Mehmed II

The capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Army, under the command Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on 29th May 1453. With this conquest Ottomans became an Empire and one of the most powerful empires. After the Constantinople conquest, 21 years old Ottoman Sultan II. Mehmed also took the title “The Conqueror”, which was added to his name.

Built just before the 1453 siege of Byzantine Constantinople, Rumeli Hisarı (the Rumelian castle) on the European shore of the Bophorus was used along with the Anadolu Hisarı (the Anatolian castle) to seal off the city from the straights and deny it any possible relief.

Mehmed II (Mehmed Fatih; Mehmet II; Mehemmed II) (b. 1432-d. 1481) (r. 1444-1446; 1451-1481) Ottoman sultan Mehmed II was the fourth son of Murad II (r. 1421-44; 1446-51) and the seventh Ottoman ruler, whose first reign covered the period from 1444 to 1446 and whose second reign spanned three decades, from 1451 to 1481. Mehmed was born on March 30, 1432 in Edirne, which was then the Ottoman capital. The name and ethnicity of his mother have been the subject of much fruitless speculation but her identity remains unknown; she must in any case have been of non-Muslim slave origin. Mehmed’s early years are equally obscure. According to some sources, in 1434 he was sent with his mother to Amasya, where Mehmed’s half-brother Ahmed Çelebi (1420-37, the eldest son of Murad II) was governor, and where Murad’s second son, Alaeddin Ali Çelebi (b. 1425?-43), also appears to have been in Mehmed’s retinue. When Ahmed Çelebi died suddenly in 1437, the five-year-old Mehmed became the provincial governor of Amasya and Alaeddin Ali Çelebi was sent to govern Manisa, in western Anatolia. Two years later, in 1439, both princes were brought to Edirne for their circumcision, after which Murad had his sons switch positions, sending Mehmed to Manisa and Alaeddin Ali to Amasya. It is widely believed that Alaeddin Ali, who participated with his father in a successful campaign against Ibrahim Bey, the ruler of Karaman, was the sultan’s favorite, but in the spring of 1443, shortly after the campaign against Ibrahim Bey, Alaeddin Çelebi was assassinated. While the episode is shrouded in mystery, some historians believe the assassination was the result of an order from Murad; others suggest it was a consequence of political infighting among the sultan’s leading men. Regardless of its cause, the death of Alaeddin Çelebi left nine-year-old Mehmed as the sole living heir of Murad II. In July 1443 Murad brought his son from Manisa to Edirne to reside at court and gain experience in affairs of state.

In the later months of 1443 a crusading army, which had left the Hungarian capital of Buda, advanced deep into the Balkans and was finally halted by the Ottoman army in a bitter winter battle between Sofia (capital of present-day Bulgaria) and Edirne in December. Although hostilities were terminated in June 1444 by a 10-year truce signed by Murad at Edirne, to be ratified later by the king of Hungary, the truce was soon broken by Hungary under papal dispensation and an even larger crusading army was assembled and began its march toward Ottoman territory. Already engaged in another military campaign against Ibrahim Bey of Karaman in Anatolia, Murad II swiftly defeated the Karamanids, returned by forced march to Edirne, and went on with his army to confront and defeat the crusaders at the Battle of Varna (November 10, 1444).

In Edirne, the sultan had left the 12-year-old Mehmed as regent of the state’s Balkan territories. At this time Mehmed was under the tutelage of his father’s chief vizier, Çandarli Halil Pasha, and his kadiasker (army judge), Molla Hüsrev. During this period the young regent was exposed to several crises, including the death of the leader of the radical Hurufiyya Sufi movement who gained many adherents as well as the protection of Prince Mehmed himself before being proscribed by the authorities and executed. During the same period, a Janissary revolt ended in the burning of the market quarter and the attempted destruction of one of Mehmed’s special advisors, Sihabeddin Pasha, a man of the devsirme, or child levy. When Murad returned from fighting the crusaders in late November or early December 1444, he abdicated in favor of his young son, retiring to Manisa and leaving Mehmed to rule as sultan under the tutelage of Çandarli Halil Pasha and Molla Hüsrev.

Mehmed’s first reign as sultan was as troubled and difficult as had been his earlier regency; little more than 18 months after his enthronment and accession ceremony Mehmed was deposed and packed off to Manisa and Murad II resumed the sultanate. It is not clear why Murad was recalled to Edirne by Halil Pasha. It may have been that Mehmed was planning an offensive against Constantinople which would have been supported by men of the devsirme while being vehemently opposed by Çandarli Halil Pasha; it may have been that the Janissaries were unhappy with Mehmed. Despite being deposed, Mehmed continued to work with his father, taking part with him in military campaigns in 1448 against a further Hungarian invasion (the second Battle of Kosovo, October 1448) and again in 1450 in Albania. He seems to have ruled western Anatolia intermittently from Manisa as a virtual fiefdom, from which he undertook naval campaigns against Venetian possessions in the Aegean.

