Chapter One: The Conqueror
-George Trapezuntios to Mehmed the Conqueror, 1466
On the afternoon of 29 May 1453 the Sultan entered the long-desired city. Riding a white horse, he advanced down an avenue of death. The city of Constantinople was being put to the sack by the triumphant Ottoman army. According to an observer from Venice, blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal. An Ottoman official, Tursun Beg, wrote that the troops `took silver and gold vessels, precious stones, and all sorts of valuable goods and fabrics from the imperial palace and the houses of the rich. In this fashion many people were delivered from poverty and made rich. Every tent was filled with handsome boys and beautiful girls.' On rode the Sultan, until he reached the mother church of Eastern Christendom and seat of the Oecumenical Patriarch, the cathedral of the Holy Wisdom built 900 years earlier by the Emperor Justinian with the largest dome in Europe. He dismounted and bent down to pick up a handful of earth, which he poured over his turban as an act of humility before God.
Inside the shrine which Greeks considered `the earthly heaven, throne of God's glory, the vehicle of the cherubim', a Turk proclaimed: `There is no God but Allah: Muhammad is his Prophet.' The cathedral of Haghia Sophia had become the mosque of Aya Sofya. As the Sultan entered, hundreds of Greeks who had taken refuge in the cathedral hoping to be saved by a miracle, were being herded out by their captors. He stopped one of his soldiers hacking at the marble floor, saying, with a conqueror's pride: `Be satisfied with the booty and the captives; the buildings of the city belong to me.' Below golden mosaics of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, Orthodox saints and Byzantine emperors, he prayed to Allah. After receiving the congratulations of his retinue, he replied: `May the house of Osman there forever continue! May success on the stone of its seal be graven!'
Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, known in Turkish as Fatih, the Conqueror, was only 20 in 1453. Born in Edirne, the Ottoman capital zoo miles north-west of Constantinople, he had, according to a chronicle which he himself commissioned, been possessed since his childhood with the idea of conquering Constantinople, and constantly insisted on the necessity of taking the city without delay. The opportunity to realize his ambition came after he inherited the throne in on the death of his father Murad II.
Constantinople was a natural object of desire, for it appeared to have been designed by geography and history to be capital of a great empire. Situated at the end of a triangular peninsula, it was surrounded by water on three sides. To the north lay a harbour a kilometre wide and six kilometres long, called the Golden Horn, probably because it turns golden in the rays of the setting sun; to the east the Bosphorus, a narrow waterway separating Europe and Asia; to the south, the Sea of Marmara, a small inland sea connecting the Aegean to the Black Sea. The city was both a natural fortress and a matchless deep-water port, enjoying easy access by sea to Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In addition it was situated on the crossroads of the mainland routes between Europe and Asia, the Danube and the Euphrates. Its site seemed to have been expressly created to receive the wealth of the four corners of the earth.
Founded as a Greek colony, allegedly in the seventh century BC, Byzantium had been re-founded in 324 AD by Constantine the Great as New Rome, a new capital in a better strategic position than the old Rome on the Tiber. For over a thousand years thereafter, it had been capital of the Roman Empire in the East. In the sixth century the Emperor Justinian, the builder of Haghia Sophia, had ruled in Constantinople over an empire which stretched from the Euphrates to the Straits of Gibraltar. To the grandeur of Rome, the city added the magic of time: ninety-two emperors had reigned in the `Queen of Cities'. No other city in the world has such a continuous imperial history. Moreover, for much of its thousand years of empire it had been the largest and most sophisticated city in Europe, a treasure-house of the statues and manuscripts of the classical past, and the nerve-centre of Eastern Christendom. Its wealth had led one medieval traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, to write: `The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones and they go clothed in garments of silk with gold embroidery, and they ride horses and look like princes ... Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world.' A crusading knight, the Sieur de Villehardouin, wrote that in 1203 his fellow Crusaders looked with wonder at Constantinople `when they saw these high walls and these rich towers by which it was completely enclosed and those rich palaces and those lofty churches of which there were so many that no one could believe it unless he had seen it with his own eyes'.
For Constantinople was surrounded by the most majestic city walls in Europe, built between 412 and 422 AD. Moated, battlemented, interspersed by 192 towers, and of treble thickness throughout, the walls marched a distance of six kilometres from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara, rising and descending with the inequalities of the ground. They also extended along the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, completely enclosing the city. By the nineteenth century the moat had been covered in gardens and graveyards. Crumbling, choked in ivy, the walls were patrolled by more goats than guards. Yet Byron wrote: `I have seen the ruins of Athens, of Ephesus and Delphi: I have traversed the great part of Turkey and many other parts of Europe, and some of Asia; but I never beheld a work of nature or art which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Golden Horn.'
The walls had been built because Constantinople was, as one Byzantine had written, `the city of the world's desire'. No city has endured more attacks and sieges: by Slavs (540, 559, 581), Persians and Avars (626), Arabs (669-79 and 717-18), Bulgarians (813, 913 and 924) and Russians (four times between 860 and 1043). It had never recovered from its sack by a Western crusade in 1204, organized by its commercial rival Venice. After the city reverted to the Byzantines in 1261, repeated defeats of the Byzantine Empire by Muslim enemies, and civil wars between rival emperors, had reduced the city's population from a peak of 400,000 inhabitants to about 50,000 Greeks - or `Romans', as they were still proud to call themselves. By 1400 it had shrunk to a collection of small towns, separated by farms and orchards.
