Book Review: 1453

1453 Cover

Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and The Clash of Islam and The West. (New York, NY: Hyperion, 2005).

There are events, history’s thunderclaps, that peal across time. Christian Europe’s resistance to Islam’s long campaign of expansion is punctuated by many significant events. Beginning with the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 to the Siege of Vienna in 1683, the forces of Islam proved nearly unstoppable as they wrested ever more territory, and people, from Christian realms. Perhaps the most significant event in this thousand-year drama, the Fall of Constantinople, occurred on May 29, 1453.

In his book, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and The Clash of Islam and The West, Roger Crowley provides an excellent account of Constantinople’s fall. Crowley opens by reviewing the history of Byzantium’s (Eastern Roman Empire) relationship with the Turkish tribes that conquered, and settled, in Anatolia. Beginning with Osman’s rise to prominence in the later 13th Century, the author recounts how the Ottoman Turks quickly ejected the Byzantines from Anatolia before continuing into Europe. Eventually reducing the Byzantine Empire to little more than their capital. Constantinople, the first city of a once great Christian Empire.

Crowley then examines the lives of Mehmet II and Constantine XI. Mehmet II, the twenty-one-year-old Sultan, headstrong, intelligent, and possessed with the idea of capturing the city. The inheritor of a rising power. Constantine XI, a forty-eight-year-old soldier who had battled Mehmet’s father in an unsuccessful effort to prevent further loss of Roman territory. The caretaker of a dying power. Neither much loved by their subjects. Each faced diplomatic problems. Mehmet, the loyalty of his advisors. Constantine faced the theological divisions within Christianity that prevented significant Western support.

1453, shines in relating the fleeting triumphs, and mounting tragedy, experienced by Constantinople’s defenders. Crowley uses simple facts to convey the extraordinary challenge faced by Constantine and his city.  April 1st, 1453 was the last Easter celebrated in St. Sophia’s. On April 2, Mehmet’s army assembled several miles outside the city’s walls. Roughly 8,000 soldiers defended the city against Mehmet’s army of nearly 200,000 (approximately 60,000 soldiers and 140,000 support personnel). Constantine’s 8,000 included (among others) contingents of Greeks, Venetians, Genoese, and soldiers from Trebizond. Mehmet’s army included mostly Muslims, Janissaries (soldiers who had been kidnapped from Christian parents, converted to Islam, and groomed to fight for the Ottoman’s), and some Christian’s forced through vassalage to serve the Sultan.

It is in describing the battle and its aftermath that 1453 shines. Crowley tells stories of great courage, the fortunate, and unfortunate, twists of history. The sacking, the all too few escapes, the fate of captured fighters, and the enslavement of the populace. Constantinople, once a gem, became a corpse. Soon after his victory, Mehmet began the effort to rebuild the city as the Ottoman capital. The author relates that Mehmet felt some regret over the city’s fate.

May 29, 2018 marks the 565th anniversary of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottoman Turks. 1453 provides an easy, but informative read of 266 pages. Roger Crowley’s narrative is straight forward and well organized. I highly recommend 1453.

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