Fall of Constantinople in 1453

Title image: Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, by Gentile Bellini

The Fall of Constantinople was the capture of the capital city of the Byzantine Empire by an invading Ottoman army on 29 May 1453. The attackers were commanded by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II, who defeated an army commanded by Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos and took control of the imperial capital, ending a 53-day siege that had begun on 6 April 1453. After conquering the city, Sultan Mehmet transferred the capital of the Ottoman State from Adrianople to Constantinople and established his court there.

  • Date: 6 April to 29 May 1453 (53 days)
  • Location: Constantinople (present day Istanbul); N41.0167, E28.9769 degrees
  • Result: Decisive Ottoman victory; fall of the Byzantine Empire
  • Territorial changes: Ottoman Empire annexes the remaining Byzantine territories; Constantinople becomes its new capital; The Morea and Trebizond continue as Byzantine rump states, until their conquest in 1460 and 1461 respectively

Belligerents   

Ottoman Empire; Serbian Despotate
Byzantine Empire, Republic of Genoa; Republic of Venice; Kingdom of Sicily; Papal States; Ottoman Defectors

Commanders and Leaders 

Ottoman

  • Mehmet the Conqueror
  • Çandarlı Halil Pasha
  • Zagan Pasha
  • Suleiman Baltoghlu
  • Hamza Bey

Byzantine

  • Constantine XI
  • Loukas Notaras (POW)
  • Theophilos Palaiologos
  • Republic of Genoa Giovanni Giustiniani Longo (DOW)
  • Republic of Venice Gabriele Trevisano (POW)
  • Cardinal Isidore (POW)
  • Orhan Çelebi Executed
  • Don Francisco de Toledo

Strength   

  • Ottoman: Land forces: 50,000–80,000; 5,000–10,000 Janissaries; 1,500 Serbian Cavalry; various cannon and bombards; Naval forces: 31 Galleys; 75 large row boats; 20 horse transports
  • Byzantine: Land forces: 7,000–10,000; 600 Ottoman defectors; Naval forces: 26 ships

Casualties and losses

  • Ottoman: Unknown but heavy
  • Byzantine: 4,000 soldiers and civilians killed; 30,000 enslaved

The capture of the city (and two other Byzantine splinter territories soon thereafter) marked the end of the Roman Empire, a state which dated to 27 BC, and which had lasted for nearly 1,500 years. The conquest of Constantinople also dealt a massive blow to the defence of mainland Europe, as the Muslim Ottoman armies thereafter were left unchecked to advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear.

It was also a watershed moment in military history. Since ancient times, cities had used ramparts and city walls to protect themselves from invaders, and Constantinople’s substantial fortifications had been a model followed by cities throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe. The Ottomans ultimately prevailed due to the use of gunpowder (which powered formidable cannons).

The conquest of the city of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire was a key event in the Late Middle Ages which also marks, for some historians, the end of the Medieval period.

State of the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople had been an imperial capital since its consecration in 330 under Roman emperor Constantine the Great. In the following eleven centuries, the city had been besieged many times but was captured only once: during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The crusaders established an unstable Latin state in and around Constantinople while the remaining empire splintered into a number of Byzantine successor states, notably Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond. They fought as allies against the Latin establishments, but also fought among themselves for the Byzantine throne.

The Nicaeans eventually reconquered Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, reestablishing the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos dynasty. Thereafter, there was little peace for the much-weakened empire as it fended off successive attacks by the Latins, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and, most importantly, the Ottoman Turks. The Black Plague between 1346 and 1349 killed almost half of the inhabitants of Constantinople. The city was further depopulated by the general economic and territorial decline of the empire, and by 1453 consisted of a series of walled villages separated by vast fields encircled by the fifth-century Theodosian Walls.

By 1450 the empire was exhausted and had shrunk to a few square kilometres outside the city of Constantinople itself, the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and the Peloponnese with its cultural centre at Mystras. The Empire of Trebizond, an independent successor state that formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, also survived on the coast of the Black Sea.

Preparations

When Sultan Mehmet II succeeded his father in 1451, he was just nineteen years old. Many European courts assumed that the young Ottoman ruler would not seriously challenge Christian hegemony in the Balkans and the Aegean. This calculation was boosted by Mehmet’s friendly overtures to the European envoys at his new court. But Mehmet’s mild words were not matched by actions. By early 1452, work began on the construction of a second fortress (Rumeli hisarı) on the Bosphorus, on the European side several miles north of Constantinople, set directly across the strait on the Asian side from the Anadolu Hisarı fortress, built by his great-grandfather Bayezid I. This pair of fortresses ensured complete control of sea traffic on the Bosphorus; and defended against attack by the Genoese colonies on the Black Sea coast to the north. (This new fortress, was called Boğazkesen, which means ‘strait-blocker’ or ‘throat-cutter’, to emphasise its strategic position.) In October 1452, Mehmet ordered Turakhan Beg to station a large garrison force in the Peloponnese to block Thomas and Demetrios (despotes in Southern Greece) from providing aid to their brother Constantine XI Palaiologos during the impending siege of Constantinople.

Michael Critobulus quotes the speech of Mehmed II to his soldiers:

My friends and men of my empire! You all know very well that our forefathers secured this kingdom that we now hold at the cost of many struggles and very great dangers and that, having passed it along in succession from their fathers, from father to son, they handed it down to me. For some of the oldest of you were sharers in many of the exploits carried through by them—those at least of you who are of maturer years—and the younger of you have heard of these deeds from your fathers. They are not such very ancient events nor of such a sort as to be forgotten through the lapse of time. Still, the eyewitness of those who have seen testifies better than does the hearing of deeds that happened but yesterday or the day before.”

Role of the Christian schism

Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI swiftly understood Mehmet’s true intentions and turned to Western Europe for help; but now the price of centuries of war and enmity between the eastern and western churches had to be paid. Since the mutual excommunications of 1054, the pope in Rome was committed to establishing authority over the eastern church. The Union was agreed by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyon, and indeed, some Palaiologoi emperors (Latin, Palaeologan) had since been received into the Latin Church. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos had also recently negotiated union with Pope Eugene IV, with the Council of Florence of 1439 proclaiming a Bull of Union. The emperors efforts to impose union were met with strong resistance in Constantinople. A propaganda initiative was stimulated by anti-unionist Orthodox partisans in Constantinople; the population, as well as the laity and leadership of the Byzantine Church, became bitterly divided. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians, stemming from the events of the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 by the Greeks and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins, played a significant role. Ultimately, the attempted Union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the hierarchy of the Roman church.

 

Picture1

The Byzantine Empire in the first half of the 15th century. Thessaloniki was captured by the Ottomans in 1430. A few islands in the Aegean and the Propontis remained under Byzantine rule until 1453 (not shown on the map).

In the summer of 1452, when Rumelı Hisari was completed and the threat had become imminent, Constantine wrote to the Pope, promising to implement the Union, which was declared valid by a half-hearted imperial court on 12 December 1452. Although he was eager for an advantage, Pope Nicholas V did not have the influence the Byzantines thought he had over the Western kings and princes, some of whom were wary of increasing papal control, and these had not the wherewithal to contribute to the effort, especially in light of the weakened state of France and England from the Hundred Years’ War, Spain, being in the final part of the Reconquista, the internecine fighting in the Holy Roman Empire, and Hungary and Poland’s defeat at the Battle of Varna of 1444.

