Part II: Fall of Constantinople

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Part II: Fall of Constantinople

"Mehmed II Conquering Constantinople" by Fausto Zonaro (1903)
Ottoman army on the march (note giant bombard on right); Mehmed on white horse on left
Oil on canvas, currently at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 29, 1453

Prelude to the Battle

Emperor Constantine XI knew his capital was in dire trouble when the Rumelihisari was under construction. He sent a number of pleas to every major ruler in western Europe, asking for help. European response was mostly negative. Both England and France had recently exhausted themselves in the Hundred Years' War; Spain was still deeply involved in the Reconquista; Poland and Hungary were still licking their wounds after their defeat by the Turks during the Varna campaign of 1444; and there was internecine warfare within the German domains. Catholic pontiff Nicholas V offered aid, if the Orthodox Church would submit to Papal authority. Seeking any avenue of assistance Constantine agreed, which netted him a mere 200 archers. [Many Byzantines were disgusted by the emperor's deal, saying they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.]

While no nation offered substantial aid, certain individuals did come to defend Constantinople. The most notable was Giovanni Guistiniani, a young and capable Genoese commander. He brought a force of 700 Italian and Greek soldiers from the island Chios to Constantinople in January of 1453. Guistiniani had personally financed, organized and led this expedition on his own initiative, and upon arrival he was placed in command of the land defenses by the emperor. He was critical in getting the various Italian merchant factions to cooperate and coordinate their efforts. Unfortunately, at the moment of Guistiniani's arrival, seven Italian ships with 700 men slipped away from the city.

In late March, Turkish forces began their march to vicinity of Miklagard. Their progress was slowed by the portage of the colossal artillery piece "Basilica." The sultan's army arrived before the walls of Constantinople on Easter Monday, April 2, 1453, with Mehmed himself coming on the scene on April 5.

Siege of Constantinople

After spending a few days to take their positions, the Ottoman siege of Constantinople began on April 6. The bulk of the Ottoman army was encamped south of the Golden Horn. The regular European troops, stretched out along the entire length of the walls, were commanded by Karadja Pasha. The regular troops from Anatolia under Ishak Pasha were stationed south of the Lycus River down to the Sea of Marmara. Mehmed himself erected his red-and-gold tent near the Mesoteichion, where the guns and the elite regiments, the Janissaries, were positioned. The bashi-bazouks, irregular troops with poor reputations, were spread out behind the front lines. Other troops under Zaganos Pasha, the second vizier of the Ottomans, were employed north of the Golden Horn. A bridge of boats was constructed over the marshy ground at the end of the Golden Horn to allow for quicker communication.

Initial Ottoman dispositions at start of siege of Constantinople
Initial Ottoman dispositions at start of siege of Constantinople
(Sorry, I could not find an English version of this map, hope you can read French)

The Ottoman artillery was grouped in 14 or 15 batteries of three to five guns each. Orban's monster cannon was set up in front of the sultan's tent, so he could monitor its operations personally. Turkish sappers had preceded the main force, and had cut down orchards and vineyards outside the Theodosian Walls to provide a clear field of fire. Others dug a ditch the length of the walls and 250 yards from them, with an earth rampart to shield the guns.

With less than 7000 men to cover 12 miles of fortifications, Emperor Constantine ordered the bulk of his army to concentrate on defending the western walls. Several groups of reserve troops were stationed in other parts of the city.

Meanwhile, after weeks of work to set up the huge cannon and protect it, on April 12 the entire Ottoman artillery park was put to work. Every cannon roared to life, and modern history's first artillery barrage began. An eyewitness to the first firing of the "Basilica" later stated:

…there was first a terrifying roar and a violent shaking of the ground beneath and for a great distance around, and a din such as has never been heard. Then, with a monstrous thundering and an awful explosion and a flame that illuminated everything round about and scorched it, the wooden wad was forced out by the hot blast of dry air and propelled the stone ball powerfully out. Projected with incredible force and power, the stone struck the wall, which it immediately shook and demolished, and it was itself shattered into many fragments, and the pieces were hurled everywhere, dealing death to those standing nearby.

The huge stone cannonballs struck the Byzantine walls with tremendous force. It had a deleterious effect on the defenders' morale. Sailors on ships in the Golden Horn felt the concussion of the "Basilica" from miles away. Defenders tried to hang cotton bales, leather sheets, even precious church tapestries in front of the walls to cushion the effect of the barrage, all to no effect.

However, the huge gun had one big drawback: it took nearly three hours to reload, limiting itself to only seven shots a day. The tremendous heat of each detonation threatened to widen micro-fissures in the bronze barrel. After each firing, "Basilica" was coated in warm olive oil to prevent cold air from further damaging the weapon. After six weeks, the barrel of the super-cannon cracked, killing and wounding a number of its crew. Sultan Mehmed ordered the gun repaired by putting metal hoops around the barrel to hold it together. Shortly afterwards, the gun exploded and its supporting platform collapsed, effectively removing it from the siege.

