|The Fall of Constantinople
(Series: Pivotal Moments in History)
Twenty-First Century Books, 2008
Reading level: Grade 9
For ages 14 and older
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For centuries, Constantinople’s perfect geographic location—positioned along a land trade route between Europe and Asia, as well as on a strategic seaway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean—made the city extremely desirable and prone to attack. Constantinople became known as "the Eye of the World," a center of art, trade, religion, and learning. Rulers built three sets of massive walls to protect Constantinople from attack. But, weakened by internal disputes and a schism between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) Churches, the city fell to the Turkish Ottomans in 1453. The shift in power at the Eye of the World marked the official end of the Byzantine Empire and became one of history’s most pivotal moments. Today, Constantinople is called Istanbul, Turkey, and is one of the world's largest cities.
The uneasy peace between Greeks and Roman Catholic crusaders
didn’t last long. On August 19, 1203, a group of Latins
attacked a mosque in Constantinople that had been built when
Saladin ruled much of the Middle East. Winds turned the blaze
into one of the world’s most destructive fires. At least one
hundred thousand people were left homeless….
The Greeks, many of them forced by the fire to live in tent villages within the city walls, blamed the new emperor for bringing the crusaders to Byzantium. Their Latin neighbors fled the city as riots broke out between Greeks and Latins. Caught between the crusaders, who wanted their reward for putting him in power, and his people, who wanted revenge, Alexius the Younger came to rely on an anti-Latin Greek leader named Alexius Ducas, whose black bushy eyebrows earned him the nickname Mourtzouphlos (roughly meaning dark faced or gloomy).
In November crusader envoys came to the palace and demanded payment by March 1204 so that the army could continue its journey. Before the emperor could reply, an angry group of Greek officials turned them away. The envoys reported to crusader leaders that Alexius had finally reneged on his promises.
As mob violence threatened to take over the city, the leaders of the crusaders decided to seize property to pay the Venetians for the supplies that Alexius the Younger had promised. They raided the city several times while waiting for sailing season in March. Mourtzouphlos led the defenders of the city, gaining popularity as a new leader. Crowds demanded a new emperor, and a man named Canabus was crowned. Within a few weeks Mourtzouphlos managed to have Canabus beheaded, Alexius the Younger imprisoned, and himself crowned emperor. Alexius the Younger’s elderly father Isaac died.
Mourtzouphlos then strangled Alexius the Younger though he claimed the teen died of natural causes. Crusader leaders now had the justification they sought to attack fellow Christians. Mourtzouphlos, they claimed, was a murderer and had no right to rule. They signed a new contract with the Venetians to divide the booty they planned to get from Constantinople when they attacked it in spring. Then they decided how best to govern the city.
On April 8, 1204, the crusaders attacked the walls of Constantinople from their two hundred or so new Venetian war vessels. Their battle cry was “Holy Sepulcher (the tomb in which Jesus was buried)!” The Greeks of Constantinople responded with a battle cry of their own: “Jesus Christ conquers!”
Constantinople had only about twenty decaying ships, but the city’s walls were strong and the defenders outnumbered the attackers. The crusaders failed to break through to the city. According to one historian, “As the ships pulled away from the shore the Greeks on the walls hooted and jeered at the defeated attackers. Some of them let down their clouts [pants] and showed their bare buttocks in derision of the fleeting foe.”
The crusaders tried again on April 12. This time they found a small gate in the wall that had been sealed shut. While the defenders rained stones, boiling tar, and Greek fire on them, a few knights managed to pry open the gate. They rushed toward the defenders who—quite unexpectedly—fled. More crusaders entered into the city, and they met little resistance.
For centuries, no foreign army had successfully breached the walls of Constantinople. The city’s people didn’t know what to expect. Many thought that the crusaders would simply attack the palace and install a new emperor. Mourtzouphlos deserted the city, and the remaining government officials chose a new emperor, Constantine Lascaris. The crusader army camped near the sea wall waiting for a counterattack that never came.
By dawn the next day, the new emperor and his brother had rowed across the Bosporus to Nicaea, and the palace guards had returned to their barracks to await orders. The Greeks put on their best clothes and lined the streets to greet the new Latin leaders. They were easy targets for the crusader army, which went on a three-day rampage.
The attackers spared no one and nothing ....