MOOMTAZ EMRITH
(Windsor, ON, Canada)

The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, was only twenty-two years old when he opted to lay siege to the famous City of “Constantinople”, then capital of the Byzantine Empire and the seat of the Eastern Byzantine Orthodox Church – in other words, the other “Rome” and whose followers were mostly Greeks, Russians and the East European countries. The City of “Constantinople” was so named after Emperor Constantine, who had embraced Christianity — the first Emperor to do so – and, understandably, his whole kingdom followed his example.

Sultan Mehmed II,
The Conqueror
of Constantinople
(today Istanbul) – Portrait done by Gentile Bellini

Constantinople interested the Turks for several reasons. Not only was it then a major trading centre and the capital of the Byzantine Empire with the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its large, imposing cathedral — Hagia Sophia – whose construction dated back to 537 A. D. and was known throughout the continent for its sumptuous architecture and superb bulging dome. Besides it lay just next door to their western border and was in Europe located just at the promontory of the Sea of Marmara and the Strait of Bosporus — occupying a most strategic point where East Asia met Western Europe. Indeed, by the very nature of its location and fame as a trading centre on the famed Silk Route for such prized goods like spices and other refined valuable products like silk, leather-goods, iron, gold etc. from the East African port cities and South East Asian States.
The strategic importance of the City in the geopolitics of the time spoke for itself and it was little wonder that the Ottoman Turks had long had their eye on it. But they also knew that taking the City would never be an easy task. It was ever well- defended. Moreover, the Turks themselves were then busy dealing with various political conflicts and concerns in Anatolia and Eastern Europe and protecting their own ‘Ottoman State.’ Thus, “Constantinople” had to wait … some fifty years before the Ottomans would give the matter any serious thought.

As a matter of fact, Sultan Murad II, who had had a very successful run of his own as Sultan, suddenly decided, in 1444, to abdicate and install his teenage son, Mehmed, on the throne, which he did and then retired to Edirne, the capital of his realm.
Mehmed II would prove himself to be a brave and enterprising king. He quickly settled into his new role as Sultan but soon found himself faced with serious military and political problems with the Pope in Rome, who broke a peace treaty with the Ottomans, King of Hungary and other hostile states, who had decided to take advantage of the boy-sultan by leading a series of ‘crusades’ against the Ottoman territories. The issues proved too much for the young Sultan. So much so, his father, Murad II, decided to temporarily come back from retirement and take control of the realm and meet the challenges of the Christian forces head on and literally routed them in two important battles at Varna and Kosovo. By 1451, Sultan Murad II, felt his mission was done and went back into retirement leaving the business of the State back to his son, Sultan Mehmed II, who by that time began to give serious thought, to the invasion of the City of “Constantinople.” Accordingly, he set his plans in motion to conquer the Byzantine City. He was then aged twenty-two.
Sure, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was aware of the intentions of the neighbouring Ottomans on his City and, accordingly, he had taken strong measures to defend it and to counter-attack, if necessary, any hostile moves against his capital.
Mehmed II, in the meantime, planned his invasion scrupulously. In view of his designs on “Constantinople”, he had a strategic fortress – the Castle of Rumeli — built in the record time of three months. It still stands to-day — five hundred years later – and, at the same time, he concentrated on the construction of both small and tall ships for attacks by sea while getting his military to fabricate large and sophisticated cannons for assault on what were the impregnable walls of the City.

Hagia Sophia, famous Byzantine Cathedral was the seat
of the Byzantine Eastern Church. After the fall of the city
in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II converted the Cathedral
into a mosque and added the four minarets.
To-day Hagia Sophia is a museum. (Photo: Google)

