Part 1: The Fall of Constantinople

In the mountains around Trabzon you can find fragments of an empire that traces its origins back to ancient Rome.
Ottoman troops broke through Constantinople's Theodosian wall and sacked the city on the 29th of May 1453. Illustration by Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña. Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña /

The Empire of Trebizond was a Byzantine Greek kingdom on the Black sea coast that flourished between the 12th and 15th Centuries.  The downfall of Byzantine Empire occurred amid upheavals in politics and technology that have shaped the modern world. While the fall of Constantinople is seen as a turning point in history the part played by the tiny Empire of Trebizond provides a fascinating insight into a world of dynastic struggles, unassailable fortresses, early artillery and slave soldiers. While Trebizond in the 15th Century was more of a city state than a true Empire the Komnenos dynasty that presided over it could trace their lineage all the way back to the Emperors of ancient Rome.

The survival of Trebizond was made possible by three layers of defence. The most important of these was diplomatic. Isolated from the other Byzantine cities the Komnenos Emperors maintained a complex web of alliances bolstered by frequent marriages between the daughters of the ‘Emperor’ and the Seljuk and Persian Khans. Outnumbered and frequently under siege the relationship between the Christian rulers of Trebizond and the surrounding Muslim Emirates was never stable but the same conditions that left Trebizond so precarious also allowed it to amass vast wealth through trade and tariffs. The destruction of Baghdad by Mongol armies in 1258 had changed the course of the Silk Road and made Trebizond the western terminus for many of the goods coming from Asia. From wikipedia:

For most of the 13th century Trebizond was in continual conflict with the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm and later with the Ottoman Turks, as well as Constantinople, the Italian republics, and especially the Republic of Genoa. It was an empire more in title than in fact, surviving by playing its rivals against each other, and offering the daughters of its rulers, who were famed for their beauty, for marriage with generous dowries, especially with the Turkish rulers of inland Anatolia. The common view is that the Empire of Trebizond relied heavily upon wealth gained from its trade with Genoese and Venetian merchants to secure for itself the resources necessary to maintain independence.

History remembers the women of the Komnenos family for their beauty but the records of the time indicate that many of them were formidable political figures in their own right. The most famous of these women was princess Anna Komnene (born 1083 – 1153). In addition to being a physician and hospital administrator she established a reputation as a scholar and historian. Her account of her father’s reign recorded in a 15 volume work known as The Alexiad remains one of the primary sources for Byzantine civilisation in the middle ages.

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia depicting Mary and Jesus flanked by Emperor John II Komnenos an Empress Eirene.  Members of the Komnenos dynasty were the last survivors of the Byzantine empire.


Writing for the Dangerous Women Project historian Ioulia Kolovou stresses that Anna belonged to a long line of Komnenos women with an active role in Byzantine politics.

Her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, was a matriarch who co-ruled the empire with her son Alexios for some time while he was away on military campaign. Anna’s mother, Empress Eirene Doukaina, enjoyed reading difficult philosophical/religious texts during dinner and praised them to her teenage daughter. Strong women beget strong women. . .In her lifetime Anna was admired for her education, reviled as a conspirator, considered dangerous enough to be forcibly removed from active political life. In her posterity she is unreservedly or grudgingly admired as a historian and her work is regularly cited in scholarly texts, especially on the First Crusade.

If the women of Trebizond were the first line of defence then the second was the landscape itself. The surrounding Kaçkar Mountains separate the Black Sea coastline from central Anatolia and run all the way up into what is now Georgia and the Chechen Republic. Difficult for any large army to cross during the warmer months these mountains were virtually impassable in the winter. With the support of the neighbouring Seljuk Emirates the mountain passes could be defended while alliances with the Italian republics allowed the coastal cities of Trebizond to be supplied and re-enforced from the sea.

Lastly, the city itself was substantially fortified. Roman ruins and natural ravines leading to the coast were bolstered with towers and stonework modeled on the Theodosian Walls that protected the city of Constantinople. Again from wikipedia:

Trebizond could rely on its substantial fortifications to defend itself. While solid walls protected it on all sides, and along the eastern and western walls two deep ravines augmented the defenses, parts of the city lay outside them, such as the Meydan or marketplace, and the Genoese and Venetian quarters. These walls had withstood many previous sieges: in 1223, when the city walls had not been as extensive as in the mid-15th century, the defenders had defeated a Seljuk assault; not more than a few decades earlier, Shaykh Junayd had attempted to take the city by storm, yet with only a few soldiers the Emperor John had been able to hold him off.

The Empire of Trebizond thrived during an era of fortifications.  All over Europe old Roman towers were renovated and restored and connected by curtain walls and battlements.  In Italy the various city states were turning each of their towns into walled citadels. Across the Mediterranean crusader forts dominated every port and channel while in Normandy hundreds of castles marked the ebb and flow of conflict between English and French monarchs. Further afield on the other side of the continent the Ming dynasty was fortifying a vast network of watchtowers and earthen walls into what would become the Great Wall of China.