In 1453 the last Emperor, Constantine XI, ruled over no more than the city, a few islands and coastal districts and the Peloponnese. Commerce had passed into the hands of Venetians and Genoese. The classical statues had been sold or stolen. The lead on the roof of the imperial palace had been used to mint coins. From the roof of Aya Sofya, surveying the ruined palace, the Sultan thought of other fallen empires, and emperors, and uttered the following lines:
If history and geography made Constantinople an incomparable imperial capital, the Ottomans considered themselves destined to rule a great empire. While still nomads in central Asia, many Turks had regarded themselves as `a chosen people of God'. Demons in war and angels in peace, equally heroic and humane, they were destined to rule the world. The Ottoman dynasty were originally members of the Kayi tribe of the Oghuz clan of Turks, which had arrived in Anatolia from central Asia, with thousands of other Turks, in the twelfth century. They were pastoral nomads attracted by the climate and the power vacuum caused by the decay both of the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk sultanate, a once-powerful Turkish state based on Konya in western Anatolia. In the early fourteenth century Osman, the first Ottoman Sultan, carved out an independent principality in north-west Anatolia on the edge of the Byzantine Empire, around Bursa, the first Ottoman capital
Owing to a succession of remarkable sultans, the creation of an invincible elite force known as Janissaries (from the Turkish yeni ceri, or new troop.), and the weakness and disunity of neighbouring states, the Ottomans had enjoyed a lightning ascent to world power. They exploited the Muslims' eagerness to fight as gazis, or warriors in a holy war against Christians - a war which guaranteed opportunities for loot. Yet the rise of the Ottomans also cut across divisions between Muslims and Christians. Turks fought for Greeks and vice versa: indeed Ottoman Turks were first ferried across to Europe, in 1352, as mercenaries for the Emperor John Cantacuzenus in a Byzantine civil war. On five separate occasions Ottoman princes married Greek or Slav princesses (although the Conqueror, whose mother was a slave of either Christian or Jewish origin, had no imperial Byzantine blood in his veins). At first mercenaries of the Byzantine Emperor, the Ottomans soon became his rivals, helped by an alliance with the rich trading republic of Genoa. By 1366 the Ottoman capital had moved from Bursa in Asia to Edirne in Europe. In the next thirty years the Ottomans defeated the two great Orthodox monarchies of Bulgaria and Serbia, both of which had had ambitions to win Constantinople.
Expansion was briefly checked by the rise of a rival Turkish conqueror, Tamburlane, in central Asia. In 1402 he defeated and captured the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I - who did not always deserve his name Yildirim or thunderbolt. After Tamburlane's death, however, the Ottoman bid for world power resumed. Most of Anatolia and the Balkans were conquered. Constantinople became a Greek island in an Ottoman sea. Bayezid I and the Conqueror's own father Murad II both besieged it. It was a miracle that it had not already been taken.
After its fall, in accordance with Islamic law governing treatment of a city which had refused to surrender, the Sultan's troops were allowed to enslave and deport about 30,000 Christian inhabitants. Thousands more became `food for the sword'. The last Emperor Constantine XI died fighting, with the Roman Empire as his windingsheet. His chief minister, Lucas Notaras, was executed, either from fear that he would work for the Sultan's Western enemies, Venice and the Papacy, or because he refused to yield his son to the Sultan's pleasure. Most of the Greek and Venetian nobles remaining in the city shared his fate.
Constantinople had been taken by the sword; and until the end of the Ottoman Empire 469 years later force remained the Ottomans' principal means of control, as it did for other dynasties. Already in 1452, in preparation for the siege, the Sultan had designed and built the great fortess of Rumeli Hisari on the Bosphorus. `In all haste', between 1453 and 1455 the massive seven-towered citadel of Yedi Kule (Turkish for `seven towers') was built in the west of the city, where the land walls meet the Sea of Marmara. Its present abandoned condition gives no indication that once the Seven Towers was more feared than the Bastille or the Tower of London. It was a citadel where treasure was stored, enemy ambassadors imprisoned, the Sultan's enemies - and on occasion the Sultan - executed. It received its baptism of blood on 1 November 1463, when David Comnenus, last Greek Emperor of Trebizond on the Black Sea, suspected of correspondence with the Sultan's enemies, was murdered - together with six sons, a brother and a nephew - in front of his wife, the Empress Helena. Their corpses were then flung outside, where they were gnawed by local dogs. The Empress was fined for attempting to bury them.
No poet or traveller has been as intoxicated by Constantinople as the Conqueror. The Ottoman sultans already used Khan, Turkish for `emperor', in their title - as well as the Persian titles Padishah (Great King) and Shahinshah (King of Kings), and the Arabic Sultan (ruler). From 1453 Mehmed II, like his successors, also saw himself as heir to the Roman Empire and the only true Emperor in Europe. A few days after the siege, a Genoese living in the city wrote: `In sum he has become so insolent after the capture of Constantinople that he sees himself soon becoming master of the whole world and swears publicly that before two years have passed he intends to reach Rome.' Europe and Rome interested the Ottomans, as a field of expansion, more than Turkish-speaking territory in central Asia or the Caucasus. The Turkish metaphor for worldly dominion was the Red Apple. Before 1453 the Red Apple was believed to be the globe held in the right hand of a giant statue of the Emperor Justinian in front of Haghia Sophia. After the statue's destruction in 1453, the apple moved west and came to symbolize the Ottomans' next goal: the city of Rome. `To Rome! To Rome!' was the constant cry of Mehmed II's great-grandson Suleyman the Magnificent. For later sultans the Red Apple was Vienna, capital of the Habsburg Holy Roman emperors. Ottoman ambition had no rival. In comparison, the Shah of Persia was restrained, the King of France modest, and the Holy Roman Emperor provincial.
The Ottomans were also inspired by a desire to equal the glory of Alexander the Great. Mehmed II identified himself so strongly with Alexander that he commissioned a biography of himself in Greek, from a minor Greek official, Michael Kritovoulos, on the same paper and in the same format as the copy of Arrian's life of Alexander in his library, which was read to him `daily'. A Venetian envoy wrote that Mehmed II `declares that he will advance from East to West, as in former times the Westerners advanced into the Orient. There must, he says, be only one Empire, one faith and one sovereignty in the world. No place was more deserving than Constantinople for the creation of this unity in the world.'
