Remembering the Fall of Constantinople and its legacy today

On May 29, Orthodox Christians worldwide remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”, 1432-1481, r. 1444-1446, 1451-1481) on that date in 1453, 565 years ago. Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, a survivor of the city’s brutal sack, the leading Greek choralist Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly moving, transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, which had once been referred to as “the Queen City of Christendom” and the “Eye of the World”.

Most musical historians regard Manuel Chrysaphes as the most prominent Constantinopolitan musician of the fifteenth century. He was a renowned singer, composer, and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two emperors of Constantinople, the brothers John VIII (1392-1448, r. 1425-1448) and Constantine XI Palaeologus (1405-1453, r. 1449-53). Chrysaphes’ surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of courtly singing in the late Palaiologan period.

One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western, Greek, Ottoman, European, Mediterranean, Christian, and Muslim history.

While the city had declined in population, power and prestige since the Fourth Crusaders’ renegade, errant sacking of it in 1204 to become a mere shadow of its former self—it was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient fifth century Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them—its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.

The lead-up to the city’s fall: hopes for Western aid, and failed attempts at Union with Rome to secure that aid

While the Catholics and Orthodox had acrimoniously split with the so-called Great Schism in 1054 (a date whose significance is more an anachronistic myth than a clean, neat reality of severed communion, which happened gradually over the following centuries), as the Ottomans continued to encircle Constantinople, tightening the noose ever-closer around the beleaguered city, several of the city’s emperors made overtures to the papacy in Rome. Several offered to accept the papal ecclesiastical claims to jurisdiction over the Patriarchate of Constantinople in exchange, they hoped, for vital, substantial military and financial aid given at papal directives from the kings and princes of Catholic Western Europe.

After Ottoman Sultan Murad II’s forces unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople itself in 1422, in the 1430s, the desperate Emperor John VIII—urgently trying to obtain more Western aid and papal support for a Crusade against the Ottomans to relieve his capital—went to Florence himself along with Patriarch Joseph II and most of the leading imperial court. Here, after extensive debate about the Filioque, azymes, papal supremacy, and several other theological issues, the Emperor accepted the Filioque and the papal claims of supremacy over the Eastern Churches, and ordered all his bishops to do likewise. This ‘unia’, or union with Rome, solemnized by the decree Laetentur Caeli of Pope Eugene IV, is particularly important in Russian history: the pro-union Metropolitan of Kiev and Moscow at the time, a Greek named Isidore, whom Emperor John VIII had appointed in 1437 to head the Orthodox Church in Rus over the objections of the Tsar, Vasily II, was made a cardinal and papal legate to Galicia and Russia. Isidore accepted the Unia, personally proclaiming it at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople before returning to Russia.

During his return journey to Moscow after the council had approved reunion, in 1440 Isidore issued an encyclical while in Budapest calling on all the Russian bishops to accept the union. Upon his arrival in Moscow at Pascha/Easter in 1441, the Metropolitan opened the Divine Liturgy at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskiy Sobor) carrying a Western-style Latin cross in front of the procession, and naming Pope Eugene IV in the diptychs commemorating all the Church hierarchs, proclaiming the new reunion with Rome by reading aloud the Pope’s decree solemnizing it. Most Orthodox clergy, the common people, and the Tsar rejected Isidore’s position, denouncing him as an apostate. Three days later, the embattled Unia-affirming Metropolitan was deposed for apostasy and imprisoned at the Chudov Monastery by a synod of six bishops irregularly convened by the Tsar. Vasily II and the Orthodox bishops swiftly elected Bishop Jonah to replace him.

Metropolitan Jonah of Kiev and all Rus, the last to use this title despite residing in Moscow, in 1448 declared the Russian Orthodox Church autocephalous without Constantinople’s approval, arguing, as ultimately the Old Believers would two centuries later, that Constantinople had lost its right to determine other Orthodox Church’s autocephaly due to its apostasy in reuniting itself to communion with Rome. The hapless Isidore of Kiev, rejected by the Russians as an apostate, escaped from prison in 1443, ultimately returning to Rome, where Pope Nicholas V appointed him as the papal envoy to Emperor Constantine XI in 1452. Isidore was present at the city’s siege and sack, serving at all the liturgies prior to its fall. His detachment of 200 papal guards, whom Pope Nicholas had sent with Isidore to defend Constantinople, died defending the city. Isidore himself barely escaped the sack with his life, abandoning his clerical vestments on the body of a dead boy before being enslaved with a host of the common Greek people of the city. He ultimately escaped slavery, returned to Rome, and was appointed to subsequently serve, nominally, as the Latin rite Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople until his death in 1463.

The 1431-1449 coterminous Council of Basel-Florence-Ferrara was the ultimately abortive, final imperial attempt at union with Rome, which Moscow and Constantinople’s citizens ultimately rejected under the influence of the sole dissenting Orthodox bishop present at Florence, St Mark, bishop of Ephesus. Usually referred to simply as the Council of Florence, where it met in the late 1430s after a plague outbreak obliged the delegates to remove from Ferrara, it failed to inspire Western kingdoms to make significant military and financial efforts to relieve Constantinople. Venice and Genoa, the two chief rival maritime northern Italian city-states, each had favorable trade treaties with the Ottomans and stood to lose much of their commerce with the Turks should they openly side with much-weakened Constantinople. Bitterness over the lack of substantive Western aid to defend Constantinople prior to 1453 remains a major point of contention among many Greek Orthodox to this day, while the Russian Orthodox Old Believers held that the city fell precisely due to its leaders’ acceptance of the union with Rome shortly before the Ottomans’ 1453 siege.

The siege itself: Titanic losses on both sides as Mehmed’s cannon and strategic calculations prove decisive

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This map in French gives an approximation of the Ottoman, Venetian and Genoese positions on the walls of Constantinople during their defense of the city alongside the (Byzantine) Greeks, who always considered themselves to be Romans.

Despite well-founded Greek outrage at the lack of promised Western military aid, when Sultan Mehmed II ultimately began the siege of the city in early April 1453, out of a mere 7,000 armed defenders, some 700 of them—a full ten percent of the defense—were a motley crew of Venetian and Genoese Catholic mercenaries financed, trained, and led by the famed Genoese captain, condotierro, and mercenary soldier Giovanni Giustiniani Longo (1418-1453). These men were willing to stand with Emperor Constantine XI (1405-1453) and the people of Constantinople to vigorously defend the city against the Sultan’s massive army of at least 80,000 (several other reliable sources estimate up to 100,000) Ottoman soldiers. The Ottoman forces were outfitted with the latest in gunpowder technology, and comprised both professional soldiers and feudal vassals’ conscripts from across the Ottoman possessions in Asia Minor, Thrace, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

As formidable as the Turkish army was—with the relentless forward-attacks and constant pounding of the city’s ancient Theodosian triple walls by their massive bombard cannons—the defenders and their allies held out for an astonishing 53 days. A man of deep military experience, Constantine XI had served as the chief imperial commander in the Peloponnesus and regent of Constantinople when his older brother John VIII had spent several years in the 1430s travelling throughout Western Europe desperately seeking military and financial aid. During this time, Constantine had undertaken much-needed structural repairs to the city’s outer wall and fosse (dry moat). Prior to the commencement of the siege, Constantine recalled and implemented a longstanding Byzantine military stratagem, and ingeniously blocked Mehmed’s access to the Golden Horn harbor to the less-defended north of the city with the use of a 700-yard-long iron chain. This freed up the Emperor’s limited supply of men to concentrate on defending the four miles of land walls on Constantinople’s western end, repair the great, triple walls as necessary amid the constant, day and night cannon bombardments and Ottoman mining attempts, sally out to repel attacks, and pray that vital additional assistance would come from Western European powers.

