On this day in 1453, the 29th of May fell on a Tuesday. And on that day, Constantinople fell.
In his beautiful The Fall of Constantinople, Steven Runciman writes:
The fighting along the stockade was hand-to-hand now. For an hour or so the Janissaries could make no headway. The Christians began to think that the onslaught was weakening a little. But fate was against them. At the corner of the Blachernae wall, just before it joined the double Theodosian wall, there was, half-hidden by a tower, a small sally-port known as the Kerkoporta. It had been closed up many years earlier; but old men remembered it. Just before the siege began it had been reopened, to allow sorties into the enemy’s flank. During the fighting the Bocchiardis and their men had made effective use of it against Karadja Pasha’s troops. But now someone returning from a sortie forgot to bar the little gate after him. Some Turks noticed the opening and rushed through it into the courtyard behind it and began to climb up a stairway leading to the top of the wall. The Christians who were just outside the gate saw what was happening and crowded back to retake control of it and to prevent other Turks from following. In the confusion, some fifty Turks were left inside the wall, where they could have been surrounded and eliminated if at that moment a worst disaster* had not occurred.
It was just before sunrise that a shot fired at close range from a culverin struck Giustiniani and pierced his breastplate. Bleeding copiously and obviously in great pain, he begged his men to take him off the battle-field. One of them went to the Emperor who was fighting nearby to ask for the key of a little gate that led through the inner wall.** Constantine hurried to his side to plead with him not to desert his post. But Giustiniani’s nerve was broken; he insisted on flight. The gate was opened, and his bodyguard carried him into the city, through the streets down to the harbour where they placed him on a Genoese ship. His troops noticed his going. Some of them may have thought he had retreated to defend the inner wall; but most of them concluded that the battle was lost. Some shouted out in terror that the Turks had crossed the wall. Before the little gate could be shut again the Genoese streamed headlong through it. The Emperor and his Greeks were left on the field alone.
From across the foss the Sultan noticed the panic. Crying: ‘The city is ours’, he ordered the Janissaries to charge again and beckoned on a company led by a giant called Hasan. Hasan hacked his way over the top of the broken stockade and was deemed to have won the promised prize.
* The text says “worst disaster” but I would expect “worse disaster.” But Runciman is a better writer than me (than I?) and the editors at Cambridge in 1965 were the best of all.
** The Genoese Giustiniani and his men had locked themselves between the inner and the outer walls so that they could not retreat, a demonstration of their loyalty and courage.
It may well be that this whole account is wrong; the historicity of the Kerkoporta episode is debatable and the truth is that we really don’t know exactly what happened. But, you know, maybe it did happen that way, or something close to it; in the din of battle it’s hard to say. Other accounts explain the preservation of some Byzantine churches in the city after the conquest as the reward for the surrender of individual districts, and we know that at some point defenders did open the gates to the attackers. The city (see the map above; the Kerkoporta is near the northernmost end) included many isolated villages within its walls.
But for pure narrative value, the story of the Kerkoporta is hard to beat. I especially love the specificity around the role of named individuals — Giustiniani, Hasan, the un-named defender who forgot to bar the gate, the emperor who was fighting nearby, the sultan who was just across the foss (a moat, also “fosse”). The lead into the final battle, too, is beautifully drawn; everyone in the city knows the main, and probably final, attack is coming. The night before they abandon their sectarian differences and celebrate a joint Latin and Byzantine mass.
The ambiguous role of the Italians, too; the Pisan and Genoese had deep longstanding commercial ties to the city and the district of Pera (Galata) across the Golden Horn was pledged neutral during the siege and spared the brutal pillage that followed. But Giustiniani and his men were determined to fight to the death, demonstrated by the dramatic barring of the gates behind them. (The photo above I believe shows this space, between the inner and outer walls.)
And luck; there was probably no way for the city to withstand the siege, given the numerical advantage of the attackers — which is thought to be something like 150,000 to 7,000 — but the coincidence of the incident at the Kerkoporta and Giustiniani’s unexpected but wholly human and understandable ‘cowardice’ were what tipped the scales at that moment.
Again, if it really happened that way. But Runciman is such a good storyteller that I don’t think it really matters — something like that happened and that story is as good as any other. I doubt that the reality of what happened is much different in important detail; even if it was another gate or another giant or another coincidence.
For me, another pleasure of reading his account was the book itself, the physical object. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1965, it is representative of the best of English publishing, which in its day was without peer. Today, monographs published by CUP are riddled with editorial errors and often published on cheap paper. The old hardback edition I read, borrowed from the University of Redlands library, is printed on acid-free paper that looks brand new still. The typography is gorgeous, there are illustrations and handsome hand drawn strippled ink fold-out maps and the whole thing is executed with a reassuring expert precision. Physically, it’s what I think of as an ideal book, especially since it’s a short 200 pages long, plus the scholarly apparatus — appendices and notes and a bibliography and a real human-generated index that is actually useful.