The sack of Constantinople in 1453

I happened across the following item online, described as an “eyewitness”, but not properly referenced.  We all know how unreliable such things can be, so I started to hunt around.  The text is given on this website here, and then repeated on various other sites.  Pajamas Media gives it in an article Turkey celebrates 558 years of illegal occupation of Constantinople.

Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge.

The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions . . . There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury. This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses, dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages. It is even said that at the mere sight of them many girls were so stupefied that they almost gave up the ghost.

Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten. Priests were led into captivity in batches, as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. . .

Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints’ shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind. Chalices and cups for the celebration of the Mass were set aside for their orgies or broken or melted down or sold. Priests’ garments embroidered with gold and set with pearls and gems were sold to the highest bidder and thrown into the fire to extract the gold. Immense numbers of sacred and profane books were flung on the fire or tom up and trampled under foot. The majority, however, were sold at derisory prices, for a few pence. Saints’ altars, tom from their foundations, were overturned. All the most holy hiding places were violated and broken in order to get out the holy treasures which they contained . . .

When Mehmed (II) saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. ‘What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed’! His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.

The reference given is “Routh, C. R. N. They Saw It Happen in Europe 1450-1600 (1965).”

The book is in Google books, and searching for the first line gives us something even in the snippet.  It comes from p.386:

Source: On May 29th the city fell and there ensued the wildest scenes of butchery and destruction by the Turks.  Critobulus, op. cit., English version from Guerdan and Halliday, op. cit., p.218.

This is then followed by our text.

Critobulus is a writer new to me, but a German edition exists: Critobuli Imbriotae historiae (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 22), De Gruyter (1983). Incredibly these muppets printed it without a translation, presumably to show how clever they were.  Of course the rest of us know that anyone can print a text; if you have to write a translation, you do have to work out what the words mean! Apparently the autograph ms. exists in the library of the Seraglio in Istanbul.  It seems that C. Muller was the first to print it in part 1 of vol. 5 of Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, 1870, p.40 f.  This is online and can be consulted, but again is Greek only.

A further search on the snippet view reveals that “op.cit.” means A History of the Deeds of Mohammed II.  Critobulus of Imbros was, it seems, a renegade who converted to Islam. 

Likewise I find that “Guerdan and Halliday” means Byzantium: its triumphs and tragedy, by R. Guerdan, trans. by D. L. B. Halliday, Allen and Unwin (1954). 

Further searches reveals that a translation does exist of the source text: Charles T. Riggs, Michael Critobulus (Kritovoulos), History of Mehmed the Conqueror, Princeton (1954).  It would be nice to check the above against this, and see to what extent it is accurate.  Because the subject is a politically loaded one, it needs to be checked carefully.  I’ve ordered a copy of the Riggs translation by ILL, and we will see!


10 thoughts on “The sack of Constantinople in 1453

  1. Salam. may i know if Barbaro says that Christians attacked the city too? I read this in an eyewitness account somewhere (wasnt cited). Text copy pasted below:

    “First came the irregulars, an unreliable, multinational crowd of Christians and Moslems, who were attracted by the opportunity of enriching themselves by looting the great city, the last capital of the Roman Empire… ”

    this even shows some results on google. can you find out exactly who wrote this, in which book, on what page, and if it is authentic? if this is true, does it not somewhat negate the notion of a clash between Islam and Christianity. while the clash was certainly present, dont details like these show that christians themselves were divided and many soldiers were fighting only for private gain?

  2. Interesting question. I’m away from home, but will look at this when I get back.

    Every army has its renegades. Not sure as to the larger question; whether this would really influence the Islam vs Christianity issue. Will consider it.

  3. The phrase “First came the irregulars, an unreliable, multinational crowd of Christians and Muslims” appears in David J. Jonsson, “The clash of ideologies”, 2005, p.405. There is a Google Books preview here.

    This is not an eyewitness account, but rather the words of Jonsson.

    I can’t say whether this modern account is accurate or not.

    As for the question of whether the employment of gangs of ruffians of all religions and none by the Turks means that this was not an “Islam vs Christianity” moment … well, I don’t think it matters a bit either way. Why should it?

    The actions of the Turks on conquering the city indicate that religion was part of their motives. The conversion of churches into mosques and the demolition of the Church of the Holy Apostles is enough to show that.

  4. Hi there,
    I have bumped into this Routh, C. R. N. They Saw It Happen in Europe 1450-1600 (1965). Have you discovered something new about it?



  5. The quotation with which the post starts does not seem to be a translation of Critobulos. I’ve just posted the relevant sections of the Riggs translation of Critobulos here.

    I would guess that it is the 1954 words of Guerdan and Halliday, paraphrasing what Critobulos says, but I have no access to that book.

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