Fall of Constantinople

The end of the Byzantine Empire came with the fall of Constantinople and the rise of the Turkish and Muslim Ottoman Empire, considered to mark the end of the Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

By 1453, relations between Christians of the Greek East and Christians of the Latin West were near the breaking point. The Greeks remembered with bitterness the capture of Constantinople in 1204 at the hands of Western Crusaders. This led to a struggle between the Greeks and Latins to control Constantinople after 1261, with control eventually going to the Greeks. Schism;Constantinople and Rome
[kw]Fall of Constantinople (May 29, 1453)
[kw]Constantinople, Fall of (May 29, 1453)
Constantinople;fall of (1453)
Byzantine Empire;May 29, 1453: Fall of Constantinople[3220]
Turkey;May 29, 1453: Fall of Constantinople[3220]
Government and politics;May 29, 1453: Fall of Constantinople[3220]
Religion;May 29, 1453: Fall of Constantinople[3220]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 29, 1453: Fall of Constantinople[3220]
Mehmed II
Constantine XI Palaeologus
Giovanni Giustiniani
Zagan Pasha

By the fifteenth century, the failure of the Orthodox Church Orthodox Church;Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Church to reconcile their differences and present a united front against the encroaching Turks left Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire vulnerable to invasion. The young sultan of the Turks, Mehmed II Mehmed II , saw in this division within Christendom the chance to crush the might of the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;Turkish invasion of . He had decided early in his reign that one of his principal objectives would be the seizure of the “God-protected city,” and by the spring of 1453 he had determined his plan of attack.

When the Greeks awoke on the morning of April 5, 1453, they were amazed at the sight of more than one hundred thousand Turkish troops outside the high walls of Constantinople, stretching in a formidable line from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn. The city had withstood sieges from all the migratory barbarians of the East, yet never had it faced such peril as it did on that April morning.

The hosts of the Turkish sultan seemed numberless. Cattle, supply wagons, tents, heavily armed soldiers, and cursing officers intermingled in a terrifying scene of purposeful confusion. By the middle of the morning, the defenders on top of the stout walls could see the huge Turkish cannon being maneuvered into place by thousands of sweating laborers.

While the Turkish land army had been making its preparations, the sultan’s navy had not been idle; soon the harried defenders saw 493 Turkish ships sail quickly into the Bosporus, fully armed and ready to match the Greek fleet.

The opposing forces were unevenly matched. The sultan, having mustered more than one hundred thousand men, including the elite Janissaries, and five hundred ships, could surely overwhelm the legions of beleaguered Byzantium, which numbered some seven to eight thousand supported by fifteen ships. Mehmed II had built forts to control the naval approaches to Constantinople, forestalling any naval reinforcements coming to the aid of the emperor. It was impossible to doubt the outcome of such odds; yet the defense of Constantinople was maintained brilliantly and bravely for nearly two months.

The Byzantines, it is to be noted, had more than high walls on their side. The leader of their forces, the Genoese Giovanni Giustiniani, Giustiniani, Giovanni was a man of outstanding military ability, as he proved time and time again in repelling successive attacks of the Turks. Giustiniani was part of the force sent from Venice and Genoa, whose traders and merchants had realized that Constantinople was the central crossroads to trade with the East. The Greeks also had their famous chain boom with which they could block off their harbor, and they had courage and belief in the protection of the Christian God.

On April 12, the siege began in earnest. The Royal One, the biggest siege gun the Turks possessed, was moved ponderously into position. The barrel of this gargantuan weapon was three feet in diameter and fired stone projectiles weighing nearly a ton. From its first shot the huge gun posed a dramatic threat to the garrison on the walls. Week after week, it hammered slowly and inexorably at the crumbling defenses. Citizens were roused at any hour of the day to repair the holes in the battlements. The strain told. Nerves stretched tighter, and fatigue began to take its enervating toll.

In actual fighting, however, the vastly outnumbered Greeks decisively won the first two major engagements of the siege. On April 18, Giustiniani and his armored Genoese followers beat back wave after wave of Turks who attempted to scale the walls, while the very next day the Greek naval forces successfully repelled a frenzied attack by almost three hundred of the smaller Turkish men-of-war. In a crescendo of death, even more attacks by the Turks took place throughout the following weeks. Slowly and grimly, they set out to wear down the defenders. Day after hot day, the siege continued. The Greeks stayed at the walls, their numbers so low that they had their food and ammunition brought to them on the parapets.

The Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

(Library of Congress)

Even the redoubtable Mehmed II began to doubt the wisdom of the siege when it had become obvious that the Greeks would fight to the bitter end. His own troops were becoming restive, and he suspected that help for the Greeks might soon arrive. By the evening of May 27, 1453, Mehmed II was in favor of negotiating with the stubborn defenders. At a council meeting that evening, however, the zealous warrior Zagan Pasha Zagan Pasha rose to his feet and passionately exhorted his colleagues to finish the task they had begun nearly two months before. The Turks broke up their conference determined once more to take the city.

On the morning of May 28, the final attack on the city of Constantinople began. Assault after assault was beaten back by the exhausted Greeks. On the night of the last day of the empire, the citizens of Constantinople, Greek and Latin, gathered together for Mass at the hallowed shrine of Byzantine Christendom, Santa Sophia, known as Hagia Sophia. Old differences between Latins and Greeks were forgotten in these final moments as haggard soldiers of the East and the West worshiped together in the sacred basilica. The ancient lights, the gold decorations, the priceless icons, must have moved the tired warriors.

On May 29, 1453, the Turkish forces at last forced their way into the city. Finally, even Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus Constantine XI Palaeologus , the last of the caesars, descended from his horse. With an air of fatality, he removed his imperial vestments and, clad only in his simple tunic and the red leather imperial boots, took up his sword to fight to the death at the side of his last troops. The last link with ancient Rome was broken. The empire of a thousand years had ended.


The consequences of the fall of Constantinople are vast. Besides the cultural impact on the West from refugee Greeks, the East slowly sank into poverty and an intellectual decline. The foothold of the Turks into southern Europe consolidated their base for further invasion of central and southern Europe, eventually resulting in the complete conquest of the Balkans.

The Ottoman Empire Ottomans , whose attachment to Constantinople was as strong as the Greeks and Latins, made Constantinople its capital and principal city. Mehmed II himself destroyed the altar at Hagia Sophia and turned the church into a Muslim mosque. It later became a museum.

Constantinople is still the seat of the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and one of the most important cities for the Turkish Muslims. Constantinople, whose name was changed to Istanbul in the early 1900’, is truly a cosmopolitan city.

Further Reading

  • Diehl, Charles. Byzantium: Greatness and Decline. Translated by Naomi Alford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. An interpretive account of the factors in Byzantine life that contributed both to the maintenance of the empire and its gradual decline.
  • Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City. New York: Viking, 1996. Explores the history of the city now known as Istanbul, from the seventh century b.c.e. through the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Includes chapters on the city when it was known as Constantinople and its fall during Mehmed’s time. Illustrations, spelling and pronunciation guide, bibliography, index.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Picador, 2003. A history of the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1288. Looks at the empire’s artistic achievements, the first use of the cannon in the seizure of Constantinople, religious tolerance and the empire’s longevity, harems, and more. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. A comprehensive survey for the general reader of the Ottoman Empire from its origins to the seventeenth century. Using original, contemporary sources as well as modern scholarship, the author analyzes the tradition of sultans and male succession, law and legal education, the military, political power, palace life, harems, religion, and more. Maps, glossary, bibliography, index.
  • Nicol, Donald M. The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A political and social history of the Byzantine Empire from the Greek restoration in 1261 until the fall of Constantinople.
  • Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994. Although only the introduction deals with the actual fall of Constantinople, the book explores the consequences of the fall until World War I.
  • Pears, Edwin. The Destruction of the Greek Empire and the Story of the Capture of Constantinople by the Turks. London: Longmans, Green, 1903. Still one of the best balanced accounts regarding the political, social, and religious aspects of the fall.
  • Runciman, Steven. The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This study by a distinguished Byzantinist, originally published in 1965, is probably the standard work in English on the famous siege. Attention to scholarly detail does not impede the retelling of enthralling and tragic episodes from the last days of the city’s resistance to the Ottomans. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Sicker, Michael. The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Presents a history of the rise and expansion of the Islamic empire, including the conquests of Mehmed. Concludes with a chapter on the end of the ascendancy. Bibliography, index.