The fleet crosses the mountain

From The Conquest of Byzantium in Stefan Zweig’s Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures (the Pushkin Press Anthea Bell translation).


The exuberant delight of the besieged citizens lasts for a night, and night always beguiles the senses with fantasy, confusing hope with the sweet poison of dreams. For the length of that night the besieged believe that they are secure and safe. For as those four ships have landed soldiers and provisions without mishap, more will come now, week after week, or so they dream. Europe has not forgotten them, and already, in their over-hasty expectations, they think of the siege as lifted, the enemy discouraged and conquered.
But Mahomet too is a dreamer, if a dreamer of that other and much rarer kind, one who knows how to transform dreams into reality. And even as the Genoese, in their delusions, think that they and their galleons are safe in the harbour of the Golden Horn, he is drafting a plan of such fantastic audacity that in all honesty it can be set beside the boldest deeds of Hannibal and Napoleon in the history of warfare. Byzantium lies before him like a golden fruit, but he cannot pluck it. The main reason is the Golden Horn, that inlet of the sea cutting deep into the land, a long bay that secures one flank of Constantinople. To penetrate that bay is in practice impossible, for the Genoese city of Galata, to which Mahomet has pledged neutrality, lies at the entrance, and from there the chain is stretched across to the enemy city. So his fleet cannot get into the bay by thrusting forward, and the Christian fleet could be attacked only from the inner basin, where Genoese territory ends. But how can he get a fleet into that inner bay? One could be built, but that would take months and months, and the Sultan is too impatient to wait so long.
It was then that Mahomet made the brilliant plan of transporting his fleet from the outer sea, where it is useless to him, across the tongue of land and into the inner harbour of the Golden Horn. The breathtakingly bold idea of crossing a mountainous strip of land with hundreds of ships looks at first sight so absurd and impracticable that the Byzantines and the Genoese of Galata take as little account of it in their strategic calculations as the Romans before them and the Austrians after them did of the swift crossing of the Alps by Hannibal and Napoleon. All worldly experience tells us that ships can travel only by water, and a fleet of them can never cross a mountain. But it is always the true sign of a daemonic will that it can turn the impossible into reality, and in warfare military genius scorns the rules of war, and at a given moment turns to creative improvisation rather than the old tried and trusted methods. A vast operation begins, one almost without an equal in the annals of history. In secrecy, Mahomet has countless wooden rollers brought and fixed to sleighs by carpenters. The ships are drawn up out of the sea and fixed to the sleighs as if on a movable dry dock. At the same time thousands of labourers are at work levelling out the narrow mule-track going up the hill of Pera and then down again, to make it as even as possible for traffic. To conceal from the enemy the sudden presence of so many workmen, the Sultan has a terrifying cannonade of mortars opened up over the neutral city of Galata every day and night; it is pointless in itself, and its only purpose is to distract attention and cover the movement of ships over the mountains and valleys from one body of water to another. While the enemy is occupied, suspecting no attack except from the land, the countless round wooden rollers, well treated with oil and grease, begin to move, and now ship after ship is hauled over the mountain on those rollers, drawn in its sleigh-like runners by countless pairs of oxen and with the help of the sailors pushing from behind. As soon as night hides the sight, this miraculous journey begins. Silent as all that is great, well thought out as all that is clever, the miracle of miracles is performed: an entire fleet crosses the mountain.
The crucial element in all great military operations is always the moment of surprise. And here Mahomet’s particular genius proves its worth magnificently. No one has any idea what he plans—“if a hair in my beard knew my thoughts I would pluck it out,” that brilliantly wily man once said of himself—and in perfect order, while the cannon ostentatiously thunder against the walls, his commands are carried out. Seventy ships are moved over mountain and valley, through vineyards and fields and woods, from one sea to another on that single night of 22nd April. Next morning the citizens of Byzantium think they are dreaming: an enemy fleet brought here as if by a ghostly hand, sailing with pennants hoisted and fully manned, in the heart of their supposedly unapproachable bay. They are still rubbing their eyes, at a loss to imagine how this miracle was worked, when fanfares and cymbals and drums are already playing jubilant music right under the wall of their flank, hitherto protected by the harbour. As a result of this brilliant coup, the whole Golden Horn except for the neutral space occupied by Galata, where the Christian fleet is boxed in, belongs to the Sultan and his army. Unobstructed, he can now lead his troops over a pontoon bridge against the weaker wall. The weaker flank of the city is thus under threat, and the ranks of the defenders, sparse enough anyway, have to stretch over yet more space. An iron fist has closed more and more tightly round the victim’s throat.

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