World History 1 267 - 17.1.3 The Ottoman Conquest of the Byzantine Empire

Following the Battle of Ankara in 1402, the sons of Bayezid who had remained free—Mehmed, Suleyman, and Isa—fought among themselves for control of the Ottoman domains. Suleyman held the Ottoman lands in Europe, Isa controlled Anatolia, and Mehmed I ruled Amasya, a region on the Black Sea coast. When Musa was released from Mongol custody, he also joined the fight, and Mustafa later contended for the throne as well.

In 1413, Mehmed emerged victorious in the civil war with his brothers. He and his son and heir Murad II reorganized and expanded the domains of the Ottomans. Members of the cavalry and other highly placed members of the Ottoman administrative and military elite were each granted a timar, the right to collect taxes from merchants, farmers, and artisans in a particular geographical area (Figure 17.10). Timars were awarded regardless of religion or ethnicity, and occasionally elite women were given them as well. At times, conquered local elites were allowed to retain control of their former lands as timariots (holders of a timar). The taxes they collected supported them, so the state did not need to pay them a salary or hire tax collectors.

An image of a figure is shown on a pale orange background inside of a red rectangle. The figure has a full white face with sagging cheeks and a black moustache. He wears a long green shirt dress under a dark brown striped robe with light brown trim and collar. His shoes are golden and his helmet is dark and light brown with a white cloth tied around it. On his back is a red and brown shield with a red strap running across his chest. A sword in a red and brown sheath is hanging across his pelvis while the top of a sword shows at the red belt across his waist. A red quiver with white and black arrows hangs at his left waist. .
Figure 17.10 Administrators and other elites, like this member of the light Ottoman cavalry, were granted timars to reward them for their service and enable them to support themselves. The image is from a mid-seventeenth-century book of miniature drawings of costumes, possibly made in Constantinople. (credit: “Ralamb Sipahi” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The practice of awarding timars to members of the military ensured their loyalty. The land ultimately belonged to the sultan, who would revoke a timar if the holder did not continue in his service. A timar might also be lost if the population of the land declined; this encouraged timariots to treat the people on their holdings well. Timariots also tried to make the lands they controlled more agriculturally productive. The more crops produced, the more taxes they could collect. They were responsible for maintaining order on their lands, but they could not impose punishments without the permission of a judge appointed by the sultan. The timar was nonhereditary; upon the timariot’s death, the sultan awarded the vacant timar to someone else. This prevented the development of an independent hereditary class of timariots.

The main goal of Mehmed I and Murad II was to conquer Constantinople. Muslim rulers since the seventh century had attempted to capture the Byzantine capital and had always failed. Both Mehmed and Murad realized that in order to rebuild the Ottoman state, they had to drive out the Byzantine rulers. The Byzantine emperor Manuel II had assisted Mehmed’s rivals for the Ottoman throne, attempting to keep the Ottomans weak by prolonging the civil war. The Byzantines were also close allies of the Venetians and Genoese, who controlled trade in the Aegean and the Black Seas and whose ships could interfere with Ottoman efforts to control both sides of the Dardanelles.

Murad II laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, but the effort failed because the Ottomans lacked artillery to destroy the city walls. Murad was also distracted from the siege by his need to combat yet another claimant to the Ottoman throne. As they had done before, the Byzantines called upon European Christians for assistance against the Ottomans. The pope called for a new crusade, and the Roman Catholic knights of Europe responded. Murad defeated them in 1444 at the Battle of Varna, in eastern Bulgaria (Figure 17.11). Nevertheless, Constantinople stood firm. The city was only a shadow of what it had once been. At its height, somewhere between 500,000 and one million people had lived within its walls, but the bubonic plague and Ottoman sieges had reduced the number to perhaps fifty thousand. Nevertheless, so long as Constantinople stood on the western shore of the Bosporus controlling access to the Black Sea, the Ottomans could not rest easy in their domains.

