"The Conquest of Constantinople May 29, 1453" – Stefan Zweig’s dramatic account of a decisive moment in history

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In this historical essay Stefan Zweig recounted in his clear, penetrating style the drama and the intensity of one of the most significant events in world history, the campaign of the young twenty-one-year-old Turkish Emperor, the Sultan Mahomet, to overcome the determined resistance of the thousand-year-old Byzantine Empire, then centred in the historic centre of the Eastern Orthodox faith, the ancient city of Constantinople with its magnificent cathedral and its impregnable series of fortifications.

We all know how that battle ended, but many of us were unaware of the spectacular details of that epic and world-shaking event, and how close it was to turning out differently, as Stefan Zweig recounts in this remarkable text [1].

This translation has been done specially for this site.

e-books of this essay (with the German text in an annex) are available for downloading below.


Alert to danger

On the 5th of February 1451 a secret envoy brought the news that his father, the Sultan Murad, was dead to his eldest son, the twenty-one-year-old Mahomet in Asia Minor. Without any of his ministers and only a brief word of explanation to his advisors, the prince, who was as devious as he was energetic, quickly mounted the best of his steeds and whipped the splendid thoroughbred for the hundred miles to the Bosphorus and directly over to Gallipoli on the European side. It was only there that he revealed the death of his father, gathered a carefully-chosen troop about him and, to forestall any other attempt to lay claim to the throne, led them to Andrianople where he was effectively recognised without opposition as the commander of the Ottoman Empire. His first official measure already demonstrated the terrible extent of his ruthless decisiveness. To triumph over previous rivalries within his own family, he ordered that his young brother be drowned in his bath – and, as proof of his calculating craftiness and ferocity, sent the hired murderer to his death too.

The news that this young and ardent Mahomet, greedy for glory, had become the Sultan of the Turks in place of the measured Murad appalled Constantinople. For through a hundred spies they knew that this ambitious enemy had sworn to conquer their city, the former world capital, and that in spite of his youth he spent his days and nights in strategic planning for this major objective; while all unanimously stressed the exceptional military and diplomatic strength of the new Shah of Shahs. Mahomet was both devout and cruel, passionate and secretive, a learned and an art-loving man who read Caesar and the biographies of the Romans and was also a barbarian who shed blood like water. This man with a sharp, beaked parakeet-nose had proved himself to be a tireless worker, a bold warrior and an unscrupulous diplomat, and all of these dangerous qualities were concentrated on the one idea: to surpass in deeds his grandfather Bajazet and his father Murad, who first had demonstrated to Europe the military superiority of the new Turkish nation. And his first objective, one sensed, one was aware of, would be Constantinople, the last surviving jewel in the crown of the Emperors Constantine the Great and Justinian.

This jewel was in effect practically unprotected and exposed to attack. Imperial Byzantium, the East-Roman Empire, that had once spanned the world from Persia to the Alps and stretched further on towards the Asian deserts, a world empire that took months and months just to travel across, could now be crossed on foot in three hours. Of the former Byzantine empire there was only pitifully left a head without a body, a capital city without a country: Constantinople, the city of the Emperor Constantine, the ancient Byzantium; and even of this the Emperor only controlled a part of the Istanbul of today, as the suburb of Galata belonged to Genoa and all of the territory beyond the city walls had fallen to the Turks. This tiny realm of the last Emperor consisted of just a gigantic ringed wall around churches, palaces and a mass of houses that was called Constantinople. Already thoroughly plundered during the Crusades, depopulated by the plague, exhausted by everlasting defensive battles against nomadic peoples, torn internally by national and religious strife, the city could mobilise neither enough manpower nor enough motivation to defend itself with its own forces against an enemy that had long hemmed it in with octopus arms on all sides: the purple robe of the last Emperor of Constantinople, Constantine Dragases, was a mantle of wind, his crown a toy of fate. But just because it was already surrounded by the Turks and as it was hallowed by a thousand-year-old heritage shared with the whole of the western world, this Constantinople symbolised for Europe its honour: only if united Christendom sheltered this last remaining and already crumbling fortress in the East could the Hagia Sophia remain a Basilica of the Faith, the last and at the same time the most splendid cathedral of East-Roman Christianity.

Constantine immediately understood the danger. In spite of all Mahomet’s talk of peace, he sent ambassador after ambassador to Italy, to the Pope, to Venice, to Genoa asking for warships and soldiers. But Rome hesitated as did Venice. For there still remained the vast and ancient theological gulf between the beliefs of the East and the West. The Greek Church hated the Roman, and their Patriarch refused to recognise the Pope as the supreme shepherd of the East. True, in view of the Turkish danger there had been synods in Ferrara and Florence to reunite the two churches and thereby ensure help for Constantinople against the Turks. But as soon as the immediate danger had lessened the Greek synod had refused to implement the agreement; only now that Mahomet had become Sultan did necessity win over Orthodox stubbornness: with the request for rapid help, Constantinople had confirmed its submission to Rome. Now galleys filled with soldiers and munitions were sent out, on one of which was the Papal ambassador, to celebrate the reconciliation of the two Churches and to announce to the world that whoever attacked Constantinople would be challenging the whole of Christendom.

