Constantinople was built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great in a fortified position that was hard to attack yet easy to defend. It enjoyed a distinguished geographical location. It was built on seven hills that overlooked the sea, Europe and Asia, making it a crossroads between the east and the west and between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It also overlooked the Sea of Marmara with its beautiful natural setting.
It was known for its moderate weather and fortified fortresses and strongholds that resisted the attacks of the Berbers, the Russians and Bulgars. It was also a difficult object for the invading Arabs, Persians and others.
The Muslims Aim to Have Constantinople
Opening Constantinople was a cherished ambition since they established their reign, and they tried several times before Muhammad Al-Fatih to open it. In Damascus, Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan aimed at fighting the Byzantines and banishing them from Constantinople. Such an opening would be a gain and strengthen his caliphate. The battles round it were always grave and the Muslims were defeated badly.
In one of these campaigns, the Companion Khalid ibn Zaid, known as Abu Aiyub Al-Ansari, in whose house the Prophet ~ resided when he first came to Madinah, died and was buried there under the fortified walls of Constantinople.
The second trial to open this city was during the caliphate of Sulaiman ibn 'Abdul Malik. Al-Walid ibn 'Abdul Malik launched a well-supplied campaign to open it by land or sea. However, both schemes were doomed to failure. Later on, the caliph Muslimah ibn 'Abdul Malik launched a campaign by land and sea to attack Constantinople, but he failed as had his ancestors.
When the Abbasside dynasty took over, they were occupied with inhabiting the houses of the Byzantines rather than fighting against them and opening their city. When the 'Uthmanides came to the caliphate, they made their first trial. They besieged the city and tried to open it at the hands of Sultan Bayazid I. However, he was forced to lift the siege when he knew that the Tartars had invaded his city. Later, Sultan Murad II besieged it, but withdrew because his naval force was too weak and his arrangements insufficient. In the year 1452 C.E., Sultan Murad II died and was succeeded by Sultan Muhammad II, who, though only 22 years old, dreamed of opening Constantinople.
Siege of Constantinople
Sultan Muhammad II managed to surround the city. He built a fort opposite the one that had been built by Sultan Bayazid I and another one to face the first. The two strongholds, Anaduli Hisar and Rumilia Hisar, enabled the Sultan's armies to completely secure the Bosporus Strait and the entrance of the Black Sea. Sultan Muhammad II equipped his fort with firearms, cannons, arms and ammunition. He also had full control over the Sea of Marmara and the naval passages. The fortresses enabled him to control the Sea of Marmara and overlook the sea routes leading to the city from the north and west. Thus, Constantinople was deprived of any military reinforcements or other help from any place. The Byzantines who lived in the city and its citizens were dismayed by existence of the forts.
Sultan Muhammad II stationed the best and boldest men his army to guard the fort under the command of Fairuz Agha. He ordered him to prevent any ship from passing through the Strait of Bosporus without paying a heavy tax. He supplied the fortress with powerful cannons and mortars to force the respect of his orders.
Sultan Muhammad II came with his army, then ordered fifty thousand soldiers to camp near the walls of Constantinople, while he returned to Adirnah. The Byzantines did not attack them. The reason for the Sultan's quick expedition -which was only three days -was to investigate and observe the conditions of the city and study its walls and towers. He worked hard to prevent the Emperor's two brothers from sending any reinforcements to him.
To protect the rear of his army, the Sultan seized all the remaining castles in Taraqia and also occupied all the cities on the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. His army spread allover the suburbs of the capital and the citizens were dismayed and completely disturbed.
Meanwhile, Emperor Constantine and some of his knights were fortifying the city and preparing all the means of defense to defend it as well as they could. They repaired the broken walls, which were ancient and damaged by the raids and campaigns of successive ages. They gathered weapons and ammunition as fast as possible, as well as sufficient supplies. In addition, they sent messengers calling for the help of Europe, asking for food, arms and reinforcements. They were lamenting the destiny of Christianity in each and every Christian land, which once enjoyed power.
The Reinforcements Reach the Emperor
Sultan Muhammad II devoted himself to arranging his army to attack Constantinople. He gathered a huge army of a quarter million fighters and assembled an immense fleet. In addition, he filled his forts with arms and ammunition to open this big city. The Muslims and the Byzantines spent all winter mustering their forces and scheming.
Two ships of reinforcements coming from Venice managed to cross the Bosporus with difficulty and succeeded in reaching Constantinople, but they were powerless aids.