The empire ruled from Constantinople by Mehmed II and his descendants was a dynastic state. Trapped in the prison of their own nationalism, Europeans often called the Sultan the `Grand Turk', and the Ottoman Empire `Turkey', as if it were a national state. Its official name conveys its dynastic essence: it was the `divinely protected' or `exalted' `domain of the House of Osman', or for short `tine Exalted', or `the Sublime State'. The governing elite of soldiers, officials and judges, and from the mid-nineteenth century all citizens, were called Ottomans, after the dynasty. Until the end of the nineteenth century, `Turk' was a pejorative term applied to Anatolian peasants.
As the Habsburg dynasty created Vienna, so was Constantinople a creation of the Ottomans. They required a world city, worthy of their empire. Mehmed II and his successors called themselves `world-conqueror', `the King of the World'. One of the favourite epithets, both of the sultans and their city, soon became alem penah, `refuge of the world'. It appeared appropriate to create a multinational capital for an empire which, it was later calculated, contained seventy-two and a half nationalities.
Multinationalism became the essence of Constantinople. A common literary device of Ottoman writers would be to compare the merits and looks of the many nationalities in the empire and its capital. In the fifteenth century national differences, based on history and geography more than race, could be acutely felt: Gennadios, first Oecumenical Patriarch under the Ottomans, called Greeks `a race than which there has been none finer on earth'. A medieval Polish proverb stated: `As long as the world is the world, the Pole will not be the German's brother.' Mustafa Ali, a prominent sixteenth-century historian, extolled as a source of strength the number of nationalities in the empire Turks, Greeks, Franks, Kurds, Serbs, Arabs and others. In the nineteenth century a minister of the Sultan, Cevdet Pasha, called the Ottoman Empire a great society `because its people spoke many languages and because it selected the best talents, customs and manners from among its various nations'. The variety of nationalities in Constantinople was proudly advertised in drawings, photographs and the composition of the Sultan's bodyguard; in the twentieth, in political processions and the deputation sent to depose a Sultan.
Realpolitik, however, was the principal reason for Constantinople's variety of nationalities. In his new capital the Conqueror needed a large and prosperous population to service the palace and the state machine. Yet there were not enough Muslim Turks for Constantinople to be a wholly Turkish city. The majority of the empire's population, at this stage, was Christian. Turks were needed throughout the empire, to people Balkan cities and the Anatolian countryside. Accordingly, so the historian Kritovoulos wrote, after 1453 the Sultan gathered people in Constantinople `from all parts of Asia and Europe, and he transferred them with all possible care and speed, people of all nations, but more especially of Christians. So profound was the passion that came into his soul for the city and its peopling, and for bringing it back to its former prosperity.' In the new capital each mahalle or quarter (the basic living unit of the city, with its own places of worship, shops, fountains and night-watchmen) kept, with the name of its inhabitants' city of origin, its special customs, language and style of architecture.
Turks were the first and largest group whom the Sultan brought to Constantinople. In the years following its capture in 1453 the city remained a ruin devastated by plague. The Sultan had to use an Ottoman technique known as surgun, or forced transfer of populations, to move Turks to his new capital. The chronicler Ashikpashazade wrote that the Sultan
Mehmed II personally went to Bursa to force artisans and merchants of this rich trading city to move to the capital. Laments still exist for the fate of the artists and craftsmen brutally transported from the comforts of the old Seljuk capital of Konya in Anatolia to the blood-stained city on the Bosphorus. At moments the Conqueror himself had qualms about his new prize, and withdrew to the former capital Edirne. Edirne had the treble attraction of tranquillity, proximity to hunting grounds and geography it was the natural mobilization centre for Ottoman campaigns in Europe. However, the Sultan's doubts did not last.
Like Constantine the Great eleven hundred years earlier, when he summoned senators from Rome to Constantinople, and Peter the Great two hundred and fifty years later, in St Petersburg, the Sultan ordered `the pillars of the empire' to move to his new capital. He told them `to build grant houses in the city wherever each chose to build. He also commanded them to build baths and inns and market-places and very many and very beautiful workshops, to erect places of worship.' Mahmud Pasha, the ablest statesman of his reign, was one of the first to build his own mosque, now embedded in the warren of hans (inns) and alleys beside the Grand Bazaar.
The Conqueror also imported Greeks. Some areas of the city had never lost their Greek population. Psamatya, present-day Koca Mustafa Pasha, in the south-west of the city near the walls, had surrendered separately. It was therefore spared pillage - which explains the large number of churches there today. In the centre of the city, its second largest church, the church of the Holy Apostles, burial place of Byzantine emperors and model for St Mark's in Venice, by the Sultan's express wish remained undamaged. Mehmed II was at war with neighbouring rulers, both Christian and Muslim, in Anatolia and the Balkans for most of his reign. He conquered Trebizond, the Crimea, Serbia, Euboea, and the rival Turkish state of Karaman in Anatolia. As his empire expanded, more Greeks were taken by force to Constantinople. Greek slave peasants (freed in the next century) were settled in villages outside the city in order to ensure its food supplies.
There was no religious barrier to Greeks and Turks living together. Christians are `people of the Book': their religion has been superseded by, but is not wholly alien to, the final revelation of Islam. Abraham and Mary are revered by Muslims; `Jesus on whom salvation be poured', as one Ottoman decree described him, is one of Islam's greatest prophets. According to Islamic law, as set out in the Koran, in return for paying a poll and other taxes, Christians received the status of zimmi, or protected persons, with the right to worship in freedom and to live by their own laws.
