New York: Hyperion, 2005, 304 pages
Not a historian by training, Crowley was educated in English literature at Cambridge, and spent a year teaching English in Istanbul. He spent much of his life in Malta, Greece, and Turkey, and though 1453 is his first book, the text is the culmination of his many years traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. The author produced a work that, in the fashion of traditional historiography, casts the battle for the city in terms of a fight between the respective leaders, Mehmet I and Constantine XI. For Crowley, the most important consideration of the siege at Constantinople is not that the Ottomans succeeded, but that the Byzantines managed to hold off the invasion for as many weeks as they did.
Crowley approached the topic from both European and Turkish perspectives, using accounts from Western observers as well as historical Ottoman narratives in an attempt to provide a relatively balanced examination of the siege of Constantinople. The author, however, relied more heavily on secondary than primary sources in this synthesis, and there is a striking imbalance (skewed in favor of the West) between the European and Turkish sources. In addition, the material is centered squarely on Constantinople / Stamboul, with the result that readers learn little about the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Still, Western caricatures of the “Lustful Turk” and the “Terrible Turk” are largely avoided, as Crowley strove to present the atrocities committed by both sides. Most importantly, the author noted that one of the worst periods in the history of Constantinople occurred during the Fourth Crusade, when Western forces sacked and pillaged the city under the direction of the Venetians.
The text roughly follows a chronological approach, with chapters that revolve around particular themes related to the battle. Crowley began with basic histories of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires to help readers understand the context of the siege. The fall of Constantinople, argued Crowley, owed as much to the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches as it did to the military tactics of Mehmet II. In addition, the Byzantines themselves were divided between those who agreed with the reunification proposed by Pope Nicholas V and those who wished to remain independent from Rome.
Accompanying the text are a section of paintings and photographs – for which the author strove to avoid Orientalist caricatures (except when discussing Western misconceptions) - that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. The author provided detailed endnotes, although there is no accompanying seriation in the text. Crowley included a five-page bibliography, a cross-referenced index, and a number of useful maps to help readers unfamiliar with the history of this battle.
Crowley wrote the book with an eye toward the general reader, and - while a prior familiarity with European and Turkish history is helpful – one need not be a specialist to follow this straightforward narrative. The text is heavier on military, political and religious history, but the author provided quite a few vignettes that highlighted the daily life of ordinary Byzantines and Ottomans. Crowley also writes with an engaging style that makes the events of the siege of Constantinople come alive in ways that many similar works do not.