CONSTANTINE XI PALAEOLOGUS (1449-1453)
FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE "Ealo h Polis"
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Constantine XI Palaeologos (1404-1453), also called Dragases, last Byzantine emperor,
was born in 1404 in
Mistra, was the son of Emperor Manuel II. He was trained as a soldier,
and in 1430 liberated the peninsula of Morea in Greece, which had been under
the Frankish principality of Achaia, a state established by the Crusaders.
In 1442 Turks under Murad, sieged Constantinople which was defended by emperor
John VIII Palaeologos,
while Constantine fought Turks in island of Limnos. There he lost his wife Katherine.
Constantine in 1444 with his brother Thomas Palaeologos and a small army liberated Roumeli
and Thessalia. The Greek populations loved and admired their leader. They called him "Drakos".
Those were the last victories of Byzantium.
His friend was
George Plithon or Gemistos a philosopher who had created school of Philosophy
in Athens. He was teaching Greek Philosophy in Mystras. He advised Constantine to take the property
from church and rich men and to give it to the poor farmers. When John VIII traveled in Florence
he escorted him together with other Byzantine intellectuals. There Europeans argued with the Greeks
about the religion. Plithon told them:
"Why are you arguing to unify the two churches? In the future there will be only one religion,
and this is the union of christianism and the ideas of ancient Greeks."
In 1446, the Turkish ruler Murad II reconquered and devastated these lands.
The Turks had begun their invasions of the Balkans nearly a century before, and now began
to close in on Constantinople.
Constantine was crowned emperor on Jan. 6, 1449, succeeding
his brother, John VIII. The last Christian Greek Emperor entered, two months later,
on March 12, the isolated Imperial capital.
A little less than three years later, on Dec. 12, 1452, the union of
the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches was proclaimed in Constantinople in the
presence of the papal legate and the Patriarch Gregory. Constantine had been a strong
advocate of this union, but the people generally opposed it, and riots ensued.
The popular insistence on Byzantine religious autonomy furthered the estrangement
between eastern and western Roman Christendom and weakened Byzantine resistance to the Turks.
Catholics never sent army or navy as they were commited from the agreement. They
prefered that the most glorious christian city be destroyed and pillaged from the muslims.
On 1452 the sultan demolished the old church of Archaggelos Michael and constructed at the narrowest point of the
Bosporus strait, a huge complex of strong fortifications, Rumeli Hisar, whose task was to shut completely, by its artillery,
to Western and Byzantine vessels the route to and from the Black Sea (Euxeinos Pontus). Indeed, on 26 November 1452,
according to the Venetian doctor Nicolao Barbaro, a Venetian vessel under the command of Antonio Ritzo attempted to pass
without paying the required tolls. It was sank by the new fortress's guns, its crew of thirty men was taken prisoners in
Adrianople (Eridne). The officers and sailors were brought in front of Mehmet, who ordered their immediate impalement.
The Turkish sultan, Mehmed II, advanced on Constantinople on the beginning of 1453.
Troops came from every region of the Empire, including thousands of irregulars,
from many nationalities, who were attracted by the prospect of looting.
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, which were made with the help of a Hungarian named Ourvanos.
The hugest canons faced the Military Gate of St Romanus, and was expected to cause
heavy damage to the 1000 years old walls in that area.
The army, accompanied by crowds of fanatic Dervishes, started
moving slowly towards Constantinople.
A few small towns, still in Greek hands, near the capital were soon occupied
by the Sultan's army. Of those towns Selyvria resisted longer.
His army included finally 200000 soldiers (29000 of them were Europeans).
Constantinople was defended only from 10000 soldiers (3000 of them were Europeans mostly Italians).
Among the Europeans who had come to help was the brave Giovanni Giustiniani.
He was from Genoa were he had recruited 400 men and another 300 he had recruited on the island of Chios.
Others were the cardinal Isidoros who was of Greek origin, the latin bishop of Chios, Leonardos, the venetian captains
Kokkos, Trevizas, Aloisio, Contarini and others. Also great was the help of German engineer Johannes Grant who managed to
destroy all the tunnels that Sultan attempted to build in order to enter to the City. So the greatest christian city was
defended only by some Greeks and some Italians. No other European leader accepted the emperor's appeal for help.
The defenders lacked in training and armament but possessed fighting spirit. Indeed, most were killed fighting.
