The speed of the Ottoman advance seemed nothing short of miraculous – as if ordained by God. By geography, custom and luck, the Ottomans were best placed to prosper from the disintegration of the Byzantine state. The early sultans, living close to their men and to nature, were attentive to circumstance and possibility in the shifting political environment around them. Where the Byzantines were hidebound by a thousand years of ceremony and tradition, the Ottomans were quick-witted, flexible and open. The laws of Islam required mercy to conquered peoples and the Ottomans ruled their subjects with a light hand that seemed frequently preferable to European feudalism. No attempt was made to convert Christians, who formed the bulk of the population, to Islam – in fact it was largely thought undesirable by a dynasty with a taste for empire. Under sharia law it was not possible to tax Muslims as heavily as infidels, though in any case their burden was not heavy. The peasants of the Balkans welcomed release from the weightier yoke of feudal servitude. At the same time the Ottomans inbuilt dynastic advantages for themselves. Unlike other Turkish principalities, the early sultans never divided the succession of the kingdom; nor did they designate a successor. All sons were groomed to rule but only one could take the throne – a method that seemed brutally designed to ensure the survival of the fittest. Most startling of all for westerners, they paid no attention to succession through marriage. Where the Byzantine Emperors, like all the ruling houses of Europe, went to exhaustive lengths to secure dynastic marriages and legitimate succession through approved bloodlines, the Ottomans hardly bothered. A sultan’s father would naturally be the previous sultan, but his mother might be a concubine or a slave, possibly not a born Muslim, and from one of a dozen subject peoples. This genetic inclusiveness was to provide the Ottomans with extraordinary resources.
Of all Ottoman innovations none was perhaps more significant than the creation of a regular army. The enthusiastic bands of gazi warriors were too undisciplined to fulfil the now growing ambitions of the Ottoman sultans; besieging well-defended cities required patience, methodology and a particular set of craft skills. Towards the end of the fourteenth century Sultan Murat I formed a new military force, comprised of slaves captured from the Balkan states. A levy of Christian youths was taken at regular intervals, converted to Islam and taught Turkish. Removed from their families, these new recruits owed their loyalty only to the sultan. They were his private force: the ‘slaves of the Gate’. They were organized into infantry units, the Yeni Cheri or Janissaries, and the cavalry, which together comprised the first professional paid army in Europe since the time of the Romans. It was to play a critical role in the development of the Ottoman state. This was a custom drawn straight out of the Ottomans’ own history: the Turks themselves had been enrolled as military slaves at the frontiers of the Islamic world. It had been their passport to advancement. But to Christians watching the process from afar, it evoked rigid horror: with different images of slavery, the prospect of turning captured Christian children against Christians was fiendish and inhuman. It was to form a powerful ingredient in the myth of the Savage Turk.
This notion of ‘the Turk’ was seized on early in the West. It was largely a European construct, a term matched to Western identities that was hardly used by the Ottomans. They considered it derogatory. Instead, they chose titles that were neither ethnic nor territorial and reflected both their nomadic heritage, unconfined by fixed territories, and its multi-ethnic composition. Identity was primarily religious: the Ottoman sultans came to describe themselves in increasingly ornate terms as Lords of Islam, their empire as the Refuge of the Faith or the Defended Lands, their people as either Muslims or Ottomans. The Ottoman make-up was a unique assemblage of different elements and peoples: Turkish tribalism, Sunni Islam, Persian court practices, Byzantine administration, taxation and ceremonial, and a high-flown court language that combined Turkish structure with Arabic and Persian vocabulary. It had an identity all of its own.
