The fall of Constantinople in AD 1453

Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and subsequent Byzantine Empire, founded in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine the Great at the existing Greek city of Byzantion (more commonly known by the later Latin Byzantium). Constantine named the city Nova Roma, meaning ‘New Rome’, later emerging as the sole capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
The city was protected by a vast system of defensive land walls, especially by the famous double line of the Theodosian Walls, built form the 5th century AD onwards, which defended the city successfully from several lengthy sieges.

With the advent of the Ottoman Empire in 1299, the Byzantine Empire began to crumble. Constantinople was already in decline, mostly the result of the Justinianic plague (541–549 AD) which killed almost half the population and the sacking by Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204).

By 1450, Byzantine territory had shrunk to just a few miles outside of the city gates, leaving the once powerful Empire that dominated the Mediterranean a mere city state.

When Mehmed II succeeded Sultan Murad II in 1451, he devoted himself to strengthening Ottoman forces in preparation for attacking Constantinople. The siege of Constantinople began in on April 6th, 1453. Byzantine forces defending the city totalled around 7,000 men who stood against a force of between 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers.

Attempts to attack the city from the sea were thwarted by a giant chain that blocked the entrance to the Golden Horn. Mehmed ordered the construction of a road of greased logs and circumvented the chain by dragging his ships overland, forcing the Byzantines to reduce their garrisons on the land wall to protect the city sea walls.
Multiple land assaults against the Theodosian Walls were repelled with large Ottoman losses, resulting in Mehmed to offer lifting the siege if the Byzantines surrendered the city. Mehmed promised he would allow the emperor and the city inhabitants to leave with their possessions, moreover, he would recognise the emperor as governor of the Peloponnese.

Constantine responded by saying: “As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives.”

The final assault began on May 26th, 1453 with successive waves of soldiers that overwhelmed the defenders at several points along the city walls.

The loss of Constantinople was seen as a crippling blow to Christendom, exposing the West to a foe that could match the armies of Europe and lead to centuries of conflict. Many Greeks fled the city and found refuge in the Latin West, bringing with them knowledge and documents from the Greco-Roman tradition to Italy and other regions that helped to propel the Renaissance.

Mehmed declared himself Kayser-i Rum, literally “Caesar of Rome”, that is, of the Roman Empire, though he was remembered as “the Conqueror”. He founded a political system that survived until 1922 with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Constantinople was again renamed to Istanbul in 1930.

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