The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
In 1559, the Ottoman Sultan Mehemd II sent envoys to the Principality of Wallachia to inquire why the jizya (The Islamic tax on non-believers) had not been paid. Wallachia’s voivode, or prince, Vlad III Dracula (“Dracula” because he was the son of Vlad II Dracul) felt that his rule over Wallachia was sufficiently consolidated, and that he no longer needed the Turks. He knew war would come with the Ottoman Empire if he didn’t pay so in his customarily bloodthirsty manner, Vlad provoked one. He asked the envoys why they didn’t remove their turbans in his presence, and when they replied it was not their custom, he had his guards nail the turbans to their heads.
After ambushing and defeating the army the sultan sent for revenge, Vlad III Dracula invaded Bulgaria. He slaughtered, by his own words, over 25,000 Turks and Bulgars, “…without counting those whom we burned in [their] homes or the Turks whose heads were cut [off] by our soldiers…” In retaliation, Mehmed II sent a massive army of over 130,000 against Vlad to annex Wallachia outright.
Vlad could muster only about 30,000 men against this force, so he needed to reduce the Turkish numbers if he planned to defeat them in battle, or more likely, force them into a siege where the Turks could be weakened then annihilated. Vlad conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Turks with his cavalry, killing and capturing thousands of foragers and stragglers. He also sent diseased people into the Turkish camps in a crude form of biological warfare, and managed to infect part of the sultan’s army with the Bubonic plague and leprosy. Worse still, he conducted a scorched earth policy back across Bulgaria and into Wallachia. He killed or removed the people, poisoned the wells, salted the fields, burned the villages, rerouted rivers to make swamps, and rendered the castles indefensible, even in his own country. The Turks advanced into a wasteland. In mid-June 1462, Mehmed approached Vlad’s capital, the fortress city of Targoviste, where he knew Vlad planned to make a stand. A few days before the Turks invested the city, they paused and made camp to prepare. Vlad, who grew up among the Turks as a hostage but didn’t convert, snuck into the camp to assess his adversaries. He found them weak and disorganized.
On the night of 16-17 June 1462, Vlad III Dracula attacked the Turkish camp in daring torch lit raid for the specific purpose of assassinating the sultan. The charge of about 10,000 horsemen caused great confusion amongst the Ottomans. Vlad himself led the attack directly at the sultan’s tent. However, in the confusion of the assault, Vlad mistook the grand vizier’s opulent tent for the sultan’s. By the time he realized his mistake, the sultan’s Janissaries (elite warriors comprised of Christian boys forcibly converted to Islam then trained as soldiers) led by Vlad’s brother Radu, whom shared his time as a hostage, rallied and protected the sultan. The Wallachians withdrew back into Targoviste, unsuccessful in their mission.
It took the Ottomans several days to reorganize. Once ready, Mehmed advanced again on Targoviste intent on ending the Wallachian resistance once and for all time. He was not prepared for what he found in the fields just outside the city.
Vlad III Dracula was one of the most bloodthirsty men in history, for good reason. Even by the brutal standards of the day, Vlad set himself apart. His favorite form of torture and execution was “impalement”. During impalement, a long thick sharpened pole was inserted into the victim’s anus and the pole was then placed upright into the ground with the victim perched above. Over hours and sometimes days, the victim would slowly slide down the pole until sharpened end pierced out of the torso, or even the throat or mouth if the angle was correct. In an age of gruesome executions, impalement was probably the worst way to die.
On 23 June 1462, Mehmed approached Targoviste and found tens of thousands of his warriors and people impaled. All of the stragglers and any Turkish people Vlad captured, including prisoners from the recent raid, Vlad had impaled in front of Targoviste. An observer noted, “Twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted” and “There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails…” The sultan called the grisly sight, “The Forest of the Impaled”. It had its intended effect on the Ottoman Army; Mehmed withdrew from Wallachia.
Thereafter Vlad III Dracula would be known as “Vlad Tepes” – Vlad the Impaler.
In 1901, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and the rest of the Al Saud clan were in penniless exile in Kuwait. With some small support from the Emir of Kuwait, Ibn Saud selected 40 of his best warriors and set out to conqueror Riyahd from the rival Rashidi. Living on ghazu (tribal raiding for food, water, and loot), Ibn Saud gathered a force of about 100 on his journey, and in November stormed into Riyadh. But the Rashidi learned of the attack and fell back to the Al Mismak fort. With no siege weapons and no way to isolate the fort, Ibn Saud retreated back into the desert.
Ibn Saud and his men stayed there for 50 days in order to lull the Rashidi into complacency. Then with 15 of his best warriors, he snuck back into the town on the last night of Ramadan. He seized the Rashidi governor’s mansion, but he wasn’t there. His wives said that he spent his nights at the fort but came back in the morning.
On the morning of 15 January 1902, the governor walked across the plaza back to his mansion and Ibn Saud and his men attacked. The Rashidi governor raced back to the fort but the Saudis grabbed him just as he reached the gate. His men attempted to pull him in as the Saudi’s tried to pull him out. Finally, Ibn Saud pulled his scimitar and chopped off the governor’s extended arm that the defenders were pulling on. The governor died and soon the leaderless Rashidi surrendered the fort.
Arabs flocked to Ibn Saud’s banner, and by the time of World War One, the Saudis would be the most powerful Arab tribe on the peninsula. With the help of British after the Treaty of Darin in 1915, Ibn Saud joined the war against the Ottomans. After the war he set about conquering the other rival tribes of the peninsula and spread his peculiar form of Islam, Wahhabism, which neither the Rashid nor the Ottomans practiced. Wahhabists believe in a strictly literalist Koran (and hence abrogation). In 1932, Ibn Saud united the Kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia