The Fall of Constantinople: Aftermath

The reckoning followed hard on the heels of the fall. The next day, there was a distribution of the booty: according to custom, Mehmet as commander was entitled to a fifth of everything that had been taken. His share of the enslaved Greeks he settled in the city in an area by the Horn, the Phanar district, which would continue as a traditional Greek quarter down to modern times. The vast majority of the ordinary citizens – about 30,000 – were marched off to the slave markets of Edirne, Bursa and Ankara. We know the fates of a few of these deportees because they were important people who were subsequently ransomed back into freedom. Among these was Matthew Camariotes, whose father and brother were killed, and whose family was dispersed; painstakingly he set about finding them. ‘I ransomed my sister from one place, my mother from somewhere else; then my brother’s son: most pleasing to God, I obtained their release.’ Overall, though, it was a bitter experience. Beyond the death and disappearance of loved ones, most shattering to Camariotes was the discovery that ‘of my brother’s four sons, in the disaster three – alas! – through the fragility of youth, renounced their Christian faith … maybe this wouldn’t have happened, had my father and brother survived … so I live, if you can call it living, in pain and grief’. Conversion was a not uncommon occurrence, so traumatic had been the failure of prayers and relics to prevent the capture of the God-protected city by Islam. Many more captives simply disappeared into the gene pool of the Ottoman Empire – ‘scattered across the whole world like dust’, in the lament of the Armenian poet, Abraham of Ankara.

The surviving notables in the city suffered more immediate fates. Mehmet retained all the significant personages whom he could find, including the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras and his family. The Venetians, whom Mehmet identified as his key opponents in the Mediterranean basin, came in for especially harsh treatment. Minotto, the bailey of their colony, who had played a spirited part in the defence of the city, was executed, together with his son and other Venetian notables; a further twenty-nine were ransomed back to Italy. The Catalan consul and some of his leading men were also executed, whilst a vain hunt was conducted for the unionist churchmen, Leonard of Chios and Isidore of Kiev, who managed to escape unrecognized. A search in Galata for the two surviving Bocchiardi brothers was similarly unsuccessful; they hid and survived.

The Podesta of Galata, Angelo Lomellino, acted promptly to try to save the Genoese colony. Its complicity in the defence of Constantinople made it immediately vulnerable to retribution. Lomellino wrote to his brother that the sultan ‘said that we did all we could for the safety of Constantinople … and certainly he spoke the truth. We were in the greatest danger, we had to do what he wanted to avoid his fury.’ Mehmet ordered the immediate destruction of the town’s walls and ditch, with the exception of the sea wall, destruction of its defensive towers and the handing over of the cannon and all other weapons. The podesta’s nephew was taken off into the service of the palace as a hostage, in common with a number of sons of the Byzantine nobility – a policy that would both ensure good behaviour and provide educated young recruits for the imperial administration.

It was in this context that the fate of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras was decided. The highest-ranking Byzantine noble, Notaras was a controversial figure during the siege, given a consistently bad press by the Italians. He was apparently against union; his oft repeated remark, ‘rather the sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat’, was held up by Italian writers as proof of the intransigence of Orthodox Greeks. It appears that Mehmet was initially minded to make Notaras prefect of the city – an indication of the deeper direction of the sultan’s plans for Constantinople – but was probably persuaded by his ministers to reverse the decision. According to the ever-vivid Doukas, Mehmet, ‘full of wine and in a drunken stupor’, demanded that Notaras should hand over his son to satisfy the sultan’s lust. When Notaras refused, Mehmet sent the executioner to the family. After killing all the males, ‘the executioner picked up the heads and returned to the banquet, presenting them to the bloodthirsty beast’. It is perhaps more likely that Notaras was unwilling to see his children taken as hostages and Mehmet decided that it was too risky to let the leading Byzantine nobility survive.

The work of converting St Sophia into a mosque began almost at once. A wooden minaret was rapidly constructed for the call to prayer and the figurative mosaics whitewashed over, with the exception of the four guardian angels under the dome, which Mehmet, with a regard for the spirits of the place, preserved. (Other powerful ‘pagan’ talismans of the ancient city also survived for a while intact – the equestrian statue of Justinian, the serpent column from Delphi and the Egyptian column; Mehmet was nothing if not superstitious.) On 2 June, Friday prayers were heard for the first time in what was now the Aya Sofya mosque ‘and the Islamic invocation was read in the name of Sultan Mehmet Khan Gazi’. According to the Ottoman chroniclers, ‘the sweet five-times-repeated chant of the Muslim faith was heard in the city’ and in a moment of piety Mehmet coined a new name for the city: Islambol – a pun on its Turkish name, meaning ‘full of Islam’ – that somehow failed to strike an echo in Turkish ears. Miraculously Sheikh Akshemsettin also rapidly ‘rediscovered’ the tomb of Ayyub, the Prophet’s standard-bearer who had died at the first Arab siege in 669 and whose death had been such a powerful motivator in the holy war for the city.

