The Byzantine Empire really began in A.D. 330 with Constantine I taking the city and renaming it Constantinople. The empire came to be called the Eastern Roman Empire until fall of Rome in 476 meant that there was no longer any Western Roman Empire. Then it became the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople remained its capital. Eventually the empire lost ground and was little more than just the one city. The city changed hands from Venetians to Byzantines to Greeks occasionally but after the Crusades still stood there as a bastion of Christianity against Islam and from very near the beginning of Islam it was a principle target for conquest. In the 14th century the Ottoman Turks started a new campaign to wrest it from its Christian population. The Ottoman Turks laid a heavy siege to the city and took it on May 29, 1453.
Roger Crowley's 1453: THE HOLY WAR FOR CONSTANTINOPLE AND THE CLASH OF ISLAM AND THE WEST looks in depth at the city, its people, and its ruler. It also covers the efforts of various factions of Islam to take it and convert it to a Moslem city. The efforts go back to an A.D. 629 letter from Muhammad himself to Heraclius, king of the Byzantines inviting him to convert his city to Islam. By that point the city had already dedicated it crown jewel, the huge Church of St. Sophia (today the St. Sophia Mosque). For several hundred years Constantinople's strategic location was the key to the Eastern struggles between the two religions.
Crowley introduces us to Constantine XI, who ruled from the city but with it inherited a troubled reign and unrest from his own people. He was born 1405 so was middle-aged and tired from internecine conflicts by the time the great siege came. His opponent, the Ottoman Turk Sultan Mehmet II, was twenty-seven years his junior with an army of dedicated followers about ten times the size of Constantine's. He enforced his will with ghoulish punishments like impalement. When Vlad Drakul (a.k.a. Dracula) used impalement against his Turkish enemies it was in reaction to the similar cruelty of the Turks. Constantine begged other Catholic powers for help, but they offered little.
Crowley introduces us to the engineering of the walls of Constantinople, then thought to be the ultimate defense against invaders. We also see the giant chain with eighteen-inch links used to block the mouth of the Bosphorus. Constantinople is a triangle with water on two of the sides. The city sits at the mouth of the Bosphorus with water on two sides. The chain blocked access to the waterways across the mouth of the inlet. Against these defenses were Mehmet's cannons, technology newly borrowed from the Christians, which ranged in size up to twenty- seven feet. Mehmet also has a navy and a clever strategy to get around the chained waterway.
But all this is prolog to the actual siege and battle. About half the book is devoted to Mehmet's campaign, the siege of the city, and the climactic battle. He brings his army to fighting range, destroys the defenses, and then orchestrates the battle to take and sack the city.
Crowley has a good clear prose style. This is history but it is not stodgy or distancing. It is always engrossing. The reader gets caught up in the battle and although he knows how it will turn out, it is still exciting to see the process unfold. The descriptions are visual and engaging. After the account of the bloody changing of hands of the city, Crowley brings the book to a quick finish.
The Siege of 1453 was a watershed of history and Crowley's coverage is enlightening and enjoyable.
Paperback: 336 pages Publisher: Hyperion (August 16, 2006) Language: English ISBN-10: 1-401-30850-3 ISBN-13: 978-1-401-30850-6 Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/yrly8v
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper