Mehmet II was one of the greatest rulers recorded in history. He was a great leader, statesman, and commander. He was able to accomplish what his predecessors could not. Since the beginning of 14th century, Ottomans had tried several times to conquer Constantinople. However, none of these attempts were successful. Murat II executed the last of these attempts. His son, Mehmet II, claimed the throne on February 18, 1451 and immediately began preparations to capture the city.
Constantinople had strategic importance for both the Ottoman Turks as well as Byzantium. The city served as the last standing trace of western and Christian civilization in the region. The Byzantine included today’s Istanbul as well as a few villages located around the Marmara coast. The Empire was surrounded by the growing state of the Ottomans, who were positioned on all sides of the kingdom, cutting off its contact with Europe.
The Byzantine Empire acted as a barrier by controlling the Bosporus between the west and east sections of the Ottoman Empire, making communication as well as protection more difficult for the Turks. The western part of the empire was constantly under attack by the Europeans. Uprisings and revolts, caused by the Byzantine, were also common around the region. The division weakened the protection of the empire.
Soon after his ascension of the throne, Mehmet II started planning his master strategy which would eventually result in victory for the Turks. Mehmet II ordered the building of fortresses on the European side of the Bosporus in order to control the ships arriving from Europe. These three fortresses were built in 4 months.
After their completion, Mehmet II held a Divan (Council/Parliament) in Adrianople with all the state officials and counsellors including Zaganos and Sehabeddin Pasha. The majority of the officials including Zahanos and Sehabeddin Pasha decided in favour of the war and preparations started soon after. Statesmen from all over the empire were brought to Adrianople for the planning of the war. New and improved cannons were needed to tear down the strong walls of Constantinople. The new cannons, Şâhi, were very large and weighed around 18 tons.
After the preparations, Mehmet II left Adrianople with an army of about 80,000 men on Friday, March 23, 1453. He was accompanied by great scholars such as Aksemseddin, Akbiyik and Molla Gurani. When he reached the walls of the city, he sent Mahmut Pasha as a delegate to Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI of Palegos. The Emperor was offered his life and his treasures in return for the abandonment of the city to the Ottoman Turks. However Constantine XI refused the offer thinking that European help would surely arrive. Seeing that an agreement could not be reached with the Byzantine Emperor, Mahmet II ordered the start of the war on April 6. The war ended on May 29, 1453 with an Ottoman victory.
Directly after the fall of the city, Mehmet II led the first prayer in the Hagias Sophia and ordered the re-modulation of the church as a mosque. He quieted down the crying public with a hand gesture and said to the Pastor of the Hagias Sophia:
“Rise! I am Sultan Mehmet, to you and your friends and to all who have gathered here, I declare that, from today onwards do not be sacred for your life and liberty.”
The first Friday prayer was performed in the Hagia Sophia on June 1, 1453. He showed great tolerance to the Orthodox as well as the Jewish community. He appointed a new Pope for the Armenian Church; he also allowed the same liberty for the Jewish community. He allowed great freedom within the public.
Constantinople carried even greater importance for Sultan Mehmet II. The conquest meant the end of the great Byzantine Empire and the beginning of a powerful Muslim state. The conquest brought the advancement of trade to the empire. With the siege of the Bosporus, the cotton and the spice trades were now controlled by the Turks.
Mehmet the Conqueror had other intentions regarding the occupation of the city. He saw Istanbul as a door to the West. He was astonished by the idea of one universal empire and felt that Istanbul was not only the beginning, but also the center, of his growing empire. He was influenced by the Roman Empire and wanted to replace that ideology with an Islamic Empire that would became the center of the world. The conquest was merely the beginning of his ambitions. His plans were to lead a conquest of Italy, Vienna and possibly Rome to capture the heart of the Roman Catholic Empire.
The conquest shaped the Ottoman Empire and marked the beginning of its rise. The Ottoman Empire became the center of knowledge and education for Islamic studies. The control of the Bosporus provided the Empire with an economic advantage and developed the unity of the western and eastern sections. Istanbul became the capital of the Empire and the advancement towards Europe started.
“The Renaissance would not have been possible without the Ottoman Turks, whose conquest of Constantinople drove scholars of classical Greek to flee westward with their libraries, bringing Plato and Aristotle’s complete works to the Latin West, The Turks, moreover, far more than the Americans, preoccupied Luther and Charles V” (Robin W.Winks and Lee Palmer Wendell, Europe in a Wider World).
The conquest also marked the beginning of European colonization. With Turks gaining control of the spice and cotton trades, Europeans started looking for other paths to Asia and other parts of the world. Europeans did not like the idea of economical dependence on the Ottoman Empire. Europeans for the first time witnessed that large canons were able to tear down strong walls. The new cannons helped to form a centralized government with the end of small feudal states. Europeans also acknowledge the conquest as the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance.
Europeans saw the conquest as the “fall” of the great Christian kingdom. They expressed this event as being one the biggest tragedies in history.