The Mass of Reconciliation

A major spectacle took place that December day: in the splendid Basilica, whose former splendour of marble and mosaics and glimmering riches we are hardly able to imagine in today’s mosque, took place the great ceremony of reconciliation. All the dignitaries of his realm around Emperor Constantine seem to embody the highest guarantee for lasting concord. The gigantic space was overflowing, countless candles were alight; the Legate of the Roman branch Isidorus and the Orthodox Patriarch Gregorius were brotherly celebrating the mass in front of the altar; for the first time in this church the name of the Pope was included in the prayer; for the first time the sacred chorus resonated in both Latin and in Greek up to the vaults of the eternal cathedral, while the corpse of the holy Spiridion was carried out in solemn ceremony by both of the reconciled churchmen. East and West, whose disparate credos seem united for eternity, and finally once again after so many years of criminal antagonisms the idea of Europe, the inner sense of Western civilisation, had been fulfilled.

But moments of reason and reconciliation are brief and ephemeral in history. Already, while the devotion of the voices joined in common prayer were still echoing in the church, the erudite monk Genadios in his cloister cell was hurriedly preparing a denunciation of the Roman Catholics and the betrayal of the true Faith; scarcely had reason brought the peace agreement into being than it was being ripped apart again, and just as the Greek clergy was so little willing to submit, so the friends from the other end of the Mediterranean were so little preparing to help them. A few galleys, a few hundred soldiers would no doubt be sent over there, but then the city would be left to its fate.

The war begins

Tyrants, when they are planning for war, talk about peace as long as they haven’t fully mustered their forces. On mounting on the throne, Mahomet thus received Emperor Constantine’s ambassador with the friendliest and most accommodating words; he publicly and ceremoniously swore by God and his Prophet, by the angels and by the Koran, that he would uphold the peace agreement with the Emperor. At the same time, however, the perfidious ruler secretly concluded a three-year agreement with the Hungarians and the Serbs for mutual neutrality – for precisely three years, during which he would, undisturbed, be able to occupy the city. Only then, after Mahomet had sufficiently promised and sworn peace, did he start the war with a breach of the peace treaty.

Until then only the asiatic side of the Bosphorus belonged to the Turks, and so ships from Constantinople could go unhindered through the narrows into the Black Sea to access their granaries. This access was throttled off when Mahomet, without the slightest concern for justification of his action, ordered ordered a fortress to be built at Rumili Hissar on the European side, precisely at that narrowest point where in Persian times the bold Xerxes had crossed over the narrows. Overnight thousands, ten thousand, workers were put on the European side, that by treaty should not have been militarised (but what were treaties with tyrants worth?), and they plundered the surrounding countryside intensively, not only destroying the houses, but also levelling the famous old Saint Michaels Church to get stones for their fortress; the construction of the stronghold was led energetically day and night by the Sultan himself, and the citizens of Constantinople could only look on helplessly as free access to the Black Sea was against right and treaty refused them. Already the first ships, that until then had rights of free passage through the straits, were sunk without any declaration of war, and after this first test of strength any further dissimulation was unnecessary. In August 1452 Mahomet summoned all his Agas and Pachas and openly told them of his intention to attack and conquer Constantinople. Shortly afterwards, the public announcement of the brutal act followed; messengers were sent throughout the whole Turkish Empire, the armed forces were mobilised, and on the 5th of April 1453 like a suddenly exploding storm-tide an immense Ottoman army flowed over the plains of Constantinople right up to its walls.

The Sultan, splendidly outfitted, rode at the head of his troops, ready to strike at the right moment at the Lykas Gate. But before he let his standard be raised into the wind over his headquarters, he ordered that the prayer mat be unrolled. He walked onto it bare-footed, bent his forehead down to the ground three times facing Mecca, and after him – a splendid spectacle – his army of thousands upon thousands of soldiers all in the same rhythm, facing the same direction, pronounced the same prayer to Allah: that he grant them strength and victory. Only then did the Sultan rise up. The humble man had again become a challenger, the servant of God had become a lord and soldier, and throughout the whole camp now sprang forth his “tellals”, his official order accompanied by the rolls of trumpets and further fanfares announcing: “The Siege of the city has begun.”

The walls and the canons

Constantinople had only one major strength left: its walls; nothing remained from its global reach of the past other than this heritage from a greater and happier time. The three-sided city was protected by a triple layer of fortifications. The lowest level, though nevertheless powerful, covered the stone walls of the two flanks of the city over the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, whereas the parapet facing the land consisted of gigantic masses of stone known as the Theodosian Wall. Already, in anticipation of Byzantine’s future peril, Constantine the Great had long ago provided Constantinople with a girdle of stone blocks, and Justinian had further developed and reinforced these walls; the fortification proper however had been created by Theodosius with a seven-kilometre-long wall, whose monumental power their remains, overrun with ivy, still bear witness to even today. Endowed with niches and battlements, protected from water damage, overlooked by gigantic square towers, erected in double and triple parallel rows, constantly renewed and extended by each Emperor over a thousand years, this most magnificent ringed wall of its time was an eternal symbol of impregnability. As in former times against onslaughts of barbarian hordes and Turkish armies, these huge blocks of stone mocked all instruments of war then known; battering rams and even the new field guns and mortars struck helplessly against them; no European city was more solidly and better protected than Constantinople by the Theodosian Wall.