Although some troops did arrive from the mercantile city-states in the north of Italy, the Western contribution was not adequate to counterbalance Ottoman strength. Some Western individuals, however, came to help defend the city on their own account. Cardinal Isidore, funded by the pope, arrived in 1452 with 200 archers. One of these was an accomplished soldier from Genoa, Giovanni Giustiniani, who arrived with 400 men from Genoa and 300 men from Genoese Chios, in January 1453. As a specialist in defending walled cities, he was immediately given the overall command of the defence of the land walls by the emperor. Around the same time, the captains of the Venetian ships that happened to be present in the Golden Horn offered their services to the Emperor, barring contrary orders from Venice, and Pope Nicholas undertook to send three ships laden with provisions, which set sail near the end of March.

In Venice, meanwhile, deliberations were taking place concerning the kind of assistance the Republic would lend to Constantinople. The Senate decided upon sending a fleet in February 1453, but there were delays, and when it finally set out late in April, it was already too late for it to be able to take part in the battle. Further undermining Byzantine morale, seven Italian ships with around 700 men slipped out of the capital at the moment when Giustiniani arrived, men who had sworn to defend the capital. At the same time, Constantine’s attempts to appease the Sultan with gifts ended with the execution of the Emperor’s ambassadors—even Byzantine diplomacy could not save the city.

Fearing a possible naval attack along the shores of the Golden Horn, Emperor Constantine XI ordered that a defensive chain be placed at the mouth of the harbour. This chain, which floated on logs, was strong enough to prevent any Turkish ship from entering the harbour. This device was one of two that gave the Byzantines some hope of extending the siege until the possible arrival of foreign help. This strategy was enforced because in 1204 the armies of the Fourth Crusade successfully circumvented Constantinople’s land defences by breaching the Golden Horn Wall. Another strategy employed by the Byzantines was the repair and fortification of the Land Wall (Theodosian Walls). Emperor Constantine deemed it necessary to ensure that the Blachernae district’s wall was the most fortified because that section of the wall protruded northwards. The land fortifications comprised a 60 ft (18 m) wide moat fronting inner and outer crenellated walls studded with towers every 45–55 metres.

Strength
Picture4

Map of Constantinople and the dispositions of the defenders and the besiegers

The army defending Constantinople was relatively small, totalling about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. At the onset of the siege, probably fewer than 50,000 people were living within the walls, including the refugees from the surrounding area. Turkish commander Dorgano, who was in Constantinople in the pay of the Emperor, was also guarding one of the quarters of the city on the seaward side with the Turks in his pay. These Turks kept loyal to the Emperor and perished in the ensuing battle. The defending army’s Genoese corps were well trained and equipped, while the rest of the army consisted of small numbers of well-trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors and volunteer forces from foreign communities, and finally monks. The garrison used a few small-calibre artillery pieces, which nonetheless proved ineffective. The rest of the citizens repaired walls, stood guard on observation posts, collected and distributed food provisions, and collected gold and silver objects from churches to melt down into coins to pay the foreign soldiers.

The Ottomans had a much larger force. Recent studies and Ottoman archival data state that there were about 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers including between 5,000 and 10,000 Janissaries, 70 cannons, an elite infantry corps, and thousands of Christian troops, notably 1,500 Serbian cavalry that the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković was forced to supply as part of his obligation to the Ottoman sultan—just a few months before, he had supplied the money for the reconstruction of the walls of Constantinople. Contemporaneous Western witnesses of the siege, who tend to exaggerate the military power of the Sultan, provide disparate and higher numbers ranging from 160,000 to 200,000 and to 300,000, Niccolò Barbaro: 160,000; the Florentine merchant Jacopo Tedaldi and the Great Logothete George Sphrantzes: 200,000; the Cardinal Isidore of Kiev and the Archbishop of Mytilene Leonardo di Chio: 300,000)

Ottoman dispositions and strategies

Mehmet built a fleet to besiege the city from the sea (partially manned by Greek sailors from Gallipoli). Contemporary estimates of the strength of the Ottoman fleet span between about 110 ships (Tedaldi), 145 (Barbaro), 160 (Ubertino Pusculo), 200–250 (Isidore of Kiev, Leonardo di Chio to 430 (Sphrantzes). A more realistic modern estimate predicts a fleet strength of 126 ships comprising 6 large galleys, 10 ordinary galleys, 15 smaller galleys, 75 large rowing boats, and 20 horse-transports.

Before the siege of Constantinople, it was known that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, but the range of some pieces they were able to field far surpassed the defenders’ expectations. The Ottomans deployed a number of cannons, anywhere from 12 cannons to 62 cannons. They were built at foundries that employed Turkish cannon founders and technicians, most notably Saruca, in addition to at least one foreign cannon founder, Orban (also called Urban). Most of the cannons at the siege were built by Turkish engineers, including a large bombard by Saruca, while one cannon was built by Orban, who contributed a large bombard.

Orban, a Hungarian was a somewhat mysterious figure.  His cannon was named “Basilica” and was 27 feet (8.2 m) long, and able to hurl a 600 lb (272 kg) stone ball over a mile (1.6 km). The founder initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, who were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. Orban then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast ‘the walls of Babylon itself’. Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Edirne, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. This was the only cannon that Orban built for the Ottoman forces at Constantinople.  Orban’s cannon had several drawbacks: it took three hours to reload; cannonballs were in very short supply; and the cannon is said to have collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks. The account of the cannon’s collapse is disputed, given that it was only reported in the letter of Archbishop Leonardo di Chio and in the later, and often unreliable, Russian chronicle of Nestor Iskander.

 

Picture7

Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro.

Having previously established a large foundry about 150 miles (240 km) away, Mehmet now had to undertake the painstaking process of transporting his massive artillery pieces. Orban’s giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of 60 oxen and over 400 men. There was another large bombard, independently built by Turkish engineer Saruca, that was also used in the battle.

In preparation for the final assault, Mehmet had an artillery train of seventy large pieces dragged from his headquarters at Edirne, in addition to the bombards cast on the spot.

Mehmet planned to attack the Theodosian Walls, the intricate series of walls and ditches protecting Constantinople from an attack from the West, the only part of the city not surrounded by water. His army encamped outside the city on the Monday after Easter, 2 April 1453.

The bulk of the Ottoman army were encamped south of the Golden Horn. The regular European troops, stretched out along the entire length of the walls, were commanded by Karadja Pasha. The regular troops from Anatolia under Ishak Pasha were stationed south of the Lycus down to the Sea of Marmara. Mehmed himself erected his red-and-gold tent near the Mesoteichion, where the guns and the elite regiments, the Janissaries, were positioned. The Bashi-bazouks were spread out behind the front lines. Other troops under Zagan Pasha were employed north of the Golden Horn. Communication was maintained by a road that had been constructed over the marshy head of the Horn.

Byzantine dispositions and strategies

The city had about 20 km of walls (land walls: 5.5 km; sea walls along the Golden Horn: 7 km; sea walls along the Sea of Marmara: 7.5 km), one of the strongest sets of fortified walls in existence. The walls had recently been repaired (under John VIII) and were in fairly good shape, giving the defenders sufficient reason to believe that they could hold out until help from the West arrived.  In addition, the defenders were relatively well-equipped with a fleet of 26 ships: 5 from Genoa, 5 from Venice, 3 from Venetian Crete, 1 from Ancona, 1 from Aragon, 1 from France, and about 10 Byzantine.