In May, 1453, Mehmed II laid siege to the well-protected City. His demands for surrender were all rejected by the Byzantine Emperor. Mehmed II then ordered attacks on the City. The Turks used their heavy artillery in the onslaught but were forced to pull their ships to higher land in order to by-pass the heavy chain-link the Byzantines had laid at the entrance of the harbor. Mehmed II used his heavy artillery to pound the walls of the City and made serious breaches. The siege lasted fifty-three days after which, overwhelmed by the Ottomans, “Constantinople” surrendered. For three days, the Sultan’s army looted the City after which it was ordered stopped. “Constantinople” had fallen and the year 1453 became a landmark year in history. They had, in fact, taken over the capital and seat of the Byzantine Empire. It was a blow from which the Byzantine Empire never recovered. The victorious Ottomans took hold of the Hagia Sophia – the Cathedral of the Byzantine Eastern Church — and converted it into a mosque. The building still stands. Inside all the religious paintings that decorated the walls and the fabulous cupola of the impressive Dome, were all covered. Hagia Sophia became a mosque – and a beautiful one too! Outside, the four pencil-shaped minarets were added by the Ottomans.

The famous cathedral remains one of the prime landmarks of the City Centre even to-day. The Ottomans changed the name of the City to “ISTANBUL” – a corruption of “Islam-Bol”. Soon after Mehmed II also conquered the two Byzantine territories nearby, thus bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire altogether. He also moved quickly to make “Constantinople” the capital of his Ottoman State, which marked the beginning of what would be the long lasting Ottoman Empire (1399-1923) that would straddle the three continents:Europe, Asia and Africa.

Mehmed II, who was a very pragmatic ruler, invited back to Istanbul the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the citizens who had fled after the conquest and, at the same time, he embarked on a programme of rebuilding. Mehmed II would prove himself to be a strong and visionary leader. He had, sure, accomplished a monumental feat. After his victory, Mehmed II assumed the title of “FATIH” (the Conqueror) – title by which history and the world remember him to-day.
Mehmed II (the Conqueror) would rule the Ottoman Empire till 1481. In fact, after the capture of “Constantinople”, he also conquered territories in Anatolia and the Balkans that would form the core of his expanding Ottoman Empire that would last close to five centuries.

In 1925, when Kemal Ataturk abolished the Islamic Caliphate and established the “Republic of Turkey”, he also moved the capital of the new Republic to Ankara. Also, Ataturk took the unusual step of re-converting Hagia Sophia into a National Museum. All the religious paintings and drawings, which had been ‘covered’, were painstakingly ‘uncovered’. Two of the most illustrious visitors to the Hagia Sophia cathedral in recent years, have been the late Pope Jean-Paul and former President of the U.S.A., Barack Obama.
The fall of Constantinople is looked upon as a monumental event in the annals of Islam, the Middle East and Europe. It marked a turning point in world history. Sultan Mehmed II is justly hailed as a national hero in the Islamic world. As a matter of fact, his exploits at Istanbul marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire – which would be longest ruling Empire in history. Istanbul remains a major link to Europe and makes of Turkey, as we know it, also ‘a part of Europe’, striding as it does, into both Asia and Europe.

The big question arises then: Did not the ‘West’ make any attempt to re-take “Constantinople?” Sure, it did – the more so the Greeks but each time their efforts were frustrated because of changing geopolitics and military circumstances in Europe. Moreover, the fall of “Constantinople” coincided with the religious reformation (Protestant) movement in Europe at the time. That allowed little time to the Christian forces in Europe to concentrate on “Constantinople” or “Istanbul” as it was called by the Ottomans, despite calls from Rome for ‘crusades’ against the Muslim Ottomans. Besides, by then the Ottomans were reckoned as a powerful force in Europe and no country was eager to challenge or mess with their special force – the Janissaries. Also, some of the powerful countries in Europe at the time, like staunchly Catholic France, by the force of circumstances, had become an ally of the Ottomans.

Sultan Mehmed II entering “Constantinople” after its fall in 1453
(Photo: Google — Painting by Fausto Zonaro)

However, a big opportunity came at the end of World War I, when the Ottomans were defeated along with their ally, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire was in disarray. The Greeks made a serious attempt to take back Istanbul but, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Pacha, a smart Ottoman military leader and tactician, together with his group of ‘young Turks, thwarted their attempt. Istanbul has remained an integral part of what is to-day the modern ‘Republic of Turkey’.