Mehmed II went further. Owing to disputes between supporters and opponents of reconciliation with the Pope, there was no Patriarch in Constantinople in 1453; the Sultan could have left the see vacant and let it disappear, as many Orthodox bishoprics in Ottoman Anatolia already had. But the Conqueror was the most open-minded monarch of his age. His originality was to revive the Oecumenical Patriarchate which had presided over the Orthodox Church from Constantinople since the fourth century.
One of the most learned and admired Orthodox churchmen was a Constantinople-born monk, George-Gennadios Scholarius. About 50 years of age, he had been leader of the Orthodox faithful opposed to union with Rome. Enslaved during the sack of Constantinople, he was treated with honour by his Turkish captors in a village near Edirne. There, in the words of Kritovoulos, confirmed by modern scholarship, the Conqueror sought him out, and gave him freedom and gifts: `In the end he made him Patriarch and High Priest of the Christians, and gave him among many other rights and privileges the rule of the Church, and all its power and authority no less than that enjoyed previously under the emperors.' He was consecrated and enthroned on 5 January 1454 in the church of the Holy Apostles.
The document of appointment has not survived, and later Greeks exaggerated the privileges bestowed on Gennadios: in an anteroom of the patriarchate in Istanbul today hangs an improbable picture of Mehmed II and Gennadios, embracing as equals. Nevertheless the Patriarch was henceforward a servant of the Ottoman Empire. On payment of a large fee, the new Patriarch received confirmation in person from the Sultan, who addressed him with the formula: `Be Patriarch with good fortune and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.'
There was a bargain. The Sultan protected the Patriarch from rival Slav Orthodox churches, and Muslim fanatics. In return the Patriarch helped raise taxes for the Sultan and, in theory, guaranteed the loyalty of the Greeks and prevented them aiding the empire's Catholic enemies, Venice and the Papacy, both of whom had assisted in the city's defence in 1453, and were trying to reconquer it. As head of the Orthodox community, the Patriarch administered a separate Orthodox legal system, based on Justinian's code, with the power to fine, imprison and exile. Although weaker and poorer than its Western equivalent the Vatican, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was more important for its flock. It was the symbol and institution which kept faith and hope alive: after the conquest of Constantinople, the rate of conversion to Islam in Ottoman domainsdiminished.
Mehmed II, who in all these measures took the initiative, appreciated Greek culture, as well as the prosperity Greeks could bring to his capital. Constantinople did, on occasion, serve as a door in the wall between Islam and Christianity. In either 1455 or 1456 the Sultan, with the dignitaries of his court, went to the Patriarch's residence and asked Gennadios to write an explanation of Christianity, which was translated from Greek into Turkish for the Sultan's benefit. Entitled A Short Outline of the Christian Faith, it is long and complex. It is hard for even a Christian to understand such remarks as `We believe that the Word of God and the man, which the Word of God put on, is the Christ; and whereas the life of Christ in his flesh was the life of a very holy man, the power of his wisdom and works was the power of God.' The Sultan nevertheless retained an interest in Christianity: among his collection of Christian relics were the cradle `in which Christ was born', which he told a Venetian envoy he would not sell for five hundred thousand ducats, and the armbone and skull of St John the Baptist.
Some of his followers were less broad-minded. A few months after his consecration, Gennadios found a dead Turk in the courtyard of the church of the Holy Apostles. Even the Sultan himself might not be able to protect the Patriarch from an angry Muslim crowd ready to think the worst of Christians. Gennadios moved the patriarchate, its relics and treasures to the twelfth-century brick church of the Theotokos Pammacaristos, the Joyful Mother of God, in the district of the Phanar along the shore of the Golden Horn. Since the Sultan had settled many Greek captives there, it was solidly Greek.
Armenians were another Christian element brought to Constantinople by the Sultan. They were a distinct nationality which had lived since at least the sixth century BC in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. Since the Ecclesiastical Council held at Chalcedon - modern Kadikoy - opposite Constantinople in 451, both Orthodox and Catholics have held the belief that Jesus Christ is of two distinct natures, human and divine. Armenians, however, are Monophysites who believe that Jesus Christ has one nature, at once human and divine. Their use of the Armenian language and alphabet maintained their distinct identity, despite the disappearance of the last Armenian kingdom in southern Anatolia in the fourteenth century. They were prominent in the eastern Mediterranean as jewellers, craftsmen (especially builders) and traders skills which naturally appealed to the Conqueror. Kritovoulos writes that Mehmed II `transported to the city those of the Armenians under his rule who were outstanding in point of property, wealth, technical knowledge and other qualifications and in addition those who were of the merchant class'. This is the Sultan's smooth official version. An Armenian merchant called Nerses, writing in 1480, blamed the Sultan for raising `an immense storm upon the Christians and upon his own people by transporting them from place to place ... I composed this in times of bitterness, for they brought us from Amasya to Konstandnupolis by force and against our will; and I copied this tearfully with much lamentation.'
Armenian tradition, reflected in an inscription on the facade of the present Armenian patriarchate in the Kumkapi district of Istanbul, asserts that Mehmed II appointed an Armenian Patriarch in Constantinople in 1461. In reality the Armenian Patriarch remained in Sis in Cilicia or Echmiadzin in the Caucasus, where he still is. Such historical myths are a tribute to the Armenians' desire to raise their position in the Ottoman Empire, and to Mehmed II's reputation as a supranational hero like Alexander the Great, whom different nationalities could invoke as a protector. Nevertheless as the Armenians grew in wealth and influence, the status of their bishop rose. By the seventeenth century he was recognized as an honorary Patriarch, or `prelate called Patriarch', and administered his own law-courts and prison like the Qecumenical Patriarch.