Despite these tokens of Muslim piety, the sultan’s rebuilding of the city was to prove highly controversial to conventional Islam. Mehmet had been deeply disturbed by the devastation inflicted on Constantinople: ‘What a city we have committed to plunder and destruction,’ he is reported to have said when he first toured the city, and when he rode back to Edirne on 21 June he undoubtedly left behind a melancholy ruin, devoid of people. Reconstructing an imperial capital was to be a major preoccupation of his reign – but his model would not be an Islamic one.

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The Christian ships that had escaped on the morning of 29 May carried word of the city’s fall back to the West. At the start of June three ships reached Crete with the sailors whose heroic defence of the towers had prompted their release by Mehmet. The news appalled the island. ‘Nothing worse than this has happened, nor will happen,’ wrote a monk. Meanwhile the Venetian galleys reached the island of Negroponte off the coast of Greece and reduced the population to panic – it was only with difficulty that the bailey there managed to prevent a whole-scale evacuation of the island. He wrote post-haste to the Venetian Senate. As ships criss-crossed the Aegean exchanging news, the word spread with gathering speed to the islands and the sea ports of the eastern sea, to Cyprus, Rhodes, Corfu, Chios, Monemvasia, Modon, Lepanto. Like a giant boulder dropped into the basin of the Mediterranean a tidal wave of panic rippled outwards all the way to the Gates of Gibraltar – and far beyond. It reached the mainland of Europe at Venice on the morning of Friday 29 June 1453. The Senate was in session. When a fast cutter from Lepanto tied up at the wooden landing stage on the Bacino, people were leaning from windows and balconies avid for news of the city, their families and their commercial interests. When they learned that Constantinople had fallen, ‘a great and excessive crying broke out, weeping, groaning … everyone beating their chests with their fists, tearing at their heads and faces, for the death of a father or a son or a brother, or for the loss of their property’. The Senate heard the news in stunned silence; voting was suspended. A flurry of letters was dispatched by flying courier across Italy to tell the news of ‘the horrible and deplorable fall of the cities of Constantinople and Pera [Galata]’. It reached Bologna on 4 July, Genoa on 6 July, Rome on 8 July and Naples shortly after. Many at first refused to believe reports that the invincible city could have fallen; when they did, there was open mourning in the streets. Terror amplified the wildest rumours. It was reported that the whole population over the age of six had been slaughtered, that 40,000 people had been blinded by the Turks, that all the churches had been destroyed and the sultan was now gathering a huge force for an immediate invasion of Italy. Word of mouth emphasized the bestiality of the Turks, the ferocity of their attack on Christendom – themes that would ring loudly in Europe for hundreds of years.

If there is any moment at which it is possible to recognize a modern sensibility in a medieval event it is here in the account of reactions to the news of the fall of Constantinople. Like the assassination of Kennedy or 9/11 it is clear that people throughout Europe could remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. ‘On the day when the Turks took Constantinople the sun was darkened,’ declared a Georgian chronicler. ‘What is this execrable news which is borne to us concerning Constantinople?’ wrote Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini to the Pope. ‘My hand trembles, even as I write; my soul is horrified.’ Frederick III wept when word reached him in Germany. The news radiated outward across Europe as fast as a ship could sail, a horse could ride, a song could be sung. It spread outwards from Italy to France, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, Serbia, Hungary, Poland and beyond. In London a chronicler noted that ‘in this year was the City of Constantine the noble lost by Christian men and won by the Prince of the Turks, Muhammad’; Christian I, King of Denmark and Norway, described Mehmet as the beast of the Apocalypse rising out of the sea. The diplomatic channels between the courts of Europe hummed with news and warnings and ideas for projected crusades. Across the Christian world there was a huge outpouring of letters, chronicles, histories, prophecies, songs, laments and sermons translated into all the languages of the Faith, from Serbian to French, from Armenian to English. The tale of Constantinople was heard not just in palaces and castles but also at crossroads, market squares and inns. It reached the furthest corners of Europe and the humblest people: in due course even the Lutheran prayer book in Iceland would beg God’s salvation from ‘the cunning of the Pope and the terror of the Turk’. It was just the start of a huge renewal of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Within Islam itself, the word was greeted with joy by pious Muslims. On 27 October an ambassador from Mehmet arrived in Cairo, bearing news of the city’s capture and bringing two highborn Greek captives as visible proof. According to the Muslim chronicler, ‘The Sultan and all the men rejoiced at this mighty conquest; the good news was sounded by the bands each morning and Cairo was decorated for two days … people celebrated by decorating shops and houses most extravagantly … I say to God be thanks and acknowledgement for this mighty victory.’ It was a victory of immense significance for the Muslim world; it fulfilled the old pseudo-prophecies attributed to Muhammad and seemed to restore the prospect of the world spread of the Faith. It brought the Sultan immense prestige. Mehmet also sent the customary victory letter to the leading potentates of the Muslim world that staked his claim to be the true leader of the holy war, taking the title of ‘Father of the Conquest’, directly linked ‘by the breath of the wind of the Caliphate’ to the early, glorious days of Islam. According to Doukas the head of Constantine, ‘stuffed with straw’, was also sent round ‘to the leaders of the Persians, Arabs and other Turks’, and Mehmet sent 400 Greek children each to the rulers of Egypt, Tunis and Granada. These were not mere gifts. Mehmet was laying claim to be the defender of the Faith and to its ultimate prize: protectorate of the holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. ‘It is your responsibility’, he peremptorily scolded the Mamluk sultan in Cairo, ‘to keep the pilgrimage routes open for the Muslims; we have the duty of providing gazis.’ At the same time, he declared himself to be ‘Sovereign of two seas and two lands’, heir to the empire of the Caesars with ambitions to a world domination that would be both imperial and religious: ‘There must … be only one empire, one faith and one sovereignty in the world.’

In the West the fall of Constantinople changed nothing and everything. To those close to events, it was clear that the city was undefendable. As an isolated enclave its capture was ultimately inevitable; if Constantine had managed to stave off the Ottoman siege it would only have been a matter of time before another assault succeeded. For those who cared to look, the fall of Constantinople or the capture of Istanbul – depending on religious perspective – was largely the symbolic recognition of an established fact: that the Ottomans were a world power, firmly established in Europe. Few were that close. Even the Venetians, with their spies and their endless flow of diplomatic information back to the Senate, were largely unaware of the military capabilities available to Mehmet. ‘Our Senators would not believe that the Turks could bring a fleet against Constantinople,’ remarked Marco Barbaro on the tardiness of the Venetian rescue effort. Nor had they understood the power of the guns or the determination and resourcefulness of Mehmet himself. What the capture of the city underlined was the extent to which the balance of power had already shifted in the Mediterranean – and clarified the threat to a host of Christian interests and nations that Constantinople, as a buffer zone, had encouraged them to ignore.

Throughout the Christian world the consequences were religious, military, economic and psychological. At once the terrible image of Mehmet and his ambitions were drawn into sharp focus for the Greeks, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Pope in Rome, the Hungarians, the Wallachians and all the peoples of the Balkans. The implacable figure of the Great Turk and his insatiable desire to be the Alexander of the age were projected wildly onto the screen of the European imagination. One source has the Conqueror entering the city with the words ‘I thank Muhammad who has given us this splendid victory; but I pray that he will permit me to live long enough to capture and subjugate Old Rome as I have New Rome.’ This belief was not without foundation. In Mehmet’s imagination, the seat of the Red Apple had now moved westward – from Constantinople to Rome. Long before Ottoman armies invaded Italy they went into battle with the cry ‘Roma! Roma!’ Step by step the very incarnation of the Antichrist seemed to be moving inexorably against the Christian world. In the years following 1453, he would snuff out the Black Sea colonies of the Genoese and the Greeks one after another: Sinop, Trebizond and Kaffa all fell. In 1462 he invaded Wallachia, the following year Bosnia. The Morea fell under Ottoman rule in 1464. In 1474 he was in Albania, 1476 in Moldavia – the rolling tide of the Ottoman advance seemed irreversible. Its troops failed to take Rhodes in a famous siege in 1480 but it was only a temporary setback. The Venetians had more to fear than most: war with Mehmet opened in 1463 and ran for fifteen years – it was to be just the overture to a titanic contest. During this time they lost their prize trading-post at Negroponte, and worse: in 1477 Ottoman raiders plundered the hinterlands of the city; they came so near that the smoke of their fires could be seen from the campanile of St Mark’s. Venice could feel the hot breath of Islam on its collar. ‘The enemy is at our gates!’ wrote Celso Maffei to the Doge. ‘The axe is at the root. Unless divine help comes, the doom of the Christian name is sealed.’ In July 1481 the Ottomans finally landed an army on the heel of Italy to march on Rome. When they took Otranto, the archbishop was felled at the altar of his cathedral, 12,000 citizens were put to death. In Rome the Pope considered flight and the people panicked, but at this moment news of Mehmet’s death reached the army and the Italian campaign collapsed.

