The Red Apple

A red apple invites stones.

Turkish proverb

Early spring. A black kite swings on the Istanbul wind. It turns lazy circles round the Suleymaniye mosque as if tethered to the minarets. From here it can survey a city of fifteen million people, watching the passing of days and centuries through imperturbable eyes.

When some ancestor of this bird circled Constantinople on a cold day in March 1453, the layout of the city would have been familiar, though far less cluttered. The site is remarkable, a rough triangle upturned slightly at its eastern point like an aggressive rhino’s horn and protected on two sides by sea. To the north lies the sheltered deep-water inlet of the Golden Horn; the south side is flanked by the Sea of Marmara that swells westward into the Mediterranean through the bottleneck of the Dardanelles. From the air one can pick out the steady, unbroken line of fortifications that guard these two seaward sides of the triangle and see how the sea currents rip past the tip of the rhino horn at seven knots: the city’s defenses are natural as well as man-made.

But it is the base of the triangle that is most extraordinary. A complex, triple collar of walls, studded with closely spaced towers and flanked by a formidable ditch, it stretches from the Horn to the Marmara and seals the city from attack. This is the thousand-year-old land wall of Theodosius, the most formidable defense in the medieval world. To the Ottoman Turks of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was “a bone in the throat of Allah” – a psychological problem that taunted their ambitions and cramped their dreams of conquest. To Western Christendom it was the bulwark against Islam. It kept them secure from the Muslim world and made them complacent.

Looking down on the scene in the spring of 1453 one would also be able to make out the fortified Genoese town of Galata, a tiny Italian city state on the far side of the Horn, and to see exactly where Europe ends. The Bosphorus divides the continents, cutting like a river through low wooded hills to the Black Sea. On the other side lies Asia Minor, Anatolia – in Greek literally the East. The snowcapped peaks of Mount Olympus glitter in the thin light 60 miles away.

Looking back into Europe, the terrain stretches out in gentler, undulating folds toward the Ottoman city of Edirne, 140 miles west. And it is in this landscape that the all-seeing eye would pick out something significant. Down the rough tracks that link the two cities, huge columns of men are marching; white caps and red turbans advance in clustered masses; bows, javelins, matchlocks, and shields catch the low sun; squadrons of outriding cavalry kick up the mud as they pass; chain mail ripples and chinks. Behind come the lengthy baggage trains of mules, horses, and camels with all the paraphernalia of warfare and the personnel who supply it – miners, cooks, gunsmiths, mullahs, carpenters, and booty hunters. And farther back something else still. Huge teams of oxen and hundreds of men are hauling guns with immense difficulty over the soft ground. The whole Ottoman army is on the move.

The wider the gaze, the more details of this operation unfold. Like the backdrop of a medieval painting, a fleet of oared ships can be seen moving with laborious sloth against the wind, from the direction of the Dardanelles. High-sided transports are setting sail from the Black Sea with cargoes of wood, grain, and cannonballs. From Anatolia, bands of shepherds, holy men, camp followers, and vagabonds are slipping down to the Bosphorus out of the plateau, obeying the Ottoman call to arms. This ragged pattern of men and equipment constitutes the coordinated movement of an army with a single objective: Constantinople, capital of what little remains in 1453 of the ancient empire of Byzantium.

The medieval peoples about to engage in this struggle were intensely superstitious. They believed in prophecy and looked for omens. Within Constantinople, the ancient monuments and statues were sources of magic. People saw there the future of the world encrypted in the narratives on Roman columns whose original stories had been lost. They read signs in the weather and found the spring of 1453 unsettling. It was unusually wet and cold. Banks of fog hung thickly over the Bosphorus in March. There were earth tremors and unseasonal snow. Within a city taut with expectation it was an ill omen, perhaps even a portent of the world’s end.

