Rise of the Ottoman Empire

The conquests of Mehmed II established the Ottoman Empire as the greatest military power in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. After his seizure of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans transformed the city, now known as Istanbul, into the vibrant political, commercial, and cultural center of the Western Islamic world.

Summary of Event

By the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was a significant but not yet dominant power in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean basin. Because of the military campaigns of Sultan Murad II (r. 1421-1451), the Turks, who formed the core of the Ottoman Empire, came to rule much of northern and western Anatolia directly. The empire had continued its expansion into Europe—known as Rumeli, “the land of the Romans”—but there the sultan exercised only a limited suzerainty over many Muslim and Christian vassals. Ottoman Empire
Mehmed II
Constantine XI Palaeologus
Gennadius II Scholarios
Uzun Ḥasan
Mehmed II
Constantine XI Palaeologus
Uzun Ḥasan
Ahmed Pasha
Bellini, Gentile
Ferrara, Costanzo de
Bayezid II
Candarli Halil Paşa
Gennadius II Scholarios

A depiction of the death of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1481. Mehmed’s sack and control of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The Byzantine Empire had been truncated but not destroyed; Ottoman ambitions in the Balkans still were contested by formidable Venetian fleets and Hungarian armies. To the south, the Egyptian Mamlūk Mamlūk Dynasty[Mamluk Dynasty] sultanate dominated the western Muslim world in both its military and its cultural achievements. The Ottoman capital of Edirne (Adrianople) in Thrace remained intellectually inferior, outshone by traditional seats of learning in Cairo and Damascus.

Prematurely elevated to the throne by Murad’s abdication in 1444, the twelve-year-old Mehmed proved unequal to a rapid succession of threats, which included a renewed Hungarian crusade and a rebellion by elite Janissary troops in Edirne. He was deposed at the instigation of Murad’s favorite vizier in 1446.

After his second accession and Murad’s death, in 1451, Mehmed immediately prepared, both diplomatically and militarily, to besiege Constantinople Constantinople, fall of (1453) and eliminate the Byzantine Empire, which by then controlled little territory beyond the city’s walls. Despite the weakness of the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (who owed his contested accession to Murad), Mehmed understood that the survival of an Orthodox capital in the heart of his territory presented a ready justification for European intervention and an obstacle to easy military communication between his Rumelian and Anatolian provinces. The siege, involving more than 100,000 troops and nearly five hundred ships, began in April, 1453. On May 29, the city fell to a massive, frenzied land and naval assault, thunderously aided by the most powerful siege cannons in existence.

The conquest of Constantinople was the defining military achievement of Mehmed’s reign, winning for him the sobriquet fatih, “the conqueror.” Almost thirty years of nonstop campaigning in Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Greece followed. These assaults confirmed Ottoman Turkey as the rising Muslim power and the principal threat to Christian Europe. Between 1463 and 1479, Mehmed conducted an exhausting but successful war against a coalition made up of Venice, Hungary, and the Turkmen ruler Uzun Ḥasan. Although he failed in efforts to take Belgrade and Rhodes, campaigns within Europe eventually enabled him to annex or establish Turkish suzerainty over the remaining Byzantine, Genoese, and Venetian possessions in Greece and the Aegean, and also Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Walachia, and Crimea. Within Anatolia, he added to his domain the last Byzantine “empire” of Trebizond and the Muslim emirates of Karaman (by conquest) and Sinope (through intimidation).

The restoration and repopulation of Constantinople formed a central preoccupation of Mehmed’s reign. The young sultan fancied himself the new Alexander (Iskander) of Macedon, and he now possessed a capital whose pedigree matched his dreams of world domination. Although many survivors of the 1453 siege were sold into slavery, the city was rapidly repeopled by forced relocations of entire communities from Mehmed’s accumulating conquests. Unchecked epidemics of bubonic plague periodically necessitated new infusions of the unwilling, but by 1480, a diverse and dynamic Istanbul was home to an estimated sixty thousand to seventy thousand permanent residents.

Mehmed encouraged the development of luxury trades by resettling expert craftspeople in Istanbul, which became noted for the production of fine glazed ceramics. Much of the best Ottoman work in this field owed its inspiration to Persian and older Seljuk Turkish influences. Mehmed favored Persian literature and, to the resentment of many able Turkish subjects, often granted important government posts to unqualified Persian literati. Few domestic poets of note emerged during Mehmed’s reign, but even the worthy Ahmed Pasha (d. 1496/1497) imitated the Persian style. Art patronage;Ottoman Empire

The sultan’s private interest in Western painting, including “objects of lechery” (cose de lossuria), also attracted an unknown number of Italian artists to Istanbul. Painting;Ottoman Empire Portraits by Italian painter Gentile Bellini (1479-1481) and a commemorative medallion by Costanzo de Ferrara (1481) are among the few works known to have survived destruction at the hands of Mehmed’s iconoclastic son, Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512).

