An imperial vision

THE OTTOMANS HAD ample strategic reason for coveting Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire since the fourth century. Byzantine control of the Bosporus had on several occasions caused serious logistic problems for sultans – or would-be sultans – and their armies criss-crossing their domains, between Rumeli and Anatolia. Morever, the costs of conquest and administration of the territories coming under Ottoman rule were mounting, and control of the profits from taxation of the rich trade between the Black Sea basin and the Mediterranean and Europe would go far towards paying for the Ottoman future. The union of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in 1439 had serious repercussions for the Ottomans because it increased the possibility of future crusades and raised again the spectre of Latin influence in Constantinople, anathema to Ottomans and Orthodox alike. Possession of Constantinople had also a compelling symbolic value – the confirmation of empire and the victory of faith. The city featured in both sacred and secular Muslim legend, and conquest by the Ottomans would fulfil a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, a version of which they loved to quote: ‘One day Constantinople will certainly be conquered. A good emir and a good army will be able to accomplish this.’1Constantinople was also the ‘Red Apple’ – an expression the Ottomans used to describe their ultimate aspiration. By striking at the Byzantine imperial city, Sultan Mehmed II aimed to pluck an alien presence from the heart of his realm.

Before he could attempt to besiege Constantinople, following his accession in 1451, Mehmed had to secure his borders. He renewed his father’s treaty with George Branković of Serbia and concluded a three-year treaty with John Hunyadi, regent in Hungary. He pre-empted a possible attack from Venice by confirming a treaty made by his father in 1446.2 He also had to exert constant vigilance to retain his territories in Anatolia since the former emirates of Aydın, Menteşe and Germiyan were preparing to reassert their independence and fight their way free of Ottoman domination. Although technically an Ottoman vassal, the emirate of Karaman protected various claimants to these lands and its armies moved to retake territory lost to Sultan Murad II. Learning that Mehmed intended to confront this challenge, İbrahim, the ruler of Karaman – who was married to Mehmed’s aunt – sued for peace.

Mehmed had murdered his sole surviving brother on their father’s death; his only known male relative and potential rival remaining was a pretender in Constantinople purporting to be his uncle Orhan. Memories of the chaos caused by the appearance of pretenders was still fresh in Ottoman minds and he had therefore agreed to pay the expenses of Orhan’s continuing custody. While Mehmed was campaigning against Karaman Emperor Constantine XI sent envoys to ask for more money for Orhan’s upkeep and hinted that he might release him from custody if it was not forthcoming. Mehmed bided his time in reacting to this provocation which he considered to be in breach of a treaty granted to Constantine soon after the Emperor’s accession.3

Yet soon enough Mehmed, undeterred by the knowledge that his great-grandfather Bayezid I had failed to reduce Constantinople even after an eight-year siege, embarked upon the conquest of which he had dreamed since his first taste of sultanic authority as an adolescent in his father’s capital of Edirne in 1444–6.4 The preliminaries to the siege and its course are among the most familiar of historical narratives. For western contemporaries, the exchange of Christian rule for Muslim in Constantinople was described as ‘the Fall’. For the Ottomans, it was ‘the Conquest’.

Sultan Mehmed’s was the thirteenth Muslim attempt to take the city from the Byzantines, the first having been an Arab siege around 650 CE.5 He prepared meticulously: his passage across the Bosporus was secured with the rapid construction in 1451–2 of the fortress of Boğazkesen, ‘Cutter of the Strait’, some five kilometres north of the walls of Constantinople. Today known as Rumeli Hisarı, this fortress stands opposite one built by Sultan Bayezid I on the Anatolian shore when he tried to take the city. Like Bayezid’s fortress, Boğazkesen was planned to serve as a forward logistical base for the siege and a salient from which to cut off grain supplies coming south from the Black Sea basin. It was very modern by contemporary standards of fortification, its thick walls well able to resist the technological advances of the gunpowder age.6 Its towers were named after, and probably paid for by, Mehmed’s counsellors from his Edirne days: Zaganos Mehmed, Saruca and Çandarlı Halil Pashas.

As the beleaguered inhabitants of Constantinople watched what they had long feared slowly become reality, the Emperor, as on countless occasions in the past, sent urgent calls for help to possible allies in the West. Commerical rivalry between Genoa and Venice meant that neither of these states was willing to bear a greater share of the burden of defending Constantinople than the other. Genoa sent troops under the able commander Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, and Constantine appointed him to command his forces along the landward stretch of the city wall; Venice rented the Emperor naval support. In desperation, Constantine ceded his western Black Sea coastal city of Nesebŭr to John Hunyadi and the northern Aegean island of Lemnos to King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples, but neither was prepared to aid the Byzantines in the coming struggle. Possible assistance from Constantine’s brothers, joint despots Demetrius and Thomas in Mistras, was ruled out by Turahan Pasha’s aggressive campaign into the Peloponnese in the autumn of 1452. Yet despite official indifference, many volunteers came to share the defence of Constantinople with the Byzantines.

The price Pope Nicholas V demanded for his help was the Emperor’s pledge that the Eastern Church would be more resolute in its union with Rome: he sent two envoys, Cardinal Isidore, formerly of Kiev, and Archbishop Leonard of Chios, who celebrated a Mass in Hagia Sophia at which Constantine swore to the union. But if the Emperor had finally concluded that to move towards effecting the union of the two Churches was a necessary first step before he could even hope for help from the Pope – a step which could be reconsidered at leisure once the immediate danger facing the remnants of his territories was over – others, despite the life-and-death situation they faced, were unwilling to compromise their faith, and there was rioting in the streets of Constantinople. The figurehead of this latter group was the monk George Scholarius, or Gennadios, who was more afraid of divine retribution than of Ottoman conquest.* Such internal dissension was disastrous for the resolve of the populace.7

Once the fortress of Boğazkesen had been completed, Sultan Mehmed returned to Edirne to oversee final preparations for the siege, then marched on Constantinople. His army numbered some 160,000 men according to the Venetian merchant Niccolò Barbaro, who was present at the siege. The Byzantine statesman George Sphrantzes estimated the defenders at fewer than five thousand plus the few thousand Latins who came to the aid of the city. Sultan Mehmed came before the walls on 5 April 1453 and, with the help of his navy, surrounded Constantinople on all sides except along the Golden Horn where a boom had been laid to deny the Ottoman navy entry. Unrelenting Ottoman bombardment rent the walls on the landward side; within, Latins and Greeks were at odds over who should man the breaches. Ottoman mining operations were met by the defenders with counter-mines. Skirmishes continued on land and sea until 29 May when what proved to be the final assault on the ruined land-walls began three hours before daybreak. The third wave of the assault succeeded. With his janissaries the Sultan entered a barbican, only to be temporarily driven back before more cannon-fire opened a large breach, through which the victorious Ottoman troops flooded into the city.

The historian and administrator Tursun Bey provides the sole detailed contemporary account of the siege in the Ottoman language:

Once the [cloud of] smoke of Greek fire and the soul of the Fire-worshipping [i.e., infidel] Prince had descended over the castle ‘as though a shadow’, the import was manifest: the devout Sultan of good fortune had, as it were, ‘suspended the mountain’* over this people of polytheism and destruction like the Lord God himself. Thus, both from within and without, [the shot of] the cannons and muskets and falconets and small arrows and arrows and crossbows spewed and flung out a profusion of drops of Pharaonic-seeming perspiration as in the rains of April – like a messenger of the prayers of the righteous – and a veritable precipitation and downpouring of calamities from the heavens as decreed by God. And, from the furthest reaches below to the top-most parts, and from the upper heights down to ground level, hand-to-hand combat and charging was being joined with a clashing and plunging of arms and hooked pikes and halberds in the breaches amidst the ruin wrought by the cannon.

On the outside the Champions of Islam and on the inside the wayward ones, pike to pike in true combat, hand-to-hand;

Now advancing now feinting, guns [firing] and arms drawn, Countless heads were severed from their trunks;

Expelling the smoke of the Greek fire, a veritable cloud of sparks was rained on the Champions of Islam by the infidels;

Ramming into the castle walls, the trenches in this manner, They set off the Greek fire, the enemies;

[In turn] they [i.e. the Ottoman soldiers] presented to the bastion their hooked pikes,

Drawn, they were knocking to the ground the engaged warriors;

As if struck in the deepest bedrock by the digging of a tunnel It seemed that in places the castle had been pierced from below.

By the early part of the forenoon, the frenzy of the fiery tumult and the dust of strife had died away.8

European and Byzantine accounts of the siege alike dwell on the daring measures taken by Sultan Mehmed to achieve his aim: the huge cannon made for him by a renegade Hungarian cannon-founder in Edirne,* the building of a siege-tower higher than the walls of the city, the dragging of his galleys uphill from the Bosporus shore near the present-day palace of Dolmabahçe, and down into the Golden Horn to avoid the boom laid across its mouth, and the construction of a pontoon bridge across the harbour from Galata to Constantinople which enabled the Ottoman forces to attack the walls on that side of the city and surround it completely.

