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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

“The Grand Turk: Sultan Mehmet II Conqueror of Constantinople, Master of an Empire”, by John Freely


288 pages, Publisher: I.B.Tauris & Co., Ltd., ISBN-13: 978-1845117047

On February 13th, 1472, a Sicilian terrorist called Antonello, acting in the Venetian interest, landed at Gallipoli, then the site of the Turkish arsenal, and managed to burn it to the ground. Arrested and brought before Sultan Mehmet, Antonello denied the involvement of the Venetians, and said that “the sultan was the plague of the world, that he had plundered all his neighbor princes, that he had kept faith with no one, and that he was trying to eradicate the name of Christ. And that was why he, Antonello, had taken it into his head to do what he had done…[Sultan Mehmet] listened to him with great patience and admiration: then he gave orders that he and his companions should be beheaded.”

Those reading John Freely's lively biography may well end up concluding that Antonello's summary of the man whom those in the West knew as the Grand Turk was pretty accurate. When Mehmet became Sultan in February 1451 at the age of 18, one of the first things he did was to visit his father's harem where he engaged the mother of his two year old half-brother in polite conversation whilst his men strangled the latter in his bath, justifying this by precedent, and thereafter enacting that “to whomsoever of my sons the sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that, for the order of the world that he shall kill his brothers. Most of the ulema allow it. So let them act on this.” Two years later, Mehmet took Constantinople, and extinguished the dying embers of the Byzantine Empire: “The Sultan entered the City and looked about to see its great size, its situation, its grandeur and beauty, its teeming population, its loveliness, and the costliness of its churches and public buildings; and when he saw what a large number of people had been killed, and the wreckage of the buildings, and the wholesale ruin and desolation of the City, he was filled with compassion and repented not a little of the destruction and the plundering: tears fell from his eyes as he groaned deeply and passionately: ‘What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.’” The following 25 years was an almost unbroken history of warfare in which Mehmet carried Muslim arms as far west as Vienna, the Friuli, and Otranto, narrowly failing to capture Rhodes (a distinction that would fall to his great grandson, Suleiman the Magnificent). Everywhere he went there was fire, demolition, rape, murder, pillaging, beheadings, impalings, enslavement, and the transportation and resettlement elsewhere of the populations of whole towns and districts. The divided western powers looked on, trembled, wrung their hands, talked about crusades and stabbed one another in the back.

It is remarkably difficult to form a personal impression of anyone who lived in the ages that preceded general literacy, but Mehmet's ambition, energy and cruelty shine through. Kritoboulos of Imbros, who knew Mehmet, and was in his service, wrote “when he became heir to a great realm and master of many soldiers and enlisted men, and had under his power already the largest and best parts of both Asia and Europe, he did not believe that these were enough for him nor was he content with what he had: instead he immediately overran the whole world in his calculations and resolved to rule it in emulation of the Alexanders and Pompeys and Caesars and kings and generals of that sort.” A Venetian emissary to Istanbul confirms this account: “Mehmet's appearance,' he wrote, “inspires fear rather than respect…He aspires to equal the glory of Alexander the Great, and every day has histories of Rome and other nations read to him…There is nothing which he studies with greater pleasure and eagerness than the geography of the world, and the art of warfare; he burns with the desire to rule, while being prudent in his investigation of what he undertakes.” Mehmet's own son and successor, Beyazit II, was heard to say that “his father was domineering and did not believe in the Prophet Mohammed”.

This is a well-researched and pretty readable biography – the qualification stems from the short, repetitive, but nevertheless intricate summaries of occasionally inconclusive campaigns and court politics. John Freely has lived and worked in Istanbul for at least 40 years, and is the author of the best guide to the City. Claims that the book supersedes Franz Babinger's Mehmet the Conqueror and his Time are absurd, but for the general reader this is probably the book to read. The opening and penultimate chapters contain potted accounts of the Ottoman dynasty pre-and-post-Mehmet, and passages in the final chapter, which deals with the monuments of Mehmet's period, are lifted almost verbatim from the guide book. Chapter 8, A Renaissance Court in Istanbul, is quite, quite excellent. By contrast, the illustrations are poorly reproduced, and the maps are muddily printed, insufficiently detailed, and quite, quite useless for following the text: Sultan Mehmet would not, I fear, have been impressed.

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