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A part of Constantine XI’s heavy iron chain that closed off the entrance to the Golden Horn in April 1453, now on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.

The defenders’ morale rose briefly when a contingent of four Genoese carracks managed to break through the Ottoman blockade of some 140 war galleys after a furious struggle, and enter the protected Golden Horn harbor with vital military supplies. The enraged Sultan ordered his chief admiral Hamza Bey’s impalement as punishment, but was moved to show clemency by the entreaty of his sailors and courtiers, who held that the admiral had fought bravely, even losing an eye in the fighting. Mehmed instead ‘mercifully’ stripped the admiral of his command and had him given a hundred lashes in public view, while impaling the surviving crew of one of the sunken Italian warships in full view of the disgusted defenders on the city walls. The Christians in turn responded by slaughtering their Turkish captives and hanging their bodies from the ramparts.

A brilliant military tactician, Mehmed managed to circumvent the problem of the huge defensive chain over the harbor—which was blocking his navy from bombarding Constantinople’s weaker northern seaside walls—by having his sailors dismantle many of his ships out of the water. He had several thousand Ottoman sailors drag and pull them on log rollers from the Double Columns harbor on the Bosporus north of the city, over the Galata/Pera valley by land, and into the Golden Horn west of the defensive chain and the small Christian fleet positioned there. Once in position, the city’s lower seaside walls were vulnerable to bombardment and landings, forcing Constantine to fatally weaken his concentrated defense of the land walls by sending some of his troops to man the lower, weaker sea walls overlooking the Golden Horn.

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One depiction of the Ottoman army’s relentless assault on the Theodosian land walls in April-May 1453.

While the Ottoman gun batteries on the northern shore of the Golden Horn exchanged fire with the small gun batteries of the defenders overlooking the inner harbor, and the Venetians and Genoese squabbled over how to attack the Ottoman fleet positioned in the harbor, the Emperor on the land walls constantly reviewed strategy with his chief commanders, inspected his troops and boosted morale, and fought side-by-side repelling numerous Ottoman frontal assaults on the walls. At Constantine’s directive, the city’s able-bodied citizens, including monks and nuns, constantly repaired breaches in the walls by night. The capital’s noncombatant women and children, meanwhile, prayed ceaselessly to God in the city’s hundreds of ancient churches, which in these perilous hours made no distinction between those clergy and laity who had accepted or rejected the unia with Rome. All hoped that, as she had so many times in the city’s history, the Theotokos would protect Constantinople and her people from this latest heathen attack.

After defeating many Ottoman mining and sapping attempts to undermine and collapse the outer land walls, and withstanding endless direct troop assaults on the walls alongside constant day and night artillery bombardments that rained massive stone cannonballs down on all sections of the land walls and outer city’s houses and churches, the defenders became increasingly exhausted. Fear of the spread of contagion gripped both besieger and besieged alike, but by early May, Constantinople’s already limited food rations began to run short. The besieging army, however, was also beginning to lose morale, as so many thousands of Turkish corpses piled up on the walls that the Ottomans were obliged to burn the bodies for fear of disease spreading. Along with the battle-hardened Emperor and his advisors, the young Sultan and his advisors knew that, with each passing day that the city had not been taken, the chance of a Hungarian relief army or a Venetian or Genoese naval force appearing on the western horizon increased.

As with all late medieval and early modern sieges, this one was a question of time and morale, of whose side gave in to disease, hunger, or impatience first. Defeat for Mehmed meant not only humiliation and the clear sign of Allah’s displeasure with him, but also likely rebellion and insurrection by his disgruntled soldiers who had suffered much and expected to reap the reward of three days of pillage once they took the city. Defeat for Constantine, having rejected Mehmed’s customary offer to surrender the city to him, or embrace Islam and vassal status, meant certain death along with most of his people. Religious faith and identity, so integral to the very cause of the conflict between the Byzantines and Turks, and before that the Byzantines and Arabs, played out in the opposing sides’ camps day by day. Both sides believed in the truth and reality of omen and auguries, both good and evil, and held that theirs was a holy cause, a just war ordained by God, and both sides’ clergy and soldiers alike despised the other as infidels, pagans, and heathens.

Before the walls of the city, in full view of the defenders, the Sunni Turkish imams sounded the azan, the Arabic call to prayer, five times daily, beginning the dawn (fajr) prayers before the Ottoman gunners commenced their artillery bombardments. Mehmed led daily dawn and evening prayers, visibly prostrating himself among his sheikhs, qazis, imams, generals, and princes on a silk rug facing the qibla, the direction toward Mecca’s Kaaba shrine, Islam’s holiest site. Acutely aware that his troops’ morale had been frustrated by high casualty rates and their lack of success so far at breaching the walls, the Sultan had his imams and qazis constantly make the rounds throughout the Ottoman camps by day and night. The Muslim prayer leaders exhorted the soldiers to endure to final victory, reminding the men of Muhammad’s prophecy that Allah would confer the highest blessings on the Muslim army that conquered Rum (Constantinople) for Dar al-Islam and the Ummah, but that, in so doing, one third of the Muslims would fail, one third gain martyrdom for Allah, and one third emerge victorious. Constantine likewise made a point to worship day and night, both in church and out in the open, alongside his men. The Emperor ordered constant processions of the city’s numerous ancient holy relics and icons to beseech God, the Theotokos, and all the saints for their aid, and ensured that the bells of the capital’s hundreds of ancient churches tolled night and day as the women, children, and elderly prayed ceaselessly along with the monks and nuns for divine deliverance.

The citizens’ once unshakable morale and redoubtable faith in the divine protection of their ancient capital, which had withstood dozens of sieges in the last millennium, finally plummeted several days before Mehmed II ordered the final attack. In addition to a partial lunar eclipse, which frightened besieger and besieged alike, the ancient, beloved Hodegetria icon of the Theotokos fell to the ground while being carried in a procession along the city’s land walls, horrifying the people of Constantinople. Exhausted by a month and a half of defending the city against tremendous odds, the citizens began to fear that God had finally forsaken them. Omens of old men and women who claimed to have seen the Holy Spirit of God departing from Hagia Sophia, so named after Him, further diminished morale among the exhausted defenders inclined toward superstition.

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Stamped, embossed, and gilded copper icon of the Theotokos Virgin and Child done in the Italo-Byzantine (Venetian) style, dating to the 12th century. The icon was found in the rood-loft of the Cathedral of Torcello in Venice. Inscribed in Greek: ‘Mother of God strengthen thy servant Philip the bishop’; the bishop has not been identified. The plaque was probably made for an altar.

