There are, really, two facts in life. The first is that one’s personal integrity should always be maintained in the face of exterior pressure and outside influences. And the second is that without a doubt the most obnoxious fighters in the Assassin’s Creed franchise are the Janissaries.
Seriously, like these guys are awful.
You’re always fighting four dudes at once, and they always manage to block your attacks and receive no damage, meanwhile while some punk dagger-guard grabs you from behind the Jannisary always takes a step back and retrieves his pistol and before you can shake them off he shoots you and you don’t just lose one health square, you lose like eight, and of course you haven’t healed because you’re lost in the heat of the moment and so you die right there and you have to start ALL the way back at the entrance of the Hagia Sophia, and it was one of those obnoxious fuck-for-fuck stalking missions and at that point you just have to rage quit and drown your sorrows in coffee and Oreos.
None of which explains why I began Roger Crowley’s book 1453: the Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Well, it might explain it a little.
I am a man of many moods, my emotions contain multitudes, and this, in turn, can create some lasting conflict with my day-to-day goals vs. long-term ambitions (one day I WILL control the Balkans, and on that day all of France will tremble, tremble I say). But while I make plans for bloody conquest and/or senility in a retirement home, I’ve been trying to focus more on the present and what I can make that time into. As of this writing, most of my efforts are spent cataloging books for the Library, specifically the Local History room and while I spend my days learning the difference between a publication field number and a contents field number, I’m usually plugged into history vlogs and podcasts on Youtube: specifically Overly Sarcastic Productions and Shadiversity.
I cannot begin to convey how much I adore both of these channels, and how much happiness they have brought me. Whether it’s learning about the manufacture and use of the Katana on Shadiversity or listening for the fourth time the four-part Venice series (that’s four times four, that’s like, 16 Deadpool references) this constant exposure to history has rekindled my passion for History as a subject and so I’ve turned back to several of the dusty history books on my shelves which I’ve been putting off for too long, one of which happened to be Crowley’s 1453. I picked this book up again shortly after Blue released the Ottoman Empire video.
Crowley’s 1453 covers the siege of the city of Constantinople by Mehmet II, the then emperor of the Ottoman Empire, and tries to understand how this particular battle represented not just the beginning of a new modern period, but also the death of the ancient world and one of the most decisive conflicts between the religion of Christianity and Islam. Needless to say, this book has a lot to accomplish in its mere 260 pages, and I have a lot to accomplish in trying to write a significant review of it. The first part is to clarify something so my reader has reasonable expectations going forward.
History is part of the humanities and so it’s important to note one’s biases up front so the reader can have a balanced expectation or your argument: I am an atheist, and I’m not fond of religion as an institution or as a practical working philosophy. Still, despite the fact that I don’t like religion I cannot deny that it is a fundamental part of the history of humanity and trying to ignore it influences is like trying to avoid the fact that I only thought I could dance in high school, it would just be embarrassing. The second caveat I had to provide is the fact that I am not a historian, I am a history enthusiast. I love history, I love reading history, I love listening to podcasts about history, I love talking to historians and other history enthusiasts about history, but I cannot say that I am an authority on the subject. This is important because as much as I would love to say I am an authority, making such a claim would be not only dubious, it would disrespectful to actual historians who have worked towards the degree as well as contributing substantial research to the field. Historians are amazing people who perform a vital function in our society and so it’s important to give them the respect that they’ve earned and deserve and not to take credit for their work as pass it off as your own.
All right, with this boyscout bullshit out of the way, I can continue. And before you ask, yes I was a boy scout, I made it to Tenderfoot thank you very much.
