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VINE VOICEon October 28, 2005
Byzantium. Constantinople. Istanbul. Intellectually, it is easy enough to remember that these three cities are in fact the same, sitting on the Bosphorus, straddling the border between Europe and the East. However, it is difficult to get a visceral feel for the fact that the current city of mosques and minarets was for over a millennia one of the centers of the Christian world. Fortunately, there is a book like 1453 to take us back and let us experience how such a transformation takes place.

In his book, Mr. Crowley takes us back to the year of the title, when Sultan Mehmet II, a man barely out of his teens but who has survived the intrigues that barred his way to the throne, lays siege to Constantinople. Despite the fact that the city has resisted sieges many times before thanks to its natural water defenses and ancient western wall, Mehmet is willing to take the risk. Constantine XI, the aging emperor who guards the city, is weak and his city and empire is only a shadow of its former glory. So, Mehmet gathers his armies and vassals and heads to the walls.

Overall, Mr. Crowley's descriptions of the siege are absorbing. He points out the very important advantages that Mehmet had over previous would-be conquerors: he brings cannon and a navy. The walls of Constantinople were impregnable to a classic mediaeval attack but the arrival of gunpowder to the West and the development of cannon made the walls vulnerable. Plus, no attacker had ever brought a navy to bear on the city before and its very existence cut off the possibility of resupplying the city, making a successful siege a possibility.

But Mehmet's victory was by no means assured and, in fact, he could have easily failed. His guns could only fire a few salvos a day and his navy was basically outclassed had his enemies ever being willing to meet him directly in battle. The lengthening siege made it difficult to manage his vast armies. Plus, the city was defended. Mr. Crowley shows great respect for the defenders of the city, their strategies and valor. As Mehmet's guns brought down sections of the wall, the citizens of Constantinople would sneak out at night and rebuild. Down to the last battle, the people of Constantinople seemed to believe their city could not fall.

Of course, fall it did. Mr. Crowley quickly gives us the final successful push into the city which, be it through luck or valor, went to the Turks in hours once the walls were breached. As Mehmet enters the city we get to see both the good and bad of a city defeated in the Middle Ages, mercy and spoils, revenge and glory. And we get a brief account of the spread of the news through the West and its effect on subsequent history.

All in all, this account of an important moment in the history of the Western world is a great read. It is informative and insightful, managing to build tension and excitement despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome. And Mr. Crowley's fairness to both the Christian defenders and the Turkish conquerors makes it palatable and not strident. There is no doubt that this defeat after 1000 years of successful defense was a tragic time but this fading star of the Christian world rises to become the center of the Muslim world, maintaining its glory for centuries more. This city deserves its story to be told.
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on August 21, 2005
When I was a young Infantry officer, I recall a tactical instructor telling us that,"The best defence is only as good as the willingness of an enemy to make the necessary sacrifices to overcome it." I can think of few better examples of this principle than the Ottoman siege of Constantinople. I have read many books about this event and in my opinion "1453" by Roger Crowley is far-and-away the best. The book is chock-full of interesting facts about the siege and where the facts are unclear, Crowley (like Herodotus) gives us the opposing stories and lets us decide. In addition "1453" is a very readable, fast-paced history. It's one of the few history books I've read where I can honestly say I wished it was much longer. It's like an excellent novel but it's all true and a heartbreaking story to boot. I just wish I'd been able to read it before my visit to Istanbul earlier this year. I'd have kept it at my side.
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on April 23, 2007
The historian brings people to life by telling the story of their historical times - illuminating them and their deeds, judiciously treating that which he is not certain of. The novelist brings history to life by telling the stories of the people who lived it - real and imagined, creatively (and judiciously, one hopes) filling in history's voids.

Further, as Napoleon said, "history is the agreed version of events by the victors." Before photographs and sound/picture recording, much of what is taken as historical fact can be disputed. With all that in mind, Roger Crowley has done a commendable job. What gives me the right to say so? Well, I have encountered the very same task!

I am a novelist and my first book, "The Lion of St. Mark (St. Martin's Press, 2005), was written before I read Roger Crowley's 1453. I only wish I had had it by my side when I was toiling over disputing sources as I wrote my fictional (but historically accurate, I trust) account of the great siege of Constantinople and what happened afterwards.

I appreciate his decision to go with his gut when versions of what happened irreconcilably collide and avoid the use "perhaps", "possibly", and "might have", which can drag historical story-telling to a crawl.