A private freethinker, Mehmed sternly upheld Sunni orthodoxy in the interest of public order. Islam;Ottoman Empire In 1477, the sultan had the kanunnames (secular laws) compiled to augment the Shariՙa (sacred canon law), which was based on the Qur՚ān and Ḥadīth (sayings of the Prophet). During the 1470’, Mehmed also endowed eight colleges (madrasas) in the vicinity of the only great mosque commissioned during his reign (the Mosque of the Conqueror). These madrasas became the elite institutions in a new educational hierarchy that focused on training teachers, judges, and mufti (Islamic legal scholars) for an expanding administration. Recognized Muslim scholars, especially Persians, were attracted by the sultan’s celebrated patronage and the prospect of lucrative government appointments. Aside from a few theological glosses, however, little original scholarship took place under Mehmed. Curricula here, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, placed a stultifying emphasis on theology and law.

Conquest remained the raison d’Ětre of the Ottoman state; Mehmed’s subjects, however, especially those outside his capital, derived few benefits from Ottoman conquest and rule. Provincial administrations were organized, and feudalism was introduced in conquered lands to maximize the availability of trained, well-equipped cavalrymen (sipahis). The financial demands imposed by constant warfare forced Mehmed to grant innumerable leases and monopolies, make regular use of predatory tax farmers, and frequently debase the silver coinage. Little or no effort was made to proselytize Orthodox populations, for only Christians (reaya) paid the crucial head tax; native Turks and converts were exempt.

Christians served another valuable purpose. Christianity;Ottoman Empire Every five years, on average, the Turks exacted a tribute of able-bodied Christian males from the Balkans who were between the ages of ten and fifteen (the devṣirme). Taken to Constantinople and converted to Islam, these youths served in the palace household or the Janissaries, an intensively indoctrinated infantry renowned for its fanatical loyalty to the sultan.

Mehmed introduced the law of fratricide, which required new sultans to have all brothers executed to eliminate the discords that had marked many previous imperial successions. Mehmed also understood the dangers that an entrenched Turkish aristocracy could pose, and he relied increasingly on converted scions of Christian noble families to fill the highest posts. Candarli Halil Paşa (executed in 1453) was the last grand vizier of Turkish birth to serve Mehmed but not the last to experience the sultan’s vengefulness.

Most striking was Mehmed’s decision to preserve Constantinople’s Orthodox patriarchate as a means to control the empire’s Greek subject nationality (millets). Gennadius II Scholarios, selected after the fall of Constantinople for his known hostility to the Papacy in Rome, initially proved a willing collaborator and was the most effective of Mehmed’s choices for this role.


Under Mehmed, the Ottoman Empire became the leading military power of the age. Mehmed shaped its internal character for centuries to come, harnessing every aspect of Ottoman government and society to a policy of military aggrandizement. The effectiveness of this system permitted—even necessitated—sustained territorial expansion after Mehmed’s death, but the fiscal and staffing demands imposed by incessant warfare compelled Mehmed to initiate exploitive policies that discouraged economic development and precluded national integration.

No province prospered during Mehmed’s reign, and all eventually stagnated under his later successors, until patriotism was nonexistent outside the empire’s Anatolian heartland. Even at the later height of Ottoman power, subject peoples from Serbia to Arabia retained their distinctive cultures. Once the empire began its irreversible decline, Ottoman subjects outside Anatolia reasserted their national identities and strove for independence.

Restored to glory as the capital and symbol of an expansionist Islam, Istanbul became a center of scholarship that quickly rivaled traditional seats of learning such as Cairo and Damascus. Because of the legal and artistic strictures of Sunni orthodoxy, however, it was not possible to meld Islamic with European culture. The Ottoman Empire under Mehmed and his successors would derive its strength from policies that emphasized the gulf between ruling Muslims (often converts) and subordinate Christians.

Further Reading

  • Babinger, Franz. Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. Translated by Ralph Manheim, with a preface by William C. Hickman. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. A definitive, detailed narrative describing Mehmed’s personality, campaigns, and policies.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Essential to understanding Mehmed within the context of Turkish history, this work uses primary source materials to analyze the dynasty and its administrative, legal, and military policies.
  • Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. A cultural history that uses medieval and modern sources to reveal how the Ottoman Empire was shaped by competing ethnic, religious, and political forces.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Ottoman Empire, 1326-1699. New York: Routledge, 2004. This history of Ottoman rule, imperial expansion, and military tactics focuses especially on the struggle for the Balkans and battles against European powers.

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

1574-1595: Reign of Murad III

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War