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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Fall of Constantinople

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The year is 1453, and the Byzantine Empire, the very last figment of Rome's long-faded

glory, is itself in its death throes.

Having continued the legacy of Roman rule for almost fifteen hundred years, the Byzantine

empire was once a superpower, but centuries of constant warfare and a schism between east

and west in the Christian church have bled the empire dry.

Constantinople itself, seat of Byzantine empire, one of the jewels of the ancient world, and

the last gasp of the Roman Empire is now threatened by a massive Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed

II, who is hellbent on making the legendary capital his new seat of power.

The first Christian capital, Constantinople had been the seat of imperial power since

330 AD, when the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, declared it his capital.

As the shining jewel of European civilization, Constantinople was no stranger to warfare,

and the city had been besieged many times, falling only once before in 1204 during the

Fourth Crusade.

After each siege though the city added to its impressive array of fortifications, and

was widely considered throughout the world as all but unassailable.

With 12 miles (20 km) of walls that surrounded the city and sixty foot moats, the city was

easily held by a small number of defenders against a much larger force.

On the Bosphorus strait, sea walls prevented a naval assault of the city, and a heavy chain

stretched across the Golden Horn blocked any ship from entering the city.

Yet by 1450 the city had shrunk drastically in size due to the collapse of the Byzantine

empire, and by the time of the Ottoman siege, it consisted mostly of a series of walled

villages separated by fields that were often planted.

The once-booming metropolis and center of imperial and Chrisitan power was in essence

a ghost town, and only had about fifty thousand inhabitants at the time of its final siege,

considerably less than the eight hundred thousand people who lived there at its peak.

Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI had understood that the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire,

Sultan Mehmed II, wanted his city for himself.

At first he tried to placate the sultan by sending gifts, but these were returned and

the diplomats sent to Mehmed's court were executed.

Realizing that war was inevitable, Constantine XI turned to the Christian powers of western

europe, but a deep schism between eastern and western Christianity had split the church

in two.

Constantine offered Pope Nicholas V to reunite the two churches, but he had severely overestimated

the influence that the Pope had on the Western powers.

Britain, France, and Spain had become wary of the growing power of the papacy, and for

their part, Britain and France were exhausted after the Hundred Years' War.

Ultimately all that the West would be able to contribute to the defense of Constantinople

would be a few hundred volunteers, along with about two dozen ships and some supplies.

In total the Byzantines were able to marshal a force of only seven thousand men to defend

the city against an estimated fifty to eighty thousand Ottomans.

While the numbers were wildly one-sided, Constantinople was so well fortified that there was every

reason to believe that the city could hold out until either help from the West arrived

or the Sultan expended too many of his troops and supplies to make the conquest worth the

effort.

With its incredible system of walls, towers, and fortifications, the tiny force of seven

thousand could have easily held against overwhelming numbers- were it not for the brilliant mind

of one Hungarian engineer.

A mysterious figure known only by the name of Orban, this master craftsman initially

offered his services to the Byzantines, but they had been unable to meet his fees.

Taking his services to Sultan Mehmed II instead, he promised that his weapons wouldblast

the walls of Babylon itself”.

Mehmed decided to gamble on the confident engineer, and he would not be disappointed

as Orban immediately began construction on a cannon which would take a whopping three

months to build.

The cannon would be twenty seven feet (8.2 m) long, and could blast a six hundred pound

(272 kg) stone projectile well over a mile.

This far exceeded the capacity of other Ottoman cannons, which while formidable could only

blast projectiles weighing between one hundred and two hundred pounds.

But this super cannon had some serious drawbacks, as it took three hours to reload and its cannonballs

were in short supply.

Nonetheless, knowing that he faced the greatest fortifications in the world, Mehmed had a

foundry established one hundred and fifty miles (240 km) away to build and supply the

massive artillery pieces, which were so big that each one had to be dragged by sixty oxen

all the way to Constantinople.

Mehmed was determined to take the city though, and ultimately had seventy of these large

bombards built, with more built while the siege was happening.

Facing the impressive fortifications, Mehmed decided that his attack would be on the Theodosian

Walls, a series of heavy walls and ditches which protected Constantinople from the west,

and was the only part of the city not surrounded by water.

On the second of April, 1453, his army made camp in front of the mighty walls and officially

began the three month siege.

The defenders enjoyed the benefit of walls that had recently been repaired after a long

state of disrepair, and were equipped with various medium cannons.

However the recoil of their own cannons could cause damage to the walls, and thus were only

sparingly used.

The attack would mostly be repelled with bow and crossbow, as well as some rudimentary

firearms that had been brought in from the west.

A fleet of twenty six ships defended the city from naval assault, and though Mehmed's own

forces numbered at one hundred and twenty six ships, a giant sea chain prevented access

to the harbor, and venturing too near the walls could be disastrous for the attackers.

On the fifth of April, the Sultan himself arrived at his war camp, and stood with his

army opposite Constantine XI and his defenders, the last Byzantine emperor standing on his

walls alongside his men.

