Authors: Roger Crowley
In order both to guard against pre-emptive strikes and to teach their sons the craft of monarchy, the sultans dispatched their male heirs at a very early age to govern provinces under the watchful eye of carefully chosen tutors. Mehmet spent his first years in the palace harem in Edirne but was sent to the regional capital of Amasya in Anatolia at the age of two to begin the early preparation for his education. His oldest half-brother Ahmet, who was twelve years of age, became governor of the city at the same time. Dark forces stalked the heirs to the throne during the next decade. In 1437 Ahmet died suddenly in Amasya. Six years later, when his other half-brother Ali was governor, a gruesome Ottoman version of ‘the Princes in the Tower’ mystery took place in the town. A leading noble, Kara Hizir Pasha, was dispatched to Amasya by unknown persons. He managed to steal into the palace at night and strangle Ali in his bed, as well as both his infant sons. A whole branch of the family was snuffed out in a single night; Mehmet remained the only heir to the throne. Rippling like a black shadow behind these murky events was a long-running power struggle within the Ottoman ruling class for the soul of the state. During his reign Murat had strengthened the Janissary corps of slave-recruited troops and elevated some Christian converts to the status of vizier in an attempt to establish a counter-balance to the power of the traditional Turkish nobility and army. It was a contest that would be played out to its final conclusion before the walls of Constantinople nine years later.
Ali had been Murat’s favourite son: his death affected the sultan deeply – though at the same time it is not impossible that Murat himself
ordered the executions on discovering a plot by the prince. However, he realized that there was now no choice but to recall the young Mehmet to Edirne and to take his education in hand. At that moment the eleven-year-old represented the only future for the Ottoman dynasty. Murat was horrified when he saw the boy again. He was already headstrong, wilful and almost uneducable. Mehmet had openly defied his previous tutors, refusing to be chastised or to learn the Koran. Murat called in the celebrated mullah, Ahmet Gurani, with orders to thrash the young prince into submission. Cane in hand, the mullah went to see the prince. ‘Your father’, he said, ‘has sent me to instruct you, but also to chastise you in case you do not obey.’ Mehmet laughed aloud at the threat, at which the mullah delivered such a beating that Mehmet swiftly buckled down to study. Under this formidable tutor, Mehmet began to absorb the Koran, then a widening circle of knowledge. The boy revealed an extraordinary intelligence coupled with an iron will to succeed. He developed fluency in languages – by all accounts he knew Turkish, Persian and Arabic, as well as spoken Greek, a Slavic dialect and some Latin – and became fascinated by history and geography, science, practical engineering and literature. A remarkable personality was starting to emerge.
The 1440s marked a new period of crisis for the Ottomans. The empire was threatened in Anatolia by an uprising by one of its Turkmen vassals, the Bey of Karaman, while a new Hungarian-led crusade was being prepared in the West. Murat appeared to have defused the Christian threat with a ten-year truce and departed to Anatolia to deal with the troublesome Bey. Before he went he took the surprising step of abdicating from the throne. He was fearful of civil war within the state and wanted to confirm Mehmet in power before he himself died; world-weariness too may have been a factor. The burdens of office hung heavily on an Ottoman sultan and Murat may have been depressed by the murder of his favourite son Ali. At the age of twelve Mehmet was confirmed as sultan at Edirne under the guidance of the trustworthy Chief Vizier Halil. Coins were minted in his name and he was mentioned in weekly prayers, according to prerogative.
The experiment was a disaster. Tempted by the opportunity presented by a callow young sultan, the Pope immediately absolved the Hungarian king Ladislas of his oath of truce and the crusader army rumbled forward. In September it crossed the Danube; a Venetian fleet was dispatched to the Dardanelles to block Murat’s return. The atmosphere
in Edirne became turbulent. In 1444 an inspirational religious fanatic of a heretical Shia sect had appeared in the city. Crowds flocked to the Persian missionary who promised reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, and Mehmet himself, attracted by his teachings, welcomed the man into the palace. The religious authorities were shocked and Halil himself was alarmed by the popular enthusiasm for the heretic. An attempt was made to arrest him. When the missionary sought sanctuary in the palace, Mehmet had to be persuaded to give the man up. He was eventually hauled off to the public prayer site and burned alive; his followers were massacred. The Byzantines also decided to profit from this confusion. A pretender to the Ottoman throne, Prince Orhan, whom they were holding in the city, was released to foment a revolt. Uprisings ensued against the Ottomans in the European provinces. There was panic in Edirne; a large portion of the town was burned down and Turkish Muslims started to flee back to Anatolia. Mehmet’s reign was unravelling in chaos.
