For Westerners, what is the conquest of Istanbul?

Published 04.12.2019 02:01
Updated 20.12.2019 02:07

This year marks the 556th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul, but Westerners are still feeling a bit raw about it. They have never accepted the fall of the last Roman Empire’s capital to the Turks. In order to overcome the shock of the conquest and belittle the city’s capture, Westerners fabricated a story immediately after the conquest about a gate accidentally being left open, leading to the city’s fall, to consol their hurt pride.

After lengthy preparations, the Ottoman army arrived before the Byzantine walls on April 6, 1453. Beginning on the night of April 6, cannons began pounding the walls. Breaches in the walls were immediately repaired by the defenders. Two great assaults were launched on May 7 and May 12 with no results. Following that, most of the Ottoman cannons were moved to the area between Topkapı and Edirnekapı, and the assaults were concentrated on the weakest section of the walls. The prolonged siege placed the Ottoman army in a difficult position because of possible help from Europe; meanwhile, a Venetian fleet arrived in the Aegean. On May 25, the last call for surrender was sent to the Byzantines.

Some Byzantines decided to surrender, but their Italian allies strongly opposed that. At this time, rumors about the Hungarians coming to help the Byzantines dispirited the Ottoman troops. The danger was great. Grand Vizier Çandarlı Halil Paşa argued again for lifting the siege, which he had been defending from the start. But Zağanos Paşa, Şehabeddin Paşa, Turahan Bey and Akşemseddin, the mentor of Mehmed II the Conqueror, insisted on maintaining the siege. It was decided to launch a massive assault. The soldiers were informed that they would be allowed three days of looting after the capture of the city.

The last assault

On May 28, 1453, all troops were ordered to prepare for the last attack on the city. Before dawn on May 29, the last assault began at the order of the young sultan, with the battle cries of charging soldiers. The Janissary band (mehter) kept playing to inspire the soldiers. The Byzantines rang all church bells in the city in response to the sounds of the mehter band. The charge of the Ottoman troops never ceased. Mehmed the Conqueror first sent the azab soldiers and the Christian troops in his army to the walls.

The elite corps of the Ottoman army was positioned behind the advance forces attacking the walls, waiting for them to tire out the enemy and their turn to come. After hours of clashes, Mehmed II ordered the janissaries to attack to deal the final blow.

The Byzantines had no more strength to stand against the Ottoman army, which had lost thousands of soldiers. The city was under attack from all sides. But the real battle was taking place in front of the walls between Topkapı and Edirnekapı. When he realized that the area was the weakest point of the city walls, Mehmed the Conqueror had it destroyed with persistent cannon fire that lasted for days and by detonating explosives placed beneath the walls. So, the main attack was concentrated on that section. Giovanni Giustiniani, the Genoese captain who had been appointed as the commander of land defenses, was wounded by shrapnel from a cannonball.

As he was carried by his men to a ship moored in the Golden Horn, the Byzantines lost heart. Meanwhile, upon seeing Turkish soldiers climbing the walls near Topkapı, the Byzantines fled back into the city. Turkish banners were raised one after another on Topkapı's walls. Istanbul was instantly filled with the cry of “The city fell, the city fell.” The Byzantine flags with a double-headed eagle and the Lion of St. Mark were replaced by Turkish flags. The city’s defenses collapsed. Thousands of Turkish soldiers began to enter the city. While Byzantines were rushing back to their homes to defend their families, some inhabitants and foreigners fled to ships waiting in the Golden Horn. By noon, the city was under the control of Turks.

The crucial gate

From Joseph von Hammer, the first great historian of the Ottoman Empire, to the novelist Stefan Zweig, many Western historians and men of letters have depicted the final stage of the conquest of Istanbul as follows: “A group of Turkish soldiers walking near the walls found that one of the small postern gates, called Kerkoporta (Cambazhane) which was between Edirnekapı and Eğrikapı, was accidentally left open. They notified other soldiers, and the Turks eventually conquered Istanbul by gaining entry to the city through this gate. Kerkoporta, an unimportant gate, and a small incident had thus changed the course of world history.”

This information is provided only by the Byzantine historian Doukas, who was in Lesbos during the siege and did not witness the city’s fall. The account has not been confirmed by other sources from the same period. Analyses of the Turkish sources of the period and other Latin and Byzantine sources like Barbaro and Dolfin of the same era show that his account is not consistent with the final stage of the conquest. Rumors about a gate being left open have nothing to do with facts.

This detail was fabricated to overcome the shock of the conquest and belittle the city’s capture by Turks. This narrative is very common in the West. According to a majority of local and foreign historians, however, Turkish soldiers entered the city after clashes through a point near today’s Topkapı. Indeed, that area came to be called “Top Yıkığu Mahallesi" ("Cannon-breached Quarter") following the conquest because of the damage the walls sustained.


On March 24, 2000, the Turkish daily Milliyet published an interesting interview with Japanese scholar professor Yuzo Nagata, a historian of the Ottoman Empire. Remarking, “You seem conditioned to see yourself through the eyes of the West,” Nagata responded to reporter Nazire Kalkan’s question with: “What makes Japanese Turkologists different from Westerners?” Nagata's answer is one we should never forget: “Westerners are always Orientalist. This view ruins everything. We think this way: you have to understand the Ottomans first to understand the West. This is a very new perspective in Japan."

Of course, the history discipline itself, in general, is also seeking a new perspective across the world. Old views lost their relevance. An important perspective was lost after the collapse of Marxism. The Ottoman Empire becomes more important within this context. It was a Muslim state but its close relationship with Europe makes it different from others. Europe took a lot from Turkish culture during its modernization, ranging from Moliere to amusement parks. Those conducting research on Europe increasingly acknowledge this fact. Let me tell you a personal anecdote. During the 1960s, I was crossing the Galata Bridge with an American Turkologist. I stopped and said, “Look, how beautiful Istanbul is.” And the American responded, “Oh yes, if only it did not belong to the Turks.”

*Historian, Chancellor of National Defense University, Ankara

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