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Monday, July 12, 2010

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Roger Crowley: 'Constantinople, The Last Great Siege 1453'

Except for the usual 'equivocations' – a great read.

by Ferdinand III


 


 




One of history's pivotal events, 1453 AD. The ending of Christendom in the Eastern Mediterranean lands. Constantinople, plundered, raped, and destroyed in a long siege by the Islamic Jihad. Muslim Turks effacing an 1100 year-old empire; some 900 years older than the life of today's hegemon the United States. Islam triumphant as predicted by Mohammed in 630 AD, over the Roman empire. From Constantinople the Gothic towers of Europe beckoned. John Huynadi and his Hungarian hussars along with the legions of Polish knights and not much else stood in the way of an Islamic Europe. Pivotal indeed.


This is certainly the best one volume account that I have ever read of this important date. It is also the most suspenseful and gripping, written in the epic of a story, brought to life by a skilled writer, who depicts humans as much as he does events and facts. This book should be read with Crowley's history of the 1565 Ottoman invasion of Malta named 'Empires of the Sea'. Combined, these two works of factual history will give the reader an appreciation for Jihad, the Turkish penchant for war, plunder, rape, and slaves; and just how close Europe came to be Islamified. The parameters of Islam's obsession to control Europe must be kept foremost in any debate about Turkey joining the EU; or appeasing Islamic states and their sensibilities. You don't satiate a fascistic theology through weakness.


The entire history of the great siege of Constantinople is presented here in the most detailed and compelling narrative. As Crowley relates the once great empire of Constantine and his successors, built around the Eastern Roman empire and extant since 325 AD, had by 1453, withered away to the hinterland of the city itself and the Morea or Pelopponese peninsula in Greece. Byzantium by 1453 was weak, near bankruptcy, shorn of population, over-taxed and without a standing navy or army. The city had no more than 100.000 people, at its peak in the 5th and 6th centuries it could boast half a million. The Muslim Turks by 1453, dominated Anatolia, the Levant, the Balkans and the European side of the Dardanelles. It seemed inevitable to all observers that the great city, protected by 1000 year old walls and defenses, which had successfully withstood at least 18 sieges, many of them by Arabs and Muslims would fall. But Crowley relates a different tale.


The most interesting aspect of this book, is just how unlucky the Byzantines were in not defeating the Ottomans and their young emperor Mehmet. It is clear that with a few thousand more professional fighting men, a few dozen more large Western galleys; and with a little more good luck on their side, the Byzantines would have prevailed; the Ottomans would have failed, and a failure of such a magnitude would have prompted an internal Muslim civil war. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet was young and unpopular. In good Muslim fashion he would most likely have been deposed and a 'pro-peace' party elevated to party. How different would the world be if Constantinople was still Christian? How much better would the world be if the great city had held out in 1453?


“The failure of Islam to take the city in 717 had far-reaching consequences. The collapse of Constantinople would have opened the way for a Muslim expansion into Europe that might have reshaped the whole future of the West; it remains one of the great 'what ifs' of history.”


The same would have been true in 1453. Mehmet conquered the Black Sea areas, the Caucasus and parts of European Russia after the successful siege. He also desperately tried to break Vlad 'the Impaler' and Wallachia, along with Hungary, both eventually succumbing to later Sultan's.


The Ottomans brought the largest single force ever seen in medieval history to the siege. Some 60.000 to 80.000 Turks and their subjects, many of them not Muslims or forcibly converted Slavs, Christians and polytheists, from the multi-national Ottoman empire, surrounded Constantinople. They faced over 12 miles of city walls defended by a mere 2.000 professional troops and 6.000 citizen auxiliaries. The Byzantines were outnumbered 10:1. Crucially the Muslim Jihadists also brought a fleet. The pincer movement by land and sea was instrumental in taking the large city-state. Never before had Arabs or Muslims successfully used a navy to aid in the siege and eventual defeat of a Byzantine army.  A 100 ship fleet opposed by less than 20 Christian vessels. And the galvanizing force of the Koran and the lure of booty, rape and pillage:

“....unlike in the past the Christians no longer controlled the se

a lanes....it was the duty of Muslims to wage holy war.” and
“They were fired by the prospect of booty and personal advancement and holy war, themes that were woven together in the Koran: by Islamic holy law, a city taken by force could be legtimately subjected to three days of plunder.”


