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The Liberation of Constantinople

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The Liberation of Constantinople
(Islamic sources claim that Muhammad prophesized that a Muslim army would liberate Constantinople. The first attempt occurred in AD 655 (34 AH (after Hijrah) on the Islamic calendar) and was followed by many other failed attempts over the centuries. This document is an account of the successful “liberation” of the city based on Islamic eyewitness accounts and was compiled by Br. Muhammad El-Halaby).

In 857 (AH) (Ottoman sultan) Mehmed II, may Allah have mercy with him, moved against the city walls with his army of 150,000 Mujahideen (those who fight for Islam) who were very keen to achieve the great honor of accomplishing the blessed promise.

However, they did not rely solely on the promise, they also underwent a complete preparation to achieve the victory. The historian Ismail Hami Danshbund, a contemporary of the sultan Muhammad Al fateh narrates: "The sultan would spend long hours every night since ascending the throne, studying the plans of the city, looking for strategic points of defense and attempting to find weak points which he could benefit from and to work on the appropriate plan to attack these points. He also ordered the engineers to build what is required to facilitate the liberation. They built large cannons which would traject numerous heavy metal balls and bombs weighing as much as three tons. In addition to the other heavy artillery which the sultan built himself which were used for the first time in the attack on Constantinople; which had a great effect in the liberation of the city. That was from the material end, however, on the morale end, he took with him many contemporary scholars and Imams (Islamic leadership position), who would motivate the soldiers and drive them towards Jihad. As soon as he reached the walls of the Constantinople, he ordered the call to prayer. When the Byzantines saw and heard the hundred and fifty thousand Muslims praying behind their leader they began to tremble in fear and worry, and their minds were defeated before their bodies.

After the sultan divided and placed his army, he sent his messenger to the king of Bizantia (Byzantine Empire) asking him to hand over the city giving him a full guarantee of safety for its residents, their wealth, their lives, their beliefs, and their honor. The refusal of the king to do this and his declaration of war against the Muslims led to the bombardment of the city for 48 days leading to the demolishing of some of the outer walls, without reaching the inner walls. When king Constantine realized the seriousness of the situation, he wrote to the Pope who assisted him with five large ships filled with weapons, provisions, and soldiers leading to the increase in morale of the defenders. Their joy did not last for long however, for the next morning, they were surprised with eighty ships inside their gulf which they had blocked with heavy chains and fortified with a large force. However, the sultan through his foresight brought the ships over land by paving a path for them of six miles of large tree branches which he had embalmed with oil so that the giant ships can slide over them with their tens of thousands of soldiers until they were brought to the gulf waters behind the enemy defenses. At the time that the ships reached the gulf, the ships of the Bizantines were flaming with the fire from the artillery of the Ottomans, despite this, Constantinople withheld one more time.

With the new morn, the sultan ordered the setting up of his secret weapon which he had invented himself, which is a giant mobile tower, higher than the walls of the city accommodating hundreds of soldiers. After the Muslims broke the middle walls, the defenders were able to destroy the moving towers by throwing chemicals at them. However, the resistance of the city began to weaken, while nightfall had left the Bizantines filled with fear leading them to spend their night in their churches praying their Lord to save Constantinople from the Muslims. Whilst the sultan spent his night motivating his armies reminding them of the prophecy and praying for victory from Allah.

As soon as the new morn came, the soldiers began their general attack. The Muslims began to erect towers and ladders and to cast projectiles at the inner walls of the city. However, the forts of the city and the desperate defense of its army delayed its liberation, and thousands of Muslim soldiers fell martyrs. When the sultan saw the size of his loss, he ordered the foot soldiers to withdraw, whilst he also ordered a continuation of the bombardment until midday, when he ordered a complete attack and stirred them to this. The Muslim army attacked and some of the Mujahideen were able to enter the city, the first to enter it was the Mujahid Hasan Ulu Badi with thirty of his brothers, however, the arrows rained on them from every side, and they were all martyred, the Muslims then began to retreat, and they almost began to flee.

At this came the essential role of the leader in the battle as the sultan stood and spoke to his soldiers giving an example of bravery in a few words, saying: "My sons, here I am ready for death in the path of Allah, so whoever desires martyrdom, let him follow me.” Then the Muslims followed their leader like the flood from the dam tearing down the obstacles of Kufr (nonbelievers) until they entered the city. In this manner fell the city of Heracle which stood stubbornly in front of the Muslims for eight centuries... So they entered it erasing the Bizantine government opening the doors of Europe for the call of Islam.

The Fall of Constantinople, 1453

(This narrative is based on accounts written by eyewitnesses as well as on modern international scholarship).