Under the impetus of the fall of Constantinople, popes and cardinals tried to breathe life back into the project of religious crusades that continued well into the sixteenth century. Pope Pius II, for whom the whole Christian culture was at stake, set the tone when he convened a congress at Mantua in 1459 to unify the fractious nations of Christendom. In a ringing speech that lasted two hours he outlined the situation in the bleakest terms:

We ourselves allowed Constantinople, the capital of the east, to be conquered by the Turks. And while we sit at home in ease and idleness, the arms of these barbarians are advancing to the Danube and the Sava. In the Eastern imperial city they have massacred the successor of Constantine along with his people, desecrated the temples of the Lord, sullied the noble edifice of Justinian with the hideous cult of Muhammad; they have destroyed the images of the mother of God and other saints, overturned the altars, cast the relics of the martyrs to the swine, killed the priests, dishonored women and young girls, even the virgins dedicated to the Lord, slaughtered the nobles of the city at the sultan’s banquet, carried off the image of our crucified Saviour to their camp with scorn and mockery amid cries of ‘That is the God of the Christians!’ and befouled it with mud and spittle. All this happened beneath our very eyes, but we lie in a deep sleep … Mehmet will never lay down arms except in victory or total defeat. Every victory will be for him a stepping-stone to another, until, after subjecting all the princes of the West, he has destroyed the Gospel of Christ and imposed the law of his false prophet upon the whole world.

Despite numerous attempts, such impassioned words failed to provoke practical action, just as the project to save Constantinople itself had failed. The powers of Europe were too jealous, too disunited – and in some senses too secular – ever to combine in the name of Christendom again: it was even rumoured that the Venetians had been complicit in the landing at Otranto. However it did reinvigorate deep European fears about Islam. It would be another two hundred years before the advance of the Ottomans into Europe was definitely halted, in 1683, at the gates of Vienna; in the interval Christianity and Islam would wage a long-running war, both hot and cold, that would linger long in the racial memory and that formed a long link in the chain of events between the two faiths. The fall of Constantinople had awakened in Islam and Europe deep memories of the crusades. The Ottoman peril was seen as the continuation of the perceived assault of Islam on the Christian world; the word ‘Turk’ replaced the word ‘Saracen’ as the generic term for a Muslim – and with it came all the connotations of a cruel and implacable opponent. Both sides saw themselves engaged in a struggle for survival against a foe intent on destroying the world. It was the prototype of global ideological conflict. The Ottomans kept the spirit of jihad alive, now linked to their sense of imperial mission. Within the Muslim heartlands the belief in the superiority of Islam was rejuvenated. The legend of the Red Apple had enormous currency; after Rome it attached successively to Budapest, then Vienna. Beyond these literal destinations, it was the symbol of messianic belief in the final victory of the Faith. Within Europe, the image of the Turk became synonymous with all that was faithless and cruel. By 1536 the word was in use in English to mean, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘anyone behaving as a barbarian or savage’. And what added fuel to these attitudes was a discovery that typified the very spirit of Renaissance enlightenment – the invention of printing.

The fall of Constantinople happened on the cusp of a revolution – the moment that the runaway train of scientific discovery started to gather speed in the West at the expense of religion. Some of these forces were at play in the siege itself: the impact of gunpowder, the superiority of sailing ships, the end of medieval siege warfare; the next seventy years would bring Europe, amongst other things, gold fillings in teeth, the pocket watch and the astrolabe, navigation manuals, syphilis, the New Testament in translation, Copernicus and Leonardo da Vinci, Columbus and Luther – and movable type.

Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized mass communications and spread new ideas about the holy war with Islam. A huge corpus of crusader and anti-Islamic literature poured off the presses of Europe in the next 150 years. One of the earliest surviving examples of modern printing is the indulgence granted by Nicholas V in 1451 to raise money for the relief of Cyprus from the Turks. Thousands of copies of such documents appeared across Europe along with crusader appeals and broadsheets – forerunners of modern newspapers – that spread news about the war against ‘the damnable menace of the Grand Turk of the infidels’. An explosion of books followed – in France alone, eighty books were published on the Ottomans between 1480 and 1609, compared to forty on the Americas. When Richard Knolles wrote his bestseller The General History of the Turks in 1603, there was already a healthy literature in English on the people he called ‘the present terror of the world’. These works had suggestive titles: The Turks’ Wars, A Notable History of the Saracens, A Discourse on the Bloody and Cruel Battle lost by Sultan Selim, True News of a Notable Victory obtained against the Turk, The Estate of Christians living under the Subjection of the Turk – the flood of information was endless.

Othello was engaged in fighting the world war of the day – against the ‘general enemy Ottoman’, the ‘malignant and turbaned Turk’ – and for the first time, Christians far from the Muslim world could see woodcut images of their enemy in highly influential illustrated books such as Bartholomew Georgevich’s Miseries and Tribulations of the Christians held in Tribute and Slavery by the Turk. These showed ferocious battles between armoured knights and turbaned Muslims, and all the barbarism of the infidel: Turks beheading prisoners, leading off long lines of captive women and children, riding with babies spitted on their lances. The conflict with the Turk was widely understood to be the continuation of a much longer-running contest with Islam – a thousand year struggle for the truth. Its features and causes were exhaustively studied in the West. Thomas Brightman, writing in 1644, declared that the Saracens were ‘the first troop of locusts … about the year 630’ who were succeeded by ‘the Turks, a brood of vipers, worse than their parent, [who] did utterly destroy the Saracens their mother’. Somehow the conflict with Islam was always different: deeper, more threatening, closer to nightmare.

It is certainly true that Europe had much to fear from the wealthier, more powerful and better organized Ottoman Empire in the two hundred years after Constantinople, yet the image of its opponent, conceived largely in religious terms at a time when the idea of Christendom itself was dying, was highly partial. The inside and the outside of the Ottoman world presented two different faces, and nowhere was this clearer than in Constantinople.

Sa’d-ud-din might declare that after the capture of Istanbul ‘the churches which were within the city were emptied of their vile idols, and cleansed from their filthy and idolatrous impurities’ – but the reality was rather different. The city that Mehmet rebuilt after the fall hardly conformed to the dread image of Islam that Christendom supposed. The sultan regarded himself not only as a Muslim ruler but as the heir to the Roman Empire and set about reconstructing a multicultural capital in which all citizens would have certain rights. He forcibly resettled both Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims back into the city, guaranteed the safety of the Genoese enclave at Galata and forbade any Turks to live there. The monk Gennadios, who had so fiercely resisted attempts at union, was rescued from slavery in Edirne and restored to the capital as patriarch of the Orthodox community with the formula: ‘Be Patriarch, with good fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.’ The Christians were to live in their own neighbourhoods and to retain some of their churches, though under certain restrictions: they had to wear distinctive dress and were forbidden from bearing arms – within the context of the times it was a policy of remarkable tolerance. At the other end of the Mediterranean, the final reconquest of Spain by the Catholic kings in 1492 resulted in the forced conversion or expulsion of all the Muslims and Jews. The Spanish Jews themselves were encouraged to migrate to the Ottoman Empire – ‘the refuge of the world’ – where, within the overall experience of Jewish exile, their reception was generally positive. ‘Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of,’ wrote one rabbi to his brethren in Europe. ‘We possess great fortunes, much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes and our commerce is free and unhindered.’ Mehmet was to bear the brunt of considerable Islamic criticism for these policies. His son, the more pious Bayezit II, declared that his father ‘by the counsel of mischief makers and hypocrites’ had ‘infringed the Law of the Prophet’.

Although Constantinople would become a more Islamic city over the centuries, Mehmet set the tone for a place that was astonishingly multicultural, the model of the Levantine city. For those Westerners who looked beneath the crude stereotypes, there were plenty of surprises. When the German Arnold von Harff came in 1499 he was amazed to discover two Franciscan monasteries in Galata where the Catholic mass was still being celebrated. Those who knew the infidel up close were quite clear. ‘The Turks do not compel anyone to renounce his faith, do not try hard to persuade anyone and do not have a great opinion of renegades,’ wrote George of Hungary in the fifteenth century. It was a stark contrast to the religious wars that fragmented Europe during the Reformation. The flow of refugees after the fall would be largely one way: from the Christian lands to the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet himself was more interested in building a world empire than in converting that world to Islam.

