For years the Seljuk Turks and later, the Ottoman Turks, from origins similar to those of their predecessors, after having pushed back the Byzantine Empire to its stronghold on the Bosphorus, had been attempting to gain entrance to the capital. Finally, on May 29, 1453, Mehmet II earned his title Fatih, The Conqueror. The Byzantine Empire had fallen; Constantinople was now a Moslem city under the control of the Ottomans. Fatih Mehmet set immediately to work at converting the city into his own capital. One of his first acts after entering the city was to declare the Church of Saint Sophia a mosque. The Ottoman armies had greatly outnumbered the city defenders by ten to one and were armed with heavy artillery pieces with which thay had pounded the city walls. But Sultan Mehmet’s success is largely attributed to his uncanny strategy.
The year before, in 1452, he had constructed a fortress, Rumeli Hisar, on the European shore of the Bosphorus, just across from the older Anatolian fortress, Anadolu Hisar. The Ottoman armies were able to cross freely at this narrow point on the strait, and, at the same time, cut off the Byzantine supply routes from the Black Sea. The Golden Horn, a narrow strip of water separating two sections of the city today, had been chained off to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor. But Mehmet’s troops dragged some seventy light ships overland from the Bosporus to positions inside the Horn. From here, they ferried themselves across to the land walls and attacked, requiring Emperor Constantine XI to divide his forces. Constantine was killed in the final attack, but many of the Byzantine defenders escaped on Italian merchant vessels.
Mehmet had been well-educated and was apparently a great leader with unusual intellectual tastes unusual in contrast with the six Ottoman Sultans that preceeded him. He treated the population of Constantinople with great leniency, allowing the Greek and Armenian minorities a measure of autonomy over their communities. He transformed churches into mosques, built the Old Saray or palace at the site of present-day Istanbul University and the New Saray, Topkapi Palace. And he succeeded in laying out a complete system of administration and education by which to run the conquering Ottoman Empire.
We will not dwell on the next two succeeding sultans, Beyazit and Selim the Grim, but skip on instead to the one considered the greatest of Ottoman sultans Suleyman the Magnificent, the Lawgiver. Suleyman reigned from 1520 to 1566, a period that is thought to mark the pinnacle of Ottoman rule. In addition to constructing Suleymaniye Camii, the largest and one of the most lovely of Istanbul’s mosques, he put together a unique system of legal apparatus and codes. Education and the arts were emphasized during Suleyman’s reign as Sultan. This was also the period of Sinan, the architectural genius who designed Suleyman’s great monument and hundreds of other mosques, bridges and lesser edifices.
The long period which followed Suleyman the Magnificent’s rule was one of internal crisis and decline with a gradual weakening of the Sultan’s authority. Institutional faults developed as laws and regulations were disregarded. The empire existed with Istanbul as its capital into the 20th century, but it was badly decayed and dying. The last of the Ottoman Caliphs Abdulmecit, was banished along with all members of the Ottoman dynasty in 1924. By this time, the Republic of Turkey had been proclaimed and the capital moved to Ankara on the Anatolian plain.