The hero of the siege – after Constantine XI the last emperor of Byzantium who died fighting -- was the great Genoese-Italian war leader, Giustiniani, who gave himself to Constantinople's cause out of duty, valor and to protect the family fortune embedded in its Eastern holdings and trade. Giustiniani was an expert according to Crowley, in defensive warfare, rebuilding walls, repelling attacks and leading men to fight off besiegers. With a few more men like the Genoese, Constantinople would have defeated the Ottomans: “He brought 700 well armed men in all....A straggle of other soldiers came.....Otherwise the appeal to Christendom had brought nothing but disharmony.” Very few in the West responded to the city's cry for help. Most assumed it was doomed. But with a mere few thousands more, and a dozen good galley's the great Christian city would likely have survived. So much for Christian duty.


The Christians were man for man, better armed, and able to assume individual responsibility. Initiative and taking advantage of opportunities was a very Christian advantage in fighting the Turks:

“In comparison to the fragmented volunteer nature of the Christian defence that relied heavily on individual initiative, it seemed that the Ottomans only responded to central directives.”


With more men, professional soldiers and sailors, the Ottomans would have been repulsed. Even with the weight of numbers, automatonic slaves are usually no match for free men.


Even given the deficiencies that the individual Turkish soldier might have labored under, the Ottomans were however, experts in gunnery, cannon usage, tunneling or sapping, and in battering defenses. They most likely had the world's best organized and most responsive army. Ottoman discipline and skill in bombardments was legendary by 1453. The greatest cannon yet casted was used to pound the walls of Constantinople. It was 27 feet long. Most of the other giants were 14-16 feet in length sending projectiles weighing hundreds of pounds into the city and walls. The rate of firing would have caused physcial and psychological terror:

“About 120 shots a day could be launched against the city. Inexorably the walls began to crumble.”


With such limited forces, time was the only ally of the Christians. The longer they could hold out, the greater the likelihood of an Ottoman withdrawal, due to huge losses, internal divisions, or even a revolt [which did nearly occur after 6 weeks]. But as Crowley so adroitly relates the interstitions of luck, resources and the sheer weight of Ottoman numbers overwhelmed the thin line of Christian defenses:

“After seven weeks of attritional fighting it is likely that the original 8,000 men had dwindled to about 4,000 to guard a total perimeter of 12 miles.”


It took the Ottomans almost 3 months to take the city. This is a long time in siege warfare. Food, supplies, and waste removal makes a long siege impracticable. The Turks lost more than half their force or 30-40.000 men. The Christians lost their entire cadre of 8.000. The defenders for the most part all died fighting. A few escaped, and a few hundred were granted a pardon by Mehmet. The city's population was largely raped and abused. Many thousands of citizens were killed. Some 30.000 were sold into slavery. All valuables which remained were taken by the Ottomans. Constantinople was completely denuded of anything which could claim to be fair, artistic or worthwhile. The churches were immediately converted into mosques. The rape and plunder was so bad, that Mehmet had to end it after only one day. He wanted a capital, not a corpse.


In any event Mohammed's prediction was fulfilled. Rum or Eastern Rome was conquered. It only remained to try and conquer the Western Rome – which was attempted a few times by Mehmet and his successors, always ending in failure. The Jihad and the inevitable rise of Islam to dominate the planet seemed a fairly certain premise in 1453. Crowley's great contribution is the 'what if'. What if Christian Europe had united around another Crusade, and sent 20.000 men and 40 galley's to the aid of Constantine XI? What if the Janissaries had mutinied during that 7th and disastrous week for the Ottomans during the siege? After 4 Venetian galley's ran passed and outfought the entire 100 ships of the Ottoman fleet Crowley asks, “And if 4 ships were able to defy the Ottoman navy, what might a dozen well-armed galleys of the Italian republics not do to decide the final outcome?”


A good question indeed. What if Istanbul was still Constantinople? How different would the world be today?


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