The Story of the Fall of Constantinople
WORDSWORTH: On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic.
N O story of the Crusades can be complete without some account of the last scene in the drama that had been played for so many years between East and West, and which was ended for the time when Constantinople fell.
Since the year 1261, the Eastern Empire had passed out of the hands of Latin rulers, and once more owned an Emperor of Greek origin, Michael Palaeologus by name. But this fact brought it no accession of vigour or strength. Worn out and impoverished, and lacking a great ruler who would have held the scattered threads of Empire in a firm grasp, the power of Constantinople was bound to lie at the mercy of a determined foe.
She had been already threatened, about the middle of the thirteenth century, by the dreaded Moguls, and only escaped because the latter first turned their attention to Russia. But the way to her final destruction was laid open by Michael the Emperor himself.
The borders of the Greek Empire in Asia had been guarded for many years past by the natives of Bithynia, the border state, who held their lands on condition that they kept the castles of the frontier in a state of defence.
Their task was no easy one, for the Seljukian Turks, who ruled over the neighbouring district of Iconium, were always on the watch to enlarge their boundaries; but these border militia were very faithful to their task, and had kept the invaders at bay.
Now Michael, formerly the Regent, had won the imperial throne by foul treachery towards the child Emperor, John Ducas, whose eyes he put out and whom he left to languish for thirty years in a wretched dungeon. Uneasy lies the usurper's head, and Michael could not rest until he had disarmed or got rid of all those who were suspected of loyalty towards the throne of Ducas.
Among these latter were the native "militia men" of Bithynia, whom Michael now proceeded to disband. The force substituted to defend the borderland was quite inadequate for the task; and the weakest spot on the frontier was thus left practically unguarded.
A few years earlier, a certain Othman, a Turk, had become the vassal of the Seljukian Sultan, and had been granted a district of the Phrygian highlands, on the very borders of the Greek Empire, on condition that he would take up arms against the Greeks.
Not many years passed before Othman, through the death of the last Sultan of the Seljuk line, had stepped into his place as an independent prince and the future founder of the Ottoman Empire. He outlived Michael Palaeologus and his successor, and managed before his death to push the frontiers of the Turkish Empire forward to the Sea of Marmora.
His son Orkhan completed the conquest of Bithynia—a comparatively easy task now that the mistaken policy of the Greek Emperors had turned the troops of "hardy mountaineers into a trembling crowd of peasants without spirit or discipline."
By the year 1333, nothing remained of the Greek Empire in Asia but the town of Chalcedon and the strip of land that faced Constantinople across the straits.
The rule of the Ottoman Turks over their newly-conquered territory was firm and just enough, and was strengthened by material drawn from the ranks of the vanquished inhabitants. One of their demands was that a yearly tribute of young boys should be paid to them by the Christians. At first a terrible rumour spread that these children were killed and eaten by the infidels. But what really happened was that these boys were trained very carefully as soldiers, and became the "Janissaries," or "New Soldiers" of the Ottoman army, against whom nothing could stand. They were forced, of course, to become followers of Islam, and they were appointed to all the highest offices of state. But their chief energy was reserved for the attacks made upon the land of their origin.
Gradually the Ottoman Turks crept nearer and nearer the heart of the Eastern Empire. A certain crafty Prime Minister of Constantinople, John Cantacugenus, in his determination to supplant his young sovereign, a child of nine, actually called in their aid and allowed them to over-run Thrace.
By the time that the usurper had won his way as joint ruler with his master, to the imperial throne, all that remained of the coveted empire was Constantinople, the towns of Adrianople and Thessalonica, and the Byzantine province in the Peloponnesus. His fatal alliance with the Turks had been cemented by a marriage between the Sultan Orkhan and his daughter Theodora; and when John Palaeologus, the rightful sovereign, refused to submit to this arrangement of twin rulers, Cantacugenus at once called in his son-in-law to his help.
Once more the Ottomans swarmed into Thrace, and, though they found that Cantacugenus had been deposed and forced to become a monk, they were not disposed to retreat without some substantial indemnity. They seized upon and settled in a province of Thrace, and within two years had the whole district, together with the city of Adrianople, in their hands.
The next step was to the threshold of Constantinople itself, but for this the Turkish chieftain Murad was content to wait awhile. The capital was bound to fall in time, and he was first of all eager to make sure of his ground in Asia Minor.
During Murad's reign he extended his domain to the Balkans and up to the very walls of the imperial city; whilst the unhappy Emperor without an empire was thankful to escape for the present by acknowledging his supremacy, and even by taking up arms at his command against one of his own free towns.
For the next hundred and fifty years the Ottomans were only hindered from the invasion of Christendom by the determined action of the Servians and Hungarians. And meantime the chance of freeing the Greek Empire altogether from Ottoman rule had come and gone.
In 1402, when the Turkish Sultan Bajazet was pressing hard upon Constantinople, the great Tamerlane, chief of the Tartar hordes, who had already conquered Persia, Turkestan, Russia, and India, came down like a thunderbolt upon the ambitious plans of Bajazet. The latter defied the conqueror, saying, "Thy armies are innumerable? Be they so! But what are the arrows of the flying Tartar against the scimitars and battle-axes of my firm and invincible Janissaries?"
Alike in their religious faith and in their ambitions, these two men now became deadly rivals; but not even the "New Army" of the Ottoman could stand against the Tartar hordes.
One city after another fell and was sacked; Bajazet himself was taken, and imprisoned, according to one story, in an iron cage. Another and more modern version says that the great Tamerlane treated his captive with the utmost courtesy and consideration; and on the occasion of the victorious feast after the battle, placed a crown upon his head and a sceptre in his hand, promising that he should return to the throne of his fathers with greater glory than before. But Bajazet died before his generous conqueror could carry out his promises, and Tamerlane, taking his place, demanded tribute of his sons and of Manuel of Constantinople at the same time.
The two elder sons of Bajazet were now at variance over the poor remains of his empire. One of these bought the aid of Manuel by surrendering the coast of Thessaly and the seaports of the Black Sea, and the Emperor was able to keep these just so long as the war between the brothers continued to rage. Even after this had ended in the triumph over both of Mohammed, Bajazet's youngest son, Manuel could feel fairly safe, for of late years he had thrown in his lot with Mohammed. and was allowed to hold his possessions in peace.
This period of civil war, was of course, the opportunity for the Greek ruler to have driven out the Ottomans from his former empire. But this opportunity was lost as so many others had been, and after Mohammed died in 1421, the empire was entirely surrendered to the Ottomans.
Mohammed's successor, Amurath, is thus described by one of his own historians. "He was a just and valiant prince, of a great soul, patient of labours, learned, merciful, religious, charitable; a lover and encourager of the studious, and of all who excelled in any art or science; a good Emperor and a great general.
"No man obtained more or greater victories than Amurath. Under his reign the soldier was ever victorious, the citizen rich and secure. If he subdued any country, his first care was to build mosques and caravanserais, hospitals and colleges. Every year he gave a thousand pieces of gold to the sons of the Prophet, and sent two thousands five hundred to the religious persons of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem."
Like the Emperor Charles V, a century later, this "perfect prince" laid down the reins of empire at the very height of his glory and "retired to the society of saints and hermits," at Magnesia. Twice he was recalled to the field of action, first by an invasion of the Hungarians, the second time by the insurrection of the "haughty Janissaries"; and with these latter, now humbled and trembling at his very look, the great Amurath remained until his death.
Meantime the doomed city of Constantinople had been further weakened by internal strife. Hoping to get aid from the Pope, John Palaeologus, the Emperor, had publicly conformed to the Roman Church, with many of his followers. But the bulk of the inhabitants of Constantinople utterly refused to throw over the ancient faith of the Greek Church, and preferred to disown their Emperor. As one of them ominously muttered
"Better the turban of the Turk in Constantinople than the Pope's tiara."
Disappointed of his hopes of any practical aid from Rome, John worked on in terrified silence while the brave King of Poland and Hungary tried in vain to drive back the triumphant Turks. He died only three years before the dreaded Amurath, and was succeeded by his brother Constantine, bearer of the honoured name of the founder of the city, but destined to be the last Christian ruler of the Eastern Empire.
Before very long, Constantine found himself face to face with the young Mohammed, the son of Amurath, who was already surnamed the Conqueror.