The civilian population supported the Emperor overwhelmingly. The alternative was disastrous. The people, men and women,
participated in the repairs of the walls and in the deepening of the foss, 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. 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.
On April 2, 1453 the city's harbor, the Golden Horn, was shut by a huge chain, and ten galleys were put behind to protect it.
During the first week of April the Ottoman troops began taking their
assigned positions in front of the city walls. The Sultan had his tent
installed north of the civil Gate of St Romanus, near the river Lycus,
facing the 5th Military Gate, also known as Military Gate of St Romanus. He
ordered the big canon to be installed in the same area. To protect the
troops, a protective trench was opened in front of the Ottoman units, the
earth from it was accumulated on the city side and on top of it was erected
a palissade. On the 12th 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 the Bulgarian renegade
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 foss
in front of it. On the sea side, including the Golden Horn port area, the
city was protected by a single wall.
Given the availability of troops and the critical sections of the walls, Giustiniani, with most of his men, as well as the
Emperor and his best troops, took position in the Military St Romanus's Gate sector, where heavy damage was expected to be
inflicted by the canon and the main Ottoman assault to be launched.
The Venetian Bailo (the Head of the Venetian Community at Constantinople) Girolamo Minotto and his countrymen were
charged with the defence of the region of Blachernae, where the Imperial Palace was located. Minotto and his men faced the
European troops of Karadja Pasha. Across the Golden Horn, to the left of Pera, ready to intervene, stood the troops of
Zaganos Pasha. Along the southern section of the land-walls the defenders faced the Anatolian troops under the command of
Ishak Pasha. The Grand Duke Luke Notaras and Alexios Disipatos with a reserve unit took position near the walls, at the
Petra neighborhood, in the north-eastern section of the city. Another reserve unit of 700 men under the command of
Theofilos Palaeologus, Demetrius Cantakouzenos and Nicephorus Palaeologus was stationed near the church of the
Holy Apostles, at the center of the city. Most units were positioned on and behind the land-walls. The sea-walls were
thinly manned. To protect the entrance to the port, the Venetian commander of the small fleet of the defenders, Alviso Diedo,
ordered ten ships to take position behind the chain.
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 foss, 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.
Until the end of the siege the Ottoman guns did not stop pounding the walls.
Heavy damage was inflicted. The defenders did their best to limit it. They
hanged bales of wool, sheets of leather. Nothing could help. The section of
the walls in the Lycus valley, near the Emperor's position, was heavily
damaged. The foss in front of it was almost filled by the besiegers. Behind
it, the defenders erected a stockade, Night after night men and women came
from the city to repair the damaged sections.
The first assault was launched during the night of April 18. Thousands of
men attacked the stockade and attempted to burn it down. Emperor
and his Greek comrades fought valiantly. Well armed, protected by
armor, fighting in a restricted area, they succeeded after four hours of
bloody struggle to repulse the enemy.
On Friday, 20 April, in the morning, appeared in the sea of Marmara, near
Constantinople, five large vessels loaded with provisions for the city.
Four were Genoese and one, a big transport, was Greek. The Greek captain's
name was Flantanellas. 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. Everyone in the city, who was not
busy with the defence, rushed to the sea-walls to watch the spectacle. The
Sultan on horseback, his officers and a multitude of soldiers, rushed to the
shore to watch the battle. Excited and unable to restrain himself, screaming
orders at Baltoghlu, the young Sultan rode into the shallow water. Fighting,
the big ships continued pushing the smaller ones, and helped by the wind
they were now close to the south-eastern corner of the city. Then the wind
dropped and the current began pushing them towards the coast on which stood
the Sultan and his troops. Fighting continued, with the Christian sailors
hurling on the enemy crews stones, javelins and all sorts of projectiles,
Greek Fire. Eventually the four vessels came so close to each
other that they became bound together, forming a floating castle. Around
sunset the wind rose and the big ships, pushing their way through the mass,
and the wrecks, of the enemy vessels, hailed by thousands of people who were
standing on the walls, entered the Golden Horn. Next morning Baltoghlu was
dismissed by the Sultan, who was so furious that he ordered the beheading of
his admiral. The unlucky admiral was replaced by a favorite of Mehmed, Hamza
This event convinced the Sultan and his commanders that the city had to be
more tightly besieged and that the naval arm of the besieged had to be
neutralized. Mehmed's ingenious plan, formulated before the events of April
20, consisted in bringing part of his fleet into the Golden Horn. Indeed,
thousands of laborers had been building, for some time, a road overland
from the Bosphorus, alongside the walls of Pera, to a place called Valley of
the Springs, on the shore of the Golden Horn, above Pera. On April 22 to the
horror of the besieged a long procession of ships, sitting on wooden
platforms were pulled by teams of oxen and men, over the road, into the port
area. About seventy boats entered the Golden Horn. The leaders of the
defence held immediately an emergency meeting. Various plans were discussed
and it was finally decided to attempt to burn the enemy boats, which were in
the Golden Horn. After a succession of postponments the attempt was carried
out during the night of April 28. Betrayed by Italians from Pera, it failed
miserably. Hit by Ottoman guns the Christian ships suffered heavy damage.
