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Sultan Mehmet II Mosque and the Conquest of Constantinople

Saturday, October 15, 2011

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One of the most important events in recorded history is the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in May 29, 1453. Many see it as the year the Middle Ages ended for the Europeans. Others see it as the year the Ottomans were permanently entrenched in European soil. One thing all historians can agree upon is that the story of the conquest of Constantinople is a story of true courage, faith and determination of the human spirit.

Sultan Mehmet`s father, Murad II, reigned for 30 years in which he concentrated on building the country`s education system and infrastructure. The educational system started with spiritual upbringing imbuing the young pupils in the teachings of the Quran, followed by a more secular education that included the physical sciences, mathematics, and the liberal arts (languages, poetry and art). The infrastructure included enhancements of urban resources as well as agricultural resources. This was instrumental in building up the nation`s resources allowing Sultan Mehmet II to build the necessary technology and military strength for his conquests. Murad II also paid close attention to educating his son in the Islamic sciences as well as in military strategies, physical fitness, languages and history. Indeed, he was well versed in his own Ottoman military history and spoke several languages including Turkish, Greek, Serb, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Latin.

Sultan Mehmet II has been preparing for the conquest of Constantinople ever since he was still a governor. He has been quite secretive of his plans, however. Upon his father`s death in 1451, he sprung his plan into action. Learning from his father`s attempt at conquering the city, he knew that sheer force alone cannot conquer Constantinople. He had to ensure that none of its allies would distract him from the siege of the city. He formed alliances with the Serbs, Hunagrians, Albanians, Wallachians, Venetians, and the Trebizond (a Christian empire in eastern Anatolia) to ensure that they would disturb him during his planned siege of the city. He invited ambassadors from Constantinople and overtly talked about his desire for peaceful relations with Byzantine, while secretly planning for war.

He made use of all outposts near Byzantine and fortified them. The area surrounding Galata (closest point to the Hagia Sophia on the opposite side of the river) became the base of his operations. In 1452, he built a fortification on the European side of the Bosphorus opposite of the Anadolu Hisar that was built years earlier during the reign of his great-grandfather, Beyazid I. The new fort was called Rumeli Hisar. He installed large cannons on the fortification that would gun down any ship that does not submit to him. This was primarily aimed at stopping any reinforcements that may potentially be sent from Trebizond by way of the Black Sea through the Bosphorus. The power of these cannons was demonstrated when a Venetian ship refused to stop was sunk with a single shot from one of the cannons.

When construction of Rumeli Hisar started, it was clear to Emperor Constantine XI of Byzantine that the Ottomans planned to attack his city. He offered to pay more taxes to the Ottoman Sultan, but he refused. In a desperate attempt at winning support from his European counterparts, he offered to unity the Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church. Many Greeks, still bitter over the Roman Catholic invasion of their city two centuries earlier (when the Byzantine Empire was replaced by the Latin Empire), felt betrayed by such overtures of the unification of the two churches. As an important bishop, Gennadius II, remarked “Better to see the turban of a Sultan in Constantinople than a hat of a Catholic bishop.”

In that same year in 1452, he recognized the Venetians supremacy at sea meant that they can resupply Constantinople with arms and supplies. To prevent this, Sultan Mehmet II commissioned the construction of 400 ships forming an Ottoman navy. This would be deployed in the Sea of Marmara to fend off any ships from the south.

A Hungarian engineer by the name of Orban approached the Serb, Hungarian, and even the Byzantine emperors with his invention of a super cannon, much larger than any cannon the world has seen. They all refused to fund him citing the impracticality of his design. Finally, he decided to approach the Ottoman Sultan with his invention. The Sultan immediately realized the utility of such a cannon for his siege and ordered it to be built by his Ottoman engineers under Orban`s supervision. A single shot can lodge a 600 pound payload up to a mile and the sound of the blast could be heard for 10 miles. Although it took 2-3 hours before another shot could be fired, the amount of damage it did more than made up for the delay.

The most important preparation that Sultan Mehmet II had was the spiritual and mental preparation. He had a great sense of purpose and Islamic spirit imprinted on him by his spiritual consul and mentor, Shiekh Aq Shams al-Din. His mentor was instrumental in making Mehmet believe that he was the prince prophesied by the Prophet Muhammad when he declared “They shall conquer Constantinople. Glory be to the prince and to the army that shall achieve it.” Indeed there have been a total of 30 attempts to conquer Constantinopleover a period of 800 years, the last being Sultan Mehmet II`s attempt. Shiekh Aq Shams al-Din made it a point to accompany the Sultan giving him encouragement throughout the preparations and the actual siege. He never left his side until Constantinople was actually conquered.

