The Ottoman Turks were originally based in western Anatolia and had risen to prominence as a frontier principality on the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth and fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottoman sultanate had conquered much of Anatolia, Greece, Thrace, and the Slavic-speaking regions south of the Danube; in effect, they had replaced the Byzantine Empire as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Aegean. The culmination of Ottoman expansion in southeastern Europe was the conquest of Constantinople on May 29th 1453, which was accomplished after a fifty-four-day siege by Sultan Mehmed II (r.1451–1481), known as “the Conqueror” following his capture of the Byzantine capital.
The conquest of Constantinople had a tremendous impact both on the Ottoman sultanate, which was transformed into an imperial state with far-reaching aspirations and claims to legitimacy, and on Christian Europe. Most Latin Christians viewed the fall of Constantinople as a devastating blow to Christendom and as an event far more worrisome than the fall of the last Crusader stronghold of Acre in 1291. Not only did the symbolic and religious significance of the city resonate deeply with many Christians, but its capture by a strong expansionist Islamic power provoked anxiety within Europe. Almost immediately there were renewed calls for crusades against the Ottomans. Although similar initiatives were earlier organized by the Papacy and defeated by the Turks, first at Nicopolis in 1396 and then at Varna in 1444, there was an increased sense of urgency associated with the post-1453 crusades. Fears of the extension of Ottoman power deeper into Christian Europe were confirmed when Mehmed II besieged Belgrade (unsuccessfully) in 1456, Negroponte (successfully) in 1470, Rhodes (unsuccessfully) in 1480, and, more alarmingly, launched an assault on the Italian peninsula, capturing Otranto in 1480.
The following account was written by Michael Kritovolous of Imbros (d. 1470)—a Greek Christian governor who was in the service of Mehmed II—shortly after the events described. His account which provides important insight into the specific political and military aspects of the siege is vivid, embellished, and detailed. It is modeled upon the writing styles of the ancient historians Thucydides and Josephus. Although dedicated to the Ottoman sultan (referred to as “the Supreme Emperor, King of Kings, the fortunate and victorious Mehmed”) and praising many of his accomplishments, the account captures the sense of loss and devastation felt by many Byzantine Christians following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. As a former subject of the Byzantine Empire himself, Kritovolous represents the conquest as an important event which signified the end of the nearly 1100-year old Byzantine Empire. Overall, his account of the city’s fall (which makes of up one-fifth of his entire chronicle) reflects his complex feelings about the event, in that he openly admired the sultan’s military ability (which he called “in no way inferior to those of Alexander the Macedonian”), while lamenting the final disappearance of the Byzantine Empire. On this 563rd anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, I have provided some excerpts of the work in order to provide ample material for all to reflect upon the final hours of the Byzantine Empire, one of the greatest civilizations in history. For those wishing to learn more about this specific event or seeking to better contextualize Kritovoulos’ specific representation of the fall of Constantinople, I highly recommend you to read the chronicles of Asikpashazade (d. 1484), Laonikos Chalkokondyles (d. 1490), Doukas (d. after 1462), especially since the latter two are available in English translation. The excerpts below are taken from Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror (Princeton, 1954), trans. Charles Riggs, pp. 66–82.
“The hour was already advanced, the day was declining and near evening, and the sun was at the Ottomans’ backs but shining in the faces of their enemies. This was just as the Sultan had wished; accordingly he gave the order first for the trumpets to sound the battle-signal, and the other instruments, the pipes and flutes and cymbals too, as loud as they could. All the trumpets of the other divisions, with the other instruments in turn, sounded all together, a great and fearsome sound. Everything shook and quivered at the noise. After that, the standards were displayed.
To begin with, the archers and slingers and those in charge of the cannon and muskets, in accord with the commands given them, advanced against the wall slowly and gradually. When they got within bowshot, they halted to fight. And first they exchanged fire with the heavier weapons, with arrows from the archers, stones from the slingers, and iron and leaden balls from the cannon and muskets. Then, as they closed with battleaxes and javelins and spears, hurling them at each other and being hurled at pitilessly in rage and fierce anger. On both sides there was loud shouting and blasphemy and cursing. Many on each side were wounded and many died. This kept up till sunset, a space of about two or three hours.