Crowley's style is highly readable and skillfully blends history with many illustrative anecdotes to bring the siege to life. Who could not feel the courage and fears of the Christians and the Ottomans as they fought and bled in the fosse and on the walls in their supreme struggle?

Like the old Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy, their contest presaged the modern-day technological battle in the Battle of the North Atlantic that saw the Allies and Germans constantly one-up each other as each strove to gain supremacy.

Traditional histories suffer from the readers' knowledge of how things end. Only first-rate historians are able to "make it read like a novel" to maintain the suspense and show, as Wellington said after Waterloo, that it really was, "a near run thing."

I understand from his website that Crowley's next work will detail the continuing struggle between the Ottomans and the West that culminated in the epic battle of Lepanto in 1571 and a decisive Christian victory.

I'll definitely buy it before beginning my third novel in my Venetians series. Thank you, Roger!
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on November 3, 2005
Although military history is one of my favorite subjects, books on military history often fall into one of two traps: either they lay out their subject in mind-numbingly dry detail, or they present an entertaining narrative at the expense of the facts. If you agree, then I can happily report that "1453" is a delightful surprise, for rarely do history books of any sort combine scholarship, good writing and a compelling story as well as this one. Roger Crowley weaves together a number of story lines - the Ottoman fixation with Constantinople, the various obstacles to cooperation between Byzantium and the West, and developments in military technology, to name a few - into a seamless narrative that moves forward as propulsively and inexorably as the Turkish advance on the great city itself. The writing is so good that even though I knew how the "story" would end, I found myself in suspense, as Crowley managed to convey a sense of immediacy and uncertainty about the final outcome until almost the very end. Despite the wealth of information provided (which is documented with endnotes), I also never found myself overwhelmed by data or bogged down in minutiae. Crowley unfolds the big picture clearly, yet without sacrificing detail about the various armies and personalities involved. Contrary to what a previous reviewer said, I also did not pick up any sense of pro-Islam or anti-Western bias. Crowley makes no attempt to gloss over Mehmet II's ruthlessness or the savage nature of the fighting on both sides. Constantine XI also comes across as one of the most sympathetic, if tragic, figures in the book. If you're at all interested in the fall of Constantinople, military history, or Islamic-Christian relations, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It's an epic story filled with memorable figures, and is unlikely to be better told than it is here.
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on September 6, 2005
1453 is one of the turning points of history. Mr.Crowley did excellent job to describe events, person, and facts related to capture of Istanbul. Two main characters Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Constantine XI are well biographied in the book. Especially Fatih's desire to take city and his preparations are very well given to the reader. Also the other characters like Zaganos Pasha, Halil Pasha, and Giovanni are given with enough detail with their contributions to the historical event.

Book starts with Arab siege in 7th century and Muhammad desire of Istanbul. But the walls of Istanbul and successive defense strategies gave Byzantium a victory against them. After that Turks started to hit walls of Istanbul at the beginning of Ottoman Empire but they failed as well.

Fatih Sultan Mehmet's obsession with the city starts with his early age and grows by the time. His successive use of technology, superior logistic planning, and strategy were the biggest advantages of Ottoman side. On the other hand, very charismatic and successful soldier Constantine XI was dealing with the problems of the Christianity like unity of the Church and Pope. There was big hesitation of help to Byzantium by Vatican.

Mehmet's use of biggest cannon of their time and landslide of his war ship to Golden Horn were the most important points of the war and helped the Ottomans capture the city. Cannons were designed by Hungarian cannon founder Orban who offered defense of the city to Constantine XI but he got refused to due his high price. Mehmet accepted this Christian Scientist offer and paid him very well. Also Zagonos Pasha from Ottoman army was also another Christian who helped Mehmet with his aggressive offense mind.

That's why I do not agree Crowley's definition to this event as Clash of Civilizations. During that time era Ottoman was also war with other Turkish and Arabic neighbors and Vatican did not make enough effort to save Istanbul due to his own interest. Istanbul was the biggest prize of their time for every commander regardless of religion.

As Crowley mentioned after the fall of Istanbul there was flow of people from west to Istanbul due to free practice of religion and wealth of the city. Churches and synagogues were free to operate. Because, Mehmet's goal was not to create Islamic Empire but global empire like his idol hero Alexander the Great.