The approaching Ottomans also had their superstitions. The object of their offensive was known quite simply as the Red Apple, a symbol of world power. Its capture represented an ardent Islamic desire that stretched back 800 years, almost to the Prophet himself, and it was hedged about with legend, predictions, and apocryphal sayings. In the imagination of the advancing army, the apple had a specific location within the city. Outside the mother church of St. Sophia on a column 100 feet high stood a huge equestrian statue of the Emperor Justinian in bronze, a monument to the might of the early Byzantine Empire and a symbol of its role as a Christian bulwark against the East. According to the sixth-century writer Procopius, it was astonishing.

The horse faces East and is a noble sight. On this horse is a huge statue of the Emperor, dressed like Achilles … his breastplate is in the heroic style; while the helmet covering his head seems to move up and down and it gleams dazzlingly. He looks towards the rising sun, riding, it seems to me towards the Persians. In his left hand he carries a globe, the sculptor signifying by this that all earth and sea are subject to him, though he has neither sword nor spear nor other weapon, except that on the globe stands the cross through which alone he has achieved his kingdom and his mastery of war.

The Equestrian Statue of Justinian as recreated by

It was in the globe of Justinian surmounted by a cross that the Turks had precisely located the Red Apple, and it was this they were coming for: the reputation of the fabulously old Christian empire and the possibility of world power that it seemed to contain.

Fear of siege was etched deep in the memory of the Byzantines. It was the bogeyman that haunted their libraries, their marble chambers, and their mosaic churches, but they knew it too well to be surprised. In the 1,123 years up to the spring of 1453 the city had been besieged some twenty-three times. It had fallen just once – not to the Arabs or the Bulgars but to the Christian knights of the Fourth Crusade in one of the most bizarre episodes in Christian history. The land walls had never been breached, though they had been flattened by an earthquake in the fifth century.

Islam’s desire for the city is almost as old as Islam itself. The origin of the holy war for Constantinople starts with the Prophet himself in an incident whose literal truth, like so much of the city’s history, cannot be verified.

In the year 629, Heraclius, “Autocrat of the Romans” and twenty-eighth emperor of Byzantium, was making a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem. It was the crowning moment of his life. He had shattered the Persians in a series of remarkable victories and wrested back Christendom’s most sacred relic, the True Cross, which he was triumphantly restoring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Islamic tradition, when he had reached the city he received a letter. It said simply: “In the name of Allah the most Beneficent, the most Merciful: this letter is from Muhammad, the slave of Allah, and His Apostle, to Heraclius, the ruler of Byzantines. Peace be upon the followers of guidance. I invite you to surrender to Allah. Embrace Islam and Allah will bestow on you a double reward. But if you reject this invitation you will be misguiding your people.” Heraclius had no idea who the writer of this letter might have been, but he is reported to have made inquiries and to have treated its contents with some respect. A similar letter sent to the “King of Kings” in Persia was torn up. Muhammad’s reply to this news was blunt: “Tell him that my religion and my sovereignty will reach limits which the kingdom of Chosroes never attained.” For Chosroes it was too late – he had been slowly shot to death with arrows the year before – but the apocryphal letter foreshadowed an extraordinary blow about to fall on Christian Byzantium and its capital, Constantinople, that would undo all the emperor ever achieved.

In the previous ten years Muhammad had succeeded in unifying the feuding tribes of the Arabian Peninsula around the simple message of Islam. Motivated by the word of God and disciplined by communal prayer, bands of nomadic raiders were transformed into an organized fighting force, whose hunger was now projected outward beyond the desert’s rim into a world sharply divided by faith into two distinct zones. On the one side lay the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam; on the other, the realms still to be converted, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. By the 630s Muslim armies started to appear on the margins of the Byzantine frontier, where the settled land gave way to desert, like ghosts out of a sandstorm. The Arabs were agile, resourceful, and hardy. They totally surprised the lumbering mercenary armies in Syria. They attacked, then retreated into the desert, lured their opponents out of their strongholds into the barren wilderness, surrounded and massacred them. They traversed the harsh empty quarters, killing their camels as they went and drinking the water from their stomachs – to emerge again unexpectedly behind their enemy. They besieged cities and learned how to take them. Damascus fell, then Jerusalem itself; Egypt surrendered in 641, Armenia in 653; within twenty years the Persian Empire had collapsed and converted to Islam. The velocity of conquest was staggering, the ability to adapt extraordinary. Driven by the word of God and divine conquest, the people of the desert constructed navies “to wage the holy war by sea” in the dockyards of Egypt and Palestine with the help of native Christians and took Cyprus in 648, then defeated a Byzantine fleet at the Battle of the Masts in 655. Finally in 669, within forty years of Muhammad’s death, the Caliph Muawiyyah dispatched a huge amphibious force to strike a knockout blow at Constantinople itself. On the following wind of victory, he had every anticipation of success.

