Ottoman Renaissance: The Conqueror’s Dream

From the morning of May 31, 1453, until his death twenty-eight years later, Sultan Mehmet II was fixated with re-creating and repopulating his newly acquired capital, Konstantiniyye (Constantinople). Heath W Lowry documents the transformation.

  • Mehmet the Conqueror by Gentile Bellini

From the morning of May 31, 1453, until his death twenty-eight years later, Sultan Mehmet II was fixated with re-creating and repopulating his newly acquired capital, Konstantiniyye (Constantinople). No sooner had he cut short the three days of looting he had promised his troops – as a reward for what many considered the impossible task of storming the walls of the Byzantine capital – than he turned his attention to transforming the empty shell of the once-mighty city into the centrepiece of the mushrooming Ottoman state.

For most of the preceding century, Constantinople had been little more than an Orthodox island in the midst of an Islamic sea: Ottoman lands already encompassed an area from the Adriatic in the west to central Anatolia in the east. When it fell, Byzantium was effectively brought to an end, apart from a few pockets in Rumeli and Anatolia, and Fatih (the Conqueror) Mehmet turned from what he termed “the lesser war” to “the mightier war”, that of transforming the remnants of the city into a fitting capital for his imperial ambitions.

He set about the task with a vigour befitting a twenty-one-year-old who had outsmarted the advisers inherited from his father. After campaigning annually with great success in the Balkans and Anatolia, he would return to Istanbul and spend the winter and spring refitting, rebuilding and repopulating the city he sometimes referred to as Islambol (“full of Islam”).

His first concern was to repopulate it, since almost all the inhabitants (estimated at 50,000 before the siege) had been killed or enslaved in the aftermath of conquest. He immediately freed the fifth of the captives who were his share of the booty and restored them to their homes. He then broadcast an order throughout the realm announcing that all those who chose to move to the city would receive free homes. When this failed to attract individuals with the necessary urban skills, he turned to sürgün, or forced deportation, to ensure that every facet of the capital’s economic life would be served. Established families of silk-weavers and merchants were summoned by name from the Anatolian city of Bursa, and streams of forced settlers arrived in the city almost daily. They included the entire populations of the Aegean islands of Thasos and Samothrace; all the inhabitants of the Anatolian towns of Amasra and the two Foças; thousands of families of Christian peasants from the Balkans, who were given tools, animals and seeds and settled in the outlying areas to grow the fruit and vegetables needed for the burgeoning population; whole villages of dalyanci (Greek fishermen from the Black Sea), whose nets were hung from permanent pilings driven into the floor of the Bosphorus, and whose descendants still ply their craft in Beykoz.

All these settlers brought with them a multitude of languages, religious practices, customs and cuisines, which ultimately coalesced into a distinctively Ottoman civilisation. Like the spices which arrived in the city’s markets from every corner of the empire, the new arrivals brought with them their own flavours and aromas. The result was an ever more cosmopolitan mixture. Istanbul in the late fifteenth century must have borne a striking resemblance to third-century Rome or late-nineteenth-century New York. Indeed, such was the scope of Mehmet’s transformation that the city must have been in a constant state of flux. As he moved his subjects wholesale from place to place – focusing on Istanbul but also on other urban centres such as Thessaloniki [Selanik] and Trebizond [Trabzon] – he resembled nothing so much as a chess grandmaster shifting his pieces about the board.

Noticeably absent was any desire to impose Islam on the melting pot from which Istanbul was to be shaped. Christians of all stripes, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Latin Catholics, together with Romaniot and Karaite Jews (later joined by Sephardis), lived side by side with Muslims from across the Middle East and Central Asia.

As for the dynasty itself, while clearly Muslim in religion, its ruling class, not to mention the house of Osman itself, was a hybrid of all those who lived within, and beyond, its borders. Even the mothers of most of the early sultans, including Mehmet’s own, were of Christian origin. Religion and ethnicity were clearly less important in fifteenth-century Istanbul than an individual’s ability to contribute to the expansion of the Ottoman enterprise.

