Orban: The Man Who Brought Down the Walls of Constantinople – Part I

For 53 days, starting on Friday, 6 April, the forces of the Ottoman Empire shook what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as Byzantium, or the Byzantine Empire) until they were able to breach the massive walls of Constantinople on Tuesday 29 May 1453, conquering the last standing remnants of the once mighty Roman Empire. The conquest of Constantinople could have been drastically different were it not for a man by the name of Orban and his massive cannon.

The Dardanelles Gun, cast in 1464 and based on the Orban bombard that was used for the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453

The Dardanelles Gun, cast in 1464 and based on the Orban bombard that was used for the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453 (Public Domain)

Who Was Orban?

Orban, (also known as Urban) was a cannon caster of possible Hungarian origin (but this is disputed). A Byzantine Greek historian from Athens by the name of Laonikos Khalkokondyles (c.1430 – c. 1470) mentions something different:

There was an artilleryman of the king [sultan] called Orbanos. He was a Dacian by birth and earlier he had spent time with the Greeks. Because he needed a better salary for himself, he left the Greeks and came to the Porte of the king [sultan].

Khalkokondyles mentions that Orban was not Hungarian but “Dacian.” To clarify, the term Dacian he used shows his love of antiquity while the term would not have been familiar to the uneducated. Most people during that time would have no idea what or where Dacia was. The name Dacia comes from ancient Rome and within its territory were the states of Wallachia and Transylvania. It is possible that Orban was Hungarian and made his way south seeking those who could use his services. Some have even suggested the Orban may have been German. But the biggest giveaway to show that Orban was indeed an Eastern European from either Hungary, Wallachia, or Transylvania, was his method of casting cannons.

Earliest picture of a European cannon, Walter de Milemete, 1326

Earliest picture of a European cannon, Walter de Milemete, 1326 (Public Domain)

Orban was promoting his services in the casting of bronze bombards. The bronze casting of cannons or bombards had been abandoned in Western Europe by the 1440’s. The reason for this was that western cannon casters found that the manufacturing of smaller pieces made from iron were easier to deal with. Therefore, Orban’s methods in casting cannon suggest that his origins were probably Eastern European.

Pumhart von Steyr, a medieval supergun, Austria.

Pumhart von Steyr, a medieval supergun, Austria.  (Public Domain)

Looking for a Deal

Orban visited the court of Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (8 February 1405 – 29 May 1453), soon to be the last Byzantine emperor, to pitch his cannons.

Constantine XI Palaiologos

Constantine XI Palaiologos (Tilemahos Efthimiadis /CC BY 2.0)

Orban entered the capital of Constantinople and offered his services to the emperor. The emperor was delighted in meeting with him, for he had an interest in using this new technology to his advantage after seeing it first-hand at the Hexamilion, which is a defensive wall constructed across the Isthmus of Corinth and seeing the power this new device of war, as it smashed through rock.

Excavation of the Hexamilion wall

Excavation of the Hexamilion wall (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, Constantine had not the resources such as timber for the foundry fires or even the money to offer Orban to build the desired weapons. Constantine also did not want the man to leave his capital and sought to keep him as long as he could. In order to do this, he provided a stipend from scraps to keep the man. This only lasted for so long and after the money ran dry, Orban left the city seeking a new customer. He made his way to the court of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (30 March 1432 – 3 May 1481), best known as Mehmed the Conqueror, (the very man who would soon lay waste to Constantinople).

Mehmed II in Edirne (Public Domain)

Orban made his way to either the Ottoman capital located at west of Constantinople at Edirne, historically known as Adrianople, in the northwestern Turkish province of Edirne, or Rumelihisarı (also known as Rumelian Castle, which means the “Strait-Cutter Castle”) which was Mehmed’s fortress located in the Sarıyer district near Constantinople on a hill at the European side of the Bosphorus.

Rumelihisarı as seen from the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul, Turkey, built by Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before the Fall of Constantinople (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Once Orban arrived, he requested an audience with Mehmed to sell him his services. After Mehmed was informed of Orban’s engineering skills, he was happy to welcome this traveler and to show him that his skills would be appreciated, and showered him with gifts. Mehmed promised Orban that he would give him the highest wage besides the many gifts. Afterwards, Mehmed asked Orban if were possible to build a powerful enough cannon that could breach the walls of Constantinople. Orban said, “I can cast a cannon of bronze with the capacity of the stone you want. I have examined the walls of the city in great detail. I can shatter to dust not only these walls with the stones from my gun, but the very walls of Babylon itself.”

The only thing Orban could not promise to Mehmed and which he made clear, was that he could not determine the range. Mehmed overlooked this handicap and bade him to start work on the cannon immediately.