Both sides spent Monday, May 28 in deep fasting and prayer, with Constantinople’s exhausted defenders finally flocking from most of the other churches to Hagia Sophia, which most of the anti-unionist populace had shunned since the proclamation of the union. Constantine XI, grand duke (Megadoux) Lukas Notaras, the chief Greek, Genoese, and Venetian generals, and all the bishops and priests of the city along with many of the faithful laity gathered bearing all of Constantinople’s vast array of wondrous and miracle-working icons and saints’ relics. As many as could fit into the great cathedral assembled for what was to be the final liturgy in Hagia Sophia as the imperial church, coming together for the solemn Feast of All Saints. In these moments, the pro-union and anti-union clergy and laity reconciled and concelebrated together on the eve of the city’s final defense. The Emperor received holy communion with the bishops and priests, and then, bowing down low before the high altar of the great church, he tearfully prostrated himself before God, imploring the Lord to show mercy on the city.

The Turkish camp bonfires at night lit up the entire landward horizon opposite the battered city walls, as the army of Muhammad shouted and danced with camel-skin drums, cymbals, and tambourines to loud, rhythmic cries of the dhikir (the 99 names of Allah in Arabic) and the Shahadah, “La-ilaha illa’lah, Muhammadun rasul-ullah” (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”).

The final assault: 1:30-6:00am, Tuesday, May 29, 1453

After praying for Allah to let the city fall to his armies, and again closely supervising his troops’ preparation of numerous siege ladders and final formations, Mehmed ordered the final assault to commence at 1:30 in the morning with one massive cannon bombardment of the outer wall. First, he sent waves of thousands of mostly poorly-armed, expendable Christian conscripts from the Balkans and Hungary against the defenders. These men of dubious loyalty to the Sultan fought courageously against the equally valiant defenders, who poured down rocks, crossbow bolts, arrows, burning sulfur, pitch, and Greek fire on them. Ultimately, the Ottomans’ Christian conscripts—pinioned between the defenders in front of them and Turkish military enforcers behind them who forced them forward with blows of their clubs and scimitars—were repulsed with staggering casualties after about two hours of constant fighting along the vulnerable middle section (Mesoteichion) of the wall between the Blachernae Palace walls and St Romanos gate.

Determined not to let the exhausted defenders have a moment’s respite, Mehmed then ordered his main contingent of Anatolian Turkish heavy infantry to attack the outer walls. Most of them being sincere Muslims who genuinely believed in the holiness of their cause, these men did so, rushing against the middle section of the outer wall bellowing war cries and shouting the different titles for Allah to the deafening cacophony of Ottoman drums, trumpets, fifes, and cymbals designed to rally the attackers and paralyze the defenders. The noise of it all—bullets cracking, guns booming, arrows whizzing and thudding, swords and spears cutting through shields, armor, and flesh, men fighting, screaming, moaning, and dying, the pealing church bells within the city— was deafening. Piles of thousands of Turkish corpses filled the gap between the outer fosse—which the Turks had finally mostly filled in the night before—and the outer wall, while the exhausted defenders—only some 2,000 remaining on the land walls—knew that if they allowed the Ottomans to mount the outer wall, the city’s defenses would effectively collapse. Somehow, after another two hours of constant attack, the Ottoman heavy infantry began to falter, having failed to establish a firm hold on the walls or plant the Turkish red and white or Islamic green flags on the battlements.

Finally, aware as Emperor Constantine, Giustiniani, and their men were that the Ottoman advance seemed to be faltering under the determined, relentless attack of the defenders up on the walls, the desperate Sultan made the fateful decision to commit his elite, well-trained imperial Janissary personal guard—some 5,000 men, about three times the likely number of surviving defenders still manning the walls.

Ironically, before the light rose on Tuesday May 29, 1453, it was not the final push by Sultan Mehmet II’s elite Janissary corps that ultimately overwhelmed the city’s defenses and led to the city’s fall, but a seemingly accidental caprice of fate. In fact, the beleaguered defenders held off the Turks to the mounting frustration and desperation of the young Sultan, many of whose leading viziers and generals again urged him to call off the siege in the wake of such staggering losses, and demand that the city pay a steep, face-saving annual tribute.

The end for the defenders only came because someone had forgotten to re-lock the door of the Kerkaporta, a small postern on the northern edge of the city’s fortifications on the Golden Horn. A band of Turkish janissaries cautiously entered this unguarded door, convinced that it was a trap by the defenders. Moving slowly into the city, they discovered that their entrance was a Greek oversight, as nearly all of the defenders had locked themselves into a section in the central part of the wall to meet head-on the mass of the attacking army.

Invigorated and astonished, several janissaries rushed up to the wall and planted the red and green Turkish flags with the white Islamic crescent and star on the parapets. While these flags were quickly taken down by a group of quick-acting defending troops, the sight of the enemies’ flags within the city melted the strength of the exhausted defenders, who started to flee from the walls. When Giustiniani, who had already been gravely wounded the previous day, was again wounded, this time mortally, he gave the order for his remaining Genoese soldiers to carry him toward the Genoese ships in the Golden Horn. Horrified by what the sight of Giustiniani leaving the walls would do to the remaining defenders, Emperor Constantine implored him to stay on, but the stalwart mercenary could no longer stand. Realizing that the fateful moment had come, the Emperor reluctantly gave his erstwhile indefatigable Genoese ally the keys to the inner city wall. Seeing the wounded commander and his guards depart through the inner wall’s gates back into the city, the remaining defending troops’ morale began to collapse. Many of the exhausted Greek and Italian soldiers began to flee back toward the inner wall as thousands of janissaries and ordinary Ottoman troops began to pour through the gaps in the outer wall. The tide had turned, and either fate, or God, had abandoned the city after sustaining the exhausted defenders for the past 54 days. In a matter of minutes, some 30,000 Turkish soldiers had poured through the crumbled outer walls.

Thousands of remaining Greek and Italian defenders, including Emperor Constantine and his men, were killed in the subsequent rout, with the Emperor by all accounts deciding to die fighting on the walls with his remaining men rather than risk dishonorable capture or public execution. The Emperor threw off his armor, and with his remaining bodyguard plunged into the mass of advancing Turkish janissaries, never to be seen again. To Mehmed and the defeated Constantinopolitan citizens’ mutual dismay, Constantine’s body was never recovered.

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A depiction of the Ottoman soldiers rushing toward the breach in the outer walls.

The end of the City: the savage sack, blood running in the streets, and Mehmed’s triumph

In the wake of the collapse of the last defense on the wall, the Turkish army and its Serbian Christian vassals poured into the horrified, shocked city, looting the western districts’ richly adorned ancient churches and monasteries. Initially refusing to believe that the 2,000 defenders on the land walls were all that remained of the city’s defenders, the Ottomans proceeded warily and cautiously. As they came to realize that the city’s defenders had all died on the walls, they began to wildly set about ransacking all they could, indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, and children, old and young, monks, nuns, and laypeople. Thousands of soldiers began streaming down the ancient, colonnaded Mese, the city’s principal ancient processional thoroughfare.