Mahomet knew these walls and their strength better than anyone. Waking at night and in his dreams he had for months and years had one thought only - how to penetrate this impregnability, how to destroy this indestructibility. Drawings were piled upon his table of the masses and the clefts of the enemy fortress, he knew every knoll in front and behind every wall, every depression, every watercourse, and his engineers had pondered with him on every singularity. But, disappointment: they had all concluded that with existing canons, the Theodosian Wall could not be destroyed.

So more powerful canons had to be created! Longer, with greater range, more powerful than anything previously known to the art of warfare! And projectiles of harder stone, more powerful, more crushing, more destructive than anything ever hitherto made! A new kind of artillery had to be invented against this inaccessible wall, there was no other solution, and Mahomet declared that he had decided to create this new attack weapon at any price.

At any price – such an announcement by itself always awakens creative and productive powers. So shortly after the declaration of war a man generally considered the most creative and experienced founder of canons in the world presented himself to the Sultan. Urbas or Orbad, a Hungarian. He was actually a Christian, and had even previously been in the service of Emperor Constantine; however, for better prospects, for Mahomet’s higher rewards and for more demanding objectives, he declared that he was ready, if unlimited means were placed at his disposal, to cast a canon that had never before been seen on the face of the earth. The Sultan, for whom like anyone possessed by an idea no price was too high, allocated him immediately as many workers as desired, and clay was brought from Andrianople in a thousand carriages; for three months thereafter the mould for the canon was prepared with unlimited means to ensure its hardening by secret methods, before the spectacular gush of glowing metal began to flow. The result was a success. The gigantic tube, the biggest that the world had ever seen, was cast from the mould and cooled; but before the first test shot was fired Mahomet sent callers throughout the whole city to warn pregnant women. When the orifice as if lit by lightening ejected with monstrous thunder the mighty shell that shattered a wall with a single test shot, Mahomet ordered immediately the preparation of a complete artillery battery of these gigantic dimensions.

The first great “stone-throwing machine”, as the horrified Greek writers would call the canon, was then successfully produced. But now there was a difficult problem: how could this monster, this iron worm, be transported through Thrace up to the walls of Constantinople? An unprecedented odyssey then took place. A whole nation, a whole army spent two months dragging this stubborn, long-necked monster. First came hordes of cavalry constantly patrolling in front to protect the precious object from attack, behind them hundreds and perhaps thousands of workers toiled to even out the road in front of the exceptionally heavy load that ruined the roadway behind for months after its passage. Fifty pairs of oxen were harnessed to the mass of carriages, on whose axels – as once before the obelisk on its way from Egypt to Rome – lay the precisely distributed weight of the gigantic metal tube; two hundred men on the left and the right constantly maintained in place the tube that swayed under its own weight, while fifty waggoners and domestic servants were fully occupied in replacing and oiling the wooden rollers, in strengthening the supports, and in laying bridges; it was clear that only step by step, in the slow pace of the oxen, could the gigantic caravan make its way through hills and plains. Astonished peasants from the villages gathered and crossed themselves before the iron monster that like a god of war was being brought by his servants and priests from one land into another; but soon in the same way its iron brother, cast from the same maternal clay, would pass through; once again human will had made the impossible possible. Soon twenty or thirty of these monsters bared their black muzzles against Constantinople; heavy artillery had made its debut in the history of warfare, and it began the duel between the thousand-year-old walls of the East-Roman Emperor and the new guns of the new Sultan.

Another hope

Slowly, tenaciously, but irresistibly the mammoth canons were crushing and grinding the walls of Constantinople with flashing blows. At first each gun could only fire six or seven shots per day, but day after day the Sultan brought new ones into operation, and in clouds of dust and debris each impact was making new breaches in the crumbling stonework. Although the defenders were nightly mending the breaches with ever more basic wooden palisades and bales of canvas, it was nevertheless no longer the solid, intact wall of old behind which they were fighting, and the eight thousand behind the walls thought in anguish of the decisive moment when the hundred and fifty thousand Muslims would launch their decisive assault against the already thoroughly-pierced walls. It was time, high time, that Europe, that Christianity remembered its promises; hosts of women with their children were praying on their knees all day in the churches before the reliquary shrines, and from all the watch towers soldiers were searching day and night to see if the hoped-for Papal and Venetian relief fleet finally appeared in the Sea of Marmara that was swarming with Turkish ships.

Finally, there was a sign on the 20th of April at three o’clock in the morning. In the distance sails had been sighted. It was not the powerful, the dreamed-for Christian fleet, but no matter: slowly pushed forward by the wind, three large Genoa ships were advancing and behind them a fourth, a smaller Byzantine grain-ship that the three larger ones had taken in their midst to protect. At once all of Constantinople gathered enchanted on the harbour walls to greet the helpers. But at the same time Mahomet had jumped on his horse and was galloping in haste from his purple tent down to the harbour where the Turkish fleet lay at anchor, and ordered that those ships must be prevented at all costs from arriving in the harbour of Constantinople in the Golden Horn.