As the siege began, Mehmed sent teams of elite troops to assault the remaining smaller Byzantine

strongholds outside of the city.

Within a few days these forts were taken and Mehmed's rear was secure against an unexpected

counterattack from outside the city.

The massive cannons began their terrible bombardment, hurling giant stone balls at the mighty walls.

However the three hour reload process, poor accuracy, and small numbers allowed the city's

defenders to repair damage to their walls caused by the artillery.

For weeks the mighty guns would relentlessly fire, and the titanic stones they hurled would

slowly erode even Constantinople's mighty walls.

At sea the Ottoman fleet encountered the giant chain that had been stretched across the entrance

to the Golden Horn and barred approach into the city.

Unable to destroy the mighty chain, the ships were largely excluded from the siege, and

instead would serve as guards to ensure that no Christian ships exited or entered the city.

Against all odds though on the twentieth of April a small flotilla of four Christian ships

broke through the huge Ottoman army after heavy fighting, deeply embarrassing the Ottomans

and boosting the morale of the defenders.

Commander of the Ottoman fleet, Suleiman Baltoghlu, was spared his life for his humiliating failure

only after his subordinates testified to his extreme bravery during the fighting.

With supplies slipping into the city and the Ottomans unable to break past the mighty harbor

chain, Sultan Mehmed decided that if his ships couldn't sail past the chain and into the

Golden Horn, then they would simply go around the chain.

He set thousands of his soldiers to cutting down every available tree in the area and

greased hundreds of logs which he had laid side by side.

This created a road of greased logs, and he then commanded his men to manually pull each

and every one of his ships up a hill and down the other side to settle them back in the

water, effectively bypassing the mighty chain.

In a desperate attempt to destroy the massing ships, the defenders sent out a wave of fire

ships to attack the Ottoman ships.

Sporting few weapons but loaded with barrels of oil, fire ships were meant to be piloted

into the midst of an enemy fleet and then set on fire, which would in turn set the rest

of the enemy fleet on fire.

Yet the Turks had advance warning of the attack and were prepared for the fire ships, forcing

the Christians to retreat with heavy losses.

Swimming to shore and fleeing their sinking ships, forty italian sailors were captured

by Ottoman forces and Sultan Mehmed ordered that they be impaled in full view of the city's

defenders.

In retaliation, the Byzantines gathered two hundred and sixty Ottoman prisoners and executed

them upon their walls one by one.

The bypassing of the chain upon the mouth of the Golden Horn meant that the defenders

now had to reposition a large number of their forces to defend the sea walls, lowering the

strength on the western walls which faced repeated heavy attacks.

After several unsuccessful frontal attacks which left thousands of Ottoman dead, the

Sultan ordered the construction of underground tunnels to be dug below the walls and filled

with barrels of gunpowder.

The ensuing explosion would devastate the walls above and leave the city open for invasion.

However, a German engineer, Johannes Grant, who had volunteered to defend Constantinople,

had envisioned this turn of events and was quick to have counter-tunnels dug, which let

the Byzantines flood the Ottoman tunnels with Greek fire.

On the twenty third of May, two Turkish officers were captured and tortured until they revealed

the location of all the Turkish tunnels which were quickly destroyed.

About this time, opposition to Mehmed's siege had begun rising amongst his war council.

Casualties were mounting and despite the stunning bypassing of the sea chain, the city was still

not any closer to falling.

The dragging siege was also putting the Turkish forces in a precarious position, as it was

feared that any day now reinforcements from Western Europe would arrive and trap the Turks

between themselves and the city's walls.

Yet Mehmed was determined to take the city, and thus he mobilized his remaining troops

for one last massive attack.

Shortly after midnight on May 29th, the attack began.

The walls in the northwest portion of the city had suffered heavy damage from the giant

cannons, as they had been built earlier than the rest of the walls and were thus much weaker.

A force of Turks managed to breach this section of the walls, only to be pushed back out by

a brutal counter-attack by the city's defenders.

At this time though, the Genoese general in charge of Constantine's defenders was seriously

wounded and had to be evacuated from the ramparts, causing panic amongst the Genoese troops.

Those troops retreated from their positions along the walls and towards the harbor, and

in that retreat Constantinople's fate was sealed.

Constantine XI is said to have died leading his troops against the Turkish defenders,

while other sources say that he had hung himself when he saw that defeat was inevitable.

Constantinople's fate however is well documented, as the Sultan rewarded his victorious troops

with three days of unlimited looting and violence.

Thousands of women were raped and everything of value was stripped from the city.

Turkish troops murdered anyone they pleased, and after the three days the Sultan ordered

an end to the violent free-for-all.

The surviving population of Constantinople was shipped off as slaves, and it is said

that when the sultan overlooked the massive destruction his men had caused on the legendary

city after the three days, he was moved to tears, commenting, “What a city we have

given over to plunder and destruction.”

The Description of The Fall of Constantinople