Everywhere, women and children ran about screaming, with the Turks slaughtering most men regardless of whether or not they were armed, and taking as many women, boys, and girls captive as possible. Guaranteed three days of raping, pillaging, and sacking according to the dictates of the Quran and hadith, the army of Muhammad spared no one. The soldiers set about invading, pillaging, and firing houses, looting and burning palaces, libraries, churches, and monasteries, and slaughtering and enslaving thousands of civilians with impunity. In a matter of hours, some one thousand years of Byzantine art, literature, religious icons, and historical records went up in flames. The Turkish advance headed inevitably for Hagia Sophia, where thousands of desperate civilians had crowded into the massive ancient church, itself the symbol of the Christian capital, praying for a miracle even now as the city burned around them.

With the death of the valiant Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose Greek-speaking citizens had for over a millennium simply called themselves ‘Romans’—whose realm’s official name was Τον Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, ‘the Roman Empire’, or Ῥωμανία’, ‘Romania’, for short—came to a bloody end after 1,123 years. It is remarkable to think of how—until this moment in history—the city had endured, and, with only one exception, successfully withstood repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Sassanid Persians, Muslim Arab caliphs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, renegade Italian Crusaders, and finally the Ottomans. Until its first, fatally weakening sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences: Greek culture, Roman political organization, and Eastern Orthodox, or ‘Byzantine’ Christianity. Now, on this Tuesday in late May, 1453, the ancient Christian empire, long since reduced to a shadow of its former imperial grandeur, was no more.

Some 30,000 of Constantinople’s citizens of both sexes and all ages, irrespective of their former class or status, were taken as slaves. Numerous monks and priests were enslaved or killed, and thousands of horrified nuns, laywomen and boys raped as the Ottomans poured through the city. Both Christian and Ottoman accounts of the sack record that many Turkish soldiers brawled and even fought to the death over the most beautiful captives. When the Turks finally reached the renowned Augusteion plaza before Hagia Sophia, the spiritual and symbolic heart of the imperial city, they shouted and rejoiced, praising Allah and giving thanks to their god and Muhammad, whose ancient prophecy they had at last fulfilled.

After eight centuries of repeated failures by other Muslim armies, caliphs, and sultans to take the city, the soldiers of the House of Osman had finally attained their centuries-old dream of conquering ‘the Red Apple’ of Muslim legend. This legend was that the symbolic ‘apple’ rested in the towering, gilded equestrian statue atop the grand Column of Emperor Justinian. The towering statue dominated the plaza in the shadow of the great cathedral, triumphantly pointing east toward Asia Minor and the Asia that the Romans had at that time still dominated. The irony of the situation—a mostly Asian army of Muslim Turks and their Christian vassals conquering, from the western walls, what had once been Rome’s political and Europe’s cultural capital—must not have been lost on the Greek-speaking Romans who now found themselves slaves in what had been their capital city for over a millennium.

The Turks had long revered and feared Hagia Sophia, a building that had been erected when they were still a loose band of sky-and-nature worshiping pagans from the inner depths of Central Asia near Mongolia. Many Turks believed the building was enchanted, protected by the same mystical power that had, to their frustration, so long defended Constantinople from repeated attacks. Yet when some of the janissaries set about with axes and picks to demolish the great cathedral’s locked outer gates, and then finally breached Hagia Sophia’s massive bronze doors, no divine hand stopped their path or blocked their assault. The ancient cathedral—all its wealth, its symbolic importance, and all its horrified people within—was now theirs.

In a matter of seconds, between the shouts, screams, and commotion outside and the horrified, prayer-filled panic within, most of Constantinople’s surviving noblewomen, elderly noblemen, laypeople, and clergy found themselves suddenly prisoners and slaves. They suddenly came face to face with the armed, murderous infidels who considered them infidels, the Muslim soldiers who had, in the name of Allah, Muhammad, and their Sultan, slaughtered so many of their brothers, fathers, and husbands and conquered their ancient city. It is impossible to imagine the terror, horror, and dread that the civilians of Constantinople felt in this awful moment, or the triumph that their captors, rapists, and killers felt. Such was the horror of war in the late medieval and early modern period—regardless of religion, a city taken after a siege, after it had refused an offer of conditional surrender, could expect no mercy.

In fits of triumph and fury, the Turkish soldiers set upon the defenseless citizenry inside the cathedral, killing only a few laity who dared resist, and separating those women and boys they wished to rape and those they wished to sell at Muslim slave markets. The troops literally fought and some even killed each other over these human beings, the living spoils of their conquest. Several of the Muslim soldiers profaned the altar by throwing down the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, which had been offered in oblation only hours before. Triumphant in their religious zeal, the Muslims declared to the horrified crowd of prisoners that their idolatrous worship of a man as god was at an end, and that their city had fallen as divine punishment for their blasphemies. One can only wonder what the pious Christians of the ancient capital thought to hear such blasphemies against Christ God pronounced to them at the end of a sword.

The Ottomans set about looting as much gold, silver, porphyry, and bronze as they could from the fabulously adorned cathedral, which had until that moment been the hallowed center of Eastern Christian worship for almost a millennium. They terrorized the women, children, and elderly captives in their midst, but did not dare to torch or raze the magnificent edifice, which had captivated and haunted their imams, folk singers, and musicians for centuries. Their Sultan, they knew, was intent on claiming the greatest, oldest imperial cathedral in Christendom as his first imperial mosque.

Mehmed could not bear to think of his intended capital burning to the ground, and fires of various sizes were already burning throughout the sacked city by nightfall. Nevertheless, he had pledged to allow three days of unrestricted looting. Informed by his advance scouts that his rebellious soldiers had already stripped the city of most of its wealth, the enraged Sultan gave the order for the pillaging to cease by nightfall on the same day, the 29th. He wanted some semblance of order restored in what remained of the dilapidated city by June 1, Friday, the weekly holy day in Islam.

Accompanied by the full host of his triumphant imams, princes, and generals, the Sultan who had conquered the City of Constantine at only twenty-one years of age entered the burning, much dilapidated city on horseback, with his red and white Turkish standards and the green crescent flags of Islam billowing in the wood. This iconic image—capturing the glory and triumph of this moment when a young Turkish sultan became, by conquest, Caesar of the Second Rome— would be immortalized by painters and memorized by Turkish schoolchildren down through the centuries.

Mehmed II enters Constantinople

Mehmed proceeded at once on horseback to the already looted Hagia Sophia. Dismounting before the great Column of Justinian, the Red Apple of centuries-old Islamic lure, the sultan bent down, prostrated before the cathedral, facing east, and poured some dust on his turban as a sign of humility before God. Entering the cathedral narthex—whose nine centuries old-Christian mosaics and frescoes depicting the silent presence of Christ and His saints outraged Muslims’ iconoclastic beliefs—the sultan was horrified to find a Turkish soldier hacking away at the marble floor of the ancient structure. When Mehmed asked him why he was striking the floor of the looted cathedral, now reduced to a shell of its former glory, the man responded “for the Faith!” (Islam). The enraged Sultan struck him with his sword, and his guards carried the half-dead man away.