On 5 April, the Sultan himself arrived with his last troops, and the defenders took up their positions. As their numbers were insufficient to occupy the walls in their entirety, it had been decided that only the outer walls would be manned. Constantine and his Greek troops guarded the Mesoteichion, the middle section of the land walls, where they were crossed by the river Lycus. This section was considered the weakest spot in the walls and an attack was feared here most. Giustiniani was stationed to the north of the emperor, at the Charisian Gate (Myriandrion); later during the siege, he was shifted to the Mesoteichion to join Constantine, leaving the Myriandrion to the charge of the Bocchiardi brothers. Minotto and his Venetians were stationed in the Blachernae palace, together with Teodoro Caristo, the Langasco brothers, and Archbishop Leonardo of Chios.

To the left of the emperor, further south, were the commanders Cataneo, with Genoese troops, and Theophilus Palaeologus, who guarded the Pegae Gate with Greek soldiers. The section of the land walls from the Pegae Gate to the Golden Gate (itself guarded by a Genoese called Manuel) was defended by the Venetian Filippo Contarini, while Demetrius Cantacuzenus had taken position on the southernmost part of the Theodosian wall.

The sea walls were manned more sparsely, with Jacobo Contarini at Stoudion, a makeshift defence force of Greek monks to his left hand, and prince Orhan at the Harbour of Eleutherius. Pere Julià was stationed at the Great Palace with Genoese and Catalan troops; Cardinal Isidore of Kiev guarded the tip of the peninsula near the boom. The sea walls at the southern shore of the Golden Horn were defended by Venetian and Genoese sailors under Gabriele Trevisano.

Two tactical reserves were kept behind in the city, one in the Petra district just behind the land walls and one near the Church of the Holy Apostles, under the command of Loukas Notaras and Nicephorus Palaeologus, respectively. The Venetian Alviso Diedo commanded the ships in the harbour.

Although the Byzantines also had cannons, they were much smaller than those of the Ottomans and the recoil tended to damage their own walls.

According to David Nicolle, despite many odds, the idea that Constantinople was inevitably doomed is wrong, and the overall situation was not as one-sided as a simple glance at a map might suggest. It has also been claimed that Constantinople was “the best-defended city in Europe” at that time.

Siege

At the beginning of the siege, Mehmet sent out some of his best troops to reduce the remaining Byzantine strongholds outside the city of Constantinople. The fortress of Therapia on the Bosphorus and a smaller castle at the village of Studius near the Sea of Marmara were taken within a few days. The Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara were taken by Admiral Baltoghlu’s fleet. Mehmet’s massive cannon fired on the walls for weeks, but due to its imprecision and extremely slow rate of reloading the Byzantines were able to repair most of the damage after each shot, limiting the cannon’s effect.

Picture9
The Ottoman Turks transport their fleet overland into the Golden Horn.

Meanwhile, despite some probing attacks, the Ottoman fleet under Suleiman Baltoghlu could not enter the Golden Horn due to the chain the Byzantines had previously stretched across the entrance. Although one of the fleet’s main tasks was to prevent any ships from outside from entering the Golden Horn, on 20 April a small flotilla of four Christian ships managed to slip in after some heavy fighting, an event which strengthened the morale of the defenders and caused embarrassment to the Sultan.  Baltoghlu’s life was spared after his subordinates testified to his bravery during the conflict.

Mehmet ordered the construction of a road of greased logs across Galata on the north side of the Golden Horn, and dragged his ships over the hill, directly into the Golden Horn on 22 April, bypassing the chain barrier. This seriously threatened the flow of supplies from Genoese ships from the—nominally neutral—colony of Pera, and demoralised the Byzantine defenders. On the night of 28 April, an attempt was made to destroy the Ottoman ships already in the Golden Horn using fire ships, but the Ottomans had been warned in advance and forced the Christians to retreat with heavy losses. Forty Italians escaped their sinking ships and swam to the northern shore. On orders of Mehmed, they were impaled on stakes, in sight of the city’s defenders on the sea walls across the Golden Horn. In retaliation, the defenders brought their Ottoman prisoners, 260 in all, to the walls, where they were executed, one by one, before the eyes of the Ottomans. With the failure of their attack on the Ottoman vessels, the defenders were forced to disperse part of their forces to defend the sea walls along the Golden Horn.

The Ottoman army had made several frontal assaults on the land wall of Constantinople, but were always repelled with heavy losses. Venetian surgeon Niccolò Barbaro, describing in his diary one of such frequent land attacks especially by the Janissaries, wrote:

They found the Turks coming right up under the walls and seeking battle, particularly the Janissaries … and when one or two of them were killed, at once more Turks came and took away the dead ones … without caring how near they came to the city walls. Our men shot at them with guns and crossbows, aiming at the Turk who was carrying away his dead countryman, and both of them would fall to the ground dead, and then there came other Turks and took them away, none fearing death, but being willing to let ten of themselves be killed rather than suffer the shame of leaving a single Turkish corpse by the walls.

After these inconclusive frontal offensives, the Ottomans sought to break through the walls by constructing tunnels in an effort to mine them from mid-May to 25 May. Many of the sappers were miners of Serbian origin sent from Novo Brdo by the Serbian despot. They were placed under the command of Zagan Pasha. However, an engineer named Johannes Grant, a German who came together with the Genoese contingent, had counter-mines dug, allowing Byzantine troops to enter the mines and kill the workers. The Byzantines intercepted the first Serbian tunnel on the night of 16 May. Subsequent tunnels were interrupted on 21, 23, and 25 May, and destroyed with Greek fire and vigorous combat. On 23 May, the Byzantines captured and tortured two Turkish officers, who revealed the location of all the Turkish tunnels, which were then destroyed.

On 21 May, Mehmet sent an ambassador to Constantinople and offered to lift the siege if they gave him the city. He promised he would allow the Emperor and any other inhabitants to leave with their possessions. Moreover, he would recognise the Emperor as governor of the Peloponnese. Lastly, he guaranteed the safety of the population that might choose to remain in the city. Constantine XI only agreed to pay higher tributes to the sultan and recognised the status of all the conquered castles and lands in the hands of the Turks as Ottoman possession.

As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives.

Around this time, Mehmet had a final council with his senior officers. Here he encountered some resistance; one of his Viziers, the veteran Halil Pasha, who had always disapproved of Mehmed’s plans to conquer the city, now admonished him to abandon the siege in the face of recent adversity. Zagan Pasha argued against Halil Pasha, and insisted on an immediate attack. Mehmet planned to overpower the walls by sheer force, expecting that the weakened Byzantine defence by the prolonged siege would now be worn out before he ran out of troops and started preparations for a final all-out offensive.

Final assault

Preparations for the final assault were started in the evening of 26 May and continued to the next day. For 36 hours after the war council decision to attack, the Ottomans extensively mobilised their manpower in order to prepare for the general offensive. Prayer and resting would be then granted to the soldiers on the 28th, and then the final assault would be launched. On the Byzantine side, a small Venetian fleet of 12 ships, after having searched the Aegean, reached the Capital on May 27 and reported to the Emperor that no large Venetian relief fleet was on its way. On May 28, as the Ottoman army prepared for the final assault, large-scale religious processions were held in the city. In the evening a last solemn ceremony was held in the Hagia Sophia, in which the Emperor and representatives of both the Latin and Greek church partook, together with nobility from both sides.

Shortly after midnight on May 29 the all-out offensive began. The Christian troops of the Ottoman Empire attacked first, followed by the successive waves of the irregular azaps, who were poorly trained and equipped, and Anatolians who focused on a section of the Blachernae walls in the north-west part of the city, which had been damaged by the cannon. This section of the walls had been built earlier, in the eleventh century, and was much weaker. The Anatolians managed to breach this section of walls and entered the city but were just as quickly pushed back by the defenders. Finally, as the battle was continuing, the last wave, consisting of elite Janissaries, attacked the city walls. The Genoese general in charge of the land troops, Giovanni Giustiniani, was grievously wounded during the attack, and his evacuation from the ramparts caused a panic in the ranks of the defenders.

