Why Istanbul Is Not Constantinople (Anymore)

Supporters of Justice and Development party (AK) wave Turkish flags and hold a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outside offices in Istanbul, Sunday, April 16, 2017. At issue was a historic referendum on whether to approve constitutional changes that would greatly expand Erdogan's powers and determine Turkey's long-term political future, making a lasting impact on its relations with the European Union and the world.

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on May 29, 2024

Precisely 571 years ago today — May 29, 1453 — the Turks sacked the ancient Christian kingdom of Constantinople, slaughtering and raping thousands of people simply because they were Christians and then, transforming their city into Muslim Istanbul. And, as they do every year, Turks — from their president on down — are saber rattling today in commemoration of that “glorious” event.

No doubt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who regularly refers to the conquest as being “among the most glorious chapters of Turkish history,” is again extolling this bloodbath. Because most Westerners are today totally unaware of the history between Muslim Turkey and Christian Byzantium — a history that continues to reverberate today — some background is necessary.

War in the Heart

Toward the end of the first millennium, the Turks, whose origins lay in Asia’s eastern steppes, became Muslim and then began to raid and conquer portions of Asia Minor, which was then and had been for a millennium Christian. By the end of the fourteenth century they had conquered it entirely and began eying Constantinople, just across the Bosphorus Strait. Although generations of Turks repeatedly besieged it, it would fall to Ottoman Sultan Muhammad (pronounced “Mehmet”) II, Erdoğan’s personal hero.

But why did Muhammad II and his predecessors attack Constantinople in the first place? What made it an enemy to the Turks?

The same thing that made every non-Muslim nation an enemy: it was non-Muslim, and therefore in need of subjugation. That was the sole “grievance” that propelled the Turks to besiege it (as their Arab counterparts had done in the seventh and eighth centuries).

From the start, deceit was part of Muhammad’s arsenal. When he first became sultan and was busy consolidating his authority, Muhammad “swore by the god of their false prophet, by the prophet whose name he bore,” a bitter Christian contemporary retrospectively wrote, that “he was [the Christians’] friend, and would remain for the whole of his life a friend and ally of Constantinople.”

Although they believed him, Muhammad was taking advantage of “the basest arts of dissimulation and deceit,” wrote Edward Gibbon. “Peace was on his lips while war was in his heart.”

‘Women, Handsome Boys, and Virgins’

Once the siege commenced, Muhammad also exhorted his Muslim army with jihadist ideology, unleashing throngs of preachers who cried throughout the Muslim camp surrounding Constantinople,

Children of Muhammad, be of good heart, for tomorrow we shall have so many Christians in our hands that we will sell them, two slaves for a ducat, and will have such riches that we will all be of gold, and from the beards of the Greeks we will make leads for our dogs, and their families will be our slaves. So be of good heart and be ready to die cheerfully for the love of our [past and present] Muhammad.

“Recall the promises of our Prophet concerning fallen warriors in the Koran,” Sultan Muhammad himself exhorted: “the man who dies in combat shall be transported bodily to paradise and shall dine with [prophet] Muhammad in the presence of women, handsome boys, and virgins.”

The mention of “handsome boys” was not just an accurate reference to the Koran’s promise (e.g., 52:24, 56:17, and 76:19); Muhammad II was a notorious pedophile. His enslavement and rape of Jacob Notaras — a handsome 14-year-old nobleman’s son in Constantinople, whom Muhammad forced into becoming his personal catamite for seven years before the boy eventually escaped — was only one of the most infamous.

If You’ve a Date in Constantinople …

Then there was the lecherous behavior of Muhammad’s army once they breached the walls of Constantinople. (The following quotes are all from contemporary sources and eyewitnesses):

When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions.… There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury.… [The Turks] dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages.… Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened besides.

Because thousands of citizens had fled to and were holed up in Hagia Sophia — which at that time was one of the Christian world’s grandest basilicas and was only recently transformed into a mosque again under Erdoğan — it offered an excellent harvest of slaves once its doors were hewn down:

One Turk would look for the captive who seemed the wealthiest, a second would prefer a pretty face among the nuns. … Each rapacious Turk was eager to lead his captive to a safe place, and then return to secure a second and a third prize. … Then long chains of captives could be seen leaving the church and its shrines, being herded along like cattle or flocks of sheep.

…She’ll Be Waiting in Istanbul

The slavers sometimes fought each other to the death over “any well-formed girl,” even as many of the latter “preferred to cast themselves into the wells and drown rather than fall into the hands of the Turks.”

Having taken possession of the Hagia Sophia, the invaders “engaged in every kind of vileness within it, making of it a public brothel.” On “its holy altars” they enacted “perversions with our women, virgins, and children,” including “the Grand Duke’s daughter.”

Next “they paraded the [Hagia Sophia’s main] Crucifix in mocking procession through their camp, beating drums before it, crucifying the Christ again with spitting and blasphemies and curses. They placed a Turkish cap … upon His head, and jeeringly cried, ‘Behold the god of the Christians!’”

Practically all other churches in the ancient city suffered the same fate. “The crosses which had been placed on the roofs or the walls of churches were torn down and trampled.” The Eucharist was “thrown to the ground and kicked.” Bibles were stripped of their gold or silver illuminations before being burned. “Icons were without exception given to the flames.” Patriarchal vestments were placed on the haunches of dogs; priestly garments were placed on horses.

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“Everywhere there was misfortune, everyone was touched by pain” when Sultan Muhammad finally made his grand entry into the city. “There were lamentations and weeping in every house, screaming in the crossroads, and sorrow in all churches; the groaning of grown men and the shrieking of women accompanied looting, enslavement, separation, and rape.”

Finally, Muhammad had the “wretched citizens of Constantinople” dragged before his men during evening festivities and “ordered many of them to be hacked to pieces, for the sake of entertainment.” The rest of the city’s population — as many as 45,000 people — were hauled off in chains to be sold as slaves.

‘Little Left’ To Do

This is the man, and this is the event, that Turkey and its president are currently celebrating. The message is clear: Jihadist ideology permeates if not dominates every rung of Turkish society. Hating, invading, and conquering neighboring peoples not due to any grievances but simply because they are not Muslim, with all the attending atrocities, rapes, destruction, and mass slavery is apparently the ideal, to resume once the sunset of Western power is complete — which, according to Erdoğan’s own daughter is any day now. Before last year’s celebrations she tweeted, “There is little left for the Islamic crescent to break the Western cross” — an assertion more befitting of ISIS than the daughter of a president who works as a “sociologist.”

Meanwhile, because Americans have grown used to seeing statues of their own nation’s heroes toppled for no other reason than because they were white and/or Christian, and therefore “inherently evil,” the significance of Erdoğan’s words and praise for Muhammad II — who as a non-European Muslim is further immune from Western criticism, as that would be “racist” — remains lost to them.

Put differently, while Muslim leaders such as Erdoğan openly venerate their ancestors for giving them a “legacy of conquest” worth emulating, here is the West falling all over itself to disavow any “conquest” its ancestors may have engaged in, such the conquest of the Americas initiated by the “genocidal” Christopher Columbus.

The significance of this dichotomy clearly bodes ill for the West.


Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum. All historic quotes in this article were sourced from and are documented in Chapter 7 of his book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.

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