Mehmed II, the Conqueror (ca. 1432-1481) was a Turkish sultan who conquered Constantinople and ruthlessly consolidated and enlarged the Ottoman Empire with a military crusade into Asia and Europe.
Mehmed the Conqueror
Mehmed Celebi, the third son of the Ottoman sultan Murad II, was born on March 30, 1432 (or 1430, as cited in some sources). Though much is known of his father, very little is known of his mother. According to some traditions she was a French princess, while others refer to her simply as an Italian woman named Estella. In later custom, she is referred to as Huma Hatan, after the bird of paradise of Persian legend. Yet most likely, Mehmed's mother was a slave, and there is evidence to suggest that she was a recent convert from Judaism.
The first years of the prince were spent in the harem of the palace at Erdine (in the European territories of the Empire), although in 1434 he was sent to Amaysa, in eastern Anatolia. According to custom, at five years of age he was given the governorship of the city, with a number of carefully chosen councillors, for his first taste of authority. In 1439, he was brought back to Erdine for his circumcision ceremonies whereupon he was given a different governorship.
Mehmed had not been his father's favorite son. The impetuous and headstrong prince had been difficult to control and to educate. Yet when his brother was strangled one night in bed, the 11-year-old Mehmed became the heir to his father's throne and was summoned to Erdine to learn of the workings of government.
Although Murad had made numerous military excursions himself, he hoped generally to secure peace to the east and to the west of the Empire. Yet in 1444, Christian forces advanced into Ottoman territory on the second crusade in two years. Leaving his son in charge at court, Murad prepared to meet this threat to his state. That summer, while his father was away, Mehmed briefly enjoyed the authority of the sultanate for the first time.
On November 10, in a major battle at Varna on the Black Sea, the Turkish army defeated the Crusaders, and the Christian prospect of pushing Islam off the European continent no longer seemed likely. Yet in the wake of this victory, Murad somewhat surprisingly abdicated the throne to his son, who had not won great respect during his recent regency. The young Mehmed already entertained the bold notion of attacking Constantinople, the capital of the waning Byzantine Empire that sat in the midst of Ottoman territories on the straits between the Mediterranean and Black seas. At the behest of his former councillors, however, Murad returned to the throne on May 5, 1446, to replace the unpopular, and unready, Mehmed and to turn his military attention toward a renewed threat from the West.
In a successful battle against Hungarian forces in October 1448, Mehmed was given his first experience of battle. In January of that same year, his first son was born to a slave girl, Gulbahar, a Christian of Albanian origin. Quickly thereafter, according to his father's wishes, he was properly married to a more suitable noblewoman, Sitt Hatun. The wedding was magnificently celebrated over a three-month period, but unfortunately for the two, their marriage was unhappy and remained childless.
In February 1451, Murad II died leaving the ambitious Mehmed II as sultan. Since the laws of succession were not entirely clear during this period, Mehmed typically had his brother drowned to eliminate potential opposition to his claim. Later, he was to formalize fratricide in law claiming, "whichever of my sons inherits the sultan's throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order." The Ottoman state had been growing in strength and organization since early in the century, but it was far from unified and stable. Mehmed was to spend his entire reign trying to consolidate his authority and to invigorate his state. Thus, his initial efforts were to the elimination of all resistance to his rule within the Empire.
With the news of Mehmed's accession to the throne, many European powers felt that affairs had changed to their advantage. Indeed, he was preoccupied with various rebellions along the eastern frontier of the Empire. Moreover, he had to face a revolt among the Janissaries, an elite military corps which he was able later to reorganize under his direct authority to enforce his will within the Empire and in newly conquered territories. Soon Mehmed no longer felt it necessary to maintain good relations with his neighbors to the west.