North of the Golden Horn, in every sense opposite to Constantinople itself, lay the wealthy district of Galata. Since the thirteenth century it had been controlled and inhabited by Genoese. It had become the Shanghai of the Levant: a semi-independent colony taking control of regional commerce from the dying Byzantine Empire, as Shanghai would do from the dying Chinese empire four hundred years later. In contrast to Constantinople proper, Galata (also known as Pera, from the Greek word for `beyond') resembled a small Italian city, with Catholic churches, straight streets, well-built stone houses, and a piazzetta. Its tallest building, which still dominates the skyline today, was the pointed Tower of Galata, a Gothic monument strayed to the banks of the Bosphorus. In 1453 Galata was more prosperous and densely populated than the Byzantine city south of the Golden Horn.
Genoa and the Ottoman Empire had long been allies. Nevertheless, many Galata Genoese had fought against the Ottomans; the Sultan said they had prevented him taking the city on the first day of the siege. Yet he was more interested in prosperity than revenge. A privilege he granted on 1 June 1453 in Greek to `the people of Galata and their noblemen' survives in the British Library. In return for submission, and payment of the poll tax, they would be protected subjects of the empire. They were allowed to keep their possessions, and `to follow their own customs and rites', except for `ringing their church bells and rattle' - a particular phobia of the Ottomans, who tolerated no competition to the call to prayer from the minaret. The citizens' weapons were confiscated, and part of the city wall was destroyed - all that survives today is a fragment near the Golden Horn, bearing the arms of the great Genoese house of Doria. Otherwise Galata was not punished. According to a letter written a few days later by the former podesta, or mayor, to his brother in Genoa: `He has also had lists made of all the property belonging to the merchants and citizens who have left here, saying "If they return, they shall have them back, and if not it will all belong to me."' Most returned.
The Sultan liked to have Franks (that is, western Europeans) at his court. For many years he used a wealthy alum merchant of Genoese origin, Francesco Draperio, as an unofficial diplomat (his family is commemorated today in the church of St Maria Draperis, on Istiklal Caddesi). So fond was the Sultan of Galata's Latin ambience that he once entered a Franciscan church and watched a mass.
As the Sultan's conquests extended, more Italians were brought to the city, in 1460 from Genoese colonies on the Aegean, and in 1475 from the Crimea. Italians, like Greeks, were useful to the Sultan. In the Adriatic and the Aegean he faced Venice, one of the great powers of the age, with a better navy than the Ottoman. Florence was the principal Italian rival of Venice. The Sultan therefore encouraged Florentines to move to Galata, granting them the houses of expelled Venetians; he even consulted the Florentine consul over his decision to declare war on Venice in 1463. That year the Florentines of Galata decorated their houses to celebrate the Ottoman conquest of the independent kingdom of Bosnia (which rapidly became an Ottoman bulwark, known as `the lion that guards the gates of Stamboul'). In 1465 the Sultan was the Florentines' guest at dinner in their chief trading depot, where he received `galanterie con tutte splendideza e magnificenza'. By 1469 fifty Florentine firms were operating in the Ottoman Empire. They imported silk, velvet, paper - most Ottoman documents were written on Italian paper - glass and fox pelts. Their main problems in `keeping the market moving'- a common phrase - came from plague and the Venetians, not the Ottomans.
The example of Galata shows that, in Constantinople, East and West could live together. The Ottoman Empire was never, as Braudel claims, `an anti-Europe, a counter-Christendom'. Galata's merchant dynasties - the Testa, Draperis, Fornetti - were the longest established families in the city. Turks called them `sweet water Franks', in contrast to `salt water Franks' from Europe. A body of twelve counsellors, the Magnifica Communita di Pera, managed the churches of the Catholic community. Merchants met twice a day to discuss business in the equivalent of the Exchange in London, the loggia of the Palazzo del Commune, a Gothic building modelled on the Palazzo San Giorgio in Genoa. When the empire was at peace with Venice, the Bailo (bailiff) of Venice ran a law-court for civil cases concerning Venetian subjects (and other Europeans), whose decisions were enforced by the Ottoman authorities. He also organized a postal service which left twice a month, by land through the Balkans, to Cattaro on the Dalmatian coast, and then by sea to Venice. Letters between the two cities generally took about a month to arrive.
Galata was a centre for pleasure as well as business. Every Lent there was a carnival: `One would think one was in a town in Italy,' wrote Marcantonio Pignafetta. Alvise Gritti was one of the many western Europeans who made his fortune on the banks of the Bosphorus. Born in Constantinople, where his father served as Venetian Bailo, debarred by illegitimate birth from a career in Venice, he lived in state in Galata (whose Turkish name Beyoglu, `son of the Bey', is said to come from the fact that his father was a Doge of Venice). A diplomatic agent of the Grand Vizier, and dealer in jewels, he was said to live as a Turk among the Turks and as a Christian among the Christians. In 1524, soon after his father became Doge in Venice, he gave a banquet in Constantinople for 300 guests, including Turks. They dined off deer, partridge and peacock. They were then entertained by women of Galata dancing with `such lascivious movements that they could make marbles melt', followed by a comedy, Psyche and Cupid, a tournament and a representation of the Portuguese occupation of Ceylon. A Turkish writer of the seventeenth century said of Galata, `Who says Galata says taverns - may God forgive us!': the beer iced, in summer, by snow brought from mountains above Bursa. Magnificently dressed, wearing all their wealth in jewels, the women kept the reputation, into the twentieth century, of the ability di fare di un santo un diavolo.
Thus from 1453 Constantinople was capital, not only of the Ottoman Empire and the Orthodox Church, but also of that commercial subculture, native to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, known as the Levant. Until the early nineteenth century Italian, language of commerce and the sea, was its second language, spoken by all Franks, most Greeks and Armenians, and some Turks. Numerous Italian nautical terms, such as caravel and bombarda, for types of ship, or iskele, from the Italian scala, for landing-place, entered the Turkish language. (In another reflection of the dominance of Italian, before 1830 English merchants referred to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean as `the scales of the Levant'.) A form of pidgin Italian, including French, Greek, Spanish, Arabic and Turkish words and known as Lingua Franca, was also common. Until the early twentieth century cries such as `Guarda! Guarda!' to avert collision, or `Monsu, arrivar!' to indicate arrival, could still be heard in the city. Under Mehmed II Galata was a subservient suburb. In years to come, it would exercise a powerful, finally an overpowering, influence on trade, culture and diplomacy in Constantinople.