For the Ottomans, the part played by the Sultan’s spiritual guide, the mystic Sheikh Akşemseddin, was the most significant contribution to the final outcome. The Ottomans lost many troops in a confrontation in which four grain ships – three Genoese and one Byzantine – managed to run the Ottoman blockade and convey their load into the Golden Horn. Following this reverse, Akşemseddin wrote to the Sultan of the divine signs he had seen prophesying victory, which soothed Mehmed’s despair and raised the morale of the besieging army.9

Fifty-four days after beginning his assault, Sultan Mehmed entered a city destroyed by siege and devastated by looting. Emperor Constantine was nowhere in evidence. Most fifteenth-century chroniclers, both eastern and western, agree that he was killed during the fighting, but because the whereabouts of his corpse was (and remains) unknown, legends grew up to explain its fate and various sites in the city were considered to be his tomb.10 The task of reconstruction which faced the Ottomans was daunting. The historian Doukas reports that Sultan Mehmed summoned the Byzantine statesman Grand Duke Lucas Notaras and demanded to know why the Emperor had not surrendered the city to him, thereby preventing the damage and destruction of its fabric.11

The first Friday prayer after the Conquest, conducted by Sheikh Akşemseddin,12 took place in the basilica of Hagia Sophia, Emperor Justinian’s imperial church, which had been turned into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed purportedly first walked into Hagia Sophia in the company of Tursun Bey, who saw and recorded the awe and wonder inspired in him by the interior. Transformation of the Christian Byzantine church into an Islamic Ottoman mosque required only the removal of the paraphernalia of Christian ritual – crosses and bells – and their replacement with the furniture of Muslim worship – a prayer niche, a pulpit and minarets. Later Mehmed also added a theological college to the complex. The Sultan’s banners carried at the siege were displayed to commemorate his great victory, while prayer carpets supposedly belonging to the Prophet Muhammad redefined the religious character of the church.13 The nineteenth-century chronicler Ahmed Lutfi Efendi states that Mehmed ordered the preservation of the representations of ‘angel’s faces’ in Hagia Sophia,14 and research has demonstrated that such sacred mosaics as the Pantocrator on the main dome remained on view until the reign of Sultan Ahmed I in the early seventeenth century, when they were painted over during a period of intolerance towards figural representation. Other figural mosaics not visible from the central prayer space remained uncovered until the early eighteenth century.15 The Ottomans did not even change the name of the building, but merely Turkicized it to ‘Ayasofya’.

Standing outside Ayasofya, atop a column, was a colossal statue of Emperor Justinian on horseback with a golden orb in his hand, set up in 543 CE.16 Byzantines regarded the statue as a talisman whose destruction would presage the end of Byzantium. Like many travellers – including Johann Schiltberger, who spent three months in Constantinople in 1426 on his journey home after many years in captivity in the east – the Ottomans saw the orb as a representation of the ‘Red Apple’17 and within three years of the Conquest the statue was removed, a symbolic act against any return of the defeated imperial power. Living in Istanbul in the mid-1540s the French humanist Pierre Gilles saw what remained of the statue within the precincts of Topkapı Palace: ‘Among the fragments were the Leg of Justinian, which exceeded my Height, and his Nose, which was over nine Inches long. I dared not measure the Horses’ Legs as they lay on the Ground but privately measured one of the Hoofs and found it to be nine Inches in Height.’18

Mehmed’s re-creation of Byzantine Constantinople as Ottoman Istanbul did not require the destruction of all traces of former times, however. Rather, he sought to imbue the past with new meaning by converting Byzantine buildings, both sacred and secular, to new functions. Hagia Sophia was one of six churches converted into mosques after the Conquest.19 This preservation of much that was redolent of the infidel past of the city demanded justification, however, and Mehmed subsequently commissioned a mythic history of the emperors – Solomon, Constantine and Justinian – who had built and rebuilt the city. In this text, or texts – for there were numerous versions, written at different dates – the Islamic present was viewed as having been ordained through the prophetic tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and reinforced through the ‘discovery’ by Sheikh Akşemseddin of the tomb of Ayyub Ansari, a companion of the Prophet who had taken part in and died during an unsuccessful Arab siege of Constantinople in 668 CE. This miracle gave Sultan Mehmed’s conquest the religious legitimacy he sought.20

Mehmed stamped his mark on the fabric of the city with major building projects appropriate to the Islamic way of life. Great importance was attached, for example, to the construction of a fitting tomb for Ayyub Ansari within the courtyard of a mosque built at the site where his grave was said to have been found, outside the city walls at the head of the Golden Horn in the quarter called, in its Turkicized version, Eyüp.*21 In 1457–8 the fortress of Yedikule (‘Seven Towers’) was built at the entrance into the city known to the Byzantines as the Porta Aurea, the ‘Golden Gate’, where the land-walls run down to the Sea of Marmara. This was the gate through which the Via Egnatia, the road from Rome, capital of the Western Roman Empire, had entered Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. At first Yedikule housed errant Ottoman dignitaries, and from the late sixteenth century became infamous as the prison of foreign envoys.22 Mehmed also ordered a palace to be built in the centre of the city on the site of the Byzantine Forum Tauri, where Bayezid Square and Istanbul University stand today. Like Yedikule, the palace was completed in 1458. The construction of the nucleus of the rambling complex today known as the Covered (or Grand) Bazaar began in 1460–61; part of the rent from its shops paid for the upkeep of Ayasofya.23

Orders for the building of two further structures signalled that Istanbul was to replace Edirne as the Ottoman imperial capital and at the same time expressed Sultan Mehmed’s claims as inheritor of an imperial tradition and as the pre-eminent Muslim ruler. On the prominent site of the ancient Byzantine acropolis in 1459 was laid the first stone of a splendid palace to supersede that recently completed in the Forum Tauri; the latter now became known as the ‘Old Palace’.24 In 1463 the foundation stone of a monumental mosque complex bearing the Sultan’s name was laid.

Topkapı Palace, or the ‘New Palace’, as the Ottomans also called it until the nineteenth century, is surrounded by a high wall and comprises three large courtyards, each with its own monumental gate, and outer gardens in which are several free-standing pavilions. The first two courtyards were for the public ceremonies and rituals of the court, while beyond the third gate was a private zone reserved for the sultan and his household. The plan of the palace resembles that of an Ottoman military encampment, with the sultan’s inner sanctum at the core of a multiplicity of other structures arranged according to institutional function and hierarchy. This layout, very different from contemporary western palaces, expressed through architecture the sultan’s separation from his subjects. Despite various rebuilding programmes over the centuries, the palace complex preserves essentially the same form today.25

His palace provided Sultan Mehmed with seclusion. Here he cultivated an aura of mystery and power, which regulations issued towards the end of his reign were designed to enhance. The new rules ensured that sultans would thereafter be less visible to their people than Mehmed’s forebears, appearing in public – even before their courtiers – on fewer occasions.26 These rules constituted a manual for court protocol, stipulating hierarchy and precedence among the sultan’s statesmen and officials, the titles by which they should be addressed, the order in which they would kiss the sultan’s hand on religious festivals. There was no provision for the sultan to appear in public: he was to be hidden behind a curtain from the gaze of his statesmen when they met, four times a week, to present petitions to him.27 For the next century, sultans appeared before their court only on two annual religious holidays.28

Sultan Mehmed embellished his new buildings in a variety of styles which reflected his subsequent conquests. The two-storey Tiled pavilion was built in the palace grounds to commemorate a successful outcome to a campaign in eastern Anatolia following the death in 1464 of the Karamanid ruler İbrahim Bey, and in particular the advantage gained by the Ottomans over the Akkoyunlu ruler, Uzun (‘Tall’) Hasan. Craftsmen from Karaman who settled in Istanbul after the campaign were responsible for its decoration, and its splendour inspired many florid poems.*29

Mehmed’s mosque complex was built on a hilltop site in the quarter to the west of the Golden Horn known as Fatih (‘the Conqueror’) in his honour. The Church of the Holy Apostles, the burial site of generations of Byzantine emperors, was demolished to make way for it. The mosque was situated in a courtyard on the north and south sides of which were ranged eight theological colleges, the four in the north named for the Black Sea, those in the south for the Mediterranean, in Turkish Ak Deniz (‘White Sea’). There were also a hospice, a dervish lodge and a caravansaray, and Mehmed built a market, a bath-house and many shops whose rents would provide for the upkeep of these institutions and contribute financial support to their charitable functions. Intended to rival Ayasofya, the main dome of the mosque at the heart of Mehmed’s complex was likewise supported by half-domes which raised it high above the prayer hall beneath. As fate would have it, the architect of Mehmed’s mosque was over-ambitious in his attempts to surpass Ayasofya, for the building proved to be poorly-constructed, and legend maintains that he was executed.30 This mosque complex was completed in 1470 and became the prototype for such complexes of the Ottoman ‘classical age’ in the following century.*

Mehmed set about repeopling Constantinople. People of all religions were attracted by favourable taxation and the opportunities for a better life promised by the revitalized metropolis. When tax and other inducements proved inadequate attractions the Ottomans had no qualms about uprooting and resettling their subjects if it suited their economic or political aims, and on no occasion was resettlement used to greater effect than in post-Conquest Istanbul. Whole communities – Muslims, Jews, and Armenian, Greek and Latin Christians – were forcibly brought to the city over the succeeding years. In keeping with the pattern of Ottoman conquest thus far, Muslim deportees came exclusively from west and central Anatolia, and from Thrace, while Christians and Jews came from across Anatolia and the Balkans; the Latin Christians were a discrete group, transported from the former Genoese colony of Caffa in the Crimea when it was annexed in 1475.31 Former Greek residents of Byzantine Constantinople were offered houses and land to encourage them to return.32 The number of Muslims in the city was increased by deporting Muslims from other parts of the state rather than by converting existing Christians or Jews. At upwards of 75,000 souls by the end of Mehmed’s reign,33 the population of Constantinople was half as large again as it had been when the devastated city became his in 1453.

From 1459, Sultan Mehmed adopted a highly effective way of altering the physical appearance of Istanbul so that observers would at once be aware that they were in an Islamic city. In addition to the obvious new landmarks such as his own mosque and palace and the minarets with which he embellished Ayasofya, he ordered his statesmen to found new neighbourhoods, each to be built around a mosque complex which would provide Muslim immigrants to the city with the infrastructure to order their new lives. Besides a mosque these complexes, like his own, included a variety of other structures – perhaps a school, a theological college, a public kitchen, a bath-house, a caravansaray or a mausoleum for the founder – a mix of charitable institutions and the commercial institutions necessary to provide revenue for their upkeep.34 Examples are those founded by Mahmud Pasha Angelović (a former Byzanto-Serbian noble, who was twice appointed grand vezir), which lies just outside the Covered Bazaar on the slope that falls away to the Golden Horn, and by Mehmed’s favourite Has Murad Pasha, a convert of the Palaeologan dynasty, in Aksaray, near where Istanbul University stands today. The practice of establishing new neighbourhoods in this way continued apace in the reign of Mehmed’s son and successor Bayezid II, and beyond.35 New immigrants to Istanbul often gave to their new urban neighbourhood the name of the area from which they came. The quarter near Mehmed II’s mosque where arrivals from Karaman settled is still called Karaman Pazarı; the neighbourhood of Aksaray recalls the area of central Anatolia whence settlers came following Ottoman annexation of the Karamanid emirate.

Two days after Constantinople fell, the Genoese colony of Galata across the Golden Horn from Istanbul surrendered, hoping to preserve the independence it had enjoyed in Byzantine times and which Mehmed had guaranteed. But Mehmed changed his mind once the city was his, and although the colony was granted certain privileges its people, like other non-Muslim subjects of the Ottomans (as of other Islamic states), became subject to a poll-tax. In justification of his change of policy Mehmed reminded the Galatans that some among their number had fought on the side of the Byzantine defenders during the siege of Constantinople.36 He also ordered the Galata Tower to be reduced in height by seven and a half metres to make it less visible a sign of alien presence.37

The city’s Byzantine name, rendered in Turkish as Kostantiniyye, continued to be used alongside the newer ‘Istanbul’.* Istanbul was punningly rendered as ‘Islambol’, ‘abounding with Islam’, and also called Âsitâne-i Saâdet, the ‘Threshold of Felicity’, or Dersaâdet, the ‘Abode of Felicity’, among other names. Istanbul was only adopted as the city’s official name in 1930 and the transition immortalized in the song:

Istanbul was Constantinople

Now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople

Been a long time gone

Old Constantinople still has Turkish delight

On a moonlight night

Ev’ry gal in Constantinople

Is a Miss-stanbul, not Constantinople

So if you’ve a date in Constantinople

She’ll be waiting in Istanbul


Even old New York was once New Amsterdam

Why they changed it, I can’t say

(People just liked it better that way)

Take me back to Constantinople

No, you can’t go back to Constantinople

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

Why did Constantinople get the works?

That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’


The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans was a matter of horror for the Christian West, which feared an ever more aggressive policy of conquest. The Pope made attempts to raise crusading armies to recover the city for Christendom.39 Although, as before, they never resulted in a united front against the Ottomans, they were always a consideration in Sultan Mehmed’s policy-making. His success had serious repercussions for the maritime economies of the West. Ottoman control of the Bosporus drove a wedge through the strategic and trading zone comprised by the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas and opened up vast resources to the Ottomans. Like Constantinople before it, Mehmed’s new imperial capital needed food and materials to support the flourishing and vital community he envisaged: much of what was needed came from the Black Sea basin.

For the Genoese and Venetian colonies whose economies relied on the Black Sea trade for their survival, the outlook was bleak. The very year after the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed sent a fleet of 56 ships to ‘show the flag’ in the Black Sea. Failing to take the Genoese fortress of Bilhorod-Dnistrovs’kyy (Cetatea Alba) at the mouth of the Dniester, the Ottoman ships continued to the Crimea where with the support of Hacı Giray, Tatar khan of the Crimea, they harassed the Genoese outpost of Caffa; by dint of agreeing to pay an annual tribute, it was able to retain a measure of independence, at least for a while.40 Having lost control of a major trade route along which grain, in particular, travelled from the Black Sea basin to feed their city-state, the Venetians were fortunate to have concluded a treaty with Mehmed in the same year. Under its terms they were permitted to trade in Istanbul against payment of customs duty, and also to maintain a colony there.41

The joint Ottoman–Tatar action against the Genoese was a harbinger of their future close, if often difficult relationship. The Tatar Giray dynasty which ruled Crimea until its conquest by the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century had emerged in the fifteenth century by asserting its independence from its overlords, the Tatars of the ‘Golden Horde’ who controlled the western part of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan, and came to occupy a special place in Ottoman history. The Giray traced their genealogy to Genghis Khan and could thus claim the sort of political legitimacy to which the Ottomans could only aspire: Tatar superiority in the pecking-order of Central Asian dynasties gave them a unique prestige among Muslim states and caused the Ottomans not a little concern.42

During the first decade after the Conquest, Sultan Mehmed focused his attention almost exclusively on the Balkans. His first major campaign after 1453 was against Serbia, the buffer between Ottoman and Hungarian territory and the route by which Hungarian influence could penetrate the Balkans and Hungarian armies threaten his north-western frontier. The conquest of Serbia and its full incorporation into Mehmed’s empire took five years. Although the Ottomans captured and briefly held a couple of Serbian fortresses in the Morava valley in 1454, they failed to take Smederevo, the important stronghold guarding the Danubian route east of Belgrade. The objective of the following year’s campaign was very different: the Ottoman army moved through the south of Serbia to capture the silver-mining district of Novo Brdo, providing themselves with an essential resource in short supply elsewhere in their territory. In 1456 Mehmed commanded the siege of Belgrade, the fortress whose strategic position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers made it the key to Hungary: that he failed to take it in a combined land and amphibious operation owed more to its impregnable and strongly-fortified site than to the numerous but motley crusader army which came to its relief. It remained in Hungarian hands until 1522.

John Hunyadi died of plague soon after the siege of Belgrade, but his spirited defence of the castle earned him a legendary place in Hungarian history. A period of turmoil in Hungarian domestic affairs followed his death; his son Matthias Corvinus eventually succeeded to the throne in 1458. George BrankoviÇ of Serbia had died in December 1456; his son Lazar soon followed him, leaving no male descendant and a power vacuum which invited Hungarian incursion. Serbia had first become an Ottoman vassal state after the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, but while its rulers adopted a cautious policy towards their masters, for many Orthodox notables Ottoman rule was preferable to that of Catholic Hungary.

The leader of the pro-Ottoman faction in Serbia was Michael Angelović, brother of Mehmed’s recently-appointed grand vezir, Mahmud Pasha. These brothers belonged to a minor branch of the Serbian despotate; Mahmud Pasha had probably entered Ottoman service very young following his capture by the Ottomans during the reign of Sultan Mehmed’s father, Murad II, in 1427. It is likely that Michael Angelović, who became joint regent of Serbia following Lazar’s death, invited Ottoman intervention in Serbia to thwart Hungarian designs, for by spring 1458 Mahmud Pasha was on his way to the fortress of Smederevo. In the meantime, however, the pro-Hungarian faction in Smederevo revolted, and Michael was captured by Lazar’s wife Helen (one of his co-regents), imprisoned and sent to Hungary. The defenders of Smederevo refused to surrender and Mahmud Pasha attacked the fortress, capturing the city but not the citadel; he also made a number of other strategic conquests along the Danube. The threat of a Hungarian advance caused Mahmud Pasha to join the Sultan at Skopje in Macedonia whither Mehmed had retired after his Peloponnese campaign earlier in the year, and they checked a Hungarian attack with the help of Mehmed’s exhausted troops.43 In 1459 representatives of the pro-Ottoman faction in Smederovo handed the keys of the citadel to Mehmed who ordered its occupation. Thus Serbia finally became an integral part of the Ottoman domains.44

The failure of the Ottoman vassal state of Wallachia to send the annual tribute to Istanbul, and subsequent provocative actions of the voyvode Vlad Drakul, ‘the Impaler’, prompted Mehmed to send Mahmud Pasha across the Danube ahead of him to restore order in 1462. A successful campaign followed and Vlad’s more co-operative brother Radul, who had been held hostage in Istanbul as guarantee of Vlad’s good behaviour, was confirmed as voyvode in his place. Vlad himself fled to Hungary.45

Security from Hungarian incursions could be guaranteed only through full Ottoman control of the Danube–Sava river line which all but bisects the Balkans from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic in the west. North-west of Serbia and south of the Sava lay Bosnia, an Ottoman vassal state whose king, Stephen Tomašević, had also refused to send tribute to the Sultan. In 1463 Stephen petitioned for and was granted a fifteen-year truce but almost immediately the Ottoman army set off for Bosnia, entering the country from the south. Stephen fled but Mahmud Pasha caught up with him at Ključ, where he surrendered on the promise that he could go unharmed. Like Serbia, Bosnia became an Ottoman province – although it had to be defended against Hungarian attack the following year – and Mahmud Pasha next seized neighbouring Herzegovina.46 The bad faith which had allowed the Ottomans to attack Bosnia despite a truce was again evident when Sultan Mehmed ordered Stephen of Bosnia to be executed; but his captured half-brother Sigismund converted to Islam and, as Kraloğlu (‘Son of the King’) İshak Bey, became a companion of the Sultan.47 The son of the lord of Herzegovina also converted to Islam, and as Hersekzade (‘Son of the Prince’) Ahmed Pasha served as grand vezir under both Mehmed’s son and heir Bayezid II (whose daughter he married) and his grandson Selim I.48

In 1455 the Ottomans had seized Genoese colonies in the Aegean: Old and New Phokaia (Foça) on the Anatolian coast north of İzmir, which controlled rich alum mines whose product was essential to the European cloth trade for its dyeing processes, and Enos (Enez), at the mouth of the Maritsa in Thrace, which derived its revenues from the salt trade. In the same year Athens was captured from its Florentine lord by the marcher-lord Ömer Bey, son of Turahan Pasha. Venetian Naxos and the Genoese islands of Lesbos and Chios agreed to pay tribute to the Sultan in 1458. Following the conquest of Serbia in 1459 Sultan Mehmed returned to Istanbul and then travelled overland to reduce the Genoese colony of Amastris (Amasra) on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia with the aid of a naval force sent from Istanbul. In 1462 Lesbos capitulated to an Ottoman siege while Mehmed was fortifying the Dardanelles to improve the security of Istanbul. He built a pair of fortresses here, at Çanakkale, formerly known as Sultanhisar (‘Royal Castle’), on the Anatolian shore, and at Kilitülbahr (‘Lock of the Sea’) opposite it on the Rumelian shore. With the southern approaches to Istanbul now firmly in Ottoman hands, the city was protected from naval attack.

Even after the loss of Constantinople, a few fragments of the Byzantine Empire survived. These anachronistic entities included the Comnene kingdom of Trebizond which became an Ottoman vassal in 1456, and the despotate of the Morea which was ruled jointly by Thomas and Demetrius Palaeologus, who were rarely able to work together in support of a common cause. Long Ottoman vassals, for three years the Despots failed to pay tribute before Sultan Mehmed’s army invaded in 1458. Last-minute payment of this levy failed to divert Mehmed from his purpose, and he marched south. Corinth, on the isthmus, capitulated after a three-month siege, and Ottoman administration was extended to most of the Peloponnese. Despot Thomas tried half-heartedly to recover some of his former possessions but became embroiled in a war with his brother. In 1460 Mehmed himself again led an army which by the end of the year had brought all the Peloponnese, with the exception of the few remaining Venetian colonies, under Ottoman control. Contemporary Greek sources report that Demetrius’ daughter Helen entered the female quarters of the Sultan’s inner household, his harem, as had Tamar, daughter of George Sphrantzes, a chronicler of Mehmed’s reign.49

Trebizond was the maritime outlet for the trade of Tabriz, capital of Uzun Hasan, the dynamic leader of the Akkoyunlu tribal confederation who was married to a Comnene princess. Ottoman efforts to subdue the Muslim emirates of Anatolia would come to seem insignificant by comparison with the struggle to control eastern Anatolia which was now beginning. Uzun Hasan considered Trebizond to be within his sphere of influence and late in 1460 he sent his nephew as envoy to Sultan Mehmed, cautioning him that he considered the kingdom his own prize, and warning the Sultan not to attempt to dispossess the Comnene dynasty. Mehmed ignored the warning and, supported by the armies of his Muslim vassals the İsfendiyaroğulları of Kastamonu and the Karamanids, the next year moved east with the object of annexing this last remaining Byzantine enclave in Anatolia (which small as it was called itself an empire). Uzun Hasan sent troops to hinder his progress, but little was achieved on either side in this first confrontation between these two ambitious rulers.

The Comnene lands were cut off from the Anatolian hinterland by high, inhospitable mountains. A janissary who served with the Ottoman army on the Trebizond campaign recalled the difficulties of the march – the distance, the hostility of the local population to the Ottoman advance in a region where the steep, forested terrain favoured the nimble rather than the heavily-armed soldier, hunger, and the incessant rain which turned the route to mud. He related how a camel laden with gold coins fell on the pass down to the city, scattering the treasure everywhere: Sultan Mehmed gave the order for anyone who could to pick up the gold pieces and keep them. But this was insufficient incentive:

. . . before we came down from that mountain we had plenty of trouble: the earth was as sticky as porridge and the Janissaries had to carry the Emperor [i.e. the Sultan] in their arms all the way to the plain and the treasure camels remained in the mountains. Emperor Mehmed begged the Janissaries to make an effort to get the camels down to the plain and we had to go back up the mountain with great effort and struggle all night before we got them down to the plain. The Emperor stayed there that day resting and gave the Janissaries 50,000 gold pieces to divide among themselves and he raised the wages of the Janissary centurions.50

Trebizond surrendered after a six-week siege by Ottoman land and sea forces. In Islamic law, those who surrender in a military engagement should be allowed to go free; initially, therefore, the Emperor and his family were spared, and held in Edirne – but (except for his daughter Anna who entered Mehmed’s harem)51 were executed two years later. Blame for the Ottomans’ easy victory was laid by some at the door of the Trebizond treasurer, George Amirutzes, who negotiated the surrender of the enclave with the Ottoman grand vezir Mahmud Pasha, who was his cousin.52Amirutzes continued his career at the Ottoman court like a number of other learned Greeks and members of the Byzantine aristocracy. He became philosopher-royal and amanuensis to the Sultan; his major contribution was to combine into a whole the scattered charts of the classical Greek geographer Ptolemy, whose work was adopted as one of the bases of Islamic and, later, Ottoman and Renaissance cartography.53 With the removal of the Comnene dynasty from Trebizond, Mehmed completed the reunification under Ottoman rule of all but a few pockets of the territory which had been ruled by Byzantium from Constantinople until the time of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Annexation of the Venetian maritime colonies remained an Ottoman objective, for although Venice was unable to pose a direct strategic threat to the Ottomans after their capture of Constantinople, it retained a nuisance value because of its strong navy. The Ottoman–Venetian relationship had always been dogged by mutual suspicion, but full-scale war had usually been avoided. Commercial considerations and the knowledge that the other crusading powers would doubtless leave it isolated made Venice reluctant to provoke the Ottomans, until their conquest of Bosnia in 1463 endangered Venetian possessions on the Adriatic. Other Venetian colonies – principally Corfu, Methoni, Euboea and Naxos – became vulnerable as the Ottomans attacked Venetian territory around Nafpaktos (Lepanto), a vital base for naval operations in the Adriatic. Emboldened by the hope that it might find an ally in Hungary, whose security was equally threatened by the loss of Bosnia, Venice declared war on the Sultan in July 1463.

In the early stages of the war much of the Peloponnese again came under Venetian control. In the autumn of 1463 King Matthias of Hungary invaded Bosnia and the next year his troops defeated an army commanded by Mehmed who retired on hearing that the King was again moving south across the river Sava. The Pope and the Duke of Burgundy made a three-year commitment to an anti-Ottoman crusade (albeit this venture was short-lived: by the end of 1464 it, like so many other alliances in crusading history, had crumbled in discord).54 Though the Venetians failed to recapture the north Aegean island of Lesbos from the Ottomans in the same year, it was seen merely as a setback, and Venice was not inclined to accept the peace overtures of Grand Vezir Mahmud Pasha.55

Venice remained a problem, and not only in the Peloponnese. Between Ottoman Macedonia and the Venetian strongholds of the Adriatic coast lay the fragmented buffer of Scanderbeg’s mountainous Albania. On various occasions since re-embracing Christianity and renouncing his Ottoman allegiance by rebelling against Murad II, Scanderbeg had sought Latin patronage in his bid to remain independent of the encroaching Ottomans. Naples had been his protector since 1451 but on the death of King Alfonso in 1458 he again acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty. The outbreak of the Venetian–Ottoman war in 1463 gave him another chance to break free of the Ottomans and he offered his services to Venice. After a couple of years of localized warfare, Mehmed launched a full-scale campaign against Scanderbeg and in the summer of 1466, in only 25 days, the Ottomans built the great fortress of Elbasan where the main route linking the Ottoman Balkans with the Adriatic coast, the former Via Egnatia, reaches the coastal plain. Scanderbeg’s stronghold of Krujé lay isolated to the north, no longer able to make overland contact with Venetian forces on the coast. During the winter Scanderbeg sought material help in Italy, and in the following year attacked the Ottoman besiegers of Krujé. This prompted a second campaign by Mehmed which resulted in all Albania – bar a few Venetian outposts – coming under Ottoman rule. Scanderbeg himself, for so long the leader of Albanian resistance to the Ottomans, fled to Venetian territory where he died in 1468. Although the exercise of Ottoman authority in this inhospitable region was tenuous, Hungary and Venice were no longer able to exploit the volatility of the lesser Albanian lords to their advantage.56

Although Mehmed II is thought of by western historians primarily as the architect of the Ottoman push into Europe, he spent much of his reign defending his eastern frontier. Uzun Hasan’s caution to Mehmed over Trebizond in 1460 proved the precursor to a more aggressive policy, for he soon sent an envoy to Venice to propose co-operation in Venice’s war against the Ottomans. The strongest card in his suit was his promise to repeat Tamerlane’s success in breaking up the Ottoman domains: Venice agreed that he should keep whatever territory he could win in Anatolia.

By the mid-fifteenth century the long and acrimonious relationship between the Ottoman and Karamanid states had reached an impasse. The death in 1464 of Mehmed’s vassal İbrahim Bey of Karaman left Karaman open to the competing claims of the Ottomans and the Akkoyunlu. Uzun Hasan seized the chance to regain the initiative against the Ottomans by intervening in Karaman on behalf of İbrahim’s eldest son İshak and delivering the state to him. Both Uzun Hasan and İshak accepted Mamluk protection hoping for an ally against Mehmed’s inevitable response, which was not long delayed: with Ottoman support, another of İbrahim’s sons, Pir Ahmed, drove İshak to seek refuge with Uzun Hasan. The death of İshak soon afterwards deprived Uzun Hasan of his pretext for intervention in Karaman and temporarily halted his plans to emulate Tamerlane.57

Soon, however, while the cream of the Ottoman army was engaged on the western fringes of the empire, Uzun Hasan, on the eastern frontier, was adding huge swathes of territory to that he had acquired through his annexation of the lands of the rival Karakoyunlu tribal confederation in 1467. Over the next two years he established his rule over Azerbaijan, Iraq, Fars and Kirman and beyond, into the Timurid homelands further east, which radically altered the balance of power in eastern Anatolia, and made Uzun Hasan a vastly more formidable rival than when he had been merely a tribal chief.58

In 1468 Uzun Hasan sent an embassy to the new Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay to assure himself of Mamluk protection against the Ottomans.59 Two contemporary writers, the Venetian historian Domenico Malipiero and the Ottoman Tursun Bey, report independently that Sultan Mehmed planned to march into Mamluk Syria in 1468.60 However, when his vassal Pir Ahmed of Karaman failed to provide the obligatory assistance in this campaign, Mehmed directed his army against Karaman instead. It is not clear what prompted Pir Ahmed to make such a wrong-headed decision, because the forces of Karaman were no match for Mehmed, who succeeded in bringing most Karamanid territory north of the Taurus mountain range under his control. Uzun Hasan was preoccupied with his own imperial designs in the east and could not intervene to help Pir Ahmed.

From 1469, once he had despatched the Timurid ruler Abu Sa‘id, Uzun Hasan was lord of the most extensive territories in the region and successor to the Karakoyunlu and Timurid states. With domains comprising most of modern Iran and Iraq and much of eastern Anatolia, Uzun Hasan was master of an empire to rival that of Sultan Mehmed and in June of that year he stated his claims to be the sole legitimate Islamic sovereign in a proclamation to Qa’it Bay.61 This was a challenge both to the Mamluks, as guardians of the Holy Places of Islam in Mecca and Medina to which all Muslims were required to make pilgrimage, and to Sultan Mehmed’s aspirations to leadership of the Islamic world. Even after his conquest of Constantinople Mehmed had been content to leave matters relating to the pilgrimage to the Mamluks, seeing his own duty as temporal, that of extending the Islamic lands.62

Uzun Hasan’s psychological warfare intensified. He competed with Mehmed at the spiritual as well as the temporal level, referring in a letter to the Sultan of 1471 to his recent conquest Shiraz, in southern Iran, as ‘the throne of the caliphate’.63 This claim did not greatly exercise Mehmed, for the office of caliph had long fallen into abeyance, but Uzun Hasan’s evocation of the spectre of Tamerlane was more alarming. One of Uzun Hasan’s commanders wrote to the Ottoman governor of Sivas drawing a comparison between the Akkoyunlu leader and Tamerlane – he found Uzun Hasan superior on fourteen counts, which included the full range of attributes desirable to support a ruler’s claims to legitimacy in this part of the world. Uzun Hasan made his concerns topical, by criticizing the administrative policies of the Ottomans, such as the collection from Muslim tribesmen of the poll-tax – which was only supposed to be paid by non-Muslims – and the forced sedentarization of the tribes to make them part of the settled peasantry, which was an important aspect of the Ottoman policy of subduing eastern Anatolia.64 Uzun Hasan’s claims to ancient Turkish lineage were a determined response to Ottoman emphasis on their own Central Asian origins in histories written at this time.65

When Sultan Mehmed sent an army against what remained of Karaman in 1471, Pir Ahmed fled to Uzun Hasan, but Pir Ahmed’s Turcoman allies failed to defend the Taurus passes against the Ottomans, and an Ottoman fleet annexed a Karamanid client enclave around the port of Alanya in south-west Anatolia. The next year the Ottomans captured Karamanid strongholds to the east of Silifke on the southern coast of Anatolia but, to the west, their own port of Antalya, ‘the greatest and most famous seaport in Asia’ according to Malipiero,66 was burnt in retaliation by a Christian fleet newly allied with Uzun Hasan. The Ottoman port of İzmir on the west coast of Anatolia was burnt by a Venetian fleet that also torched Gelibolu in an audacious strike that breached the Dardanelles fortifications so recently constructed by Mehmed to protect Istanbul.

In July 1472 Uzun Hasan again announced his intention to intervene to save what remained of Karaman from the Ottomans, demanding that Mehmed withdraw and also that he hand over Trebizond. Like Tamerlane’s court, Uzun Hasan’s gave refuge to dispossessed Anatolian princes who there planned the reconquest of their former territories under the eye of a powerful patron: at this time Pir Ahmed of Karaman was one such and Uzun Hasan’s nephew, son of the dispossessed ruler of Sinop on the north Anatolian coast, another. By the time Mehmed left Istanbul, he had learned that an army under the command of another of Uzun Hasan’s nephews, Yusuf Mirza, was approaching the former Ottoman capital of Bursa, having made substantial territorial gains in its progress across Anatolia. Superior Ottoman strength forced a retreat, Yusuf Mirza was captured, and Pir Ahmed of Karaman, who was with him, fled.

An incursion by Uzun Hasan across the Euphrates into the northern Mamluk lands late in 1472 briefly served to unite Mamluks and Ottomans against him. The immediate provocation for this campaign may have been related to a conflict which arose over whether the palanquin of the Mamluks from Cairo, or that of Uzun Hasan (as possessor of the former seat of the caliphate, Baghdad), should take precedence in the ceremonies relating to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. As a result of this campaign Uzun Hasan temporarily gained control of the Taurus passes to the Mediterranean where his seaborne Venetian allies were active.67 Uzun Hasan’s aggressive posturing gave Sultan Mehmed good reason to fear the Venetian–Akkoyunlu pact, but his invitation to Venice and Hungary to send envoys to Istanbul to discuss peace may have been a feint to isolate Uzun Hasan from his European allies.

Uzun Hasan’s incursion into Mamluk Syria in 1472 led Sultan Mehmed to think the time ripe for a full-scale campaign against the Akkoyunlu leader. On 4 August 1473 the two armies met on the Euphrates east of Erzincan in an inconclusive encounter which caused the Ottomans great loss. A week later, on 11 August, they met again at Baskent, in the mountains to the north; Uzun Hasan fled at the sight of an Ottoman army well-supplied, unlike his own, with cannon and hand-guns, and his forces were routed.68 For a quarter of a century Ottoman familiarity with the weapons of the gunpowder age gave them the advantage over their eastern rivals.

Uzun Hasan lost little territory by his defeat, as Sultan Mehmed did not follow up his victory. For the Ottomans, the determined resistance of foes who were opposed to the extension of their rule in this direction was compounded by the logistical challenge of conducting military operations in the inhospitable terrain of their eastern frontiers. Aware of the problems of holding their gains here, Ottoman commanders often pulled back to more defensible borders. Uzun Hasan’s defeat at the hands of a ruler who, like him, claimed divine inspiration had the significant effect of undermining his prestige and his claims, and Mehmed’s reputation was correspondingly enhanced. As was customary after a victory, letters announcing his success to the princes of the Islamic world were despatched. Weapons in the propaganda war, these letters appropriated to Mehmed the hyperbolic epithets formerly applied to Uzun Hasan when his power seemed to be in the ascendant. Internal rebellion was a more immediate and practical consequence of Uzun Hasan’s defeat.69

Uzun Hasan’s removal from the scene gave the Ottomans the opportunity to annex the ever-troublesome state of Karaman once and for all and in 1474 the commander Gedik (‘Fortress-builder’)70 Ahmed Pasha was sent with an army to conquer the Karamanid heartland in the Taurus mountains and to take the fortresses captured by the Karamanids with the help of their crusading allies. Ottoman administrative policy sought to reduce tribal chiefs to the status of provincial cavalrymen and to encourage their followers to settle in villages and towns, but the tribal population of Karaman – particularly the Turgudlu and Varsak Turcomans – proved especially reluctant to accept the new order. Hard to pacify, they held out in their mountain fastnesses beyond the turn of the century, evading Ottoman inspectors sent as and when local conditions permitted to assess the taxable resources of the new province.

Sultan Mehmed gave the development of his navy a high priority. From earliest times the Ottomans and the other Anatolian emirates had used the seas as a line of defence. The Ottomans had built dockyards when they first gained a coastline on the Sea of Marmara in the mid-fourteenth century; once they had crossed into Thrace, the need to defend themselves against the Venetians in particular gave naval matters a new urgency. A large dockyard at Gelibolu in the 1390s71 was augmented by the dockyards built in the emirates of the Anatolian Aegean coast once these were annexed by the Ottomans. Yet although the Ottoman navy gradually began to enjoy successes against the Venetians and Genoese in coastal waters, and could carry out raiding expeditions over longer distances, it was no match for the warships of these two trading powers in close battle in the open seas. After he took Constantinople Sultan Mehmed established a large dockyard in the Golden Horn, using the fleet of war vessels built there to gain control of the Black Sea basin, and also to carry his ambition further afield across the Mediterranean. The new balance of power coming into being demanded versatility, and Mehmed had to meet the challenge of projecting Ottoman might over ever-greater distances at sea as well as on land.

In 1475 an armada under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pasha, now grand vezir, sailed to the Crimea and annexed Caffa and other lesser Genoese possessions as well as the Venetian port at Tana. Following the establishment of a presence in the Crimea, a smaller Ottoman fleet sailed for the north-eastern Black Sea and captured the fortresses of Kuba, near the outlet of the Sea of Azov, and Anapa, on the coast to the east of the Crimea, from their Latin lords.72 The southern littoral of the Crimean peninsula was thereafter an Ottoman sub-province which probably also included Tana (now Azov), Kuba and Anapa. In 1478, on resolution of a twelve-year succession struggle among the sons of Hacı Giray Khan, the remainder of the Crimean lands accepted Ottoman overlordship with Mengli Giray as khan.73

The annexation of territory by the Ottoman Empire was not infrequently occasioned by infighting among claimants to the throne of a vassal state, as had happened when the rivalry among the heirs of İbrahim Bey of Karaman after his death in 1464 precipitated direct Ottoman intervention and hastened the end of Karamanid independence; disputes in hitherto independent states could also present the Ottomans, as the strongest power in the region, with the opportunity to intervene and impose vassaldom. The Tatars were set apart from other Ottoman vassals by their descent from Genghis Khan; this was signified by the fact that where other vassals paid tribute to the sultan, the Tatar khan received an annual stipend and other emoluments in recognition of his unique status.74 The Tatars had much to contribute: their horsemen were admired for their speed and agility, and played a vital role in Ottoman campaigning armies in both east and west.