Murat meanwhile had negotiated a truce with the Bey of Karaman and hurried back to confront the threat. Finding the Dardanelles blocked by Venetian ships, he was ferried across the Bosphorus with his army by their rivals, the Genoese, at the handsome fee of a ducat a head and advanced to meet the crusader army at Varna on the Black Sea on 10 November 1444. The outcome was a crushing victory for the Ottomans. Ladislas’s skull was mounted on a lance and sent to the old Ottoman city of Bursa as a triumphal token of Muslim supremacy. It was a significant moment in the holy war between Christianity and Islam. After 350 years the defeat at Varna extinguished the appetite in the West for crusading; never again would Christendom unite to try to drive the Muslims out of Europe. It confirmed the Ottoman presence in the Balkans and left Constantinople emphatically isolated as an enclave within the Islamic world, reducing the likelihood of western help in the event of Ottoman attack. Worse still, Murat held the Byzantines responsible for much of the chaos of 1444, an opinion that would soon shape Ottoman strategy.
Immediately after Varna, and despite the early failure of Mehmet’s sultanship, Murat again retired to Anatolia. Halil Pasha remained first vizier, but Mehmet was more influenced by the two men who acted as his governors: the chief eunuch Shihabettin Pasha, lord of the European provinces, and a forceful Christian renegade, Zaganos Pasha. Both these men favoured advancing the plan for taking Constantinople, in
the knowledge that the city still held the pretender Orhan; capturing it would stabilize Mehmet’s rule and bring the young sultan immense personal kudos. It is clear that even at an early age Mehmet was magnetically attracted to the project of capturing the Christian city and making himself heir to the Roman Empire. In a poem he wrote that ‘my earnest desire is to crush the Infidels’, yet Mehmet’s longing for the city was as much imperial as it was religious, and derived in part from a source that was surprisingly non-Islamic. He was deeply interested in the exploits of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Alexander had been transformed into an Islamic hero by medieval Persian and Turkish epics. Mehmet would have known of Alexander from his early years; he had the Greek biography of the World Conqueror by the Roman writer Arrian read to him daily in the palace. From these influences he conceived for himself twin identities – as the Muslim Alexander whose conquests would reach to the ends of the earth, and as a
warrior leading jihad against the infidel. He would reverse the flow of world history: Alexander swept east; he in his turn would bring glory to the East and to Islam by conquering the West. It was a heady vision, fuelled by his personal advisers, who saw that their own careers might be made on the wave of conquest.
The precocious Mehmet, supported by his tutors, started to plan a new assault on Constantinople as early as 1445. He was thirteen years old. Halil Pasha was thoroughly alarmed. He disapproved of the young sultan’s plan; after the debacle of 1444, he feared such a move would end in further disaster. Despite its formidable resources, the Ottoman Empire had all but collapsed within living memory under civil war, and Halil retained the deep fear of many, that a concerted attempt on Constantinople could provoke a massive Christian response from the West. He had personal motives too: he was concerned for the erosion of his own power and that of the traditional Muslim-Turkish nobility at the expense of the warmongering Christian converts. He decided to engineer Mehmet’s deposition by instigating a Janissary revolt and petitioning Murat to return to Edirne to take control again. He was welcomed back with wild enthusiasm; the haughty, aloof young sultan was not popular with either the people or the Janissaries. Mehmet retired to Manisa with his advisers. It was a humiliating rebuff that he would never forgive or forget; one day it would cost Halil his life.
Mehmet remained in the shadows for the rest of Murat’s life,
though he continued to regard himself as sultan. He accompanied his father to the second Battle of Kosovo in 1448, where the Hungarians made one final bid to break Ottoman power. It was Mehmet’s baptism of fire. The outcome, despite huge Ottoman losses, was as decisive as Varna and further served to cement the legend of Ottoman invincibility. A gloomy pessimism started to pervade the West. ‘The Turks through such organisation are far ahead’, wrote Michael the Janissary. ‘If you pursue him, he will flee; but if he pursues you, you will not escape … the Tartars have several times won victories over the Turks, but the Christians never, and especially in pitched battle, most of all because they let the Turks encircle them and approach from the flank.’
