The Ottoman Ascendancy

An introduction to the coming of ‘The Conqueror’ and the reforms that built the foundations of Ottoman ascendancy.

Who was Mehmed II?

Before the reign of Mehmed II, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Murad II, his father. However, after Murad II made peace with Hungary in 1444, he took the unusual step of abdicating the throne and retiring to the countryside. However, as soon as Mehmed took the throne, the Hungarians, led by John Hunyadi, smelled weakness. After all, when would they get another opportunity to face a 12-year-old Sultan?

In response, Mehmed asked his father to take the throne back. Initially, his father refused. However, Mehmed told his father, “if you are the sultan, come and lead your armies. But if I am the Sultan, I hereby order you to come and lead my armies”. Murad returned and destroyed the Hungarian threat at the Battle of Varna in 1444.

However, this undermined Mehmed’s credibility with his court. The world smelled his weakness, and Mehmed had to prove his strength. The obvious target was Constantinople.

Who were the Byzantines?

Constantinople was largely viewed at the time to be the greatest city in the world. It was made the capital of the Roman Empire, which was then renamed to the Byzantine Empire in 324CE under Constantine I. Initially, Byzantium was one of the world’s largest superpowers, ruling over much of modern-day Greece and the Balkans. However, over time, the debts the Byzantine Emperors accrued buying loyalty from their nobility began to mount.

A religious disagreement with the Roman Catholic church exacerbated this problem. At the founding of the Roman Empire, there were five great bishops: the Bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. However, while Western Europeans believed that the Pope had the power to rule over the other bishops, Eastern European Christians believed that the Pope’s primacy was merely symbolic. Moreover, disagreements over church practices around whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist exacerbated religious tensions. In 1054, the Byzantines left the Roman Catholic Church to establish Eastern Orthodoxy in what is known as The Great Schism. As a result, when the Ottomans attacked with 100,000 men, the Pope only sent 300 papal archers to help defend the city.

The impact of this is that by the time of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor, the Byzantines were isolated from allies and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

Conquest of Constantinople in 1453

When Mehmed II came to besiege a weakened Byzantine empire in 1453, it would be easy to argue that he was pushing against an open door. However, he still faced one of the most powerful physical defenses ever built: the Theodosian Walls surrounding Constantinople. Despite the Theodosian Walls outside Constantinople being attacked 23 times in the 1123 years preceding Mehmed’s attack, they had never been breached.

To solve this problem, Mehmed commissioned the master cannon maker Orban to build him the Imperial Basilica, the largest cannon ever built, and allegedly required 60 oxen to drag it to Constantinople from where it was built at Edirne. 

Throughout the battle, the Ottomans gradually overran the city. Upon conquering Constantinople, Mehmed II declared the customary three-day pillaging of the city’s wealth. However, unusually, after the three days had elapsed, Mehmed ordered the remaining Christians to remain unmolested as a recognition that his new grand imperial capital would need laborers.

Significance of Constantinople

The significance of Constantinople was twofold for the Ottoman Empire. First of all, Constantinople was a grand imperial capital and considered one of the greatest cities in the world. No longer was it possible for the Europeans to brand the followers of Osman as nomadic rural upstarts. Moreover, the successful capture of what had once been Rome’s capital allowed the Ottoman Sultans to lay claim to all the territory that had once been Rome’s, expanding the scale of its ambitions significantly.

Second, Constantinople’s strategic location around two key bodies of water – the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus – allowed them to control naval trade from the silk road and the Black Sea, which produced a significant percentage of European imports. While the Byzantine Emperor could not tax Genoese and Venetian tradesmen for fear of European invasion, Mehmed II had no such fear since he intended to fight the Europeans, anyway. As a result, a 2% tariff, which would later rise to 5% on all trade through Constantinople, was established, allowing the Ottoman Sultan to maintain one of the most lucrative sources of state revenue in the early modern world.

Mehmed II was given the epithet ‘The Conqueror’ for his conquest of Constantinople, starting a tradition of positive epithets for Ottoman Sultans that would last until 1566.

Consolidation under Mehmed II

Another aspect of the reign of Mehmed II was significant consolidation. In the 1450s and 1460s, Mehmed conquered Athens, Trebizond, and Bosnia. In addition, Mehmed II subjugated Wallachia as a vassal state, allowing him to earn a financial tribute from the Wallachian Kings in exchange for their continued independence.

In addition, Mehmed II built the first Ottoman fleet and began the Ottoman-Venetian war between 1463–1479. Although Venice undoubtedly had a better organized naval force, the war prohibited Venetian traders from traveling through Constantinople, sending Venice, which was heavily reliant on mercantile activity, to the precipice of bankruptcy. As a result, the Ottomans could emerge victorious and secure peace on favorable terms, furthering their imperial prestige on the world stage.

What is imperial fratricide?

The methodology of dynastic succession was another innovation made by Mehmed II. In most of the early modern world, the status of being the ruler was automatically inherited by the eldest son in a system known as primogeniture. However, Mehmed II believed this system wasn’t the best way to select a ruler. As a result, he proposed a new method of succession designed to pick the most suitable possible successor.