A richly colorful image is shown within a mustard colored rim. In the right middle of the image, a figure sits on a gold and orange throne in long pink, brown and black robes with a white and black tall turban on his head. He holds a long sword across his lap. Behind him are tall richly decorated tents anchored with gold ropes amid blue mountains. Behind the figure at his left stand three figures in long blue and red robes with tall gold headdresses covered in red cloths. To the right of the seated figures stand three men in long richly decorated robes and bright white turbans and two soldiers in striped green outfits with matching helmets and orange boots. On the orange triangle patterned floor with pink edges in front of them lies a golden helmet in pieces. In the bottom third of the image is a pale blue floor with black tick marks. At the left forefront stand three soldiers in green and yellow striped tall helmets with a long white feather at the top, gray and gold armor, and orange and blue boots. They look at a figure in front of them on the ground. The figure on the ground wears green and gray striped armor, black boots, and has brown hair and a dark moustache. The head of the figure is separated from its body and red blood is oozing out from both parts. In the right forefront of the image eight people in solid colored robes and gold hats with white cloths on top are standing in a row looking at the beheaded figure. Behind them stand three people in richly decorated robes in rich colors with bright white turbans on their heads, two holding long sticks.
Figure 17.11 According to legend, at the Battle of Varna in which he led Ottoman forces against European Christians, Murad II prayed for victory. When the Polish king Władysław III charged Murad’s troops, the sultan’s guards beheaded him, an event depicted in this Ottoman miniature. (credit: “Murad II and the imaginary beheading of Władysław III of Poland” by Géza Fehér/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

It fell to Murad II’s son Mehmed II (also called Mehmed the Conqueror and Mehmed the Great) to destroy the Byzantine threat. He was better prepared than his father had been. In 1453, he summoned his Muslim and Christian vassals from Anatolia, Thrace, and the Balkans. With the vassals and a core of six thousand elite professional soldiers, he marched to the Bosporus. Ottoman forces included more than one hundred newly constructed ships to prevent Constantinople from receiving reinforcements and supplies via the sea. He also summoned European gunsmiths, the most important of whom was the Hungarian named Urban, to craft bombards, an early form of cannon. One gun was so large that it could fire a twelve-hundred-pound granite ball more than a mile. Constantinople’s defensive walls, which had guarded the city since the fifth century, could not withstand the Ottoman artillery (Figure 17.12).

A picture of a brown bricked wall with darker brown bricks making stripes is shown on the right of the image. In front of the wall is an area filled with dirt at one end and squares of green vegetation at the forefront. At the end of the dirt stands a brick tower with three openings toward the top and notches across the top. To the left of the dirt area is another wall with arched openings on the right side and notches at the top on the left side of the wall. In the far left background a short brown building can be seen with two levels of rectangle windows and a pointed roof. A parking lot filled with cars and another white, red, and blue building can be seen. Beyond the brown building green trees are seen and ten tall gray rectangular buildings stand in the very far background. A clear blue sky shows.
Figure 17.12 The walls that protected Constantinople were massive. On the right is the inner wall, the city’s last defense. In places it was up to six meters thick. On the left is the outer wall. Below this was yet a third wall, and beyond that a moat. (credit: modification of work “Theodosian Walls in Constantinople” by “CrniBombarder!!!”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On the morning of May 29, 1453, after a siege of fifty-seven days, the Ottoman guns breached the walls, and Mehmed’s soldiers rushed into the city. Perhaps twenty thousand people were left to defend it, including the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died fighting for his city. After their Genoese commander was wounded, many defenders abandoned their posts along the walls, leaving them deserted during battle. Constantinople’s residents carried religious icons to the walls and prayed for deliverance. However, they put up little resistance, and the city fell to the Ottomans.

Dueling Voices

The Fall of Constantinople

Following are two accounts by European Christians of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the behavior of Mehmed II, the conquering sultan. The first excerpt is from a letter from the Convent of the Order of Saint John on Rhodes to the military commander of Brandenburg (present-day Germany), a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. The second is an eyewitness account of the event.

