1453: THE HOLY WAR FOR CONSTANTINOPLE AND THE CLASH of ISLAM AND THE WEST BY ROGER CROWLEY
REVIEWED BYALBERT GARIH
266 pages. Hyperion, New York, 2005.
At the crossroads between East and West, Constantinople was apparently coveted by Islam from the days of the Prophet himself and became “a bone of contention in the throat of Allah.” It took more than 800 years and many unsuccessful attempts for that dream to become reality. In this remarkably well researched book, the author chronicles the fall of Constantinople from Constantine XI, emperor of Byzantium, to Mehmet II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in 1453.
SStraddling two continents, Constantinople, crowned by the majestic church of St. Sophia overlooking Galata across the Golden Horn in the North, bordered by the Sea of Marmara in the South, and separated from Asia in the East by the Bosphorus, was well protected: the Theodosian wall, whose three layers and moat ran four miles across the land from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, protected it from a land invasion, while a boom closed the Golden Horn to any invading fleet.
Mehmet II succeeded his father, Sultan Murat in 1451. He was ambitious, and had started to plan an assault on Constantinople as early as 1445. Aware of how difficult it would be to take over the city and of the many failed attempts to do so, he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He started by building a new fortress in less than five months on the European side of the Bosphorus, to secure control of the straits : Rumeli Hisari, or the Throat Cutter. His plan was to besiege the city with his troops. And to give more strength to that siege, he used cannons, including a twenty-seven foot long solid bronze cannon, which he conveniently positioned in front of the weak spot in the Theodosian wall: the Lycus River Valley.
Aware of the danger posed by the new sultan, and with his troops vastly outnumbered by the Ottomans, despite Genoese, Venetian, Orthodox and Catholic, Greek and Italian reinforcements, Emperor Constantine IX tried to call for more help from the West. But Rome was not eager to help the Orthodox Church unless it swore allegiance to the pope, and any hope for a fleet sailing east from the Sea of Marmara soon evaporated.
Finally, as Mehmet II spread his troops around the city in a siege that would last less than two months, on May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottomans. Emperor Constantine IX was killed, at the age of 49, and the same day, Mehmet made a triumphant entry into Constantinople.
For the Christian West, the fall of Constantinople had religious, military, economic and psychological consequences. The Ottomans had become a world power, with a foothold in Europe.
All this is richly documented in Crowley’s book, which is a gripping account, as easy to read as fiction, with a deep insight into the rivalry between East and West, Islam and Christianity.
In an interesting twist, one can only speculate about what would have happened forty-nine years later, when the Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic monarchs, only to be welcomed into the Ottoman Empire, had Constantinople remained in the hands of a Christian Orthodox emperor….