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Sultan Mehmet II’s entry into Constantinople, painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854–1929).

With Giustiniani’s Genoese troops retreating into the city and towards the harbour, Constantine and his men, now left to their own devices, kept fighting and managed to successfully hold off the Janissaries for a while, but eventually they could not stop them from entering the city. The defenders were also being overwhelmed at several points in Constantine’s section. When Turkish flags were seen flying above a small postern gate, the Kerkoporta, which was left open, panic ensued, and the defence collapsed, as Janissary soldiers, led by Ulubatlı Hasan pressed forward. Many Greek soldiers ran back home to protect their families, the Venetians ran over to their ships, and a few of the Genoese got over to Galata. The rest committed suicide by jumping off the city walls or surrendered. The Greek houses nearest to the walls were the first to suffer from the Ottomans. It is said that Constantine, throwing aside his purple regalia, led the final charge against the incoming Ottomans, perishing in the ensuing battle in the streets just like his soldiers. On the other hand, Nicolò Barbaro, a Venetian eyewitness to the siege, wrote in his diary that it was said that Constantine hanged himself at the moment when the Turks broke in at the San Romano gate, although his ultimate fate remains unknown.

After the initial assault, the Ottoman Army fanned out along the main thoroughfare of the city, the Mese, past the great forums, and past the Church of the Holy Apostles, which Mehmet II wanted to provide a seat for his newly appointed patriarch which would help him better control his Christian subjects. Mehmet II had sent an advance guard to protect key buildings such as the Church of the Holy Apostles.

A small few lucky civilians managed to escape. When the Venetians retreated over to their ships, the Ottomans had already taken the walls of the Golden Horn. Luckily for the occupants of the city, the Ottomans were not interested in killing potentially valuable slaves, but rather in the loot they could get from raiding the city’s houses, so they decided to attack the city instead. The Venetian captain ordered his men to break open the gate of the Golden Horn. Having done so, the Venetians left in ships filled with soldiers and refugees. Shortly after the Venetians left, a few Genoese ships and even the Emperor’s ships followed them out of the Golden Horn. This fleet narrowly escaped prior to the Ottoman navy assuming control over the Golden Horn, which was accomplished by midday. The Army converged upon the Augusteum, the vast square that fronted the great church of Hagia Sophia whose bronze gates were barred by a huge throng of civilians inside the building, hoping for divine protection. After the doors were breached, the troops separated the congregation according to what price they might bring in the slave markets.

Ottoman casualties are unknown but they are believed by most historians to be very heavy due to several unsuccessful Ottoman attacks made during the siege and final assault. Barbaro described blood flowing in the city “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm”, and bodies of Turks and Christians floating in the sea “like melons along a canal”.

Plundering phase

Mehmet II granted his soldiers three days to plunder the city, as he had promised them and in accordance with the custom of the time. Soldiers fought over the possession of some of the spoils of war. Most of the Greek women were raped and enslaved. According to the Venetian surgeon Nicolò Barbaro, “all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city”. According to Philip Mansel, widespread persecution of the city’s civilian inhabitants took place, resulting in thousands of murders and rapes and 30,000 civilians being enslaved or forcibly deported.

The looting was extremely thorough in certain parts of the city. Four days later on 2 June, the Sultan would find the city largely deserted and half in ruins; churches had been desecrated and stripped, houses were no longer habitable and stores and shops were emptied. He is famously reported to have been moved to tears by this, speaking “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.”

Aftermath

On the third day of the conquest, Mehmed II ordered all looting to stop and issued a proclamation that all Christians who had avoided capture or who had been ransomed could return to their homes without further molestation, although many had no homes to return to, and many more had been taken captive and not ransomed. Byzantine historian George Sphrantzes, an eyewitness to the fall of Constantinople, described the Sultan’s actions:

On the third day after the fall of our city, the Sultan celebrated his victory with a great, joyful triumph. He issued a proclamation: the citizens of all ages who had managed to escape detection were to leave their hiding places throughout the city and come out into the open, as they were to remain free and no question would be asked. He further declared the restoration of houses and property to those who had abandoned our city before the siege. If they returned home, they would be treated according to their rank and religion, as if nothing had changed.— George Sphrantzes

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, but the Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to remain intact and Gennadius Scholarius was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople. This was once thought to be the origin of the Ottoman millet system; however, it is now considered a myth and no such system existed in the fifteenth century.

After the sack, many feared other European Christian kingdoms would suffer the same fate as Constantinople. Two possible responses emerged amongst the humanists and churchmen of that era: Crusade or dialogue. Pope Pius II strongly advocated for another Crusade, while Nicholas of Cusa supported engaging in a dialogue with the Ottomans.

The Morean (Peloponnesian) fortress of Mystras, where Constantine’s brothers Thomas and Demetrius ruled, constantly in conflict with each other and knowing that Mehmet would eventually invade them as well, held out until 1460. Long before the fall of Constantinople, Demetrius had fought for the throne with Thomas, Constantine, and their other brothers John and Theodore. Thomas escaped to Rome when the Ottomans invaded Morea while Demetrius expected to rule a puppet state, but instead was imprisoned and remained there for the rest of his life. In Rome, Thomas and his family received some monetary support from the Pope and other Western rulers as Byzantine emperor in exile, until 1503. In 1461 the independent Byzantine state in Trebizond fell to Mehmet.

Constantine XI had died without producing an heir, and had Constantinople not fallen he likely would have been succeeded by the sons of his deceased elder brother, who were taken into the palace service of Mehmet after the fall of Constantinople. The oldest boy, renamed to Murad, became a personal favourite of Mehmet and served as Beylerbey (Governor-General) of Rumeli (the Balkans). The younger son, renamed Mesih Pasha, became Admiral of the Ottoman fleet and Sancak Beg (Governor) of the Province of Gallipoli. He eventually served twice as Grand Vizier under Mehmet’s son, Bayezid II.

With the capture of Constantinople, Mehmet II had acquired the “natural” capital of its kingdom, albeit one in decline due to years of war. The loss of the city was a crippling blow to Christendom, and it exposed the Christian west to a vigorous and aggressive foe in the east. The Christian re-conquest of Constantinople remained a goal in Western Europe for many years after its fall to the House of Osman. Rumours of Constantine XI’s survival and subsequent rescue by an angel led many to hope that the city would one day return to Christian hands. Pope Nicholas V called for an immediate counter-attack in the form of a crusade. When no European monarch was willing to lead the crusade, the Pope himself decided to go, but his early death stopped this plan. As Western Europe entered the 16th century, the age of Crusading began to come to an end.

For some time Greek scholars had gone to Italian city-states, a cultural exchange begun in 1396 by Coluccio Salutati, chancellor of Florence, who had invited Manuel Chrysoloras, a Byzantine scholar to lecture at the University of Florence. After the conquest many Greeks, such as John Argyropoulos and Constantine Lascaris, fled the city and found refuge in the Latin West, bringing with them knowledge and documents from the Greco-Roman tradition to Italy and other regions that further propelled the Renaissance. Those Greeks who stayed behind in Constantinople mostly lived in the Phanar and Galata districts of the city. The Phanariotes, as they were called, provided many capable advisers to the Ottoman rulers.

