THE STORY OF THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great has passed away.
WORDSWORTH: On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The answer came loud and strong from every part of
"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
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.
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