When Murad II died at Edirne in February 1451, Mehmed was once again in Manisa. His second reign began when he acceded to the throne in Edirne on February 18, 1451, confirming all his father’s ministers in their posts, including Çandarli Halil as grand vizier, and ordering the judicial murder of the youngest son of Murad II, then an infant, in an act that historians have seen as the initiation of the so-called Ottoman “law of fratricide,” although considerable doubt remains on this point. Mehmed was now 19, marked by the traumatic experiences of his childhood and youth, and determined to exercise absolute authority as sultan.

The first months of his reign were apparently tranquil: existing truces with Serbia, Venice, and lesser Aegean and Balkan entities were renewed, a three-year truce was negotiated with Hungary, and particular assurances of Mehmed’s benevolence were accorded to the Byzantine Empire, leaving Mehmed free to warn off Ibrahim Bey of Karaman from his pretensions to Ottoman territory in Anatolia. Soon, however, the situation changed and the determining features of Mehmed’s reign began to manifest themselves: a sharp increase in state expenditure; lavish buildings works, including a vast new palace complex at Edirne; and an aggressive foreign policy, manifested first against the Byzantine Empire and signaled by the construction in 1452 of the fortress of Rumeli Hisari on the European shore of the Bosporus, effectively blockading the Straits and isolating the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Mehmed spent the autumn of 1452 and spring of 1453 in Edirne planning the final conquest of Constantinople. He ordered the casting of huge siege guns, assembled land and sea forces, and moved a vast array of soldiers and equipment from Edirne to the land walls of the Byzantine capital.

Mehmed left Edirne late in March 1453 and began to besiege Constantinople on April 6. The siege lasted 54 days, the outcome remaining uncertain until the final storming of the city walls on May 29, after which Mehmed gave the city over to his soldiers for three days of pillaging. Mehmed entered the city later on May 29 and proceeded to the famed metropolitan church of Hagia Sophia which he transformed into a Muslim mosque, called Aya Sofya. Most of the surviving population of the city were enslaved and deported. The Byzantine Empire was now effectively at an end, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. The conquest of Constantinople also marked the end of the old, paternalistic Ottoman state of Murad II. Within a brief time Çandarli Halil Pasha, whose attitude toward the siege had been equivocal at best, was dismissed and later executed. He was replaced as grand vizier by Zaganos Pasha, a product of the devsirme, whose more aggressive attitudes would henceforth dominate the affairs of the sultanate.

By the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed had realized an Islamic ambition that dated back to the first sieges of the city by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century. The Ottoman state was now an empire, controlling the “two lands” (Anatolia and Rumelia) and the “two seas” (the Black Sea and the Aegean). Mehmed himself was henceforth known by the sobriquet “Fatih,” or “the Conqueror,” arrogating to himself not only the Muslim title of sultan, first claimed by Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402), but two additional titles implying universal sovereignty, the old Turkish title of Khaqan and the Roman-Byzantine title of Qaysar (Caesar). It is in the light of his self-image as world-ruler and his ambitions for universal monarchy, contrasted with the practical limitations on the realization of that policy, that the complex record of Mehmed’s activities during his almost 30-year reign can be best understood.

In the first place, Istanbul was rapidly restored to its historic position as a true imperial capital. The city was progressively redeveloped and was repopulated by successive waves of forced immigration from newly conquered areas. Moreover, Mehmed rebuilt the city through the development of new residential and mercantile quarters grouped around a mosque complex or a market. Edirne was quickly abandoned by Mehmed as an imperial residence in favor of new palaces built within the walls of Istanbul, the first being the so-called Old Palace and the second being the New Palace, better known as the Topkapi Palace, built at the furthest extremity of the city, overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara.

Secondly, the almost continuous warfare that marked Mehmed’s reign can be seen as an attempt to expand Ottoman territory by the elimination or neutralization of all competing polities, Muslim as well as Christian, that stood in the way of the realization of his imperial ambitions. The remaining fragments of territory where Byzantine rule still endured were rapidly absorbed by Mehmed’s burgeoning empire. Most of the Balkan states that still formed part of the Christian Orthodox world were also incorporated by a combination of warfare and diplomacy (Serbia, 1457; Bosnia, 1461-63), while Venetian possessions in the east came under sustained Ottoman attack with the Ottoman-Venetian war of 1463-79 and the capture of Negroponte in 1470. North of the Danube River, the Ottomans were still not strong enough to take Belgrade (although they besieged it unsuccessfully in 1456) or to do more than ravage Hungarian territory by ceaseless razzias intended to preempt any hostile presence on the lower Danube. The Balkan territories of Wallachia and Moldavia remained a military danger zone for the Ottoman armies and an area of abiding contention. Conversely, toward the end of his reign Mehmed was able to eradicate the Genoese trading colonies in the Crimea and to bring the Giray dynasty, the Crimean Khanate, into a vassal relationship (1478), thus controlling territories on all sides of the Black Sea, which for almost three centuries was given the sobriquet of the “Ottoman lake.”