Then, with fine insight, the Sultan summoned the shield-bearers, heavy infantry, and other troops and said: “Go to it, friends and children of mine! It is now time to show yourselves good fighters!” They immediately crossed the moat, with shouts and fearful yells, and attacked the outer wall. All of it, however, had been demolished by the cannon. There were only stockades of great beams instead of a wall, and bundles of vine-branches, and jars full of earth. At that point a fierce battle ensued close in and with the weapons of hand-to-hand fighting. The heavy infantry and shield-bearers fought to overcome the defenders and get over the stockade, while the Romans and Italians tried to fight these off and to guard the stockade. At times, the infantry did get over the wall and the stockade, pressing forward bravely and unhesitatingly. And at times they were stoutly forced back and driven off.
The Sultan followed them up, as they struggled bravely, and encouraged them. He ordered those in charge of the cannon to put the match to the cannon. And these, being set off, fired their stone balls against the defenders and worked no little destruction on both sides, among those in the near vicinity. So, then, the two sides struggled and fought bravely and vigorously. Most of the night passed, and the Romans were successful and prevailed not a little…they fought bravely and proved superior to the Ottomans in battle. Indeed, they showed that they were heroes, for not one of all the things that occurred could deter them: neither the hunger attacking them, nor sleeplessness, nor continuous and ceaseless fighting, or wounds and slaughter, nor the death of relatives before their very eyes, nor any of the other fearful things could make them give in, or diminish their previous zeal and determination. They valiantly kept on resisting as before, through everything, until evil and pitiless fortune betrayed them.
Sultan Mehmed saw that the attacking divisions were very much worn out by the battle and had not made any progress worth mentioning, and that the Romans and Italians were not only fighting stoutly, but were even prevailing in the battle. He was very indignant at this, considering that it ought not to be endured any longer. Immediately he brought up the divisions which he had been reserving for later on, men who were extremely well armed, daring and brave, and far in advance of the rest in experience and valor. They were the elite of the army: heavy infantry, bowmen, and lancers, and his own bodyguard, and along with them those of the division called Yenitsari [Janissaries]. Calling to them and urging them to prove themselves heroes, he led the attack against the wall, himself at the head until they reached the moat. There he ordered the bowmen, slingers, and musketeers to stand at a distance and fire to the right, against the defenders on the palisade and on the battered wall. They were to keep up so heavy a fire that those defenders would be unable to fight, or to expose themselves because of the cloud of arrows and other projectiles falling like snowflakes.
To all the rest, the heavy infantry and the shield-bearers, the Sultan gave orders to cross the moat swiftly and attack the palisade. With a loud and terrifying war-cry and with fierce impetuosity and wrath, they advanced as if mad. Being young and strong and full of daring, and especially because they were fighting in the Sultan’s presence, their valor exceeded every expectation. They attacked the palisade and fought bravely without any hesitation. Needing no further orders, they knocked down the turrets which had been built out in front, broke the yardarms, scattered the materials that had been gathered, and forced the defenders back inside the palisade…Sultan Mehmed, who happened to be fighting quite nearby, saw that the palisade and the other part of the wall that had been destroyed were now empty of men and deserted by the defenders. He noted that men were slipping away secretly and that those who remained were fighting feebly because they were so few. Realizing from this that the defenders had fled and that the wall was deserted, he shouted out: “Friends, we have the City! We have it! They are already fleeing from us! They can’t stand it any longer! The wall is bare of defenders! It needs just a little more effort and the City is taken! Don’t weaken, but on with the work with all your might, and be men and I am with you!”
Capture of the City
So saying, he led them himself. And they, with a shout on the run and with a fearsome yell, went on ahead of the Sultan, pressing on up to the palisade. After a long and bitter struggle, they hurled back the Romans from there and climbed by force up the palisade. They dashed some of their foe into the ditch between the great wall and the palisade…the rest they drove back to the gate.
Death of Emperor Constantine XII Palaiologos
He had opened this gate in the great wall, so as to go easily over to the palisade. Now there was a great struggle there and great slaughter among those stationed there, for they were attacked by the heavy infantry and not a few others in irregular formation, who had been attracted from many points by the shouting. There the Emperor Constantine, with all who were with him, fell in gallant combat.
The heavy infantry was already streaming through the little gate into the City, and others had rushed through the breach in the great wall. Then all the rest of the army, with a rush and a roar, poured in brilliantly and scattered all over the City. And the Sultan stood before the great wall, where the standard also was and the ensigns, and watched the proceedings. The day was already breaking.