In assessing the needs of his empire, Mehmed II was looking for the most ruthless and tactically intelligent among his sons. As a result, he outlined a system known as the imperial fratricide, where, upon his death, his sons would have to battle between them for the throne. The last son left alive would be proclaimed the Sultan. This law was outlined in 1477 in a document called the Kannuname, which served as the constitutional law of the Empire.

What is devshirme?

Another manifestation of Mehmed II’s quest for efficiency came with the recruitment of his elite Janissary Corps. Most early modern rulers had very small, full-time professional armies because of the high expense of paying their wages. However, Mehmed II found a cheaper way of maintaining his army: using slaves.

Under a policy known as the devshirme, Mehmed II sent out recruitment officers to all his Christian subjects and had them take the strongest and largest babies away from their families to live at the imperial palace. They were then trained in tactical understanding and fighting skills from a young age: bred to be the warriors of the Empire. As a result of this early indoctrination and extensive training, the Janissary Corps were among the most loyal and able troops in the early modern world.

Ottoman Meritocracy

Locally, Mehmed II also implemented a system founded on meritocracy. He appointed cavalrymen, known as Timar Holders, to administer a small localized patch of land called a Timar. This had two main advantages: the cavalrymen were strong enough to rule powerfully on a local level, and second, the Sultan had a large cavalry army to call on when he went to war.

Moreover, several key differences existed between the Ottoman Timar system and much of the feudal systems that governed life in early modern Europe. In Europe, Lords owned their land and passed it to their sons. This meant that the land would often end up in the hands of ill-equipped noblemen incapable of governing properly. 

However, in the Ottoman Empire, Timars were non-heritable. In fact, Timars were frequently reassigned based on who the Sultan perceived Timar Holders to be more or less capable. Finally, in Europe, the noblemen took their income from whatever they could earn from the land, incentivizing them to abusively tax the peasants, which often led to civil unrest and rebellion. However, Timar Holders took their income as a fixed sum from the Emperor, meaning they had no incentive to abuse the locals, fostering stability.

Ottoman local political structure

On a localized level, Timars were grouped into larger administrative regions known as Beys. These would be governed by a Sanjak Bey, who oversaw the Timar Holders and reported to the Sultan. Before Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sanjaks were heritable by noblemen. However, Mehmed II removed these figures in what was known as the Turkification of the Ottoman State. This meant that Sanjak Beys were then appointed meritocratically. This typically stemmed from either success on the battlefield or successful service as a Timar Holder. 

As a result, this gave Timar Holders the opportunity for promotion, incentivizing them to work hard and remain loyal to the Sultan. Moreover, Sanjak Beys served to lead the Timar Holders on the battlefield. This allowed the Sultan to be able to draw upon a ready-made military and civilian hierarchy.

The only exception to this meritocratic appointment was that the sons of the Sultan were typically appointed as Sanjak Beys to give them experience in governing, ahead of them ascending to the throne. Unlike many European nations, this allowed the Ottomans to ensure that their rulers always had experience and were capable of ruling.

Ottoman national political structure

On a national level, the Ottoman State was governed by the Divan, a small council of advisors to the Sultan. Typically, the Divan consisted of about 9 or 10 key advisors of the Sultan from the military, administrative, religious, and treasury branches of Ottoman governance. The Divan chair shares a name with the Sultan’s advisory board because it was what the Divan sat on while deliberating key decisions.

The Divan was chaired by the Grand Vizier, appointed by the Ottoman Sultan, and could be dismissed at will. Originally, the Grand Vizier tended to be a Turkman. However, when Mehmed II wanted to conquer Constantinople in 1451, his powerful Grand Vizier Chandali told him that he couldn’t do it and attempted to undermine the siege. As a result, Mehmed II had him beheaded and decreed that the future Grand Vizier would be picked from the Janissary Corps.

Topkapi Palace

The central location of administration for the Ottoman Empire was Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Much as we use ‘The White House’ as a metonym for the American government and ‘10 Downing Street’ to mean the Prime Minister of England, Topkapi Palace is often used to refer to the office of the Sultan. 

Topkapi palace has a series of courtyards, which can be accessed by different people based on their status. While the outer courtyards were open to all Ottoman citizens, the inner courtyards were reserved solely for the Sultan and the Divan.

Typically, it was customary for the Sultan not to attend meetings of the Imperial Divan – he would instead be briefed on their discussions by the Grand Vizier afterward. However, Mehmed II had a high window built from his bedchamber to the Divan room. This had two important impacts. First, it allowed him to listen in on the Divan chamber. Second, since the Divan didn’t know when he was listening, it forced them to fear disregarding the Sultan’s orders.

Economic reforms of Mehmed II

Upon conquering Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II was aware that he needed the empire to be economically prosperous in order for it to be able to maintain his economic aims. To do this, he implemented two key reforms.

First, Mehmed II established the Bedesten, a large shopping market in Istanbul, which was the largest in the world at the time. The Bedesten included a militarized presence to ensure the punishment of thieves and was built to incorporate facilities for washing animals to stop the spread of disease. This incentivized tradesmen to use Constantinople as the base of their operations, even though it carried higher taxation than other Christian-held ports.

Second, Mehmed II encouraged the formation of guilds of tradesmen to regulate the control of the quality of products produced. This allowed tradesmen to be assured of the quality of products bought within the empire, further incentivizing trade.

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