After six straight days of bombardment, Mehmed ordered a massive assault on the Theodosian walls. It was a spectacular failure, with great loss of life on the Ottoman side. The initial attacks were spearheaded by the Christian subject troops, with some of the elite Janissaries also thrown into the mix. Unfortunately for the Turks, the Byzantine defenders fought with ferocious courage. The city's defenders had organized work gangs which worked every night to repair the fortified walls, using wooden stakes, pieces of the shattered walls, and any other material to keep the Turks out. This went on throughout the siege. In addition, the Greeks used cannon of their own, though they were small calibers than the Turkish pieces.

While the land engagements continued, the Turkish navy was engaged in two main jobs: penetrating the Golden Horn to attack the Byzantine fleet, and keeping any reinforcements from reaching the city by water. The Byzantines' great defensive chain effectively kept the Ottomans out of the Golden Horn. On April 20, after about two weeks of the siege, a flotilla of four Christian ships slipped into the Golden Horn, bringing additional troops and badly needed supplies to the city. Mehmed was so angry that he threatened to execute the Turkish admiral. Only the testimony of his subordinates saved the man's life.

Consequently, Mehmed came up with a unique solution to circumvent the nautical chain. Using his large number of troops, Ottoman engineers constructed a road of greased logs north of the Galata suburb. On April 22, a number of Turkish vessels (one eyewitness claims 70 ships) were portaged from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, using oxen and manual strength. This act panicked the defenders, as the Turks now could threaten the entire length of the city's fortifications. On the night of April 28, the Byzantines attempted to burn the Turkish fleet, sending a number of fireships. The ships were sunk before they could do major damage. As a result, Byzantine troops were pulled from the Theodosian Walls in order to defend the walls along the Golden Horn.

"Mehmed II at the Siege of Constantinople" by Fausto Zonaro (1908); Mehmed supervising the portage of his fleet from the Bosphorus into the Golden Horn; Oil on canvas, currently at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
"Mehmed II at the Siege of Constantinople" by Fausto Zonaro (1908)
Mehmed supervising the portage of his fleet from the Bosphorus into the Golden Horn
Oil on canvas, currently at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

After a number of inconclusive frontal assaults, the Turks sought to break through the walls by constructing underground tunnels in an effort to mine them (this was a technique going back to the ancient Assyrians) from mid-May to 25 May. Many of the sappers were miners of German origin sent by the Serbian ruler. However, the Byzantines employed an engineer named Johannes Grant (who was said to be German but was probably Scottish), who had counter-mines dug, allowing Byzantine troops to enter the mines and kill the Turkish workers. The defenders intercepted the first Serbian tunnel on the night of May 16. Subsequent tunnels were detected on May 21, 23, and 25; each was destroyed with Greek fire and vigorous combat. On May 23, the Byzantines captured and tortured two Turkish officers, who revealed the location of all the Turkish tunnels, which were then destroyed.

On May 21, Sultan Mehmed sent a message to Emperor Constantine. He offered to lift the siege if they gave him the city. He promised he would allow the emperor and any other inhabitant to leave with their possessions. Moreover, he would recognize the Byzantine ruler as governor of southern Greece (still nominally Byzantine territory). Lastly, he guaranteed the safety of the population that would remain in the city. Constantine XI accepted to pay higher tributes to the sultan and recognized the status of all the conquered castles and lands in the hands of the Turks as Ottoman possession. However, with regard to the city, he told the sultan that he and his soldiers had resolved to give their lives to defend the city.

Shortly after receiving this reply, Mehmed held a final council of war to plan the final assault on Constantinople. Essentially, the Turks would mount a massive assault on the city's walls, hoping that sheer numbers would overwhelm the defenders after 40+ days of bombardment, mining, and fighting. The preparations took several days.

On May 28, with little hope left for reinforcements, large-scale religious processions were held in the city. In the evening a last solemn ceremony was held in the Hagia Sophia – the huge cathedral in the city's center – in which Emperor Constantine XI and representatives of both the Latin and Greek churches partook, together with nobility from all the nations defending the city. The defenders on the Theodosian Walls watched the preparations in silence. As if to dampen their ardor even further, as sundown approached the skies became heavily clouded, and rain began as it turned dark.