The rising arc of the Ottomans was mirrored by a corresponding and unhalted decline in the fortunes of Byzantium. The factors that went to make the years after 1300 ‘the calamitous century’ in Europe played out in the eastern empire too. Fragmentation, civil war, population decline and impoverishment stalked Constantinople. There were telling symbolic moments. In 1284, the Emperor Andronikos II took the suicidal decision to abolish the imperial navy. The workless sailors defected to the Ottomans and helped them build a fleet. Sometime around 1325 the emperors of the House of Palaiologos adopted the double-headed eagle as their emblem; it did not, as has sometimes been supposed, represent a mighty empire that looked both east and west, but rather symbolized a division of authority between two quarrelsome emperors of the same family. The eagle was prophetic. The years 1341 to 1371 were racked by a ruinous sequence of civil wars, invasion of imperial territory by both the Ottomans and the powerful Serbian state, religious controversy and plague. Constantinople was the first European city to experience the Black Death: rats that scurried up the gangplanks in the Black Sea port of Kaffa jumped ship there in 1347. The population shrank to little more than 100,000. A series of earthquakes devastated Constantinople – the dome of St Sophia collapsed in 1346 – and the city ‘of pure gold’ became increasingly destitute and forlorn, its inhabitants prone to religious pessimism. Travellers to the city remarked on the melancholy appearance of the place. Ibn Battutah saw, not a city, but thirteen villages separated by fields. When the Spaniard Pero Tafur visited he found even the emperor’s palace ‘in such a state that both it and the city show well the evils which the people have suffered and still endure … the city is sparsely populated … the inhabitants are not well clad, but sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot’, before adding with true Christian charity, ‘which is, however, not as bad as they deserve, for they are a vicious people, steeped in sin’. The city was shrinking inside its walls like an old man in the clothes of his youth, and its emperors were paupers in their own house. At the coronation of the Emperor John VI Cantacuzenos in 1347, observers noticed that the crown jewels were made of glass, the banqueting plates of clay and pewter. The golden dishes had been sold to pay for civil war; the jewels pawned to the Venetians – they were in the treasury of St Mark’s.
In this confusion, the Ottoman advance into Europe continued unchecked. In 1362 they virtually encircled Constantinople from the rear when they took the city of Adrianople – Edirne in Turkish – 140 miles to the west, and moved their imperial capital into Europe. When they shattered the Serbs in battle in 1371 the Emperor John was isolated from all Christian support and had little option but to become a vassal of the sultans, contributing troops on demand and seeking permission for imperial appointments. The advance of the Ottomans seemed unstoppable: by the end of the fourteenth century their terrain stretched from the Danube to the Euphrates. ‘Turkish or heathen expansion is like the sea,’ wrote the Serbian, Michael ‘the Janissary’, ‘it never has peace but always rolls … until you smash a snake’s head it is always worse.’ The Pope issued a bull proclaiming crusade against the Ottomans in 1366, and in vain threatened excommunication against the trading states of Italy and the Adriatic for supplying them with arms. The next fifty years were to see three crusades against the infidel, all led by the Hungarians, the most threatened state in Eastern Europe. They were to be the swan song of a united Christendom. Each one ended in punishing defeat, the causes of which were not hard to find. Europe was divided, poverty stricken, wracked by its own internal disputes, weakened by the Black Death. The armies themselves were lumbering, quarrelsome, ill-disciplined and tactically inept, in comparison with the mobile and well organized Ottomans, unified around a common cause. The few Europeans who saw them up close could not but profess a sneaking admiration for ‘Ottoman order’. The French traveller Bertrandon de la Brocquière observed in the 1430s:
They are diligent, willingly rise early, and live on little … they are indifferent as to where they sleep, and usually lie on the ground … their horses are good, cost little in food, gallop well and for a long time … their obedience to their superiors is boundless … when the signal is given, those who are to lead march quietly off, followed by the others with the same silence … ten thousand Turks on such an occasion will make less noise than 100 men in the Christian armies … I must own that in my various experiences I have always found the Turks to be frank and loyal, and when it was necessary to show courage, they have never failed to do so.
Against this background the start of the fifteenth century looked bleak for Constantinople. Siege by the Ottomans had become a recurring feature of life. When the Emperor Manuel broke his oath of vassalage in 1394, Sultan Bayezit subjected the city to a series of assaults, only called off when Bayezit was himself defeated in battle by the Turkic Mongol, Timur – the Tamburlaine of Marlowe’s play – in 1402. Thereafter the emperors sought increasingly desperate help from the west – Manuel even came to England in 1400 – whilst pursuing a policy of diplomatic intrigue and support for pretenders to the Ottoman throne. Sultan Murat II besieged Constantinople in 1422 for encouraging pretenders but the city still held out. The Ottomans had neither the fleet to close off the city nor the technology quickly to storm its massive land walls and Manuel, by now an old man but still one of the most astute of all diplomats, managed to conjure up another claimant to the Ottoman throne to threaten civil war. The siege was lifted, but Constantinople was hanging on by the skin of its teeth. It seemed only a matter of time before the Ottomans came for the city again and in force. It was only the fear of a concerted European crusade that restrained them.