Like other world cities - Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, Vienna in the nineteenth, New York in the twentieth - Constantinople also attracted Jews. The Jews of Constantinople had suffered like its other inhabitants from the conquest. Hebrew poems survive, lamenting their enslavement and deportation, and the cruelty of the Ottomans. To replace them most of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire were brought to Constantinople against their will, by surgun. Forbidden to leave without official permission, they regarded themselves as `ensnared in the net of captivity'. Until the nineteenth century, the surgunlu remained distinct in ritual and tax payments from the kendi gelen, those who came voluntarily.
For after 1453 Jews were encouraged to immigrate from Europe. A letter from one rabbi to his persecuted brethren in Europe burns with the fervour of a Zionist immigration prospectus, urging settlement in the Promised Land:
In `the refuge of the world', in contrast to western Europe, there were no restrictions on freedom of trade and few limits on the construction of synagogues. Jews soon flourished as perfumers, blacksmiths, carpenters and, in exceptional cases, tax farmers, bankers and doctors. With their new-found wealth they were able to outbid Christian and Muslim consortiums for the lease of Constantinople's customs. After the first decades, their history is that rarity in Jewish history, a happy story. In Constantinople the words pogrom, ghetto, inquisition had no meaning.
From the late fifteenth century to within living memory the centres of Jewish life in Constantinople were the districts of Balat and Haskoy on either side of the Golden Horn, which had contained Jewish populations before the conquest. It was said that `the lads of Balat are real strong youths, those of Haskoy are just dried raisins.' The synagogues dominated Jewish lives. They maintained the customs and rituals of the locality from which the worshippers came, ran local schools and benevolent societies and arranged the payment of taxes to the government. Rabbis acted as judges in the Jewish courts, which enjoyed remarkable independence and had the power to legislate for Jews.
The most successful Jew in Constantinople was a doctor, Giacomo di Gaeta, who had left the intolerance of Renaissance Italy for the haven of the Ottoman Empire. Physician to the Sultan, Yakup Pasha, as he was called after his conversion to Islam, won a privilege of tax exemption for himself and his descendants, whether Jewish or Muslim. Constantinople was a city of double identities. Like Gennadios, Alvise Gritti, and the Sultan himself, Yakup Pasha moved with ease between different worlds. He frequented not only the Sultan's palace, but also the house of the Venetian Bailo in Galata. There, probably on the Sultan's orders, he relayed disinformation to confuse Venetian policymakers, such as the claim, in 1465, that the Sultan had turned Christian.
Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Jews were brought to the city mainly for economic reasons. The dynastic state itself imported a fifth racial element. The Ottoman government was called the Gate, from the part of the ruler's palace most visibly associated with power: Ottoman government was seen as the administration of the state and of justice in front of the Sultan's gate by his extended household and administrators. The main body of the Sultan's officials and soldiers were slaves known as kapi kulu, or `slaves of the Gate'. Their composition reflected Ottoman faith in racial variety. They were youths between the ages of 8 and 16, conscripted according to need from the rural Christian population of the Balkans and, less frequently, Anatolia, by the process known as devshirme or `gathering'. They could not be Turkish. After the conquest of Bosnia in 1463, although the Koran forbade the enslavement of Muslims, Muslim Slavs could be `gathered'. Muslims of Turkish origin could not.
The youths' date of birth and details of parentage were recorded. They were then taken to Constantinople, circumcised and converted to Islam. The best looking and best born were educated in the palace school or a Pasha's household, and eventually entered government service. The others were `given to the Turk' - sent to farms in Anatolia to learn Turkish. They then worked as gardeners in the imperial palace, sailors in the imperial navy, or on building sites in the city. Eventually they joined the Janissaries. A force numbering some fifteen to twenty thousand, the Janissaries were the spearhead of the Ottoman army and the principal military and police force in Constantinople itself. They patrolled the walls, garrisoned the Seven Towers, enforced law and order, guarded the Patriarch and the Sultan himself.
Some Christian families were heart-broken to see their children `gathered'. There was a song:
More worldly families were delighted to see their children secure a footing on the Ottoman career ladder. Slavery was less degrading in the Islamic than in the Christian world. Devshirme youths educated in the Sultan's or viziers' households had the chance to occupy the highest posts in the empire - and look after their relations. `Slaves of the Gate' were free from many of the legal restraints imposed on other slaves in matters of marriage and property. It was the Bosnian Slavs themselves who demanded to remain eligible for `gathering', despite their conversion from Christianity to Islam. A Venetian Bailo wrote that the Janissaries `take great pleasure in being able to say "I am a slave of the Grand Signior", since they know that this is a lordship or republic of slaves where it is theirs to command'. A hundred years ago, might not selected Irish Catholic youths have felt a similar pride, if they had been converted to Protestantism, sent to Eton and then told to govern the British Empire as servants of the Queen Empress?
A specifically Ottoman practice, devshirme was particularly favoured by Mehmed II. An Italian wrote: `In this he shows a remarkable tenacity of purpose, as if by his own efforts he wished to produce a new people.' The process removed potential rebels and transformed them into loyal Ottomans. Moreover traditional Islamic `mirrors for princes', which were read by Ottoman bureaucrats, taught the advantages of racial variety. According to the Book of Government or Rules for Kings, if the Sultan employed different races, `all races endeavoured to surpass one another ... When troops are all of one race dangers arise; they lack zeal and are apt to be disorderly.'