About forty sailors captured by the enemy were tortured to death.
Despite this failure the situation in the Golden Horn became, more or less,
stable. Superior naval training, and better naval construction, eventually
prevented Hamza's ships from inflicting serious damage on the allied units.
However, the Sultan's idea was a military success. Indeed, in 1204 the
Crusaders had assaulted the city from the sea-walls and the Greeks had not
forgotten it. They feared a repetition of that assault.
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 "Byzantine dromon" was sent out, to seek the
allied fleet in the Aegean and tell its commanders to hurry.
During the night of May 7 a new assault was launched against the damaged
section, where Giustiniani stood. It failed again and then in the night of
May 12 another came and failed. It was launched at the junction of the
Blachernae wall and of the old Theodosian one. During that time mining and
countermining continued. Sometimes fighting went on underground. Sometimes
the tunnels collapsed and suffocated the miners. The German engineer Grant
with barrels filled with water all around the walls, managed to discover the
On May 23 the dromon that had been sent out to locate the Christian fleet
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 the city. 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.
Meanwhile, rumors were circulating in the Ottoman camp about the Venetians
finally mobilizing their fleet, or about the Hungarians preparing to cross
the Danube. The siege was going on without end in sight. The Sultan's Vizier
Halil Chandarli, who was also informer of the emperor,
had strong reservations about the siege from the beginning.
He was worried about western intervention and he looked upon the whole
operation with anxiety. During a meeting of the Sultan's advisors, held on
May 25, the Vizir told Mehmed to raise the siege. Pursuing it might bring
unknown consequences to Ottoman interests. The Sultan, also depressed
because of the prolongation of the operation, finally decided to launch a
grand scale final assault on the city. He was supported by younger
commanders like Zaganos Pasha, a Christian converted to Islam. Halil was
overruled and all present decided to continue the siege.
While the artillery continued pounding the walls without interruption,
preparations for the big assault, which was to take place on Tuesday 29 May,
were accelerated. Material was thrown into the foss which faced the
collapsed ramparts, scaling-ladders were distributed. The Magistrates of
Pera were warned not to give any assistance to the besieged. The Sultan
swore to distribute fairly the treasures found in the city. According to
tradition the troops were free to loot and sack the city for three days. He
assured his troops that success was imminent, the defenders were exhausted,
some sections of the walls had collapsed. It would be a general assault,
throughout the line of the land-walls, as well as in the port area. Then the
troops were ordered to rest and recover their strength.
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.
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, who were the descendants of Greeks,
had to emulate their great ancestors. They had to fight and sacrifice
themselves without fear. They 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. He
still believed that the garrison could repulse the enemy. They all had to be
brave, proud warriors and do their duty. He thanked all present for their
contribution to the defence of the city and asked them to forgive him, if he
had ever treated them without kindness.
Constantine asked Guistiniani to take his beloved Anna Notara to his ship,
so that she whould not fall in the hands of the enemy. Everyone knew
the fate of of those who whould be alive when Turks entered in the city.
Meanwhile the great church of Saint Sophia was crowded. Thousands of people
were moving towards the church. Inside, Orthodox and Catholic priests were
holding mass (THE LAST CHRISTIAN SERVICE AFTER 1000 YEARS).
People were singing hymns, others were openly crying, others
were asking each other for forgiveness. Those who were not serving on the
ramparts also went to the church, among them was seen, for a brief moment,
the Emperor. People confessed and took communion.
Then those who were going to fight rode or walked back to the ramparts.
They prayed and chanted for the last time
the "Akathistos Hymn" in front of the holy icon of "Odigitria", an icon of Virgin Mary,
made by Apostole Loukas. The next day most of them whould be dead.