The Turkish fleet numbered a hundred and fifty ships, albeit smaller, and immediately a thousand oars clacked in the sea. Armed with grapnels, fire-launchers and stone slingers, these hundred and fifty caravels bore down upon the four galleys; but the four mighty ships, vigorously advancing before the wind overtook and ran before the Turkish boats that were booming out with shots and war-cries. Majestically, with great swollen, rounded sails, indifferent to their attackers, they headed towards the safe haven of the Golden Horn, where the famous chain extending from Stambul to Galata would provide them lasting protection from attacks and assaults. The four galleons were now quite near to the goal: already the thousands on the walls could recognise each individual face, already men and women were bending down on their knees to thank God and the saints for the glorious rescue, already the chain was clinking down into the harbour to enable the relief ships to come in.

Then something horrible happened all of a sudden: the wind suddenly changed about. As if pulled by a magnet the four ships remained dead still in the middle of the sea, just a couple of stone-throws away from the haven of the harbour, and with wild cries of jubilation the whole pack of enemy boats threw themselves upon the four paralysed ships that stood motionless like four towers in the sea. Like a pack of dogs attacking an adult deer, the little ships attached themselves with grapnels to the flanks of the galleons, with axes striking into the woodwork to try to sink them, with ever more manpower climbing up the anchor chains and throwing torches and fire-brands against the sails to set them on fire. The captain of the Turkish armada pushed his own admiralty ship up against the transport ship to ram it; already the two ships were entangled like wrestlers. The Genoa sailors from their higher positions and with their armour could still defend themselves against their enemies climbing up, they were still fighting the attackers back with hooks and stones and Greek fires. But the battle soon had to come to an end. They were too few against too many. The Genoa ships were lost.

A dreadful spectacle for the thousands on the walls! Thrillingly close, the way spectators in an antique hippodrome used to follow the bloody struggles there, now just as painfully close could one see with the naked eye the sea battle and the apparently unavoidable downfall of one’s own side; for, at the most two hours later, the four ships would have gone down before the enemy host in the sea arena. In vain had the help come, in vain! The despairing Greeks on the walls of Constantinople, just a stone’s throw away from their brothers, stood and cried out with clenched fists in powerless anger, unable to help their rescuers. Many sought with wild gestures to encourage their fighting alllies. Others, hands raised to heaven, called upon Christ and the Archangel Michael and all of the saints of their churches and cloisters who had protected Constantinople for so many centuries to perform a miracle. But all over the opposite bank of Galata the Turks were waiting and crying and praying with just as much intensity for the victory of their side; the sea had become a stage, a sea battle had become a gladiators’ ring. The Sultan himself galloped over to Galata. Surrounded by his Pashas he rode so deeply into the water that the upper part of his cloak was soaked, he shrieked through his cupped hands in a furious voice his orders that the Christian ships must be taken at any cost. Whenever one of his vessels was driven back, he swore and menaced his Admiral with swinging scimitar: “If you do not win, you will not come back alive!”

The Christian ships were still resisting. But soon the struggle would end, already the canon fire with which they were pushing the Turkish ships back was beginning to die down, already the arms of the sailors were tired after hours of struggle against an enemy fifty times more numerous. The day was done, the sun was sinking on the horizon. An hour more and the defenceless ships, even though until then none had been sunk by the Turks, would be pushed by the current towards the Turkish-occupied harbour behind Galata. Lost, lost, lost!

Then something happened that seemed to be a miracle to the despairing, hurling, clamouring crowd in Constantinople. All at once a light breeze blew up, all at once it became a wind. And straight away the slack sails of the four ships were filled out roundly and fully. The wind, the desired, the prayed-for wind had again awoken! Triumphantly the bows of the galleons rose up, with a sudden push they overtook and outran the swarming besiegers. They were free, they had been saved. Under the roaring jubilation of the thousands upon thousands upon the walls the first, then the second, the third, the fourth drove into the safe harbour, the clinking barrier chain rose up once again, and behind them the pack of small Turkish ships, spread out upon the sea, remained powerless; once again a cry of jubilation and hope swept like a purple cloud across the gloomy and despairing city.

The fleet travels over the mountain

The overflowing joy of the besieged lasted one night. In the night the senses always conjure up images of phantasy, and addle hopes with the sweet poison of dreams. For one night the besieged thought that they had been saved and rescued. For, as these four ships had successfully landed provisions and soldiers, so they imagined that week after week others would arrive. Europe had not forgotten them, and already they could see in their rash expectations the siege being raised, the enemy being discouraged and overcome.

But Mahomet was also a dreamer, a dreamer of quite another and of a very special kind, one of those who understood how to convert their dreams into reality by the force of their willpower. And while each galleon thought itself safe in the harbour of the Golden Horn, he was drawing up a plan for a plan of such fantastic boldness that it can be well be included among the most daring acts of military history alongside those of Hannibal and Napoleon. Constantinople lay before him like a golden fruit, that he could however not seize; the major obstacle to this was formed by the deeply-carved tongue of sea, the Golden Horn, the bay in the shape of an appendix whose flank protected the city. To force the way into this bay was practically impossible, for at its entrance lay the Genoa city of Galata, whose neutrality Mahomet was obliged to respect, and from there the iron chain stretched over to the enemy city. His flotilla could not cross into the bay by frontal assault, the Christian fleet could only be gotten at from the inner basin. But how to get a fleet of ships into this inner bay? Certainly, a new fleet could be built there. But that would take months and months, and his impatience could not bear to wait so long.

