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Conqueror of Constantinople

Sultan Muhammad, the Conqueror of Constantinople, is considered an undisputed hero in modern-day Turkey and the Muslim world at large – Istanbul’s Fatih District, Fatih Sultan Muhammad Bridge and Fatih Mosque are named after him.

When he ascended the throne, he was just 22 years old. What made him a hero for all times to come is his conquest of Constantinople in the year 1453, which fulfilled the prophecy of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), who had said that final victory would be at hand when Muslims took Constantinople. Sultan Muhammad had good reason to believe that taking Constantinople would make the whole world look up to him as a formidable force to be reckoned with.

The Ottomans had laid siege to Constantinople in 1390, 1395, 1397, 1400 and 1422 as well – but could not succeed in conquering this highly fortified capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was also known as the Second Rome.

Before launching the actual assault, Sultan Muhammad built a fortress called Rumeli Hisari on European side of the Bosporus Strait. As another fort by the name of Anadolu Hisari built by his grandfather Bayezid was already there on the Asian side. The Ottomans could now have complete control over the movement of ships in the Bosporus.

To strengthen his artillery, he employed a Hungarian engineer named Orban who invented a masterpiece cannon 27 feet long and so big around that a man could crawl down inside it. It was so powerful that it could fire a 1,200-pound granite stone a mile.

The Ottomans besieged Constantinople in April, 1453 in which 20,000 naval personnel on 400 ships took part, while the land forces numbered 80,000. The Sultan placed fourteen artillery batteries around the city and supplied them with huge cannons.

The siege lasted for 54 days, the city being all but impregnable. Located on a triangular spit of land shaped like a horn, it faced the Bosporus Strait on one side and the Sea of Marmara on another. On the sides, it had high sea walls and promontories commanding the narrow straits from which the Byzantines could bombard any ships approaching the city. On the land side, it had a series of stone walls that stretched across the whole peninsula from sea to sea, each wall with its own moat. Each moat was broader and deeper and each wall thicker and taller than the one before. The innermost wall stood 90 feet high and was more than 30 feet thick.

As the Ottoman naval forces could neither smash the iron chain placed at the mouth of the Golden Horn nor stop the reinforcements sent to the Byzantines by the Pope from Rome, the Sultan devised an unprecedented strategy whereby 67 ships were pushed overland by placing wooden planks coated with oil across the entire region. They were moved and placed in the gulf side by side at night so as to form a bridge across the width of the gulf, enabling the troops to reach the Byzantine-held coast. As the day dawned, the people of Constantinople were seized by surprise. At long last, the Ottomans succeeded in scaling the impregnable walls of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 . The importance of this city can be gauged from the fact that it had remained capital of the Eastern Roman Empire from the days of Constantine the Great for more than 1,100 years.

Sultan Muhammad the Conqueror died after achieving victories the like of which none had achieved before. At the time of his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire covered an area of land spanning 964,000 square kilometers but when he died after 28 years, it had gone up to 2,214,000 square kilometers: 17,030,00 kilometers in Europe and 511,000 square kilometers in Asia.

Sultan Muhammad Fatih was fair, just, impartial and magnanimous in administering his vast empire. He hardly ever exhibited vindictiveness or prejudice towards Christians or Jews, so much so that immediately after taking Constantinople, he granted general amnesty and allowed Christians and Jews to resettle in the city and do their business without any fear.

Some Christian writers, out of sheer prejudice and hatred, regard him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but in support thereof they give no tangible evidence. As a matter of fact, they have left no stone unturned in character assassination, simply because he elbowed out the Byzantines from Constantinople and smashed a centuries-old empire.

While leveling unfounded, unsubstantiated allegations against the Sultan, they forget what the Crusaders did while taking the cities of Ma’ara and Jerusalem. As reported by the Frankish eyewitnesses Radulph of Caen and Albert of Aix, the invading Crusaders did far more than slaughter. They went on a frightening rampage that included boiling adult Muslims up for soup, skewering Muslim children on spits, grilling them over open fires and eating them. Edward Gibbon, the world famous British historian who chronicled the fall of the Roman Empire, said that the Crusaders killed 70,000 people in Jerusalem over the course of two days. As against this, Sultan Muhammad exhibited dignity, grace and broad mindedness against those whom he overpowered in Constantinople and at other places in Europe.

The fact of the matter is that Sultan Muhammad Fatih has undoubtedly left behind an imposing reputation in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds.


The author is a former Member of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan with interest in writing on unknown facets of history. Email: [email protected]


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Naya Daur