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Response to Review of The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies

I must commend Professor Michael Angold for the lengthy review that I deem to be a review article. He has moved from the Komnenian period to the late Palaiologan with the anticipated publication of his monograph on the fall of Constantinople in 1453. There are a number of points in his review that require correction and further comment.

First, he labels me as a ‘specialist in the history of medieval Russia’. This is partially correct. My doctoral studies were in the field of Byzantine and Medieval Slavic History with a concentration in literature and linguistics under the tutelage of Professors George Soulis and Donald M. Nicol. Second, there is not a generation difference between my colleague Professor Philippides and myself. A 21-year difference does not numerically constitute a generation. Third, while Professor Philippides has devoted over 30 years to the study of this late period in Byzantine History, my research efforts in collecting materials and writing on the late Palaiologan era and this study span a period approaching 30 years. Having said this, I now turn to more substantive points raised in Professor Angold’s review.

From the outset of writing this work, our goal was not to demean Sir Steven Runciman and Agostino Pertusi. A careful reading of the entire text of The Siege and Fall of Constantinople in 1453 will demonstrate that we both praise and criticize these authors. Runciman used a relatively small number of original sources to write his beautifully written study, and however one wishes to estimate the value of this popular work it does have its shortcomings and occasionally questionable factual information which leads to some difficult and unacceptable conclusions. Although we admire Pertusi for undertaking an anthology of sources relative to the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, a work that still remains an essential source for the study of the event, the editing of texts and deletion of significant passages required that we address this in our own historiographical study.

Professor Angold has made a misleading statement by stating that my colleague has provided ‘a reliable text [in English translation] of the French version [of Tetaldi’s Informations]’. Professor Philippides has translated the ‘Latin’ original of Tetaldi’s work, given that the French rendition has obvious shortcomings.

A more contentious point that he raises concerns the Fourth Military Gate and its recent identification as the Gate of Saint Romanos, a civil gate noted for its passage of people and commerce. At the International Byzantine Congress in London some years ago, Professor Neslihan Asutay and I held endless discussions of her article re-identifying the Fourth Military as the civil Gate of Saint Romanos that had appeared in Byzantinische Zeitschrift. Her contention, based on the presence within a walkway of the Theodosian Walls, between the inner and middle wall, of a lintel bearing an inscription of the gate of Saint Romanos, led her to the conclusion that this site was the Gate of Saint Romanos, although she does not attempt to place the Fourth Military Gate elsewhere. She is well aware of my scepticism that this is indeed true. There are a number of reasons why I reject her conclusion. First, the military gate sits on a ridge, which does not lend easy access to the gate from the city-side. Although we did not include a photograph of this view, but only a western view, there is no evidence of a roadway leading to the narrow entrance from either direction. Our study of available maps that span a period of five centuries concurs with this interpretation. Further, if the gate were a civil gate, it would have towers on either side as was customary in the construction of civil gates, and there is no physical evidence to support the conclusion that towers flanked the gate. Professor Asutay has also overlooked or ignored a discussion of the terminology found on the lintel. The term Povrta is carved rather than the Greek Puvlh. The former term came into usage with the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, whereas the latter was the more ancient and common usage both in literature and architectural depictions. The lintel itself does not such extensive weathering as the brick and stone work about it, being remarkably clean. Lastly, as we point out: ‘… during the excavations of the 1950s for an extension of Millet Caddesi … the lintel may have been uncovered at that time and was temporarily or mistakenly [or simply] placed at the site she observed’ (p. 335). It is not embedded above the gate, but sits on two posts also of recent origin that are removed from the gate itself. In all probability, what we are viewing is a lintel that was carved when the Gate of Saint Romanos was undergoing extensive reconstruction about 1900, but the lintel was not positioned above the entry and set aside, unused.

Given our publication schedule and the final preparation of the manuscript, we were unable to digest and incorporate the materials of Professor Asutay’s Die Landmauer von Konstantinopel-Istanbul that we do cite in the bibliography. There is much to commend her research in this work and especially the use of Turkish sources that shed new light on many points of scholarly contention. Scholars will now have an opportunity to prepare a scholarly synthesizing study of the siege and fall of Constantinople. Turning to the issue of the Kerkoporta, the postern gate has been identified by scholars as at two sites. Contrary to Professor Angold’s contention, we favor the location for the gate, not at the Xulokevrkou, but ‘nestled between the southwestern corner of the Porphyrogenite Palace (Tekfur Sarai) and a military tower’ (p. 620). Albeit, the gate played a role, even if a lesser one, in the final collapse of the imperial city. We have advanced the notion that the gate was left unlocked when a small force on a reconnaissance mission exited the gate and never returned. The Ottoman Turks regularly sent out reconnaissance units looking for unguarded entry points into the city. There also remains the possibility that pro-Turkish supporters among the Greeks and other residents within the city unlocked the gate, although any evidence of this is very difficult to come by and the subject has hardly been discussed in scholarly works. As circumstances would have it, the Turks discovered the unlocked gate, entered and proceeded to a tower at the Adrianople Gate and raised their standard that could be seen throughout much of the city by the defenders. This event is almost coincidental with the second critical wounding of Giustiniani, the Genoese commander of the forces at the Fifth Military Gate, the Pempton. His withdrawal to seek medical assistance and his men, believing that he had abandoned the position, followed and left the gate poorly defended by a handful of Greeks. The end result was the fall of the city, neither as a result of a major battle nor as a breach of the Theodosian Walls, but due to a set of fortuitous circumstances that led to its conquest by Mehmed II.

Professor Angold makes much of the study of Kelly DeVries of Ottoman artillery and in particular the development of mortars. While we do not dispute DeVries’ assertion that the use of mortars in the port area stretched the Byzantine defense to a breaking point, other naval activity in the Golden Horn also forced the defenders to thin out their ranks on the Theodosian Walls and to man the sea walls. We do not believe that one factor was decisive in the Byzantine response. On the other hand, Mehmed and his generals may have viewed the great cannon, the bombard, as the ultimate weapon that would breach the Theodosian Walls in the sector of St. Romanos-Pempton Gates. This did not happen. And when the bombard cracked in mid-siege, it was repaired with bands that diminished its utility and effectiveness. His lesser artillery certainly evidences no great successes in the battle for the city.

Our study was intended as a reference work, examining all relevant and available original sources and secondary literature dwelling upon various aspects of the siege and fall. With time we recognized the enormity of the project, but pressed on recognizing the potential value of our endeavors to historical and literary scholarship. As we note in our conclusion, ‘The historiography, then, of this the end of empire and its last emperor pleads for a thorough study, one based on all materials at hand and not a selective reading of sources that leads to erroneous conclusions’ (p. 568).