Then Mahomet conceived his plan of genius to carry his fleet from the outer sea, where it was useless, over the tongue of land into the inner harbour of the Golden Gate. This breathtakingly bold idea of passing hundreds of ships over a mountainous stretch of land appeared initially to be so absurd, so impossible to carry out, that the citizens of Constantinople and the Genoans in Galata had as little thought of it in their strategic planning as the Romans and after them the Austrians had thought of the rapid crossing of the Alps by Hannibal and Napoleon. It was universally known that ships can only operate in water and that a fleet could never go over a mountain. It is true that making the impossible happen has for all time been the true sign of a demonic will, one can always recognise a military genius in one who mocks the rules of warfare and at a given moment replaces proven methods with creative improvisation. A gigantic undertaking was begun, unique in the annals of history. In complete secrecy Mahomet had countless spars produced and cut into sleds by workmen, upon which ships, pulled out of the water, could be placed as if they were mobile dry docks. At the same time thousands of workers were made busy levelling the small mule track that led over the hill from Pera and and down on the other side, to make it suitable for displacing the ships. To hide the concentration of so many workmen from the enemy, the Sultan set off a tremendous mortar barrage all day and night over the neutral city of Galata, that in itself was senseless but had only one purpose: to divert attention from the the transportation of the ships over the mountain and down the valley, from one stretch of water to another. While the enemy was occupied and only expecting a land attack, countless round wood rollers, richly coated in oil and fat, were set in movement, and then one ship after another was pulled on a sled over the mountain on the gigantic rollers by countless pairs of buffaloes, helped by sailors pushing from behind. As soon as the night began to hide them from view, the miraculous voyage began. Quietly like everything big, thoughtful like everything clever, the wonder of wonders was performed: a whole fleet travelled over the mountain. The decisiveness of all great military actions is always the moment of surprise. And therein lay Mahomet’s special genius. No one had suspected anything of his project – “had a hair of my beard had any inkling of my thoughts, I would have torn it out” this conniver of genius once said about himself – and his command was executed in the most perfect order while the canons thundered ostentatiously onto the walls. Seventy ships were in this single night of 22nd April brought from one sea to another over mountain and valley, though vineyards and valleys and forests. The next morning the citizens of Constantinople thought they were dreaming: an enemy fleet that had been brought there as if by magic was manned and sailed with pennants flying high in the heart of their supposedly impregnable bay; they continued to rub their eyes and could still not understand where this wonder had come from, but fanfares and cymbals and trumpets blared forth from under their previously-sheltered side walls, the whole Golden Horn with the exception of that narrow neutral area of Galata where the Christian fleet was hemmed in now belonged to the Sultan and his army thanks to this inspiration of genius. Unhindered, he could now bring troops over his pontoon bridge in the bay against the weakest of their walls: this weak flank was now menaced and the already sparse ranks of the defenders had to be thinned out over a larger area. The iron fist was closing ever more tightly around the throat of its victims.

Europe, help!

The defenders could no longer deceive themselves. Now also menaced in their torn flanks, they knew that as eight thousand against a hundred and fifty thousand they could not offer resistance for long behind their destroyed walls if help did not arrive rapidly. But had the Lordships of Venice not formally promised to send ships? Could the Pope remain indifferent when Hagia Sophia, the most splendid church of the West, was in danger of becoming a mosque of the unbelievers? Could Europe, caught up in disputes, divided by a hundred base jealousies, still not understand the danger for the culture of the West? Perhaps – as the besieged consoled themselves – the relief fleet had long been ready and was only hesitating to set sail because of lack of information, and it would only be necessary to inform them of their enormous responsibility in this deadly situation.

But how could the Venetian fleet be contacted? The Sea of Marmara was saturated by Turkish ships; to break out with the entire fleet would mean sacrificing losses and consequently weakening their defences, for which every man counted, by several hundred men. So it was decided to risk only one very small ship with a tiny crew. Twelve men in all – if there were justice in history, their names would be as famous as those of the Argonauts, and yet we don’t know a single one of their names – dared to undertake the heroic exploit: the enemy flag was raised on the tiny brigantine, and the twelve men were dressed as Turks with a turban or a fez so as not to arouse suspicion. On the 3rd of May at midnight the harbour chain was silently unlocked, and with dampened sweeps of their oars the audacious boat glided out, protected by the dark. And behold: the miracle happened and the tiny ship went undetected through the Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea. It is always precisely the excess of boldness that paralyses the enemy. Mahomet had thought of everything but not the unthinkable, that a single ship with twelve heroes aboard would dare to undertake such an Argonaut-like expedition right through his fleet.