Within the walls of Mehmet’s palace there was room for anyone with something to offer. It housed the Byzantino-Greek diplomat and chronicler Kritovoulos of Imbros, who, when not engaged in diplomatic missions for the Conqueror, was busy writing the first real history of an Ottoman ruler’s reign. His paean to Mehmet was clearly intended to convince him that he was a world conqueror, the natural successor to Alexander the Great, and was written in Greek. Kritovoulos would hardly have made the effort to write such a work in a language unknown to its recipient. Several of the more than 100 Greek manuscripts dating from the reign of Mehmet, which are preserved in the Topkap› Palace libraries, were penned by the hand of Kritovoulos. In short, while clearly creating a new order, Mehmet was surrounded by representatives of the old order who sought to ensure that he incorporated the legacy of the conquered.

One such was the late-Byzantine philosopher George Amiroutzes, who had served as chief minister of the emperor of Trebizond and arranged the territory’s surrender to the Ottoman ruler in 1461. Amiroutzes negotiated its demise with his cousin Mahmut [Angelovic], son of one of the great noble families of Byzantium, who just happened to be Mehmet’s grand vezir. The Christian Amouritzes then joined his Muslim relative Mahmut in the new capital and quickly became a close adviser to the Sultan. Indeed, Kritovoulos reports that the two would sit for hours discussing Greek philosophy.

As well as reconstructing Istanbul, Mehmet was consumed with reshaping the administrative system inherited from his forebears. In the state’s formative period, many of the highest Ottoman officials had been drawn from those who had served the Turkish principalities around Anatolia since the Seljuk collapse at the hands of the Mongols. By the end of his reign, almost all the state’s highest officials were of slave origin – native Christians, primarily from the Balkans, who had been conscripted, converted and trained as Ottomans – and this practice continued virtually uninterrupted for the next 150 years. Among the slaves (kuls) whose careers were overseen by Mehmet were two sons of the elder brother of Constantine, the last Byzantine ruler, who was killed during the 1453 siege of the city. His two marriages having failed to produce an heir, Constantine might well have been succeeded by one of his nephews, had the empire survived. Instead, when the city fell, both were taken into the Conqueror’s palace. They re-emerged fifteen years later as the Ottoman officials Has Murad Pasha and Mesih Pasha. Both had spectacular careers, although Has Murad’s was cut short when he fell in battle. Mesih Pasha was to serve twice as grand vezir, the highest post in the Ottoman administration, and married the daughter of Mehmet’s son and successor, Bayezid II. Rather than kill any potential claimants to the Byzantine throne, Mehmet turned them into Ottomans and elevated them to the very pinnacle of power in the new order he created. One can imagine how this must have dampened any lingering dreams of restoration in their former Byzantine subjects.

Absorption rather than destruction was his policy with buildings as well as people. The fifth-century Byzantine Church of the Divine Wisdom (Haghia Sophia) had served as a beacon for would-be Muslim conquerors from the days of the Prophet Muhammed, and had stimulated numerous attacks on the city. Mehmet, having achieved the goal that had eluded generations of Muslim rulers, preserved not only the building but even its name, converting it into the mosque of Ayasofya. In its new Islamic guise it was to remain the city’s primary Muslim sanctuary until the early twentieth century.

None of the great Ottoman imperial mosques whose silhouettes still define Istanbul’s skyline was ever to replace Ayasofya in importance, a fact guaranteed by the Conqueror when he established its vakif (religious foundation) and endowed countless income-producing properties to provide for its every need in perpetuity. Among the staff whose salaries were met by this foundation were an architect and twelve assistants whose sole function was to preserve the physical structure. It was this staff, and their successors, who added the buttresses that have protected the dome through centuries of earthquakes, as well as the minarets which give it a distinctive Islamic character. All later imperial mosques were to be heavily influenced by this basic design.

Mehmet set about physically reconstructing the old city of Stamboul (the area lying within the Theodosian Walls) into Ottoman Istanbul with the same dedication with which he repopulated the city. By the time of his death in 1481, the palace of Topkap› had assumed its basic outline, along with the Conqueror’s mosque and the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Carşı). These structures were, and remain to this day, focal points of the Ottoman city.

Mehmet oversaw the rebuilding of the walls and constructed the massive edifice of the Seven Towers Fortress (Yedi Kule Kalesi) at their southeastern extreme. This stronghold, designed to serve both as the treasury for his ever-expanding wealth and a prison (it later housed a number of European envoys whose states had fallen from grace in the eyes of the Ottoman rulers), still stands sentinel over the old city in the same way that the Fortress of Rumeli Hisar›, built by Mehmet in 1452, guards the Bosphorus to the north.