The Final Assault

Between midnight and 1:00 am in the wee hours of May 29, the final assault began. Driven forward by drums, horns, and fifies, the Christian troops of the Ottoman Empire attacked first, followed by the successive waves of the irregular Bashi-bazouks, and the regular Anatolians who focused on a section of the Blachernae walls in the northwest part of the city, which had been damaged by the cannon. This section of the walls had been built earlier, in the eleventh century, and was much weaker. The Anatolians managed to breach this section of walls and entered the city but were just as quickly pushed back by the defenders. Finally, as the battle was continuing, the last wave, consisting of elite Janissaries, attacked the city walls.

Final assault on Constantinople, May 29, 1453, artist unknown; Image is part of painting in the Panorama 1453 Museum, Istanbul, Turkey [Image courtesy of]
Final assault on Constantinople, May 29, 1453, artist unknown
Image is part of painting in the Panorama 1453 Museum, Istanbul, Turkey
[Image courtesy of]

Nearly every able-bodied man in Constantinople was on the walls, as were many women and even nuns. To add to the horrific din of the Ottoman cannonade and drums, every bell in every church in the city began to toll, until an unearthly din engulfed the scene. Giovanni Giustiniani, the Genoese general in charge of the land troops, was grievously wounded during the attack, and his removal from the ramparts caused a panic in the ranks of the defenders. [Giustiniani was evacuated by ship back to Chios, where he succumbed to his wounds a few days later.]

With Giustiniani's Genoese troops retreating into the city and towards the harbor, Constantine and his men, now left to their own devices, kept fighting and managed to hold off the Janissaries for a while, but eventually they could not stop them from entering the city. The defenders were also being overwhelmed at several points in Constantine's section. When Turkish flags were seen flying above a small postern gate, the Kerkoporta, which was left open, panic ensued, and the defense collapsed, as Janissary soldiers pressed forward. It is said that Constantine, throwing aside his purple regalia, led the final charge against the incoming Ottomans, dying in the ensuing battle in the streets like his soldiers. On the other hand, a Venetian eyewitness to the siege wrote in his diary that it was said that Constantine hanged himself at the moment when the Turks broke in at the San Romano gate, although his ultimate fate remains a mystery.

"Constantine Palaiologos [XI]" by Theophilus Hatzimihail (1932); A fanciful portrayal of the last moments of the Byzantine emperor (on white horse at right); Currently located in Theofilos Museum of Anakasia, Magnesia, Greece
"Constantine Palaiologos [XI]" by Theophilus Hatzimihail (1932)
A fanciful portrayal of the last moments of the Byzantine emperor (on white horse at right)
Currently located in Theofilos Museum of Anakasia, Magnesia, Greece

After the initial assault, the Ottoman attackers fanned out along the main thoroughfare of the city, the Mese, past the great forums, many churches, and public buildings. The Turks converged upon the vast square that fronted the great church of Hagia Sophia whose bronze gates were barred by a huge throng of civilians inside the building, hoping for divine protection. After the doors were breached, the troops separated the congregation according to what price they might bring in the slave markets. They also began looting the church. With this final act, the siege of Constantinople was ended.


An estimated 4000 defenders of the city were killed, with a number surrendering and eventually being executed. As the city was being pillaged, some of the defenders escaped by boat, most of them making their ways to Venice and other Italian cities.

Ottoman casualties are unknown but they are believed by most historians to be very heavy due to several unsuccessful Ottoman attacks made during the siege and final assault. An Italian eyewitness described blood flowing in the city "like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm," and bodies of the Turks and Christians floating in the sea "like melons along a canal." [Mehmed had demonstrated that he was unconcerned with the number of casualties of his forces; he simply wanted to take Constantinople at any cost.]

Footnote #1: Mehmed allowed his troops to plunder the city for three days as it was customary. Soldiers fought over the possession of some of the booty. According to an eyewitness, "all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city." Thousands of civilians were killed and an estimated 30,000 were enslaved or deported.

Footnote #2: Sultan Mehmed II finally entered the city after three days. When he saw the results of the looting done by his soldiers, he ordered guards put on many churches and other public buildings. For his final conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed was given the nom de guerre of Fatih (conqueror).

"Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror"; Oil on wood panel, by a follower of Gentile Bellini (c. 1510); Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
"Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror"
Oil on wood panel, by a follower of Gentile Bellini (c. 1510)
Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

Footnote #3: In his first flush of victory, Mehmed gave amnesty to many of the nobles and bureaucrats of the city. However, after several days he experienced a change of heart and ordered the execution of many of these same men.

Footnote #4: The Hagia Sophia, one of the great landmarks of the Byzantine Empire, was converted into a mosque after Constantinople's fall. Since 1931, it has functioned as a museum. Between 1997 and 2006, a number of restoration projects have restored much of the building's former glory. [The current Hagia Sophia is the third church of the same name to reside on the site.]

Hagia Sophia Museum today, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia Museum today, Istanbul, Turkey

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