Someone has always done it worse

It’s not an admirable quality, but whenever I mess up, I find consolation in contemplating how others have messed up even worse.

This week I made an annoying mistake with work that cost me money and – worse – caused inconvenience and stress to other people. It was one of those stupid, pointless mistakes the conditions for which aren’t likely ever to arise again and from which you learn nothing, one of those dumb-ass mistakes that have no redeeming upside and don’t even make for a funny story. I’m in Istanbul for the month so I walked moodily down from my apartment in Cihangir to the Galata Bridge to watch the men fishing in the Golden Horn.

One guy noticed me watching him. Most fishermen just ignore you when you watch them – as a rule, urban anglers aren’t a garrulous lot – but this guy seemed to feel some sort of social obligation. He looked at me a few times, nodded hello, chewed his moustache, worked through his stock of conversational gambits and said at last, “Fish are stupid.”

“So are people,” I said darkly.

I like to gather instances of great big boneheaded human blunders. My regular favourite is the Mars Climate Orbiter, part of a massive 1998 NASA project to predict the weather on Mars, the logical next step now that we’ve so faultlessly mastered the art of Marspredicting the weather on Earth.

NASA was building the navigation system and Lockheed Martin the propulsion system. When doing measurements and calculations, the engineers at Lockheed Martin use inches and feet, because they are American. The scientists at NASA use the metric system, even though they’re American. Now, this is a mistake anyone can make. Indeed, this it’s one I myself have made before, so it’s probably just good fortune and circumstance that I’ve never been responsible for a brand-new spacecraft’s thrusters kicking in at 57 kilometres above the surface of Mars instead of 140 kilometres, and turning into 175 million dollars worth of ash and space dust.

Generally when I’ve done something dumb I like to think of Smithers turning up for work at NASA on Monday morning and having to endure a full day’s worth of metric-themed ribbing and penis-size jokes, but as I stood on the Galata bridge, I realized how I close was to an even bigger historical bugger-up.

One of the empires you don’t hear about so much any more is the Byzantine. For 1400 years Byzantium stood on the site of today’s old town of Istanbul, at the golden centre of the world, on the grand green point at the juncture of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. By the 1400s, as the Ottoman Empire swept up Asia Minor, the empire shrank until it nothing more than the once grand and glittering city of Constantinople, sealed away on its peninsula behind unbreachable stone walls.

When Sultan Mehmet II besieged Constantinople he brought an army of 300 000 men and choked the Sea of Marmara with a fleet so big you could walk across it from Asia to Europe without getting your feet wet. A freelance Transylvanian cannon-maker offered his services to the Byzantine emperor who couldn’t afford his fee, so instead he was commissioned by the sultan and built the biggest cannon the world had yet seen, capable of sinking a ship or shattering a castle, which had to be moved by 700 men on a special carriage drawn by 30 oxen. In resistance, inside the city, the Byzantines could muster a fighting force of 4983 men, including the monks, and yet for fifty days the siege dragged on. Wave after wave was repelled. The Janissary giant Hasan led an assault on the ramparts and was cut down by a Byzantine sword. The city stood strong.

The Byzantines developed a tactic for making life unpleasant for the Ottomans. At odd hours of the night they would open one of the sally-doors in the walls and send out a crack force of fifty men, who would strike unexpectedly in the Ottoman flanks then scurry back through the door while defenders above poured Greek fire on their pursuers.

With each day the siege held, Mehmet lost face. The aura of Ottoman unstoppability faded. Constantinople’s traditional cowardly allies in west grew emboldened to lend assistance, and mutterings of discord rippled through the Ottoman ranks. But we know Mehmet today by his Turkish appellation, Mehmet faith – Mehmet the Conqueror, which I guess is a spoiler alert for the ending of this tale.

In desperation, Mehmet announced a grand assault. If it failed, indications are that he would have withdrawn in royal dignity and declared he didn’t really want Constantinople anyway. And for a long while it did seem that it would fail. The walls were crumbling under the battery of the cannon but still they held. The advance force of bashibazouks –later made still more famous by Tintin’s Captain Haddock – were repelled after two hours of fierce fighting. How, oh how was the deadlock to be broken?

Do you remember the sally gate and the crack troop of fifty soldiers who would sneak out and then run back in again and close the door behind them? When I was a young boy and I left the front door open behind me, my dad would sometimes say, “Hey, were you born in a barn?” If he’d been a more assiduous student of stupid mistakes in history, he would probably have said, “Hey, were you a member of the Byzantine crack troop in Constantinople on 29 May 1453?”

The Ottomans were falling back from the walls when someone outside noticed that whoever had used the door last had forgotten to lock it. Fifteen Turks rushed in and raised the Ottoman flag on the rampart above the Kerkoporta. The attackers took heart, the defenders fled in panic and the last Emperor of Byzantium threw down his crown, drew his sword and charged one last time into the storm.

Look, we all mistakes. We all do dumb things. Consider this my gift to you: the next time you come home beating yourself up for doing something regrettable at work, remind yourself that fish are stupid and we are too, and ask yourself, precisely which empire fell because you forgot to close the door behind you?

Times, 5 July 2018