Mehmed II - Ottoman Sultan

Mehmed II (reigned 1444–46; 1451–81) was only 12 years old when his father, Murad II, abdicated to pursue a life of religious contemplation (following Sufi or Islamic mysticism) and appointed him sultan in 1444.

Faced with a threatening battle at Varna, Mehmed called his father back from central Anatolia to lead the troops. When his father died in 1451, Mehmed resumed the throne. Noted for the many military victories throughout his life, Mehmed was known as al-Fatih or the Conqueror.

Mehmed was only in his early 20s when he launched the successful siege of Constantinople, the Byzantine capital that the Ottomans had previously failed to conquer. In a siege that lasted over 50 days, the Ottomans mounted a major assault with over 200 ships and at least 50,000 well-trained soldiers. Ottoman cannon bombarded the walled city that had been considered impregnable.

A fortress, Rumeli Hisari, was constructed on the northwest coast of the Black Sea to prevent reinforcements from assisting the besieged city. To circumvent the long chain that blocked the waterway into the Golden Horn, Mehmed transported seafaring galleys over a long greased planked road built north of the city and used a pontoon bridge to take troops across.

After some weeks the Ottomans broke through the city walls and met with little resistance from the inhabitants, who had vainly hoped for outside reinforcements. Rather than the customary three days allotted to soldiers taking a conquered city, Mehmed only allowed his troops a few hours of pillaging in the city. He entered the city with great pomp and promptly offered prayers at the great Byzantine basilica, Aya Sophia, which was then turned into a mosque.

Although he was known, especially on the battlefield, for his furious temper, Mehmed was generous in victory, granting autonomy to the Greek Orthodox residents of city and permitting the return of those who had fled prior to the siege. Mehmed also encouraged others to move into his new capital, known to the Turks as Istanbul.

Accession of Mehmed II in Edirne 1451
Accession of Mehmed II in Edirne 1451

Mehmed made Istanbul a major entrepôt and center of learning and culture. He established new schools, hospitals, caravanserai, and soup kitchens. He saw himself as the heir to the Roman Empire and viewed his empire as the guardian of Islam, whose duty it was to protect Muslims everywhere. Islam was the source of legality of his new great empire.

Under Mehmed, the empire developed a centralized administration; the janissary corps was enlarged while the many religious and ethnic minorities within the empire were treated with leniency and fairness.

Mehmed also encouraged skilled artisans and intellectuals escaping Muslim Spain after it fell to the Reconquista to settle in Istanbul. He granted monopolies over the sale of basic necessities to private individuals and used these revenues to bolster the Ottoman treasury.

Well educated, Mehmed spoke numerous languages and was interested in the study of military tactics, especially the exploits of Alexander the Great. Unusually for a Muslim leader who generally eschewed physical representations, Mehmed also hired the famed Venetian artist Gentile Bellini to paint his portrait.

Under Mehmed, the Ottomans dominated all of the Balkans to the Danube River and all of Anatolia, but he failed to defeat the Mamluks in Syria. Mehmed died preparing for a campaign to take the island of Rhodes and southern Italy and was succeeded by his son Bayezid II.