Mehmed II (March 30, 1432 – May 3, 1481), was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (Rûm until the conquest) for a short time from 1444 to September 1446, and later from February 1451 to 1481. At the age of 21, he conquered Constantinople and brought an end to the Byzantine Empire, absorbing its administrative apparatus into the Ottoman state. Mehmed continued his conquests in Asia, with the Anatolian reunification, and in Europe, as far as Belgrade. Mehmed II is regarded as a national hero in Turkey, and his name has been given to Istanbul’s Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
Mehmed II was born on March 30, 1432, in Edirne, then the capital city of the Ottoman state. His father was Sultan Murad II (1404–51) and his mother Valide Sultan Hüma Hatun, born in Devrekani county of Kastamonu province.
When Mehmed II was eleven years old he was sent to Amasya to govern and thus gain experience, as per the custom of Ottoman rulers before his time. After Murad II made peace with the Karaman Emirate in Anatolia in August 1444, he abdicated the throne to his 12-year-old son Mehmed II. Sultan Murad II had sent him a number of teachers for him to study under.
This Islamic education had a great impact in molding the mindset of Mehmed and reinforcing his Muslim beliefs. He began to praise and promote the application of Sharia law. He was influenced in his practice of Islamic epistemology by contemporaneous practitioners of science – particularly by his mentor, Molla Gürani – and he followed their approach. The influence of Ak Şemseddin in Mehmed’s life became predominant from a young age, especially in the imperative of fulfilling his Islamic duty to overthrow the Byzantine empire by conquering Constantinople.
In his first reign, he defeated the crusade led by János Hunyadi after the Hungarian incursions into his country broke the conditions of the truce Peace of Szeged. Cardinal Julian Cesarini, the representative of the pope, had convinced the king of Hungary that breaking the truce with Muslims was not a betrayal. At this time Mehmed II asked his father Murad II to reclaim the throne, but Murad II refused. Angry at his father, who had long since retired to a contemplative life in southwestern Anatolia, Mehmed II wrote: “If you are the Sultan, come and lead your armies. If I am the Sultan I hereby order you to come and lead my armies.” It was only after receiving this letter that Murad II led the Ottoman army and won the Battle of Varna in 1444.
It is said Murad II’s return to the throne was forced by Çandarlı Halil Paşa, the grand vizier at the time, who was not fond of Mehmed II’s rule, because Mehmed II’s influential teacher had a rivalry with Çandarlı. Çandarlı was later executed by Mehmed II during the siege of Constantinople on the grounds that he had been bribed by or had somehow helped the defenders.
During his early reign, he married a Christian Albanian, Âminā Kul-Bahar Khātûn, the step-mother of his successor and son Bayezid II whose biological mother was Mükrime Hatun.
Conquest of Constantinople
When Mehmed II ascended the throne in 1451 he devoted himself to strengthening the Ottoman Navy, and in the same year made preparations for the taking of Constantinople. In the narrow Bosporus Straits, the fortress Anadoluhisarı had been built by his great-grandfather Bayezid I on the Asiatic side; Mehmed erected an even stronger fortress called Rumelihisarı on the European side, and thus having complete control of the strait. Having completed his fortresses, Mehmet proceeded to levy a toll on ships passing within reach of their cannon. A Venetian vessel refusing signals to stop was sunk with a single shot and all the surviving sailors beheaded.
In 1453 Mehmed commenced the siege of Constantinople with an army between 80,000 to 200,000 troops and a navy of 320 vessels, though the bulk of them were transports and storeships. The city was now surrounded by sea and land; the fleet at the entrance of the Bosphorus was stretched from shore to shore in the form of a crescent, to intercept or repel any assistance from the sea for the besieged.
In early April, the Siege of Constantinople began. After several failed assaults, the city’s walls held off the Turks with great difficulty, even with the use of the new Orban’s bombard, a cannon similar to the Dardanelles Gun. The harbor of the Golden Horn was blocked by a boom chain and defended by twenty-eight warships.
On April 22, Mehmed transported his lighter warships overland, around the Genoese colony of Galata and into the Golden Horn’s northern shore; eighty galleys were transported from the Bosphorus after paving a little over one-mile route with wood. Thus the Byzantines stretched their troops over a longer portion of the walls. A little over a month later, Constantinople fell on May 29 following a fifty-seven day siege. After this conquest, Mehmed moved the Ottoman capital from Adrianople to Constantinople. On his accession as conqueror of Constantinople, aged 21, Mehmed was reputed fluent in several languages, including Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Latin.
Reference is made to the prospective conquest of Constantinople in a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad): “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Ten years after the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed II visited the site of Troy and boasted that he had avenged the Trojans by having conquered the Greeks (Byzantines).
