It has been exactly 540 years since the passing of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II but his works and effects can still be observed today. Centuries later, he still occupies discussions as if he were alive, as is the case with the Hagia Sophia, which a Turkish court decided was unlawfully converted into a museum when the will of its endower, Sultan Mehmed II, was violated.
Much like other leading historical figures revered throughout history, an interesting story lies at the heart of the regent’s success.
Mehmed II, the Ottoman emperor whose achievement in having conquered Istanbul earned him the immortal title of “conqueror” when he was a mere 21 years old sent the Byzantine Empire into the dusty pages of history, levelling up the Turkish state into an empire that would reign over multiple regions across three continents for centuries to come.
In a brief life of just 49 years, the conqueror managed to leave an indelible mark on history and his legacy still lives on today.
It all started when he was fed up with political complaints, his father, Mehmed Murad II, after losing his eldest son, abdicated the throne in 1444 and urged Mehmed II to be the empire’s new leader at the tender age of 12.
However, Mehmed’s first reign came to an end only two years later, as Murad II returned to the throne following tension and turmoil in the conquered territories, especially in the European region, and the threat from Crusaders led people to wish for a more experienced leader.
After leaving the throne to his father, Mehmed II returned to Manisa in the Aegean region, where he got married and continued to develop his intellect. The young royal also gained military insight by joining his father at the Battle of Kosovo in 1448.
When his father died in 1451, Mehmed II ascended to the throne once more, yet this time with many lessons learned and a degree of experience under his belt.
His eyes were fixed on the conquest of Constantinople – then the Byzantine capital. He immediately launched preparations for the coming battle.
The sultan assembled a large army, with over 200,000 soldiers and appeared before the city’s strong walls with full confidence.
He surrounded the city by both sea and land and then made an unexpected move: He had warships dragged overland around the city’s Galata area – then a small Genoese merchant colony – on modern Istanbul’s European side.
The military campaign continued for more than 50 days, spearheaded by massive assaults with cannons, which he helped invent and perfect, pounding the walls to open a hole through which soldiers could breach the city.
On May 29, the city finally fell, earning Mehmed II the well-deserved title of “conqueror.”
In subsequent years he also ensured Ottoman control over Serbia, Morea, Trebizond (Trabzon in the northern region of modern Turkey), Bosnia, Albania and some Anatolian (central Turkish) territories, increasing Ottoman control to over 2.2 million square kilometres (1.4 million square miles) of territory.
Mehmed II’s swan song victory came in 1480, when he triumphed in Otranto, Italy, and was next planning moves to draw closer to Rome. However, fate had other plans and the conqueror died on May 3, 1481.
While the great Ottoman emperor is mostly remembered for the dazzling military conquests of his reign, he was also a true intellectual.
Mehmed is believed to have spoken Persian, Arabic, ancient Greek and Italian – which is viewed by many as a sign suggesting his desire to form an empire spanning the West and East alike.
Turkish historians say his library included books on such topics as geometry, religion, engineering, astronomy, arithmetic, archaeology, geography and philosophy.
Known to be a poet, the conqueror also had a great interest in the arts, having commissioned Renaissance painter Bellini to do his portrait.
Homer’s Iliad was among the books in his library, and Ptolemy’s ancient world map is believed to have been one of the gems of his collection.