The all-absorbing desire of Mohammed was the possession of Constantinople, in order that it might be made the capital of his own Empire. Some pretence therefore must be found for a rupture with his meek vassal Constantine. At that time there dwelt within the city a certain Ottoman prince named Orkhan, much given to plots and ambitions, on whose account the Emperor was paid a considerable sum by Mohammed, on condition that he was kept from doing any harm. Very unwisely Constantine sent envoys to press for a larger payment, and even went so far as to try to black- mail the Sultan by hinting that Orkhan had the better right to the throne.
The reply of Mohammed was a prompt order to his engineers to construct a series of forts between Constantinople and the Black Sea, and thus to begin the siege by isolating the city from her port and food supplies. The actual excuse for warfare was provided in an attack made by some Greek soldiers on the Turks who were pulling down a beautiful old church in order to use its stones for their fort. The Greeks were promptly cut to pieces, and when Constantine dared to remonstrate, Mohammed at once declared war.
In vain did the despairing Emperor seek for help from the West. Even Genoa and Venice were blind to the approaching loss of all their Eastern trade, and Rome could do little to help. When the Emperor made a strong appeal to his own subjects to rally to the protection of their city, they listened in sullen silence to the words of one who had renounced the faith of his ancestors and conformed to the Church of Rome. There was never the smallest chance of holding out against the vigorous young Sultan and his picked troops.
In the spring of 1453 the actual siege began. Mohammed made use of that gunpowder which was to revolutionise all the ancient modes of warfare, and the old walls of Constantinople shuddered and fell before the shock.
The besieged had their guns too, but they did more harm than good, for the walls were too narrow to hold them and were so shaken by the concussion that these weapons had to be abandoned.
Yet for a time, owing largely to the courage and spirit of Constantine, the city not only held out, but succeeded in sending five vessels into the midst of the Turkish fleet, sinking and otherwise destroying all with which they came into contact. For allowing this to happen, the Turkish admiral, in spite of his plea of an injured eye as the cause of the mishap, was sentenced to receive a hundred strokes from a golden rod in the presence of the angry Sultan.
But this victory was quickly counterbalanced by Mohammed, who had some of his vessels brought over- land across the neck that lies between the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, thus shutting out the city from the sea on both sides. After a siege of forty days the end came on May 29, 1453. A special effort was urged by the Sultan in these words: "The city and the buildings are mine, but I resign to you the captives and the spoil, the treasures of gold and beauty; be rich and happy. Many are the provinces of my Empire; the intrepid soldier who first ascends the walls of Constantinople shall be rewarded with the government of the fairest and most wealthy; and my gratitude shall accumulate his honours and fortunes above the measure of his own hopes."
The answer came loud and strong from every part of the camp.
"Allah is great! There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet."
Within the city all was in gloom and despair. The Emperor was blamed for not surrendering earlier; many said that the "repose and security of Turkish servitude" were far preferable to this last stand for freedom.
The unfortunate Constantine listened in silence, and then went to the Cathedral of St Sophia, where he partook of his last Sacrament. Rising from a brief and troubled rest at dawn, he mounted his horse to ride back to the breach in the falling walls. His few faithful friends and attendants pressed round the master who they knew was going to his death. Looking gravely down upon them, " he prayed one and all to pardon him for any offence that he might knowingly or unknowingly have committed against any man."
The crowd answered with cries and lamentations as he rode calmly to his fate. "The distress and fall of the last Constantine," says Gibbon, "are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Caesars."
Standing in the gap made in the wall by the Gate of St Romanus, the Emperor and his little band awaited the rush of the Janissaries. One by one his men fell behind him and at his side, until he alone remained.
One more attack was made, and this time the infidels swarmed right into the town, trampling the body of the Emperor underfoot. All that long and dreadful day the wail of the captives ascended to the heavens, and when a search was made among the dead, only the golden eagles on his shoes identified the crushed and disfigured form of him who once was Constantine, last of his race.
The last scene in the grim drama was played when the Sultan came to the Church of St Sophia, and, riding upon his magnificent war-horse, passed in through the eastern door and bade the Mullah pronounce the formula of the faith of Islam from the high pulpit.
"Allah is great! There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet! "
The words resounded through the aisles of the great eastern church, as they had echoed first in the desert of Arabia nearly nine hundred years before that day.
Through well-nigh nine centuries we have traced the growth of Islam, and the part played by the Holy War in hindering its progress to the West; and, having recorded this last and successful attempt of the Mohammedans at establishing themselves in Europe, we will bring our story to an end with one last glance at the effect of this great movement upon Christendom.