When the siege began the population of the capital amounted, including the refugees from the surrounding area, to about 50,000 people. Behind the enormous walls were inhabited areas separated from each other by fields, orchards, gardens, or even by deserted neighborhoods. The city's garrison included 5,000 Greeks and about 2,000 foreigners, mostly Genoese and Venetian. Giustiniani's (Genoese volunteer leader who was put in charge of defense) men were well armed and trained, the rest included small units of well trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors, volunteers from the foreign communities and also monks. What the defenders lacked in training and armament they possessed in fighting spirit. Indeed, most were killed fighting. A few small caliber artillery pieces, used by the garrison proved ineffective. The people, men and women, participated in the repairs of the walls and in the deepening of the fosse (a ditch or moat), volunteers manned observation posts, food provisions were collected, gold and silver objects held in the churches were melted to make coins in order to pay the foreign soldiers, and the city's harbor, the Golden Horn, was shut by a huge chain. With the exception of about 700 Italian residents of the city who fled on board seven ships, on the night of February 26, no one else imitated them. The rest of the population, Greek and foreigner, fought until the bitter end.

At the beginning of 1453 the Sultan's army began massing on the plain of Adrianople. Troops came from every region of the Empire. Possibly well over 150,000 men, including thousands of irregulars, from many nationalities, who were attracted by the prospect of looting, were ready to assault the city. The regular troops were well equipped and well trained. The elite corps of the Janissaries composed of abducted Christian children, forcibly converted to Islam, and subsequently trained as professional soldiers, constituted the spear-head of the Ottoman army. The besieging army included a number of artillery pieces, of which one, facing the Military Gate of St Romanus, was particularly huge and was expected to cause heavy damage to the walls in that area.

On the 12th of April arrived from Gallipoli the Ottoman fleet. Composed of approximately 200 ships of various sizes and displacements, it sealed the Byzantine capital from the sea. Mehmed's admiral was Suleiman Baltoghlu. On his side the Emperor distributed his troops as best as he could. It was impossible, with the available garrison, to cover the entire walled circumference of the capital, about fourteen miles long. However, it was clear to all that the main attack would be delivered by the enemy along the land-walls, about four miles long. With the exception of the Blachernae section of the walls, at the north-eastern end of the land side, the city was protected, on the land side, by a triple wall, with a deep fosse in front of it. On the sea side, including the Golden Horn port area, the city was protected by a single wall.

According to Islamic tradition the Sultan, before the beginning of hostilities, demanded the surrender of the city, promising to spare the lives of its inhabitants and respect their property. In a proud and dignified reply the Emperor rejected Mehmed's demand. Almost immediately the Ottoman guns began firing. The continuous bombardment soon brought down a section of the walls near the Gate of Charisius, north of the Emperor's position. When night fell, everyone, who was available, rushed to repair the damage. Meanwhile Ottoman troops were trying to fill the fosse, particularly in areas in front of the weak sections of the walls which were now constantly bombarded. Other units began attempts to mine weak sections of the wall. On the port area a first attempt by the Ottoman fleet to test the defenders' reaction failed.

On Friday, 20 April, in the morning, appeared in the sea of Marmora, near Constantinople, four large vessels loaded with provisions for the city. Three were Genoese and one, a big transport, was Greek. The captain (Baltoghlu) dispatched immediately his fleet to attack and capture the ships. The operation seemed easy and soon the ships were surrounded by the smaller Ottoman vessels. Fighting continued, with the Christian sailors hurling on the enemy crews stones, javelins and all sorts of projectiles, including Greek Fire. Eventually the four vessels came so close to each other that they became bound together, forming a floating castle. Eventually the big ships pushed their way through the mass, and the wrecks, of the enemy vessels, and entered the Golden Horn. The next morning Baltoghlu was dismissed by the Sultan, who was so furious that he ordered the beheading of his admiral who was replaced by Hamza Bey.

On the land side the bombardment continued, more walls collapsed, and when night fell everyone rushed to close the gap, reinforce the stockades, build here and there. Moreover, food was wanting and the authorities did their best to distribute it equally. Worse, help was not coming. Everyone was watching and waiting for the sails of the Western ships to appear coming out of the Dardanelles. In early May a fast boat was sent out, to seek the allied fleet in the Aegean and tell its commanders to hurry. On May 23 the returned to the city. Its crew brought bad news. Nothing was in sight. The defenders were alone, no help was coming. The men of the crew, obeying their duty, decided to return to the doomed city. Realizing that everything was lost Constantine's chief advisors begged him to leave. He could still get out and seek help. His father Manuel II had done the same in 1399, at the time of the blockade of the city by Sultan Bayazid. The Emperor refused to discuss the issue. He had already decided to stay in his capital, fight for it and perish.

In the city everyone realized that the great moment had come. During Monday, May 28, some last repairs were done on the walls and the stockades, in the collapsed sections, were reinforced. In the city, while the bells of the churches rang mournfully, citizens and soldiers joined a long procession behind the holy relics brought out of the churches. Singing hymns in Greek, Italian or Catalan, Orthodox and Catholic, men, women, children, soldiers, civilians, clergy, monks and nuns, knowing that they were going to die shortly, made peace with themselves, with God and with eternity.

