I’ve been reading a lot, lately, about the fall of Constantinople.
(Go ahead, sing the song. I’ll wait. You k now you want to.)
I got into this topic because of The Crane Girl. I’m writing about a city that gets besieged and invaded, and I don’t know much about sieges or invasions at a tactical level (we all have our failings!), so I needed a historical model to work from. I thought the fall of Constantinople would do nicely, and I still think so.
But beyond that, it’s just a fascinating topic in its own right.
Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which had shrunk to practically nothing by the year of the final conquest (1453). But the term “Byzantine Empire” is a modern invention. The city’s inhabitants thought of themselves as belonging to the Roman Empire – and rightfully so. The first Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (renaming it after himself in the process) in 324 AD, which means that the city was legitimately the heir of Rome, and its emperors were legitimately the heirs of Augustus Caesar. Since the western half of the old empire had long since unraveled, this final blow in 1453 can truly be seen as the very end (at least politically) of what Augustus built.
In spite of the very real pain and horror involved, I can’t help romanticizing the siege. This was a city that had stood for over a thousand years, that had withstood countless attacks from Christians and Muslims alike. Its grand triple walls were the stuff of legend. Its great church, the Hagia Sophia, was an ancient marvel that still stands today. The population of the city had dwindled from roughly a million to roughly a hundred thousand, and the golden palaces were decaying into ruin. The emperors reached out to the western Christian world for aid, desperately, but in vain. Constantinople even swallowed its pride and proclaimed they would reunite with the Catholic Church, nominally healing the centuries-old Great Schism, to no avail. Over the city, an atmosphere of apocalyptic doom hung like a poisonous cloud.
The final emperor, Constantine XI, seems to have been a genuinely brave and decent man. His advisers wanted him to flee the city before its downfall, but he repeatedly refused. When the walls were finally breached, on May 29, he rode into the mass of invaders in a last desperate charge and was never seen again.
The leader of the Ottoman invaders, Sultan Mehmet II, was half the emperor’s age, but seems to have had a real respect for the city he was taking. Yes, his forces killed countless civilians and ransacked many churches, but he also made an effort to spare many lives and buildings and cultural institutions, and to rebuild the old capital of Rome into the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. He even considered himself the successor of the Caesars – and his empire lasted all the way to 1923.
What will the history books say about us someday?