The restored walls of Constantinople

The restored walls of Constantinople (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Dangerous Task of Constructing the Cannon in the Fires of Hell

Orban had a large and dangerous task ahead of him. Besides the difficulty in constructing cannons on such a scale, he had to design and create a furnace big enough for the job. Orban constructed two brick-lined furnaces faced with fired clay inside and out, and reinforced with large stones. The reason for this was that the furnace needed to be able to withstand high temperatures— beyond 1,000 degrees centigrade. Not only that, it had to be enclosed on the outside by heaps of charcoal that were described as being “so deep that it hid the furnace, apart from their mouths.” Cannon making, like any new technology, was hazardous. An Ottoman traveler during the medieval period by the name of Evliya Chelebi visited a gun factory and made note of the dangers of such work that took place:

On the day when cannon are to be cast, the masters, foremen and founders, together with the Grand Master of the Artillery, the Chief Overseer, Imam, Muezzin and timekeeper, all assemble and to the cries of “Allah! Allah!,” the wood is thrown into the furnace. After these have been heated doe twenty-four hours, the founders and stokers strip naked, wearing nothing but their slippers, an odd kind of cap which leaves nothing but their eyes visible, and thick sleeves to protect his arms; for, after the fire has been alight in the furnaces twenty-four hours, no person can approach on account of the heat, save he be attired in the above manner. Whoever wishes to see a good picture of the fires of hell should witness this sight. 

Given that Orban did not have a thermometer on hand, the foundry workers had to judge the right temperature based on sight. Once they felt comfortable, the workers started to throw in copper along with scraps of tin in order to make bronze. Acquiring copper was easy for the Ottomans for their copper source was in Anatolia (Turkey) while tin came from outside sources. However, given the circumstances, the Ottomans likely acquired bronze bells from Christian churches to be melted and remolded into cannons.

Molten Metals and Evil Eyes

The process as mentioned was dangerous and required a keen sense of understanding the molten metals. In other words, Orban and the foundry workers understood that each piece of metal must be examined before being tossed into the cauldron. As for the dross that floated on the surface, it had to be carefully skimmed off using metal ladles. This doesn’t even mention the noxious fumes tin gives off, and on top of that, if the scrap metal lying around was wet, once thrown into the furnace it would cause the water to vaporize, rupture the furnace, and cause an explosion that would kill or maim everyone close.

But of the metals being added into the cauldron, tin was held with some superstition when it was time to throw it in. According to Evliya:

[…]the Vezirs, the Mufti and Sheiks are summoned; only forty persons, besides the personnel of the foundry, are admitted all told. The rest of the attendants are shut out, because the metal, when infusion, will not suffer to be looked at by evil eyes. The masters then desire the Vezirs and sheiks who are seated on sofas at a great distance to repeat unceasingly the words “There is no power and strength save in Allah!” Thereupon the master-workmen with wooden shovels throw several hundredweight of tin into the sea of molten brass, and the head-founder says to the Grand Vizier, Vezirs and Sheiks: “Throw some gold and silver coins into the brazen sea as alms, in the name of the True Faith!” Poles as long as the yard of ships are used for mixing the gold and silver with the metal and are replaced as fast as consumed.

Birth of a Terrible Monster

Before the cannon that would bring the walls of Constantinople tumbling down, Orban built a prototype that was mounted to the walls Rumelihisarı. Doukas, (c. 1400 – after 1462) a Byzantine historian under Constantine XI, spoke of this cannon, stating, “They began amassing bronze and the technician [sc. Orban] created the form of the cannon; and in three months a terrible and unprecedented monster was constructed and cast.”

Illustration of a 15th-century trade galley from a manuscript by Michael of Rhodes (1401–1445) (Public Domain)

The cannon in question was made of bronze and was capable of firing a stone ball weighing roughly 600 lbs. (272 kg). Mehmed wanted to make it clear that any ship wishing to pass through the Bosphorus Strait must pay a toll or else face repercussions. Not long after a Venetian merchant ship was about to pass through the Bosporus Strait until it was ordered to stop and pay the tax. The Venetians were perplexed and refused to obey. They decided to make a run for it and paid the price.

“In those days a big ship of the Venetians was sailing down the narrows [the Bosphorus] by the town of Baskesen [“Head Cutter,” that is, Rumeli Hisar], commanded by Antonio Rizzo…they fired a very large stone from the castle and it struck the ship.” After their ship was blasted out of the water, the shocked Venetians who made it to shore were executed along with their captain. As well, the body of the captain was impaled on the banks as a public warning. After seeing what the massive cannon could do, Mehmed wanted something bigger.

Bigger and Better

Mehmed was so pleased with the cannon that he wanted another twice its size! Orban headed back to his foundry in Edirne (Adrianople) acquiring more timber and bronze, and in three months he produced a twenty-seven-foot-long monster that had a diameter of 2.5 to three feet (76.2 to 91.44 cm) and could fire a stone projectile weighing between 1440-1500 lbs (653 – 680 kg).

Muzzle view of the Great Turkish Bombard Cannon

Muzzle view of the Great Turkish Bombard Cannon (Simon Cope/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Moreover, to make sure this weapon fire properly without exploding, the barrel was walled with eight inches (20 cm) of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast. This massive weapon was finished in January 1453. Citizens were warned in the surrounding area not to panic if they heard a loud boom:

In January [the Sultan] decided to test the cannon which the Hungarian had made…

Top Image: Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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