Today we begin our history of the Sultans, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, with Mehmet II.
Mehmet was born in Edirne in 1432 and actually ruled as Sultan from 1444 – 46 but we aren’t counting that as it was before the fall of Constantinople. In 1444 his father Sultan Murat, himself a mere 40 years old at the time, stepped down and made Mehmet ruler in his place when the boy was only thirteen. It didn’t work and in 1446 Murat was forced to return from his early retirement and become Sultan again. Mehmet’s second chance as ruler in 1451, following the death of his father, led to the conquest of Constantinople and Mehmet being known as ‘Fatih’ – the Conqueror.
He immediately set about re-establishing Constantinople as the glorious heart of an Empire, as it had fallen into ruin during the latter decades of Byzantine rule. He started the building of a new imperial palace, ordered the construction of the Yedi Kule (Seven Towers) fortress just inside the city walls on the Marmara Sea, and encouraged people to immigrate from all areas of his empire to repopulate the city. For the first three years of his reign he was away fighting most of the time, only dashing back to Istanbul occasionally to check on progress with his building works. In 1455 he ordered the construction of the huge covered bazaar area known as Kapali Carsi. By 1459 his army had captured Athens and Mehmet actually went there on a sight seeing trip. In the same year he started construction of the mosque complex that bears his name, Fatih Camii, the building of Topkapi Palace and the mosque at Eyup at the top of the Golden Horn, a site of pilgrimage for all Muslims to this day as it includes the grave of Mohammed’s standard bearer.
Over the next twenty years Mehmet consolidated his empire by conquering the last pocket of Byzantine Christianity in Trabzon and was also seen as a patron of the arts, particularly literature. In 1479 he asked the Doge of Venice to send a ‘good painter’ to the Ottoman court and in September Gentile Bellini arrived in Constantinople and painted the portrait shown above, which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
By 1480 Mehmet was ill as a result of his over-indulgent lifestyle, and in spring 1481 when he set out on yet another campaign, he had barely left the Asian suburbs of Constantinople when he collapsed with severe abdominal pain and died on the following day, 3 May. He would be succeeded by his son Beyazit.