Turning to what remained of the sanctuary—his troops had already stripped away most of the holy altar, templon or iconostasis, gold candelabra, incense stands, imperial and patriarchal episcopal thrones, and various furnishings—Mehmed gave the fateful order to his chief imam. He ordered the man to go up into what had been the Christian pulpit and recite the Shahadah. According to Islamic theology, this action at once transformed the ancient cathedral into a mosque.

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Inside Hagia Sophia: Looking toward the eastern apse, which rises above where the altar and silver iconostasis of Justinian once stood, you can see the architecturally odd arrangement left in the wake of Mehmed II’s conversion of the Orthodox cathedral into the first imperial Ottoman mosque. Keeping with the anti-image, iconoclastic dictates of Islam, Mehmed had the magnificent Byzantine frescoes painted over (fortunately he did not have them destroyed) and ordered four pendants bearing the name of the first four Rashidun Muslim caliphs (political and spiritual leaders of the Ummah, the Muslim community) recognized in the Sunni tradition erected to hang over the nave, directly beneath the place where the Four Evangelists’ icons had stood under the central dome

 

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On Mehmed II’s orders, the remnants of the shattered, desecrated Christian altar were removed and in their place a mihrab erected. This elaborate niche in the wall indicates the qibla, the direction toward the Kaaba stone in Mecca. As you can see, this is obviously aesthetically off-center, as the building was clearly designed as an Orthodox cathedral to face cardinally east.

As part of his strategy to Islamicize and repopulate the devastated former Christian Roman capital, the Sultan subsequently forcibly imported tens of thousands of Turkish Muslims from Anatolia into the city. He allowed surviving Greek and Armenian Christians to return to the capital, ordered the construction of several new imperial mosques on the sites of destroyed Byzantine churches, and converted many of the most prominent Christian churches in the city into mosques. Disturbed by the haunting, somber images of the Lord Jesus Christ and His most pure Mother adorning the dome and apse of Hagia Sophia, Mehmed ordered the immediate whitewashing of its magnificent Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, which so offended Islamic theology. He subsequently commanded the removal of the outer dome’s crowning cross, the remaining incense stands, baptistery, and bells, and the erection of four huge minarets to summon faithful Muslims to prayer with the azan. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish soldiers repeated this pattern of converting, whitewashing, and re-purposing ancient Christian churches and cathedrals in the name of Islam.

Constantinople’s thousand-year legacy: Uniting Greek, Roman, and Christian cultural, literary, political, and theological ideas

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An artistic reconstruction of Constantinople in Late Antiquity, following Constantine’s establishment in AD 330 of the ancient port of Byzantion as the new Roman imperial capital, renamed Constantinopolis-Nova Roma in his honor. The view northward from the Imperial Palace of the Roman emperors looks out over the huge, colonnaded Augusteion, the plaza of the Augusti (emperors) with the grand Column of Justinian facing east, and Hagia Sophia in the background beyond.

From its re-founding by Emperor Constantine in AD 330 to its fall to the Ottomans over a millennium later, Byzantium—an anachronistic term, since the citizens of New Rome always considered themselves Romans—synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural legacy and infused it with new vitality. Nova Roma on the Bosporus, straddling Europe and Asia, Greece and Asia Minor, was the heir to the greatest artistic, literary, and philosophical legacies of Classical Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms. It also uniquely preserved and re-articulated Classical Roman law, political theory, and imperial government structure.

Its numerous, richly endowed monasteries, convents, and imperial libraries preserved thousands of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classical and legal texts which were mostly lost or unknown to the contemporary West. Under St Emperor Justinian the Law-giver (482-565, r. 527-565), most of the full Roman Empire’s boundaries were (briefly) reconquered under the brilliant general Belisarius, the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt after a fire in only seven years, at huge expense, to become the marvel of the world, and the Emperor issued his famous Codex Justinianus, his revised and codified statute book of all existing Roman law.

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The magnificent painted gold and multi-colored frescoes of Hagia Sophia were ordered whitewashed by Mehmed II. They remained under the prohibitive, iconoclastic Muslim-directed paint until the 1930s, when, following Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1935 proclamation of the secular Turkish Republic, he ordered Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia Camii in Turkish) turned into a museum. The museum historians and artisans carefully uncovered many of the cathedral’s ancient mosaics in the 1930s and 40s, revealing much, though not all, of the formerly Byzantine splendor of the structure.

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An approximation of the territorial extent of the Christian Roman Empire in AD 555, at the height of the reign of St Emperor Justinian the Great (482-565, r. 527-565).

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Magnificent Byzantine fresco depicting Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximianus in the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna, which served in the sixth century as the capital of Roman-controlled Italy under Constantinople’s rule.

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Stunning mosaic of the Lord Jesus Christ shown as a boy with angels at His side, overlooking the apse over the eastern wall altar inside the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna.

St Vitale in Ravenna

A crowning example of Late Antique, early Byzantine frescoes and interior church decor, the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna functioned under Constantinople’s rule as a monument to Justinian and Theodora’s imperial glory, a projection of Constantinople’s power and prestige, and a symbol of the enduring link at the time between Eastern and Western Christianity, all united then under shared recognition of the Pope in Rome and the Emperor in Constantinople.

Theodora in Ravenna

Opposite the apse wall showing Emperor Justinian and his advisors is his brilliant consort, Empress Theodora (500-548) shown with her female noble courtiers and advisors. Theodora ruled alongside Justinian as a kind of unofficial co-ruler despite her scandalously humble origins as a stage actress at Constantinople’s huge Hippodrome stadium. When in 532 the chariot-racing, politically-tinged rivalries between the Blue and the Green racing teams boiled over into mass rioting, brigandage, and near civil-war in the capital, the Emperor and his advisors considered fleeing the city and attempting to re-group elsewhere. The Empress, aware that she owed her position to the love and admiration of the Empress, famously addressed her husband and his advisors, urging them to stay, kill the rebels, and restore order. Her words are preserved as follows: “My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”

For centuries, despite the Empire contracting and losing territory in the wake of regular Muslim Arab caliphate and later Seljuk Turkish conquests and incursions, the central arteries of East-West Mediterranean trade in spices, silks, slaves, furs, oils, perfumes, jewels, and much agriculture passed through Constantinople’s ports and markets. The city’s imperial treasury minted the gold standard of the Mediterranean commercial world at the time, the gold solidus nomisma. Christian Roman scholars in Constantinople made numerous new contributions and advances in all the fields of science, literature, philosophy, military technology, urban engineering, and law. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of eleven centuries of constant external pressures, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim westward expansion from Asia into Europe.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor in Christendom as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity. Its bishops, monks, nuns, and saints over the centuries made a vast contribution in the Eastern Church liturgical tradition, Patristic writings, homiletics, mystical theology, and spiritual phronema. The fall of Constantine’s City, however long in the making, profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the world’s most powerful Muslim empire which was to menace the Christian West for centuries.

The horror of the West and the Latin Church at the city’s fall

This video offers a profoundly beautiful example of the contemporary Roman Church’s horror over the fall of the city, which had been the Eastern Roman capital and thus the living embodiment and legacy of the ancient Roman Empire for over a millennium. At Pope Nicholas V’s urging, the brilliant Franco-Flemish choralist Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), leading composer in the Burgundian School, composed this magnificent early Renaissance motet in 1454 in lamentation of the city’s fall.

