Byzantium. Constantinople. Istanbul. Intellectually, it is easy enough to remember that these three cities are in fact the same, sitting on the Bosphorus, straddling the border between Europe and the East. However, it is difficult to get a visceral feel for the fact that the current city of mosques and minarets was for over a millennia one of the centers of the Christian world. Fortunately, there is a book like 1453 to take us back and let us experience how such a transformation takes place.
In his book, Mr. Crowley takes us back to the year of the title, when Sultan Mehmet II, a man barely out of his teens but who has survived the intrigues that barred his way to the throne, lays siege to Constantinople. Despite the fact that the city has resisted sieges many times before thanks to its natural water defenses and ancient western wall, Mehmet is willing to take the risk. Constantine XI, the aging emperor who guards the city, is weak and his city and empire is only a shadow of its former glory. So, Mehmet gathers his armies and vassals and heads to the walls.
Overall, Mr. Crowley's descriptions of the siege are absorbing. He points out the very important advantages that Mehmet had over previous would-be conquerors: he brings cannon and a navy. The walls of Constantinople were impregnable to a classic mediaeval attack but the arrival of gunpowder to the West and the development of cannon made the walls vulnerable. Plus, no attacker had ever brought a navy to bear on the city before and its very existence cut off the possibility of resupplying the city, making a successful siege a possibility.
But Mehmet's victory was by no means assured and, in fact, he could have easily failed. His guns could only fire a few salvos a day and his navy was basically outclassed had his enemies ever being willing to meet him directly in battle. The lengthening siege made it difficult to manage his vast armies. Plus, the city was defended. Mr. Crowley shows great respect for the defenders of the city, their strategies and valor. As Mehmet's guns brought down sections of the wall, the citizens of Constantinople would sneak out at night and rebuild. Down to the last battle, the people of Constantinople seemed to believe their city could not fall.
Of course, fall it did. Mr. Crowley quickly gives us the final successful push into the city which, be it through luck or valor, went to the Turks in hours once the walls were breached. As Mehmet enters the city we get to see both the good and bad of a city defeated in the Middle Ages, mercy and spoils, revenge and glory. And we get a brief account of the spread of the news through the West and its effect on subsequent history.
All in all, this account of an important moment in the history of the Western world is a great read. It is informative and insightful, managing to build tension and excitement despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome. And Mr. Crowley's fairness to both the Christian defenders and the Turkish conquerors makes it palatable and not strident. There is no doubt that this defeat after 1000 years of successful defense was a tragic time but this fading star of the Christian world rises to become the center of the Muslim world, maintaining its glory for centuries more. This city deserves its story to be told.