Saturday, August 28, 2010

FID: Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II "The Conqueror"

“On this day in 1453, the conquerors were extraordinarily brutal. Historian Steven Runciman notes that the Muslim soldiers ‘slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women, and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn.’” (The Fall of Constantinople 1453, Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 145.)

While searching for my villain’s motive, I uncovered some very remarkable ties to some very remarkable key figures in history, one of which was Mehmet II. It was as if I had announced a casting call and the pages of history provided the perfect characters. To avoid spoiling it, I can’t tell you how these characters support the story, but I can give you a brief synopsis of the characters and what they did.

Mehmet II "The Conquerer"

In 1451, at the young age of 19, Mehmet II ascended the throne and began his reign as the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. By the time young Mehmet took control, the Ottomans controlled almost all of the former Christian and Byzantine lands except Constantinople (present day Istanbul).

Contantinople (Istanbul)
Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I “the Great” on the site of an already existing city, Byzantium. The site for the city lay astride the land route from Europe to Asia and the seaway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and had in the Golden Horn an excellent and spacious harbor. Throughout most of the Middle Ages (between the 5th and 15th centuries), Constantinople was Europe’s largest and wealthiest city.

Mehmet II atop his white steed prepares his troops for attack
By the time of Mehmet’s reign, Constantinople had weakened, falling in population from 400,000 to 50,000. Mehmet, with an army of between 80,000 to 200,000 Ottoman warriors (Janissaries), attacked 7,000 Christian defenders and, after a month, took Constantinople for Islam. The siege lasted from Friday, 6 April 1453 until Tuesday, 29 May 1453.

Lunar Eclipse
On May 22, 1453, the moon, the symbol of Constantinople, rose in dark eclipse, fulfilling a prophecy on the city's demise. Four days later, the whole city was blotted out by a thick fog, a condition unknown in that part of the world in May. When the fog lifted that evening, a strange light was seen playing about the dome of the Hagia Sophia. The light around the dome was interpreted by some as the Holy Spirit departing from the Cathedral.

Hagia Spohia (before conquest by Mehmet II)
On May 28, 1453, as the Ottoman army prepared for the final assault, large-scale religious processions were held in the city. In the evening a last solemn ceremony was held in the Hagia Sophia, in which the Emperor and representatives of both the Latin and Greek Church partook, together with nobility from both sides. Shortly after midnight the attack began.

Ottomans attack the walls of Constantinople

The first wave of attackers (auxiliaries), was poorly trained and equipped, and was meant only to kill as many defenders as possible. The second assault, consisting largely of Anatolians, focused on a section of the walls in the northwest part of the city, which had been partially damaged by the cannon. The Ottoman attackers managed to break through, but were just as quickly pushed back out by the defenders. The Christians also managed for a time to hold off the third attack by the Sultan's elite Janissaries, but the Genoese general in charge of the land troops, Giovanni Giustiniani, was grievously wounded (succumbed to his wounds a few days later) during the attack, and his evacuation from the ramparts caused a panic in the ranks of the defenders.

Mehmet II enters Constantinople atop his white steed
With Giustiniani's Genoese troops retreating into the city and towards the harbor, Constantine and his men, now left to their own devices, kept fighting and managed to hold off the attackers for awhile. At this point, some historians suggest that one of the gates had been left unlocked, allowing the first fifty or so Ottoman troops to enter the city. When Turkish flags were seen flying atop the Inner Wall, panic ensued, and the defense collapsed, as Janissary soldiers pressed forward. It is said that Constantine, throwing aside his purple regalia, led the final charge against the oncoming Ottomans, dying in the ensuing battle in the streets like his soldiers.

Constantinople fell to Ottomans under a crescent moon
On May 29, 1453, under a crescent moon, the great Christian city of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and to Islam.

Ottoman Army converges on Hagia Sophia
The Army converged upon the Augesteum, the vast square that fronted the great church of Hagia Sophia whose bronze gates were barred by a huge throng of civilians inside the building, hoping for divine protection. After the doors were breached, the troops separated the congregation according to what price they might bring on the slave markets. Mehmet II allowed his troops to plunder the city for three days, during which multitudes of civilians were massacred and enslaved. There was raping, massacring and pillaging. Soldiers fought over the possession of some of the spoils of war. According to the Venetian surgeon Nicolo Barbaro: "all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city". On the third day, Mehmet ordered all looting to stop and sent his troops back outside the walls.

Hagia Sophia (modern day)
The loss of the city was a massive blow to Christendom. Mehmet II went into the Hagia Sophia, the single greatest church in Christendom and said, “There is one God. Muhammad is his messenger.” Sultan Mehmet II later ordered the building to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. The Islamic features—such as the mihrab (a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and the direction that Muslims should face when praying), the minbar (the raised platform from which an Imam (leader of prayer) addresses the congregation), and the four minarets outside—were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. It remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey.

With Constantinople beneath his belt, Mehmet II had acquired a great, rich city. The Capital allowed the Turks to establish a permanent supply base in Christian Europe. Further advances into Hungary and the principalities bordering the two kingdoms would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the harbors of Constantinople bringing in supplies and serving as a fortified center from which to administer the empire and strategy.

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