Panorama: The Siege of Istanbul
I had grand plans to hop out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and head into downtown Istanbul to observe Friday morning prayers at the Eyup Mosque. But a late night dinner at a private home effectively made it nearly impossible to rise early, so I punted, and took the day a little easier.
In mid-afternoon, a number of us went to the Museum of the Siege of Istanbul by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad Fateh, which really isn’t promoted to tourists, though the displays have truncated English explanations. The real prize of the visit was a diorama of the conquest of Byzantium, later known as Istanbul, by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. I hadn’t expected much. I mean, there have been hundred of major battles scattered throughout history. On that long list, how memorable could this one be? But the diorama – a nearly life-size, three-dimensional depiction of the battle created on the inside of a large dome – was extraordinarily vivid. Surrounded by legendary fortifications, the city of Byzantium, formerly Constantinople, was famous for repelling the toughest of siege armies, including the Crusaders. But not this time.
This time, Mehmet fashioned special heavy-duty cannon and brought an army of at least 80,000. He dragged ships across a spit of land to a tributary to increase pressure on the defendants. And, on May 29, 1453, he launched his final attack. The diorama, known for its accuracy, depicts fireballs landing among the troops and horses during the attack. It shows siege machines smashing open the walls, and it shows the desperate, final struggles of the city’s defenders. It shows one of the first invaders to break through standing atop a turret, waving the sultan’s flag, as horsemen pile through a breach in the wall.
Outside, we walked to the remains of those fortifications, now a ruin running along the edge of the museum’s park. I ran my hand along the stone blocks, wondering about their experiences that day. When we visited, the stones were growing warm in the mild spring sunshine. But back then, this well-kept lawn was a blood-soaked hellhole filled with screaming men.