Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 by Roger Crowley, is a history of the momentous struggle waged for the city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 1453. This was a real game-changer in historical terms, as it finally and utterly rested power in the region from the faltering Byzantium empire to the Ottoman Turks, and shut Christian Europe out in the process. It is also the history of the titanic and fatal battle of two great leaders, Sultan Mehmet II and Emperor Constantine XI.
Constantinople, sitting as it did on the Bosphorous sea, was a massive and natural fortress. Indeed, it had proved impervious to previous mostly Muslim and other assaults, except for one crucial and brutal sacking of the city by Christian Crusaders in 1204. So it was possibly with no great alarm that the Emperor Constantine and Constantinople’s inhabitants viewed the approach of the young Sultan’s army – that however was soon to change, once they realised the extent of the army, and the iron will of the Sultan.
The author details the Sultan’s background very well, giving plenty of insight into his motivation, his capacity for cruelty and his single-mindedness in his goal of gaining the hallowed city. He describes the fortifications and layout of Constantinople in minute detail, with the aid of colourful maps and illustrations, so you really get a feel for the city and the campaign’s maneuvers.
As mentioned above, the Sultan had assembled an army unprecedented in size, which on its own may not have bothered the city’s inhabitants too much, as the fortifications and natural layout of the city and surroundings were superb for traditional defences. Crucially though, this Sultan was as innovative as he was ferocious, and surprised the defenders with new approaches and techniques to warfare. As described in the book, he restricted the city’s naval power by means of an ingenuous “noose” on either side of the Bosphorous, and also commissioned Hungarian Orban to mold, from iron, enormous siege guns. These guns were revolutionary, and capable of firing enormous boulders at the city walls. Through prodigious and clever use of these unstable guns, the Sultan placed unexpected stress on the defenders.
However, it wasn’t all one-way traffic so to speak, and the savagery and cruelty on both sides was astonishing – on balance though, the Sultan definitely wins in the cruelty stakes (note the word “stakes”, a specialty of this barbaric man). The back and forth of battle is brilliantly chronicled, and there is no point in me re-hashing it here. Suffice it to say it was a truly titanic struggle, eventually settled with the aid of a stroke of luck (or bad luck for Constantine) for the Sultan’s forces.
This is highly recommended, as it gives you a real flavour for what life and warfare was like 600 years ago, and how it must have felt to experience the impending and inevitable doom within that city. For doom did indeed visit Constantinople, with the ultimate pillaging and ransacking so bad, that none other than Sultan Mehmed II himself had to put a stop to it – and very brutally stopped it, I might add.