After the great Turk had besieged Constantinople by land and sea, on the twenty-ninth of the May just passed he seized the city by force of arms, killed the emperor of Constantinople, cut off the heads of many nobles, gave the entire city over to plunder, and cruelly tortured many. He then obtained the city of Pera, which the Genoese held, without force of arms, made it a tributary, and tore down its walls. This also happened to the walls of Constantinople. . . .

It is believed that he is preparing a new fleet from scratch, since he intends to make all the islands of the Aegean archipelago subject to him or to destroy them if he can. For his heart swells with pride and he boasts that he has equaled or surpassed the deeds of Alexander of Macedon. He also threatens that he will attempt to do what Alexander never did—push into Italy and the regions of the West with his arms and might and see whether fortune shall favor him there as it has throughout the East.

—a letter from the Convent of the Order of Saint John on Rhodes to the Margrave of Brandenburg, June 30, 1453, translated by W.L. North

The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions. . . . This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses. . . .

Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. . . .

When Mehmed (II) saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. “What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!” His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.

—“The Sack of Constantinople, 1453,” EyeWitness to History, 2011

  • In what ways are these accounts similar? How do their depictions of Mehmed II differ?
  • How did the Ottomans create a multiethnic military force? Why would that be useful?

Many Muslim scholars believed the conquest of Constantinople had been predicted in a hadith, an account of the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad. After his capture of the city, Mehmed turned eastward, incorporating the Turkish state of Karaman, the home of the important Islamic religious center of Konya, and other lands ruled by Turkish tribes in eastern Anatolia. In 1461, he sent the Ottoman fleet to conquer Trebizond, an offshoot of the Byzantine Empire and an important trading center on the Black Sea. In Europe, he gained control of most of the southern part of Greece, defeating the Byzantine princes who ruled the area, as well as Bosnia and Albania. He also wrested the Black Sea port of Kaffa from the control of Genoese merchants. At his death, the Ottoman Empire controlled all of Anatolia and nearly all of the Balkans.

Mehmed II, despite being referred to regularly as “the Conqueror” by historians, was a builder more than a destroyer, however. Upon conquering Constantinople, he declared it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, replacing the city of Edirne. He dispatched soldiers to clear away the ruins left from the siege and the Ottoman assault, and he immediately set about appointing a mayor and other important city officials to establish and maintain order. Rather than drive out the city’s European merchants, he allowed them to stay, to retain their property, and to continue to worship in their churches. He demanded only that the Genoese merchants remove the walls that surrounded Galata, the Genoese trading quarter of Constantinople, and surrender their armaments. To protect his new Christian subjects, he forbade his Turkish troops to enslave the Europeans.

Mehmed regarded himself not as a usurper but as the rightful successor to the Byzantines. He declared himself Caesar, the heir to the old Roman imperial throne. He appointed a new leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Gennadius II, who in turn recognized Mehmed’s claim as the legitimate heir of the last Byzantine emperor. The last emperor’s actual heirs, his nephews, were taken into Mehmed’s service and occupied important administrative positions in the empire. One served as Grand Vizier, or chief minister, under Mehmed’s successor Bayezid II.

Mehmed embarked on an ambitious campaign to rebuild Constantinople, now called Istanbul. He built the new Topkapi Palace, where he ruled the empire. The palace also contained his private household, or harem. He ordered that the Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia be left intact and converted into a mosque. He rebuilt the city walls, constructed a weapons foundry, and established a hospital. He also ordered a new mosque, the Fatih Mosque (“Conqueror’s Mosque”), to be built in the city (Figure 17.13). Near the mosque, he erected numerous madrasas in which Muslim scholars taught science, Islamic law, and theology.

A faded beige painting is shown on a water stained background. At the bottom an open space is shown with a row of short houses lining most of the edge and two small boats at one end. Behind the houses stands a tall black bricked wall with notches across the top and four towers dividing the wall. Beyond the wall are several rows of one to two-tiered houses with rows of windows on each level and peaked roofs. Interspersed among the houses are green trees of various heights. Toward the top of the image a brick wall with openings at the top and domed roofs surrounds various sized tall buildings behind it with domes tops and openings on all levels. In the middle a large structure stands with a large gold colored dome at the top as well as smaller domes along a lower level. Two tall spires stand at one end of the building. Faded script writing is seen along the top.
Figure 17.13 In Melchior Lorck’s painting of Istanbul from 1559, the Fatih Mosque rises above the rooftops of the city. The building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1766, and a mosque built according to a different plan was subsequently constructed on the site. (credit: “Fatih Complex” by Melchior Lorichs/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Visit this UNESCO site to learn more about Istanbul and to view pictures of its famous historic sites.

