Islam's Greatest Victory: The Fall of Constantinople

Of all of Islam’s conquests of Christian territory, the most symbolically significant occurred today, on May 20, 1453, when Constantinople fell.  For not only was “New Rome” a living and direct extension of the ancient Roman Empire and current capital of the Christian Roman Empire (or Byzantium), but its cyclopean walls had prevented Islam from entering Europe through its eastern doorway for the previous seven centuries

On becoming Ottoman sultan, Mehmet, or Muhammad II (b. 1432, r. 1451-1481) -- “the mortal enemy of the Christians,” to quote a contemporary prelate -- made ready for war.  Throughout the spring of 1453 the city watched helplessly as his forces made their way to and surrounded Constantinople by land and sea. One contemporary remarked that Muhammad’s “army seemed as numberless as grains of sand, spread... across the land from shore to shore.” In the end, some one hundred thousand fighters came.

Muhammad commenced bombardment on April 6. Although he tried to go over, through, and under the walls, he made little headway.  Some six weeks after he had started pummeling Constantinople, he was no nearer his goal. 

So he assembled and exhorted his men for one last-ditch effort: “As it happens in all battles, some of you will die, as it is decreed by fate for each man,” he began. “Recall the promises of our Prophet concerning fallen warriors in the Koran: the man who dies in combat shall be transported bodily to Paradise and shall dine with Mohammed in the presence of women, handsome boys, and virgins.”

Even so, Sultan Muhammad knew that rewards in the now were always preferable to promises in the hereafter. As Sheikh Akshemsettin had earlier told him, “You well know, that most of the soldiers [particularly the dreaded Janissaries] have in any case been converted [to Islam] by force. The number of those who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the love of Allah is extremely small. On the other hand, if they glimpse the possibility of winning booty they will run towards certain death.”

So the “Sultan swore… that his warriors would be granted the right to sack everything, to take everyone, male or female, and all property or treasure which was in the city.”

Any Muslim still uninspired by the boons of the here or hereafter was left with a final thought: “If I see any man lurking in the tents and not fighting at the wall,” warned the sultan, “he will not be able to escape a lingering death,” a reference to Muhammad’s favorite form of punishment, impalement (which Vlad the Impaler -- “Dracula” -- was introduced to while a “ward” in the sultan’s court).  Muhammad’s “announcement was received with great joy,” and from thousands of throats came waves of thundering cries of “Allahu Akbar!” and “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet!”

“Oh! If you had heard their voices raised to heaven,” wondered a Christian behind the wall, “you would have been struck dumb with amazement… We … were amazed at such religious fervor, and begged God with copious tears to be well disposed towards us.”

The all-out assault was set for May 29.  Fanatics of all sorts were set loose to inspire the men on the previous day. Wandering “dervishes visited the tents, to instill the desire of martyrdom, and the assurance of spending an immortal youth amidst the rivers and gardens of paradise, and in the embraces of the black-eyed virgins [the fabled houris].”  Criers swept throughout the camp to horn blasts:

Children of Muhammad, be of good heart, for tomorrow we shall have so many Christians in our hands that we will sell them, two slaves for a ducat, and will have such riches that we will all be of gold, and from the beards of the Greeks we will make leads for our dogs, and their families will be our slaves. So be of good heart and be ready to die cheerfully for the love of our Muhammad.

Finally, on May 29, around 2 a.m., Muhammad unleashed all hell against Constantinople: to blasting sounds of trumpets, cymbals, and Islamic war-cries, cannon fire lit the horizon as ball after ball came careening into the wall. 

After the initial bombardment, wave after wave of hordes came, all desirous of booty or paradise -- or merely of evading impalement. With ladders and hooks, they fought, clawed, and clambered onto the wall. “Who could narrate the voices, the cries of the wounded, and the lamentation that arose on both sides?” recollected an eyewitness. “The shouts and din went beyond the boundaries of heaven.”

After two hours of this, thousands of Ottomans lay dead beneath the wall.  Regardless, Muhammad continued ordered more waves of Turks to crash against the wall. They built and clawed atop human pyramids of their own dead and wounded, all while cannon balls careened and crashed -- to no avail. Having the high ground, the Christians slew countless Muslims. “One could only marvel at the brutes,” conceded a defender. “Their army was being annihilated, and yet they dared to approach the fosse again and again.”

By 4 a.m. nonstop cannon fire had made several breaches. A small detachment of Turks entered the city through a minor doorway which the defenders had left open during the chaos.

One Hassan -- “a giant of a beast” -- slew all before him and inspired other Turks to press in behind him. They quickly planted the Islamic flag, causing consternation among the defenders. When a well-aimed stone took Hassan down, he continued swinging his scimitar on one knee until, riddled and “overwhelmed by arrows,” he was welcomed into paradise by the houris. “By then, the whole host of the enemy were on our walls and our forces were put to flight.” Thousands of invaders flooded in and slaughtered the outnumbered defenders; others were trampled underfoot and “crushed to death” by the press of men.

Crying, “The City is lost, but I live,” Emperor Constantine XI stripped and flung off his royal regalia and “spurred on his horse and reached the spot where the Turks were coming in large numbers.” With his steed he “knocked the impious from the walls” and with “his drawn sword in his right hand, he killed many opponents, while blood was streaming from his legs and arms.” Inspired by their lord, men shouting “Better to die!” rushed into and were consumed by the oncoming throng. “The Emperor was caught up among these, fell and rose again, then fell once more.”

Thus “he died by the gate with many of his men, like any commoner, after having reigned for three years and three months,” concludes a chronicler.  And on that May 29, 1453, the 2,206-year-old Roman state died with him, and “the saying,” observed another contemporary, “was fulfilled: ‘It started with Constantine [the Great, who founded Constantinople, or “New Rome” in 325] and it ended with Constantine [XI].’”

Even so, by holding out against Islam for as long as it did -- eight centuries -- Constantinople had saved the West.  As Byzantine historian John Julius Norwich explains, “Had the Saracens captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe -- and America -- might be Muslim today.”  

Note: The above account was excerpted and adapted from the author’s recent book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes come from contemporary eyewitnesses and primary sources documented therein.

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