It happened today - May 29, 2016

On May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks and turned into Istanbul. It was in some sense a formality; the Byzantine Empire wasn’t what it once had been, and hadn’t been for centuries. But it was also a landmark event in what might have been, had been, and would be.

The Byzantine Empire, né the Eastern Roman Empire, had been on the skids since at least 1071 when it lost Anatolia to the Turks. A legitimate world power that even reconquered Italy and parts of Spain under Justinian the Great in the 6th century, it was a remnant by the 12th. And while the Crusades were meant to buy it some time, the shocking decision of the Fourth Crusaders in 1204 to um sack Christian Constantinople instead of those tough guy infidels over that way, looting churches and raping nuns left it even more fatally weakened. (That the Orthodox population of Constantinople had massacred tens of thousands of their Roman Catholic fellows and enslaved or driven out most of the rest helped provoke it. But still.)

That there was still a Constantinople to fall in 1453 is thus a tribute to the tenacity of its later rulers apart from the bit where they fought two significant civil wars in the 14th century, since nothing else important was happening or something. But by 1450 the Byzantine “Empire” was smaller than the Karamanid Emirate and about as mighty as the Knights of St. John. And three years later fall it did.

In one sense it was a dramatic victory for Islam, which had been rampaging since the mid-7th century and now seemed poised to squeeze Christendom from both ends. But while the Sultans advanced in small incremental steps through the Balkans, only finally being driven back from Vienna in 1683, the various Muslim powers in Spain were conquered one by one culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492, yes, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So the fall of Constantinople, sometimes pegged as the end of the Middle Ages, is also the year in which the West turned West, and became an Atlantic more than a Mediterranean civilization.

So which would prevail? The Islamic triumph leaving Europe’s back door open, or the European surge onto the world stage. Plot spoiler. You know the answer. But here’s something you may not know. Even in its death agonies, Byzantium might have held out at least for a while had the underestimated Sultan Mehmed II not managed to employ a disgruntled master founder, a shadowy probably Hungarian figure named Orban, to make him a giant cannon and a number of other guns with which to batter down the walls.

Thus in a very real sense, including in its final days, Byzantium’s fall was due to internal Western weakness not Muslim strength. The technological gap between the West was already significant and growing fast. Indeed it is worth noting that while Constantinople was going under, Gutenberg was at work on his famous Bible produced with movable type, which appeared in 1455. By 1500 books were everywhere in Europe, some six million of them, around 40,000 separate editions, stimulating controversy, provoking thought and spreading ideas. But in 1485 Sultan Bayezid II banned printing in the Ottoman Empire, a decree that more or less held into the 18th century. And as Bernard Lewis points out in The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, already “By the end of the eighteenth century, when a Turk or Arab drank a cup of coffee, both the coffee and the sugar had been grown in the European colonies and imported by Europeans. Only the hot water was of local provenance. During the 19th century, even that became doubtful, as European companies developed the new utilities in Middle Eastern cities.”

Thus it was that the conquest of Constantinople, however portentous for its inhabitants and later those of the Balkans, was a fleeting triumph of the old over the new. It was not the fall of Byzantium leading to a universal caliphate, but the fall of Granada and the rise of Atlantic exploration from Europe, that heralded the world that would succeed the Middle Ages.

P.S. If you’re wondering why Constantinople became Istanbul, even if the song says it’s nobody’s business but the Turks, it turns out that the Turks called it “Kostantiniyye” or “İstanbul” more or less interchangeably. And before the PC types insist on the culturally sensitive “Istanbul,” it’s not an Arabic or Turkish word but a contraction of the Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” or “iss tim Polin” meaning “to the city”. But the fact that old New York was once New Amsterdam had a much bigger impact on history.