Great Rush, and Many Killed
Then a great slaughter occurred of those who happened to be there: some of them were on the streets, for they had already left the houses and were running toward the tumult when they fell unexpectedly on the swords of the soldiers; others were in their own homes and fell victims to the violence of the Janissaries and other soldiers, without any rhyme or reason; others were resisting, relying on their own courage; still others were fleeing to the churches and making supplication — men, women, and children, everyone, for there was no quarter given. The soldiers fell on them with anger and great wrath. For one thing, they were actuated by the hardships of the siege. For another, some foolish people had hurled taunts and curses at them from the battlements all through the siege. Now, in general they killed so as to frighten all the City, and to terrorize and enslave all by the slaughter.
Plunder of the City
When they had had enough of murder, and the City was reduced to slavery, some of the troops turned to the mansions of the mighty, by bands and companies and divisions, for plunder and spoil. Others went to the robbing of churches, and others dispersed to the simple homes of the common people, stealing, robbing, plundering, killing, insulting, taking and enslaving men, women, and children, old and young, priests, monks—in short, every age and class.
There was a further sight, terrible and pitiful beyond all tragedies: young and chaste women of noble birth and well to do, accustomed to remain at home and who had hardly ever left their own premises, and handsome and lovely maidens of splendid and renowned families, till then unsullied by male eyes — some of these were dragged by force from their chambers and hauled off pitilessly and dishonorably. Other women, sleeping in their beds, had to ensure nightmares. Men with swords, their hands bloodstained with murder, breathing out rage, speaking out murder indiscriminate, flushed with all the worst things—this crowd, made up of men from every race and nation, brought together by chance, like wild and ferocious beasts, leaped into the houses, driving them out mercilessly, dragging, rendering, forcing, hauling them disgracefully into public highways, insulting them and doing every evil thing.
They say that many of the maidens, even at the mere unaccustomed sight and sound of these men, were terror-stricken and came near losing their very lives. And there were also honorable old men who were dragged by their white hair, and some of them beaten unmercifully. And well-born and beautiful young boys were carried off. There were priests who were driven along, and consecrated virgins who were honorable and wholly unsullied, devoted to God alone and living for Him to whom they had consecrated themselves. Some of these were forced out of their cells and driven off, and others dragged out of the churches where they had taken refuge and driven off with insult and dishonor, their cheeks scratched, amid wailing and lamentation and bitter tears. Tender children were snatched pitilessly from their mothers, young brides separated ruthlessly from their newly-married husbands. And ten thousand other terrible deeds were done.
Plundering and Robbing of the Churches
And the desecrating and plundering and robbing of the churches —how can one describe it in words? Some things they threw in dishonor on the ground—icons and reliquaries and other objects from the churches. The crowd snatched some of these, and some were given over to the fire while others were torn to shreds and scattered at the crossroads. The last resting-places of the blessed men of old were opened, and their remains were taken out and disgracefully torn to pieces, even to shreds, and made the sport of the wind while others were thrown on the streets…And holy and divine books, and others mainly of profane literature and philosophy, were either given to the flames or dishonorably trampled underfoot. Many of them were sold for two or three pieces of money, and sometimes for pennies only, not for gain so much as in contempt. Holy altars were torn from their foundations and overthrown. The walls of sanctuaries and cloisters were explored, and the holy places of the shrines were dug into and overthrown in the search for gold. Many other such things they dared to do.
Those unfortunate Romans who had been assigned to other parts of the wall and were fighting there, on land and by sea, supposed that the City was still safe and had not suffered reverses, and that their women and children were free—for they had no knowledge at all of what had happened. They kept on fighting bravely, powerfully resisting the attackers and brilliantly driving off those who were trying to scale the walls. But when they saw the enemy in their rear, attacking them from inside the City, and saw women and children being led away as captives and shamefully treated, some were overwhelmed with hopelessness and threw themselves with their weapons over the wall and were killed, while others in utter despair dropped their weapons from hands already paralyzed and surrendered to the enemy without a struggle, to be treated as the enemy chose.
