The Islamic Post Blog

The Conquest of Constantinople by Khalida
December 1, 2008, 12:18 am
Filed under: December Volume 1 - 2008, Magazine/ Culture | Tags:

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING: Decisive Victories in Islam

M.A. Gillani

The conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) on May  29, 1453 by the Turkish Sultan Mohammad II, –surnamed, “the Conqueror” even by the western historians– was one of the greatest decisive victories of the Muslim World. According to Charles Connell, author of The World’s Greatest Sieges, “The siege and sack of Constantinople had stunned the Western world for, with Islam firmly established in Europe, the gateway from East to West now stood wide open.”
The importance of Constantinople was due to its incomparable position on the straits of the Bosporus. It stood on the tip of a point of high land, dominating the entire Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, the Black Sea, the sea of Marmara, and the rivers that met in that area. For eleven centuries, the city had been the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The expanding Ottoman Empire could not afford to push further west without first occupying the strategically important city of Constantinople.
The aim of this work is to highlight the impregnable defenses of Constantinople, and the preparation, relative strength, planning and execution of the Turkish plan for its conquest. This decisive victory was not achieved by fanaticism or extremism, but owing to meticulous planning, bold execution and, above all, the leadership qualities of Sultan Mohammad II.
Opposing Leadership.
After the death of his brother in 1449, Constantine XI succeeded to the throne of the Empire which, in the days of Constantine I, had extended over the whole of the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Cyrenaica. According to historians, Constantinople had been the most extensive and wealthiest, but loneliest, city in the world. Due to a series of disasters, tyranny, hatred, cowardice, selfishness and incompetent leadership, the Byzantine Empire shrunk to a few towns and a scanty district beyond the walls of the city which was considered, in and of itself, a prize of sufficient splendor. The emperor was 47 years old, and a brave veteran of many battles. He also had cordial relations with many Christian kingdoms.
Sultan Mohammad, on the other hand, became the heir apparent at the age of 11 years and was promptly appointed an eminent scholar as his tutor. Sultan Mohammad was very intelligent and studious. Soon he was able to speak Arabic, Latin, Greek, Persian and Hebrew.
Sultan Murad II allowed his son, at the age of 14 years, to run the administration of the empire, but still guided him in important and delicate state matters. The future sultan also participated in some battles under the supervision of his father.
The young man was proclaimed Sultan in 1451 at the age of 21, after the death of his father. He was energetic, painstaking, secretive, and too suspicious of others to make friends. According to one historian, Sultan Mohammad “united the enterprise and valor of youth with prudence and wisdom of old age.” (Finlay) From early youth, his overmastering ambition had been to capture Constantinople. He strongly felt that it was the true and natural capital of the Ottoman empire.
Prelude to the Siege.
Soon after his accession to the throne, Sultan Mohammad confirmed a treat Sultan Murad had made with the Byzantine court. Emperor Constantine XI, however, took this move of the young Sultan as a sign of a timid, inexperienced leader. He grossly underestimated the leadership qualities of the young Sultan. Imprudently, he hastened the hostility of the Sultan by demanding an increase in the allowance which was paid to the Byzantine court for the maintenance of Prince Orkhan, a descendant of Sultan Bajazet’s oldest son. The Christian ambassadors arrogantly hinted that if the Emperor’s demands were not met, Prince Orkhan would be set free to assemble an army to challenge the Sultan for the Turkish throne. The sultan replied with simulated courtesy, and the Byzantine court thought the young leader had been awed by the message. However, the Grand Wazir, Khalil Pasha, had warned the Byzantines, in confidence, of the folly of their rude conduct, and that soon they would experience the wrath of the young sultan. Some historians have said that the grand wazir was secretly in contact with the Byzantine court, for which he was being paid handsomely.
In March of 1452, Sultan Mohammad decided to provoke Constantine by sending a strong force and over 5000 workmen for building a strong fort on the European side of the Bosphorus. It is said that where the walls of the towers intersected, they depicted the name of the Holy Last Messenger, Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family.)
During the construction of the fort, Sultan Mohammad would not disclose his plans to anyone. Once, he said, “If a hair of my beard knew my plans, I would pluck it out and burn it.”
One night, the Sultan sent for Grand Wazir Khalil Pasha. Perturbed at the late hour of his summons, the advisor thought that perhaps the Sultan had come to know about his secret contacts with the Christian kingdoms. Trembling, he sent a boy with a vessel full of gold coins as a gift to the Sultan, but he refused to accept it. The Sultan told the Grand Wazir, that he would only accept the city of Constantinople as a gift, and for its conquest, the Khalil Pasha’s unblemished support and help was required.
Constantine watched the construction of the fort with uneasiness, but was helpless and could only await what was fast approaching. Within six months the fort was completed and the main supply of communication between Constantinople and the ports of the Black Sea was blocked. Soon the sultan sent a message to the Emperor Constantine to surrender Constantinople. The response of the emperor was to heavily fortify the city.
Fortification of the City
For centuries, fortifications protecting the city had been gradually developed. The city was surrounded by a series of strong and high walls. It was triangular in shape, with two sides bordering the sea. The only approach was by land, where the strongest fortifications were concentrated. By sea, the famous chain-boom –a huge chain that could be raised or lowered to control the passage of ships– was a formidable obstacle. Beyond the chain lay the imperial fleet of 26 ships.
Artillery and Strength
However, while Constantine was in possession of at least 100 short range cannons, the Turkish army had assembled one monster cannon to topple the strong walls and towers of the city’s defenses. The Sultan also had 12 additional cannons of lesser size, but equal power.
The Turkish army itself was considered the most formidable force of the century, comprising a standing army of 12-15,000. However, Sultan Mohammad decided to attack Constantinople with an army of 70,000 soldiers, as he correctly believed the a tradition the Holy Last Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him), to apply to him and his army. Historians narrate that the Holy Last Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) said a magnificent city located across a continent, and surrounded y the sea on two sides, would be conquered by a force of 70,000 soldiers belonging to the race of the Holy Messenger Isaac, son of Abraham.
The Siege
In April of 1453, the Turkish cannons commenced bombarding the walls of the city, but damage was quickly repaired. At the end of May, the first wall of the city was captured. Soldiers were shouting Allahu Akbar, God is the Greatest, and Ya RasoolAllah (peace be upon the Messenger of Allah), and eventually were entering the city from all directions. Resistance ceased. The emperor and his many generals and companions had been killed.
The victorious sultan entered the city with his entourage. He stopped in front of the church St. Sophia, bent on the ground, picked up a handful of dust and sprinkled it on his head. This was done in humble submission to God. By order of the sultan, the Muslim call to prayer was given and the church dedicated to Almighty Allah.
Sultan Mohammad II was only 23 years of age when he conquered Constantinople. After the conquest, the boundaries of the Turkish empire extended towards the west, and a great many Christians of eastern Europe embraced Islam wholeheartedly.
The great battles of Muslim history widen the vision and inculcate pride in Islamic heritage from which a great many lessons can be derived.
Our heroes will be remembered as long as courage remains a virtue and patriotism stirs men to noble deeds.
-Compiled by Noora Ahmad from “Conquest of Constantinople,” Defence Journal, 2003.


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