on 23 February 2007
Loads of high-profile historical books are praised to the rafters these days, and yet when you read them you often find that the writer has not fully got to grips with the subject matter, and you end up absorbing little real knowledge or deriving much entertainment.
This book is an exception. Lucid, exciting and thoroughly entertaining, this is one of the best I've ever read.
on 7 March 2009
As mentioned elsewhere, this reads almost like fiction ... except it's real, painstakingly sifted and pieced together from a multitude of sources on both sides. The picture that emerges is more complex than I expected; it's about far more than Sultan Mehmet turning up with his huge army and battering the walls down with his great siege guns. Just as important to the outcome was the machinations going on behind those walls and in Christendom as a whole; this is a story of divine portents and tragic schism; of Christians taken and converted (or not) to fight their erstwhile brethren; of commercial greed and rivalry that sometimes took precedence over shared faith, culture, and strategic interests.
Most poignantly, it's the story of a doomed emperor standing with his allies and subjects against overwhelming odds, determined not to be the one to surrender a heritage of 1000+ years and the last living link to antiquity.
The author brings out several turning points where things could have gone differently, that make you wonder "what if?" ... but even as you do so, you realise -- because of the broader picture that he paints -- that even if Constantinople had survived this particular siege (as it had so many before) its ultimate fall was inevitable.
The fall of Constantinople (or the taking of Istanbul depending on your own perspective), was one of the defining moments for both Christendom and the Islamic caliphate. In 1453 the last bastion of the eastern Roman Empire fell to the onslaught of an organised and effective Ottoman campaign. It is a subject around which there is much debate, and obviously incredibly topical given the global conflict between the nominally Christian west and the more devoutly Islamic world. Turkish aspirations for EU membership also place the city’s fall in a more contemporary political context. Finally the Balkan tinderbox which had produced countless internal conflicts, national wars and even one World War, became so fragmented and mixed due to initial Ottoman successes in the region.
But all of these things are centuries away from the concerns of this book. Roger Crowley has focused this narrative history entirely on the campaign for the city undertaken by Mehmet against the now shrunken remnants of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the glories of Rome. The text explains in clear, lucid terms the background, but is a perfect introduction to the subject by not over-elaborating on the intricate details of past Byzantine-Ottoman conflicts and diplomacy. Instead a broader picture is painted, taking in the treachery of the Italian city states, the precarious position of truncated Byzantium, the desperate attempts to reach a compromise over the Orthodox/Catholic differences in doctrine and the increasing power of the Ottoman state.
By the year 1453 it is clear that the city of Constantinople, the inheritor of Rome and the centre of the Eastern orthodox world is a shadow of its former glorious past. Its riches had already been stripped in the chaotic and rapacious fourth crusade, its hinterland was either under direct control of Ottoman forces, or weakened by enemy incursions. Various other scattered possessions, the Despot of Moria, a sprinkling of port cities and the reduced Empire of Nicaea were a sad shadow for an Empire which had dominated eastern and central Europe.
Crowley uses the more intimate accounts of the siege, drawing heavily from the surviving accounts on both the Byzantine and Ottoman side. These are augmented by the sabre rattling discourses between the Genoan and Venetian forces who all had extensive commercial and mercantile interests in the preservation of a Christian city.
Crowley’s work is a fine narrative. The end is obvious, but even so there seems to be a glimmer of hope for the inhabitants as their defences are continually attacked but resilient. Various omens, most notably the fall of the blessed icon of Mary, protector of the city, on a procession round the walls, seemed to spell defeat. And by the end it was a simple matter of time. The determination of Mehmet is contrasted with the desperate but brave defence of Emperor Constantine.
Crowley manages to fit a lot into what is a relatively short history. He highlights the wrangling between papacy and patriarchy over what would today seem like minor matters (chiefly the concept of the filioque clause and the authority of the Pope), the role of new technology, the canons and gunpowder which finally toppled the previously impregnable city walls, and the in infighting in Christian Europe which prevented a concerted rescue mission.
In the end Crowley’s is a very intimate and personal history, focusing on the individuals who led the defence, the attack, those who were witnesses and those who received the news of final defeat either in chest-beating, wailing sorrow or jubilant, satisfied pleasure. Even though the world was a very different place over 500 years ago, the human emotions and desires were the same.
One criticism is that Crowley’s titular aim for the book, to prove this as being a holy war for the city is only partially successful. Of course Constantinople was infamous for its heightened religious zeal, and so any conflict here would be marked with Christian rhetoric. And there is no doubt that the desire to conquer the unconverted was a central tenant of the Ottoman interpretation of Islam. But the chief concerns of both defenders and attackers went beyond the divine. They were the regular, mundane desires for temporal glory, commercial wealth and power. This becomes clear with Mehmet’s actions following victory, and even Crowley moves towards this conclusion towards the end of the book. It is a relatively minor point in what is a fine addition to the narrative history of the period, and an extremely good introduction to what can be a complex and much debated point in history.
on 4 September 2009
I read this book as preparation for a trip to Istanbul. We arrived at a small hotel a hundred yards (if that) from Hagia Sophia. Whilst there I read the book again. What gripped me was the ploy and counter ploy of the Ottomans and Byzantines. The desperation and bravery of the beseiged and how so very close they came to resisting for a little longer the Ottoman conquest. I was thrilled, moved to tears and totally captivated by a story whose ending I already knew (I had read J J Norwich's trilogy). To be 'on the spot' added a depth of poignancy and some sadness to the visit. I would recommend this book as a fantastic read.......and then visit Istanbul and go to the land walls ...I defy you not to be moved!!!
on 13 July 2016
Although the end of the siege seems inevitable from the start Crowley paints a detailed picture of events showing how close things came to going the other way against all odds.
The politics of the time, in all it craziness, is shown in detail with history and myth making both sides behave in often unexpected ways.
Mehmet comes across as a surprisingly modern ruler in some ways, trying to build an empire but a surprisingly tolerant one, Muslim at its core but almost secular in its outlook and treatment of other cultures and religions.
Crowley shows us all the main players, in as much detail as reliable accounts can give, and takes us through the tactics and difficulties faced by both sides as they balance religion and warfare.
It is an thoroughly interesting read but not as compelling as some of his others.
on 10 January 2007
I really enjoyed this book. The style is scholarly and it is very well researched but still accesible and easy to read.
The author gives a powerful account of a terrible and brutal siege where the defenders of the city of Constantinople defend themselves against a huge attacking force sent by the Ottoman sultan. Atrocities are committed by both sides. The defenders are heavily outnumbered, largely abandoned by the Christian world and under constant bombardment from the Ottoman cannon. Eventually the walls that have protected the city for hundreds of years are breached and the city falls.
The book is very well written and the author builds up the drama and tension of the siege very well. The fall of Constantinople is shown as a traumatic event for Christian Europe although the author suggests at the end that maybe life under the Ottoman rule was not all bad !
on 18 January 2007
I had recently completed John Julius Norwich's excellent 3 volume history of the Byzantine Empire, but when he reaches the climax of his story, the Fall of Constantinople, he muffs it with a rushed account. This fills the gap and does it's subject full justice.
Exciting, gripping and written in an almost cinematic style I cannot recommend this book highly enough, both to those interested in history and those who simply like a good story.