In the same manner [as described above], the Ottoman naval forces streamed into the City victoriously through the other gates, smashing them and throwing them down. Thus, the whole naval force, scattering through the whole City, turned to plunder, robbing everything in their way, and falling on it like a fire or a whirlwind, burning and annihilating everything, or like a torrent sweeping away and destroying all things…Churches, holy places, old treasuries, tombs, underground galleries, cisterns and hiding places, caves and crannies were burst into. And they searched every other hidden place, dragging out into the light anybody or anything they found hidden. Going into the largest church, that of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), they found there a great crowd of men, women, and children taking refuge and calling upon God. Those they caught as in a net, and took them all in a body and carried them captives, some to the galleys and some to the camp.
Surrender of Galata to the Sultan
Upon this, the men of Galata, seeing the City already captured and plundered, immediately surrendered en masse to the Sultan so as to suffer no ills. They opened their gates to admit Zaganos [Pasha] and his troops, and these did them no harm. The entire army, the land and naval force, poured into the City from daybreak and even from early dawn until the evening. They robbed and plundered it, carrying all the booty into the camp and into the ships…Thus, the whole City was emptied and deserted, despoiled and blackened as if by fire. One might easily disbelieve that it had ever had in it a human dwelling or the wealth or properties of a city or any furnishings or ornaments of a household. And this was true although the City had been so magnificent and grand. There were left only ruined homes, so badly ruined as to cause great fear to all who saw them. There died, of Romans and of foreigners, as was reported, in all the fighting and in the capture of the City itself, all told, men, women, and children, over four thousand, and a little more than fifty thousand were taken prisoners, including about five hundred from the whole army.
Entry of the Sultan into the City and His Grief
After this, the Sultan entered the City and looked about to see its great size, its situation, its grandeur and its beauty, its teeming population, its loveliness and the luxury of its churches and public buildings and of the private houses and community houses and those of the officials. He also saw the setting of the harbor and of the arsenals, and how skillfully and ingeniously they had everything arranged in the City—in a word, all the construction and adornment of it. When he saw what a large number had been killed, and the ruin of the buildings, and the wholesale ruin and destruction of the City, he was filled with compassion and repented not a little at the destruction and plundering. Tears fell from his eyes as he groaned deeply and passionately: “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction!”
Kritovoulos’ Personal Lamentation for the City
With the conquest, the City’s possessions vanished, its goods summarily disappeared, and it was deprived of all things: wealth, glory, rule, splendor, honor, brilliance of population, valor, education, wisdom, religious orders, dominion—in short, of all. And in the degree in which the City had advanced in prosperity and good fortune, to a corresponding degree it was now brought down into the abyss of misfortune and misery. While previously it had been called blessed by very many, it now heard everyone call it unfortunate and deeply afflicted. And while it had gloriously advanced to the boundaries of the civilized world, it now filled land and sea alike with its misfortunes and its ignominy, sending everywhere as examples of its misery the inhabitants—men, women, and children—who were scattered disgracefully in captivity and slavery and insult.
And the City which had formerly ruled with honor and glory and wealth and great splendor over many nations was now ruled by others, amid want and disgrace and dishonor and abject and shameful slavery. While it had been an example of all good things, the picture of brilliant prosperity, it now became the image of misfortune, a reminder of sufferings, a monument of disasters, and a by-word for life.
Elegy over Emperor Constantine
The Emperor Constantine himself, as I have said, died fighting. He was wise and moderate in his private life and diligent to the highest degree in prudence and virtue, sagacious as the most highly-trained of men. In political affairs and in matters of government he yielded to no one of the kings before him in preeminence. Quick to perceive his duty, and still more quick to do it, he was eloquent in speech, clever in thought, and very accomplished in talking of public affairs. He was exact in his judgments of the present, as someone has said of Pericles, and usually correct in regard to the future, a splendid worker, who chose to do and to suffer everything for the fatherland and his subjects. Therefore, when he saw with his own eyes the evident danger threatening the City, and was able to save himself, he did not choose to do so, although there were many who begged him to, but preferred to die with his country and his subjects, or rather to die beforehand himself, so that he might not see his country captured and all the inhabitants either cruelly murdered or made captive and ignominiously taken away. For when he saw the enemy pressing in on him and coming into the City through the broken wall, he is stated to have cried aloud this last word: “The city is taken and it is useless for me to live any longer.” So saying he hurled himself into the midst of the enemy and was cut to pieces. He was a splendid man and the guardian of the common good, but unfortunate all through his life and doubly unfortunate at its close.”
(Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. Charles Riggs, pp. 66–82. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954)