When Mehmed stepped into the ruins of the Boukoleon, known to the Ottomans and Persians as the Palace of the Caesars, probably built over a thousand years before by Theodosius II, he uttered the famous lines of Persian poetry:
The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;
the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.
After the Fall of Constantinople, Mehmed claimed the title of “Caesar” of Rome (Kayser-i Rûm). The claim was not recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, or Christian Europe. Mehmed’s claim rested with the concept that Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire, after the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in 330 AD and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Mehmed also had a blood lineage to the Byzantine Imperial family; his predecessor, Sultan Orhan I had married a Byzantine princess, and Mehmed may have claimed descent from John Tzelepes Komnenos. He was not the only ruler to claim such a title, as there was the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe, whose emperor, Frederick III, traced his titular lineage from Charlemagne who obtained the title of Roman Emperor when he was crowned by Pope Leo III in 800 – although never recognized as such by the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine historian Doukas, stated that after the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II ordered the 14-year old son of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras brought to him “for his pleasure”. When the father refused to deliver his son to such a fate he had them both decapitated on the spot. Another contemporary Greek source, Leonard of Chios, professor of theology and Archbishop of Mytilene, tells the same story in his letter to Pope Nicholas. He describes Mehmed II requesting for the 14 year old handsome youth to be brought “for his pleasure”. This story was originally recorded by Doukas, a Byzantine Greek living in Constantinople at the time of the fall of the city, and does not appear in accounts by other Greeks who witnessed the conquest. Some modern scholars believe that this tale is merely one of a long series of attempts to portray Muslims as morally inferior, and point to the story of Saint Pelagius as its probable inspiration.
Conquests in Asia
The conquest of Constantinople allowed Mehmed II to turn his attention to Anatolia. Mehmed II tried to create a single political entity in Anatolia by capturing Turkish states called Beyliks and the Greek Empire of Trebizond in northeastern Anatolia and allied himself with the Crimean Khanate in the Crimea. Uniting the Anatolian Beyliks was first accomplished by Sultan Bayezid I, more than fifty years earlier than Mehmed II but after the destructive Battle of Ankara back in 1402, the newly formed Anatolian unification was gone. Mehmed II recovered the Ottoman power on other Turkish states. These conquests allowed him to push further into Europe.
Another important political entity which shaped the Eastern policy of Mehmed II was the White Sheep Turcomans. With the leadership of Uzun Hasan, this Turcoman kingdom gained power in the East but because of their strong relations with the Christian powers like Empire of Trebizond and the Republic of Venice and the alliance between Turcomans and Karamanid tribe, Mehmed saw them as a threat to his own power. He led a successful campaign against Uzun Hasan in 1473 which resulted with the decisive victory of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Otlukbeli.
Conquests in Europe
After the Fall of Constantinople, Mehmed would also go on to conquer the Despotate of Morea in the Peloponnese in 1460, and the Empire of Trebizond in northeastern Anatolia in 1461. The last two vestiges of Byzantine rule were thus absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. The conquest of Constantinople bestowed immense glory and prestige on the country.
Mehmed II advanced toward Eastern Europe as far as Belgrade, and attempted to conquer the city from John Hunyadi at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. Hungarian commanders successfully defended the city and Ottomans retreated with heavy losses but at the end, Ottomans occupied nearly all of Serbia.
In 1463, after a dispute over the tribute paid annually by the Bosnian kingdom, Mehmed invaded Bosnia and conquered it very quickly, executing the last Bosnian king Stephen Tomašević and his uncle Radivoj.
In 1462 Mehmed II came into conflict with Prince Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia, who had spent part of his childhood alongside Mehmed. Vlad had ambushed, massacred or captured several Ottoman forces, then announced his impalement of over 23,000 captive Turks. Mehmed II abandoned his siege of Corinth to launch a punitive attack against Vlad in Wallachia but suffered many casualties in a surprise night attack led by Vlad, who was apparently bent on personally killing the Sultan. Confronted by Vlad’s scorched earth policies and demoralizing brutality, Mehmed II withdrew, leaving his ally Radu cel Frumos, Vlad’s brother, with a small force in order to win over local boyars who had been persecuted by Vlad III. Radu eventually managed to take control of Wallachia, which he administered as Bey, on behalf of Mehmet II. Vlad eventually escaped to Hungary, where he was imprisoned on a false accusation of treason against his overlord.
In 1475, the Ottomans suffered a great defeat at the hands of Stephen the Great of Moldavia at the Battle of Vaslui. In 1476, Mehmed won a pyrrhic victory against Stephen at the Battle of Valea Albă. He besieged the capital of Suceava, but could not take it, nor could he take the Castle of Târgu Neamţ. With a plague running in his camp and food and water being very scarce, Mehmed was forced to retreat.