Mehmed had a great thirst for knowledge. He spoke many languages and amassed a library filled with works in Turkish, Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic. He invited Muslim scientists to Istanbul and attended debates of religious scholars. He collected Greek antiquities and brought Greek scholars and Italian artists to Istanbul. Some of these artists, such as the Italians Gentile Bellini and Paolo Veronese, painted portraits of him (Figure 17.14).

A painting of the top half of a man on a dark black background is shown. He wears a gold tinted white turban on his head with a red top, has a long pointy nose, brown beard, pale skin, and wears a red and black robe and brown furry wrap. He is shown behind a gray half wall with dark gray and gold designs across the top front. An orange drape hangs over the middle of the half wall decorated with red lines, jewels, and a sparkly crown ornament in the middle. An arch comes out of the half wall with a black and gold intricately decorated bottom and a gray and gold top, with etchings and gold adornments at the top. Three five point crowns are drawn on the back background on each side of the decorated arch.
Figure 17.14 The meeting of East and West is evident in this portrait of Sultan Mehmed II. Painted in 1480 by the Italian artist Gentile Bellini, it depicts an Eastern ruler in a Western artistic style. (credit: “The Sultan Mehmet II” by Gentile Bellini/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As Mehmed conquered other parts of the Balkans and of Anatolia, including beyliks that had broken free of Ottoman control following Bayezid I’s defeat at the Battle of Ankara, he brought artisans and prisoners of war to Istanbul to rebuild the city. As earlier Ottoman rulers had done, Mehmed allowed Christians and Jews in his lands to worship as they pleased. This arrangement was an early appearance of the Ottoman millet system, in which religious communities were allowed a substantial degree of autonomy and were governed by their own leaders and their own law codes. In addition to naming a head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Mehmed established the position of hakham bashi (“chief rabbi”) to lead the Ottoman Empire’s Jewish community. He also invited the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church to establish a house of worship in Istanbul; because the Eastern Orthodox Church, the religion of the Byzantine rulers, regarded the Armenian church as heretical, it had been banned from the Byzantine capital. And although the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize his right to rule Istanbul, Mehmed allowed Catholic clergy to travel throughout Ottoman lands and worship freely.

Mehmed also moved to exert authority over Islamic clergy in his domains. He made teachers at madrasas employees of the Ottoman state. He issued kanun, laws made by the sultan, as opposed to sharia (religious law) interpreted by Islamic judges, and compiled them in the Kanun-name (“Book of the Law”). Kanun dealt with issues that sharia often did not address, such as taxation or punishment for certain crimes. Mehmed also made use of kanun to centralize his authority and gain unchallenged control over the Ottoman state.

With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the collapse of Timurid authority, the Ottoman state could now assert its authority in both the East and the West, effectively making itself a gatekeeper between the two worlds. Following their defeat of the Byzantine Empire and their capture of Constantinople, the Ottomans gained control of part of the Silk Roads that brought silk, spices, and other luxury goods from East Asia. Besides controlling the overland route, the Ottomans commanded Red Sea ports in Egypt after defeating the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517, which gave them additional control over the spice trade. By the late fifteenth century, Ottoman ships were trading with India, and goods such as Chinese silks and porcelains furnished the homes of the wealthy in Istanbul. The Ottomans also dominated trade on the Black Sea, which until then had been the province of the Venetians and Genoese. The exclusion of Italian merchants from their traditional trade routes, the heavy taxes imposed on goods that traveled overland, many Europeans’ dislike for transacting business with Muslims, and the expense of overland trade led western Europeans to seek all-water oceanic routes to South and East Asia.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax