Taking a Fresh Look at the Fall of Constantinople, 1453

I’ve been trying to do some reading recently about the Early Modern Mediterranean and the military policy of the Ottoman empire.  Several of the more recent books present the conquest of Constantinople, at least symbolically, as a pivotal moment in a clash between East and West.  In them, the Ottoman victory becomes the end of an era, as well as the start of a new age of religious conflict in the Mediterranean.

Under the circumstances, it’s worth looking at a map of the eastern Mediterranean c.1451-2 to see exactly where this clash of civilizations is taking place.  Its easy to say that by the fifteenth century the Byzantine empire was a shadow of its former self, but that doesn’t go nearly far enough to describe the fragmented state of the eastern Mediterranean.  When the empire was shattered by the Fourth Crusade’s conquest of Constantinople, each region made its own way.  While the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople in 1261, the other Byzantine successor states maintained at least partial independence in alliance with other powers.  North of the Black Sea, the principality of Theodoro (modern Mangup) became allied with the Genoese colonies surrounding Caffa.  Further east, the Empire of Trebizond and its rulers, the Kommenos family, married not just with the Palaiologos dynasty who ruled Constantinople but also with both the Akkoyunlu and Karakoyunlu (White and Black Sheep Turkomans, in English) confederations on their eastern border (the alliance with the Akkoyunlu would survive the fall of the Byzantine capital, with a further marriage to the Akkoyunlu leader Uzun Hasan in 1458).  In Greece, the Peloponnese became a semi-independent Byzantine fief known as the Despotate of the Morea; the Despotate of Epiros was by 1452 ruled by the Italian Leonardo III Tocco, while the Crusader Duchy of Athens – now ruled by an Italo-Catalan family – was practically an Ottoman vassal.  The islands of the Aegean were even more of a mess, with the islands split among the Venetians, Genoese and Ottomans, except for Rhodes, which was the territory of the religious order known as the Knights of Rhodes.  Just to complete the confusion, Cyprus was ruled by the Lusignan dynasty of Crusaders but did fealty to the Mamluks in Egypt.

In the middle of all of this were the Ottomans, whose territory was almost evenly split by the Bosporus between the Balkans and Asia Minor.  With their capital at Edirne in Thrace, 100 miles west of Constantinople, and Christian vassal states whose territory reached almost to Belgrade, they were hardly an “Eastern” power within the eastern Mediterranean.  Straddling the Aegean, they were surrounded by a complex web of inter-cultural medieval diplomacy that mixed marriage, religion and power politics.  Not until after 1473, when the Ottomans smashed the Akkoyunlu at Bashkent, and 1517, when they overthrew the Mamluks and conquered Egypt, did the Ottoman empire acquire the rough geopolitical location that it kept for the next four hundred years.  Nor did the conquest of Constantinople lead the Ottomans to focus exclusively on expanding westward.  In fact, for the next two centuries they would be involved as frequently in Iran and the Indian Ocean as in the Balkans and Hungary.

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