For over 1,000 years, Constantinople held out against a never-ending stream of failed attacks. Capital of the Byzantine Empire, a.k.a. the Eastern Roman Empire , it was famed for its heavily fortified city walls and ingenious defense. Could it really be true that such a mighty city, the last bastion of Christianity in the East, fell to the Ottoman Empire because someone forgot to lock the gate?

Strategically positioned between Asia and Europe, Constantinople was hemmed in by water except on its western front. It was there that Theodosius II built his famed Theodosian Walls. These impregnable triple fortification walls were surrounded by a 20-meter-wide (65 ft) moat, while the third wall measured 12-meters (39 ft) high, 5 meters (16 ft) thick and incorporated 96 towers.

Portion of the panorama on display at the Panorama 1453 History Museum in Istanbul depicting the siege of Constantinople. (Mustafa-trit20 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Portion of the panorama on display at the Panorama 1453 History Museum in Istanbul depicting the siege of Constantinople. (Mustafa-trit20 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Constantinople withstood sieges and attacks for centuries. Nevertheless, in 1453, Constantinople faced the formidable Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Isolated from the rest of the Christian world, Constantine XI found himself outnumbered with an army of just 5,000. Mehmed brought with him 80,000 men armed with monster cannons , one of which was said to measure up to 9 meters long. According to Los Angeles Times , Mehmet warned that it could “strike people speechless or cause pregnant women to miscarry.” He also brought with him smaller cannons able to fire up to 100 times a day.

The Ottoman’s began their 53-day siege on the 6th April 1454. It was an unequal battle and Constantinople was unable to withstand such modern technology. The city fell to the Ottomans on the 29th May. Accounts of the final day of battle, repeat one aspect time after time. In this version, Mehmed struck at dawn, encountering a surprising vulnerability in Constantinople’s defense. “Some fool had left the small Kerkoporta gate in the Land Walls open,” explained Brewminate. “They climbed to the top of the wall and raised the Ottoman flag… and allowed their comrades to flood into the city.”

This is a theory touted across the board in a variety of publications. It even got Elon Musk into some hot water when he tweeted a meme of a Byzantine soldier asking himself “Did I lock the gate?” unleashing an avalanche of angry reactions from prominent Turkish historians. Daily Sabah argued that this theory was first recorded by the Byzantine historian Doukas, in Lesbos at the time of the famous siege:

“This detail was fabricated to overcome the shock of the conquest and belittle the city’s capture by Turks.”

It appears that the truth may be that the Ottomans were simply better equipped and were thus able to blast their way through the famous walls of Constantinople.

Top image: The entrance of Mehmed II into Constantinople in 1453 AD, by Benjamin-Constant. Source: Public domain

By Cecilia Bogaard

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