The same Pope Nicholas invited many Greek refugees from Constantinople to Rome, where he hoped to add their intellectual luster and accumulated theological, historical, literary and artistic works to the splendor of Old Rome. Unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the squabbling northern Italian city-states and kingdoms of Hungary and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire to unite in a common cause to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans, Nicholas V died in 1455. He did so bitterly acknowledging that his papacy would be forever marred in history as that during which Nova Roma, the Queen City of Christendom, fell.

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Flemish master choralist Guillaume Dufay (of the Burgundian School) shown with Gilles Binchois.

Dufay modeled his ethereal dirge, “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae” (“Lament of Holy Mother Church for Constantinople”), from a part of the Book of Lamentations on the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Here are the song’s lyrics in Middle French, with translation into English below:

O tres piteulx de tout espoir fontaine,
Pere du filz dont suis mere esplorée,
Plaindre me viens a ta court souveraine,
De ta puissance et de nature humaine,
Qui ont souffert telle durté villaine
Faire à mon filz, qui tant m’a hounourée.

Dont suis de bien et de joye separée,
Sans qui vivant veule entendre mes plaints.
A toy, seul Dieu, du forfait me complains,
Du gref tourment et douloureulx oultrage,
Que voy souffrir au plus bel des humains.
Sans nul confort de tout humain lignage.

Translated into English:

‘O most merciful fount of all hope,

Father of the son whose weeping mother I am:

I come to complain before your sovereign court,

about your power and about human nature,

which have allowed such grievous harm to be

done to my son, who has honored me so much.

 

For that I am bereft of all good and joy,

without anyone alive to hear my laments.

To you, the only God, I submit my complaints,

about the grievous torment and sorrowful outrage,

which I see the most beautiful of men suffer

without any comfort for the whole human race.’

Triumph of the Turks: The Ottoman advance into Europe and its emergence as the leading Mediterranean hegemon

For the Ottoman Turks, the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 marked the crowning inauguration of their hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, and the attainment of an eight centuries-old goal of all Muslim Arab and later Turkish kingdoms and caliphates dating back to Muhammad’s prophecies. Mehmed II declared himself “Caesar of Rome”, adding the Persian version of this title to his others of Padishah (Great King) and Sultan. It also marked their transformation from a powerful Turkish kingdom into a burgeoning world empire which could now harass Christian European shipping in the Mediterranean with impunity and begin to contemplate invasions beyond Thrace and Serbia into Central Europe. At only twenty-one, Mehmed II had, after almost eight hundred years of failed attempts by numerous earlier Umayyad caliphs and Seljuk Turkish sultans, conquered the Second Rome, the ‘Red Apple’ of Muslim legend.

Mehmed II’s vast, efficiently-supplied and well-trained armies of Turks, Uzbeks, Syrians, and Persians, as well as coerced Muslim converts from Christian Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria soon threatened all Christendom with a kind of reverse Crusade. By the Sultan’s death in 1481, Ottoman armies had conquered the last Byzantine bastions in Morea, Greece, subdued Serbia and Bosnia, raided Italy and threatened Rome itself, and cemented Ottoman rule over most of Wallachia and Transylvania (Romania). Mehmed II’s descendants would conquer most of Hungary, all the Middle East and North Africa, and push Ottoman ambitions twice to the gates of Vienna.

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The Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), official painter to the Doges of Venice, rendered this 1480 portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) a year before the Sultan’s death at age 49. Feared and despised by Christians for his conquest of Constantinople, his ravaging of the Balkans, and his well-publicized sexual immorality, Europeans called him “the Eagle” for his harsh, aquiline features. Following his astonishing conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed took the Persian title Kayser-i-Rum, ‘Caesar of Rome’, believing himself to be the rightful Roman Emperor. This portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, what was in 1453 a nightmare at last come to reality was, for the Ottomans, the triumphant realization of their long-cherished dream. Alone of all the dozens of Muslim empires to rise and fall after Muhammad’s death in 632, they had finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century after their fourteenth century conquest of most of Anatolia and their expansion behind Constantinople into Thrace and Serbia. For the city’s Greek and Armenian Christian populace, most of whom were sold into slavery or fled to Greece or Syria, the conquest was a tragedy which still evokes pain down through the centuries.

From the new Ottoman capital at Constantinople, successive sultans began to expand Ottoman territory ever further into Central Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, taking tens of thousands of male and female slaves for the Janissary corps, palace bureaucracy, and the imperial palace harem. After largely digesting his father Mehmed’s conquests in the Balkans, Beyezed II (1447-1512) shrewdly resettled most of the exiled Sephardic Jewish populations throughout his Empire following the 1492 Alhambra Decree by Fernando II and Isabel I, which expelled them from Catholic Castile and Aragon.

Notably, Bayezid also subdued the first of a series of Azeri Qizilbash rebellions against Ottoman rule by these Safaviyya tariqa Shia-aligned Sufi tribes. Most of the ‘Safavi’ Azeris were a mix of culturally Persianized Turks or Turkicized ethnic Iranians, united in their common adherence to the Jafari or ‘Twelver’ mazhab of Shia jurisprudence which the mostly Hanafi Sunni Ottomans viewed as heretical. In 1501, the head of the Savafid Turko-Kurdish Iranian dynasty, Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), proclaimed himself Shahanshah (king of kings) of Iran, capturing and making the mostly Azeri city of Tabriz his capital. Motivated as much by an intense religious desire to ensure Shia orthodoxy as his desire to create a unified Iranian state, Ismail rapidly commenced the forced conversion of the Iranian plateau to Twelver Shia Islam. He incentivized Sunni conversions by promising land grants, wealth, and meritorious advancement, destroying Sunni Sufi tariqa (religious schools) and confiscating their assets, and threatening Sunni ulema (scholars) and nobles with death or exile if they did not convert. The new Shah sought to impose Shia conformity in order to create a more unified Iranian imperial, ethnic, and religious identity distinct from his Ottoman rivals to the west and Sunni Turkic Uzbeks to the east.

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A European portrait of Safavid Shah Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), founder of the Twelver Shia Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501-1736)

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Shah Ismail I entering Tabriz with his Qizilbash army contigents in 1501. This victory commenced the start of his reign as Shahanshah over Persia and the establishment of the Shia Safavid dynasty, which would challenge the Ottomans on political, religious, and cultural fronts until its collapse in the 1730s.

Shah Ismail I and Sultan Bayezid II were thus not only political rivals contesting control over the disputed borderland regions of Armenia, Georgia, eastern Turkey, and Shirvan (much of modern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran), but mortal religious enemies who viewed each other as contemptible heretics. Ismail billed himself as the champion ghazi (warrior) of Shia Islam, whereas Bayezid, like his Ottoman forebears, saw himself as the champion and caliph of Sunni Islam. Jafari ‘Twelver’ Shia Safavid Iranians and the Hanafi Sunni Ottoman Turks both viewed each other as heretics, but, ironically, the two rival dynasties both had mixed Turkic-Iranian-Central Asian origins. The Safavids had direct Turkic ancestry, with Shah Ismail speaking an Azeri variant of Turkish as his first language rather than courtly Persian, while the Ottoman sultans were ethnically a mix of Albanian, Serbian, Greek, and Turkish, but preferred to compose their poems and issue their decrees in classical Persian dialects.

