A gripping work covering the siege of Constantinople 1453, Roger Crowley’s history of this momentous event was published in 2011. Both a critical and commercial success, it was described as “hugely readable, well-written and informative” by the Daily Telegraph and the author himself as “a trustworthy and wonderfully eloquent guide” by the Sunday Times. The moment many historians identified as when the Medieval period ended, our editor caught up with Roger to discuss the book.
Roger, why did you want to write about the siege of Constantinople in 1453?
‘The city will follow you home,’ wrote the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy of his native Alexandria in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, and for long periods Constantinople has similarly haunted me. In my early twenties I spent a couple of summers in Istanbul. I did a little English teaching that left a lot of time to explore, to wander and absorb the street life of this most evocative of cities. The layers of history lie one on top of another in jumbled and fascinating layers. I particularly liked the great Byzantine city walls – crumbling and slightly sinister with (then) a reputation as a haunt for drinkers and ne’er do wells – they nevertheless had a magnificence. I wanted to write something about this city. After 9/11 I thought there was an opportunity to present the siege to a new audience.
Your book used Greek, Italian and Ottoman accounts of the siege. What were the particular challenges of dealing with these sources?
I’m not a natural linguist but I’ve battled through various languages with the aid of large dictionaries in pursuit of eyewitness accounts. Some have been translated, others have not, but my frustration was that there are simply not that many of them. The fall of Constantinople was a huge event in late medieval Europe. It is a foundation story for the Turkish people. It still matters intensely to both the Turks and the Greeks, yet in the end we rely on a handful accounts – and most of them from the Christian side. There was no Ottoman tradition of writing autobiographical accounts – their remembrance of the events seems to have been largely preserved orally. I had to read between the lines of Christian sources to try to assess facts about the Ottoman perspective on the events. There are gaps and silences that I would loved to have been able to fill in.
You’ve written about modern-day Istanbul and, among other things, brain salads, underwear merchants and the delights of raki. How similar would it have been to the city of the 15th century?
Istanbul has mushroomed into a metropolis of fifteen million and more in the past fifty years but all of this has taken place outside the historic city. Because the original city is surrounded by water on two sides and still capped by the old defensive walls on the third it has largely retained its historic structure. The street plan is very ancient. Markets function in the places that they always have. Fish are sold on the quay where they were sold in the fifteen century – and the fifth century. A Grand Bazaar was there when the city fell. You can follow exactly the route that Mehmed the Conqueror took when he entered Constantinople and you can walk through the gateway by which he did so. The distinctive topography – a series of hills cut through with deep valleys – means that the structure of the place is continuous. What of course has changed is the distinctive skyline – spiked now by minarets.
Was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the event that signalled the end of the Middle Ages/Medieval period?
Like 1492 it’s certainly one of those iconic moments. Contemporaries clearly felt that the world had shifted – it had a 9/11 feel to it – that something new was coming. People across Europe could remember where they were when they heard the news. I would think of it as one of a series of events rather than the event. It did signal a change in warfare – the use of gunpowder weapons at the siege rendered obsolete medieval castles and siege techniques. We are entering a new era of killing. The clash between the Ottomans and its European rivals that followed also ushered in a distinctly post medieval power politics. It was clear, with the rise of the Ottomans and the Habsburg response in the sixteenth century, that the development of centralized empires with more efficient mechanisms of taxation and mobilisation would sweep away small medieval power structures. 1453 was a wake up call to a new world.
The Byzantine Empire has been described as ‘Greek’ and the Ottoman ‘Turk’. Was this an early clash between West and East, between Greece and Turkey?
Neither side would have recognised the names Greece and Turkey and recent Ottoman historians such as Marc Baer have made a case for the Ottomans as being European rather than oriental. However the events of 1453 and its aftermath have certainly been co-opted into the narrative of East/West confrontation and it was clear very soon after that ‘The Terrible Turk’ was a widely polarizing figure in the western imagination – and to a certain extent still is. The 1689 siege of Vienna still galvanizes right wing sentiment against Turkey.
Much has been made of Constantinople’s fortifications – in particular the Theodosian Walls, but was it inevitable the city would fall to the Ottomans with their superior technology ie gunpowder?
Gunpowder weapons rendered the great Theodosian walls of the fifth century – high but thin walls designed to prevent escalade – obsolete. Did cannons make the fall inevitable? It was a closer run thing than one might suppose. I think that the city could have survived the gunpowder onslaught if they had had more men and resources.
The Ottomans were led by Sultan Mehmet II – he’s certainly a fascinating character – what sort of man was he?
Mehmet was certainly complicated. All Ottoman sultan had issues! They were probably the loneliest people in the empire. As per normal practice, he was taken away from his mother at a young age to learn the art of governing and grew up without much affection. He was not expected to become sultan. He had older brothers, who died or were killed, so the prospects for his own survival were not good. Living in the shadow of the sultanate bred insecurity and a ruthless will. His mother was probably a Slav. He was polylingual, and highly intelligent – fascinated by military science, history and geography. His role model was Alexander the Great and he cast himself as a Muslim Alexander reversing the direction of conquest, intensely ambitious to undertake great deeds, which committed the Ottomans to an unceasing programme of expansive warfare. He was actually fascinated by many aspects of Western culture – not just its war machines. He commissioned very unIslamic paintings of himself by Italian artists. Ottoman critics subsequently claimed he wasn’t a Muslim at all.
Did the fall of Constantinople spark the Renaissance, as learned scholars and artists spread throughout the Italian peninsular and the West?
It certainly brought quite a number of Greek scholars into Italy – and bringing with them classical texts and the learning of antiquity. To be honest I haven’t been able to pinpoint what the extent of this influence might have been.
If you were asked by the publisher for a new edition, is there anything you would change?
Various readers over the years have commented that ‘it takes a while to get going’ i.e. the siege is the interesting bit and the rise of the Turks and the deep background is just a little bit too much of a prologue to ‘the action’. I’ve thought about this on and off, but I’ve concluded that I’ve written the book that I wanted to write. There might also be some issues around the acceptable limits of historical recreation that I would now ponder. To my own knowledge no new information or source material has emerged since the book was written.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a book about a fifty year period in the sixteenth century when European sea power encircled the world – from Magellan’s voyage to the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. However we now view the age of ‘discovery’ it was a crucial moment in world history – ushering in a new age of globalisation. New-fangled printing presses were churning out millions books – unlike 1453 the source material is almost overwhelming in its richness.
Roger Crowley is an acclaimed and bestselling historian and author of Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580 and Accursed Tower: The Crusaders Last Battle for the Holy Land. Constantinople 1453 is highly recommended.