Distrust of Turks was, however, the main reason for `gathering'. One inmate of the palace wrote: `There are few native-speaking Turks in the palace because the Sultan finds himself more faithfully served by Christian converts who have neither hearth nor home nor parents nor friends. They conceive such an affection for his service that if it were in their power they would voluntarily expose a thousand lives for the life of his person and the increase of his empire.' Many of the Turkish Muslim elite, on the other hand, pre-dated and envied the Ottomans: there had been ancient Turkish states in Anatolia, like Rum and Danishmend, when the Ottomans were new arrivals. Mehmed II had experienced the dangers of a powerful Muslim elite: after a first reign of two years, he had been deposed in 1446. Probably at the instigation of the Grand Vizier Candarli Halil, a cousin and member of a family which had supplied three grand viziers, his father Murad II had then returned to the throne for two years. Out of fear of Western reaction, the Grand Vizier had continued to oppose Mehmed II's decision to attack Constantinople: he called it the `follies of an intoxicated youth'. Soon after the siege, Mehmed II had him executed. Henceforth most grand viziers, and pashas, were `slaves of the Gate': only five of the first forty-eight grand viziers after 1453 were native-born Turks. In disgust some Turks called the Sultan's council, or dime, `the slave market'.
The presence of the Janissaries meant that many of the soldiers - and the great mosque builders and viziers - in Constantinople were Slavs. In 1542, according to a French traveller, in the palace `Sclavonian' (Serbo-Croat) was the language `most used and understood of all ... all the more since it is common to the Janissaries'. Contrary to what historians used to believe, slaves of the Gate were also able to straddle two worlds, maintaining contact from the capital with their family in the provinces. The Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasha, for example, conducted negotiations with Serbia in 1457. If they led to a favourable peace and a higher tribute for the Ottoman Empire, it was no doubt because the highest official in the Serbian court, the Grand Voivode Michael Angelovic, was his brother.
Some slaves of the Gate formed a Serb lobby in the capital, often in conflict with the Greek-dominated Patriarchate. The most prominent Constantinople Serb, and one of the most prominent figures of Ottoman history, was born Bajica Sokolovic in 1505, fifty years after the conquest,.in the small town of Visegrad on the Serbian-Bosnian frontier. A man of imposing presence, with a black beard and a hawk nose, he rose swiftly through the ranks of the devshirme, occupying successively the posts of falconer, Grand Admiral, vizier, Viceroy of Europe. Finally, from 1564 to 1579, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, as he had become, was Grand Vizier. Courteous, prudent, avaricious, he was a statesman with a world view. From his palaces in Constantinople he planned canals between the Don and the Volga and the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, in order to help Muslim states against Russia and Portugal respectively, sent munitions to Sumatra, helped select a new king for Poland, ordered pictures and clocks from Venice and arranged a successful peace with Spain, Venice and the Papacy, despite the Ottoman naval defeat at Lepanto, in 1573.
Yet he kept links with his Serb roots. He placed relations in the Ottoman central government and in 1557, at his insistence, the Serbian archbishopric of Pecs was revived, against the wishes of the Patriarchate: his brother was the first Archbishop. Himself destined for the priesthood when `gathered' for the Sultan, he is said, on occasion, to have accompanied his nephews to church, on their visits to Constantinople.
Architecture perpetuates the links between the two worlds of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. In Constantinople his wife Ismihan Sultan, daughter of Sultan Selim II, built him a masterpiece from the golden age of Ottoman architecture, the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha mosque by the old Roman hippodrome. Near his birthplace in Bosnia, the Grand Vizier himself commissioned an eleven-arched bridge over the River Drina, `one of the noblest spans you are likely to see'. Damaged in both world wars, twice rebuilt, it was finally destroyed by Croatian bombs in 1994.
Twenty-four years after the conquest, in 1477, a census was taken by the city judge of Constantinople, for the personal information of the Sultan. There were, in Constantinople and Galata: 9,486 houses inhabited by Muslims; 3,743 houses inhabited by Greeks; 1,647 houses inhabited by Jews; 434 houses inhabited by Armenians; 384 houses inhabited by Karamanians of Armenian appearance; 332 houses inhabited by Franks (all in Galata); 267 houses inhabited by Christians from the Crimea, and 31 houses inhabited by gypsies. In all there were perhaps 80,000 inhabitants (excluding the slaves of the Gate). Constantinople was a city which defied nationalism, in whose streets Greek, Armenian, Italian, Lingua Franca, Albanian, Bulgarian and Serbian, as well as Turkish, Persian and Arabic, were spoken.
The only multinational capital in Europe, Constantinople received names in more languages than any other city. Serbs, Bulgarians and Russians admired Tsarigrad - the city of Emperors. Armenians lived in Gosdantnubolis - the city of Constantine. In everyday language Greeks called it - as some still do - polis, the city: there is no other. Its official Greek name had been Constantinoupolis Nea Roma, after which Ottomans called it, on coins and most official documents, Kostantiniyye (which is also its name in Arabic). In literary Ottoman it was called Der-i Sa'adet, `the House of Good Fortune', since it had the good fortune to be the Sultan's residence, or Asithane, Persian for `house of state'. However its name, in everyday spoken Turkish, even before the conquest, was a corruption of the Greek phrase for `into the city', eis teen teen polin: Istanbul.
Heads and feet, as well as names, demonstrated the city's multinational character. The inhabitants of Constantinople, whatever their religion, generally wore simple robes or tunics, like those of Gulf Arabs today, but of darker colours. Over the tunic they wore a dolman of satin or linen, padded with cotton in winter, and a sash. They laughed at western Europeans who spoiled their clothes with trimmings, pleats and slashes.
