In the thousand years up to the 15th Century the Byzantine city of Constantinople had been virtually impregnable. Its triangular shape was surrounded by a combination of sea defence and massive land walls. The south-east aspect was bounded by the Sea of Marmara. The current runs fast and treacherously here and any landing from the sea would have been impossible. The northern aspect of the city was bounded by a peaceful inlet, the Golden Horn. This was protected by a single defensive wall but access to the Golden Horn could be blocked by a massive chain, supported on large wooden floats, which could be drawn across the mouth of the Horn and attached to the defensive walls of the Genoese town of Galata on the northern shore.
Finally were the vast land walls of Theodosius, stretching for four miles from the Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Originally constructed during the early fifth century, during the reign of the child-Emperor Theodosius, for a millennium frustrating all attempts of conquest. Two massive concentric walls and a brick-lined fosse or ditch were enough to repel all attackers to the extent that the inhabitants believed that the Virgin Mary herself was imparting special protection to their city.
Until the Ottomans came with their artillery.
The first written reference anywhere to a gun was no earlier than 1313. The weapons constructed in the 14th Century were very noisy – which served to frighten opponents – but did very little damage. They were tedious to load, cumbersome and just as likely to injure their crews as the enemy. It was only after 1420 that the Ottomans started to display an interest in the production of cannon and the refinement of the production of gunpowder. Casting techniques were revolutionised. They were determined to find an effective way to destroy the haughty defences of towns and cities. Deep in their psyche was an opposition to these defended settlements. The Ottoman’s ancestors were warriors of the Steppes whose natural superiority was in open, free-flowing battle. To be bogged down in sedentary siege warfare went against the grain.
At some time before 1452 a Hungarian cannon founder named Orban made his way to the court of Emperor Constantine XI in Constantinople. He offered to build a series of large cannon for the Byzantines but his price was high, the Emperor could not muster the cash. In time Orban left the city and made his way to the Ottoman Emperor (Mehmet II) in the city of Edirne (Adrianople). Mehmet knew the value of craftsmen like Orban, the latter reassured him that he could produce a weapon that would shatter the walls of Constantinople to dust.
He was given all the resources and help that he needed and soon produced a weapon that was deployed to shatter vessels passing up and down the Bosporus. So satisfied was Mehmet with the results that he immediately ordered Orban to build a monstrous supergun, one that could fire a granite cannon ball, eight feet in circumference and weighing something over half a ton.
The cannon required to perform this feat was twenty-seven foot long, the barrel was walled with eight inches of solid bronze. To melt the metal used to cast this beast Orban constructed a vast oven, able to withstand temperatures of up to 1000 degrees centigrade. Remember this was all with 15th Century technology (wooden frames, ropes, pulleys and hundreds of workers.) When the vast weapon was completed Mehmet ordered a test firing. With an explosion that shook the town a cannon ball was hurled for over a mile before embedding itself six feet down in soft earth.
So far, so good. The next problem was that this new supergun was 140 miles from the walls of Constantinople. The cannon was loaded on to a number of wagons and yoked to a team of sixty oxen. Two hundred men were employed in supporting and protecting it as it lurched along the unsteady road. Another large team went ahead, levelling out the road and building wooden bridges over rivers and gullies. It made its way at a steady two and a half miles a day. arriving at a point opposite the land walls by April 1453.
History records the savagery of the bombardment that followed, not only from the supergun (nicknamed Basilica by the oppressed Byzantines) but also from a host of smaller, yet effective cannon. The Basilica could only fire seven times in a day and very soon, under the intense heat and pressure, it cracked and shattered. Like Saddam Hussein’s Supergun its effect was probably more psychological than physical. It terrified the defendants so that, in the end, they capitulated totally. Not only had the land walls finally let them down, so had the Virgin Mary. On the 29th May, 1453 the fifteen hundred year old Roman Empire came to an end, a new Emperor of a new empire, the Ottomans, established a rule in Istanbul (the new name for the city) an imperial rule that was to prevail for the next four hundred years.