Crowley’s book tackles not just the actual siege of Constantinople, which btw is today known as Istanbul in case you didn’t know, but the larger conflict that Constantinople represented which was, largely, the clash between Islam and Christianity. Since Constantinople had been changed from its origin of Byzantium (I know the names get confusing, just listen to this song and you’ll get the whole story) the city had come to represent a bastion of Christian resolve in the face of the overwhelming political and military might of the new religion. As the Muslim empires attempted again and again to attack the city Constantinople remained seemingly impenetrable and Crowley offers a keen insight into it:
Byzantium has proved the most obdurate of enemies, and Constantinople itself remains for Muslims both a scar and a source of deep longing. Many martyrs had perished at its walls, including the Prophet’s standard-bearer Ayyub in 669. Their deaths designated the city as a holy place for Islam and imparted a messianic significance to the project for its capture. The sieges left a rich legacy of myth and folklore that was handed down the centuries. It included among the Hadith, the body of sayings attributed to Muhammad, prophecies that foretold a cycle of defeat, death, and final victory for the warriors of the faith: […]. It was to be a long-range struggle. (15).
Crowley begins 1453 by observing that, to many Muslims, Constantinople was known as the Red Apple (immediately making me wonder whether or not Wes Anderson used that for his Grand Budapest Hotel painting bit, but that’s for another essay). As the previous passage explains well the city was a seen as a kind of jewel, an opportunity to achieve greatness not only for the actual political and economic benefits the city would bring; Constantinople was a chance to prove the might of Islam. What’s fantastic about Crowley’s book is the way he uses this clash against religion to great effect.
Reading about the state of Constantinople the city was, not in ruins, but clearly, a dying institution as most of the city had never really recovered after the looting which occurred in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and many civilians were held by deep superstitions and millenarian sentiments. Millenarian for the record is a philosophy in which the world is coming to an end. Constantine XI, the then monarch of the city, as Crowley writes him, is the last of a long line of kings who saw themselves as the actual Roman Emperors, and so the rising threat of Ottoman Expansion was not just a military threat, it was also a psychological one.
And speaking of fun psychological threats one of the most incredible passages in the book describes Orban gun. The Ottomans were impressive warriors and one of the first empires to really employ gun-powder as an effective military weapon, their cannons being the stuff of nightmares to the Europeans. When Mehmet II made to sack Constantinople, he hired the best cannon maker in the empire and Orban, to his credit and lasting legacy, did not disappoint. Crowley describes the monstrous weapon that brought even Constantinople’s walls to its knees:
They[Ottomans] fired stone balls that ranged from 200 pounds up to a colossal 1500 pounds, in the case of Orban’s monster gun. […]. Mehmet probably had about sixty-nine cannons in total, a huge artillery force by the standards of the day, that were supported at various points by other, more antique technologies for hurling stones, such as the trebuchet, a counterweighted traction catapult. The trebuchet had been enormously influential in the Muslim capture of crusader castles three hundred years earlier. Now it looks merely like a device from another age. (112).
Now the teenage boy who played Stronghold Crusader literally almost every day after high school (that is when I wasn’t watching Lord of the Rings over and over again) would love to go in depth into the fun military history that is the use of the trebuchet, but my reader is used to more personal analysis than this and besides there’s always YouTube. Crowley’s point with the cannons is to provide some explanation as to how the siege took place, but he’s also really great at showing that the use of such a colossal gun wasn’t just for military purposes, it also had a real effect upon the sieged peoples:
The psychological effects of artillery bombardment on the defenders were initially even more severe than its material consequences. The noise and vibration of the massed guns, the clouds of smoke, the shattering impact of stone on stone dismayed seasoned defenders. To the civilian population, it was a glimpse of the coming apocalypse and a retribution for sin. It sounded, according to one Ottoman chronicler, “like the awful resurrection blast.” People ran out of their houses beating their chests, crossing themselves and shouting, “Kyrie Eleison! What is going to happen now?” Women fainted in the streets. The churches were thronged with people “voicing petitions and prayers, wailing and exclaiming: ‘Lord, Lord! We moved far away from You. All that fell upon us and Your Holy City was accomplished through righteous and true judgments for our sins.” (115).
I suppose though at this point I have to address my regular contester. So what? What does this matter to me? This battle took place over 565 years ago, and the Ottoman Empire disbanded following World War I. Not only is this not relevant to me today, but it also shouldn’t be relevant to anybody period. People should be far more concerned about things like ISIS, and whether or not people use the word irregardless synonymously with regardless.
