Quick Book Review: 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

A few years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto.” Not long after I noticed that the author, Roger Crowley also wrote, “1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West.” I added it to my queue and bought it.

So right after I finished Hernan Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs, I dusted-off 1453 and got into it. (pic via Mr. Roger Crowley)

Now the Lepanto and the 1453 books are definitely related and close to each other. I read them out-of-order. Islam was moving Westward and the first large clash with European Christianity took place at Constantinople. And the Battle of Lepanto took place in 1751 as Islam continued West.

Though it’s just a coincidence that I read them back-to-back, the similarities between the siege of Tenochtitlan, and the siege of Constantinople are significant. And they were only separated by about 75 years. And both Cortés and Mehmed II realized they could not take their prize without an accompanying naval force. And in each story one side was badly outnumbered.

Much like the Malta/Lepanto book, 1453 is a quick read and well-written. It’s not a dry history book and instead reads like a lively novel. The characters on both sides of the drama were obviously researched a great deal.

While I realized that modern-day Istanbul was once Constantinople, it wasn’t clear to me exactly when and why the name changed. I hadn’t realized that Constantinople was the philosophical if not literal successor to the Roman Empire. But most the inhabitants of the city were ethnically Greek, and spoke Greek. There were also a good number of Venetians, Genoans, and various others in the area for business.

But while the rest of Europe for the most part identified with Constantinople and its role as the Eastern outpost of Christianity, there was still a lot of bad blood. A European religious schism within Christianity had split public opinion for years. And several times Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopped at Constantinople for rest and supplies and were something less than well-behaved guests. So when the city sent word to the rest of Europe that it was about become besieged, not too many came to help.

Yet Constantinople was more than just the successor to Rome. It was the Easternmost outpost of both Europe and Christianity. It literally bumped right up against Asia and the forces of Islam. It had been understood for generations that if (when) the city fell, there was little to prevent Islam from marching into Europe proper. This was a deeply held fear throughout Europe. For many years the city had repelled repeated onslaughts from various forces, and easily maintained its position and strength. But as time wore on and fortunes waned, and Europeans became less interested in helping, the situation had become precarious. In the decades prior to the city’s fall the Ottoman’s had become stronger militarily (and discovered the value of very large cannon). They had crossed the Bosphorus into Europe to stay and set-up castles and camps to the West of Constantinople. The city soon became an enclave surrounded by the Ottomans. All parties soon realized that the city would fall to the Turks. When, not if.

On particularly interesting part of the story was the role that gunpowder, large cannon in particular, played in the siege. The battle was the world’s first large-scale artillery bombardment.

If you are a fan of history like I am you might want to pick this book up, especially if you’re interested in the time period or enjoyed Empires of the Sea.

Related links:
Quick Book Review: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto …
Book Review: Conquistador: Hernan Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs
Roger Crowley – Narrative history at its most enthralling
1453, by Roger Crowley – Mountain Beltway