May 30, 2019
Of all of Islam’s conquests of Christian territory, the most symbolically significant occurred today, on May 20, 1453, when Constantinople fell. For not only was “New Rome” a living and direct extension of the ancient Roman Empire and current capital of the Christian Roman Empire (or Byzantium), but its cyclopean walls had prevented Islam from entering Europe through its eastern doorway for the previous seven centuries.
On becoming Ottoman sultan, Mehmet, or Muhammad II (b. 1432, r. 1451-1481) — “the mortal enemy of the Christians,” to quote a contemporary prelate — made ready for war. Throughout the spring of 1453 the city watched helplessly as his forces made their way to and surrounded Constantinople by land and sea. One contemporary remarked that Muhammad’s “army seemed as numberless as grains of sand, spread… across the land from shore to shore.” In the end, some one hundred thousand fighters came.
Article is excerpted and adapted from the author’s recent book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.