The great siege of Constantinople



Mahomed II succeeded his father Amurath on February 9, 1451. His hostile designs against the capital were immediately seen in the building of a fortress on the Bosporus, which commanded the source whence the city drew her supplies. In the following year a quarrel between some Greeks and Turks gave him the excuse of declaring war. His cannon-for the use of gunpowder, for some time the monopoly of the Christian world, had been betrayed to Amurath by the Genoese-commanded the port, and a tribute was exacted from all ships that entered the harbour. But the actual siege was delayed until the ensuing spring of 1453.

Mahomed, in person, surveyed the city, encouraged his soldiers and discussed with his generals and engineers the best means of making the assault. By his orders a huge cannon was built in Hadrianople. It fired a ball one mile, and to convey it to its position before the walls, a team of sixty oxen and the assistance of 200 men were employed. The Emperor Constantine, unable to excite the sympathy of Europe, attempted the best defense of which he was capable, with a force of 4,970 Romans and 2,000 Genoese. A chain was drawn across the mouth of the harbour, and whatever supplies arrived from Candia and the Black Sea were detained for the public service.

The siege of Constantinople, in which scarcely 7,000 soldiers had to defend a city sixteen miles in extent against the powers of the Ottoman Empire, commenced on April 6, 1453. The last Constantine deserves the name of a hero; his noble band of volunteers was inspired with Roman virtue, and the foreign auxiliaries supported the honour of the Western chivalry. But their inadequate stock of gunpowder was wasted in the operations of each day. Their ordinance was not powerful either in size or number; and if they possessed some heavy cannon, they feared to plant them on the walls, lest the aged structure should be shaken and overthrown by the explosion.

The great cannon of Mahomed could only be fired seven times in one day, but the weight and repetition of the shots made some impression on the walls. The Turks rushed to the edge of the ditch and attempted to fill the enormous chasm and to build a road to the assault. In the attack, as well as in the defence, ancient and modern artillery was employed. Cannon and mechanical engines, the bullet and the battering-ram, gunpowder and Greek fire, were engaged on both sides.

Christendom watched the struggle with coldness and apathy. Four ships, which successfully forced an entrance into the harbour, were the limit of their assistance. None the less, Mahomed meditated a retreat. Unless the city could be attacked from the harbour, its reduction appeared to be hopeless.

In this perplexity the genius of Mahomed executed a plan of a bold and marvellous cast. He transported his fleet over land for ten miles. In the course of one night four-score light galleys and brigantines painfully climbed the hill, steered over the plain, and were launched from the declivity into the shallow waters of the harbour, far above the molestation of the deeper vessels of the Greeks. A bridge, or mole, hastily built formed a base for one of his largest cannon. The galleys, with troops and scaling ladders, approached the most accessible side of the walls, and, after a siege of forty days, the diminutive garrison, exhausted by a double attack, could hope no longer to avert the fate of the capital.

On Monday, May 28, preparations were made for the final assault. Mahomed had inspired his soldiers with the hope of rewards in this world and the next. His camp re-echoed with the shouts of 'God is God; there is but one God, and Muhammed is the apostle of God'; and the sea and land, from Galata to the Seven Towers, were illuminated with the blaze of the Moslem fires.

FAR different was the state of the Christians. On that last night of the Roman Empire, Constantine Palaeologus, in his palace, addressed the noblest of the Greeks and the bravest of the allies on the duties and dangers that lay before them. It was the funeral oration of the Roman Empire. That same night the emperor and some faithful companions entered the Dome of St. Sofia, which, within a few hours, was to be converted into a mosque, and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the Holy Communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations, solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured, and mounted on horse-back to visit the guards and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Caesars.

AT daybreak on May 29 the Turks assaulted the city by sea and land. For two hours the Greeks sustained the assault with advantage, and the voice of the emperor was heard encouraging the soldiers to achieve by a last effort the deliverance of their country. The new and fresh forces of the Turks supplied the places of their wearied associates. From all sides the attack was pressed.

The number of the Ottomans was fifty, perhaps one hundred, times superior to that of the Christians, the double walls were reduced by the cannons to a heap of ruins, and at last one point was found which the besiegers could penetrate. Hassan, the Janissary, of gigantic stature and strength, ascended the outward fortification. The walls and towers were instantly covered with a swarm of Turks, and the Greeks, now driven from the vantage ground, were overwhelmed by increasing multitudes.

Amidst these multitudes, the emperor, who accomplished all the duties of a general and a soldier, was long seen and finally lost. His mournful exclamation was heard, 'Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?' And his last fear was that of falling alive into the hands of the infidels. The prudent despair of Constantine cast away the purple. Amidst the tumult he fell by an unknown hand, and his body was buried under a mountain of the slain.

After his death, resistance and order were no more. Two thousand Greeks were put to the sword, and more would have perished had not avarice soon prevailed over cruelty.

It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomed II. Sixty thousand Greeks were driven through the streets like cattle and sold as slaves. The nuns were torn from the monasteries and compelled to enter the harems of their conquerors. The churches were plundered, and the gold and silver, the pearls and jewels, the vases and sacerdotal ornaments of St. Sofia were most wickedly converted to the service of mankind.

The cathedral itself, despoiled of its images and ornaments, was converted into a mosque and Mahomed II performed the namaz of prayer and thanksgiving at the great altar, where the Christian mysteries had so lately been celebrated before the last of the Caesars. The body of Constantine was discovered under a heap of slain, by the golden eagles embroidered on his shoes, and, after exposing the bloody trophy, Mahomed bestowed on his rival the honours of a decent funeral. Constantinople, desolated by bloodshed, was re-peopled and re-adorned by Mahomed. Its churches were shared between the two religions, and the Greeks were attracted back to their ancient capital by the assurance of their lives and the free exercise of their religion.

THE grief and terror of Europe when the fall of Constantinople became known revived, or seemed to revive, the old enthusiasm of the crusades. Pius II attempted to lead Christendom against the Turks, but on the very day on which he embarked his forces drew back, and he was compelled to abandon the attempt. The siege and sack of Otranto by the Turks put an end to all thoughts of a crusade, and the general consternation was only allayed by the death of Mahomed II in the fifty-first year of his age.

His lofty genius aspired to the conquest of Italy; he was possessed of a strong city and a capacious harbour, and the same reign might have been decorated with the trophies of the New and the Ancient Rome.





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