Not satisfied with the speed of his own urban renewal efforts, Mehmet assigned his commanders, including the former Byzantine aristocrat Mahmut Angelovic, to engage in similar activities in different sectors of the city. With almost lightning speed they created entire new quarters, constructing mosques, hamams, imarets (soup kitchens for the poor), schools, hospitals, hans (walled storage enclosures which also served as hotels for merchants and travellers) and marketplaces, the rent of whose shops went to the foundations, which paid the salaries of all the functionaries running them.

Whole areas of the city which still bear the names of their endowers (Gedik Ahmed Paşa Mahallesi; Mahmut Paşa, next to the Grand Bazaar; and Davut Paşa Mahallesi, for example) came into being. It must have seemed to the steady contingent of immigrants that they had arrived at a huge construction site. Throughout the second half of the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth, masons, carpenters and labourers poured into the capital to meet the ever-increasing manpower needed to build the new Istanbul. They were joined by thousands of galley slaves who, during the six months of the year that they were not at sea, were hired out by their owners to work as day labourers on building sites.

Mehmet orchestrated every aspect of the transformation. But many of his plans were undone by factors beyond his control. Chief among these was the bubonic plague, which struck the city repeatedly throughout his reign (and those of his successors well into the nineteenth century). In 1455, and again in 1467, devastating outbreaks killed many of the newcomers he was so busy settling in the city. His chronicler Kritovoulos describes how during the second outbreak, which lasted four-and-a-half months and at its height carried away 600–800 people a day, Mehmet was forced to delay his return from campaigning in Albania and crisscrossed the Balkans in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the devastation. He sent daily couriers to the city to report on the outbreak’s progress, returning only when it had fully abated, late in the autumn.

Kritovoulos reports that the death rate was so high that those who buried the dead one day were themselves buried by others on the next. His detailed eyewitness account suddenly breaks off in mid-stream, raising the distinct possibility that he himself may have been one of its last victims.

The portrait that emerges is of the youthful conqueror stripping whole areas of his realm of many of their most productive citizens to meet his goal of forming a fitting capital for his empire, only to see a large percentage of the newcomers swept away by the plague within months or years.

How did all the pieces of this giant jigsaw puzzle come together to form the distinctive Ottoman civilisation? It is this question that must be answered if we are to comprehend the vast size of the project undertaken by the house of Osman. I would suggest – despite long-standing assertions to the contrary – that the desire to see Islam spread among the conquered Christian peoples was a secondary factor. From its inception in early-fourteenth-century Bithynia to its demise at the start of the twentieth, the Ottoman state was remarkably tolerant of Christians and Jews and fully willing to avail itself of the talents of those with something useful to contribute.

The founder of the dynasty, Osman Gazi, is reported by the fifteenth-century chronicler Asikpasazade to have been accompanied in his early raids against the neighbouring Byzantine castles by his Christian companion-in-arms, a certain Köse Mihal (Beardless Mikhail). This individual, and his descendants, who ultimately adopted Islam, were to become the hereditary leaders of the Ottoman mounted forces which led the assault on the Balkans. They were but the first of countless men who, having contributed to the expansion of the state, and benefited from the wealth in slaves and booty that ensued, became “Ottomans”. Some did so as Christians and others after having converted to Islam. Each brought his own experience and background to the ever-changing Ottoman mosaic.

Nor was this tolerance limited to the opening centuries of the state. In 1914, as the empire entered its final decade, the Young Turk government appointed a new ambassador to Washington, DC. Before leaving Istanbul, the diplomat paid a courtesy call to the American envoy, Henry Morgenthau, to whom he was introduced as Alfred Budanski, a Christian Ottoman of Polish origin. On the eve of his departure a few weeks later, Budanski surprised Morgenthau by saying: “My name is no longer Alfred Budanski. Yesterday I became a Muslim and my name is now Ahmed Rüstem Pasha.” And it was as Ahmed Rüstem Pasha that he arrived in Washington a few weeks later, one of the last in a long line of Christians, beginning with Köse Mihal 600 years earlier, who proved their usefulness to the state and adopted the religion of its ruling dynasty.

Had the Ottomans been driven by a desire to spread Islam into the Christian lands they conquered, the patchwork of today’s Balkans might have been a quilt of Turkish-speaking Muslims stretching over southeastern Europe. In an era when communication was limited and there was no international monitoring of human rights, the process could have been completed with little difficulty. The reason it did not occur in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria or Romania had more to do with taxation, however, than tolerance.