But, tragic disappointment: there were no Venetian ships on the Aegean Sea. No fleet was ready for an expedition. Venice and the Pope, all had forgotten Constantinople, all had neglected her, all were taken up with ecclesiastical politics, questions of honour and jealousy. This tragic moment is constantly repeated in history: when the greatest degree of unity was required for the defence of European culture, the princes and the nations were unable to hold back their little internecine rivalries for a time. For Genoa it was more important to keep Venice back, and similarly for Venice, than to unite momentarily against the common enemy. The sea was empty. Despairingly the sailors rowed on their nutshell from island to island. But everywhere the harbours were already occupied by the enemy and no friendly vessels dared venture out in the war zone.

What to do now? Some of the twelve had rightfully become disheartened. Why return to Constantinople, once again pass through the dangerous way back? They could bring no hope. Perhaps the city had already fallen; in any case, if they did go back, captivity or death were waiting for them. But – the heroes whose names no one knows were magnificent! – the majority nevertheless decided to go back. They had been assigned a mission and they had to carry it out. They had been sent out as messengers, and they must bring the message back, even if it were the most depressing one imaginable. Thus this tiny ship dared to go back alone through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the enemy fleet. On the 23rd of May, twenty days after setting out, they had already long been given up for lost in Constantinople where no one thought any longer about the embassy and its return, when suddenly a pair of lookouts on the walls waved their flags, for a small boat was making its way with rapid oar-strokes towards the Golden Horn; and as the Turks now realised because of the welcoming cries of the besieged that the brigantine that was boldly going through their lines with a Turkish flag was an enemy ship, and they sent their ships out on all sides to capture it before it reached the safety of the harbour. In an instant all Byzantine shook with thousands of cries of jubilation that Europe had remembered them and that the ship was an advance emissary. Only in the evening was the terrible truth widely known. Christianity had forgotten about Constantinople. Those enclosed within the walls were alone, they were lost if they could not save themselves on their own.

The night before the assault

After six weeks of almost daily fighting the Sultan had become impatient. His cannons had destroyed the walls in many places, but all of the assaults that he had ordered until then had been repulsed. For a field general there remained only two possibilities, either to raise the siege or, after countless separate attacks, to launch the biggest of all, the decisive assault. Mahomet summoned his Pashas to a war conference, and his passionate will prevailed over all other considerations. The big, the decisive assault was set for the 29th of May. The Sultan set about his preparations with his habitual decisiveness. A special day of ceremonies was declared, when a hundred and fifty thousand men, from the first to the last, were to accomplish the solemn practices prescribed by Islam, the seven ablutions and the three main prayers of the day. All available powder and shot were brought up for the heavy artillery barrage that would prepare the city for the assault, the troops were mobilised for the attack. Morning and night Mahomet allowed himself no rest. He rode from one tent to another from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara, over the whole enormous area, everywhere personally encouraging the leaders, urging on the soldiers. But as a good psychologist he knew how best to ignite the fighting spirit of a hundred and fifty thousand men; and so he gave the frightful promise that contributed the most to both his honour and to his dishonour. This promise was proclaimed by his heralds to the sound of trumpets to the four winds: “Mahomet swears in the name of Allah, in the name of Mohammed and the four thousand prophets, he swears by the soul of his father, the Sultan Murad, by the heads of his children and by his sword, that after the storming of the city his troops will be granted unlimited rights of plunder for three days. Everything that is within these walls: household effects and goods, decorations and jewellery, money and treasure, the men, the women, the children shall belong to the victorious soldiers, and he himself renounces any part whatsoever, apart from the honour of having conquered this last stronghold of the East-Roman Empire.”

The soldiers greeted this wild declaration with furious cries of jubilation. The loud roar of jubilation and the furious cries of Allah-il-Allad of the thousands rolled over the anguished city. “Jagma, Jagma!”, “Plunder, Plunder!” The word became a rallying cry, it clacked with the drums, it boomed with the cymbals and fanfares, and at night the camp was transformed into a festive sea of light. With shivers of fright the defenders saw from their walls how myriads of lights and torches were burning in the plain and on the hillsides and how the enemy with trumpets, pipes, drums and tambourines was already celebrating the victory before the victory; it was like the cruel, noisy ceremony of heathen priests before the sacrifice.

Then suddenly on Mahomet’s order all of the lights went out at one stroke at midnight, and the uproar of thousands of hoarse voices abruptly ended. But this sudden silence and this oppressive darkness with their menace were more frightening to those listening than the frenetic jubilation of the rowdy lights.

The last mass in Hagia Sophia

The besieged needed no informer, no defector to know what was waiting for them. They knew that the assault had been ordered, and the feeling of enormous responsibility and of enormous danger lay like a storm-cloud over the whole city. Previously divided by schisms and religious strife, the whole population gathered together in this last hour – only external danger can bring the incomparable spectacle of unity in this world. The Emperor organised a wonderfully moving ceremony so that all would be fully aware of just what they had to defend: the Faith, the great past, the common culture. He ordered that the whole population, orthodox and catholics, priests and laymen, children and the aged should gather together for a single procession. No one should, no one would remain at home, from the richest to the poorest they aligned themselves with devotion in rows and all sang “Kyrie eleison” in the solemn column that first passed through the inner city and then also on the outer walls. The holy icons and heroic images were brought out from the churches; everywhere where breaches had been made in the walls one of the images was hung down to better defend it against the onslaught of the unbelievers than with worldly weapons. At the same time Emperor Constantine gathered around him the senators, the nobles and the military commanders, to encourage them with a final speech. Certainly he could not, like Mahomet, promise them unlimited booty. But he spoke of the honour they would earn by defending Christianity and the whole western world if they could defeat this last decisive attack, and the danger if they submitted to the deadly murderers and incendiaries: both Mahomet and Constantine were aware that this day would be decisive for hundreds of years of world history.