The Albanian resistance in Albania between 1443 and 1468 led by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (İskender Bey), an Albanian noble and a former member of the Ottoman ruling elite, prevented the Ottoman expansion into the Italian peninsula. Skanderbeg had united the Albanian Principalities in a fight against the Empire in the League of Lezhë in 1444. Mehmed II couldn’t subjugate Albania and Skanderbeg while the latter was alive, even though twice (1466 and 1467) he led the Ottoman armies himself against Krujë. After death of Skanderbeg in 1468, Albanians couldn’t find a leader to replace him and Mehmed II eventually conquered Krujë and Albania in 1478. The final act of his Albanian campaigns was the troublesome siege of Shkodra in 1478-9, a siege Mehmed II led personally.
Mehmed II invaded Italy in 1480. The intent of his invasion was to capture Rome and “reunite the Roman Empire”, and, at first, looked like he might be able to do it with the easy capture of Otranto in 1480 but Otranto was retaken by Papal forces in 1481 after the death of Mehmed.
Mehmed II amalgamated the old Byzantine administration into the Ottoman state. He first introduced the word Politics into Arabic “Siyasah” from a book he published and claimed to be the collection of Politics doctrines of the Byzantine Caesars before him. He gathered Italian artists, humanists and Greek scholars at his court, allowed the Byzantine Church to continue functioning, ordered the patriarch to translate Christian doctrine into Turkish, and called Gentile Bellini from Venice to paint his portrait. Mehmed invited Muslim scientists and artists to his court in Constantinople, started a University, built mosques (for example, the Fatih Mosque), waterways, and Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace.
Mehmed II allowed his subjects a considerable degree of religious freedom, provided they were obedient to his rule. After his conquest of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1463 he issued a firman to the Bosnian Franciscans, granting them freedom to move freely within the Empire, offer worship in their churches and monasteries, and to practice their religion free from official and unofficial persecution, insult or disturbance. His standing army was recruited from the Devshirme, a group that took first-born Christian subjects at a young age that were destined for the sultans court. The less able, but physically strong were put into the army or the sultan’s personal guard, the Janissaries.
Within Constantinople, Mehmed established a millet or an autonomous religious community, and appointed the former Patriarch as religious governor of the city. His authority extended only to the Orthodox Christians within the city, and this excluded the Genoese and Venetian settlements in the suburbs, and excluded Muslim and Jewish settlers entirely. This method allowed for an indirect rule of the Christian Byzantines and allowed the occupants to feel relatively autonomous even as Mehmed II began the Turkish remodeling of the city, turning it into the Turkish capital, which it remained until the 1920s.
Mehmed II had several wives: Validā Khātûn Âminā Kul-Bahar Khātûn, a Christian Albanian, who died in 1492, Gevher Khātûn; Gül-Şâh (Kulshah) Khātûn; Mûkrîmā (Sitt-î Mükrime) Khātûn; Çiçek Khātûn; Helenā Khātûn, who died in 1481, daughter of Demetrios Palaiologos and the Despot of Morea; briefly Anna Khātûn, the daughter of the Emperor of Trebizond; and Alexias Khātûn, a Byzantine princess. Another son of his was Cem Sultan, who died in 1495.
Mehmed died on May 3, 1481, at the age of forty-nine. Mehmed’s primary doctor, “Jacob Pasha” an Italian born convert to Islam was suspected of administering poison to Mehmed over a period of time and was executed.
Another source states that: “The likeliest possibility is that Mehmed was also poisoned by his Persian doctor. Despite numerous Venetian assassination attempts over the years, the finger of suspicion points most strongly at his son, Bayezit.”
Mehmed was buried in his Türbe in the cemetery within the Fatih Mosque Complex
After the fall of Constantinople, he founded many universities and colleges in the city, some of which are still active. Mehmed II is also recognized as the first Sultan to codify criminal and constitutional law long before Suleiman the Magnificent and he thus established the classical image of the autocratic Ottoman sultan.
His thirty-one year rule and several wars expanded the Ottoman Empire to include Constantinople, and the Turkish kingdoms and territories of Asia Minor, Bosnia, Kingdom of Serbia, and Albania. His many internal administrative and legal reforms put his country on the path to prosperity and paved the way for subsequent sultans to focus on expansion into new territories.
Mehmed left behind an imposing reputation in both the Islamic and Christian worlds. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was named after him that straddles the Bosporus Straits in Istanbul in the twentieth century. His name and picture appeared on the Turkish 1000 lira note between 1986 to 1992. He is the eponymous subject of Rossini’s 1820 opera Maometto II.