The fall of Constantinople – safety lessons from the past.

The middle of the 15th century was a time of great invention and flux. Several seemingly innocent happenings combined to bring about the fall of a 1000 year empire!

Berthold Schwarz, a Germanic Monk is widely accredited with the mixing of “Schwarz Pulver” or black powder in Europe. This explosive mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter was used in an upturned bell by the Hungarian Janos Urban, who covered the bell-mouth with a rock and filled in the gaps before lighting a fuse. The result – a crude cannon which flung a stone ball into a nearby field!

The city of Constantinople stood surrounded by two 8m high walls with 112 towers each 20m tall and overhanging a moat-like ravine, built ca. 453 AD by Emperor Theodosius II it was the Capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Under the rule of Emperor Constantine XI Dragases the city of Constantinople was the destination to which a much excited Master Urban rode, with plans for his new-fangled contraption – a siege cannon!

Unfortunately for Master Urban, he was not well received! Fuming at the rejection and convinced of the military importance of his contraption Master Urban looked across the water for other takers.

His meeting with Sultan Mahomet II was met with great excitement, the Sultan having had designs on conquering Constantinople since he first laid eyes on the city during his childhood.

Master Urban was asked to demonstrate his cannon and following the successful sinking of a Venetian galley anchored in the Bosphorus was showered with praise and gifts by his new master – Sultan Mahomet II.

Excited by the prospect of this new super-weapon Sultan Mahomet II prepared to lay siege to Constantinople! He massed an enormous army numbering in excess of 150 000 men.

Emperor Constantine, aware of the imminent assault called his men to arms – but only a paltry 4900 of a male population of 100 000 heeded the call.

A further 3000 mercenaries were hired from Genoa under Condottiere Giovanni Giustianini – possibly one of the finest soldiers of the time, and soon made Captain-General of the Constantinople forces and in charge of the city’s defence.

The famous and ancient church of St. Sophia was filled with the citizenry praying for their well being. However, aside from lighting a few candles they did nothing!

When in April 1453 the siege-assault finally began Master Urban’s cannon were deployed. Some of these super-guns required 400 men and 60 oxen to serve, were capable of firing 6 or 7 times a day (the barrel needed to cool after each shot, and due to the enormous and uncontrolled recoil the cannon needed to be re-aimed).

Despite the huge impact caused by these projectiles the walls showed little signs of collapse, which infuriated Sultan Mahomet II, until Master Urban suggested concentrating the cannon fire at the exact same spot in the wall – and very soon results began to show.

Impatience led Sultan Mahomet II to storm the breaches opened by the cannons before they were wide enough to leverage an advantage from his far superior numbers. The defenders were able to repel many attacks and hastily repaired breaches with any material at their disposal, including roof timber from near-by houses and palaces.

After many days of continuous bombardment new breaches began to show in the outer walls and Mahomet again decided to attack. He sent wave after wave of his bashi-bazouk (an ill disciplined and ill equipped mob) against the defenders. When they were defeated he ordered provincial levies, the Anatolians into the attack.

Finally he threw 15 000 elite janissaries into the fray. They too were routed by the defenders in the peribolas (the space between the outer and inner walls).

The valiant defenders managed to turn three consecutive attacks by the janisseries but it was taking its toll! Their numbers were dwindling and most were near or past the point of total exhaustion. Nevertheless it appeared as if they would manage to repulse another attack when it came, however…

A slum-dweller and grave robber was caught outside the city’s walls by a Turkish sentry and, grovelling for his life promised, to reveal a deadly secret. There was one weak point in the city’s double wall: Only a single wall surrounded the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus. Next to the Palace and hidden from view, located in a bend in the double Theodius wall was a small gate – the Kerko Porta.

This door had been walled up a quarter of a century earlier and then forgotten, except by beggars and thieves who had removed some of the stones creating a gap wide enough for a person to enter the city undetected.

So it was that 50 elite janisseries gained entrance to the city and caught the defenders from behind, trapped between the inner and outer walls. The surprise was complete!

While that is not quite the end of the story, it was during a counter offensive by Emperor Constantine that he was hacked from his horse. Those near him were thought to have heard him cry out the words of Jesus Christ on the cross “Eloi! Eloi! Lama Sabactani?” – My Lord! My Lord! Why has’t thou forsaken me?

I hope you enjoyed the story, but we no longer live in 1453, right?

Correct, but in many ways our mindset is identical to those of the citizens of Constantinople so many years ago!

So lets look at what lessons the fall of Constantinople holds for us

1) How different might the outcome have been had the “Wise” men in Constantinople not sent Master Urban and his cannon design packing? Conventional wisdom therefore dictates that in war-time (and yes we are in a war) you don’t turn down any advantage – if someone offers you an advantage take it! If someone offers good advice – heed it!

2) Although they were faced with being vanquished – and losing all their possessions and perhaps even their lives (many of Constantinople’s populace were killed, 50 000 became slaves to their new masters, and many girls and women were sold off into harems and w h o r e houses). Had all (or most) of the 100 000 male population heeded the call to arms the outcome may have been different. So when the time comes (and it’s here in my opinion) for you to stand up and be counted then stand up! Be Counted!

3) The citizens of Constantinople hired mercenaries to fight on their behalf – and it failed them. Today we still use “mercenaries” in the form of armed response companies. If they fail, as they often do, then you alone bear the consequences exactly like the citizens of Constantinople so long ago.

4) The neglected back door, which played a major part in the downfall of the city, is another case in point. We need to pay attention to the small details – the stuff we often overlook. The door we should have locked, but didn’t. The alarm we should have armed, but didn’t. The branches that should have been cut away from the fence, but weren’t.

Make no mistake about it, if there is a vulnerability the criminals will not only find it but they will exploit it too. So pay attention to the “little” things – they are as important as the really big stuff!

Now there is only one question you need to answer (and be brutally honest with yourself) – are you going to stand up, be counted and play an active role in your safety or are you going to bury your head in the sand as the citizens of Constantinople did so many years ago?

The choice and the consequences are yours alone.

Stay safe!

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