In Anatolia, Mehmed went on to control most of the remaining Muslim dynasties, employing a combination of strategies that included forced annexation and dynastic marriages. These dynasties were themselves largely of Turkoman origin, such as the Isfendiyarid in northern Anatolia, with its valuable Black Sea port of Sinop and its copper mines in the vicinity of Kastamonu. Karaman, long a thorn in the Ottomans’ side, was neutralized in 1468 and re-annexed in 1474; the eastern Anatolian Turkoman confederacy of the Akkoyunlu (or “White Sheep” Turkomans), led by Uzun Hasan, proved more difficult to subdue, but the confederacy was much diminished by Mehmed’s 1473 victory over Uzun Hasan in the Battle of Tercan (Otluk-beli).

In the latter years of Mehmed’s reign, when he was already in poor health, the practical limitations of his policies became more apparent. Success had brought its own problems, including confrontations with the Egyptian Mamluk Empire and with Hungary, which would not be solved in the Ottomans’ favor until the reign of Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I (r. 1512-20). There is no doubt also that Mehmed harbored a deep desire to conquer Italy and to bring Rome, as well as Constantinople, under his domination, but an expedition mounted against southern Italy in 1480 was a disastrous failure, and the Ottoman bridgehead at Otranto was abandoned the following year, after Mehmed’s death. Likewise, a complex amphibious operation in the same year against the crusading Knights of St John and their island fortress of Rhodes was a costly failure.

While Mehmed Fatih is known primarily for his military successes, especially for the conquest of Constantinople, and for his impressive role in expanding the Ottoman Empire, there were other important aspects of his long reign. Mehmed’s attempts to build up a unified and centralized empire strained the state’s finances, forcing several devaluations of the Ottoman currency and requiring the extension of the state’s monopolistic and unpopular tax-farming system. Through these measures, and despite vast and continuous military expenditure, the state treasury still contained some three and a half million ducats of ready money at the time of the sultan’s death. At the same time, these actions and the frequent confiscation of private lands by the state alienated most of the old Ottoman landed families and society at large, creating strong social discontent.

Altogether, it is difficult to arrive at a balanced account of Mehmed’s reign. His complex personality has been endlessly discussed but still defies satisfactory analysis. Mehmed seems to have been affected by both the perils and humiliations of his early years and possibly by the influence of what may be termed the “war party” at the outset of his reign. Attempts to describe him as a renaissance figure and a free thinker must be viewed with some misgivings in light of his preoccupation with enforcing strict religious orthodoxy. The darker aspects of his nature continue to defy analysis; although these are well documented, they stand in contrast to the historical picture we have of both his father, Murad II, and his son, Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512).

Mehmed II died on May 3, 1481 while encamped with his army on the first stages of a campaign in Anatolia, possibly directed against Rhodes or the Mamluk Empire. There is substantial circumstantial evidence that Mehmed was poisoned, possibly at the behest of his eldest son and successor, Bayezid. Mehmed’s death unleashed a short-lived but violent Janissary revolt and then a lengthy succession struggle between Bayezid and his brother Cem, who long contended for the throne. Although Bayezid immediately reversed many of his father’s fiscal and military policies, Mehmed’s reign was one of undeniable achievement, the conquest of Constantinople and its subsequent transformation being foremost amongst his accomplishments.

Further reading: Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, translated by Ralph Manheim, edited by William C. Hickman (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), a work to be used with caution, and read in conjunction with Halil Inalcik, “Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481) and His Time,” Speculum, xxv (1960), 408-427, reprinted in Halil Inalcik, Essays in Ottoman History (Istanbul: Eren, 1998), 87-110; Michael Doukas, The Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks, trans. H. J. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975); Colin Heywood, “Mehmed II and the Historians: The Reception of Babinger’s Mehmed der Eroberer during Half a Century” (to appear in Turcica, 2009); Halil Inalcik, “The Policy of Mehmed II towards the Greek Population of Istanbul,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 23-24 (1969-70), 231-249; Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. C. T. Riggs (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1954); Bernard Lewis et al., The Fall of Constantinople: A Symposium Held at the School of Oriental and African Studies 29 May 1953 (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1955); Julian Raby, “A Sultan of Paradox: Mehmed the Conqueror as a Patron of the Arts.” The Oxford Art Journal, 6, no. 1 (1982), 3-8; Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); Tursun Beg, The History of Mehmed the Conqueror, edited and translated by Halil Inalcik and Rhoads Murphey (Minneapolis: Bibliotheka Islamica, 1978).

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