To Muawiyyah it was to be the culmination of an ambitious long-term plan, conceived and executed with great care and thoroughness. In 669 Arab armies occupied the Asian shore opposite the city. The following year a fleet of 400 ships sailed through the Dardanelles and secured a base on the peninsula of Cyzicus on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. Supplies were stockpiled, dry dock and maintenance facilities created to support a campaign that would last as long as was necessary. Crossing the straits west of the city, Muslims set foot on the shores of Europe for the first time. Here they seized a harbor from which to conduct the siege and mounted large-scale raids around the hinterland of the city. Within Constantinople itself, the defenders sheltered behind their massive walls, while their fleet, docked in the Golden Horn, prepared to launch counterattacks against the enemy.

For five successive years between 674 and 678 the Arabs conducted the campaign on a steady pattern. Between spring and autumn each year they besieged the walls and mounted naval operations in the straits that involved running battles with the Byzantine fleet. Both sides fought with the same types of oared galleys and largely with the same crews, as the Muslims had access to the seafaring skills of Christians from the conquered Levant. In winter the Arabs regrouped at their base at Cyzicus, repaired their ships, and prepared to tighten the screw the following year. They were in the siege for the long haul, secure in the belief that victory was inevitable.

And then in 678 the Byzantine fleet made a decisive move. They launched an attack on the Muslim fleet, probably in their base at Cyzicus at the end of the campaigning season – the details are either unclear or were deliberately suppressed – spearheaded by a squadron of fast dromons: light, swift-sailing, many-oared galleys. There are no contemporary versions of what happened next, though the details can be deduced from later accounts. As the attack ships closed on their opponents, they unleashed, behind the conventional volley of winged missiles, an extraordinary stream of liquid fire from nozzles mounted high on their prows. Jets of fire burned the surface of the sea between the closing vessels, then caught hold of the enemy ships, falling “like a flash of lightning on the faces in front of it.” The explosion of flame was accompanied by a noise like thunder; smoke darkened the sky, and steam and gas suffocated the terrified sailors on the Arab ships. The firestorm seemed to defy the laws of nature: it could be directed sideways or downward in whatever direction the operator wished; where it touched the surface of the sea, the water ignited. It seemed to have adhesive properties too, sticking to the wooden hulls and masts and proving impossible to extinguish, so that the ships and their crews were rapidly engulfed in a propulsive torrent of fire that seemed like the blast of an angry god. This extraordinary inferno “burned the ships of the Arabs and their crews alive.” The fleet was destroyed, and the traumatized survivors, “having lost many fighting men and received great injury,” lifted the siege and sailed home. A winter storm wrecked most of the surviving ships while the Arab army was ambushed and destroyed on the Asian shore. Discouraged, Muawiyyah accepted a thirty-year truce on unfavorable terms in 679 and died, a broken man, the following year. For the first time the Muslim cause had received a major setback.