Throughout his life, Mehmed had declared his hatred of Christianity and his desire to destroy it. Thus, when his attentions turned toward the West his first major act was the construction of a fortress on the European side of the Bosporus straits with which to police all shipping to the Black Sea. This was a virtual declaration of war on nearby Constantinople which was thereby further isolated from its Western allies. According to Mehmed, "The ghaza (Holy War) is our basic duty, as it was in the case of our fathers." Specifically, he felt, "The conquest of (Constantinople) is …essential to the future and the safety of the Ottoman state." The remaining inhabitants of this once vibrant and important city were justifiably frightened by Mehmed's intentions. From April 6, 1453, Mehmed, with the help of huge cannon, laid siege to the final remnant of Christian greatness in the East. Venetian and Hungarian forces were mobilized for the city's defense, but Mehmed acted quickly. By May 29, when his terms were refused by the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Paleologus, Muslim forces were ordered to storm the city which was quickly overrun and looted.
For many, the fall of Byzantium and the foundation of a unified Islamic Empire straddling Europe and Asia marks the division between the Middle Ages and the modern era. For Mehmed, who immediately became the most important sultan in the Muslim world, it marked the beginning of a dream to create a universal empire based on his new capital, henceforth to be called Istanbul. In an attempt to rebuild the city to its former glory, he repaired the ancient walls and built many public buildings. Among the most prominent of these were his palaces and the great Mosque of the Conqueror, with its hospitals, colleges, and public baths. His city was to be the center of the world—politically, culturally, and spiritually. To this end, he forced resettlement from all parts of the Empire of people of all religions.
As the heir to the Byzantine Empire, Mehmed was forced to modify slightly the system of government that he had inherited and to incorporate some foreign administrative and cultural institutions. All of this he codified in his Book of Laws which thereafter defined the unique character of the Ottoman Empire with its Islamic, Ottoman-Turk, Byzantine, and other influences. Under Mehmed II, now known as The Conqueror, some significant measure of local tradition and religious practice could remain under the new administration of conquered territory (if necessary), though effective and direct control remained in his hands. Clearly, Mehmed's predominant concern was with his own authority. After the fall of Constantinople, for example, he dismissed his powerful chief councillor whom he had inherited from the reign of his father. Henceforth, he would make all of his own appointments to important positions (usually from among his personal slaves). Determined to rule firmly and effectively, Mehmed was often brutal and cruel. It has been said that he delighted in killing people as someone else might kill fleas.
Further conquest was the most passionate pursuit of Mehmed II. For him, the non-Muslim world was "war territory" ordained by the Koran to be subjected. Thus, the glory of the sultan's authority and the Ottoman state was to be based primarily on the pursuit of Holy War inspired by the duty to spread Islam and the benefits of Ottoman rule.
From 1454, Mehmed turned actively against the islands in the Aegean Sea and against the Balkan Peninsula at the expense of both Serbia and Hungary. He met with much success in the Aegean, and to the north he forced an annual tribute from Moldavia. Initial expeditions into Serbia brought it more closely under Ottoman control, but the first large-scale military operation after the fall of Constantinople was directed against Hungary. Arriving at Belgrade, considered essential for further expansion into the European continent, Mehmed began his ill-fated siege in June 1456. After heavily bombarding the city over an extended period, the Turks were compelled to retreat, and Mehmed, wounded in the thigh, was forced to spend the next year at court.
Later, in April 1458, he set forth again at the head of an army toward Greece, and in August he entered Athens, which was to remain under Ottoman control for over 300 years. In 1459, the Serbian city of Smederevo capitulated without a struggle, and by the end of the year all of Serbia was occupied. In 1460, he subjugated Morea, the southern peninsula of the Greek mainland. Efforts to unite Western resistance to the powerful Ottoman threat in another crusade were largely unsuccessful, as were similar attempts by threatened princes to the east of the Empire. Indeed, the next year, Mehmed quickly became master of Trebizond which lay along the northern coast of Asia Minor on the Black Sea.
In 1462, he subdued Walachian resistance to Ottoman suzerainty, and later turned easily against the island of Lesbos with the navy that he was building up. Meanwhile, it was obvious to most observers that Mehmed was preparing another major campaign against the West, particularly against the possessions of Venice. By March 1463, his forces were afoot, and the immediate target of hostilities was Bosnia. Soon the greater part of the region was overrun. This advance terrified the Venetians. Clearly, Venice would have to give up all its possessions in Greece and the East or fight the Turk. When Ottoman forces attacked the Venetian holding of Argos in Greece that same year, Venice, with the support of Hungary, declared war against Mehmed II.
