A month after his twenty-first birthday, in April 1453, Mehmed II applies to Constantinople the stranglehold which has been a tacit threat for nearly a century, ever since the Ottoman capture of Adrianople (Edirne in its Turkish name) in 1362. He initiates a tight blockade of the city by both sea and land.
The inhabitants, as often before, place their faith in their immensely strong city walls. Only on the harbour side are these walls vulnerable, and the harbour (the long creek known as the Golden Horn) is protected by a great chain preventing enemy ships from entering. But the young sultan has an answer to that.
At dawn, one Sunday morning in May, the defenders on the walls are surprised to see Muslim ships in the harbour. During the night they have been dragged on wheeled carriages, on a temporary wooden roadway, over a 200-foot hill. Over the next few days cannon are moved into place, including one 19-ton bombard. At sunset on May 28 the attack begins. Every bell in the city rings the alarm. Santa Sophia is full of people praying and singing Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy).
By dawn the Turks are in the city. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, has died in the fighting.
Mehmed, the sultan, goes straight to Santa Sophia to hear a proclamation from the pulpit – that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. The great church, for many centuries the most magnificent in Christendom, now begins its career as a mosque. And Constantinople gradually acquires a new name; the urban area, widely referred to in everyday Greek as eis tin polin (in the city), becomes Istanbul.
The Ottoman army is allowed three days of pillage (a depressing convention of medieval warfare), but Mehmed keeps it under tolerable control. He has acquired a capital for his empire. He intends to preserve and improve it.
In an honourable Muslim tradition, he plans a multicultural and tolerant city. The population is much reduced, after decades of fear and uncertainty, so Mehmed brings Greeks from the Aegean (soon another part of his domain) to revive the place. The Greek Orthodox patriarch is left in charge of his flock. And when the Jews in Spain are expelled, in 1492, many of them come to Istanbul where it is official policy to welcome them.
Mehmed launches into a busy building programme, founding several mosques and beginning Topkapi Sarayi in 1462 as his own palace. Constantinople, transformed into Istanbul, is set to be a great imperial centre again. It has exchanged one empire for another, Byzantine for Ottoman.
Ottoman expansion: 16th century AD
Throughout the 16th century, from Budapest and Vienna in the west to Tabriz and Isfahan in the east, the political situation depends largely on which of Turkey’s neighbours is best resisting the expansionist tendencies of the Ottoman empire.
If the Turks are fighting the Persians, the Balkans may be relatively quiet; if the sultan’s janissaries are engaged against the Hungarians and their allies, Persia has a respite. Later a northern neighbour, Russia, becomes another factor in this constant jostling for space.
During the reign of Bayazid II, son of Mehmed II, the Turkish thrust is mainly to the west. Hercegovina is occupied in 1483 (joining Bosnia, taken by Mehmed twenty years earlier). The Venetians are driven out of Albania in 1501.
During the reign of Bayazid’s son, Selim I, the focus shifts to the east where Ismail I, founder of the new Safavid dynasty in Persia, is becoming a threat. After defeating the Persians in 1514, Selim embarks on a bold undertaking. He invades the extensive territories of the Egyptian Mamelukes. By 1517 he has achieved a resounding victory, bringing Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt under Ottoman control.
Selim is followed as sultan, in 1520, by his son Suleiman I. Turkish attention now returns to the west. In 1521 Suleiman captures Belgrade. In 1526 he crushes the Hungarians at Mohacs. In 1529 he even besieges Vienna, albeit unsuccessfully.
In 1534-5 Suleiman turns east to engage in a rapid campaign, dislodging the Persians from much of Mesopotamia and capturing the city of Baghdad. In 1541-3 he is back fighting in the west. He takes the ancient fortress and town of Buda, making it the capital of an Ottoman province in central Hungary which will last for more than a century.
Turkish campaigns later in the 16th century lead to substantial peace treaties on both frontiers. From 1578 Ottoman armies press so far east into Persian territory that they reach the Caspian. In 1590 the Persian shah, Abbas I, cedes Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Turkish sultan.
Similarly a campaign in the west, from 1593, results in a peace of 1606 with Habsburg Austria. By this time the Balkans, as far west as a line from Budapest down to the coast at Dubrovnik, are either under Turkish control or are paying annual dues to Istanbul as vassal states.
Such frontiers are never stable for long, and there is much adjustment – often to Turkey’s disadvantage – during the next two centuries. But in the early years of the 17th century the Ottoman empire stretches from Buda in the west to the Caspian in the east (with the client states of Walachia and Moldavia bringing the Turkish domain up round the Black Sea as far as the Crimea). From the Caspian the frontier goes south through Mesopotamia, to encompass the whole of Arabia and Egypt.
Beyond Egypt the Ottoman territory extends west along the Barbary coast to Algeria. This is a Muslim empire even larger than that established by the caliphs.
The great islands lying off Turkey are also brought into the Ottoman fold. Rhodes is taken early, in 1523, but the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1570 prompts a vigorous Christian response. A joint Spanish and Venetian fleet defeats the Turks decisively at Lepanto in 1571. It proves a hollow victory. Only two years later, in 1573, Venice cedes the island to Turkey. But almost a century passes before the Turks, in 1669, finally evict the Venetians from another great prize, Crete.
Of the island staging posts to the east, so carefully accumulated by Venice, only the Ionian group (including Corfu, Cephalonia and Zante) escapes Turkish encroachment.
The Ottoman empire and Napoleon: AD 1798-1799
During the 18th century Turkish involvement in European affairs is limited mainly to the immediate neighbours. There is a succession of wars with Russia and constant adjustment to the frontier with Austria in the Balkans. But in 1798 the Ottoman empire finds itself unavoidably caught up in Europe’s great war of the time, when Napoleon decides to invade Egypt as an indirect method of harming British imperial interests.
The Ottoman governor of Egypt and his unruly Mameluke forces are ill-prepared to cope with such an invasion, though the condition of Napoleon’s army does much to level the odds – after being shipped from France and marching south through the desert, from Alexandria to Cairo, in the midsummer heat.
It is a profoundly demoralized invading force which finally confronts the Mameluke army at Giza on July 21. But the French are arranged by Napoleon on the open terrain in solid six-deep divisional squares, and their fire-power slices with devastating effect through the wild charges of the Egyptian cavalry. Victory in the Battle of the Pyramids delivers Cairo to Napoleon.
While emphasizing his respect for Islam, Napoleon sets about organizing Egypt as a French territory with himself as its ruler, assisted by a senate of distinguished Egyptians. All is going according to his plan. His team of scientists can now begin to look about them (in the following year, 1799, a French officer finds the Rosetta stone).
But there is already a major snag. Some ten days after Napoleon’s victory, Nelson finally comes across the warships of the French fleet – at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near the western mouth of the Nile. On August 1, in the Battle of the Nile, he destroys them as a fighting force (only two French ships of the line survive).
Napoleon, master of Egypt, is stranded in his new colony. He has no safe way of conveying his army back to France. Moreover he has provoked a new enemy. Turkey, of whose empire Egypt is officially a part, declares war on France in September 1798. In February news comes that a Turkish army is preparing to march south through Syria and Palestine to attack Egypt. Napoleon moves first.