Third Rome

Byzantium is a term used by modern historians to refer to the later Roman Empire. In its own time, the Empire ruled from Constantinople (or “New Rome” as some people call it, although this was a laudatory expression that was never an official title) was considered simply as “the Roman Empire.” The fall of Constantinople led competing factions to lay claim to being the inheritors of the Imperial mantle. Russian claims to Byzantine heritage clashed with those of the Ottoman Empire’s own claim. In Mehmet’s  view, he was the successor to the Roman Emperor, declaring himself Kayser-i Rum, literally “Caesar of Rome”, that is, of the Roman Empire, though he was remembered as “the Conqueror”. He founded a political system that survived until 1922 with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Stefan Dušan, Tsar of Serbia, and Ivan Alexander, Tsar of Bulgaria, both made similar claims, regarding themselves as legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire. Other potential claimants, such as the Republic of Venice and the Holy Roman Empire have disintegrated into history.

Impact on the Churches

In 17th-century Russia, the fall of Constantinople had a role in the fierce theological and political controversy between adherents and opponents of the reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church carried out by Patriarch Nikon, which he intended to bring the Russian Church closer to the norms and practices of other Orthodox churches. Avvakum and other “Old Believers” saw these reforms as a corruption of the Russian Church, which they considered to be the “true” Church of God. As the other Churches were more closely related to Constantinople in their liturgies, Avvakum argued that Constantinople fell to the Turks because of these heretical beliefs and practices.

The fall of Constantinople has a profound impact on the ancient Pentarchy of the Orthodox Church. Today, the four ancient sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople are almost completely devoid of followers and believers because of Islamisation and the Dhimma system to which Christians have been subjected since the earliest days of Islam. As a result of this process, the centre of authority in the Orthodox Church changed and migrated to Eastern Europe (e.g., Russia) rather than remaining in the former Byzantine Near East.

Legends

There are many legends in Greece surrounding the Fall of Constantinople. It was said that the partial lunar eclipse that occurred on 22 May 1453 represented a fulfilment of a prophecy of the city’s demise. Four days later, the whole city was blotted out by a thick fog, a condition unknown in that part of the world in May. When the fog lifted that evening, a strange light was seen playing about the dome of the Hagia Sophia, which some interpreted as the Holy Spirit departing from the city. “This evidently indicated the departure of the Divine Presence, and its leaving the City in total abandonment and desertion, for the Divinity conceals itself in cloud and appears and again disappears.” For others, there was still a distant hope that the lights were the campfires of the troops of John Hunyadi who had come to relieve the city.

Another legend holds that two priests saying divine liturgy over the crowd disappeared into the cathedral’s walls as the first Turkish soldiers entered. According to the legend, the priests will appear again on the day that Constantinople returns to Christian hands. Another legend refers to the Marble King (Constantine XI), holding that an angel rescued the emperor when the Ottomans entered the city, turning him into marble and placing him in a cave under the earth near the Golden Gate, where he waits to be brought to life again (a variant of the sleeping hero legend).

Cultural impact

Guillaume Dufay composed several songs lamenting the fall of the Eastern church, and the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, avowed to take up arms against the Turks. However, as the growing Ottoman power from this date on coincided with the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation, the recapture of Constantinople became an ever-distant dream. Even France, once a fervent participant in the Crusades, became an ally of the Ottomans. Nonetheless, depictions of Christian coalitions taking the city and of the late Emperor’s resurrection by Leo the Wise persisted. 29 May 1453, the day of the fall of Constantinople, fell on a Tuesday, and since then Tuesday has been considered an unlucky day by Greeks generally.

Impact on the Renaissance

The migration waves of Byzantine scholars and émigrés in the period following the sacking of Constantinople and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is considered by many scholars key to the revival of Greek and Roman studies that led to the development of the Renaissance humanism and science. These émigrés were grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They brought to Western Europe the far greater preserved and accumulated knowledge of their own (Greek) civilisation.

Renaming of the city

The name of Istanbul is thought to be derived from a Greek phrase and it is claimed that it had already spread among the Turkish populace of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest. However, Istanbul only became the official name of the city in 1930 by the revised Turkish Postal Law as part of Atatürk’s reforms.

By courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Muawiya the Umayyad, Imam Hasan and Imam Husain

Hasan bent down to kiss his father’s wounded brow. He then went out from the house to announce the death of their Imam to the people of Kufa. It was still Ramadan and so the streets around the great central mosque, and the aisles within, were packed with Muslims listening to the all-night recitations of the Koran that were such a feature of the holy month of fasting. Hasan had been born with a slight speech defect but he had conquered this disability to become a slow but deliberate speaker, whose measured pace was in effective contrast to his quick-tongued and fiery contemporaries. That night he described his father as a man whose acts were unrivalled and would for ever remain so. He reminded the congregation of his father’s bravery and how in battle he had often protected the Prophet with his own life. As his legal legatee, Hasan also formally reported to the people that Ali held no government loans, no treasury hoard of bullion that now needed to be returned, just a purse of 700 dirhams that he had been saving up from his salary in order to be able to acquire a servant. At the memory of the man they had now lost, fit to stand beside Abu Bakr and Omar for the absolute moral rectitude of his administration, the thirty-seven-year old Hasan found himself too moved to continue his speech. The congregation wept for him, and at the end of his father’s elegy, Ubaydallah ibn Abbas stood up and called the people to pledge their loyalty to the grandson of the bringer of good tidings, the son of the warner, the son of the summoner to God (powerful and exalted) and with his permission, the shining lamp. The congregation needed no such prompting, Hasan was adored by all.

He was also, by all accounts, the spitting image of his grandfather, and a charming conversationalist, who never spoke evil of any man. He was also a genuine ascetic, who had already performed the pilgrimage twenty-five times, travelling the whole 250 miles between Medina and Mecca on foot. He was one of the great unsung heroes of Islam, a pacifist, a scholar with a totally independent mind that looked to the true nature of a cause. Typically it was Hasan who had stood guard over Uthman’s door until rendered unconscious by the assaults of the mutineers. For despite his own father’s opposition to Uthman’s last six years of rule, Hasan had always looked beyond the day to day disagreements over policy and appointments. He had appreciated Uthman’s brilliant achievements and also had a personal sympathy for this gentle, clever, scholarly man and could empathise with the personal reticence of his aristocratic and uxorious uncle. Above all, Hasan shared with Uthman an innate understanding that mercy, forgiveness and compassion were at the root of Islam. His Islam was such that he desired neither evil nor harm to anyone and enormously admired Uthman for being prepared to die for his beliefs but not to cause the death of any man. When he preached, he summoned up, out of the teachings of the Koran, not a cause for war but the call for peace. Again and again he stressed that the lesser jihad, the armed struggle, should be just a preparation for the greater jihad which was the lifelong struggle to master oneself. He quoted Sura 2, verse 216, God has prescribed the jihad for you though it is a loathsome duty.

Hasan was ahead of his time in his vision of Islam as religion of peace-perhaps he would still be if he were with us now. The soldiers of the Kufa garrison, the same men who had refused to fight for his father on the fourth day of Siffin and after that tragic day at Nahrawan, now angrily demanded he lead them to war.

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Those two decades of endless victories when the Arab armies had conquered half the known world had introduced a very dangerous imbalance into early Islam. For far too many young Muslims had grown used to the idea that their faith would be reflected in military victory. They erroneously saw glorious triumphs in this world, fame, glory and wealth as proofs of the rightness of Islam. They could no longer understand that Muhammad’s message was entirely about the individual’s relationship to God and was not a charmed banner under which they were destined to conquer the world.