Bayezid was ultimately forced to abdicate by one of his sons, Mehmed II’s grandson Selim I “the Grim” (1471-1520, r. 1512-1520). Selim continued the documented Ottoman tradition, established at least by Mehmed II’s time, of engaging in mass fratricide upon his accession; he had his half-brothers by his father’s different harem concubines strangled with bowstrings or silk chords to ensure that he had no rivals for the throne. A great conqueror, Selim used innovative tactics and the Ottomans’ artillery and musketry to defeat the previously expansionist Safavid Persian Shah Ismail I in battle at Chaldiran in 1514. One of the most decisive battles in Turkish and Iranian history, the outcome saw Ottoman guns and cannons triumph against the Safavid heavy and light cavalry, who, just as the Ottoman Turks used to do, formed the basis of most formerly nomadic peoples’ armies. Selim’s forces captured Ismail’s entire harem, including his two favorite wives.

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An illustration of the decisive 1514 Battle of Chaldiran which checked Ismail’s Safavid westward advances into Turkey, cemented Ottoman rule over most of Armenia and Georgia, and ended the Persian threat to Ottoman Turkish eastern borderlands.

The battle of Chaldiran halted Safavid Iranian expansion westward into the Ottoman Turkish heartland, and forced the increasingly distraught and despondent Ismail to return most of annexed Georgia and Armenia to Ottoman rule after Selim briefly occupied and sacked the first Safavid capital, Tabriz, before turning his attentions elsewhere. The Sultan’s armies most famously conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, thereby taking over vast territories in Egypt, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and the entire Hejaz region of Arabia, the holiest region in Islam. This allowed the Ottoman sultans to proclaim themselves the caliphs, or chief religious-political leaders, of Sunni Islam as the guardians of the principal Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Selim’s conquests in his short reign of only eight years thus enormously increased the religious prestige of the Ottoman dynasty as the Sunni Muslim superpower, and dramatically increased the territorial size of the Ottoman Empire by some 70%.

The Sultan’s conquests gave the Turks control over the three holiest cities in Islam—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem— as well as the ancient Sunni mazhab academies and tariqa of Cairo, the rich Mediterranean ports of Alexandria and Beirut, and the colossal Egyptian Mediterranean-Red Sea spice, jewels, and incense trade. Ottoman dominion over Egypt, the Hejaz region of western Arabia, and leading Red Sea ports also meant that the Sultans now dominated the ancient Islamic Trans-Saharan trade in sub-Saharan black slaves, and the gateway to trade unmolested with Indian ports. These conquests made the Ottoman sultans, already fabulously wealthy, into by far the wealthiest monarchs in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.

Selim’s son and heir, perhaps the greatest Ottoman emperor, inherited this great wealth and mantle of conquest, presiding over the Empire’s military, political, cultural, and economic zenith. Known to history as Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566, r. 1520-66), he was, like most of his forebears, equally a ruthless conqueror for Sunni Islam, colossal builder, a shrewd administrator, gifted poet, and pious endower of numerous imperial mosques, turbes (tombs), tariqa, and public baths. Known as ‘the Ottoman Justinian’, and similarly named ‘the Law-giver’ after his death, this Ottoman Solomon reigned for the longest of all the sultans. This forty-six-year period of constant territorial expansion, imperial projection, and administrative centralization saw Suleiman give orders to codify all existing Ottoman imperial decrees and statutes. The sultan personally presided over additional Ottoman conquests in Algeria, Serbia, Transylvania, key Mediterranean fortress strongholds on Rhodes and Crete, and, most importantly, the Carpathian basin. Suleiman’s rapid conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary (1526), his ambitious, though failed, siege of Habsburg Vienna (1529), and his admirals’ numerous raids across the Mediterranean world horrified Christian Europe.

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Titian’s 1530 portrait of the Ottoman Empire’s most successful and greatest Sultan, Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1494-1566, r. 1520-1566).

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A contemporary Persian-style Ottoman miniature of Suleiman at the 1522 Siege of Rhodes.

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Sultan Suleiman’s imperial tughra, or Arabic calligraphy signature, used in all imperial firmans (edicts), comparable to a royal seal.

Suleiman’s advance into the heart of Europe terrified all of Christendom. His well-trained army of some 250,000 men succeeded where Mehmed II had tried but failed in 1456, capturing in August 1521 the key Hungarian-controlled fortress of Belgrade, Serbia and deporting its entire Orthodox population to Istanbul. After the young, ill-prepared King Louis II of Hungary foolishly declared war on the Turks in summer 1526, Suleiman personally commanded the Ottoman troops at the decisive August battle at Mohacs, which saw the young king and the flower of the Hungarian nobility and knightly classes killed. Hungary’s twin political and spiritual centers, Buda and Esztergom, fell within the year, leading the Ottomans to annex and incorporate most of the ancient Magyar kingdom.

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Flemish painter Sebastian Vranck’s European-style portrait of the Ottoman Siege of Esztergom, the seat of the Catholic Primates of Hungary, in 1543. A depiction of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman on horseback in his yellow robes and turban is in the left foreground. The Sultan, as with so many of his campaigns, personally commanded the Ottoman armies.

Suleiman’s rapid path of conquests into Central Europe horrified his Christian contemporaries, especially the young Charles V (1500-1558, r. 1516-1556 as King of Spain, 1519-1556 as Emperor), the new Holy Roman Emperor who was also Carlos I of Spain, Flanders, and Burgundy.

Ottoman naval power grew so strong that throughout the 1520s and into the 1540s, Suleiman’s Grand Admiral of the imperial fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546)—himself the son of a Greek Orthodox woman like so many of the Ottoman pashas, princes, and sultans—raided Spanish and Italian shipping across the Mediterranean. Barbarossa assisted the Sultan in expelling the stalwart Knights of St John Hospitaller from the Aegean Greek isle of Rhodes in 1522, thereby greatly easing Ottoman commerce and naval communications between Istanbul and Alexandria, Egypt. His fleet then captured the crucial North African western Barbary port of Algiers in 1525. This victory caused most of Muslim North Africa to become an autonomous part of the Empire by acknowledging the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultans. This meant that from Egypt to Algeria, almost the entire North African coast was now in Ottoman hands, significantly increasing the Turkish fleet’s ability to harass Spanish and Italian shipping and raid the coasts of Sicily, Malta, eastern Spain, and southern Italy.

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European style portrait of the Ottoman Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546).

In 1538, Barbarossa defeated the allied Christian Holy League—formed by Pope Paul III’s diplomacy and comprising a loose combination of the Imperial Habsburg (Spanish), Venetian, Genoan, and papal fleets under the overall command of Charles V’s Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560)—off the western Greek coast at Preveza. The unified Ottoman force of some 120 galleys and 12,000 soldiers decisively defeated the 110 galleys, 50 heavy galleons, and 70 smaller barques of the 60,000 Christian forces, who were split with internal rivalries between the Genoese and Venetians. The victory ensured Ottoman dominance of the Mediterranean for the next 33 years until the decisive allied Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571.

