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Constantinople: Last Great Siege 1453

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 - Roger Crowley Like the city of Constantinople itelf, the events in this book are very complex. In his analysis of the seige, Roger Crowley skillfully follows several strings:TECHNOLOGY The Byzantines successfully defended Constantinople for centuries against repeated assaults from the Near East. When Arab forces seemed almost certain to take the city in 678, a highly-classified weapon called "Greek Fire" saved the day. Greek fire was essentially a napalm-like substance made from wet sand and surface oil found in abundance in certain areas along the Black Sea coast. When ignited and sprayed (with leather bladders) on an enemy ship, it almost guaranteed destruction of that vessel. Mastry of technology served the Byzantines well in the seventh century, but that lesson was not lost on the Turks. In preparing for the seige of 1453, the young sultan Mehmet invested substantially on new cutting-edge technologies: gun powder, and the latest metallurgical techniques to cast ever-larger cannons. In fact, Mehmet hired the services of a Hungarian master to cast him a bronze "super cannon", larger than had ever been attempted before (and which pushed the limits of the day's technology). His investment paid off handsomely, as the super cannon devestated the once-invincible city walls. If things were bad above ground, they were just as bad below. Although mining technology and its military applications were well-known by 1453, Crowley spends considerable time describing the cat-and-mouse interplay between Mehmet's hired Serbian expert miners and the Byzantine counterforces. Turkish forces employed miners to weaken the foundations of Constantinople's protective walls, and to try to establish and underground route for Jannisary soldiers to enter the city. The Greeks fought back with their own miners, who would locate the Serbs and either enter their tunnels with deadly force, or (circumstances allowing) merely collapse the tunnels with the Serbs inside. I had never heard of Medieval mining warfare techniques before, so I found this part fascinating. The maritime defense of Constantinople was no happier than the situation on land. Although cosmopolitan in nature, the city was culturally more Greek than anything else. As the original seafaring superpower, it seems natural to assume these Greeks would have primacy on the waters. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Maritime technology was on the cusp of revolution. Although small sailing and wind-powered vessels were well-known from prehistory, this technology was not easily applied to larger vessels. From the days of [a:Thucydides|957|Thucydides|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1206544282p2/957.jpg], the dominant ships in both commerce and warfare were galleys powered by the muscles of men. Their superior maneuverability, and frequently superior speed, made them the preeminent nautical fighting platform. Alexander and the Romans had both ruled the Agean and the Mediterranean with oared galleys, and the Byzantines did not consider this model could be improved upon. Alas, the world was changing, and the Ottomans were changing with it, leaving the Greeks behind. Advances in maritime design were starting to produce sailing ships with speed and maneuverablility that could begin to compete- even eclipse the performance of the oared longboats. Unlike past conflicts, the Greeks no longer had the advantage of decisive naval superiority. GEOGRAPHY Edward Gibbon stresses over and over in [b:Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|19400|The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|Edward Gibbon|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345767836s/19400.jpg|3209631] that Constantinople is uncommonly blessed with geographic features which favor the city's defense. That is one reason Constantine I chose the site to found his new Roman capital, in the mid 4th century A.D. It is surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Bosphorus, which itself is narrow, and surrounded by steep cliffs which make it relatively easily to defend. Past Arab assaults did not duely appreciate this, but the meticulous Mehmet recognized it. He neutralized the Greek advantage by constructing the "throat cutter" -a fortress at the north end of the Bosphorus, to control passage of friends and foes from the Black Sea. In the more immediate theater of action, the "Golden Horn" inlet protects the northern shore of Constantinople... at least it always had in the past. A chain barrier had always prevented enemy ships from entering this region and posing a threat. In an inspired move, Ottoman forces undertook a massive overland portage to bypass the chain, and apply force at this weak spot. This diverted defensive forces away from the walls and ditch which compose the Western bulwark of the city- traditionally it's weakest area. While the local geography favored the defense, on the larger scale it favored the offense. By the 15th century, Constantinople was a relatively remote outpost of Christianity and European culture (to the extent that "European" culture as an identifiable brand existed at that time). There were no natural political or military allies in the immediate environment. The time and resources needed to transport armies from Western Europe made alliances difficult to establish, and impossible to enforce, even as kingdoms as far afield as France and Spain appreciated Constantinople as a bulwark against Islamic intrusions from the East. They were simply never willing or able to offer material help to defend the city, when it was needed. Italian powers in Rome, Venice, and Genoa were both wealthier and closer, and they too acknowledged the Contantinople's continued well-being as a vital interest, yet contributed no aid when word of the seige came. THE PLAYERSConstantinople has been cosmopolitan in nature for as long as it has been on the map. It sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. It is the major commercial destination of myriad trade routes. It has existed in the spheres of Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Scythian, Egyptian, Venetian, Genoan and Ottoman influences. For centuries, nothing of any import went down in that city without affecting half a dozen or more nations. Naturally, this was never more true than at the seige of 1453. The destiny of Turks, Byzantines (Greeks), Venetians, Genoese, Hungarians, Serbs, Bulgars, Egyptians, Arabs, and the Christian authorities in the Vatican were all intimately tied to the Constantinople. When it fell, Venice and Genoa lost important trade franchises along the Black Sea shoreline. The Ottoman Empire, with its roots in Central Asia, would continue to ride the momentum for another 200 years, extending its empire as far inland as Vienna before it crested. Islam spread with force through much of Southeastern Europe, serving to, er, balkanize- the Bulkans. While it is true that Muslim forces (known then as Saracens) had penetrated as far as northern France in the 8th century, they never had staying power. Now, with a permanent military, financial, and cultural base in the European theater, the Ottomans were a longstanding force to be reckoned with, and would remain intact up to World War I. If my review seems a disjointed or unfocused, please don't let that influence your opinion of the book. Crowley deftly covers these topics and much, much more in the fluid, comfortable narrative of a master storyteller. While the focus of the book is on a very narrowly defined set of events, Crowley's analysis spills over into many related subjects. The result is a "big picture" view of history, touching on the Christian-Muslim tensions over several centuries, internecine European struggles of the day, the history and significance of several evolving technologies, politics, commerce, and a microcosm of military strategies. In short, I feel like I've read several books after finishing this. Typically, something this information-dense can become tedious reading (again, Gibbon's [b:Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|19400|The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|Edward Gibbon|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345767836s/19400.jpg|3209631] comes to mind), but that wasn't my experience. In fact, this book went down fast, and was an absolute pleasure to read!