Mohammed II and the Capture of Constantinople

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

Muhammad II in 1479. Portrait by Italian painter Gentile Bellini.

Muhammad II in 1479. Portrait by Italian painter Gentile Bellini.

Sultan Murad II, Mohammed II’s father, died in February 1451. 1 Mohammed was aged twenty-one years when his father, Murad, died. He heard of that event at Magnesia, from where the Grand Vizier had despatched a courier to him from Adrianople. 2 ‘Let those who love me follow me,’’ he cried as he leapt on horseback, without giving his court time to prepare for the departure. 3 By means of the fastest horses kept always saddled from distance to distance on the route from Asia to Europe, he crossed the mountains that border on the north the plain of Magnesia, and galloped night and day towards Mudanya, a port not far from Bursa. 4 There he awaited the corteges sent from Adrianople to meet him, and received everywhere on his route the respects and the loyalty and obedience due to ‘the majesty of a Sultan.’ 5

This enthronement was to lead a remarkable life, which had one of the greatest impacts on human history. On the character of the young sultan and world conqueror, we know that, according to Gibbon:

‘Mahomet the Second his first education and sentiments were those of a devout Muslim; and as often as he conversed with an ‘infidel,’ he purified his hands and face by the legal rites of ablution…. The sultan persevered in a decent reverence for the doctrine and discipline of the Koran…. Under the tuition of the most skilful masters, Mahomet advanced with an early and rapid progress in the paths of knowledge; and besides his native tongue it is affirmed that he spoke or understood five languages, the Arabic, the Persian, the Chaldaean or Hebrew, the Latin, and the Greek. The Persian might indeed contribute to his amusement, and the Arabic to his edification; and such studies are familiar to the Oriental youth…. The history and geography of the world were familiar to his memory: the lives of the heroes of the East, perhaps of the West, excited his emulation: his skill in astrology is excused by the folly of the times, and supposes some rudiments of mathematical science; and a profane taste for the arts is betrayed in his liberal invitation and reward of the painters of Italy….. In the Albanian war he studied the lessons, and soon surpassed the example, of his father; and the conquest of two empires, twelve kingdoms, and two hundred cities, a vain and flattering account, is ascribed to his invincible sword. He was doubtless a soldier, and possibly a general; Constantinople has sealed his glory; but if we compare the means, the obstacles, and the achievements, Mahomet the Second must blush to sustain a parallel with Alexander or Timur.’ 6

Three years before Mohammed became sultan, Constantine XI was crowned Emperor of Byzantium. By his time, the Byzantine Empire had declined considerably, and was living its last moments. 7 It had now, in the early decades of the 15th century, shrunk to a few towns and a scantly district beyond the walls of the capital city. 8 On their parts, the Ottomans realised that whilst Constantinople was in the hands of others, the communication between their European and their Asiatic provinces could never be secure as Byzantium stood in between. 9 The Byzantines could easily block passage from Asia into Europe and vice versa as happened on the instance of the Crusade of Varna. 10 However, Mohammed confirmed the treaty already made with Constantine, and professed peaceful intentions to all. 11 When the ambassadors of Europe and Asia soon appeared to congratulate his accession and solicit his friendship; and to all he spoke the language of moderation and peace. The confidence of the Byzantine emperor was enhanced by the solemn oaths an assurances with which he sealed the ratification of the treaty: and a rich domain on the banks of the Strymon was assigned for the annual payment of three hundred thousand asperse, the pension of an Ottoman prince, Orkhan, a claimant to the throne, who was detained at his request in the Byzantine court. 12

It seemed, however, Lane Poole notes, that as if the Byzantines were doomed to precipitate the end of their empire by acts of madness whenever a new Sultan came to the throne. 13 Instead of working hard to be forgotten and not to raise the ire of the new sultan, the Byzantine ambassadors kept insisting on the payment, and even the increase, of their annual stipend to keep the claimant for the throne, Orkhan. The Turkish vizier, Khalil, gave them a stern warning:

“Rash Romeliotes” he replied to them in open divan, in a discourse reported by the Greek ambassador himself; “I have penetrated this long time back your deceitful and tricky projects. My late lord and master, Murad II., of upright conscience and affable manners, wished you well, but it is not so with Mahomet II., my new Padishah. If Constantinople can escape his enterprises, I will admit that God is pleased to pardon still your intrigues and your artifices, insensate men! The treaty is scarce signed, when you come into Asia to frighten us with your habitual blustering. But we are not children without experience and without force. If you can do anything, do it then; proclaim Orkhan sovereign of Thrace, call in the Hungarians, resume the provinces which we have wrested from you; but know that you will succeed in nothing, and that at last you will be stripped of all At the same time I will instruct my master of all this, and what he decides will be accomplished.” 14