By 1453, the Sultan had expanded his army to include 250,000 of army regulars and volunteers. It was considered to be the largest and best armed fighting force at the time. On April 6, 1453 the first cannons started hitting the walls of Constantinople. As planned, little support came to the Byzantine emperor from his European counterparts. In fact, the only reinforcement that arrived were two Genoese ships with a total of 700 soldiers specialized in siege warfare, headed by a man named Giovanni Guistiniani.

After nearly two months of siege, the city defenders were starting to fatigue and Sultan Mehmet II was beginning to be impatient. It seemed that the only way the city can surrender is if it was starved to submission. All that changed when two events coincided together that spelled disaster for the defenders. To protect their harbors, the Greeks had chains running across the Gold Horn that prevented any ships from reaching Constantinople. The Sultan had an ingenious idea which was to pave a road from his fleet across a hill and around the chained entrance to the Gold Horn. Oil was used to lubricate the road to be able to haul more than 125 ships across the road under the cover of night to appear the next morning in the harbor of Constantinople, to the horror of its inhabitants.

The second event occurred after one of the Greek`s surprise raids on the Ottomans in the early morning of May 29, 1453. Upon their arrival back to the outer gates of the city, the Genoese commander, Guistiniani, was badly wounded. He decided to go back to his ship. When his men saw this, they took it as a sign that the fate of the city was sealed and he was abandoning the fight. The 700 fighters accompanying him followed him to the inner gates of the city. In the confusion, the outer gate was not secured and the inner gate could not be closed due to the streaming of the 700 soldiers. When Sultan Mehmet II saw this, he ordered a full-scale attack on the outer gate and the city was penetrated. The usual 3 day of looting was commuted and shortened to only one day. The Sultan later entered the city and prayed the afternoon Muslim prayer in Hagia Sophia, which from that date to 1936 became a mosque and the changed the name of the city to Islambul. Sultan Mehmet II was only 21 years of age when this happened.

People who survived the first attack that were hiding in the Hagia Sophia were granted safety of their souls and possessions. The churches that submitted to his rule were granted the right to keep their churches. Other churches that resisted his rule were converted to mosques. He granted the local population the freedom to practice their religion and to be governed by the own civil codes. In a way, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople offered the Greek Orthodox Church freedom from the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, due to the tolerance he demonstrated to his newly conquered subjects, bishop Gennadius II had repeatedly invited Sultan Mehmet II into the Greek Orthodox faith. Alarmed that he may convert to Greek Orthodoxy, Pope Pius II wrote a detailed letter to Sultan Mehmet II outlining the faults of the Greek Orthodox church and why the Roman Catholic church is better and offered him baptism. He also suggested that should he choose to convert to Catholicism, he would come under papal protection and be treated as the greatest Catholic prince. Sultan Mehmet II, on the other hand, had no interest in changing his religion. He was only interested in manifesting himself as the king of the two peoples and the two lands (Asia minor and Europe).

Sultan Mehmet II went on other conquests for another two decades. Most of these conquests were a result of attacks on the Ottoman Empire. In Europe, this included the rest of Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, Wallachia (Romania). In Asia, this included the rest of Anatolia, including Trebizond and the Karamanid Emirate. He harassed the Republic of Venice for 16 years. When the Ottoman soldiers got close enough so that the Venetian senators could see the camp fires of the Ottoman forces north of their city, they decided to sign a peace treaty, which confirmed all land conquered by the Ottoman Empire in exchange for peace.

Sultan Mehmet II unexpectedly died in 1481 when he was preparing for an invasion of unknown destination, since it was his habit not to divulge his plans even to his closest advisors. Many believe his destination was Rome itself. Indeed, in 1479 he led an unexpected invasion force that occupied Otranto (a city on the southeastern Italian peninsula). If so, then his peace treaty with the Republic of Venice was designed to secure his northern borders so that he can concentrate on the southern Italian peninsula.

In between his military campaigns, he oversaw the construction of Istanbul`s first imperial mosque that was completed in 1470. It was named after him, Fatih (Conqueror) Sultan Mehmet II Mosque. It was built on an unprecedent scale and size. The mosque suffered damage by several earthquakes, until it was completely destroyed in 1766. Sultan Mustafa III rebuilt the mosque in 1771 under a completely different floorplan. In 2011, it underwent another significant renovation effort. The Sultan`s grave is buried in the mausoleum adjacent to the mosque and is open to visitors to this day.


  • [1] Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries, The Estate of Lord Kinross: New York, 1977
  • [2] Norwich, J., A Short History of Byzantium, Random House, Inc.: New York, 1997

  • Keywords: Turkey, Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Mosque, Ottoman, Sultan Mehmet II

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