Jan 24, 2007

Book Review: 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople Crowley, Roger

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.


Juha said...

You got a very good history blood. I enjoyed it very much.
Thank You!

Juha said...

hey, i am so sorry - of course i was saying "a very good history BLOG" :)

microdot said...

What looks to be a very interesting book on a place and period of history I am fascinated with.
So many great books, you're killin' me!
The fall of Constantinople was a turning point and it was amazing how long they held out. The story of how the Emperor led the defense and was killed when the Turks finally broke the defenses is worth a Mel Gibson historical/hysterical epic!

historymike said...

Thanks, juha!

historymike said...

Yes, a good general study of the siege, Microdot.

I read a minimum of 3-4 books a week right now, and I find the writing of reviews to be a good way for me to understand what I read as well as to pass along to other people books I think have value.

This book is also entertaining for general readers, and I think it is worthwhile for understanding some of the context of the current situation in the Middle East.

Papageno said...

I'm an Prof. of modern history in Paris, and I'm not according with the tittle and the general idea of this boof. Since Sam Huntington's article and book, a lot of people talk about a "clash of civilization", but there are no clash of civilizations or cultures in the early moderne european history. The historian could studying the speeches - and I do it also - but he have to make différence between the speeches, who are made to legitimate the facts, and the reality of the facts. The East Mediteranean World of The Middle Ages and the Modernity, is a world of economic, social and cultural interractions, not a world of clash between cultures or civilizations.
Pr. David Do Paço
Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne
Paris, France

historymike said...

I'm in complete agreement with you, Professor Do Paço, that simplistic models like that of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations reduce complicated interactions of social, political, economic, and religious factors into a meaningless - and dangerous - thesis.

I think Crowley's title is unfortunate, but I am willing to wager that the publisher had a hand in the "Holy War" bit. Crowley correctly notes that there were Christians fighting for Mehmet II, and that Muslims lived in relative peace in COnstantinople before the siege.

Ren said...

I just finished this book for one of my classes and found this review very helpful in grasping its overall feel. It was an well written and accurate review and I look forward to reading more of yours :)


Anonymous said...

Only six years late to the discussion, but here goes: on the topic o the book's [sub]title, it really bothers me that Crowley, for whatever reason, went with "the Clash of Islam and the West". In simple terms, such a conceptualization is moronic. A religion cannot clash with a continent - that's comparing the apples of theology with the oranges of politics and economics. 'The Clash of the Muslim World and Christendom' would have been fine, as would 'The Clash of The Middle East and Europe'.