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OTTOMANS and EMPIRE, to 1500 (3 of 3)

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Constantinople becomes Istanbul

After Timur's victory over the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid in 1402, and Bayezid's death, Bayezid's sons fought among themselves for supremacy. Brother again killed brother, and in 1413 one of the brothers, Mehmed (Mehmed a variation on the name Muhammad), emerged supreme. In 1421 his eighteen-year-old son, Murad II, succeeded him, and, with the Ottomans united again, Murad was able to re-establish Ottoman rule in the territories that had been conquered by his great-grandfather, Murad I.

Fighting for Murad were his slave soldiers the Janissaries. These were men who had been selected when they were young boys, brought up as Muslims and given military training. The Janissaries were devoted to asceticism, celibacy, to behavior that matched Islamic values. They were proud warriors, an effective fighting force with esprit de corps and eager for the glory that goes with military victory.

Meanwhile, most Christians had remained in Asia Minor with the coming of the Turks, and under the Ottomans they lived as free people. Some of them served Ottoman society as professionals of various kinds. Some served in the sultan's government. And in the conquered territories some had converted to Islam in order to serve in Murad's military.

Murad II expanded in the Balkans. He invaded Serbia in 1439. He forced rulers in Bosnia and Herzegovina to pay tribute. Across Christendom people were again alarmed, and another Crusade was called. King Ladislaus I of Hungary put troops in the field against the Turks. Murad fought in Transylvania and was defeated there, giving Christendom new encouragement. Crusaders from all major European countries went to the aide of King Ladislas I of Hungary, and they drove Murad's forces from Naisus and Sophia. Scenting what they believed was victory, more crusaders flooded into Hungary. A Crusader army of around 50,000 crossed the Danube River and was heading southward intent on driving Islam back to Asia Minor. Murad intercepted them at Kosovo in October 1448 and defeated them, securing Ottoman rule south of the Danube River, and the Ottomans regained Walachia (Wallachia) as a vassal state.

Mehmed II and Ottoman Grandeur

Murad II died in early February 1451, after having named his heir, Mehmed II. Mehmed took power around the age of twenty, and many wished to take advantage of what they thought might be the weakness of the new sultan. The Janissaries Corps asked for a raise in pay, and Mehmed showed his toughness by resisting and reorganizing them. Mehmed's tutor advised him to take the offensive against various rulers in Asia Minor, and Mehmed subdued these rulers.

Mehmed II demonstrated his toughness by moving against the troublesome city of Constantinople, beginning a siege that lasted fifty-four days. Disputes between those from the west and the Eastern Orthodox defenders of Constantinople had helped weaken the city. Constantinople had also been weakened economically. It had only a fraction of the population of centuries before. A massive artillery bombardment of Constantinople's triple wall was engineered by mercenaries from the West – a task taking several hundred oxen to move the cannon and about a hundred men working together to load and fire. The cannon that was first used cracked after two days of use. Other cannons were employed, and on May 29, 1453, after 54 days of taking hits, Constantinople's wall broke. Mehmed and his troops entered the city and easily defeated what was left of its defenders. Then Mehmed went to the great cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Hagia Sofia, and ordered it changed to a Mosque.

Despite what had been the gradual demise of Constantinople, its fall came as a shock to much of Europe. It was viewed as the fall of Rome again – around a thousand years after the real Rome had been overrun.

Mehmed having conquered the throne at Constantinople opened the question of just how grand his rule should be. Among the people who Mehmed gathered around him were a few scholars from Italy and Constantinople, and apparently these scholars enjoyed their association with a man of such power, for they encouraged him to claim that he was the rightful successor to rule of the Roman Empire, including the lands that had been a part of Constantinople's empire. They encouraged him to claim world dominion. Mehmed did claim lands to the Euphrates River, and he claimed superiority over all other Islamic rulers, including the Mamluk sultans in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The year after he took Constantinople, Mehmed annexed much of Serbia. The warring between the West and the Ottomans continued, partly on land and partly at sea. Hungarians allied with Serbs defended Belgrade. The Papacy's navy joined in the struggle by entering the Aegean Sea. Mehmed's failure to conquer Belgrade encouraged Pope Calextus II, and the pope believed that Christendom could liberate the Balkans, Palestine and Asia from Islam.

Between 1458 and 1460, Mehmed conquered much of Morea (Greece's Peloponnesian peninsula). In 1463, after Venice refused to give up ports on the Aegean side of Morea, Mehmed and Venice began their second war of the century. Also in 1463, Mehmed took Bosnia – aided by a Christian sect, the Bogomils, who had been mistreated by the Hungarians. The Papacy and Venice inspired Mehmed's enemies in Asia Minor to attack him, and Mehmed responded by expanding in eastern Asia Minor, beginning with conquest in Karaman in 1468. In Serbia and Bosnia, Mehmed defeated the Hungarians and their allies. In 1473, a fleet of ships from Venice, Naples, Rhodes, the Papacy and Cyprus attacked at Adalia, Seleucia, Smyrna and other coastal areas, sacking, burning and taking forts. The war at sea and hostilities between Venice and the Ottomans continued to 1479, with the Ottomans controlling the entrance to the Black Sea and the Ottoman navy attacking Venetian ports on the Dalmatian side of the Adriatic Sea.

The Ottoman Turks defeated Venice. Venice signed an agreement with the Ottomans, and the Ottomans allowed Venice to retain some ports in Dalmatia and Morea in exchange for tribute. The Ottoman Turks had more success: they conquered the Crimea. But they left it as a tributary power under a Mongol named Mengli Ghirai.

In the spring of 1480, Mehmed sent his navy against Rhodes, but the Ottomans were forced to retreat with heavy losses. During the summer of 1480, an Ottoman fleet of 132 ships and 18,000 men took control of Otranto Italy. From Otranto the Ottomans began making raids deeper into Italy. The Pope considered fleeing. But as fresh troops were being organized for a journey to Otranto, Mehmed died – in 1481 at around the age of sixty. The new sultan, Bayazid II, ordered troops home to prepare to meet a challenge from his brother, Jem. And the Italians quickly retook Otranto.

Developments in Constantinople

Meanwhile, Constantinople had been changing. Only around 10,000 had inhabited the city when Mehmed conquered it. Mehmed had endeavored to resettle the city with the followers of Islam and various ethnicities while guaranteeing protection of the lives and property of all the city's inhabitants who recognized his authority and paid him taxes. Between 1453 and 1483 the population of Constantinople increased seven times. It became a city of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. And Jews suffering persecution in Western Europe flocked there and they were welcomed, as were peasants from the Balkans. Intellectuals came – accomplished mathematicians, experts in medicine, historians poets and other artists. And soon Constantinople was again crowded with humanity and a center of learning.


Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, by Franz Babinger, 1978

Worlds at War, Chapter 7, "The Present Terror of the World," by Anthony Pagden, 2008

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Chapter 1, Paul Kennedy, 1987

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.