Conquering Constantinople again and again
NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
At the Panorama 1453 History Museum in Istanbul’s Topkapı visitors can visually take in the entire story of the conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453.
May is the month when Istanbul pretends it is spring.
Usually the weather is still cool enough that the city’s inhabitants are still heating their homes and there is a saying that Istanbul jumps from winter to summer, skipping the spring season. This year, however, we seem to actually be enjoying a spring as the city gears up for May 29, the anniversary of the city’s conquest in 1453, and a day when the metropolitan municipality puts on its annual grand celebration. We can expect a symbolic boat to be pulled over the heights of Beyoğlu and a re-enactment of the final assault, complete with fireworks that mimic the fire and thunder of Fatih Sultan Mehmed II’s cannon.
We are fortunate to have written sources available to tell us the story of the conquest of 1453, although some information has to be taken with a grain of salt. Eyewitnesses can easily be mistaken when recounting a story years later. We are also fortunate to have the walls of Constantinople still standing today along with the fortress at Rumeli Hisarı, although its earlier counterpart at Anadolu Hisarı lies mostly in ruins.
The story of how Mehmed got permission to build a fort as large as the one at Rumeli Hisarı in the heart of Constantinople is known thanks to the 17th century writer Evliya Çelebi. It is said that Mehmed was granted land the size of an ox hide, which he promptly had cut into a thin strip. This was then stretched until it went around the large plot of land on which the fort was later built. Interestingly this was exactly the ploy that Aeneas used to establish the great city of Carthage following the Trojan War.
Fortress’ shape resembles Arabic letters
The shape of the fortress makes very good sense when one examines the topography of the land, but this too has been turned into another story. The fortress’ shape is supposed to have been designed to resemble the letter ‘m’ or ‘mim’ in Arabic. The sultan is known to have spoken several languages but he would have primarily written in Arabic. (See “Topkapı Sarayı’ndaki Defterin Esrari” in the magazine 1453, Vol. 1, May 2007. The notebook is believed to have belonged to Fatih Sultan Mehmed II when he was a child.) Although ‘mim’ in Arabic is nowhere like the shape of the fort – an oblong circle with a tail – it is supposed to reflect the round towers with the connecting stretches of wall. However, the fortress’s shape as seen from the Bosphorus, or even from across the city on the Asian side, resembles the letter ‘m’ in Greek and in Latin a great many more letters. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the wall between the two top towers was not made for symbolic reasons, but rather strategic ones. The walls would have funneled any attacking enemy into a trap where the defenders would have been able to destroy them by shooting from both sides.
The walls of the city still stand, although there have been attempts to tear them down once they lost their defensive purpose. Right up to the end of the 20th century plans were made to destroy them. The railway from Europe runs right through them along the Sea of Marmara. Sultan Abdulaziz, who reigned from 1861 to 1876, was eager to tear them down during his reign because he felt they weren’t modern and western enough – these obviously were in the days before tourism. Some parts of the walls came down in order to widen the roads that ran through them – after all they weren’t built to accommodate the automobile and a city with millions of inhabitants. Even in the 1980s and 1990s there was nationalistic talk of tearing them down because the walls weren’t Turkish, and the opposition gained enough strength to force then mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was unable to renew a contract the city had put out to repair them.
People living in the walls
One shouldn’t forget the people who actually lived in the walls. Not the people who had set up vegetable and fruit gardens along the walls and came into the city to sell their produce from horse-drawn carts, but the men who lived in bands of thieves, murderers and grave robbers who had sought shelter in the walls.
During Fatih Mehmed II’s assault on the walls, they would have already been in poor repair. The Byzantine emperor didn’t have the wherewithal to affect lasting, significant repairs and it’s debatable whether it would have made any difference in the end. By coincidence, the dates and days of the week in 1453 coincide with those this year. So you can imagine what happened on Saturday, May 12, 1453, just two weeks before the final assault on Constantinople began.
“Embrasures that had been destroyed between the Blachernae Palace and the Charisius (Edirnekapı) and new reinforcements were constructed on the section of the wall that had been repaired quickly and simply by Giustinian. Towards evening the emperor and the city’s leaders attended a religious service at St. Sophia. After the service it was suggested at a meeting held to evaluate the situation that the cavalry make a sortie out of the city. The purpose was to inflict damage on the Ottoman soldiers and raise the morale of the Byzantines. Lucas Notaras and the commanders were of the opinion that such a sortie would result in losses that would weaken their defenses and they should continue as they had been, thus blocking this movement. While these points of view were being debated in St. Sophia, the bells began to ring. The emperor and those by his side leaped up and ran to the walls immediately. Sultan Mehmed II had discovered a new place to attack and he had amassed his forces in the section between the Charisius (Edirnekapi).”
The description above is taken from “1453 KonstantinopolIstanbul” which was prepared by Ali Erkmen for Culture, Inc. The 300+ page book provides significant information about the preparations made for the final battle and has numerous illustrations throughout. There are five pages of sources and 30 pages of notes that provide further information.
And if you want to skip the chaotic bustle on streets closed to traffic, enjoy a visit to the Panorama 1453 History Museum at Topkapi where you can visually take in the entire story of the conquest. k HDN