“1453” by Roger Crowley

1453 by Roger Crowley cover

This book was a short, gripping read = excellent!

Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire since 330 A.D., fell to the Ottomans on May 29, 1453, after being besieged for seven weeks. The City was long seen as impregnable, surrounded by seas on two sides and a formidable land wall on the other. Sultan Mehmet II (only 21 years old!) adopted newfangled cannon technology to remove the land wall advantage. Also he recognized the need for a powerful fleet, to blockade the City and prevent reinforcements and supplies from entering.

The siege was a long time coming. The Byzantine Empire itself had dwindled over the last few centuries since the betrayal of the Fourth Crusade. By 1453, they only ruled the city, some islands, and some lands down in Greece. During this same period, the Ottomans were ascendant, rocketing up from tribe to an empire in their own right. The final piece of their imperial puzzle was the Red Apple, Constantinople.

I couldn’t help but feeling for the defenders while reading this story of the siege. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and the clock was ticking. Over the previous few decades, the Byzantines had even reached out to unionist (re: the Great Schsim) forces in the West – nearly on the eve of the siege, official envoys of the Pope were in residence to welcome back the Orthodox followers to the fold. While the administration saw this as necessary to securing Western military support, the people in Constantinople resisted these efforts and saw Emperor Constantine XI as a bringer of heresy — perhaps they ended up blaming him later for what followed.

There was a powerful sense of doom and foreboding during the siege itself. The guns ground the walls to powder each day, while the defenders attempted repairs each night. Giovanni Giustiniani (I love that name!), a Genoese captain and leader of the city defense, was by all accounts brave and a genius. But daily the defenders grew fewer and fewer, and despite hopes and rumors, no Hungarian army or Venetian fleet was on the way to the rescue. His advisors tried to convince him to flee to other holdings in Greece, but Constantine stoicly refused to abandon the City.

When the Ottomans finally stormed the walls, Constantine died anonymously, fighting alongside his troops, while Giustiniani escaped but not before suffering a mortal wound. Mehmet entered the City, now and forever known as Fatih, the Conquereor. The city was looted per Islamic rules of war and the population virtually all were enslaved.  The Byzantine Empire was dead.

Incidentally, upon searching for an image of this book’s cover it seems there was a Turkish movie about the capture of Istanbul produced just last year. . . something tells me it has a slightly different point of view that the book I just read.




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