The Fall of Constantinople 29 May 1453
Having said his farewells and taken the sacrament I would like to think that Constantine was at peace. He had done all he could and fought bravely with this soldiers and allies. He must have realised on that warm May evening that this was the end, not only for him, but for his city and all that it stood for. Faced with the certainty of death it is said that experienced soldiers are ready to make that last leap into the fray, knowing that they have only one fate. A man schooled in princely duties such as Constantine Dragases knew he had to do his duty and to set an example to his people.
Perhaps he thought about death. Maybe he also realised that he would be the last Emperor of the Romans. He might well have thought about those who had gone before him, Constantine the Great, Basil the Bulgar Slayer, of Alexius and Justinian. Maybe even those Western Romans Caesar, Augustus, and Hadrian from whom his throne had an unbroken lineage.
Whatever his thoughts may have been they were soon shattered by blasts of trumpets, the beating of drums, the noise of cannon fire, and the war-cries as Mehmet’s first wave of troops attacked at 1.30 am. The city responded. Church bells rang; those who had managed to sleep awoke and ran to their posts. Husbands may have made a last embrace with their wives, and fathers kissed their children. Civilians with duties at the Wall would have run through the streets to take up positions in medical posts, to carry ammunition and to put out fires. In the dark it might have seemed like chaos but the siege had lasted for fifty two days; all knew their role and their positions.
The first troops sent to the walls were the Bashibazouks – irregular Christian and Muslim troops who were largely untrained, poorly armed cannon fodder. Their role as expendable soldiery numbered in the thousands was to wear down the defenders in wave after wave of attacks. They did this for two hours taking huge numbers of casualties, always ‘encouraged’ by the Sultan’s military police behind them with whips and swords. Their attacks would have drained the defenders of energy and missiles. However the chosen attack sites held firm, with the Genoese Captain Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, whom the Emperor had put in charge of the defences, heroically commanding the defence of the strategic Lycus valley section.
After two hours the Bashibazouks were withdrawn, but some were still active as we will see in a while. Immediately Mehmet sent in several regiments of Anatolian Turks – regular soldiers with good training and strong discipline. Each one hoping to be the first Muslin to scale the walls and enter paradise. The Emperor himself was in the thick of the fighting at one point where cannon had opened up a breach. As he had said in his speech to his men their armour was more than a match for the Turkish infantry, they encircled the enemy in the breach and killed the Turks with ferocious abandon.
It was not long afterwards that Mehmet, getting angry now about the progress, released his elite shock troops, the Janissaries who marched to military music in perfect step under a hail of missiles. They came on, wave after wave throwing up ladders and being pushed back. The commanders ordered one wave to retire to rest whilst another was sent into the attack.
By 6.30 am the fighting remained intense but the Turks had not achieved their goal. The defenders then suffered a major blow. Giovanni Giustiniani was struck in the chest by a bolt. He was wounded but not mortally. He fell and the Emperor was on hand to encourage him back to his position. However, Giustiniani was probably exhausted and in shock and he asked that he be taken to his ship. His fighting was over. As he left for the harbour his Genoese compatriots followed.
Whether the Sultan realised precisely what had happened we do not know but he ordered yet another Janissary attack. This time they made their way over the stockade and forced the defenders back towards the inner wall. Caught between the enemy and the wall the defenders suffered a large number of casualties. It was at this time that the Janissaries saw a Turkish flag flying from a tower to the north. A patrol of Bashibazouks had found an unlocked sally port known as the Kerkoporta. They had entered and found their way unbarred to the top of the tower. They raised the flag leaving the door open for others to follow.
This event in addition to the unrelenting attacks on the open breach was the end. Constantine hurried back to his post at the Lycus valley but here all seemed lost now. He gave final orders to his friends John Dalamata and Don Francisco de Toledo, and weighed in to fight hand to hand beside his troops fighting desperately in one last bid to throw back the enemy. How tired he must have been. Covered in the blood of friend and foe alike, his sword arm feeling like a lead bar, slipping on mud and blood and tangled bodies he was now just another soldier fighting for this life and his country in the intense and frenzied conditions of hand to hand fighting where the only instincts are to kill, slash, stab, butt, kick, and scream, only thinking about the next blow and where the next enemy may come from. Finally the last Emperor of the Romans realised that it was over. He flung off his imperial regalia, and with his friends made one last charge into the body of the enemy. He was never seen again.
The morning of 29 May was given over to rape, pillage and destruction. Those that could headed for the harbour where Genoese and Venetian ships were desperately preparing to leave the city. Hundreds of refugees joined the sailors and made their way down the Bosphorus. Those that remained behind to defend their families were cut down, their houses ransacked, their children sometimes impaled, their wives and daughters raped over and over again. Churches were sacked and burned, icons smashed and statues torn down. The streets ran with blood and would have been slippery from the blood and bodily parts that littered the streets. Citizens who had sought sanctuary in Hagia Sophia were dragged out, the best looking of both sexes were tied up and lead away, the poor and unattractive massacred. The priests who continued the Mass were murdered at the altar. This was just the morning of day one of the promised and customary three days of pillage a victorious army could expect after a siege. However, the ferocity of the fighting and the fury of the initial orgy had exhausted everyone.
Late in the afternoon Mehmet entered the city and ordered the looting to stop. No-one argued. Mehmet headed straight for St Sophia, placed a handful of earth on his turban as a gesture of humility and entered the great church. The senior imam mounted the pulpit and proclaimed the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate, there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet. The Sultan knelt, his head to the ground in prayer and thanksgiving. The city was his at the age of just twenty one. The Empire of the Romans was finished.