April – May 1453

A fifteenth-century Turkish miniature shows the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, at the siege of Constantinople in 1453. After weeks of fruitless bombardment, the city was taken when a small door in the city walls, the Wooden Circus Gate, was left open by mistake by the defenders.

Sultan Mehmet (Turkish for Muhammad) was an impatient ruler. He came to the Ottoman throne in 1451 and almost his first act was to order the murder of his baby brother to make sure there would be no fratricidal conflicts later in his reign. Though only nineteen at his accession, Mehmet was in a hurry to complete an ambition that had frustrated the Muslim east for centuries: the eradication of the last vestige of the centuries-old Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Christian capital at Constantinople. The city boasted formidable fortifications, man-made and natural, which had frustrated earlier Turkish sieges. They almost defeated Mehmet after seven weeks of fruitless assaults on the city until two moments of good fortune opened the way to its conquest.


The young sultan wanted to mark the start of his reign in spectacular fashion. The Ottoman Turks now controlled a large empire in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and the European Balkan peninsula. Christian Constantinople lay between the two, a thorn in the Ottoman side. Mehmet wanted the city for his capital rather than the Greek city of Edirne, and even at a young age was capricious and forceful enough to compel his advisers and commanders, including the more cautious grand vizier, (Çandarli Halil Pasha, to accept his ambition. In 1452, he made a start by ordering a fortress to be built on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait above Constantinople to act as a ‘throat cutter’ for Byzantine trade. The fortress, Rumeli Hisari, was built in record time and heavy cannon backed by a rapidly constructed Ottoman fleet cut off trade routes to the city. Mehmet called on the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, to surrender. The emperor refused and sealed up the gates.

Constantine had little with which to challenge the huge Ottoman army that Mehmet summoned from all over his empire. There were probably no more than 6,000 regular soldiers and militia in the city, reinforced in January 1453 by 700 heavily armed Genoese under their commander Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. He quickly organized the defence of the city, repairing crumbling walls, stockpiling weapons, and instructing the anxious defenders in the best tactics to frustrate siege warfare. Their best protection, however, remained the ‘Wall of Theodosius’, a 20-kilometre (12-mile) fortification on the landward side of the city 60 metres (200 feet) in depth and 30 metres (100 feet) in height, with 192 towers, a fosse wall and a deep moat. The other walls of the triangular site on which Constantinople perched were protected by the Sea of Marmora to one side and the Golden Horn inlet on the other. These fortifications were all that stood between a frightened population, increasingly persuaded that God was punishing them for their sins by sending the infidel to scourge them, and the 200,000 Ottomans, 60,000 of them soldiers, who approached the city early in April 1453.

Mehmet knew that siege warfare did not sit well with Ottoman traditions of war-making. He therefore ordered the construction of giant cannon, supervised by a Hungarian gunsmith, Orban, and transported with great difficulty more than 150 kilometres (100 miles) from Edirne to the gates of Constantinople. He set up the siege a mere 250 metres (800 feet) from the Theodosian Wall, his men protected behind a ditch and rampart. The cannon, including one 8.5 metres (27 feet) long, with stone cannon balls weighing half a ton, were set up to bombard what looked like the weakest parts of the fortification. His forces captured small forts and outposts outside the city and displayed the unfortunate survivors – impaled naked on sharp stakes driven with a heavy mallet through the rectum and along the spine – in full view of the Greeks on the battlements of the city. Terror was also one of the weapons at Mehmet’s disposal, but it was no more than Constantine and his soldiers expected. Ottoman tradition was to slaughter all those who resisted.

On 12 April, the siege began with a six-day bombardment, the largest artillery barrage yet mounted. The ‘supergun’ devastated the defending walls until metal fatigue caused it to explode, killing, so it was said, the helpful Orban. To the Ottoman besiegers, the damage must have looked impressive as each massive stone ball knocked down sections of towers and battlements, but when Mehmet ordered the first storming of the damaged walls on 18 April, the stout defenders blocked the narrow entryways and slaughtered any who tried to break through. The attacks were usually made in the dark, accompanied by yells, constant drumming and cries to Allah, but each was repelled with savage hand-to-hand fighting, while civilians poured down stones and burning pitch from the tops of the fortifications onto the mass of Ottoman soldiery. Mehmet had wanted a quick knock-out blow but was now faced with a prolonged investment. Arguments began in the Ottoman camp over fears that crusading Christians would arrive from Europe to save the capital of eastern Christendom or that frustration, disease and pointless casualties would evaporate the previously high morale of the Ottoman army. Further assaults, on 6 and 7 May, and a brief penetration of the city on 12 May by a group of Ottoman soldiers came to nothing.

Mehmet tried everything, including further offers of peace, even a new kingdom for the inhabitants in Greece, if Constantine would surrender, but the Byzantine leaders remained obdurate. The Ottomans recruited Saxon miners to tunnel under the walls, but a Scottish soldier resident in the city, John Grant, knew how to detect mining and managed to frustrate every attempt, burning or burying the miners underground. A huge wooden siege tower, even higher than the walls, was trundled into place but the Byzantine defenders threw barrels of gunpowder with lighted tapers and blew the contraption into the air. On 26 May, the Ottoman commanders debated with the sultan about what they should do. Halil Pasha thought it wise to abandon the siege, but the restless army needed the loot it had been promised (Ottoman soldiers were not paid) and Mehmet had already faced several near rebellions by his personal janissary guards. The assembled leaders accepted Mehmet’s plea for one last attempt. On 27 May, an endless bombardment was set up against the damaged walls, where Giustiniani had improvised stockades and earthworks to fill the breaches. On 29 May at 1.30 a.m., accompanied by a cacophony of screams, drums and trumpets, the whole Turkish army ran at the walls.

They were beaten back relentlessly by the small and exhausted Byzantine army, until two pieces of luck suddenly undid the weeks of stout defence. A small gate, the Wooden Circus Gate, had been left open by neglect after a small group of Italian soldiers had returned from a sally. Some Ottoman soldiers saw it and rushed in. Within minutes they were on the battlements and Ottoman banners fluttered from the towers. At almost the same time, Giustiniani, in the thick of the battle, was severely wounded. His men carried him away to a Genoese ship still anchored in the Horn, and the rest of the Genoese followed, no longer willing to defend an apparently hopeless cause. Their loss suddenly exposed the weakened defence. Mehmet now threw in his last trump card, the 5,000 imperial troops of his own bodyguard. They hacked and pushed their way through a narrow breach in the wall and slaughtered the enemy soldiers. Though no eyewitness was certain what happened to Constantine, whose severed head had been promised to the sultan, he died somewhere in the mêlée along with his garrison. In Islamic law, three days of pillaging and violence were permitted, though this time Mehmet allowed only one. An estimated 4,000 of the population were killed, the rest taken into slavery. What was left of the wealth of the city, which was much less than expected, was taken by the soldiers during an orgy of violence, looting and rape.

Mehmet’s siege was rescued at the last moment and his ambition fulfilled, more by luck than by the panoply of siege equipment brought to bear on the city. Two days later, Halil Pasha was executed to punish him for his restraint. Constantinople developed as an Islamic centre and the Topkapi Palace was constructed in the city as Mehmet’s refuge. The Christian West deplored the loss but had made almost no effort to come to Constantine’s aid. Hundreds of Byzantine nobles, and the fortunate Giustiniani, made it through the Ottoman sea blockade to fight another day.