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Constantinople fallen or Istambul conquered?,
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This review is from: 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (Hardcover)
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.
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Initial post: 24 Mar 2012, 20:05:45 GMT
Medieval Lady says:
"the precarious position of truncated Byzantium". Perhaps this had something to do with literally centuries of Arab/Turkish attacks and invasions of the Byzantine Empire. People focus too much on the fall of the Great City of Constantinople and forget this was simply the culmination of a conquest that had lasted 700 years.
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