The beginning of the end of Constantinople
April 6 marked the 560th year of the beginning of the siege of Constantinople. Conquering the city was considered a matter of Islamic pride. Photos provided by the 1453 Panaroma Museum.April 6, 1453, was the official date for the beginning of the siege of Constantinople, 560 years ago, but Sultan Mehmed II had started planning for the occasion long before, perhaps even before he ascended the throne. One wouldn’t know it from the notebook in which the young boy wrote and drew, although it is quite extraordinary that we have such a personal memento. (The 1453 Panorama Museum has a display of the notebook.) We can surmise the young boy was fixated with the idea, however.
Capturing the city had been a goal before, as the Arabs had attempted to take it in the seventh century, as had Mehmed II’s great-grandfather, Sultan Bayezid I, and his own father, Sultan Murad II, but the last attempt ended in failure in 1421. Conquering the city was considered a matter of Islamic pride. And in 1453, the time was much more propitious. In the winter of 1452, Mehmed II made his preparations. The Rumeli governor, Karaca Bey, took the fortresses of Ahyolu, Misivri and Vize. Haghios Stefanos (Yeşilköy) which were still in Byzantine hands and Bigados (Müderris Village) were captured. Upon this Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI repaired Istanbul’s walls haphazardly because of the short amount of time; he also sent a letter to Mehmed II that he was a supporter of peace but he also made it known that he would defend the city if the Ottomans definitely wanted to gain control of Istanbul.
The Ottomans now had a fleet through which they commanded the sea lanes and could prevent any ship wanting to help Byzantium from doing so. They had the services of a master cannon maker whom the Byzantines had rejected, and this Hungarian had produced cannon capable of inflicting enormous damage on the walls of Constantinople. The fortress of Rumelihisari had been built across from the fortress at Anadoluhisarı so ships could be prevented from traversing the Bosphorus to help the city.
We read in Harry Magoulias’ translation of the work of the late Byzantine historian Doukas the following: “Night and day the ruler’s [Sultan Mehmed II] only care and concern, whether he was lying in bed or standing on his feet, or within his courtyard or without, was what battle plan and stratagem to employ in order to capture Constantinople.”
The month of March was taken up with collecting an army which is thought to have amounted to 80,000 men, both foot soldiers and cavalry. These were sent on ahead to take up designated positions outside the walls. Zaganos Paşa was stationed on the hills to the northern side of the Golden Horn where he could keep an eye on the foreigners in Galata. Karaca Bey placed his European troops from the Golden Horn up to where the Blachernae Palace wall met the Theodosian wall. İshak Bey commanded the Anatolian troops along the Theodosian Wall as far as the Lykos Valley (today’s Bayrampaşa) and from there at what is today called the Cannon Gate (Topkapı) as far as the Sea of Marmara, the sultan planted his red and gold tent about a quarter mile from the walls, according to one source. The Ottoman army’s lines were only about 759 meters from the walls.
The great cannon that had been built for Mehmed II and could fire a ball weighing over half a ton a mile was located opposite the Cannon Gate. It, and the other cannon, left on Feb. 1 and took two months to get there from Edirne. Pulling them were 50 pairs of oxen, each one accompanied by 200 men. A group of 200 workers and 50 wagons were sent ahead to repair the roads and ensure the bridges were strong enough for the cannon to pass over. They reached Çekmece on April 1 and took another five days to reach the city.
The first period of the siege - April 6 to 17
On April 6, the battle commenced when the sultan ordered a barrage from the smaller cannon that had arrived earlier to be directed against the walls. The result weakened the walls and even brought part of one wall down but the defenders – facing the Turks were an estimated 7,000 men and boys, many of which had little or no training for fighting – were able to make repairs during the night. Sappers were told to start tunnels to try to undermine the walls from below and others were directed to fill in the moat directly in front of a portion of the walls.
The Ottoman fleet which had been standing off the entrance to the Golden Horn under the command of Baltaoğlu Süleyman Bey was ordered to try to break through the chain across that waterway so that Constantinople could be attacked from that side. However, he was unable to succeed and decided to wait until he had further reinforcements from the Black Sea. In the meantime, he attacked the islands off Constantinople and overpowered whatever resistance the local inhabitants could offer.
Doukas continued, “During the nights, [Mehmed II] spent his time planning the attack against the city. Using paper and ink, he traced the city’s fortifications and designated to those skilled in siege warfare where and how to place the cannon, the breastworks, the trenches, the entrance to the fosse, and on which wall the scaling ladders were to be placed. In other words, he staged every operation during the night, and in the morning his orders were executed, for he attended to these things judiciously and cunningly.”
’The Fall of Constantinople 1453’
Steven Runciman relates in his book, “The Fall of Constantinople 1453,” how Mehmed II in the meantime took some men and captured a small fortress up the Bosphorus that was still holding out, as well as another in the area of Studius near the Sea of Marmara. The soldiers who were defeated were impaled in front of the walls to show the Byzantine defenders what might happen to them if they continued to resist.
Some of the dating of events during the siege is not as clear as one would wish; however, on or about the 11th the sultan sent one of the viziers, Mahmud Paşa, to talk with Constantine about surrendering. The emperor refused to surrender. So on the 12th, the big cannon began to pound the city as well. The large cannon could only be shot off seven or eight times a day because they overheated and had to be cooled and cleaned before they could be shot again. One actually exploded and caused a number of deaths. But they did untold damage to the walls of the city which the inhabitants – men, women and children – tried to repair every night. They used bags of wool, huge haircloth sacks and similar items, hanging them over the damaged walls so that they could absorb some of the blows inflicted by the cannon balls. But the pounding never stopped until the city was conquered on May 29, 1453.