The Fall of Constantinople (Part II)

When the procession ended the Emperor met with his commanders and the notables of the city. In a philosophical speech he told his subjects that the end of their time had come. In essence he told them that Man had to be ready to face death when he had to fight for his faith, for his country, for his family or for his sovereign. All four reasons were now present. Furthermore, his subjects had lived in a great city and they were now going to die defending it. As for himself, he was going to die fighting for his faith, for his city and for his people. He also thanked the Italian soldiers, who had not abandoned the great city in its final moments.

The assault began after midnight, into the 29th of May 1453. Wave after wave the attackers charged. Battle cries, accompanied by the sound of drums, trumpets and fifes, filled the air. The bells of the city churches began ringing frantically. Orders, screams and the sound of trumpets shattered the night. First came the irregulars, an unreliable, multinational crowd of Christians and Moslems, who were attracted by the opportunity of enriching themselves by looting the great city, the last capital of the Roman Empire. They attacked throughout the line of fortifications and they were massacred by the tough professionals, who were fighting under the orders of Giustiniani. The battle lasted two hours and the irregulars withdrew in disorder, leaving behind an unknown number of dead and wounded.

Next came the Anatolian troops of Ishak Pasha. They tried to storm the stockades. They fought tenaciously, even desperately trying to break through the compact ranks of the defenders. The narrow area in which fighting went on helped the defenders. They could hack left and right with their maces and swords and shoot missiles onto the mass of attackers without having to aim. A group of attackers crashed through a gap and for a moment it seemed that they could enter the city. The were assaulted by the Emperor and his men and were soon slain. This second attack also failed.

But now came the Janissaries, disciplined, professional, ruthless warriors, superbly trained, ready to die for their master, the Sultan. They assaulted the now exhausted defenders, they were pushing their way over bodies of dead and dying Moslem and Christian soldiers. With tremendous effort the Greek and Italian fighters were hitting back and continued repulsing the enemy. Then a group of enemy soldiers unexpectedly entered the city from a small sally-port called on the wall of Blachernae, where this wall joined the triple wall.

It was almost day now, the first light, before sunrise, when a shot fired from a calverin hit Giustiniani. (Man in charge of defense of the city). The shot pierced his breastplate and he fell on the ground. Shaken by his wound and physically exhausted, his fighting spirit collapsed. Despite the pleas of the Emperor, who was fighting nearby, not to leave his post, the Genoese commander ordered his men to take him out of the battle-field. A Gate in the inner wall was opened for the group of Genoese soldiers, who were carrying their wounded commander, to come into the city. The Ottoman commanders issued orders to the troops to concentrate their attack on the weakened position. Thousands rushed to the area. The stockade was broken. The Greeks were now squeezed by crowds of Janissaries between the stockade and the wall. More Janissaries came in and many reached the inner wall.

Meanwhile more were pouring in through the sally-port, where the defenders had not been able to eliminate the first intruders. Soon the first enemy flags were seen on the walls. The Emperor and his commanders were trying frantically to rally their troops and push back the enemy. It was too late. Waves of Janissaries, followed by other regular units of the Ottoman army, were crashing through the open Gates, mixed with fleeing and slaughtered Christian soldiers. Then the Emperor, realizing that all was lost, removed his Imperial insignia, and with three other high ranking charged into the sea of enemy soldiers, hitting left and right in a final act of defiance. They were never seen again.

Now thousands of Ottoman soldiers were pouring into the city. One after the other the city Gates were opened. The Ottoman flags began appearing on the walls, on the towers, on the Palace at Blachernae. Civilians in panic were rushing to the churches while others locked themselves in their homes and some continued fighting in the streets.

The excesses which followed, during the early hours of the Ottoman victory, are described in detail by eyewitnesses. Bands of soldiers began looting, doors were broken, private homes were looted, their tenants were massacred. Shops in the city markets were looted. Monasteries and Convents were broken in. Their tenants were killed, nuns were raped, many, to avoid dishonor, killed themselves. Killing, raping, looting, burning, enslaving, went on and on. The troops decided to satisfy themselves. The great doors of Saint Sophia were forced open, and crowds of angry soldiers came in and fell upon the unfortunate worshippers. Pillaging and killing in the holy place went on for hours. Similar was the fate of worshippers in most churches in the city. Everything that could be taken from the splendid buildings was taken by the new masters of the Imperial capital. Icons were destroyed, precious manuscripts were lost forever. Thousands of civilians were enslaved, soldiers fought over young boys and young women. Death and enslavement did not distinguish among social classes. Nobles and peasants were treated with equal ruthlessness.

The Sultan, with his top commanders and his guard of Janissaries, entered the city in the afternoon of the first day of occupation. Constantinople was finally his and he intended to make it the capital of his mighty Empire. He toured the ruined city. He visited Saint Sophia which he ordered to be turned into a mosque. He also ordered an end to the killing. What he saw was desolation, destruction, death in the streets, ruins, desecrated churches. It was too much. It is said that, as he rode through the streets of the former capital of the Christian Roman Empire, the city of Constantine, moved to tears he murmured: "What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction".

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