Following their conquest of Constantinople and hold on the Straits the Ottomans were the strongest power in the Black Sea basin. It seems that they understood that attempting to conquer and hold the boundless, arid steppelands to the north of the Black Sea would be out of the question, and in the succeeding years they efficiently took over the Latin trading colonies situated at strategic points around its coasts to give them control of the commerce passing through them. After Crimea became an Ottoman client, Ottoman influence in the affairs of the northern Black Sea region and the ability to manipulate them to its own advantage increased.75

As Sultan Mehmed gradually achieved his strategic aims in the west, Ottoman territory increasingly formed a compact block, with only a few isolated fortresses remaining in enemy hands. Although Mehmed’s attempts to reduce Nafpaktos failed, Krujé and Shkodër in northern Albania surrendered to the Ottomans in 1478 and 1479 respectively, the latter despite determined resistance from its Venetian garrison. Attacks on Venice – intended to forestall any Venetian military operations on the Ottoman north-west frontier – increasingly took the form of devastating raids which, in the mid-1470s, penetrated deep into Friuli towards the city itself. Uzun Hasan’s death in 1478 contributed to Venice’s decision to sue for the peace which was concluded in 1479. In the final stage of hostilities the Ionian islands of Cephalonia, Santa Maura and Zante, in possession of the Tocco family, clients of the king of Naples, were seized by the Ottomans. Following the peace with Venice, Ottoman raiding took a new and aggressive direction, into Transylvania and what is today southern Austria. These raids were conducted by the irregular light cavalry known as akıncı, who were rewarded with the lion’s share of the booty they captured. A vital part of the Ottoman military, they numbered some 50,000 men, both Muslim and Christian, during Mehmed’s reign.76

Most daring of all, however, were the major naval operations undertaken against the Knights Hospitallers of St John on the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean and the kingdom of Naples at Otranto on the Italian mainland during the summer of 1480. Rhodes was the most dangerous of the remaining Latin outposts in the Ottoman southern seas, and an anachronism in Ottoman eyes; moreover, it had aided Venice in the recent war. Apart from the nuisance value of its piracy, the strategic location of the island on the sea route from Istanbul to Egypt gave Mehmed reason enough to wish to conquer it. The Ottomans now felt as confident at sea as their Mediterranean neighbours, and the reduction of Rhodes was seen as an essential preliminary to naval operations against Egypt and Syria in support of the land invasion of Mamluk territory which the Sultan was said by Tursun Bey to have been planning.77 But the siege, a combined naval and land operation, and a severe test of Sultan Mehmed’s navy, ended in failure. The Knights had long anticipated a siege and had reinforced the defences of the island accordingly. The Ottoman fleet was commanded by a Byzantine renegade, Mesih Pasha. He reached the harbour of Marmaris, on the Anatolian mainland opposite Rhodes, on 23 May and ferried the army of 60,000 men – who had marched overland from Istanbul – to the island, where they camped overlooking the town. After two failed assaults the Ottoman cannon and mortars bombarded the town and miners dug trenches. The defenders still resisted and rejected Mesih Pasha’s offer of peace. A further Ottoman assault on 28 July failed, and the besiegers retreated with great loss of life. By mid-August two ships sent to the aid of the Knights by King Ferrante of Naples reached the island with the news that the Pope had promised to send help. This caused Mesih Pasha to embark his troops and sail back to Istanbul.

At the very time that Ferrante’s two ships were sailing to assist the Knights, an Ottoman fleet under Gedik Ahmed Pasha was setting out from the southern Adriatic port of Vlorë (Valona) to attack his territory. The fortress of Otranto, only a day’s sail away, fell within two weeks. The arrival of Ottoman troops on Italian soil induced frantic diplomatic activity among the Italian states, who seemed inclined for once to forget their rivalries and unite in their common defence.78 Whether this attack on the south Italian mainland was a first step towards the fulfilment of an ambition to capture the seat of the popes at Rome remains a matter of speculation, since Mehmed had died before his intentions became clear. Among the titles Sultan Mehmed claimed for himself was that of ‘Roman Caesar’, signifying his aspiration to succeed to the mantle of the Byzantine Empire at the height of its greatness under Constantine and Justinian; whether it was also intended to communicate that he had designs on Rome itself is disputed. After Constantinople, the capture of Rome represented the ultimate prize. If Rome was Mehmed’s goal, it is surprising that it was not mentioned by Aşıkpaşazade, a chronicler decidedly in favour of holy wars, and was referred to only in passing by other chronicles written in the fifteenth century.79 At the very least, Mehmed did not attempt to secure his foothold on the Italian peninsula as he might have been expected to do if he indeed had designs on Rome: the next year he headed east, not west.

In the last days of April 1481, Sultan Mehmed crossed the Bosporus to the army mustering-ground at Üsküdar, ready to lead his army through Anatolia. On 3 May, only one stage further on, at a spot near Maltepe known as ‘Sultan’s Meadow’, he died, aged 49, possibly from complications associated with his gout.80 Although he had a history of ill-health his death was unexpected, and he had not designated a successor. His thoughts on the subject were contained in the law-code he had promulgated a few years earlier, in which he gave formal sanction to the practice of fratricide, stating that it was appropriate for whichever of his sons became sultan to do away with the others ‘for the sake of the good order of the world’.81

Sultan Mehmed’s middle son, Mustafa, had been his favourite, but Mustafa had fallen ill and died in 1474 while governing the newly-conquered province of Karaman from his seat at Konya. Two sons survived: Bayezid, who was prince-governor at Amasya, and Cem, who had succeeded Mustafa in Konya.

In his thirty years in power Sultan Mehmed had fought eighteen campaigns in person. The Ottoman Empire which he created was an extensive mass of land and sea which sat at the hub of the great trading networks of the time. Moribund and depopulated, Byzantine Constantinople had been remade as the flourishing capital of territories that included the Balkan peninsula as far as the Adriatic in the west, the Danube–Sava line in the north, and most of Anatolia. The Black Sea coast marked a relatively safe frontier beyond which there were at this time no states capable of threatening Ottoman power. Rivals still threatened to east and west, but within the limits of Mehmed’s state a pax ottomanica brought a measure of internal security which was disturbed only by localized brigand activity on land and corsairs at sea.

Control of the ports of the Black Sea brought control over the trade of the vast steppe hinterland extending as far afield as Poland, Lithuania, Muscovy and Iran which, formerly so important to the wealth of Genoa and Venice in particular, now contributed to Ottoman prosperity. Silk came from the northern provinces of Iran to Bursa, the main Ottoman emporium, and from there, most of it went on to the Italian states, either as raw silk or as Bursa silk cloth. Another luxury the Italians imported was mohair from the Angora goat, while with the money they made from the sale of their silk, Iranian merchants bought woollen cloth exported from Europe. Spices from India and Arabia were in transit westwards or for use by the Ottomans.82 A study of the customs registers of Feodosiya in the Crimea shortly after Sultan Mehmed’s death – when, with the seizure from Moldavia of the Danubian port of Kiliya and the Dniestrian port of Bilhorod in 1484 and the acceptance of vassalage by the Voyvode, the Black Sea became in effect an ‘Ottoman lake’ – shows the range of goods being traded: cotton and cotton goods, silk goods, woollens, grain and fruit and forest products, raw minerals and worked metals, skins and hides, spices and sugar and honey, dyes and alum.83

Once in possession of an imperial capital, the Ottomans developed the court ceremonial to go with it. Muscovy, mainly trading through Feodosiya, exported luxury furs such as sable, ermine, black fox and lynx which became a vital component of the Ottoman royal image, used for trimming the splendid robes worn at court and presented by the sultan to high dignitaries as a mark of his favour.84 Falconry was as much the sport of sultans as of kings, and these birds also were brought south from the steppes to the Ottoman court. The trade in slaves flourished too: the previously sporadic forays of the Crimean Tatars became more regular as they raided northwards into southern Poland and Lithuania in particular, to satisfy the demands of the Ottoman slave market at significant financial profit to themselves – one authority puts at 18,000 the number of captives seized by the Tatars in Poland in their first major raid in 1468, for instance, and in subsequent years the total could be many thousands more.85 As the first power to establish an amicable relationship with the people of the steppes, the Ottomans effectively prevented their northern neighbours from entering the Black Sea for years to come and their imposition of stability in the region allowed them to concentrate their attention on other frontiers.86

Control of the commercial networks of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea allowed Mehmed to impose customs duties for the benefit of his exchequer. Strategically-deployed agents and middlemen taxed goods in transit through the Ottoman territories as well as those destined for internal consumption. Like his predecessors, Mehmed granted the trading privileges known as ‘capitulations’ to foreign merchants; the main beneficiaries at this time were the various Italian states. Such privileges were apt to be interrupted during times of war, and in view of the rivalry between them, favour shown to one or other of these states could be a useful weapon in the hands of the sultan.87 Foreign merchants reckoned the customs dues imposed under the capitulatory regime a small price to pay for access to the raw materials available throughout the extensive territory under Ottoman authority. The Ottomans favoured a notional ‘command economy’, in which their foremost responsibilities were to maximize the wealth in the treasury and prevent shortages in the market-place – especially in Istanbul. Although this principle could only ever be partially implemented, the subordination of economic to political and social priorities which it implies serves to emphasize the different vision of their western trading partners, who seized any opportunity to increase economic activity and profits. These two economic views complemented each other to the ultimate disadvantage of the Ottomans who could not envision that the western states’ eagerness to enter into capitulatory agreements with them would, in later centuries, work to the detriment of their own economic – and political – well-being.

