I have been hearing that the Fall of Constantinople was the most important event that ultimately led to the Age of Exploration, mainly the discovery of the New World by Columbus and of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

However, from what I know, Ottoman Turks had surrounded the Byzantine empire for quite some time before they actually managed to win the legendary city of Constantinople. Byzantines in their last few years were hanging on to very tiny land around Constantinople, and Turks had already gained their foothold in Europe. So is it not true that this conquest of 1453 was merely a prestigious event? (This might be an exaggeration, but you get the idea)

Furthermore, the Ottoman Turks wasn't the only Islamic kingdom that stood between Europe and the other end of Silk route, namely India and China. The area to the east of Byzantine empire had been controlled by Islamic kingdoms and caliphates for almost 800 years before the fall of Constantinople; and yet the silk road existed during that time. Then why would the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire be the last straw that broke the camel's back? Or is it really true that because of this, Europeans got worked up and ended up discovering sea routes to India and the New World?

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    Alright, let me beat the others to the punch: Who have you been hearing this from? – two sheds Mar 7 '15 at 18:07
  • @twosheds I am almost certain that this was there in my school history textbook. It also came up in a recent discussion with a friend. – taninamdar Mar 7 '15 at 18:11
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    Don't believe anything that school history textbooks tell you - mine had pictures of knights being winched into their saddles because their armour weighed the horrendous total of 90 pounds (actually a normal pack load for some troops today). – Pieter Geerkens Mar 7 '15 at 19:02
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    The real trigger event for the Age of Exploration was the development of the caravel, a small light and maneuverable ship design that actually could explore. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 7 '15 at 19:04
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    The Portuguese had begun exploration travels way before the fall of Constantinople en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_the_Navigator; IMnsHO a continuation of the policies of expansion to the South (which was at the time blocked by the Kingdom of Castilla) – SJuan76 Mar 7 '15 at 21:50

The Fall of Constantinople had a negligible effect on the launching of the Age of Discovery, school textbooks notwithstanding. It was well under way a generation earlier, due to the perfection of the caravel in Portugal under Prince Henry the Navigator and the explorations he launched down the coast of Africa. The Madeira Islands had been rediscovered in 1420 and the Azores discovered in 1427. By 1455-56 the Cape Verde archipelago had been discovered and explored. By 1444 the Portuguese had explored to Cap-Vert, the westernmost tip of Africa, and:

By 1452, the influx of gold permitted the minting of Portugal's first gold cruzado coins. A cruzado was equal to 400 reis at the time. From 1444 to 1446, as many as forty vessels sailed from Lagos on Henry's behalf, and the first private mercantile expeditions began.

The Muslim monopoly on trade existed with or without the Ottomans, and affected trade with sub-Saharan Africa as well as along the Silk Road to the Indies and China. The African Gold Coast and Ivory Coast are aptly named, and through the Middle Ages Europeans had believed, rightly or wrongly, that an inappropriate profit was being made not only by the Muslim rulers who controlled these trade routes, but also by the Venetian and Genoese trade cartels that controlled trade in the Mediterranean.

Not to be outdone by Portugal, and with the Reconquista in Spain completed in 1492, the monarchs of united Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, were free to devote resources to their own exploration. Forbidden by the Papal Bull of 1481 from exploring Africa, they invested a modest flotilla to the command of an experienced Genoese (he claimed) pilot by the name of Cristoforo Colombo who claimed that the Indies were reachable by sailing West instead of south and east.

While Columbus's calculations of the Earth's diameter were widely believed to be inaccurate by a factor of 2, neither was this definitive. The Grand Banks of Newfoundland were not officially discovered until Cabot's voyage of 1497, but throughout the 15th century there had been rumours of a land of cod across the North Atlantic, circumstantially suggesting that a few fishing families knew of them and were keeping its location a trade secret. It is quite possible that Columbus, either intentionally or unintentionally, fudged his calculations in order to obtain funds to discover exactly what the source of the rumours was. The rest, of course, is history.

Update - from Spice Prices in the Near East in the 15th Century: (my emphasis)

It is a well known fact that the discovery of the sea route to India and the ensuing scarcity of spices and other Indian products on the markets of Alexandria and Damascus resulted in their prices rising steeply. Judging from Venetian sources, the change in the condition of the Levantine trade was catastrophic. On the other hand, some scholars have already drawn attention to the fact that pepper prices fell considerably on European markets in the period preceding the expeditions of Vasco da Gama [starting 1497-99, and thus precisely the period following the capture of Constantinople], and especially in the second quarter of the 15th century. [...] In order to explain the tremendous impact of the rise of spice prices at the beginning of the 16th century [...]