The fall of Constantinople was a trauma for the West; not only had it dented the confidence of Christendom, it was also considered the tragic end of the classical world, ‘a second death for Homer and Plato’. And yet the fall also liberated the place from impoverishment, isolation and ruin. The city surrounded by ‘the garland of waters’, which Procopius had celebrated in the sixth century, now regained its old dash and energy as the capital of a rich and multicultural empire, straddling two worlds and a dozen trade routes; and the people whom the West believed to be tailed monsters spawned by the Apocalypse – ‘made up of a horse and a man’ – reincarnated a city of astonishment and beauty, different to the Christian City of Gold, but cast in equally glowing colours.

 Constantinople once again traded the goods of the world through the labyrinthine alleys of the covered bazaar and the Egyptian bazaar; camel trains and ships once more connected it to all the principal points of the Levant, but for sailors approaching from the Marmara, its horizon acquired a new shape. Alongside Aya Sofya, the hills of the city started to bubble with the grey leaded domes of mosques. White minarets as thin as needles and as fat as pencils, grooved and fluted and hung with tiers of delicately traceried balconies, punctuated the city skyline. A succession of brilliant mosque architects created, under sprung domes, abstract and timeless spaces: interiors of calm light, tiled with intricate geometric patterns and calligraphy and stylized flowers whose sensuous colours – crisp tomato and turquoise and celadon and the clearest blue from the depths of the sea – created ‘a reflection of the infinite garden of delight’ promised in the Koran.

Ottoman Istanbul was a city that lived vividly in the eye and the ear – a place of wooden houses and cypress trees, street fountains and gardens, graceful tombs and subterranean bazaars, of noise and bustle and manufacture, where each occupation and ethnic group had its quarter, and all the races of the Levant in their distinctive garb and headdresses worked and traded, where the sea could be suddenly glimpsed, shimmering at the turn of a street or from the terrace of a mosque, and the call to prayer, rising from a dozen minarets, mapped the city from end to end and from dawn to dusk as intimately as the street cries of the local traders. Behind the forbidding walls of the Topkapi palace, the Ottoman sultans created their own echo of the Alhambra and Isfahan in a series of fragile, tiled pavilions more like solid tents than buildings, set in elaborate gardens, from which they could look out over the Bosphorus and the Asian hills. Ottoman art, architecture and ceremonial created a rich visual world that held as much astonishment for Western visitors as Christian Constantinople had done before it. ‘I beheld the prospect of that little world, the great city of Constantinople,’ wrote Edward Lithgow in 1640, ‘which indeed yields such an outward splendor to the amazed beholder … whereof now the world makes so great account that the whole earth cannot equal it.’

Nowhere is the sensuous texture of Ottoman Istanbul recorded more vividly than in the endless succession of miniatures in which sultans celebrated their triumphs. It is a joyous world of primary colour patterned flat and without perspective, like the decorative devices on tiles and carpets. Here are court presentations and banquets, battles and sieges, beheadings, processions and festivities, tents and banners, fountains and palaces, elaborately worked kaftans and armour and beautiful horses. It is a world in love with ceremony, noise and light. There are ram fights, tumblers, kebab cooks and firework displays, massed Janissary bands that thump and toot and crash their way soundlessly across the page in a blare of red, tight-rope walkers crossing the Horn on ropes suspended from the masts of ships, cavalry squadrons in white turbans riding past elaborately patterned tents, maps of the city as bright as jewels, and all the visible exuberance of paint: vivid red, orange, royal blue, lilac, lemon, chestnut, grey, pink, emerald and gold. The world of the miniatures seems to express both joy and pride in the Ottoman achievement, the breathtaking ascent from tribe to empire in two hundred years, an echo of the words once written by the Seljuk Turks over a doorway in the holy city of Konya: ‘What I have created is unrivalled throughout the world.’

In 1599 Queen Elizabeth I of England sent Sultan Mehmet III an organ as a gift of friendship. It was accompanied by its maker, Thomas Dallam, to play the instrument for the Ottoman ruler. When the master musician was led through the successive courts of the palace and into the presence of the sultan, he was so dazzled by the ceremonial that ‘the sight whereof did make me almost to think that I was in another world’. Visitors had been emitting exactly the same gasps of astonishment since Constantine the Great founded the second Rome and the second Jerusalem in the fourth century. ‘It seems to me’, wrote the Frenchman Pierre Gilles in the sixteenth century, ‘that while other cities are mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth.’ 

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