The Ottoman economy was overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture and continued to be so into the twentieth century: even today, 40 per cent of the population of the Turkish Republic is rural. It was only partly monetarized; the value of goods delivered to or services performed for the state and its agents was not easily quantifiable in monetary terms. Some idea of the sources of treasury revenue during Mehmed’s reign is given by the contemporary historian Laonicus Chalcocondylas, who considered that the Ottoman treasury derived the greatest proportion of its income from the poll-tax levied on non-Muslims: the policy of allowing subject populations to retain their pre-conquest faith thus brought considerable financial benefit, and this in turn discouraged Muslim proselytizing. Further elements contributing to the balance sheet, he said, were taxes on livestock and agricultural produce, and on trade and mines. Tribute paid by Ottoman vassal states also entered the treasury, as well as monies from the sale of slaves – Islamic law gave the ruler a right to one-fifth of the booty captured in any war against infidels. A final item of income, reported Chalcocondylas, was represented by the ‘gifts’ made to the sultan by military and other state officials as he set out on campaign every spring: this revenue was again paid out directly to support the sultan’s elite troops and his court and government officials.88

Military campaigning and the establishment of direct rule in newly-conquered territories were heavy charges on the treasury and the cost of maintaining the state grew as the Ottoman realm expanded and administration become more complex. Even before Sultan Mehmed’s reign the standing army of elite troops comprised the infantry janissaries and six regiments of cavalrymen. A contemporary source informs us that at the time of his victory over Uzun Hasan at Başkent in 1473, the janissaries numbered 12,000 and the sultan’s cavalry 7,500.89 These troops were paid salaries every three months, as were the corps of cannoneers and armourers and the transport corps. By contrast, the provincial cavalrymen, who are usually referred to in English as timariots, were awarded the right to collect peasant taxes, each from a precisely-defined amount of land or fief (timar), in exchange for which they were obliged to appear on campaign with their men.

The establishment of Ottoman administration across the empire took different forms at different times and in different places. Rather than imposing a clean break with the past, the Ottomans tended to preserve pre-existing arrangements. The model widely applied in newly-conquered areas relied on a survey of their land and resources. These assets, which theoretically remained the property of the sultan, were parcelled out to be enjoyed by various of his subjects. Peasants had the use of farmlands, and were taxed on their produce to support the provincial cavalry or charitable foundations. Land, or more properly the tax revenues deriving from it, could also be held as freehold: such outright grants were often made for dervish lodges in the early years and increasingly, as time went by, to high officers of state and favoured individuals who often converted these gifts into charitable foundations.90

Sultan Mehmed confiscated much freehold land, and land which supported charitable foundations, so that it could be awarded as benefices to the provincial cavalry whose manpower was so vital for his frequent military campaigns.91 In the Balkans the dispossession in favour of provincial cavalrymen of marcher-lords who had won territory by force of arms, or of those such as dervishes who had been awarded the use of state lands, was highly unpopular. The reform had less radical effects in some areas of Anatolia where it simply meant that the status of the local, pre-existing, Muslim aristocracy was altered to that of provincial cavalrymen who retained their traditional revenues from the land;92 it was reversed under Mehmed’s successor, Bayezid II.

The rebuilding of Mehmed’s new capital and supplying it with goods and services was a heavy burden on the finances at his disposal. His search for ready cash led him to debase the coinage on six occasions, but there is no record of further protests by the janissaries like those which greeted his first debasement during his brief occupation of the throne at the time of his father’s abdication in 1444–6.93

In its heyday the governing class of the Ottoman Empire was largely composed of men who had entered Ottoman service through the youth-levy imposed upon the sultan’s Christian subjects. Initially confined to the Balkans, by the end of the fifteenth century the youth-levy had been extended to Anatolia. Certain areas – Istanbul and Bursa, for example – were not liable. Albanian, Bosnian, Greek, Bulgar, Serbian and Croatian boys were preferred; Jews and boys of Turkish, Kurdish, Persian, Ruthenian (roughly, Ukrainian), Muscovite or Georgian stock were exempted, while Armenians were taken only for service in the palace, not in the armed forces.94 At first used to connote the clan of Osman and its followers, the term ‘Osmanlı’ or ‘Ottoman’ came to signify a member of the ruling class, one of the ‘sultan’s servants’, schooled to serve the state in war and peace. Peasants and provincials of whatever faith were subjects of this state and known as re’aya, from the Arabic word for ‘flock’.

Although Sultan Bayezid I is credited with institutionalizing the youth-levy as a means of recruiting manpower for the army and the bureaucracy, new evidence suggests that the practice may have originated earlier, during the reign of his father Murad I, when it was applied not by the Sultan but by the marcher-lord Gazi Evrenos Bey in Macedonian territory conquered by his frontier forces in the 1380s.95 Once adopted by the sultans, the success of this method of building up a professional, salaried army with strong ties of allegiance to them and the dynasty came, however, at the expense of those who had formerly been in the vanguard of conquest, the Muslim marcher-lords of Rumeli, like Gazi Evrenos himself, and their raiding troops. The term ‘new force’ that was used to denote the infantry of the standing army indicated the radical transformation that was under way. Over time the Ottoman governing class altered in character with the predominance of those who were Christian-born and non-Turkish in origin.

Nevertheless, Muslim marcher-lords continued to play a leading role in the conquests of the Ottoman state up to and including the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, especially in the Balkans. North-west of Thessalonica, at the heart of their domains in southern Macedonia and western Thrace, lay the seat of the Evrenosoğulları in the town of Giannitsa. Although Gazi Evrenos’ sons supported the ‘False’ Mustafa during the struggle to succeed Bayezid I, they were pardoned by the ultimate victor, Sultan Mehmed I, and Gazi Evrenos’ grandsons played crucial command roles in many campaigns.96 In Thessaly, where Turahan Bey founded the town of Larisa, the Turahanoğulları were the architects of the Ottoman conquest. Turahan Bey, his son Ömer Bey and his grandson Hasan Bey left a rich legacy of charitable foundations in Thessaly, some sixty buildings including nineteen mosques, twelve dervish lodges, eight bath-houses and three public kitchens.97 In Thrace lay the estates of another prominent dynasty of the early years of the Ottoman state, the Mihaloğulları. The names of scions of this dynasty occur often in the records of the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans; like the sons of Gazi Evrenos, one of the sons of the founder Köse Mihal chose to support a loser in the succession struggle of the early fifteenth century, in his case Prince Musa.98 Although members of these and the other warrior families to whom the Ottoman dynasty owed its success continued to hold provincial office in the Balkans and enjoy the privilege of dispensing heritable fiefdoms to their followers,99 as the system based on the youth-levy expanded, they saw their former prestige diminish.

Another group whose influence also waned during Sultan Mehmed’s reign was the Anatolian Turkish religious scholar-aristocracy of which the Çandarlı family were the leading representatives. For a century from the reign of Sultan Orhan, the Çandarlı had acted as confidants to the Ottoman sultans. Kara Halil Hayreddin Çandarlı served as grand vezir to Murad I, and two of his sons also held this post. In 1443, the grand vezir appointed by Murad II was Kara Halil’s grandson Halil Pasha. Çandarlı Halil was kept on by Mehmed II as grand vezir after Murad’s death, but his attempts to dissuade Mehmed from besieging Constantinople hastened his end: he was said by Muslim and Christian writers alike to have been in league with the defenders of the city,100 and was executed soon after its capture. His untimely death can now be seen as symbolic of the diminishing role which the old Turkish families were to play in the future of the Ottoman state. Of Mehmed’s seven grand vezirs, one was a Turkish-born Muslim, two were Christian-born converts raised by the youth-levy, two were Christian-born scions of the Byzantine or Byzanto-Serbian nobility, and the last was also Christian-born but of unknown origin.101

A footnote to the career of Çandarlı Halil Pasha is the curious episode of the pretender ‘Bayezid Osman’.102 In June 1456 Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, received a report concerning a young boy supposedly brother to Sultan Mehmed and said to have been entrusted by Murad II to a Latin knight, one Giovanni Torcello. The boy had come into the hands of agents of Pope Calixtus III, and reached Venice in the spring of 1456. From Venice he was taken to the Apennine fortress of Spoleto. In a work appearing in 1458, Çandarlı Halil Pasha was credited with a role in sending the boy to Italy. The truth or otherwise of this assertion remains unknowable, but the subsequent adventures of ‘Bayezid Osman’ are not without interest. The European rulers into whose hands he fell seem to have made little effort to press the boy’s putative claims to the Ottoman throne. ‘Bayezid Osman’ remained in Spoleto until 1459, when he was taken along by Pope Pius II on his progress through Italy which culminated in the Congress of Mantua, at which a crusade against the Ottomans was proclaimed. In 1464 the Pope again paraded his charge in public; he had the boy, now sixteen, bid farewell to the fleet setting off from Ancona against the Ottomans, a scene commemorated in a fresco in the cycle of Pius II in the Duomo of Siena. The next year ‘Bayezid Osman’ was in Venice, and he later turned up at the court of King Matthias Corvinus in Buda. By 1473 he was at the Viennese court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III who, it seems, loved to dress in the Ottoman style, and toured ‘Bayezid Osman’ around his domains in his retinue. In 1474 ‘Bayezid Osman’ married an Austrian noblewoman, and subsequently disappeared from history’s view. It was a tribute to the prestige of the Ottoman dynasty that, like the vanished Byzantine emperors, Catholic monarchs embraced the role of protectors and manipulators of pretenders to the sultanate.


The empire Sultan Mehmed II set out to create was very different from the state his predecessors had won with such effort when the Ottoman dynasty was little more than first among its equals – the other Muslim Turkish dynasties of Anatolia. The practice of recruiting Christian converts into the Ottoman governing class came to be seen as more appropriate to his new and ambitious vision of the future direction of the imperial state. The power enjoyed by the grand vezir as the sultan’s executive officer increased – although the sultan could wield the ultimate sanction of dismissal or execution. The status of the religious establishment was also enhanced under Mehmed II. The extensive area accorded in his mosque complex to theological colleges, and their situation on either side of the mosque – as though to encompass it – can be seen as symbolic of the prominence he intended the religious establishment to enjoy. By the same token, the physical distancing of the dervish lodge from the mosque – where formerly space had been provided within one building for dervish rituals alongside those of orthodox Islam – can be interpreted as a diminution of their place at the heart of religious practice.103 Mehmed restricted the activities of those dervishes opposed to the increasingly centralized direction in which the state was moving; those prepared to support him enjoyed relatively greater acceptability.

