The Ottomans ascendant: Constantinople & beyond
It took a decade for the dust to settle after Tamerlane departed, dragging a no-doubt chastened Beyazıt with him. Beyazıt’s sons wrestled for control until finally a new sultan worthy of his predecessors emerged. With Mehmet I at the helm the Ottomans regrouped and got back to the job at hand: expansion. With a momentum born of reprieve they scooped up the remaining parts of Anatolia, rolled through Greece, made a first attempt at Constantinople and beat the Serbs, this time with Albanian sidekicks, for a second time in 1448. The Ottomans had fully regained their momentum by the time Mehmet II became sultan in 1451. Constantinople, the last redoubt of the beleaguered Byzantines, stuck out like a sore thumb in the expanse of Ottoman territory. Mehmet, as an untested sultan, had no choice but to claim it. He built a fortress just along the Bosphorus, imposed a naval blockade on the city and amassed his enormous army. The Byzantines appealed forlornly and in vain to Europe for help. After seven weeks of siege the city fell on 29 May 1453. Christendom shuddered at the seemingly unstoppable Ottomans and fawning diplomats likened Mehmet to Alexander the Great and declared him to have assumed the mantle of the great Roman and Byzantine emperors. Thereafter the Ottoman war machine rolled on, alternating campaigns each summer between eastern and western borders of the empire. By this point Ottoman society was fully geared for war. The janissary system, by which subject Christian youths were converted and trained for the military, meant that the Ottomans had the only standing army in Europe. They were agile, highly organised and motivated. Successive sultans expanded the realm, Selim the Grim capturing the Hejaz in 1517, and with it Mecca and Medina, thus claiming for the Ottomans status as the guardians of Islam’s holiest places. It wasn’t all militarism and mindless expansion, however: Sultan Beyazit II demonstrated the essentially multicultural nature of the empire when he invited the Jews expelled from Iberia by the Spanish Inquisition to İstanbul in 1492. The Ottoman golden age came during the reign of Sultan Süleyman (1520–66). A remarkable figure, Süleyman was noted as much for codifying Ottoman law (he is known in Turkish as Süleyman Kanunı – law bringer) as for his military prowess. Under Süleyman, the Ottomans enjoyed victories over the Hungarians and absorbed the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and Tunisia; Süleyman’s legal code was a visionary amalgam of secular and Islamic law, and his patronage of the arts saw the Ottomans reach their cultural zenith. Süleyman was also notable as the first Ottoman sultan to marry. Whereas previously sultans had enjoyed the multifarious comforts of concubines, Süleyman fell in love and married Roxelana. More remarkably still, he remained faithful to her. Sadly, monogamy did not make for domestic bliss: palace intrigues brought about the death of his first two sons. A wearied Süleyman died campaigning on the Danube in 1566, and his body was spirited back to İstanbul.