Until the nineteenth century, in order both to demonstrate Muslim superiority and to foster national rivalries, the Ottoman government enforced distinctions of dress between the different communities. Only Muslims could wear white or green turbans and yellow slippers. Greeks, Armenians and Jews were distinguished respectively by sky blue, dark blue (later red) and yellow hats, and by black, violet and blue slippers. The rules governing the costume of religious minorities were regularly reasserted. In 1580, for example, `considering that their attitude from the point of view of the sheriat [Muslim holy law] and of logic should be humility and abjection',Jews and Christians were formally forbidden `to dress like Muslims', to wear silk, fur, or red shoes, and instead were enjoined to wear dark colours or blue. They were also repeatedly forbidden to live near mosques, to build tall houses or to buy slaves.
Such reiterations show that the rules were often flouted: the status of Muslims was so attractive that the minorities' desire to resemble them was irrepressible. Individuals could also buy exemption from dress regulations. However, for most people most of the time, the clothes they wore reinforced their sense of belonging to a specific community. Contrasts of feature could reinforce those of dress.
Most inhabitants of Constantinople still claim that they can tell by sight whether a neighbour is Turkish, Greek, Jewish or Armenian. In the nineteenth century, after the end of the dress laws, a travel-writer, Edmondo de Amicis, wrote that a Turk and Greek sitting beside each other, even if they were dressed in the same style, could at once be distinguished by the silent immobility of the former and the latter's `thousand changing expressions of life and eye' as he tossed his head `with the movement of a spirited horse'. In the first century of the empire, faces and gestures made plain the multinationalism of Constantinople.
In 1477, the year of the census, the creator of this multinational microcosm, Mehmed II, was 47. To a page at his court, Gian Maria Angiolello, he appeared `of medium height, fat and fleshy; he had a wide forehead, large eyes with thick lashes, an aquiline nose, a small mouth with a round copious reddish-tinged beard, a short thick neck, a sallow complexion, rather high shoulders and a loud voice'. After a reign of conquest he now had time to relax in his capital.
Like the city itself, he was a collection of contrasts: cruel and gentle, ruthless and tolerant, pious and pederast. He built schools and markets as enthusiastically as he ordered tortures and massacres. Regarding himself both as the supreme gazi, or warrior for Islam, and the new Alexander, he read, or listened to, the Koran, expositions of the Gospels, Persian poets, chronicles of emperors' popes and the kings of France, Arrian's life of Alexander, Homer, Herodotus, Livy and Xenophon. He treated language as an instrument of communication, not domination. Although not comparable to the great enemy of the Ottoman Empire, the Emperor Charles V, who was said to speak Spanish to God, French to gentlemen, Italian to ladies, and German to his horse, Mehmed II spoke Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and almost certainly had some knowledge of Greek and Serbo-Croat. In his poems he called himself not Fatih, the conqueror, but Avni, the herpes He was author of a typical Ottoman couplet:
Although he wrote and governed in Turkish, he revered Persian culture, which enjoyed some of the prestige, in the Muslim world, of French culture in eighteenth-century Europe. A further language was added to the polyphony of the city. Among the Persian scholars he attracted to Constantinople was the last great medieval Islamic astronomer, Ali Kuscu of Samarkand, who taught at the school attached to Aya Sofya. When Mehmed II discovered that another poet, although Persian-educated, was in fact Turkish in origin, the Sultan took away the ruined Greek church which had been given to him as a sign of favour.
Persian culture was so influential that Ottoman, the language of the palace and the governing elite, although Turkish in structure, was partly Persian - and Arabic - in vocabulary: in the 1920s only 37 per cent of words in the dictionary were of Turkish origin. The complexities of its vocabulary and sentence structure made the Ottoman language one of the principal barriers to the spread of literacy and of contact with the outside world. To heighten the contrast with the simple Turkish of the street, `gilded' expressions were deliberately employed. When a famous calligrapher died, for example, it was said that `the dots of his script became transformed into moles on the cheeks of the houris of Paradise'. There were few rebels. A sixteenth-century poet, Yahya Bey, refused to be `the dragoman of the Persians' or `to eat the food of dead Persians', and wrote in vigorous Turkish. Yet he was not Turkish but a Janissary, proud of his Albanian birth.
Mehmed II patronized Muslim scholars and theologians, often paying surprise visits to the college he founded beside his mosque, to listen to lectures and test teachers and pupils. Yet he was also a student of Greek philosophy, the greatest single patron of the Italian Renaissance medal, and the first Muslim ruler to appreciate Italian artists. Among the artists he invited to and employed in Constantinople were Matteo de' Pasti from Rimini, Maestro Paoli from Dubrovnik, and the medallist Costanzo da Ferrara.
In the last years of his reign Constantinople was diplomatically, commercially and culturally part of Europe. In 1479, after sixteen years of war, Mehmed II made peace with Venice. That September, in answer to his request for `e good painter', the Doge's official artist, Gentile Bellini, came to Constantinople and was presented to the Sultan by the Bailo of Venice. Having spent the previous five years repainting the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge's Palace, for the next year and a quarter he painted portraits of Mehmed II and his court and erotic frescos (cosi de lussuria) for the `inner chambers' of the palace the Sultan was building on the easternmost point of Constantinople.
By 1481, though only 48, the Sultan was emaciated and debilitated. Not even his viziers knew what country he was planning to conquer, when he died that year from blocked intestines, leading his army east from Constantinople into Asia. Certain circumstances attending his death make it likely that he was poisoned - possibly with the help of his Persian physician al-Lard, acting for his son Bayezid II.
His death left his capital at a crossroads. It was a city like a chemical experiment, containing disparate elements that could either combine or combust. In theory a multinational dynastic capital, in practice it attracted conflicts between nationalism and empire, ambition and realism, love of the city and the desire to transform or leave it.
1995 Philip Mansel
St. Martin's Press
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