But the same Silk Road that brought so much wealth to the Empire of Trebizond also brought new and disruptive technologies. Chinese fireworks, brought by merchants across Eurasia found their way into the hands of the English friar Roger Bacon who recorded the formula for gunpowder in a collection of early scientific writing entitled Opus Majus (Greater Work) in 1267.

We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children’s toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e. a device no bigger than one’s thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre [together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning.

The first cannons were created soon after but these early devices offered few advantages over conventional siege weapons of the time. They were cumbersome, inaccurate, slow to reload and often just as dangerous to their operators as they were to the opposition.

But by the 15th century the technology had improved and the age of gunpowder was well underway. As it happened the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI was one of the first rulers to discover the potential of this new weapon first hand. Taking advantage of a crusade against the Ottomans Constantine mounted an invasion to re-take Athens and northern Greece. Historian Lars Brownworth wrote about what happened next in his account of the Byzantine Empire Lost to the West:

After the collapse of the Crusade, Constantine had been left to face the full brunt of the sultan’s anger alone. Murad II swept into Greece, capturing Athens and forcing the Byzantines to take refuge behind the six-mile-long Hexamilion. Safe behind the wall, Constantine expected to hold out for months, but the Turks brought with them a terrifying new weapon — several large cannons. The opening blast tore into the wall, roaring with terrible certainty that the world had changed. Defensive fortifications, no matter how grand, were now obsolete. The age of the cannon had begun. The Hexamilion collapsed in a mere five days, and Constantine barely escaped with his life.

Constantine had inherited an Empire that been severely weakened by internal rivalries and decades spent fending off attacks by Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serbian armies.  To make matters worse, successive waves of bubonic plague had decimated the population, disrupted trade and bled the Emperor’s treasuries. Brownworth gives an eerie depiction of the Byzantine capital as it appeared at the start of the 15th Century:

By the time the new emperor made his entry into Constantinople, the city was a dim reflection of its former grandeur, shrunken behind its walls like an ebbing tide. The streets of the capital no longer murmured with the babble of a dozen languages, merchant ships no longer crowded the imperial harbors, and wealth no longer adorned its palaces and churches. From an imperial height of nearly half a million in Justinian’s day, the population had fallen to around fifty thousand. Deserted fields choked with weeds now covered vast stretches of the city, and half-ruined buildings still slumped in their sprawling decay.

Despite their vulnerability the Byzantine rulers underestimated the threat posed by the Ottomans.  When the Ottoman prince Mehmed II ascended to the throne a few years later he inherited a growing Empire that encompassed much of what is now Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.  Mehmed immediately began building up the Ottoman navy and constructing a fortress to control shipping traffic through the Bosphorus straight.  Meanwhile newly established governance and taxation systems allowed the Sultan to amass a small professional ‘regular’ army- the first of its kind since ancient Rome.

The Ottoman Sultan Murad II (The father of Mehmed II) depicted in the aftermath of the battle of Varna (1444) surrounded by his Janissary guards.


At the forefront of Mehmed’s army were slave soldiers known as the Janissaries (from Ottoman Turkish ‘yeniçeri’ meaning ‘new soldier’).  These elite infantry were normally part of the Sultan’s royal guard but on campaigns they were often employed as shock troops.  Mehmed’s Janissaries represented the Ottoman continuation of a long tradition of employing slaves as soldiers in Islamic armies.  Historian Daniel Pipes has suggested that the tribal rivalries in early Islamic societies made recruitment of loyal troops a difficult task.

A slave owner recruits aliens because their foreign origin also increases their susceptibility to being moulded; the owner can isolate a foreigner by eliminating any ties outside his immediate household and by forcing him to depend entirely on the small world of the master and his fellow slaves. To complete this isolation, most military slaves arrive on the scene ignorant of the language of the country in which they will serve.

Islamic law prohibits the taking of Muslim slaves so the Janissaries were conscripted exclusively from Christian communities – mainly in the Balkans and Anatolia. Historian David Nicolle summed up the recruitment system known as Devshirme (literally ‘the collecting’) as follows:

In brief, the system went like this: Born a non-Muslim in some region not under Muslim control, the military slave was acquired by a Muslim ruling figure as a youth who is old enough to undergo training but still young enough to be molded by it. Brought to an Islamic country as a slave, he converted to Islam and entered a military training program, emerging some five to eight years later as an adult soldier. If he had special abilities, he could rise to any heights in the army or (sometimes) in the government; while most military slaves spent their adults lives in the ruler’s army, they were not just soldiers but a key element of the ruling elite in most Muslim dynasties.

This army was supported by Seljuk-Turk cavalry known as Sipahis who were sometimes granted fiefdoms for service. Alongside them the sultan could call upon an immense number of irregular soldiers including thousands of unpaid ‘bashi-bazouks’ (literally ‘crazy heads’) who fought in expectation of loot and and slaves. By 1453 the preparations had paid off and Mehmed was able to amass an army of more than 80 thousand to lay siege to Constantinople. In addition to these forces the Sultan purchased the services of a Hungarian inventor and iron-founder known as Urban to build massive ‘bombard’ cannons to breach the walls of the city.  Brownworth mentions the immense logistical challenge of putting these siege engines in place.