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The “Battle of Preveza” (1538) by Ohannes Umed Behzad, painted in 1866.

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At Suleiman’s command, under Barbarossa’s leadership the Ottomans established a sizable fleet on the Indian Ocean to ensure that Ottoman-Mughal commerce and the maritime passage of hajj pilgrims to and from Ottoman-controlled Mecca and Medina passed unimpeded.

In 1535, King Francis I of France successfully proposed a French-Ottoman alliance against his and Suleiman’s common Habsburg enemy, earning the ire of Charles V and the Pope, who was horrified that the French monarch, who bore the papal honorific title of ‘Most Christian King’, would ally with ‘the Grand Turk’, the infidel scourge of Christendom. Francis even permitted Barbarossa’s fleet to winter in Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast in 1543, following a joint French-Turkish fleet attack on Nice, which briefly captured the port from the city’s Habsburg-allied ruler, Charles III the Duke of Savoy.

In 1529, Suleiman embarked on his most ambitious undertaking yet: he set out into German lands to conquer the Austrian Habsburg city of Vienna, in the southern heart of Central Europe.

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This contemporary 1529 engraving shows clashes between the Austrians and Ottomans outside Vienna in September or October 1529 by the German painter and engraver Bartel Beham.

The Sultan’s forces of at least 200,000—who had to abandon many of their camels and heavy cannon as they marched northwest in the heavy summer rains of Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria—nevertheless invested and besieged a much smaller but stalwart force of 16,000 Austrian and Spanish Habsburg defenders. The Ottomans were only repulsed in October after the heavy rains caused morale to plummet and disease to spread in their camps. However, the escape of most of the Sultan’s army, sans his long imperial baggage trains stocked with riches, opened the door for a possible future Ottoman invasion of the German principalities or down into Italy from the north.

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Suleiman commissioned his chief architect, the great Armenian or Greek-born, Christian-turned-Muslim master Mimar Sinan (1488-1588) to design and build what would become Istanbul’s most famous imperial Ottoman mosque. Designed deliberately after Hagia Sophia, which Suleiman sought to surpass architecturally, Suleiman had the mosque dedicated in his own honor to the glory of Allah. The Suleymaniue Camii remains one of modern Istanbul’s greatest tourist attractions, and active mosque.

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The Suleymaniye Mosque as seen from the Galata tower.

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The mosque’s interior.

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The territorial extent of the Ottoman Empire upon Suleiman’s death in 1566. 

Ruling in their heyday in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries from Algeria to modern Ukraine, modern Yemen to Hungary, and northern Romania to the Horn of Africa, the Ottoman sultans saw themselves as the political heirs to the Roman Emperors of Constantinople. Declaring themselves “Lords of the Two Lands and the Two Seas”, originally this title assumed by Mehmed II referred to Ottoman control over the Balkans and Anatolia, and the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Seas. By Suleiman’s death, the Ottomans effectively ruled not only these seas, but the Red Sea and Persian Gulf as well. The Sultans of Constantinople, like their Safavid and Mughal contemporaries, used the Persian titles of Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) and Padishah (“Great King”), but most important to them, politically, were the title Kayser-i-Rum (“Caesar of Rome” [Constantinople]) and Caliph of Sunni Islam as the Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”). The latter title recognized the Ottoman sultans as the paramount religious and political authority among Sunni Muslims due to their position as rulers over the Hejaz and as custodians of the two principal Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. Acknowledging their dynasty and people’s ethnic origins from Central Asia, all sultans also bore the traditional Mongol title of khan.

Constantinople’s legacy

Constantinople’s place as a redoubtable Christian bastion even after the initial Ottoman ascendancy in the fourteenth century had, for almost four centuries, checked Turkish advances into Europe—their chroniclers called the city “A bone in the throat of Allah”, insisting that it must be conquered for Islam. Prior to the Seljuk Sultan Arp Arslan’s shock triumph over the Emperor Romanos IV at Manzikert in 1071, Constantinople had resisted repeated Arab Muslim attempts to capture the city for Islam. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish magistrates enforced the infamous devisherme system which exploited local Christian populations by forcibly conscripting numerous boys as janissaries (the sultans’ elite shock troops) or court eunuchs, and Christian girls, and sometimes boys, for the provincial beys’ harems and ultimately the imperial harem of the grand ‘Seraglio’ at Topkapı Palace.

Within a century of overtaking Nova Roma on the Bosporus, Ottoman forces had conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean, and most of the Kingdom of Hungary, continuing to war with and regularly threaten the Habsburg German-controlled Holy Roman Empire until the end of the seventeenth century, when they last attempted in 1683 to conquer Vienna under Mehmed IV (1642-1693, r 1648-1687) and his ruthless Albanian Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Constantinople, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Greek refugees poured into Italy.

The great Christian empire of Constantinople is long gone, with the Turkish-speaking city of Istanbul teeming with some fourteen million people today. Every year on May 29, commemorated as Fetih day (“Conquest” day), Muslim Turks gather across the country and city, but especially in front of Hagia Sophia and Mehmed’s turbe at his commemorative Fetih Camii, to commemorate what is, for them, the glorious conquest of Constantinople. May 29 symbolizes for many Turks both their hopes for the triumph of Islam over Christianity, and the past greatness of the Turkish Muslim empire, whose complicated legacy the AKP’s ruling President Erdogan often evokes in nationalistic and pan-Islamic tones today. Haghia Sophia itself, while officially still a museum, has increasingly been publicly used as a mosque, especially during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan (currently going on now).

H.A.H. the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly condemned Erdogan’s statements threatening to turn the ancient church-museum back into a mosque, while Turkey’s prime minister and deputy prime minister have variously spoken in favor of re-opening the building for regular Muslim worship. Prominent nationalist and Islamist politicians and religious figures in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora have cited Mehmed II’s 1453 decree, which declared Hagia Sophia to be the Sultan (and his heirs’)’s personal property by right of conquest, enjoining that the building remain a mosque ‘until the Day of Judgment’. H.H. Pope Francis, the president and prime minister of Greece, and various other political leaders, statesmen, and academics have all weighed in on the controversy.

Yet as Christians, there are lessons for us to learn from Constantinople’s fall. We know that as followers of Christ, this life is in many respects like a battle. We can never mistake or equate any earthly kingdom or power with the eternal, Heavenly Kingdom and its power from God alone. The apostle St Paul commands us to put on our spiritual armor in our daily lives because we are not playing on a neutral playing field. This means that in our personal lives, our spiritual lives, and our societal lives, we must constantly guard our defenses against sin and evil in all their forms. Yet those who mean us harm do not always attack from the front, but will hit us from a side where we were least expecting it. My prayer is that we constantly ask God to show us the Kerkaportas in our own lives, so that we can always be fixing our defenses in order to run the good race and fight the good fight. May the memory of Constantinople’s valiant defenders be eternal!

Hagia Sophia

May the church of Justinian’s glory—the imperial and patriarchal cathedral of the Roman Empire for almost a millennium—shine forth again one day with the splendor of the Christian Divine Liturgy.

Bibliography

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Runciman, Steven. The Byzantine Theocracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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