Then began the last scene, one of the the most moving of all European history, an unforgettable Ecstasy of Downfall. Those doomed to death gathered in Hagia Sophia, that at that time was still the most splendid cathedral in the world, but that since the day of the fraternisation between the two churches had been neglected by one and the other. The whole court was gathered around the Emperor, the nobles, the Greek and the Roman clergy, the Genoa and Venetian soldiers and sailors, all fully equipped and in arms; and behind them kneed thousands upon thousands of mute and reverential shadows – the population, bent and agitated by fear and worry; and the candles that struggled with difficulty against the darkness of the great vaults lit up these masses unanimously bent in prayer as one single body. It was the soul of Constantinople that prayed to God there. The Patriarch now raised his voice powerfully in appeal, the Chorus answered him, once more music, the holy, the eternal voice of the western world, rang out in this space. Then one after the other after the Kaiser advanced to the altar to receive the benediction of the Faith, the incessant waves of prayers sounded and echoed high up in the vaults and throughout the gigantic monument. The final, the funeral mass of the East-Roman Empire had begun. The Christian faith was alive for the last time in the Cathedral of Justinian.

After this moving ceremony the Emperor returned only once briefly to his palace, to ask forgiveness from all his subordinates and servants for past injustices that ever in his lifetime he may have subjected them to. Then he mounted his horse and rode – just as Mahomet, his greatest enemy, was doing at the same time – from one end of the walls to the other to encourage his soldiers. The night had already started to fade. No voice was to be heard, no weapons clinked. But with agitated souls the thousands within the walls waited for the break of day and for death.

Kerkaporta, the forgotten gate

At one l’clock in the morning the Sultan gave the signal for attack. The gigantic standards were unrolled, and with a single cry “Allah, Allah il Allah!” a hundred thousand men with arms and ladders and ropes and grappling irons launched forward against the walls, while at the same time all of the drums were beating, all of the fanfares blaring, trumpets, cymbals and flutes united their sharp tones with the cries of the men and the thunder of the cannons into a single hurricane. First, troops that had been unused until then, the Baschi-Bozugs, were pitilessly thrown against the walls – their half-naked bodies serving in the Sultan’s plans virtually like ramming-blocks to tire the enemy and to weaken him before the assault troops launched their decisive assault. Running in the darkness with a hundred ladders up to those who had been whipped on ahead, they climbed up the battlements, were thrown back, stormed forward again, again and again, for they had no way back: behind them, behind this worthless human material used as a sacrifice, were the assault troops who pushed them ever forward to their almost certain deaths. The defenders still had the upper hand, their meshed armour impervious to the countless arrows and stones. But the real danger – and on this Mahomet had rightly counted – was fatigue. They were continually fighting in heavy armour against ever more pressing light troops, constantly springing from one attacked position to another, exhausting a good part of their strength in this forced defence. And as now – already after two hours of fighting the morning began to rise on the horizon – the second wave of assault troops, the Anatolians, stormed forward and the struggle became more dangerous. For these Anatolians were disciplined fighters, highly trained and also equipped with meshed armour; they were moreover superior in number and fully rested, and soon the defenders had to fight against first one, then another breakthrough. But still the attackers were thrown back everywhere, and the Sultan had to engage his last reserves, the Janissaries, the crack troops, the elite guard of the Ottoman army. He placed himself at the head of the twelve thousand young, hand-picked soldiers, the best in Europe at the time, and with one single cry they threw themselves against the exhausted enemy. It was high time for the bells to ring out in the city to summon the last of those in any way capable of battle to the walls, for the sailors to be brought in from the ships, for the deciding battle was now underway. The fate of the defenders had been endangered by a blow to the head of the leader of the Genoans, the daring Condottiere Giustiniani, who had been brought back to his ship seriously wounded, and his loss caused the other defenders to falter for an instant. But already the Kaiser himself had rushed to the scene, and he succeeded once more in blocking the menaced breakthrough, once more the storm ladders were thrown back; determination held out against the last degree of determination, and for the moment Constantinople still seemed saved, the greatest urgency had triumphed over the wildest of the attacks. Then a tragic incident, one of those moments full of mystery that history sometimes introduces in its most inscrutable instances, in one stroke decided the fate of Constantinople.

