Fall of Constantinople (May 29, 1453)

Fall of Constantinople (May 29, 1453)

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The fall of constantinople in1453 is often cited as the end of the Middle Ages. Indeed, May 29 marks the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, with the capture of constantinople, its capital, under the blows of Turks Ottomans. The Byzantine Empire, declining since the 13th century, and harassed by the Ottoman Empire, was reduced to a small area around the city founded by Constantine in May 330, when Sultan Mehmet II began his siege. The city was taken seven weeks later and became the capital of the Ottomans, with Saint Sophia becoming a mosque. Europeans will then have to set out to conquer the oceans to find new routes to the Orient.

The expansion of the Ottomans

Let's start by presenting the victors: they are also called the Osmanli, they are part of the Turcomans who settled in Anatolia taking advantage of the Seljukid weakening. It was from 1302, near the coast of the Aegean Sea, that the principality of Osman was born, wedged between Byzantines and Mongols. After Heraclea, the Ottomans gain a foothold on the “European side” of the Aegean Sea, in particular with the capture of Gallipoli in 1354; they then began to expand into the Balkans, cutting Constantinople off from the West. Conquests followed one after another with the victories of Maritza (1371) and Kosovo (1389) against the Serbian and Bosnian Christians; then it's Sofia and Nish's turn to fall ...

These victories in continental Europe allow the Ottoman sultans to assert their domination over the other Turkish groups in Anatolia, including Ankara and Antalya. A Hungarian crusade led by King Sigismond was defeated in 1393 at Nicopolis, but the Ottoman dynasty was on the other hand on the verge of disappearance in the face of the Tamerlan threat at the beginning of the 15th century: Sultan Bâyezid was imprisoned and died in captivity. Nevertheless, Sultan Mehmet I managed to overcome internal divisions and external threats, once again building on successes in the Balkans: the advance began again, including in Anatolia, under Mûrad II (1421-1441). And in Europe, only the Albanians manage to resist… As soon as he came to power, Mehmet II then made Constantinople his privileged target.

Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453

We know it, the byzantine empire took a terrible blow during the crusade of 1204 and, despite the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, the luster of yesteryear is well over. The Byzantines had to endure not only Turkish assaults but also threats from rival Italian republics, not to mention internal quarrels in the 14th century, when the West became increasingly disinterested in its case. The Paleologists try alliances with the Mongols, make agreements with Genoa, but the weakening of the Empire continues, the city itself is several times surrounded from the end of the 14th century. Only Tamerlane's attack on the Ottomans in 1402 gave the Byzantines some respite.

Added to this is a weakening of imperial authority and an economic and demographic recession. The situation is such that the emperor offers the West, in exchange for his help, a Union of the two Churches, the end of the schism in a way! But it is also a failure ... For Byzantine religious leaders, the looming fall of Constantinople is a divine punishment.

The capture of Constantinople and the victory of Mehmet II

In 1446-1447, the Turks were in the Morea and the following year they established their domination in the region of Kosovo. Little hope appeared for the Eastern Empire when Constantine XI, born in 1404 and already experienced, came to power, unlike his Ottoman rival, the young Mehmet II, nineteen years old. But he just needs a great victory to establish his power, and that is why he immediately turns to Constantinople. He first had the fortress of Rumeli Hisar built to control the Black Sea, then had a fleet armed at Gallipoli. Its army of 80,000 men is supported by a powerful artillery, unrivaled in the region.

On the Byzantine side, we should not hope for any help, in particular from the Italians who want to keep good relations with the sultan to guarantee trade in the eastern Mediterranean; only the Venetians and Genoese present in the capital promise their help. The emperor tries to convince the West again by celebrating the reunion of the two Churches at Hagia Sophia in 1452, but he receives only a few archers sent by the Pope ... Finally, the city has 5000 Greeks and 2000 foreigners for the defend, against the formidable army of the Ottoman Empire.

It was at the beginning of April 1453 that Mehmet II arrived in front of the city and began the siege of Constantinople; he had to wait until May 28, after fierce resistance, to take the city. Constantine XI is killed in combat and the sultan enters the city which fell into Turkish hands on May 29, 1453; the population is reduced to slavery, Hagia Sophia transformed into a mosque. In 1458, Mehmet II made the former Byzantine capital the new capital of his empire, which became Istanbul - although usage retained the name Constantinople until 1923.

The Byzantine Empire, if we can still call it that, survives for a few more years, especially its "branch" of Comnenus, in Trebizond. But this falls in 1461.

The consequences of the fall of Constantinople

The capture of Constantinople had a profound impact both in the West and in the East since, by consecrating the fall of the last vestige of the Roman Empire, it paved the way for a universal empire of the Muslim faith. After the destruction of the Eastern Latin kingdoms in the 13th century, this event indeed confirms the final character of the establishment of Islam in the ancient Christian space.

In the West, it’s surprise and shock! We see Greek scholars and scholars arrive in Italy, which contributes to the transmission of knowledge from the East to the West, for the benefit of the latter. Western humanists mourn the fall of Constantinople, and the papacy understands the risk to Italy and the Christian West in general. From September 1453, Nicolas V awakens Christendom with the bull Etsi ecclesia Christi. In 1454, Duke Philip the Good announced his intention to go on a crusade, and the following year Calixte III appealed to Aragon, Naples, Portugal; only Venice turned a deaf ear, because of trade agreements with the Ottomans. The efforts paid off in 1456, when Mehmet II had to lift the siege of Belgrade. However, it was especially during the following years, with Pius II, that the effort against the Turkish threat increased; it was however stopped as soon as the Pope died in 1464 ... Meanwhile, Venice went to war with the Porte.

At the end of the 15th century, the threat was far from being contained: the Ottoman fleet ruled the eastern Mediterranean, and the Sultan's armies continued to threaten the West. Only the death of Mehmet II in 1481 and the quarrels of succession gave a new respite, but this was only to better see the Turkish threat start again and reach its climax during the 16th century. The Middle Ages, meanwhile, are over, and for the Mediterranean, the clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian powers marks the start of a new era ...


- The Fall of Constantinople by Steven Runciman. Text, 2007.

- Fall and death of Constantinople: (1204-1453) by Jacques Heers. Tempus, 2007.

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