Murat’s final years were spent in Edirne. The sultan seems to have lost the appetite for further military adventure, preferring the stability of peace to the uncertainties of war. As long as he lived, Constantinople breathed in uneasy peace; when he died in February 1451 he was mourned by friend and foe alike. ‘The treaties that he had sworn sacredly with the Christians’, declared the Greek chronicler Doukas, ‘he always kept intact. His anger was short-lived. He was averse to warfare and keen on peace, and for this reason the Father of Peace rewarded him with a peaceful death, rather than being dispatched by the sword.’ The Greek chronicler would have been less generous had he known the recommendation Murat left to his successor. Byzantine meddlings in the 1440s had convinced him that the Ottoman state could never be secure as long as Constantinople remained a Christian enclave. ‘He left as a bequest to his illustrious successor’, said the Ottoman chronicler Sa’d-ud-din, ‘the erection of the standards of the jihad for the capture of that city, by the addition of which … he might protect the prosperity of the people of Islam and break the back of the wretched misbelievers.’
The death of a sultan always constituted a dangerous moment for the Ottoman state. In accordance with tradition, and to forestall any armed revolt, the news was kept secret. Murat had one other son, a baby called Little Ahmet, who posed no immediate threat to Mehmet’s succession, but the pretender Orhan remained in Constantinople, and Mehmet was hardly popular. News of his father’s death was dispatched in a sealed letter by flying courier. In it Halil advised Mehmet not to tarry; a swift arrival at Edirne was imperative – any delay might provoke insurrection. According to legend, Mehmet immediately had his horse saddled and called to his retainers, ‘Let him who loves me, follow me.’ Accompanied by his household troops he made the crossing
at Gallipoli in two days. As he rode across the plain to Edirne he was met by a vast throng of officials, viziers, mullahs, state governors and common people, in a ritual harking back to their tribal past on the Asian steppes. When they were a mile off, the welcoming party dismounted and walked towards their new ruler in dead silence. Half a mile distant, they stopped and broke into wild ululations for the dead sultan. Mehmet and his retinue similarly dismounted and joined in the communal lamentation. The winter landscape echoed with mournful cries. The chief officials bowed before the new sultan then the whole gathering remounted and progressed back to the palace.
The following day the official presentation of the ministers took place. It was an edgy occasion, the moment when the viziers of the old sultan discovered their fate. Mehmet was seated on the throne, flanked by his own trusted advisers. Halil Pasha hung back, waiting to see what Mehmet would do. The boy sultan said, ‘Why do my father’s viziers hang back? Call them forward, and tell Halil to take his usual place.’ Halil was restored to the role of chief vizier. It was a typical move by Mehmet: to maintain a status quo while he kept his deeper plans close to his chest and bided his time.
The new sultan was just seventeen years old, a mixture of confidence and hesitancy, ambition and reserve. His early years had evidently marked Mehmet deeply. He had probably been separated from his mother when very young and had survived in the shadow world of the Ottoman court largely through luck. Even as a young man he emerges as deeply secretive and suspicious of others: self-reliant, haughty, distant from human affection and intensely ambitious – a personality of paradox and complexity. The man whom the Renaissance later presented as a monster of cruelty and perversion was a mass of contradictions. He was astute, brave and highly impulsive – capable of deep deception, tyrannical cruelty and acts of sudden kindness. He was moody and unpredictable, a bisexual who shunned close relationships, never forgave an insult but who came to be loved for his pious foundations. The key traits of his mature character were already in place: the later tyrant who was also a scholar; the obsessive military strategist who loved Persian poetry and gardening; the expert at logistics and practical planning who was so superstitious that he relied on the court astrologer to confirm military decisions; the Islamic warrior who could be generous to his non-Muslim subjects and enjoyed the company of foreigners and unorthodox religious thinkers.
A handful of portraits painted over the course of his life provide probably the first authentic likenesses of an Ottoman sultan. A reasonably consistent face emerges – an aquiline profile, the hawk nose protruding over sensual lips like ‘a parrot’s beak resting on cherries’ in the memorable phrase of an Ottoman poet, complemented by a reddish beard on a thrusting chin. In one stylized miniature, he is delicately holding an uncrushed rose to his nose between jewelled fingers. It is the conventional representation of the sultan as aesthete, the lover of gardens and the author of Persian quatrains, but it is informed by a fixed gaze, as if he were looking at some faraway point where the world vanishes. In other mature portraits he is bull-necked and corpulent and in the famous late portrait by Bellini now hanging in the National Gallery in London he just looks grave and ill. All these pictures contain a note of steady authority, the natural assumption of power by ‘God’s shadow on earth’, that assumes the world sits in his hand too naturally to be called arrogance, but there is a chilly melancholy too that recalls the cold and dangerous childhood years.