In vain did Hasan preach that like all true Muslims they should aspire to abandon worldly ambition, that shame is better than hellfire and that he sought not a worldly dominion but to seek the favour of God, and to spare the blood of the people. Instead the soldiers began to publicly abuse their prince until they had worked up their passions into a riot. Hasan’s house was looted, his prayer mat was ripped from underneath him and his tunic pulled from his shoulders. Only the protection of the mounted warriors of the Rabi tribe, devoted partisans of Ali and his family, stopped Hasan from being martyred that day. The violence only made Hasan absolutely determined to end the schism within Islam and halt any further bloodshed between Muslims.

Muawiya for his part moved with speed and tact, once he began to fully appreciate that Hasan was not indulging in some per-fight propaganda but was genuinely seeking lasting peace. He led his army out of Syria, but showed a gracious forbearance to his opponents as he advanced ever closer to Kufa and Basra. He responded to Hasan’s pious modesty by dropping all his own claims to imposing titles of power, so that the correspondence between the two over the peace was simply addressed between Hasan ibn Ali and Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan. Another chronicler recorded that Muawiya sent his seal already attached to a completely blank draft of the proposed treaty – so that Hasan could fill in whatever terms he desired. These charming gestures may well have occurred, a public duel in chivalry, even if no one was in any doubt of the true issues at hand. Hasan agreed to relinquish all authority to Muawiya in exchange for an agreement not to harm any of the supporters of Ali, and to govern by the book of God and the example of the Prophet. This he would do by letter and by word, explaining to the congregation in the Kufa mosque that he had ceded his right to rule for the best interest of the community and for the sake of sparing blood. Muawiya acknowledged that the reign would belong to Hasan after him (although this would soon be quietly forgotten) and that to avoid all future strife the next Caliph was to be decided by a formal electoral council. Hasan was assured of an annual salary of a million dirhams, with which he could generously support his companions, all the Beni Hashim and the old clients of his father.

In July 661 Hasan and his younger brother Husain rode out of Kufa and took the road back to Medina, Hasan had ruled for just six months

with the skills of the Arabs in my hand, for they were ready to make war on whomever I declared war, yet I abandoned it, seeking instead the face of God.

His enemies would later attempt to blacken his saintly pacific nature by naming Hasan al-Mitlaq, the great divorcer. Tales of his extravagant wedding parties, his boundless generosity and the hundred wives that he took in Medina, some for no more than a night, read like episodes from The Thousand and One Nights. Though the details of these fantasies are a still relished element of popular culture they must also be recognised as the traces of black propaganda designed to discredit this man of peace. Hasan’s seven marriages and descendants are exceptionally well chronicled, for practically all of the thousands of families of Shareefs that claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad trace their descent through one of Hasan’s two surviving sons, Zayd and Hasan.*

* The families who trace their descent from his brother are customarily known as Sayyid.

Muawiya entered Kufa as the sole recognised Caliph of the Arab Empire. He promised forgiveness to all those in the Kufa garrison who immediately came forth to pledge allegiance, though he warned that after three days the season for pardon and protection would be at an end. He also promised the assembled soldiers a vast new horizon for their ambitions: an ever-expanding Arab Empire to be forged from their future conquests. Salaries would be paid punctually from now on, wars would always be fought in the territory of the enemy, with campaigning seasons for border raids set a six months, while for more ambitious conquests the Arab warriors should be prepared for a whole year’s absence from their base camps and their families.

The armies of the Caliphate were soon to be on the march again, further extending the frontiers of the empire. Muawiya had always believed that the way to keep an army of Arabs obedient was to keep it well occupied. At the head of these Arab armies stood a man whom Omar had prophetically described as the Caesar of the Arabs. Muawiya was indeed a prince among the Quraysh, tall, tanned and handsome. He also had the common touch of Caesar, the ability to charm, persuade and delegate rather than merely to command. Muawiya had grown up in the political heart of Mecca with an instinctive grasp of Arab political culture: when it was expedient to listen, when it was time to consult and when to be patient. His most consistent military opponent, the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire, got to know the measure of the man through the constant shuffle of ambassadorial diplomacy. It is therefore especially intriguing that the Byzantine historian, Theophanes chose to describe Muawiya as neither the king if the Arabs nor their emperor but as their first counsellor. For as long as Muawiya could lead and direct the Arab armies to victory there was no doubt that they would accept his counsel. As a commander-in-chief, Muawiya was a near-genius, and the range of his strategic vision is astonishing to behold.

On the western front, the battle hardened nephew of Amr, Oqba ibn Nafi was dispatched to complete the conquest of North Africa. In 670, to facilitate this, an advance base would be established some 1500 miles west of Fustat in central Tunisia. This kairouan, a temporary halting place of the Arab cavalry army, was well sighted: it not only dominated the good grazing grounds of the steppe but it allowed Oqba to drive a strategic wedge between his two opponents, the walled Byzantine cities of the coast and the fierce Berber principalities of the mountains. Oqba’s halting place would eventually grow into the holy city of Kairouan. There was a setback, for after the death of his old uncle Amr (in Egypt) Oqba would row with the new governor-general and, like his uncle before him, Oqba would be sacked. But like his uncle, he would also return to take command and exact his revenge. In 681 he would make his exploratory ride across the southern steppe lands of North Africa, stopping only when he reached the end of the road, the shores of the Atlantic – known to the Arabs as the Sea of Obscurity. Here he protested that if there was a ford, he would cross it, in order to find new lands to conquer in the name of God. On his ride back Oqba would be killed by a Berber prince, Kusayla, outside the oasis of Biskra (in southern Algeria) after which the witch-queen of the mountains, the priestess Kahina, would raise the Berber tribes in a widespread revolt against the Arab Muslims. With this extraordinary narrative of events, North African Islam created its own historical mythology.

On the northern frontier, the Arab navy that Muawiya had so patiently created over the past two decades was at last given free rein and let loose on the sea lanes of the southern Aegean. Sicily and Crete were both repeatedly attacked and in 672 Rhodes was occupied. An Arab inscription recently found carved into a church floor in Cnidus (on the Turkish coast opposite Rhodes) may date from these swashbuckling years – in which case it is one of the earliest Arabic inscriptions in existence. An Arab colony was then settled on the island of Rhodes and an enterprising merchant from this vanguard community would make a fortune by smelting down the Colossus of Rhodes, the great brazen statue of Helios that had been toppled by an earthquake some 300 years before.

Using Rhodes as an advanced base, Muawiya launched his most ambitious operation, a marine-based assault on the triple-walled city of Constantinople. The siege, a series of attacks by the sea, would last for ten years, from 668 to 678. The mosque that was established at Eyup, the base camp just outside the land walls of Constantinople, would be rediscovered by Ottoman archaeologists in the fifteenth century and restored in magnificent style to become the oldest Muslim prayer hall in Europe. It was an extraordinary achievement to have kept an army in the field for that length of time so far from their homeland. They were entirely dependent on control of the sea route, so that when an Arab fleet was defeated by a Byzantine squadron, at the battle of Syllaeum in 678, Muawiya wisely called off the siege which had been commanded by his first-born son, Yazid. In the process of this orderly withdrawal, a truce was agreed with Byzantium that woulda last for a whole generation. The Muslim world would have to wait another 800 years before it had a leader who could breach the walls of the city of the Caesars. The Byzantine land frontier, embedded with the dozens of stout castles that guarded all the important passes through the Taurus mountains, had remained firmly in place throughout the ten-year siege. On this frontier Muawiya had raised up one of Khalid’s surviving sons, Abdal Rahman, to become governor of Homs and to lead the summer raids of the Arab armies against the mountain redoubts.