From the great church the Emperor rode to the Palace at Blachernae. There he
asked his household to forgive him. He bade the emotionally shattered men
and women farewell, left his Palace and rode away, into the night, for a
last inspection of the defence positions. Then he took his battle position.
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 glorious city, the great capital of the East 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. The 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 (what an irony that they were born Greek Orthodox),
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 Kerkoporta, on the wall of Blachernae, where this wall
joined the triple wall. Fighting broke near the small gate with the
defenders trying to eliminate the intruders.
It was almost day now, the first light, before sunrise, when a shot fired
from a calverin hit Giustiniani. 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 soldiers who were fighting near the
area saw the Gate open, their comrades carrying their leader crossing into
the city, and they thought that the defence line had been broken. They all
rushed through the Gate leaving the Emperor and the Greek fighters alone
between the two walls. This sudden movement did not escape the attention of
the Ottoman commanders. Frantic orders were issued 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 Kerkoporta, 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 throught the open Gates, mixed with fleeing and slaughtered
Christian soldiers. Then the Emperor, realizing that everything was lost,
removed his Imperial insignia, and followed by his cousin Theophilus
Palaeologus, the lord Branas, the Castilian Don Francisco of Toledo, Katakouzinos,
Mathaios Sgouromalis and John Dalmatus, all
seven holding their swords, charged into the sea of the enemy soldiers,
hitting left and right in a final act of defiance. They were never seen
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. Others locked themselves in their homes, some
continued fighting in the streets, crowds of Greeks and foreigners were
rushing towards the port area. The allied ships were still there and began
collecting refugees. The Cretan soldiers and sailors, manning three towers
near the entrance of the Golden Horn, were still fighting and had no
intention of surrendering. At the end, the Ottoman commanders had to agree
to a truce and let them sail away, carrying their arms.
Bands of Ottoman soldiers began now 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 according to
tradition. The troops had 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
According to Historian Frantzis the invaders broke the heads of those
women who resisted, on the floor of the churches and they raped them dead.
The famous icon of Apostole Loukas was totally destroyed. The sultan
asked for the young sons of Duke Loukas Notaras. Their father refused
and Mehmed was ready to take their heads. Notaras asked him to kill him
after his sons so that he was sure that they were dead and not disgraced
from the pervert sultan. And this is what happened.
In some distant neighborhoods, especially near the sea walls in the sea of
Marmora, such as Psamathia, but also in the Golden Horn at Phanar and
Petrion, where local fishermen opened the Gates, while the enemy soldiers
were pouring into the city from the land Gates, local magistrates negotiated
successfully their surrender to Hamza Bey's officers. Their act saved the
lives of their fellow citizens. Furthermore their churches were not
Meanwhile, the crews of the Ottoman fleet abandoned their ships to rush
into the city. They were worried that the land army was going to take
everything. The collapse of discipline gave the Christian ships time to sail
out of the Golden Horn. Venetian, Genoese and Greek ships, loaded with
refugees, some of them having reached the ships swimming from the city,
sailed away to freedom. On one of the Genoese vessels was Giustiniani. He
was taken from the boat at Chios where he died, from his wound, a few days
By the evening of the first day of looting there was left nothing else to
steal. The Sultan, with his top commanders and his guard of Janissaries,
came into 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 Greek Empire, the city of
Constantine, moved to tears he murmured: "What a city we have given over to
plunder and destruction".
The sultan show in front of many houses the symbol of half moon. He asked why was this symbol
everywhere, and they told him that this symbol was dated from the time of 340 b.c.
when Philipos Macedonian did not manage to take Byzantium. Ancient Byzantines has since that victory,
preserved this symbol. Sultan liked it and added to it a star. So was formed the turkish flag
which terrorized for many centuries the christian states.
So a civilization of 1100 years old was lost in some days. The barbarians
didn't respect anything holy icons, books, paintings, mosaics.
They demolished and vandalized churches, ancient monuments, palaces dated from 4th century.
Nevertheless the ideas did not vanished. Turks didn't manage to vanish the
Hellenic spirit. Many Greeks like Byssarion, Dimitrios Kavakis,
Georgios Xaritonimos, Ieronimos of Sparta fled to Europe where they spread the ideas of
Platon, Aristotelis, Aeschylus, Archimidis, Homer, Euripides, Solon.
Turks must be grateful to the "civilized" Europeans for helping them taking
and still keeping this City.