.

His adversary, Sultan Mehmet II, was only 21 when the city fell, but is still remembered as Mehmet Fatih, Mehmet the Conqueror. Though the city of Istanbul is no longer Turkey's capital, it is still the country's metropolis and historic heart, and even its Turkish name is said to preserve the medieval Greek phrase εἰς τὴν Πόλιν, "to the city," remembering the days when it was the city par excellence.

A trailer from the recent hit Turkish film Fetih 1453, a dramatization of the fall (from the Turkish point of view, of course):


Anonymous said...

That Turkish film is a hilarious exercise in historical revisionism, depicting the ragged last muster of Byzantium - some 5,000 able bodied men according to a census made before the battle - as some kind of huge CGI army out of Mordor.

It is actually amazing that the siege lasted 6 weeks with such a small defensive force behind thousand year old walls facing the latest in 15th century artillery.

Al Moxtar said...

Anonymous commenter, If you think that's a "hilarious exercise in historical revisionism", you're in for a fit of hilarity every time you open a work of fiction, and any number of academic writings, anywhere on the planet.

Anyway, I wouldn't discount the damage 5000 men can do. That's about the size of Hezbollah, and look at the mess they're perpetrating at this day and age.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

These two comments don't really address the same issue. Besides the 5000 or so men under arms the Byzantines had their own and some Venetian naval unit in the Bosporus and the best city walls of the age. The Turkish film is a movie and beefs up the Byzantines to make the Turkish Army look good. This wasn't won by the Turkish Army alone, though they were a factor. The Turkish cannons smashed the walls; the Turkish Navy challenged the Byz/Venetian navies. It was a combined arms victory that marked the beginning of the en dof fortified cities, though some places didn't get it fully till 1914.