Thursday, May 29, 2008

Constantinople: After the Fall

"The fighting lasted from dawn until noon, and while the massacre went on in the city, everyone was killed; but after that time they were all taken prisoner... and this was the end of the capture of Constantinople, which took place in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three, on the twenty-ninth of May, which was a Tuesday."
-- Nicolo Barbaro, "Diary of the Siege of Constantinople 1453"
(Jones trans. 1969)

Five hundred and fifty-five years ago this very day, beginning at about 6 am local time, besieging Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed Khan Gazi (aka Mehmet II) breached the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople and the city soon fell. The Sultan was aided in no small measure by a European mercenary metal forger, known to history only as Orban.

Some say, with a slightly over-broad brush, that this day marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. For others it signaled a rejuvenated "messianic belief in the final victory" of Islam.

Perhaps the most enduring effect of the fall of Constantinople, as Niccolo Machiavelli recognized, was the radical alteration in the very nature of warfare. As his alter ego "Fabrizio" remarks in The Art of War's Socratic dialogue, "the methods and organizations of war in all the world, with respect to those of the ancients, are extinct."

This alteration in the very nature of warfare was caused by combining the new substance we now call gunpowder with an even more modern advanced technology of metal forging which for the first time could create cannon barrels mammoth enough to hurl huge weights over half a mile with lethal accuracy and unprecedented force. The deadly combination "rendered the traditional high, thick walled edifices of feudal Europe [exemplified at Constantinople] indefensible."

As Roger Crowley has written in his thoroughly engaging history, 1493: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West:
What finally emerged from Orban’s foundry once the molds had been knocked off was “a horrifying and extraordinary monster.” It was 27 feet long. The barrel, walled with 8 inches of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast, had a diameter of 30 inches, enough for a man to enter on his hands and knees and designed to accommodate a stone shot weighing something over half a ton.
Forever after, as it seems we have yet to fully appreciate even in this nuclear age, the peoples of the earth have no rational alternative but to try to coexist in peace. No walls can keep us safe. Isolation is no longer an option.

Consequently, it is irrational to refuse to engage in diplomacy with our adversaries.

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