In the troublesome east Muawiya would leave nothing to chance. He chose the most resilient power-politicians of the day to govern the two potential trouble spots: the Iraqi cities of Kufa and Basra. So once again that one-eyed rogue Mughira was promoted to rule over Kufa, while his fellow Taif-born protege Zayyad, watched over Basra. Trusting in no one’s good faith, they established the infrastructure of state power complete with a police force (the dreaded shurta) , law courts, prisons, treasury officials and curfews as well as covert agents to report on the mood on the markets and the gossip at the doors of the mosque. Under these two political bosses the two garrison cities of Iraq were made to concentrate their energies ont the coordinated conquest of the far eastern frontiers of Persia. Muawiya had skilfully bound Zayyad into a position of personal loyalty by settling the delicate matter of his social origins (for he was literally the bastard son of a whore), by officially recognising Zayyad as one of his father’s lost sons. Zayyad was no longer to be referred to by the tongue-in-cheek patronymic ibn Abihi, the son of his father, but as the son of the great warlord of Mecca, Abu Sufyan. Later Muawiya would heap further rewards on this new brother by making Zayyad’s son Ubaydallah the governor of the new 50,000 strong garrison city in Khurasan, while Caliph Uthman’s son Saeed was given command of the newly conquered forward post of Bukhara.

Throughout Muawiya’s nineteen-year reign (AD 661-680) the centre of administrative power was firmly located upon Damascus. No longer did foreign ambassadors, confidential agents, officials and delegations make the long and arduous journey across central Arabia to Medina. Instead they once again made their way to the old commercial capital of Byzantine Syria, now doubly glorious as the new political centre of a worldwide empire. There was, however, no attempt to coordinate the vast conquests into a coherent Arabic -speaking-empire. Each conquered province continued to use its own language, it’ own indigenous class of state officials and units of measurement as well as retaining the exact units and shapes of the traditional coinages, the gold dinar of Byzantium and the silver dirham of Persia. The simplicity of the Prophet’s life and rule had now been totally transformed, so that even one of Muawiya’s deputy governors was now surrounded by the panoply of power consciously modelled on the Byzantine and Sassanid courts, and a visiting foreign ambassador could observe a crowd of silver-sticks and lectors, and at his gate 500 soldiers mounted guard.

At the beginning of his rule as Caliph, Muawiya had made the journey from Damascus to the oasis of Medina in order to accept the oath of allegiance from all the old revered Companions of the Prophet who dwelt there. Few came to the mosque to pledge their obedience, for though they might reluctantly accept the efficiency of his administration and the continued success of his armies, they could manage only a passive tolerance of his usurpation and would not give him their active support or blessing. It is remembered that Muawiya tried to take them to task over this indifference. He asked, How come all the people have come to swear allegiance except those from Medina? To which the laconic reply was, We have no riding camels. Muawiya, knowing full well that all the Companions now possessed sizeable herds, replied in the same offhand spirit, But what became of all those camels you used to use for fetching water? They were lamed when we chased after you and your father after the battle of Badr was the derisive reply. To drive the point home further they proceeded to inform Muawiya that the Prophet had warned them of a state of calamity after his death, to which he commanded us to be resigned. That was to be the extent of the loyalty he could expect from all the chief men of Islam-patient resignation. Others in the oasis remembered that Muhammad had predicted that the succession to his prophethood would last for thirty years, to be followed by a biting kingship. These beliefs were to be codified with the pleasing prospect of eternal damnation for the usurper Caliph, by a poet of Medina who sang at this time:

The Prince of the Faithful, Muawiya, we greet him
In his message from the Prophet’s own city:
We will be resigned till the Day when we meet him,
The last Day of Judgement,the Day without pity.

Towards the end of his reign Muawiya would once again try to win over the chief men of Islam to his rule. The empire had been ceaselessly expanded in every direction, their annual stipends had been paid with relentless punctuality and efficiency, but when the leading Muslims of the second generation of Islam heard that Caliph Muawiya was coming again to Medina they voted with their feet. Husain ibn Ali, Abdur Rahman ibn Abu Bakr, Abdullah ibn Zubayr and Abdullah ibn Omar waited until the old ruler was within a few days ride of the oasis before they saddled their camels and rode out of town. They feared that he had come to force them into accepting his son Yazid as a suitable candidate for the Caliphate. It was not just that Yazid was debauched and addicted to hunting that horrified them, for like his father he was also an experienced administrator and a proven army commander as well as being a poet and a patron of learning. What was even more insulting to them was that Yazid was being imposed upon them like a crown prince who had first been hailed by Muawiya’s generals and governors at the sycophantic court of Damascus. The shura, the Council of Companions at Medina, had been brushed aside and with it all their claims to an honoured place in the new society. All the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs had first been acclaimed by the people of Medina but this right and duty had now been brushed aside in favour of the courtiers at Damascus. Muawiya had also broken his solemn pledge to hold a shura, which had been part of the peace agreement with Hasan. None of the previous Caliphs had thought to impose their own sons on the community, and had looked beyond the narrow loyalties of a family towards their brothers in faith. Muawiya was turning a community of believers into a hereditary kingdom to be based on the military power of distant Syria. Rather than accept this ultimate degradation, these young men, the heirs of all the chief Companions of Muhammad and the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs, would each in his own way be prepared to die. This would form the last bitter act in the long-drawn-out tragedy of the Heirs of the Prophet.

In 680 the seventy-seven-year old Muawiya was buried, his body decorated with a carefully hoarded treasury of relics, for the nail clippings and hairs from Muhammad’s head and beard had already acquired a totem-like reverence that would have appalled the Prophet.*

*Though this treasury would be destroyed eighty years later by his dynastic rivals, his tomb can still be found in Damascus’s old cemetery.

In Damascus Yazid was acclaimed as the successor to the Prophet of God by all his father’s loyal placemen, that court of governors, generals, police chiefs and treasury officials that Muawiya had commanded for half a lifetime.

In Medina the mosque was filled with groans and silent tears at the decisive emergence of a dynastic monarchy triumphing over the religion of God. From Kufa streamed a series of messengers, calling upon Husain in Medina to ride north and lead them against the usurpation of the Islamic world by the thirty-seven-year old Yazid and to reclaim his rightful place at the head of the community. Husain, urged on by the chief men of Medina decided to respond and follow in his father’s footsteps by riding out of the oasis to assume the leadership of the true armies of Islam. Having summoned the last grandson of the Prophet to lead them out of slavery, they now failed to honour their own appointment. Watched over by the police and the secret agents of their implacable governor, not a man, not a youth left the teeming garrison city to join Husain on the desert trail. Instead Husain’s young cousin, Muslim, who had secretly journeyed up to Kufa and gone to ground in a safe house to await Husain, was betrayed. He was arrested with his host Hani by the shurta and led away to his death.
The governor Ubaydallah (who had succeeded his father Zayyad to both Basra and Kufa) now felt secure enough to order his own army out into the desert. Husain and his small body of devoted followers and family, numbering around thirty horsemen and forty warriors on foot, would not be deterred from their mission. The Bedouin tribes, through whose territory he rode, looked longingly at their potential young Caliph, though none of the chiefs (having heard of the silence at Kufa) would commit to rallying their men to the true cause. A fervent supporter, the poet, Farazdaq, rode out to warn Husain of the treachery of Kufa,

for though the heart of the City is with thee, its sword is against thee.

Still Husain rode on.

A detachment of cavalrymen under the command of Hurr from the Kufa garrison now emerged to bar the direct path to Kufa but also to stop Husain’s small caravan from turning back to Mecca. Then a few weeks later, a much larger force of 4000 cavalrymen issued out from Kufa to surround Husain and his men. They were now forced to make camp at Kerbala,* just above the bank of the Euphrates about 25 miles from Kufa.