John Justiniani of Genoa, Italy arrived on a ship loaded with ammunitions and arms and accompanying another ship with five hundred soldiers on board. The total number of fighters on the two ships was seven hundred fighters. The Emperor received them respectfully and assigned him as a general of the land forces.
The citizens of the city increased the depth of the trenches on the eastern side. The Emperor motivated his army and gave them confidence, arousing their enthusiasm and zeal. He assigned to John Justiniani and his men the responsibility of defending the critical positions and important gates.
Sultan Muhammad Prepares His Army to Attack
The 'Uthmanide Muslim army Positioned itself at the walls of Constantinople blessed by prayers of the scholars and the honorable members of the family of the Prophet. The army was perfectly organized. The brigades were positioned beside each other with standards raised and the sounds of drums and horns echoing loudly. There were also cavalry and fourteen batteries of cannon totaling sixty-two cannons.
The pavilion of Sultan Muhammad II was erected on the left side of the Likus Valley. It was surrounded by ditches and faced the Gate of Saint Romanus. The powerful, far-reaching cannons were directed to the gate. The Sultan faced the Qiblah and prayed two rak'ahs, and all the army followed him.
He made the brigades of Anatolia, who were the majority, position themselves on the right of the pavilion to the Sea of Marmara. The European brigades were in the north of these brigades and on his left side to the Golden Horn. The Sultan's guards surrounded him and were responsible for the attack at the side of the Gate of Saint Romanus, for it was the weakest point in the defense.
The Muslim army approached the walls and the Sultan asked Emperor Constantine to surrender the city to them, promising him to respect the lives and property of its citizens. He did so to prevent bloodshed and to be merciful. However, the Emperor stubbornly refused. Sultan Muhammad had no other choice but to fight.
He organized the leadership of his army as follows. The general Arghanus, who was of Albanian origin and had embraced Islam, was over the irregular army at the heights of Birah. This irregular army was to watch the inhabitants of Ghalta, who were Genoese, and to prevent any reinforcements from reaching them.
He also assigned General Sarijah Pasha over the march and his duty was to attack the city from the top of the Golden Horn. Ishaq Pasha and Mahmud Pasha were responsible for leading the Asian soldiers of Anatolia. Both generals were known for their distinguished and peerless experience in wars. The Sultan himself and Khalil Pasha led the center of the army.
The Sultan's fleet consisted of nearly three hundred ships. Though not a small number, they were still not to be compared with the number and power of their enemies. The fleet's mission was to block any supplies or reinforcements from reaching the Emperor's army as well as to attack the Christian ships that blockaded the Golden Horn. In addition to this, the fleet besieged Constantinople together with the troops on land.
Behind the walls of Constantinople and behind the gate of Saint Romanus, eight thousand denizens stood to defend their city against the Muslims. The most important group of Byzantine defenders was that of the foreigners, which consisted of three thousand defenders belonging to Genoa, Venice, Crete, Rhodes and Spain, in addition to some mercenaries.
The Emperor camped and concentrated his troops at the side of the valley of Likus at the gate of Saint Romanus, which was the weakest point in the walls.
He held war councils to organize the defense and charged John Justiniani to defend this area. Their cannons and mortars were not powerful and they were unable to put them on the ancient walls, which were weak and ready to collapse if any cannon were put on them.
The Turkish Muslims spread out their powerful cannons before the towers and attacked the city and bombarded its walls with shells weighing two hundred ratl. They triggered their mortars enthusiastically.
At the beginning there were some scrimmages by the irregular army. They broke through the battlefield like bold lions facing death and enduring all kinds of danger and hardships, rushing to attack. Thus, the encircled Byzantines were unable to rest for a second due to these continuous attacks and the threatened naval attack that was expected from the Golden Horn.
Sultan Muhamn1ad II determined to focus the assault on the gates of Saint Romanus. The Muslims attacked the walls overlooking the Gulf of the Golden Horn, but it was in vain. They also tried to dig under the walls and they succeeded to a certain extent but for the resistance of the Byzantines. The efforts of the Muslims caused the inhabitants to be worried and terrified and unable to sleep for fear that the Muslims would break through the city every night by such strategy.
Lastly, Sultan Muhammad built a quick movable siege engine in front of the walls, horrifying the hearts of the besieged inhabitants. This movable fort was designed to resist flames and at the same time it hit all the firearms in the city, jeopardizing the defenders. The fort also succeeded in collapsing four towers and thus filling in the trenches. This enabled the Muslims to launch a great attack from the side of the gate of Saint Romanus. However, they were forced to withdraw by the desperate resistance of the Byzantines, and their swift movable fort was ruined completely.
Constantine Unable to Surrender the City
Despair never knew its way to the heart of Sultan Muhammad II, so he resumed scheming his strategies. He focused the assault of the powerful cannons in three positions, the Gate of Edirne, the Gate of Saint Romanus, and the military gate. He sent his messenger, Isma'il Hamzah Asfindyar Aughli, with a message to Emperor Constantine: resuming the war was of no avail, for the city would be defeated by force. It would be captured, its men would be killed, and the women and children would be captives or sold in the markets. The sultan suggested that the emperor leave the city with his family, attendants and any of the citizens. His departure would be granted peacefully, and the sultan promised to protect and preserve the lives and properties of all the natives. Thus, all that Constantine had to do was surrender the city.
However, the emperor replied, "I have no authority that gives me the right to surrender the city, even if it costs me my soul."
Opening the Great City
After Emperor Constantine refused to surrender, Sultan Muhammad's only option was to open it by force. He held his war council on 27 May 1453 C.E. in his camp opposing the walls. He took council with his generals, and they were of two viewpoints. One was that there was no need to exert such great effort and all these military operations on the besieged city, for it would surrender sooner or later. It would be useful to leave the city as it was so that the Muslims could increase in power and zeal, and at the same time the defenders would be frustrated and completely exhausted. Thus, the city would be an easy prey.
The second viewpoint advised the army to endure patiently, to strengthen its stamina and attack. This viewpoint was accepted by the senior officers, including the sultan himself.
On the morning of 27 May, the Sultan planned an all-out attack on the city. All the army fasted and prayed to Allah to grant them victory and help them to achieve their goal.
He ordered the artillery to devastate the walls at the Valley of Likus, and they did. He organized the companies that would launch the attacks so that each company would attack from a certain position, then clear the way for the next company to attack. These shifts enabled the attackers to have some rest while their colleagues attacked the defenders, who were exhausted and worn out.
Sultan Muhammad II passed by all the divisions of the army that was besieging the city. He encouraged the troops and enkindled their souls with the spirit of enthusiasm and sacrifice.
The artillery attacked mercilessly and constantly. John Justiniani, the commander of the defenders, was seriously injured by the shelling and had to be carried into the city.
The Sultan arranged his army in a unique style and delivered a speech in which he said that through strong will, honest determination, immediate obedience in executing orders and obeying the leadership, victory could be achieved by the will of Allah the Almighty.
In the deep prevailing darkness, the Muslims crept closer to the walls. The 'Uthmani fleet proceeded and occupied the positions planned for it and launched a fierce attack on many locations. Yet, the main attack was by the Valley of Likus. During the attacks, the Muslims cried, "Allahu Akbar!" and their voices were raised with their prayers to Allah to grant them victory.
The noise and tumult was mingled among the attackers and the defenders. The Muslims succeeded in opening a gap and attacked the outer wall. Their assault was like a blasting storm. When the sultan realized that the lines of the defenders were disordered as planned, he forced his janissary fighters, who had not yet shared in the battle, to march towards the Likus Valley like fierce lions. They were resisted by defenders exhausted by fatigue and hunger and suffering from deep wounds. When the Muslims approached the walls, they snatched the flag of the Byzantine Emperor and the flag of Venice and raised the banners and flags of Islam.
The emperor, who was forty-nine years old, was killed and the city came under the authority and possession of the Muslims. Forty thousand Christian Byzantines were killed in the siege and the attack. A large number of Greeks were killed and their children were taken by the Muslims to be taught the Arabic language and the Qur'an. The women were added to the harem of the Sultan and his men.
At noon, Sultan Muhammad II entered Constantinople through the Gate of Saint Romanus riding his horse in a great procession followed by his ministers, generals and soldiers. He walked in the street that led to the church, and when he reached the altar he found the priests and monks who sought refuge in it. He was kind to them and guaranteed their security. He asked the Christians present in the church to depart safely to their houses, then he had the adhan called for the prayers.
For the first time, the Sultan and the Muslims attending with him prayed in the church. The church, afterwards, became the mosque of Aya Sufiya, which is one of the finest mosques. The Sultan sent to the leaders and governors of the Muslims everywhere on earth telling them about the great opening of Constantinople.