Yet Mehmed had a powerful rival to the east in Prince Uzan Hasan of the House of Karaman in southeastern Anatolia. He also had conquered many territories and now held the title of king of Persia. Karaman was annexed to the Ottoman Empire in 1468, though Hasan and his Eastern allies still presented one of Mehmed's greatest challenges. In 1472, Hasan's forces raided the city of Tokat and marched well into western Anatolia. Mehmed spent that year preparing to meet this renewed challenge. Finally, in July of 1473, the two armies met on the plain of Erzincan by the Euphrates River, and on August 11 Mehmed won another great victory extending his authority well into Asia Minor.
Though he was greatly distracted by these events in the East, the West was not spared. Ottoman raiders had long been making excursions to the eastern shore of the Adriatic sea, and in 1469 earnest preparations were undertaken for the transport of troops to Negropont in Greece, the Aegean naval base of Venice. Soon, a massive military expedition set out and the siege of Negropont began. After a long, brutal, and bloody siege that almost exhausted both parties, Negropont capitulated on July 12. This was a terrible blow to Venice and a grave portent of danger to the rest of Europe.
In the area of the Black Sea, Mehmed was also successful. Since early in his reign, he had forced tribute from the various Genoese colonies, later occuping them outright. By 1475, he had made the Crimea a vassal state of the Empire, making the entire sea virtually an Ottoman lake.
Despite recent successes, 1474 was a relatively quiet year for Mehmed, perhaps because of the greatly distressing death of his favorite son, Mustapha, or perhaps because of his own illness. Nevertheless Ottoman forces continued to raid Albania, Walachia, and even Hungary with some Ottoman raiders appearing within sight of Venice itself. By 1476, well enough again to lead his armies, Mehmed almost completely overran Albania.
Peace was concluded with Venice in 1479, ending what had become a long, troublesome struggle. Although the Italian city-state maintained many of its former trading privileges, it was forced to pay tribute to the sultan. Mehmed now looked beyond Venice. On August 11, 1480, Otranto in the south of Italy was overrun, and all the male inhabitants were killed by the invading forces. From this base, the Turks laid waste to the countryside for miles around, threatening the entire Italian peninsula.
Ottoman forces were concurrently involved in many other areas. They were storming the Aegean Islands and laid siege to the fortress on Rhodes. There were continuing raids into the Balkans, but most significantly, the Empire was involved in another struggle in southeastern Anatolia with the sultan of Syria and Egypt.
Despite the military success of the Empire, Mehmed himself was not well. Throughout his life, the sultan increasingly suffered from gout and rheumatism. An abscess had recently grossly disfigured his leg, a divine affliction (it seemed to some) for a life of gluttony. This pushed the moody Mehmed further into seclusion from the public eye. Now, on May 1, 1481, as he prepared for further conflict against the Egyptian sultan, he was struck with severe abdominal pains and died two days later. Since Mehmed had always feared being poisoned and dined alone, there was immediate suspicion that he had been murdered, perhaps even by his son and heir Bayezid, who was eager to secure his position quickly.
Although Mehmed II died unsatisfied in his goal to build a universal empire, he had established the primacy of the Ottoman Turks within the Muslim world. In his dedication to conquest, he extended Ottoman influence east as far as the Euphrates and west throughout the Balkans and even onto the Italian peninsula. Whether reviled for his brutality and his fervor or saluted for these successes, Mehmed II, the Conqueror, affirmed the authority of the sultanate and secured the character of the Ottoman Empire. From the remains of Byzantium, he built a vibrant capital of a growing Turkish Empire which would be a major world power over the next four centuries.
Further Reading on Mehmed the Conqueror
Babinger, Franz. Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. Translated by Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, 1978.
Parry, V. J., H. Inalcik, A. N. Kurat, and J. S. Bromley. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Edited by Michael Cook. Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Pears, Sir Edwin. "The Ottoman Turks to the Fall of Constantinople," in The Cambridge Medieval History. Macmillan, 1923.
Creasy, E. S. History of the Ottoman Turks. Richard Bentley and Son, 1877.
Eversley, Lord. The Turkish Empire from 1288 to 1914. T. Fisher and Unwin, 1923.
Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. Jonathan Cape, 1977.