* also spelled Karbala.

The commander of this new cavalry force was Amr, one of the sons of Saad ibn Abu Waqqas, the victor of al-Qadisiya. He had been ordered by Ubaydallah to deprive Husain and his supporters of any access to water until they had pledged unconditional submission. Husain for his part asked only to be allowed to meet Yazid face to face; or if that was impossible to be allowed to join the jihad on some forgotten frontier against the enemies of Islam. Despite the crippling thirst imposed upon his young family and his few faithful followers, Husain refused to submit to the unconditional pledge demanded of him. The dignity with which he conducted himself had by now so impressed Amr ibn Saad that he began to waiver in his mission. However, the arrival of Shamir, a confidential agent of Ubaydallah who demanded to take over the command if Amr proved himself incapable of acting, stiffened the resolve of the army. That evening Husain’s little camp at Kerbala, a cluster of tents reinforced by a small fence formed out of brushwood and thorns, was placed under close siege.

Husain now feared the worst, and on the evening of the 9th of the month of Muharram (9 October 680) he ordered his close kinsmen and young family to leave the camp and seek refuge with the enemy. This they would not do, even though Husain’s young son Ali now lay delirious with fever and there was no longer so much as a drop of water with which to relieve the parched lips of the Prophet’s infant great-grandson. That night the muffled cries of the children mingled with the sobs of the women and the soft screech of the whetstone as the small band of desiccated warriors carefully sharpened their swords and their lances for their last battle. In the morning they drew up their battle line, 70 men ranged against over 4000, and again Husain proudly offered his terms. As the small band advanced they were cut down by the massed ranks of archers, who fired shower upon pitiless shower, so that the arrows fell like a hailstorm upon them. Neither Husain’s ten year old nephew Kasim, nor even his infant son, was spared, as one by one the family of Muhammad fell writhing to the ground. Then the members of this mortally wounded clan were trampled into the dust by a cavalry charge, after which their heads were hacked off by swordsmen. Before dusk had settled over the fields of Kerbala, seventy heads had been rolled out from bloodied leather sacks on to the palace floor of the governor of Kufa. As Ubaydallah carefully turned these grim relics over with his staff, the better to make a positive identification, one of the old judges attached to his court cried out, Gently, it is the Prophet’s grandson and by God I have seen those very lips kissed by the blessed Apostle himself.

It is the memory of this fearful day* that unleashes the annual passion of regret and self-recrimination which is the Ashura (the tenth) on the 10th day of Muharram. Acknowledged by both Shia and Sunni as a day of mourning, the passionate commemoration of Ashura is perceived to be one of the distinctive signs of a Shiite community.

*The only survivor among the men was Husain’s son Ali Zayn al-Abidin, who lay transfixed by fever in his tent but would later recover his health.

The news of Kerbala sent a ripple of horror around the entire Islamic world. In Medina and Mecca, Abdallah ibn Zubayr now openly led defiance against those officials of Muawiya who sought to enforce the rule of his son Yazid. To complete the mortal tragedy perpetuated at Kerbala, there was now to be a physical defilement of the Holy Cities. Three years after Kerbala, in 688, an army sent out from Damascus, bolstered by regiments of Christians from Syria, first slaughtered the defenders of Medina in a battle fought out in the volcanic landscape of the Harran hills and then sacked, looted and raped its way through the capital of Islam for three days. Then holy Mecca itself was besieged. Two months into this offensive, the Kaaba was burned down to the ground when it was accidentally hit by the naptha-treated arrows launched by the besiegers. The sacred black stone that had been set into the Kaaba wall during the manhood of the Prophet Muhammad was fractured into three pieces by the heat of the blaze, like the torn bosoms of mourning women. This stone believed to be the altar of Abraham would henceforth be held together only by rivets of silver. At about the same time, the forty-year old Caliph who had ordered this conflict expired in his isolated hunting palace in the Syrian desert. A creative Persian poet commemorated his death with the immortal lines

the dead body of Yazid
lying in his pleasure palace at Hawwarin
with a cup next to his pillow
and a wineskin whose nose was still bleeding

When the news was brought to his army, they halted the siege and prepared to return to Damascus.

It was just fifty years since the death of Muhammad. A vast empire had been conquered from out of which poured an annual tribute of millions upon millions of gold and silver coins, which first filed into the coffers of the Caliph’s treasury in Damascus and from there flowed out to support a salaried ruling class. A hundred thousand Arab warriors now dwelt in half a dozen garrison cities, housed in comfort, equipped with the finest weapons, armour and horses cared for by the labour of slaves in a manner beyond the wildest dreams of their grandfathers. In Mecca the house of God was a burned-out ruin and in a neglected field at Kerbala the headless corpses of the murdered family of the Prophet of God lay buried. It was as if the things of this earth had been won but in the process the kingdom of heaven had been forgotten.

All Muslims feel the horror of this transformation, the gradual corruption of the moral rule of God as established by the Prophet Muhammad to a mere temporal empire ruled over by Muawiya’s heirs, the Umayyad dynasty. This forbidding example helps explain the political fatalism that is so often encountered among Muslim communities. If it was just fifty years after they had buried the Prophet of God that the godly rule of the saintly Companions was so decisively overthrown, what hope have we in this even more corrupt and less religious age? Did not the Prophet himself declare, No time cometh upon you but is followed by a worse and that The best of my people are my generation; then they that come after them; then they that come after them? Is it not true that this world is for the likes of Muawiya, Mughira, Amr and Zayyad rather than the saints?

To make a safe haven of the brief period of the true Islam on earth, the majority of Muslims continue to look back upon the rule of the first four Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali, 632-661) as the Eden of good government before the fall from grace. This is the Sunni position. Others see even this period as a flawed and corrupted version of true Islam, and instead like to imagine the shape of a Muslim state if the true spiritual heroes, Ali and his sons, had been the leaders of this community of faith. That is the difference between how the Sunni and the Shia regard the story of the Heirs of the Prophet. From this small but passionately important detail, two distinct paths of Islam would develop, each with its own history of who is the true heir of the Prophet. There is no group within the vast body of Muslims, either now or back in the seventh century, who see the triumph of Muawiya and his brilliant team of political operators, Mughira, Amr and Zayyad, as other than a profound tragedy.

Those who have been born outside the Muslim heritage of faith are free to honour both pathways and to remember that two rival narratives can yet become one. For while the Sunni version tells of how the Prophet Muhammad died on the lap of Aisha, and while the Shia tell of how the Prophet Muhammad died leaning on the shoulder of Ali, we know that both versions may be literally as well as figuratively true.

Ten days before he had died the Prophet Muhammad had prayed over the tombs of the dead, Peace be upon you, O people of the graves. Rejoice in your state, how much better is it than the state of men now living. Dissensions come like waves of darkest night, the one following hard upon the other, each worse than the last.
It is a dispiriting testimony from a brilliantly successful leader at what is otherwise considered to have been the triumphant conclusion of his life. But then the future leadership and political organisation of mankind was never his purpose. As the Koran so clearly states (Sura 42:15), God is our Lord and your Lord. We have our words and you have yours. There is no argument between us and you. God will bring us together, for the journey is to him.

If one looks to find a true Heir to the Prophet Muhammad, look not for thrones, or through dynastic lists of kings, look not to the triumphant progress of a great conqueror or at the beaming smiles and promises of a popular politician. Look out for on who journeys towards God.

By courtesy

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