Sir Steven Runciman’s lapidary account of the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, now forty years old, was a lamentation for the civilisation and the people he loved: ‘In this story,’ he wrote, ‘the Greek people is the tragic hero.’ Roger Crowley’s Constantinople reminds us of the triumph, too. For the Ottomans, the city was a challenge to which they rose, fulfilling a Mahometan prophecy which had grown old in the telling. It was a wild venture for the new young sultan Mehmet, who staked his reputation – and his life – on its success.
Crowley’s interest in the Ottoman perspective justifies the publisher’s claim that Constantinople is a medieval Stalingrad. After a slightly rambling start Crowley gets you by the throat, switching back and forth between the Ottoman and the Byzantine camps as he leads his story to a nail-biting close. You know how