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    This is not true. Before Constantinople was captured, the eastern segment of the trade was controlled by the Golden Horde and the Western by the Byzantines, Genoans and Venetians. There were no "muslims" in this path. – Tyler Durden Mar 8 '15 at 15:03
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    @TylerDurden: I said Muslims, not Arabs. By 1453 the Golden Horde was Muslim, and had been for 100 years at least. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 8 '15 at 15:05
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    @TylerDurden: Not to mention that the Timurid Empire controlled fully half the length of the Silk Road through the 15th century, and most certainly was (predominantly, though in a peculiarly Mongol way) Muslim, having been converted forcibly by Tamerlane. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timurid_dynasty) – Pieter Geerkens Mar 8 '15 at 15:12
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    Yes, and in China the silk road was "controlled" too. Everybody "controlled" it somewhere. The point is that after Constantinople fell, spices became a lot scarcer and more expensive. That is the historical fact which the "history books" you deprecate establish. – Tyler Durden Mar 8 '15 at 15:14
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    Spain and Portugal would have been just as eager to break through a trade route monopolized by Byzantium as one locked down by Muslims. A tax imposed by Christians isn't any less expensive than one done by someone else. – Oldcat Aug 27 '15 at 16:55

It had a significant effect. It was not just Constantinople itself that was important but several other strategic areas as well. Constantinople was a key trading center on both the northern and southern silk roads, so that when it fell in 1453 trade was greatly disrupted and goods from the east became much more expensive.

The southern silk road route, which flowed through Antioch, had been largely cut off two hundred years earlier when that city fell in 1268. The elimination of trade was gradual, but continuous. By roughly 1430 Antioch had become a ghost town and the southern silk road was kaput.

The northern silk road became completely cut off by the Ottoman in 1461. The northern silk road was controlled by the Empire of Trebizond, which survived briefly after Constantinople was taken. In 1461 the Ottomans captured Trebizond and followed it up in 1471 by obliterating the Genoan trading colony at Tana and building in its place a large castle, which the Ottomans called Azak (Azov). This ended the northern silk road.

After this, goods such as silk, pepper and cinnamon could only reach Venice or other locations in Europe by the whim of the Ottomans and they became significantly more expensive. The nobles of Italy, Spain and Portugal all wanted to get more luxury goods, or even better, somehow get control of the lucrative trade (which belonged to Venice and Genoa) for themselves.

In 1474, an Italian astronomer named Toscanelli promoted the viability of reaching the spice islands via the ocean and this idea was broached to King Afonso of Portugal. Portugal had already built a significant exploratory capability by the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator. Using this capability the explorers of the Age of Discovery began looking for a new way to India and the Spice Islands.

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    Looking at a map (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eastern_Mediterranean_1450.svg), I fail to see the importance of Constantinople for the Silk Road at that point. It looks like as if any route in or out of Constantinople was already under Ottoman control before. – SJuan76 Mar 8 '15 at 0:11
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    The northern trade went to the Black Sea through two main places Vaty (now known as Batumi) and down the Don river. Both routes normally then involved taking a ship to Constantinople. – Tyler Durden Mar 8 '15 at 0:22
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    @TylerDurden Looking at that map, I can see that if Ottomans wanted to put a halt to silk route trade, they could have easily done so in the Aegean sea, and in the neighborhood of Constantinople. Why didn't they do that? And if they didn't do that before the fall of the city, they why would they do it after it? – taninamdar Mar 8 '15 at 3:02
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    I also wonder how Byzantine empire controlled that part of Southern Greece given the Ottoman influence in the area, but I guess that's another question. – taninamdar Mar 8 '15 at 3:03
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    @taninamdar Until Constantinople was besieged and conquered in 1453 they had communication with the Venetian stronghold of Negroponte. This allowed them to move goods coming from the silk road. Even though the map may seem to suggest the Turks controlled the Aegean, it was in fact the Venetians and to a lesser extent the Genoans who had the power over the sea. As long as Constantinople held, goods could be shipped to Venice. – Tyler Durden Mar 8 '15 at 5:03

Just to complement Geerkens' answer. Portugal had the Order of Christ. Originally the Portuguese Templars, they were incorporated in a new order when the Templars were suppressed. With the end of the reconquista and loss of relevance of the crusades, the Order progressively lost its warrior-monk nature. In the end of the c. XV, its lay members did not have to be monks, celibate, or have military training anymore, and in 1417 Prince Henry the Navigator had become the Grand Master. It become in a sense just another knightly order mastered by the royal family.

But one that still had extensive land revenue, noble and clerical members. And this revenue was bound to be used for the propagation of the faith, charity, and the defense of the kingdom against infidels, even if there were no more Muslim states in Western Iberia. (So the king could not just pocket the money without losing face)

The order could have evolved into another charitable organization, or the kings could have grabbed everything and dared the other nobles in the order to oppose them.