From the time of Sultan Mehmed II the janissaries and other units of the standing army became the main tool for protecting and expanding the Ottoman domains. At their head was the sultan, although his active role as foremost of the ‘warriors for the faith’ was increasingly tempered by his desire to establish a centralized bureaucratic state. Inspired by Çandarlı Halil Pasha’s manipulation of the janissaries in Edirne when his father Murad II was still alive, Mehmed strove to exert his authority over them, but was never able to bend them completely to his will. On his accession in 1451 he found it necessary to give in to their demands for a bonus to mark the event, a practice apparently begun by Bayezid I but from now on expected.104 Problems arose again when the janissaries mutinied in 1455 during the winter campaign to take the port of Enez, at the mouth of the Maritsa, from the Genoese, and again at the time of the unsuccessful siege of Belgrade in the following year.105 Mehmed’s successors were no more fortunate and the dire consequences of failing to keep the janissaries in check were apparent on many occasions in the course of the Ottoman centuries.

During his last years, Sultan Mehmed undertook a programme of legislative consolidation and centralization. The architect was Karamani Mehmed Pasha, grand vezir from, probably, 1476 until Mehmed’s death – the exact dates of appointment and dismissal of Mehmed’s grand vezirs are disputed – who enjoyed a distinguished career in the administration of the empire. Like the Çandarlı, he came from an aristocratic Turkish background, a descendant of the mystic Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order of dervishes.106 Two law-codes are known from Mehmed’s reign: the first contains penal clauses as well as regulations to do with the taxation of the subject population; the second is concerned with the forms of government and the relationship between its parts. Allusions in the codes to ‘the ancient law’ or ‘the ancient custom’ make it clear that they largely dealt with the formalizing of regulations which were already current. It is a matter of scholarly debate, however, which parts of the extant versions of these law-codes do in fact date from Mehmed’s time and which clauses were inserted in later reigns by way of updating. Mehmed was the first sultan to promulgate laws applicable to areas of state life – such as public administration – which were not catered for in religious law; although neither of his codes refers to the religious law, and although their legality depended directly on the will of the sultan, their provisions do not contradict those of religious law.107 Reviewing Sultan Mehmed’s policies, the polemical, pro-dervish chronicler Aşıkpaşazade, who wrote between 1476 and 1502, held Karamani Mehmed responsible for the downturn in the fortunes of the dervishes and marcher-lords through his programme of returning state revenues to government control.108

Another development during the reign of Mehmed II was that a new pattern of alliances emerged, whereby the holders of the highest offices of government were tied to the Ottoman dynasty through marriage – this pattern continued to the end of the empire. As the states into whose ruling families the Ottoman dynasty had formerly intermarried with a view to commanding allegiance in a world of shifting loyalties became absorbed into the Ottoman domains – Byzantium, Serbia and Karaman, for instance – so there came about a dearth of suitable marriage partners for the sultans and members of their families. Following the execution of Mehmed’s first grand vezir, Çandarlı Halil Pasha, the office seems to have been held by Zaganos Mehmed Pasha, Mehmed’s mentor and confidant since childhood, who had been certain that Constantinople would fall to his master. He was a Christian convert whose daughter was married to Mehmed.109 Zaganos Mehmed Pasha was succeeded as grand vezir by the former Serbian prisoner-of-war Mahmud Pasha Angelović, who was married to another of the Sultan’s daughters. Appointed in recognition of his prowess at the failed siege of Belgrade in 1456, he held the office until 1468, when he fell victim to the intrigues of a rival, Rum Mehmed Pasha, who may have been captured at the conquest of Constantinople. A talented military commander, Mahmud Pasha accompanied Sultan Mehmed on many of his most successful campaigns.110 Writing around the turn of the century the chronicler Mehmed Neşri said of him that it was as if the Sultan had abdicated in favour of his grand vezir.111 The pretext for Mahmud Pasha’s dismissal from the grand vezirate appears to have been that he was selective in carrying out the deportation of the Karamanid population to Istanbul after the campaign of 1468, allowing the rich to remain behind. He also seems to have been overly well-disposed to the insubordinate Karamanid prince Pir Ahmed.112 Rum Mehmed is chiefly remembered through the hostile eyes of Aşıkpaşazade, whose family was adversely affected by the introduction of taxes on properties in Istanbul which Sultan Mehmed, in the first flush of conquest and with the aim of revitalizing the city, had ordered should be exempt. In questioning Rum Mehmed Pasha’s motives, Aşıkpaşazade resorted to the slur that he was acting as a Byzantine agent. Some of these taxes were cancelled once Mehmed’s son Bayezid came to the throne in yet another change of policy.113

Mahmud Pasha was reinstated as grand vezir in 1472, but he never again enjoyed the Sultan’s complete trust. After playing a controversial role in the 1473 campaigns against Uzun Hasan and his forces, he was dismissed in favour of an ambitious rival, another talented commander on land and sea, Gedik Ahmed Pasha, also of the Byzantine or Byzanto-Serbian nobility.114 He was appointed to the grand vezirate in Mahmud Pasha’s stead but near-contemporary observers blamed Mahmud Pasha’s final demise on his bad relations with Sultan Mehmed’s son Prince Mustafa. The chroniclers of the time do not note any reason for the enmity between the Prince and the Grand Vezir, nor for Mehmed’s decision in 1474 to execute a man who had been the agent of his designs of conquest over many years. Prince Mustafa, it will be recalled, fell ill and died in 1474; a century later it was suggested that Mahmud Pasha had poisoned the Prince in revenge for the latter’s violation of his harem. A contemporary document which came to light 500 years after the event gives details of a legal dispute over his will between Mahmud Pasha’s daughters of his first marriage and his second wife. The second wife had apparently been divorced by Mahmud Pasha on his return from the campaign against Uzun Hasan in 1474, because he heard that she had impugned his honour by spending a night in the house of Prince Mustafa’s mother when the Prince was in residence: since her husband was away and she went to the Prince’s mother’s house at night, a scandalous interpretation of her behaviour was unavoidable.115 Mahmud Pasha was the injured party, but paid with his life for his failure to keep his wife under control. The life of the highest-ranking statesman in the empire was an uncertain one, even when he was a favourite of the sultan.

Sultan Mehmed’s predecessors had laid the foundation for a state ruled over by an absolute sovereign and administered and protected by a slave caste of ‘sultan’s servants’ who served him undividedly; Mehmed’s grand aspirations and ambitious vision further developed this idea. He saw himself as the legitimate heir to Byzantium and as having realized Islamic traditions that the peerless city of Constantinople would one day be Muslim; and also as the epigone of the heroes of the Classical world. He knew some Greek, and his interest in the ancients must have been widely known in contemporary political circles. It was alluded to in his own time by the Venetian Niccolò Sagundino, a native of Euboea, in his account of the Ottomans. Mehmed, wrote Sagundino, was fascinated by the Spartans, the Athenians, the Romans and the Carthaginians but identified above all with Alexander of Macedonia and Julius Caesar.116 The Byzantine Critoboulos of Imbros (Gökçeada) wrote in the preface to his eulogistic biography that Mehmed’s exploits equalled Alexander’s:

Seeing that you are the author of many great deeds . . . and in the belief that the many great achievements of generals and kings of old, nor merely Persians and Greeks, are not worthy to be compared in glory and bravery and martial valour with yours, I do not think it just that they and their deeds and accomplishments . . . should be celebrated and admired by all . . . while you should have no witness for the future . . . or that the deeds of others . . . should be better known and more famed . . . while your accomplishments . . . [which are] in no way inferior to those of Alexander the Macedonian . . . should not be set forth . . . nor passed on to posterity.117

Mehmed fostered this identification of himself with great warriors of the past. On his way to win Lesbos from the Venetians in 1462 he visited Troy, where he viewed the ruins, noted the advantageous location of the site, enquired about the tombs of the heroes of the siege, Achilles and Ajax and others, and remarked that they had been fortunate indeed to have been extolled by a poet such as Homer.118 Soon after, he had the Iliad and the standard life of Alexander, Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander the Great, copied for his library.119 The historical tradition Sultan Mehmed tried to keep alive and of which he felt himself to be part reached far back into the past, but his eyes were set on a brilliant future for his empire.

* Gennadios was appointed patriarch, spiritual leader of the Orthodox community, after the city fell to Sultan Mehmed.

* Both quotations are from the Koran 7:171.

* Although the Ottomans seem to have adopted gunpowder technology before the end of the fourteenth century – the use of both arquebus and cannon at Bayezid I’s siege of Constantinople is attested – it was not until the mid-fifteenth century, and the conquest of that city by Mehmed II, that cannon rather than blockade reduced a fortress (Ágoston, ‘Ottoman Artillery’ 24–5).

* The neighbourhood is still a place of pilgrimage, but Ayyub Ansari’s mosque and tomb have been much altered over the centuries.

* Today the Tiled pavilion stands divorced from its original context, opposite the nineteenth-century bulk of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and no longer within the gardens of the palace.

* The dome finally collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1766, when a major rebuilding programme was undertaken; the mosque we see today dates from this time.

* Istanbul is seemingly derived from classical Greek eis tin polin (‘to the city’), which was then spoken in colloquial Greek as stin poli, signifying both ‘to the city’ and ‘in the city’ (that is, within the walled city), the latter meaning being the most relevant as indicating the ‘downtown’ area, rather than the suburbs.

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