The only problem now was transporting the great gun the 140 miles from the foundry in Adrianople to the walls of Constantinople. Carpenters and stonemasons were sent scurrying ahead, leveling hills and building bridges, while a team of sixty oxen and two hundred men pulled the cannon across the Thracian countryside at the lumbering pace of 2.5 miles per day. Mehmed himself set out with his army on March 23, 1453. Constantinople’s doom was now at hand.

Against this massive army Constantine had just over six thousand soldiers spread out over 20 kilometers of city walls. In the months leading up to the siege numerous appeals had been made to the Italian republics and the European Christian monarchs for reinforcements but the only real support came from a Genovese military commander named Giovanni Giustiniani. He raised and transported a mercenary force of 700 highly trained soldiers to aid the defense of the city.

The siege began on April 6 1453 with a bombardment from Urban’s cannons- the largest of which could fire 600 kilogram stones over a mile. From Brownworth’s account of the first day of the siege:

The main cannon needed time to cool between each firing and could only be discharged seven times a day, but the sultan had other guns that could take up the slack. Stone balls mercilessly slammed into the walls, shattering the brick and occasionally bringing down whole sections. By the end of the first day, a large part of the outer wall was reduced to rubble, and the sultan ordered an assault. Constantine threw himself into the breach, somehow repulsing the successive attacks, and when night fell Giustiniani devised a way to repair the walls. Driving wooden stakes into the collapsed rubble to provide a loose form, he heaped the broken brick and stone into a makeshift wall. The next day, when the firing resumed, the rubble absorbed the cannonballs better than the solid walls and remained more or less intact. Taking heart, the defenders fell into a steady rhythm. By day, they would do their best to stay out of the way of the stone balls raining death all around them; by night, when the guns were at last silenced, they rushed out to repair the damage.

The siege went on for weeks. The defenders repelled a series of early assaults from both land and sea. An immense chain ‘boom’ had been strung across the harbour to prevent the Ottoman fleet from entering and this allowed the defenders to concentrate the few soldiers they had on the western walls. A first hand account of the siege was provided by the diary of Venetian physician Nicolo Barbaro. Barbaro recounts that, after a number of unsuccessful assaults on the walls, the Sultan employed hundreds of men and animals to pull some of his smaller ships overland and into the harbour. This forced some of the Byzantine defenders to take to their ships in response. A galley from Trebizond led the counter attack but was immediately sunk by cannon fire from the opposite shore. 90 men were lost.

In the following weeks Barbaro recounts further desperate attempts to repair breaches in the wall and the suicidal bravery of the Janissaries:

They found the Turks coming right up under the walls and seeking battle, particularly the janissaries, who are soldiers of the Turkish Sultan; none of them are afraid of death, but they came on like wild beasts, and when one or two of them were killed, at once more Turks came and took away the dead ones, carrying them on their shoulders as one would a pig, without caring how near they came to the city walls. Our men shot at them with guns and crossbows, aiming at the Turk who was carrying away his dead countryman, and both of them would fall to the ground dead, and then there came other Turks and took them away, none fearing death, but being willing to let ten of themselves be killed rather than suffer the shame of leaving a single Turkish corpse by the walls.

After 53 days of continuous bombardment and relentless assaults by the Sultan’s armies the walls were finally breached and Mehmed’s armies flooded into the city. Constantine is said to have removed his insignia and charged into the battle. His body was never recovered. The massacre that ensued went on for days. Barbaro was one of a handful of survivors that fled on galleys while the looting was taking place. He wrote that in the streets of Constantinople;

The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons along a canal.

Ottoman troops on the streets of Constantinople as imagined by artist Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña Ottoman troops broke through Constantinople's Theodosian wall and sacked the city on the 29th of May 1453.  Illustration by Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña.


After withstanding 1,000 years of plagues, earthquakes, warfare and political intrigue the Byzantine Capital had finally been overrun. Mehmed gave himself the new title of ‘Qayser-i Rûm’ (Ceaser of Rome) and the Ottomans took as their flag the crescent moon symbol that had come to symbolise the city. Many of the Byzantines that survived the slaughter and avoided enslavement in the aftermath of the siege fled west to the Peloponnese or east to Trebizond and even further into the fledgling Russian Empire. Historian Donal Nicol says that blame for the catastrophe was directed mainly at those who had attempted to join the Orthodox and Catholic churches- the destruction of the city was seen by many as divine retribution for abandoning Orthodoxy. Nicol writes:

None of the Greek historians who were alive during that storm wondered how the heart of the tree had rotted away. What puzzled and interested them was why God had allowed the winds to blow.



Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

1 Responses to ‘Part 1: The Fall of Constantinople’

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