But they decided to focus on navigation, early in c. XV. Obviously it is easy to imagine 'is there a direct route to India?" - but the point is that discovering Africa was a nice objective by itself. They knew that Morocco had extensive southern trade via Saharan caravans, even because they had taken Ceuta in 1415 and could trade themselves at the end of this route. Not only the names Ivory Coast and Gold Coast were not misnomers, but also the Portuguese were already expecting to find those goods there.

They would have less expenses trading by ship than the Moroccans had trading by desert caravans - so they had good hopes of dominating the trade with good profits even without conquering the whole African hinterland.

Moreover, their trade would (and did) hurt Morocco and Algiers (Saharan caravans become much less important after the age of discoveries). The reconquista had still not finished (Granada was still there), and they still feared an Muslim reversal of the reconquista (why not? Some jihadists like the Almoravids could not rise again? besides that, the Barbary pirates were always active)

It is very easy to justify the navigations as defense of the kingdom and propagation of the faith in this context. In 1460, a 5 percent levy on all merchandise from new African lands were already going to the Order, besides, even before, of other taxes and the "quinto" (20% of profits) due to Henry or the order as the sponsors. They paid for much of the great discoveries and the red cross in the sails is their symbol, not a Portuguese one. The order church at Tomar was the first ecclesiastical jurisdiction to cover Brazil - not long afterwards Lisbon Diocese took over.

After reaching Ivory Coast and exploring southern currents (Volta do Mar), it looked that it was possible to continue south... Reaching India could be more than a pipe dream after all? The African profits were attracting more resources and people? Nice. Morocco and Algiers are getting poorer? Nice too.

When East Mediterranean routes become even less reliable after the loss of Constantinople, Asian products become even more valuable, and the Ottomans become more dangerous, this could only increase their resolve. But they already had their reasons, the resolve and steady organizational financing for it well before the fall of Constantinople, when African (done) and Asian (potential) trades were already valuable enough to justify the effort.

  • I'd like to read more about this. Can you suggest a book? – axsvl77 Apr 3 at 0:49
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    It is hard to find this at a single place. Most works focus on the period after Vasco da Gama, not on the 80 y of hard work before him. But: in 2000, (500y of Brazil's discovery) there were many works - the most popular were from Eduardo Bueno, also works about the order of Christ itself (dont remember the titles I read in portugal); I went there personally - e.g., info about Tomar church is written in stone right there; Many works about the Templars (e.g., Daniel-Rops history of the church) cover the beginning of the Order of Christ, plus Tomar has one of the best preserved templar churches; – Luiz Apr 3 at 19:07
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    I read bios of King Sebastian, of Imperor Charles V, of Cervantes, they covered the history of Ceuta and the stituation of N. Africa; the classical brazilian historians also cover part of this, Sergio de Holanda and Gilberto Freyre, making clear that the order was the real pusher of the discovery; plus scattered wiki info. – Luiz Apr 3 at 19:08

the Fall of Constantinople was the most important event that ultimately led to the Age of Exploration, mainly the discovery of the New World by Columbus and of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

Maybe ... Maybe not ... Let's see ...

  • On one hand, the European Age of Discovery had already begun over three decades before the aforementioned event even took place, in 1419, with the Portuguese discoveries of Prince Henry the Navigator.
  • On the other hand, Islamic expansion clearly constituted a strong motivating factor even for these pre-1453 exploratory endeavors, so the question now becomes what precisely is to be included under the expression Fall of Constantinople ?

  • On one hand, the steady influx of Greek scholars into Italy following the 1204 Crusader Sack of Constantinople, and the classical knowledge they brought with them, played a very important role in Columbus' decision to find the way to the Indies by circumnavigating the globe.

  • On the other hand, one could also argue that the events of 1453 have only helped to precipitate this preexisting phenomenon; or, alternately, one might inquire, as in the previous case, what historical events, precisely, are to be covered by the syntagm Fall of Constantinople ?

TLDR : Are the rise of the Ottoman Empire (~1300) and the Sack of Constantinople (~1200) to be included in the phrase Fall of Constantinople ? If so, then the answer would be that the thus-defined Fall was of paramount importance; if not, then the answer would be that it was merely the drop that filled the bucket, the last nail in the coffin, or something along those lines.


It had everything to do with it. Constantinople was the linchpin and western terminal of the silk road. Once the Turks took it, they controlled it. They were far more interested in conquest and religion than commerce, so prices went up enormously.

European nations (Portugal, Spain) were already exploring the coast of Africa, but now it became economically very attractive. One returned cargo load would cover all the cost involved and then some more. Ships can carry far more cargo than a caravan anyway. Traveling over land was no longer possible/too dangerous/too expensive. So an alternative had to be found.

One way was around the coast of Africa, crossing the Indian Ocean. Another was crossing the Atlantic (Columbus). A third way was going north (the Dutch tried that, but never succeeded).

Technically speaking the age of exploration had already begun before the fall of Constantinople. But that event made it economically feasible.

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