The chroniclers presented the episode as clear evidence that “the Roman Empire was guarded by God,” but it had, in truth, been saved by a new technology: the development of Greek fire. The story of this extraordinary weapon remains the subject of intense speculation even now – the formula was regarded as a Byzantine state secret. It seems that at about the time of the siege, a Greek fugitive called Kallinikos came to Constantinople from Syria, bringing with him a technique for projecting liquid fire through siphons. If so, it is likely that he built on techniques of incendiary warfare widely known throughout the Middle East. The core ingredient of the mixture was almost certainly crude oil from natural surface wells on the Black Sea, mixed with powdered wood resin that gave it adhesive properties. What was probably perfected in the secret military arsenals of the city over the length of the siege was a technology for projecting this material. The Byzantines, who were heirs to the practical engineering skills of the Roman Empire, seem to have developed a technique for heating the mixture in sealed bronze containers, pressurizing it by means of a hand pump, then emitting it through a nozzle, where the liquid could be ignited by a flame. To handle inflammable material, pressure, and fire on a wooden boat required precision manufacturing techniques and highly skilled men, and it was this that comprised the true secret of Greek fire and destroyed Arab morale in 678.

For forty years the setback at Constantinople rankled with the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus. It remained inconceivable within Islamic theology that the whole of humankind would not, in time, either accept Islam or submit to Muslim rule. In 717 a second and even more determined attempt was made to overcome the obstacle that hindered the spread of the Faith into Europe. The Arab attack came at a time of turmoil within the empire. A new emperor, Leo II, had been crowned on March 25, 717; five months later he found an army of 80,000 men dug in the length of the land walls and a fleet of 1,800 ships controlling the straits. The Arabs had advanced their strategy from the previous siege. It was quickly realized by the Muslim general Maslama that the walls of the city were invulnerable to siege machines; this time there was to be a total blockade. The seriousness of his intentions was underlined by the fact that his army brought wheat seed with them. In the autumn of 717 they plowed the ground and planted a food supply outside the walls for harvesting the following spring. Then they settled down to wait. A foray by the Greek fire ships had some success but failed to break the stranglehold. Everything had been carefully planned to crush the infidels.

What actually ensued for the Arabs was an unimaginable catastrophe that unfolded in inexorable stages. According to their own chroniclers, Leo managed to deceive his enemies by an extraordinary diplomatic double-cross that was impressive even by the standards of the Byzantines. He persuaded Maslama that he could get the city to surrender if the Arabs both destroyed their own food stores and gave the defenders some grain. Once done, Leo sat tight behind the walls and refused to parley. The tricked army was then subjected to a winter of freak severity for which they were ill prepared. Snow lay on the ground for a hundred days; the camels and horses started to perish in the cold. As they died, the increasingly desperate soldiers had no option but to eat them. The Greek chroniclers, not known for their objectivity, hinted at darker horrors. “It is said,” wrote Theophanes the Confessor a hundred years later, “that they even cooked in ovens and ate dead men and their dung which they leavened.” Famine was followed by disease; thousands died in the cold. The Arabs had no experience of the surprising severity of winters on the Bosphorus: the ground was too hard to bury the dead; hundreds of corpses had to be thrown into the sea.

The following spring a large Arab fleet arrived with food and equipment to relieve the stricken army but failed to reverse the downward spiral of fortune. Warned of the dangers of Greek fire, they hid their ships on the Asian coast after they had unloaded. Unfortunately some of the crews, who were Egyptian Christians, defected to the emperor and revealed the position of the fleet. An imperial force of fire ships fell on the unprepared Arab vessels and destroyed them. A parallel relief army dispatched from Syria was ambushed and cut to pieces by Byzantine infantry. Meanwhile Leo, whose determination and cunning seem to have been indefatigable, had been negotiating with the pagan Bulgars. He persuaded them to attack the infidels outside the walls; 22,000 Arabs were killed in the ensuing battle. On August 15, 718, almost a year to the day from their arrival, the armies of the caliph lifted the siege and straggled home by land and sea. While the retreating soldiers were harassed across the Anatolian plateau, there was one further calamity in store for the Muslim cause. Some ships were destroyed by storms in the Sea of Marmara; the rest were overwhelmed by an underwater volcanic eruption in the Aegean that “brought the sea water to a boil, and as the pitch of their keels dissolved, their ships sank in the deep, crews and all.” Of the vast fleet that had set sail, only five ships made it back to Syria “to announce God’s mighty deeds.” Byzantium had buckled but not collapsed under the onslaught of Islam. Constantinople had survived through a mixture of technological innovation, skillful diplomacy, individual brilliance, massive fortifications – and sheer luck: themes that were to be endlessly repeated in the centuries ahead. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the Byzantines had their own explanation: “God and the all-holy Virgin, the Mother of God, protect the City and the Christian Empire, and … those who call upon God in truth are not entirely forsaken, even if we are chastised for a short time on account of our sins.”