Something quite unforeseen had occurred. A few Turks had penetrated through one of the many breeches in the outer walls not far from the point of attack. They did not attempt to assault the inner wall. But as they were wandering out of curiosity between the first and the second city walls they discovered that one of the smaller gates of the inner wall, the so-called Kerkaporta Gate, by an incomprehensible blunder had been left open. It was only a small gate, intended in times of peace to enable access to the city by foot when the main gate was closed; as it had no military significance it had clearly been forgotten in the agitation of the past night. The janissaries found to their astonishment that this gate in the middle of the imposing fortification had simply been left open to them. First they assumed that it was a ruse of war, then that absurdity seemed too unlikely, as while thousands of corpses were then piled up before each breach, each gap, each gate of the fortification and burning oil and projectiles were pouring down, here, peaceful as on a Sunday, the Kerkaporta Gate stood open to the city. In any case they called for reinforcements, and irresistibly a full troop fell unexpectedly upon the surprised defenders of the outer walls from the rear. A few warriors managed to keep the Turks back behind their ranks, when catastrophically the cry rang out that in every battle is as murderous as all canons, the false rumour: “the city has been taken!” Louder and ever louder the Turks repeated the cry “the city has been taken!” and this broke all resistance. The troops, who thought they had been betrayed, left their positions to seek refuge in time in the harbour and on the ships. In vain Constantine with a few faithful threw themselves against the intruders - he was cut down unrecognised in the middle of the confusion, and it was only the next day because of the golden shoes decorated with an eagle found in the middle of a heap of corpses that it could be seen that the last East-Roman Emperor had honourably, in the Roman sense of the term, lost his life and his realm. A speck of dust, an accident, the forgotten Kerkaporta Gate, had decided the course of world history.

The cross crashes down

Sometimes history plays with numbers. For, exactly a thousand years after Rome had been so thoroughly plundered by the Vandals, the sack of Constantinople began. Appallingly, true to his pledge, Mahomet the victor kept his word. He let his warriors indiscriminately take as booty houses and palaces, churches and cloisters, men, women and children, and like hell’s devils thousands raced through the streets, each striving to arrive before the others. The first assaults were carried out against the churches; the golden structures flamed, sparkling like jewellery, but where they broke into houses they immediately raised their banners to inform the others that there the booty had been taken; and this booty consisted not only in precious stones, in materials, money and portable goods, but also the women who were chattel for the harems, the men and the children for the slave market. The unluckiest of all were those who had sought refuge in the churches; whipped outside, the old people were slaughtered as useless eaters and unsaleable ballast, the young were tied together like cattle and dragged away, and simultaneously with the plunder, senseless destruction was raging. What the crusaders during their perhaps equally frightful plundering had left as precious relics and works of art were destroyed by the raging victors, torn to shreds, cut into pieces; the precious paintings were obliterated, the splendid statues hammered, the books in which the wisdom of hundreds of years had been stored, the immortal richness of Greek thought and poetry that had been saved for posterity were burned or casually thrown out. Mankind would never know all the horrors that in those fateful hours had broken through the Kerkaporta Gate and how much the world of the spirit had lost in the plundering of Rome, of Alexandria and of Constantinople.

Only in the afternoon of the great victory when the slaughter had just ended did Mahomet enter the conquered city. He rode proudly and austerely on his splendid steed past the wild scenes of plundering without a glance; he remained true to his word to his soldiers who had won the victory that he would not disturb their frightful work. He first headed not to his winnings, he had won everything; he proudly rode to the cathedral, the radiant central point of Constantinople. For more than fifty days he had longingly observed its shimmering, unattainable dome; now as victor he could step through its bronze door. But once more Mahomet reined in his impatience; first he wanted to thank Allah before he dedicated the church to him for ever. He humbly dismounted and bowed his head deep to the ground in prayer. Then he took a handful of earth and strewed it over his head, to remind himself that he too was mortal and that his triumph must not be exaggerated. And only now, after he had demonstrated his humility to God, did the Sultan raise up and enter as the first servant of Allah into the cathedral of Justinian, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia Church.

The Sultan looked with curiosity and emotion at the splendid building, the high vaults shimmering with marble and mosaics, the delicate arches rising up from the gloom towards the light; he felt that this magnificent palace of prayer belonged not to him, but rather to his God. He sent immediately for his imam, who mounted the pulpit and there proclaimed the Muslim faith, while the Shah of Shahs, his face turned towards Mecca, said the first prayer to Allah, the lord of the world, in this Christian cathedral. The next day workmen were given the order to remove all signs of the former faith; the altars were torn down, the devout mosaics were painted over, and the cross of Hagia Sophia, that it had borne for a thousand years to embrace all suffering in the world, fell crashing down below.

The stony echo rang throughout the church and far beyond. For its fall had stunned the whole western world. The news echoed frightfully in Rome, in Genoa, in Venice, in Florence; like a warning thunder it rolled over towards France and Germany, and with a shudder Europe recognised that because of its dulled indifference a fatefully destructive power had broken through the neglected Kerkaporta Gate that for hundreds of years would hamper and cripple its power. But in history as in human affairs, regrets cannot bring back a lost moment again, and a thousand years could not buy back what had been lost in a single moment.

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[1“The Conquest of Constantinople” (Die Eroberung von Byzanz) was first published in an English-language translation in 1940 in New York, then (posthumously) in the original German in the 1943 edition of his earlier collection of essays “Decisive Moments in History” (somewhat more poetically entitled in German “Shining Moments of Mankind” ("Sternstunden der Menschheit")).