Herr von Steuben,
I hope this letter finds you in good health, Helmut. I have finally finished the last of my research in the near east, and I am sure that you will be glad to hear that the first portion of my manuscript is contained in the package this letter came with. I mailed it from Constantinople as soon as it was finished, as I still had a few errands to take care of before I left and didn't want to delay you more than I already have.
I know that you and the publishers have been more than generous with your time allowances for my extensive research trips, but I can assure you that I truly feel that The Sublime State: A History of The Ottoman Empire will be the definitive work on the Ottoman Empire. I hope you will excuse the quite messy nature of this rough draft, but under the circumstances I felt that time was of the essence and did not do my usual self-editing. I beg your indulgence for that, but it couldn’t be helped.
Tomorrow I board the train back to Berlin, and should finish the second portion on the long ride back. I wish I was there to see Wilhelm’s face when you show him the first part of my manuscript! He bet me 15 Marks that I would never get it done before the publishers cancelled my contract.
Say hello to Anna for me, and I hope to see you within the week.
May 17, 1854
The Young Conqueror
Stubborn in his purpose, and bold in everything, he aspires to no less fame than that of Alexander the Great. He has read to him by two Italians in his service the histories of Rome and other nations. He speaks Turkish, Greek and Slavonic. Eager for information about the Western world, he possesses a map showing the realms and provinces of Europe… he declares that there must be but one empire in the world, one faith, one monarchy – and that to realise this unity there is no place more worthy than Constantinople.
- The Italian Languschi describing Mehmet II on his rise to power in 1451 at age 19.
On May 29, 1453 AD the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI died; he did not die alone, for with him the Roman state, with nearly two millennia of history behind it, perished as well. It had not been and easy or peaceful death as the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire had been dying for a very long time indeed. On that Tuesday the Ottoman Turks under the command of the young Sultan Mehmet II, given the apt epithet ‘the conqueror’, delivered the final killing blow to the long suffering Byzantines.
The extent of the Ottoman Empire, c. 1458
Constantinople, the great bulwark of Christendom, the jewel of the east, the Queen of Cities and inspiration for many a lovers poem fell after a mere two months of siege. The city once referred to as New Rome fell to “barbarians” from the east just as its predecessor had a thousand years before, and soon a wave of fear and shock swept through the Christian nations, creating renewed cries for a crusade to retake the city from the heathen Turk. Such a masterful twist of irony that the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim had created such strong desires to crusade for its liberation. Ironic because the demise of the Byzantine Empire, a long, slow, and drawn out process, had begun when Christian crusaders during the Fourth Crusade succeeded in sacking the city on their way to fight Muslims in the Holy Land.
On the third day after the fall of our city, the Sultan celebrated his victory with a great, joyful triumph. He issued a proclamation: the citizens of all ages who had managed to escape detection were to leave their hiding places throughout the city and come out into the open, as they were remain free and no question would be asked. He further declared the restoration of houses and property to those who had abandoned our city before the siege, if they returned home, they would be treated according to their rank and religion, as if nothing had changed.
-George Sphrantzes, Byzantine Historian (1401-1478)
I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, Padishah [Emperor] of the mighty Ottoman Turks, Caesar of Rome, hereby declare the whole world that,
The Jews of the realm granted with this sultanate firman are under my protection. And I command that:
No one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their temples! They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. No one from my empire notable, viziers, clerks or my maids will break their honour or give any harm to them!
No one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and temples of these people!
Also, what and those these people have brought from their own countries have the same rights...
By declaring this firman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the ground and sky, Allah's prophet Mohammed, and 124.000 former prophets that; no one from my citizens will react or behave the opposite of this firman!
-Oath firman declared by Mehmet II, 1459
The young Sultan Mehmet II was one of the finest monarchs of his age: learned, diplomatically adroit, and a fine military commander. He possessed a keen intellect and a voracious appetite for learning: by the time Mehmet had conquered Constantinople at age twenty-one he already spoke seven languages and would go on to found multiple schools and colleges within Constantinople.
The Ottomans had come as conquerors, destroying the Roman Empire to replace it with their own. But Mehmet was more than just a mindless barbarian warlord, for Mehmet had more far reaching goals than to just loot and pillage. For Mehmet saw himself as nothing less than the true heir to the Roman Imperial throne, and his goals were to see the Ottoman Empire inherit what Rome had once possessed.
To this end Mehmet found ways incorporated many parts of the existing Byzantine administration into the Ottoman state apparatus, kept the Byzantine Orthodox Church operating, and began to invite men from outside his realm to travel to Constantinople: Italian artists, Greek philosophers, and Muslim scientists were all found within the cities rebuilt walls. Entire Jewish communities emigrated to Turkish lands, hoping to escape the conditions imposed on them by their Christian rulers. Frescoes and artwork began to fill Constantinople, helping to rebuild the city’s glory after centuries of decline, as if Mehmet felt that he needed to prove that the Ottoman’s were worthy successors to the Roman heritage by indulging in lavish public works.
But although the Ottoman state was constructing a tolerant society by medieval standards, the sultan valued stability for the growing empire more than individual liberties. Mehmet had Imam’s issues decrees against sect practices, hoping to ensure a more centralized set of religions within the empire. The sultan hoped that by targeting the more extreme or undesirable elements of the different religions while in the fringe he could avoid having their beliefs spread further through the state.
Mehmet was no fool; although he was possessed of a romantic attachment to the idea of recreating Rome, Mehmet knew that more practical measure would be necessary to keep the empire together by centralizing power and keeping subversive groups from gaining ground. Ever since conquering Constantinople and moving the center of Ottoman government there he had ruthlessly made moves to consolidate power into his own hands and away from the sometimes fickle Turkish nobility: from executing the grand vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha mere days after the walls of Constantinople fell to expanding the devşirme system to slowly replace the nobility with a dedicated and well trained bureaucracy and the unreliable ghazis with a military of greater ability, loyal to the sultan alone.
The foundation was laid, but would take time to pay off. Meanwhile, the strength of Albanians opposed to Ottoman rule had grown so much that Mehmet could no longer ignore the problem. The Albanian’s had been a thorn in the Ottoman’s side for decades, as frequent revolts and resistance to Ottoman dominion had made them unruly subjects. Immediately dismissing the governor of that region for his failure to suppress the rebels, the young monarch gathered his army and marched from Constantinople early in the spring of 1459, hoping to crush the rebels swiftly and avoid letting the conflict drag on into the winter months. There was already talk amongst the empire’s Christian neighbors that the Ottoman’s had overextended themselves, and that the time was ripe to attack. Mehmet knew that by swiftly crushing the rebels he would send a message of strength to his neighbors and therefore avoid any conflicts before the nation was ready.
- Johannes Krieger, The Sublime State: A History of The Ottoman Empire; vol. 1