Academic journal article History Review

Ottoman Expansion under Mehmed II

Academic journal article History Review

Ottoman Expansion under Mehmed II

Article excerpt

Rhoads Murphey helps us to distinguish between the legendary and the real in the legacy of a great empire-builder.

The sultan Mehmed II, who reigned from 1451 to 1481, acquired a legendary status during his own lifetime. He was known as `the Conqueror' (in Turkish, `Fatih') because early in the third year of his reign, at the age of only 21, he led an army that captured the capital of the Eastern world, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Ever since the 1450s his personality, as the first Ottoman ruler of truly imperial stature, has been of intense interest, and yet he remains a curiously enigmatic figure. One factor in our confusion has been the production of deliberately falsified -- or at least fanciful -- accounts. Paradoxically, the messages of dread circulated by his opponents in the West were not denied but rather encouraged by the sultan's own image-makers, who were only too pleased to echo and even amplify Western fears of the hostile intentions of `The Grand Turk'.

In the sixteenth century the production of extravagant accounts of the rise, and fervently hoped for fall, of the Ottoman Empire achieved the status of a flourishing cottage industry. In the previous century the `histories' of the sultans produced in the West were not nearly so popular or numerous, but these late fifteenth-century prototypes left a strong mark on the later works, which mined them for `factual' content and for interpretations -- some of which are still widely accepted today. Hence we need to examine these earlier works to see what information (and misinformation) they conveyed, before evaluating Mehmed the Conqueror's military intentions.

The real

The stories of Fatih that originated in the West had a definite purpose: they were designed to encourage a state of heightened psychological awareness centred on `fear of the Turk'. The most important of these purported to be eye-witness accounts of encounters with the sultan. By comparing the language and tone they used with authentic documents from the Ottoman chancery we can judge their reliability.

First, let us consider two authentic examples. One is a document issued by Fatih to the Genoese community in Constantinople at the time of the city's fall, in June 1453:

   `Let them observe their own laws and customs and preserve them now and in
   the future; and we will keep them as earnestly and hold them as dear as
   those which are current in our dominions.'

This statement, which was basically a confirmation of pre-existing privileges granted to the Genoese, may not be a true indication of the sultan's inner thoughts, but it does seem to show Fatih's desire to win the collaboration of at least some of the city's residents. Furthermore its language, and particular turns of phrase, mark it out for scholars as unmistakably a genuine product of the Ottoman chancery. Mehmed was in fact adept at using conciliatory and confidence-inspiring language appropriate to the delicate task of diplomacy.

There is evidence aplenty that the sultan had a peremptory manner and a short temper, but that he was quite prepared to suppress his anger when it served his purpose is shown by our second example. This is a letter written to the Venetian Doge in May 1471 in which Fatih proposed a compromise solution, requiring concessions from both sides, in order to end the war that had raged since 1463. He made moderately-worded demands of Venice, to be counterbalanced by Ottoman concessions to Venetian demands:

   `that your Signatory be obliged to restore to our dominion the island of
   Lemnos which was ours and has been occupied in this war'

was paired with:

   `the declaration that My Majesty undertakes to evacuate whatever territory
   may have been occupied by my people of the former jurisdictions of Modon
   and Coron [two strategic Venetian fortresses on the southern tip of the
   Peloponnesus]'. … 
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