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1453 (R. Crowley)

2006-08-27 4 min read Books marco

{moszoomimglink:1453}There are moments in time when history looks over your shoulders, and you know it. The whiff of history hit me twice: once in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell right in front of my eyes; and then years later, when I was part of the Internet Bubble and could see with my own eyes fortunes made and unmade in days.

The year 1453 had one of the most astonishing event of that kind: Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, a bulwark against the world domination of Islam since the days of the prophet Muhammad, fell to the invading army of Mehmet II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Depending on whose side of the equation you are, 1453 is a year of elation or despair. For the Ottomans, it meant consolidating their vast possessions and gaining a capital that had world renown. For Orthodox Christians it meant losing the center of their universe – so much so that Tuesday (the day of the week on which the city fell) was considered unlucky in Greece.

It is incredibly hard to tell the story of Constantinople. The city rose and fell over a thousand years, and the complexity of its life are hard to capture in a short book. Mr. Crowley, though, does an excellent job. An introduction to Byzantium gives a broad idea of what Constantinople had been, what it had become, and where it was heading. Then the meat of the book attacks the fateful weeks when Mehmet II assembled his armies and fleet and besieged the city.

Rarely do you see such accurate and human portrayal of people that have been transfigured by layer upon layer of history. The two protagonists of the story, Mehmet himself and the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, are both humans, with both positive and negative traits that are even more humanizing when contrasted with the strident propaganda on both sides.

Ultimately, Mr. Crowley says, the problem was not if, but when. Gunpowder and the invention of cannons had pretty much rendered the fortifications of the city quite not impenetrable, and if it hadn’t been Mehmet, then one of his successors would have bombed the city out of existence. Technological advances do things like that once in a while, and Constantinople had been resisting thanks to its fortresses for over a thousand years – it was time for someone to invent some weapon that could overcome the main obstacle.

The Ottomans come across as fierce warriors with a streak of humanity when dealing with captives that is at odds with the cruelty they are equally capable of meting out. This is in accord with the tradition of Islam, but still somewhat puzzling. Mr. Crowley points out how Mehmet decides to spare the suburbs of Constantinople on the citizens’ request – the same people that had been battling him for weeks.

The Greeks/Byzantines come across as heroic, determined to save their holy city from the ‘Infidel’. They know they are doomed, and they know they will probably die, but they don’t want to be the ones that have given up the city of God. Constantine XI, the emperor, refuses steadfastly to leave town despite pleas from his council. If he left, the empire would still have a chance of surviving in one of its far flung dependencies.

No, Mr. Crowley assigns the role of villain to spectators on the side line. The Roman Christians (known to the Greeks and Turks alike as Franks) and their lazy reliance on Constantinople to relieve the threat of Ottoman invasion are the vicious ones. Starting in the XIII century, when Venice and a crusader army destroyed the empire and took its capital in storm, pillaging and ruining it, the Christians wrecked Byzantium, and then left nothing behind to save the empire.

Even the arms used in the conflict, cannons mainly, were passed to the Turks by Franks – no Fall of Constantinople without the heinous Genoese.

And then: the Franks sat idly by while Constantinople was being attacked. No relief force from Christian lands, no fleet was sent. This while the Christians in Venice, Rome, France, Germany, Hungary, all knew.

Mr. Crowley’s book is a gripping account of events that doesn’t ever forget its learned roots. The Fall of Constantinople is one of the most striking single events in history, and it’s a shame there are so few popular accounts of the day; if you want to read on history and mind the dry visual of a pure scientist: Mr. Crowley is successful in writing something that is accurate, well researched, and yet eminently readable.