The Ottoman Conquest and the Fall of Constantinople
How a thousand-year empire came to an end.
With the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, at the hands of the Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Mehmed II, later dubbed the Conqueror, the tale of the 1,000-year Christian Empire came to a close. The fall of Constantinople had far-reaching repercussions, as it solidified the Ottomans’ foothold in the Balkans, paving the way for their unchallenged advance into Europe.
In the concluding battles of the siege of Constantinople, the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, met his end. While the Ottomans celebrated it as a triumph, European nations mourned it as a tragedy. The capital of the Byzantine Empire, which had stood as the most influential city in the region for centuries and served as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, was now subdued.
But how did Constantinople come to fall? Why is that date viewed by some historians as marking the end of the Middle Ages? Let’s delve into it together.
The Byzantine Empire never fully recovered after the treacherous Crusader conquest of Constantinople in 1204, which led to the establishment of the short-lived Latin Empire. While Michael VIII Palaiologos reclaimed the city in 1261, the grandeur of the once-magnificent Byzantine Empire was but a shadow of its past.
The Palaiologos era (1261-1453) was marked by riots and internal strife. Their ascension to the throne symbolized the dominance of the Byzantine high nobility. Both spiritual and secular landowners expanded their holdings, leading to a life of relative ease. Conversely, the lands of peasants and the lesser nobility started to deteriorate. This imbalance weakened the state politically, financially, and militarily.
As civil wars flared up, foreign powers increasingly meddled in the affairs of the Empire. Notably, the Bulgarian and Serbian Empires became prominent actors. However, none posed as significant a threat to Byzantium as a rising power from the east: the Ottoman Empire.
The earnest ambitions of the Ottomans to conquer Constantinople became evident with the ascent of Sultan Mehmed II. He continued the aggressive stance of his father, Murat II, who had besieged Constantinople in 1422, laid waste to Morea, and decimated the Christian army near Varna in 1444.
The Byzantine capital sat strategically between the Ottomans’ Asian and European territories, acting as a barrier. For the young sultan, the foremost objective was to eliminate this obstruction and empower his empire by capturing Constantinople. Early in his reign, Mehmed II forged peace treaties with Serbia, Venice, and various smaller Aegean and Balkan states. A three-year truce with Hungary was also established. Under Mehmed II’s leadership, the Ottoman Empire embarked on a fresh phase of growth.
Before laying siege to the city, Mehmed secured control of the Bosphorus by constructing the Rumeli Hisari fortress on the European shore, directly opposite the Anadolu Hisari, a stronghold built by his grandfather Bayezid. No vessel could navigate the Bosphorus without Mehmed’s consent. When the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, voiced his protest through an envoy regarding this unilateral move, the sultan retorted, asking who could hinder him from building as he pleased in his own lands.
Recognizing the previous sieges of Constantinople failed due to Byzantine naval superiority—which ensured the city’s resupply and resistance—Mehmed II initiated the mobilization of his navy. Ottoman sources offering details on the size of Mehmed’s forces cite around 80,000 regular troops and approximately 20,000 irregulars, along with their logistical support. However, such figures should be taken with a grain of salt.
Conversely, Byzantine forces were significantly smaller in comparison. As per a census conducted shortly before the battle, the commanders defending Constantinople had at their disposal around 7,000 men, supplemented by assistance from the Venetians and the Genoese.
In early February 1453, the Ottomans set their plan into motion, symbolized by the transportation of a massive siege cannon from Edirne. Western historical records and travel accounts from the 15th and 16th centuries indicate that numerous European outlaws and cannon makers served the Ottoman Empire. Notably among them were Orban from Transylvania and Jörg from Nuremberg. A widely recounted tale tells of Orban offering to construct cannons for the Byzantines in defense of the city. However, after being turned down due to his high price demand, Orban approached the sultan, who generously compensated him, surpassing his initial asking price.
While many sources may exaggerate the pivotal role of the Ottomans’ cannons in the battle’s outcome, it’s worth noting that these cannons were not particularly advanced and posed considerable challenges in operation. Conversely, Constantinople’s defenders were highly disciplined and equipped with superior military gear. As a result, the artillery didn’t dramatically boost combat effectiveness. However, one shouldn’t overlook the psychological impact brought about by the presence of such novel and imposing weaponry.
As they marched towards Constantinople, several cities fell and were seized by the Ottomans. By early April, Mehmed’s forces stood at the gates of Constantinople. Following the deployment of troops and artillery, a letter from the sultan was delivered—a final message to the city. In it the sultan assured the inhabitants that they would be spared if they chose to surrender willingly. Loyalty to their emperor, however, prompted them to decline. Subsequently, the fighting commenced.
For several days, the Ottomans made futile attempts to breach the city, targeting the weakened sections of the walls with sporadic assaults. Concurrently, the Ottoman fleet’s effort to shatter the fortified chain barriers at sea proved unsuccessful. This unexpected turn bolstered the spirits of Constantinople’s inhabitants, who eagerly anticipated support from the West—whether military or merely logistical.
Contemplating a solution to the evolving challenge, Mehmed devised a plan to transport the ships overland, moving them from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. Subsequently, platforms were constructed, and bombardments were intensified to divert attention from this new strategic shift.
A palpable sense of pessimism permeated both camps. Seven weeks into the siege, the Ottoman army had yet to achieve its primary objective. Meanwhile, the ranks of Christian soldiers thinned daily, as did their arsenal. Dissent even began to surface among the Ottomans. On Monday, May 28, final preparations were made for a major assault planned for the following day. As the Ottomans discreetly readied themselves, the Christians within the city’s walls sought solace in their sacred hymns.
The decisive Ottoman assault took place on Tuesday, May 29. The onset of the attack was heralded by a resounding cacophony, punctuated by the city’s church bells, signaling the commencement of Constantinople’s final stand. Every capable man and woman took up arms, while children and the elderly sought refuge in churches. The offensive was launched a mere three hours before dawn. However, the battle’s pivotal moment, perhaps its most defining, was catalyzed by an unforeseen event. The withdrawal of the wounded Genoese commander, Gustiniani—a linchpin in maintaining unity amongst the city’s diverse defenders—triggered a wave of panic, prompting a hasty retreat. Consequently, the Genoese troops abandoned their posts in disarray.
As the janissaries advanced, the defenders were forced to fall back to the inner wall. Their retreat involved crossing a moat, which became the final resting place for many. Once the janissaries took control of the inner wall, it decimated the remaining semblance of order among the Byzantine defenders. The Ottomans then flooded in from all directions, ensuring Constantinople’s fall. Numerous nobles attempted to flee, while others met their end in combat. The fate of the last Byzantine emperor remains shrouded in mystery, though various accounts speculate on the circumstances of his demise.
Byzantine chroniclers depicted the aftermath of the city’s conquest as a period of slaughter, unchecked looting, rape, and rampant drunkenness. In contrast, Ottoman historians mention only isolated instances of misconduct, effectively downplaying any widespread chaos.
The famed Church of Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by the sultan’s decree, standing as a prominent symbol of the Ottoman Empire. While numerous churches faced destruction, the sultan preserved several Christian sanctuaries. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked a pivotal moment in history. Not only was it significant for the first use of firearms in its siege, but also because it signaled the end of an exclusively Christian Europe with the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire.
With the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the Bosphorus, the primary trade route between Western Europe and Asia was severed. In their quest to find an alternative path to Asia, European explorers embarked on numerous expeditions, one of which led to the discovery of America. Furthermore, numerous scholars from the Byzantine Empire, who had sought refuge in the West prior to the Ottoman advance, brought with them the rich legacy of Hellenism. This influx of knowledge would serve as a pivotal catalyst for the dawn of humanism and the European Renaissance.