FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
MEHMED II, Sultan of the Ottomans, was determined to bring Constantinople under Islamic control. It was the last holdout of the Byzantine Empire. Because of its triple-thick walls and geographical position, it would be a difficult city to take. He set about the task with considerable forethought, erecting fortresses near Constantinople, and bringing up ships to attack from the sea and armies from the land. Among his troops were Janissaries, captured Christians groomed into a ferocious fighting force. Mehmed also had his engineers cast a giant gun capable of hurling stones weighing a quarter of a ton for up to a mile.
With this monster cannon as well as smaller weapons, he pounded the city day and night. It was not long before he reduced the outer walls to rubble. Things looked grim for the Christians in Constantinople. They were down to seven thousand tired defenders, who feared God had abandoned them. Food was running low. All the same, they did not give in, but erected makeshift barriers that kept Mehmed’s armies at bay.
A strong chain under the water prevented Mehmed’s boats from approaching the walls. Even when Mehmed built a slipway of greased planks over a steep hill and dragged eighty small ships into the inner waterway, the defenders stalemated the attacks. They also managed to put the great cannon out of commission.
After sustaining heavy losses in their attempt to take the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Turkish rank and file began to murmur at the toll the attacks were taking on them. Mehmed assembled a council and persuaded his followers to unleash one last assault. If it failed, he promised he would lift the siege. He directed all of his big guns against the most damaged points, with the Janissaries facing the heavily damaged center. Around 1:30 am on this day, 29 May 1453, he ordered the attack.
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The Christians defended their city valiantly. Even the Janissaries could not smash through the walls. Once again, Mehmed’s army was repulsed. However, a few Ottoman soldiers had fought their way through an open gate. Although they were quickly killed, they had planted flags on the city wall. Christian defenders, looking back in the dawn, saw Mehmed’s banners and thought the city had been captured behind them. They wavered. Mehmed noticed and hurled his Janissaries at them. The Christian line collapsed.
The Ottoman army poured into the city, murdering indiscriminately. They looted churches and seized sacramental chalices. Some of the Christian fugitives claimed women and boys were raped on the altars. The Turks tore down the cross above the city’s great cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, replacing it with a crescent. Survivors mourned it as “the last day of the world.”
Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor, died fighting as a common soldier. Popular folklore said he would one day return to restore the empire and its great city, and that a priest would walk through the walls of the Hagia Sophia, bearing the elements for the restoration of the Eucharist.