As always my contester is a buzz-kill, and only half right: people who use the word irregardless are monsters, but according to the OED, they are simply using a non-standard form of a perfectly normal word. There’s only so much you can do for people. As for the lasting relevance of 1453 as a relevant document, I’m afraid they’ve missed the point. Again, as I stated before, I simply wanted to write about this book because I am a history enthusiast and wanted to write about how great I thought the book was. But at the same time, at least in my experience, the best historians and historical writers manage to craft some sort of relevant moral or intellectual lesson through a historical narrative.
History is the study of humanity, the trends that govern human behavior in terms of politics, economics, warfare, culture, and philosophy and how they can change (or as is often the case not change) over time. Looking at 1453 what became terribly relevant to the text was how Crowley observed the battle of Constantinople was not just some random accident, there were a series of political, social, and religious events which created a slow decline of the Byzantine empire and the rise of the Ottoman empire. The fact of the matter is that civilizations change, whether it be because of technological developments, cultural ideologies, or new ideas of governmental action. The Byzantine empire attempted and failed to expand their territory, or consolidate their power in a manful way, and after the capital was sacked by Crusaders in 1204, it was impossible to come back in a significant way. Crowley tries to show his reader that the Ottoman Empire, and by extension Islam, succeeded in becoming a significant new power because they embraced new technologies and possessed a spirit to succeed that the Byzantines just couldn’t match.
And while the immediate relevance may not be terribly clear, this is a lesson that recurs throughout history. The key to success is not by hiding behind walls and past glories, it’s by pushing forward, developing new innovation, rallying people with a powerful and functional ideology, and remembering that Mehmet II was a badass, bisexual conqueror who could not be denied his glory.
And as for the city of Constantinople, it suffered unimaginable ruin. I could probably continue all day citing passage after passage of this incredible book, but that would just become pedantic and besides I have a stack of books about the Ottoman Empire I need to read and so I can always return for reference.
I suppose in the final summation I can only say that I adored Crowley’s book because every page was like listening to a dynamic and charismatic story-teller. Whether it was Constantine XI making patrols around the walls, Mehmet II literally taking apart his navy and dragging it upriver to surprise his enemy, or the endless descriptions of the people of Constantinople who saw their way of life being destroyed, I couldn’t stop reading this book. And like any great storyteller, Crowley leaves his reader with a haunting passage that I can’t help but end on:
There is one other powerful protagonist of the spring of 1453 still to be discovered within the modern city—the cannon themselves. They lie scattered across Istanbul, snoozing beside walls and in museum courtyards—primitive hooped tubes largely unaffected by five hundred years of weather—sometimes accompanied by the perfectly spherical granite or marble balls that they fired. Of Orban’s supergun there is now no trace—it was probably melted down in the Ottoman gun foundry at Tophane, followed sometime later by the giant equestrian statue of Justinian. Mehmet took the statue down on the advice of his astrologers, but it appears to have lain in the square for a long time before finally being hauled off to the smelting house. The French scholar Piere Gilles saw some portions of the leg of Justinian, which exceeded my height, and his nose, which was over nine inches long. I dared not publicly measure the horse’s legs and the on the ground but privately measured one of the hoofs and found it to be nine inches in height.” It was a last glimpse of the great emperor—and of the outsize grandeur of Byzantium—before the furnace consumed them. (259-60).
There was an idea and a vision that was Rome, or so the movies and pulp fiction romances tell me. And it’s both chilling and deeply fascinating to observe that the last lingering glory of that vision became yet another in a long line of really bad Ozymandias rip-offs. Although I suppose at least this rip-off would give humanity the pistols of Janissaries that kill you in an arguably underrated Assassin’s Creed video game, while Ridley Scott’s just gave us Alien Covenant.
There are greater tragedies I suppose, but it still hurts damn it.
All quotes cited from 1453: : The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West were quoted from the paperback Hyperion edition.