The Ottomans operated a complex tax system, under which those Christians who did not supply particular military services to the state were charged at a higher rate than their Muslim counterparts.From the outset, the Ottoman state was designed for the effective economic exploitation of those citizens who paid taxes (the re’aya), from which its ruling (or askeri) class were paid. It would have been fiscally irresponsible to seek the conversion of the millions of Christians who constituted a significant portion of the state’s tax base, thereby depriving the administration of valuable income.

This sense of Ottoman practicality, one that never lost sight of the larger picture, contributed to both its greatness and its ultimate decline. Had the Ottomans imposed their own religion and culture on their conquered Christian subjects, it is unlikely that the fires of nineteenth-century nationalism which swept through the Balkans and ultimately destroyed the state would have found the fuel upon which to feed. But this was not the Ottoman way. They preferred a policy of “subsumption”.

How do we account for this fact? Certainly it was not the view Ottoman writers had of their past when they began writing chronicles of the House of Osman in the sixteenth century.

By this time the Ottomans had undergone some fundamental changes. What had developed as a Muslim state in the overwhelmingly Christian milieu of Bithynia in northwestern Anatolia, then in the Balkans, had by the end of the second decade of the sixteenth century grown to include the heartlands of the older Islamic world. Parts of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the peninsula which was home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were now Ottoman provinces. With their acquisition came responsibilities (for overseeing and financing the pilgrimage routes, for example) and a new self-image. The Ottomans began to perceive themselves less as the inheritors of the Eastern Roman Empire than as the successors of the Umayyids, Abbasids and Seljuks, the great Islamic dynasties of the past. From practising a very flexible form of Islam, they acquired a view of themselves as the protectors of the Orthodox Sunni form of the religion.

This meant conveniently rewriting early Ottoman history. No longer was the state portrayed as what it had been: a state with only a nominal regard for the niceties of Orthodox Islam. It was now projected as having always been a gazi state driven by the ideal of spreading Islam by the sword into the reaches of Christian Europe.

The early sultans, rather than being portrayed as hard-drinking, hard-fighting profligates surrounded by an army of Muslims and Christians, were repackaged as devout Muslims who were driven by zeal to spread Islam in the lands of the unbelievers. It was this view of Ottoman history that was passed from generation to generation and carefully preserved in the imperial chronicles. In the early nineteenth century, these chronicles were studied and translated by the European Orientalists and became the basis of our present-day understanding of the early Ottoman reality. But in recent years, with the growing publication of documents compiled during the first two centuries of the Ottoman state, it is slowly becoming possible to challenge the later chronicle tradition, and even to replace it with a more accurate history.

Today, almost a century after the removal of the last Ottoman sultan, the city continues to attract a steady stream of newcomers in search of better living conditions and a brighter future for their children. Mostly of rural origin, these newcomers lack many of the urban skills that Mehmet II realised were needed in his new capital. They are, however, fast learners, and we have witnessed the manner in which their children become Istanbulites within a generation.

In the back streets of Beyoglu (Pera) we now see a burgeoning interest in the Old City and the Ottoman past. In the more fashionable districts, entrepreneurs vie with one another to create “authentic” Ottoman restaurants. Even the nargile (water pipe), once the symbol of the decadent East, has made a comeback: one now sees young professionals puffing away in fashionable cafés.

Even with a 2004 population of close to twelve million (some ten times that of the Ottoman city in any period), it is impossible to lose sight of the greatness that was the Ottoman Empire. The countless architectural monuments and minarets piercing the skyline serve as a constant reminder of what once was. The natural beauty, shaped by the seas which surround the city, is impossible to destroy, despite the best efforts of a great many to do so.

Were Mehmet II to miraculously reappear on the streets of the city that he, more than anyone else, created, and were he able to avoid falling beneath the wheels of a passing taxi, he would have little trouble orienting himself. He would, however, almost certainly be less than pleased by the uncontrolled sprawl of concrete buildings. And when it came to the population of the city, he might well recall with nostalgia the empty shell he inherited in 1453.

Heath W Lowry is the Atatürk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University. Recent books include Fifteenth Century Ottoman Realities (Eren Press, Istanbul), The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (SUNY Press, Albany) and Ottoman Bursa in Travel Accounts (Bloomington IU Turkish Series, 2003).

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