Instead of taking heed of the advice, Emperor Constantine threatened to establish on the throne of Adrianople Orkhan, the grandson of Prince Suleyman, who had once reigned there ‘among his wine-cups.’ 15 Greek ambassadors, sent to Adrianople by the new Emperor of Byzantium, added that in case of refusal by the Turks, they would lend their vessels to this rebel to obtain justice, by force of arms, for the Ottomans. 16 This aggressive attitude on the part of the Byzantines was due to the fact that Emperor Constantine was deceived by the thought current then, that Mohammed was an impotent ruler. 17 However, as Lane Poole notes, the Emperor was greatly mistaken. 18 Mohammed had now fully outgrown his boyhood’s weakness, which had made him unfit for the throne when twice placed on it by his father six years before. 19 As a general, now, Mohammed was not just great, but was even deemed superior even to his father. 20

The imprudence of Constantine, who seems to have judged the character of Mohammed from the inability to reign, which he had shown at the premature age of twelve, increased the hostility of the young Sultan. 21 To make things worse, when on his return from his Asian dominions Mohammed reached the Straits with his retinue, he learned that they were blocked by Christian ships. A crossing to Gelibolu (Gallipoli) proved impossible. 22

Following all that, Mohammed undertook an action, which in the words of Doukas inflicted deadly injury. 23 He decided to build a fortress outside the gates of Constantinople. 24

In the narrow pass of the Bosphorus, an Asiatic fortress had formerly been raised by his grandfather; in the opposite situation, on the European side, he resolved to erect a more formidable castle; and a thousand masons were commanded to assemble in the spring on a spot named Asomaton, about five miles from the Byzantine metropolis. This new fortress was (about five miles) above Constantinople, at a place where the channel is narrowest. 25

On the twenty-sixth of March, the appointed spot of Asomaton was covered with an active swarm of Turkish artificers; and the materials by sea and land were diligently transported from Europe and Asia. The lime had been burnt in Cataphrygia; the timber was cut down in the woods of Heraclea and Nicomedia; and the stones were dug from the Anatolian quarries. 26 Each of the thousand masons was assisted by two workmen; and a measure of two cubits was marked for their daily task. 27

When Emperor Constantine and his subjects heard of Mohammed’s preparations, they were greatly alarmed. At first, Constantine sent food to Mohammed’s workmen, suggesting that he was not unwilling to see executed the work, which he could not prevent. 28 Or maybe the Emperor thought that his relaxed approach might dissuade the Turks from continuing their project. Then, as the construction progressed, the Byzantines protested. Mohammed’s answer was a contemptuous refusal to desist from building a fort. 29 The Emperor’s ambassadors represented, that his grandfather had solicited the permission of Emperor Manuel to build a castle on his own territories; but that this double fortification, which would command the Strait, could only tend to violate the alliance of the nations; to intercept the Latin’s who traded in the Black Sea, and perhaps to annihilate the subsistence of the city. Mohammed instead dismissed the ambassadors with contempt, saying to them:

“Of what do you complain?” replied the Sultan to Constantino Dragoses, who was the spokesman of the Greeks; “I form no project against your city. To provide for the security of my dominions is not to infringe the treaties. Have you forgotten the extremity to which my father was reduced, when your Emperor, leagued against him with the Hungarians, sought to hinder him from passing into Europe? His galleys at that time barred the passage, and Murad was obliged to claim the aid of the Genoese.

“I was at Adrianople, but very young as yet. The Muslims trembled with terror, and you insulted their misfortunes. My father vowed, at the battle of Varna, to construct a fortress on the European shore. This vow I fulfil Have you the right or power to control in this manner what it pleases me to do upon my own territory? The two coasts are mine; that of Asia, because it is inhabited by Ottomans; that of Europe, because you are unable to defend it.

“Go tell your master that the reigning Sultan is not like his predecessors; that their wishes did not go as far as does today my power. I permit you to retire for this time; but I will have the skin flayed off the bodies of those who henceforth should have the insolence of calling me to an account for what I do in my own empire.” 30

So, the construction of the fortress continued unabated. The fortress was built in a triangular form; each angle was flanked by a strong and massy tower; one on the declivity of the hill, two along the sea-shore: a thickness of twenty-two feet was assigned for the walls, thirty for the towers; and the whole building was covered with a solid platform of lead. 31 Mohammed himself pressed and directed the work with indefatigable ardour: his three viziers claimed the honour of finishing their respective towers; in zeal, the Qadis emulated the Janissaries. 32

In answer to the Turks completion of the fortress and the payment of the toll by ships passing the new castle, Constantine closed the gates of Constantinople. Mohammed answered by declaring war and appeared before the landward walls with 50,000 men. 33 But he had not yet completed his preparations for a siege, and thus withdrew to Adrianople. 34 The Byzantines knew that the retreat was only temporary. So, each side employed the autumn and winter of 1452 in earnest preparations for the siege. 35

The Greeks and the Turks passed an anxious and sleepless winter: the former were kept awake by their fears, the latter by their hopes; both by the preparations of defence and attack. During the agony of the Greek empire, Vizier Khalil was recruiting in silence the two armies of Europe and Asia, to present them at the decisive moment to the Sultan. 36

Then came spring, and the Turkish army began to move towards the city. Discipline was good, and the morale of the troops was very high. 37 Soon the siege of the city proceeded. As the siege progressed, Mohammed spent his night time planning the attack against the City. He staged every operation during the night and in the morning his orders were executed, for ‘he attended to these things judiciously,’ Doukas says. 38

As for the Byzantines their emotions ran from hope to despair:

‘While Mahomet threatened the capital of the East,’ Gibbon says, ‘the Greek emperor implored with fervent prayers the assistance of earth and heaven. But the invisible powers were deaf to his supplications; and Christendom beheld with indifference the fall of Constantinople, while she derived at least some promise of supply from the jealous and temporal policy of the sultan of Egypt. Some states were too weak, and others too remote; by some the danger was considered as imaginary by others as inevitable: the Western princes were involved in their endless and domestic quarrels; and the Roman pontiff was exasperated by the falsehood or obstinacy of the Greeks. Instead of employing in their favour the arms and treasures of Italy, Pope Nicholas the Fifth had foretold their approaching ruin; and his honour was engaged in the accomplishment of his prophecy. Perhaps he was softened by the last extremity of their distress; but his compassion was tardy; his efforts were faint and unavailing.’ 39

The Pope’s anger with the Byzantines and his wish for their doom had their reasons.

The two Churches, the Catholic/Latin/Roman had been seeking for very long to bring under its mantel the Greek orthodox (which prevailed in Byzantium.) But the two churches had remained at odds. The matters relating to the metaphysical procession of the Holy Ghost from one or from two persons of the Divine Trinity, and the bread with or without leaven in the mystery of the Eucharist, had divided with more virulence than ever the Greeks and Latin’s. 40 However, now sensing the dreadful position of what’s left of his empire, Constantine, the Emperor, sought to save his city by accepting the Union, secretly sending ambassadors to Rome imploring the assistance of the head of the Western Church, promising an early reconciliation of the two communions, and soliciting at least the dispatch of a Pope’s legate to Constantinople to cement the union. But he found amongst his own Greek Orthodox followers, according to the Frenchman Lamartine:

‘In the fanaticism of the monks, that leprosy of the East, and in the prejudices of the multitude infatuated with the monks, an invincible obstacle.’ 41

Pope Nicholas V., was himself full of resentment at the obstinacy of the Greeks, and fulminated against them, instead of giving them aid, he considered the Turks the instruments of divine vengeance against ‘the schismatics.’ 42

Despite this, still, a Catholic envoy was sent, and a Union agreement was made, and a mass was celebrated in accordance with the Greek and Roman rites, bringing together the legate of the Pope and the Greek patriarch before the people in the church of St. Sophia. 43 Whilst the Emperor and his immediate followers agreed to this, the Greek priesthood and population rose in utmost anger. The monks swept through the city, shouting anathemas against the decisions of the synod and those who accepted them, and as usual the masses sided with the monks. The people uttered fearful curses against the union and its supporters. 44

On the Turkish side, the projected attack on the city went without fail. When all preparations for the assault on the city were made, Sultan Mohammed, in conformance with Islamic law, sent a last message under a flag of truce to the city, vowing that the Shariah commanded him to spare the citizens, harming neither their families nor their belongings, if they voluntarily surrendered to him. 45 The Byzantines refused to surrender. 46 When Mohammed heard this reply, he instructed the heralds to announce to the entire army the day on which the assault would be launched. 47

The Sultan had made no effort to keep his plan of action secret, notes Grosvenor. 48 Hence the date fixed for the decisive attack was known almost as speedily in the city as in the Turkish camp. Those weeks of ceaseless preparation on the part of the host outside must have worn out extremely badly the spirits of the city defenders more than the most desperate combat could have done. 49 Every soldier on the rampart felt that each day’s lull in battle helped to forge

‘Of a whiter heat the thunderbolt that was to fall. All that man might do, they and the Emperor did to make ready against the awful storm. The stern angels, that lent them patience and nerved their dauntless courage, were patriotism, duty, and despair.’ 50

The Turks opened the fighting with a heavy bombardment of the walls. Following that fighting took place almost daily. The besieged persisted in their efforts to destroy the Turkish ships, but their inefficient cannon did little damage. 51 Turkish fire on the other hand was having a devastating impact. 52 The Turks were also pushing their approaches to the edge of the ditch, attempting to fill the enormous chasm, and to build a road for the assault. 53

At the end of the month of May the ditch was now nearly filled up by the ruins of the defences, and the path into Constantinople was at last open. 54 The Sultan proclaimed that a general offensive by land and sea would begin on the 29th. 55

Mohammed was as sleepless, active, and determined. His promises had been so vast that many a Muslim doubted whether the Sultan once victorious might not forget his word. In his charge to his troops before the onset, he confirmed all he had hitherto said of either threat or promise, and closed by a solemn oath. 56 The camp of the thousands of Turks resounded with one shout. Religious men and soldiers tore down their tents and, setting them on fire, kindled one mighty conflagration from the Marmora to the Golden Horn. They said: “This rubbish is useless now. Tomorrow we sleep in Constantinople.” 57

At about half-past one in the morning the Sultan judged that everything was ready and gave the order for the assault. 58 On the 29th May, 1453, three hours before dawn the Turkish armies began to move. 59 After hours of intense fighting the Turks entered the city. 60 At first the victorious Turks as they hurried inward through the streets slew all they met. But as soon as it became evident that the city had fallen the slaughter ceased. 61

Constantinople had fallen at last.

In the few days that followed the capture of the city, order was re-established. The Sultan’s first concern was to re-people the devastated, depopulated city. For this he sought to appease the terror of the vanquished, to whom safety of life and freedom of worship were guaranteed. 62 The Patriarch having withdrawn to Mount Athos before the siege, the surviving Bishops were ordered to elect a successor. The new Patriarch he received with distinguished honour, presented him with a robe and staff, assured him of his protection and favour, and sent him with a splendid escort to the patriarchal residence. 63 The churches between the Golden Horn and the Gate of Adrianople were left to the Christians; eight the Sultan converted into mosques. 64 Rather than being weakened by the taking of the city, as it is claimed in many source, the Orthodox Church was, thus, greatly revived by the Turks from its former moribund state. Officially Muslim, the Empire transformed itself into a Greco-Turkish Diarchy which was to last until the rising and the independence of Greece (1821-1830). 65

Despite his good treatment of the Greeks, there prevailed the legends instead of Turkish and the Sultan’s cruelty. According to one such legend, a poor village woman of the environs of Bursa, having complained of a larceny by some pages of the palace, who had stolen her melons, and these having refused to designate the guilty among them. Mahomet had the abdomen of several of those youths opened until he found proof of the crime in their stomach. But this barbarity, related only by Greek historians devoid of sincerity and of criticism, Lamartine (by no means a friend of the Turks) is related by the Ottomans and by the Italians of the court of Mahomet among the number of those fables by which the vanquished slander the victors. 66

The Turkish capture of Constantinople, and Turkish rule, as a whole, were also a blessing to the Jews. Among the inhabitants of Constantinople to have survived the Turkish seizure of the city were the Jews of the Balat quarter. Not long after the appointment of Gennadius, or perhaps at the same time, Mohammed also selected a chief rabbi to preside over all the Jewish congregations of Turkey. 67 His choice fell on Moshe Capsali, a man of piety and learning, founder of a celebrated family of scholars; Elijah Capsali, who in the 16th century wrote a Hebrew history of the Ottoman Empire, may have been descended from him. 68 The sultan, we are told, even made him a member of the imperial council (divan), where he was honoured by a seat next to the mufti, thus gaining precedence over the Greek patriarch; furthermore, he delegated to Capsali certain political powers over the Jewish congregations of Turkey. 69

The tolerant and open mind of the Sultan is well captured in these lines:

‘Historians, however, Greek, Venetian or Genoese, are unanimous in celebrating the love of Mahomet II for the most liberal studies during his sojourn at Magnesia and Broussa (Bursa). The Arabic, the Persian, the Chaldee, the Hebrew, the Latin and the Greek were familiar to him in order to converse with his subjects who spoke all these different idioms. He used to read the Latin poems composed by Venetians and Genoese in his praise. He lived familiarly with the painters and musicians of Italy, called to his court by his munificence. All agree in saying that his religious toleration touched not on fanaticism; that he spoke with great intellectual freedom… He read assiduously Plutarch, and studied, it was said, to imitate Alexander, Caesar and the great conquerors. He caused the biographies of illustrious men to be translated into Turkish, to give to his people or to himself the emulation of glory.’ 70

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Muhammad II in 1479. Portrait by Italian painter Gentile Bellini. Source.


  1. E. Pears: The Ottoman Turks to the fall of Constantinople. In The Cambridge Medieval History, Cambridge University Press, 1923; Vol IV: Edited by J. R. Tanner et al. pp. 653-705; 693.
  2. E.S. Creasy: History of the Ottoman Turks; Khayats; Beirut; 1961; p. 75.
  3. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; in 3 vols; D. Appleton & Company; New York; 1855; vol 2; p. 85.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid; p. 86.
  6. E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Methuen and Co; London; 1920; vol 7; pp. 160-1.
  7. E.S. Creasy: History of the Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 76.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See: C. Imber: The Crusade of Varna;
  11. E. Pears: The Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 694.
  12. E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; op cit; p. 162.
  13. S. Lane Poole: Turkey; Khayats; Beirut; 1966 ed; originally published in 1908; p. 107.
  14. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 90.
  15. S. Lane Poole: Turkey; op cit; 107.
  16. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 90.
  17. S Lane Poole: Turkey; op cit; 107.
  18. Ibid.
  19. E.S. Creasy: History of the Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 75.
  20. S. Lane Poole: Turkey; op cit; p. 102.
  21. Ibid. Creasy 76.
  22. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; tr. from German by R. Manheim; ed by W.C. Hickman, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1978; p. 72.
  23. Doukas: Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks; Wayne State University Press; 1975; 194.
  24. S. Lane Poole: Turkey; op cit; p. 108.
  25. E.S. Creasy: History of the Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 77.
  26. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall; op cit; p. 165.
  27. Ibid.
  28. E. Pears: The Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 694.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 100.
  31. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall; op cit; p. 165.
  32. Ibid
  33. E. Pears: The Ottoman Turks; op cit, 695
  34. Ibid
  35. E.S. Creasy: History of the Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 77.
  36. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 93.
  37. S. Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople; 1453; Cambridge University Press; 1965; p. 79.
  38. M Doukas: Decline and Fall; op cit; pp. 202-3.
  39. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall; op cit; p. 171.
  40. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 95.
  41. Ibid; p. 93.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; op cit; p. 80.
  45. S. Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople; op cit; pp. 95-6.
  46. Doukas: Decline and Fall; op cit; p. 220.
  47. Ibid.
  48. E.A. Grosvenor: Constantinople; Little Brown Company; Boston; 1900; p. 44.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. E. Pears: The Ottoman Turks; op cit; p. 700.
  52. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall; op cit; pp. 179.
  53. Ibid; p. 180 ff.
  54. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; op cit; p. 90.
  55. Ibid.
  56. E.A. Grosvenor: Constantinople; op cit; p. 45.
  57. Ibid; p. 46.
  58. Critobulus: De rebus gestis; op cit; p. 66-7.
  59. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; op cit; p. 91.
  60. S. Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople; op cit; p. 140.
  61. G. Young: Constantinople; Methuen & Co Ltd; London; 1926; p. 122.
  62. E.A. Grosvenor: Constantinople; op cit; p. 50.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Ibid.
  65. D. Kitsikis: L’Empire Ottoman, (Paris, PUF, 1985) in Y. Courbage, P. Fargues: Chretiens et Juifs; op cit; p.205.
  66. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 97.
  67. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; op cit; p. 106.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Ibid.
  70. A. De Lamartine: History of Turkey; op cit; p. 97.