The failure of Islam to take the city in 717 had far-reaching consequences. The collapse of Constantinople would have opened the way for a Muslim expansion into Europe that might have reshaped the whole future of the West; it remains one of the great “What ifs” of history. It blunted the first powerful onslaught of Islamic jihad that reached its high watermark fifteen years later at the other end of the Mediterranean when a Muslim force was defeated on the banks of the Loire, a mere 150 miles south of Paris.


The WALLS had held firm, so that when the army of Sultan Mehmet finally reined up outside the city on April 6, 1453, the defenders had reasonable hopes of survival.

It is a tale of human courage and cruelty, of technical ingenuity, luck, cowardice, prejudice, and mystery. It also touches on many other aspects of a world on the cusp of change: the development of guns, the art of siege warfare, naval tactics, the religious beliefs, myths, and superstitions of medieval people. But above all it is the story of a place – of sea currents, hills, peninsulas, and weather – the way the land rises and falls and how the straits divide two continents so narrowly “they almost kiss,” where the city is strong, defended by rocky shores, and the particular features of geology that render it vulnerable to attack. It was the possibilities of this site – what it offered for trade, defense, and food – that made Constantinople the key to imperial destinies and brought so many armies to its gate. “The seat of the Roman Empire is Constantinople,” wrote George Trapezuntios, “and he who is and remains Emperor of the Romans is also the Emperor of the whole earth.”

Modern nationalists have interpreted the siege of Constantinople as a struggle between the Greek and Turkish peoples, but such simplifications are misleading. Neither side would have readily accepted or even understood these labels, though each used them of the other. The Ottomans, literally the tribe of Osman, called themselves just that, or simply Muslims. “Turk” was a largely pejorative term applied by the nation states of the West, the name “Turkey” unknown to them until borrowed from Europe to create the new Republic in 1923. The Ottoman Empire in 1453 was already a multicultural creation that sucked in the peoples it conquered with little concern for ethnic identity. Its crack troops were Slavs, its leading general Greek, its admiral Bulgarian, its sultan probably half Serbian or Macedonian. Furthermore under the complex code of medieval vassalage, thousands of Christian troops accompanied him down the road from Edirne. They had come to conquer the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Constantinople, whom we now call the Byzantines, a word first used in English in 1853, exactly four hundred years after the great siege. They were considered to be heirs to the Roman Empire and referred to themselves accordingly as Romans. In turn they were commanded by an emperor who was half Serbian and a quarter Italian, and much of the defense was undertaken by people from Western Europe whom the Byzantines called “Franks”: Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans, aided by some ethnic Turks, Cretans – and one Scotsman. If it is difficult to fix simple identities or loyalties to the participants at the siege, there was one dimension of the struggle that all the contemporary chroniclers never forgot – that of faith. The Muslims referred to their adversary as “the despicable infidels,” “the wretched unbelievers,” “the enemies of the Faith”; in response they were called “pagans,” “heathen infidels,” “the faithless Turks.” Constantinople was the front line in a long-distance struggle between Islam and Christianity for the true faith. It was a place where different versions of the truth had confronted each other in war and truce for 800 years, and it was here in the spring of 1453 that new and lasting attitudes between the two great monotheisms were to be cemented in one intense moment of history.