Mehmet had now achieved the goal that for centuries had been the sacred duty of the faithful to capture the Christian capital. Born during a plague that had killed two of his brothers, he was the third son of a father, Sultan Murad, who preferred his two brothers. They both died prematurely. Murad became closer to his older son and took him on campaigns. Most notably Mehmet commanded the Anatolian troops at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448 where the Albanian Christian patriot George Kastriota, better known as Skanderbeg, and the Hungarian prince John Hunyadi were soundly defeated.
When he seized the throne after his father’s death in 1451 the Western princes had formed no opinion of Mehmet and judged him by the failures of his youth. However, as we saw during the siege, he was quick to learn and the West badly misjudged the young Sultan thinking he would not add to his father’s conquests. As Gibbon wrote “Peace was on his lips, but war was in his heart.” He took his time receiving envoys and confirming previous treaties, biding his time until he was ready to continue the expansion of the Empire.
Mehmet had a fierce temper and did not lack courage. During the siege of Constantinople and the final assault, he had been at the head of his advancing troops, encouraging with promises of great prizes and with his heavy mace.
After the capture of the city, those in the West realised too late that leaving Constantinople to its fate had been a mistake. For many centuries it has acted as a bulwark against invasion from the east. In recent times, much weakened it had been a rump empire, surrounded by the Turks, but nevertheless it was a bastion drawing in Turkish time, energy and resources. Now the Turks were entirely free to face the West. There was much shock in the West. This was the end of the ancient Roman Empire and there was genuine sorrow and mourning for its Fall. Anthems were written and services held to mourn the loss.
Mehmet did not waste time. With the capture of the city he saw himself as the heir of the Caesars. His city would be Byzantium reborn in a new image; an Islamic city and the centre of his Empire. He had big ideas and he was flattered by those he conquered. The Cretan historian George Trapezountios assured him when summoned to his court: “No one doubts that you are the Emperor of the Romans. Whoever is legally master of the capital of the Empire is the Emperor, and Constantinople is the capital of the Roman Empire.” Mehmet was Kaiser- i – Rum, Roman Emperor in succession to Augustus and Constantine the Great, and Padishah, Vice Regent of God. He now personified Turkish, Islamic and Byzantine traditions.
Therefore he had no desire or reason to destroy the city or the Empire, but to bring new life to it under an Ottoman pattern. He saw it remaining as a cosmopolitan empire, with all races and creeds living together in harmony. Whilst the Church was subordinate to the State and paid tribute, its members enjoyed freedom of worship and retained their own customs. Against Islamic law he retained the figurative mosaics in Hagia Sophia (many of which can still be seen today), which as a Mosque retained its name in Islamic form as Aya Sofya.
Mehmet decided the role of Patriarch should be retained and chose the monk Gennadius who has opposed union with the Roman church. In January 1454 Gennadius was enthroned as Greek Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Apostles (where Constantine the Great’s body lay). The Sultan himself personally invested the Patriarch with the insignia of his office. The role included complete authority of the Greek community in the Phanar quarter of the City, even having his own prison. His authority extended over all Greek Christians in the Empire. The Sultan positioned himself as the protector and benefactor of the Orthodox Church, cutting off any further influence from Rome. Furthermore Mehmet decided that his new city of Istanbul should be the seat of the Armenian Patriarch, and the Jewish Chief Rabbi. This tolerance may not be universally acknowledged but it was to give strength to the Ottoman Empire as it grew; the Christians provided merchants and administrators and proved very successful, enjoying privileges over many Muslims.
The view in the West at this time was that Mehmet was a possible convert to Christianity such was his tolerance of the Church and his general interest in Orthodox Christianity, even asking for Gennadius to write a statement of Orthodox beliefs in Turkish so that he might understand more. However, such a conversion was extremely unlikely. Mehmet was probably ensuring he understood all he needed to about such an important group of his subjects. His support and influence ensures the survival of the Orthodox Church, something that perhaps may not be universally acknowledged in the West. In fact his support added weight to the cries of “Better Turks than Latins!” which were to be heard during the interminable debates about the joining of the two churches over the years.
Besides settling the position of the Church, the Sultan worked fast on the literal rebuilding of the city – the walls, the buildings destroyed in the siege – and also rebuilding it as a great city. The population had fallen to less than forty thousand by the time of the siege. The Sultan urged Christians to return and they were exempted from taxation. Around thirty thousand peasants were moved into the surrounding areas as farmers to provide food for the city. Merchants, craftsmen and artisans were moved from all corners of the Ottoman Empire to the city to work on its rebirth as a trading centre and a capital fit for the vision of empire that Mehmet was now developing. The cultural and commercial growth of the city started to attract Greek merchants and others as they saw that Istanbul would offer opportunities for wealth such as they had not seen for a long time. Within one hundred years of the conquest, Istanbul had a population of nearly 500,000, of whom only around 50 per cent were Turkish.
Mehmet was a great builder. He rebuilt palaces and extended them for himself and his family. Most notably he built the Mosque of Faith, known as the mosque of the Conqueror. For this work he chose a Greek architect, and probably used Greek craftsmen for the many mosaics. This fusion of Islamic money, faith and design, with the skills of the Greeks was to be seen in many places, most notably in the work of the great Mosque on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Whilst the day of the Fall was bloody, it was no worse than can have been expected in any medieval siege. Mehmet had a vision for his city and he wanted it to flourish. He recognised that this could only be achieved through a tolerant, cosmopolitan approach. The success of this can be seen in the great building which followed and the growth in both population and wealth of the city in just a few short years. That may be relatively well known, but perhaps not enough credit is given to the judgements and wise rule of Sultan Mehmet “The Conqueror”.