In short, very well written, informative, and emotional book for the year of 1453. Everybody must read who live in Istanbul and who will visit Istanbul.
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on September 19, 2005
Living in Istanbul and working as a journalist, as I did for years, and living on Turkey's Mediterranean Coast as I do now I've run across individuals such as Mr. Crowley -- although I've never met him to my knowledge. Europeans -- oddly, particularly Brits -- who are attracted to Turkey and its history, its people and culture and self-generated mythology and who seek to, in some way, identify with it, or at least appoint themselves its expositors to more benighted cultures, such as (fill in home country).

Mr. Crowley's a good writer, let's be clear about that. He does take what could be a dry subject and write in clear, easy prose without condescending to his reader. Thankfully he avoids the novelist's style, which is inappropriate to the subject and which in my estimation rarely adds lucidity or "readability" to military history, he does well to avoid it here. Think William Manchester or Barbara Tuchman for the style.

But he's clearly not a scholar. Not that you have to be to take up a pen to write history, William Shirer wasn't a scholar yet his history of Nazi Germany has not been improved upon. What Mr. Crowley is, however, is an apologist for the Turkish-Islamic cultural myth.

It's clear by about page 20 that Mr. Crowley has no patience for the Byzantines, their religion, culture or empire. He speaks of them with barely-concealed contempt, and writes admiringly, almost fawningly of the Islamic armies which defeated them. At times his lack of objectivity is embarrassing -- he uses the term "martyr" to describe Muslims who die in combat, and he unquestioningly repeats the discredited canards that Balkan and European peasantry preferred Islamic to Christian rule. He adopts only the most superficial and derogatory to the West interpretation of the Crusades, and is clearly unfamiliar with Bernard Lewis, Bat Ye'or or Paul Fregosi's scholarship -- an unforgiveable omission for someone sitting down to write a history of 1453.

At times his almost dewy-eyed admiration for the Islamic armies at the heart of the Turkish Islamic myth overwhelms his good sense -- page 32: "The laws of Islam required mercy to conquered peoples [Right, like the laws of America require adherence to a speed limit]... No attempt was made to convert Christians, who formed the bulk of the population, to Islam..." Page 33: "A levy of Christian youths was taken [by the Islamic sultan] at regular intervals, converted to Islam..."

Later on the same page: "But to Christians watching the process from afar, it evoked rigid horror... the prospect of turning captured Christian children against Christians was fiendish and inhuman. It was to form a powerful ingredient in the myth of the Savage Turk."

I'd say "fiendish" and "inhuman" are pretty accurate adjectives for the practice of forcing slaves to go to war for their captors, yes.

Note that, the "myth" of the savage Turk, which as Mr. Crowley correctly notes was the shorthand for the Islamic forces conquering the historically Christian lands. Again, Mr. Crowley unavails himself of some less "mythological" reasons why Europeans might have considered the Islamic armies savage:

Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) in his The Complete History, on the Islamic invasion of Spain and France in the eighth and ninth centuries, writes "In 177 [17 April 793] Hisham, [Muslim] prince of Spain, sent a large army... into enemy territory, and which made forays as far as Narbonne and Jaranda [Gerona]... For several months [the army] traversed this land in every direction, raping women, killing warriors, destroying fortresses, burning and pillaging everything..."

Bat Ye'or, in the highly-respected 1996 book The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam writes "Sophronius [Bishop of Jerusalem]... bewailed the destruction of churches and monasteries, the sacked towns, the fields laid waste, the villages burned down by the [Muslims] who were overrunning the country. In a letter the same year to Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, he mentions the ravages wrought by the Arabs. Thousands of people perished in 639, victims of the famine and plague that resulted from these destructions."

I could go on and on -- Ye'or reproduces an eyewitness to the Islamic armies conquering the Egyptian Christian town of Nikiou: "They seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches - men, women and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found..."

The pattern was repeated, as Constantinoplians had good reason to fear, when their city was taken in 1453. Steven Runciman, the preeminent historian of the Crusades, reports that Muslim soldiers hewing to the by now well-established pattern "slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn."

All this is carefully airbrushed out of Mr. Crowley's book, in which the final taking of the city is described in the most bloodless yet gloating terms possible, and here he can't even pretend to keep his bias under wraps -- on page 239 he laments that the fall of the city "was just the start of a huge renewal of anti-Islamic sentiment." This is so ludicrous, to blame the victims of military conquest for being "anti" their bloody conquerors, as to beggar honest belief.

In the end the book is useful only insofar as someone is curious about what a pro-Islamic, anti-West non-scholar would daydream what happened in 1453, with noble, benevolent Islamic heroes, some of whom were cruelly martyred by the evil Western Christians opposing their glorious destiny, marching in to succor a city wracked by Christian malfeasance and ignorance... you can write the rest, can't you?
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on December 11, 2009
I came to 1453 after Empires of the Sea. I have no pretensions about Crowley or his work: it is popular history. I do not mind, and that is what I read instead of Fiction. With that said, 1453 does contain some embarrassing biases and apologies. Crowley goes out of his way to defend the Turks from charges of barbarism, saying things like "everybody was doing it." He seems to think little of Europeans who would not give the Turks credit for the Victory and claim that European technology and expertise brought down the walls of Constantinople, but he does the same thing in talking about Turkish barbarity: they learned it from Europeans. "Impalement, especially as a means of demoralizing besieged cities, was a widely practiced shock tactic that the Ottomans had learned in the Christian Balkans." Oh, that makes it better. It was part of the cultural milieu of the time. How about when the Turks later in the book saw their captives in half because they promised not to behead them? Treachery learned from the Franks? If only they had stuck to the purity of the Koran.

It is an understatement to say that it is disingenuous to lay Ottoman success purely in its own lap and then blame its vices on the Westerners.

He later defends Mehmet from charges that he had a family killed because they would not hand over their 14 year old boy for the pederastic pleasure of Mehmet. Why does he feel the need to do this? This makes a guy who routinely killed his own advisors look better? Look, sieges are nasty business, as is war, and anyone who engages in such activities knows that he will get his hands dirty. It is part of the picture. No need for an author to defile his own soul defending these things. Men are capable of good and bad. The historian's role is to point out instances of both.
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on June 15, 2006
I am a widely-read amateur historian and was familiar with the outlines of the fall of Constantinople. Crowley sets the stage for the Ottoman conquest and brings to life many details about the long siege, the politics, and the local customs which, in the descriptions of impalement, are not for the faint-hearted. Crowley seems pro-Byzantine, as I probably am, but by current standards most of those folks were not nice people.

A related book I also found fascinating, that provides important background, is "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople." It examines the events in the early 13th century, what became the moral bankruptcy of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and the eventual sacking of Constantinople by fellow-Christian crusader armies. A very sad tale indeed.
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on February 26, 2010
As a number of reviewers have already pointed out, the author of this book does an excellent job in chronicling the last days of the great imperial city of Constantinople before its fall to the Ottoman Turks. Crowley writes in a style that is both entertaining and historically accurate avoiding becoming partisan to one side or the other. The book not only details the events of the fall of Constantinople but also the main players (The Ottomans, The Byzantine king, the Latin rulers of Europe) And their involvement (Or lack of it) Crowley gives the reader background to the run up to the siege, the controversies between eastern and western church and also the repercussions of the fall of the city in both the Islamic and western world.

A down side to the book however is that it doesn't really cover much of what Sultan Mehmet did with the city after its capture. It seems to be rather rushed the last chapter as though he has exhausted all he wants to tell and just wants to end the book. Another down point is he uses the old Greek names for the gates and districts of the city. A few reviewers have pointed out that they have taken this book on holiday with them to Istanbul to help them to understand the city however without knowing the Turkish equivalents to the Greek names mentioned in the book I would imagine you would be stuck to say the least.

One other thing I should say however is that large parts of the book (Especially the events of the actual battle on the day of the capture of the city by the Turks) Seem to be taken almost word for word from Runiciman (The fall of Constantinople) Almost to the point that I had to get my old copy of that book and re-read it as I though I had just bought a new edition of that book!

For someone looking to get a highly readable and historically accurate account of the fall of Constantinople and wants to avoid the more excessive one sided books out there I highly recommend this book. If however you have Runciman's book you may not want to bother.
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VINE VOICEon November 7, 2005
This exceedingly well-written book gives a concise narrative history of the many years of conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans, and then gets down to the business at hand, which is the retelling of the siege and fall of the city of Constantinople. There is much detail in an almost day-by-day account of the siege, but the book is written so well that it is never boring. Many new wrinkles to this old story are included in the book, so even those who knew the outline of the tale will find something they didn't know on almost every page. It's a tragic story, but there is heroism on both sides in this conflict. It is a good idea to read a book such as this these days when there is such a distance between Christian and Muslim. Both sides will learn something valuable for themselves.
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