At 21, Sultan Mehmed II defeated the Eastern Roman Empire and took over Istanbul, an epic victory that led to the Ottoman Empire spanning territories on three continents for centuries to come.
Great hopes make great men, as the saying goes, and Fatih Sultan Mehmed was born to be one. And with the anniversary of his birth on March 30, Sultan Mehmed II was born exactly 519 years ago.
From a very young age, the first victory he won was against himself. He grew up to be a self-disciplined man with unique talents, military skills and intellectual capability.
From ending the Eastern Roman Empire’s superiority with the conquest of Istanbul to expanding the Ottoman control to over 2.2 million square kilometres, he left an indelible mark on history, and his legacy still lives on today.
Sultan Mehmed II earned the title of Mehmed the Conqueror after the conquest of Istanbul — a task none of his predecessors could achieve.
Born on March 30 1432, in Edirne, Sultan Mehmed II was taught by the best minds of his time. Whilst he read the Quran and achieved a deep knowledge of Islam, he was also trained in Western ideas and spoke several languages — Persian, Arabic, ancient Greek and Italian.
His father Sultan Murad II's reign was initially challenged by insurrection, but the ruler prevailed and played a crucial role in expanding the Ottoman Empire’s trade and building infrastructure in its cities.
Sultan Murad II sent Mehmed II to Amasya at the tender age of two. The city was administered by Murad II's brother Alaeddin Ali, the governor of Sanjak province.
Educating Mehmed II was not an easy task. He was as combative as he was intelligent. Yet, while he grew up to be a fierce military leader, who led the empire in many of its famous conquests, he also grew up to be an intellectual whose contributions to philosophy, art, and science were greatly valued.
In 1444, Sultan Murad II abdicated the throne following his eldest son’s demise and some political troubles. He made Mehmed II the new leader of the Ottoman Empire at the age of 12.
Two years later, amid increasing tensions in the European region and turmoil in some parts of the conquered territories, followed by the threat of Crusaders, some prominent political and military figures convinced Murad II to return to the throne.
Sultan Mehmed II left his throne voluntarily. With a feeling of disappointment, he moved to Manisa, a city in the Aegean region, where he got married. The migration helped him gain knowledge about a wide range of subjects. Two years later, in 1448, Mehmed II joined his father in the Battle of Kosovo, where he gained insight into military matters.
When Sultan Murad II passed away in 1451, Mehmed II succeeded his father as a far more experienced and qualified leader than he was during his first reign.
According to prominent Turkish historians, Sultan Mehmed II’s library was filled with books about geometry, religion, engineering, astronomy, arithmetic, archaeology, geography and philosophy.
He was also known as a great poet and had a great interest in the arts. He commissioned Renaissance painter Bellini to do his portrait.
The Sultan was of tall, muscular build. His most striking feature was his sharp, pointy nose, which Bellini, the Italian painter, perfectly captured in his painting. Mehmed II was also a bookworm who enjoyed reading history, literature and poetry.
Inspired by Alexander the Great's desire to conquer the world, he read about military achievements in Homer's Iliad, which was in his library alongside hundreds of other books. Ptolemy's ancient world map was also part of his special collection.
He protected scholars of all religions and backgrounds and allowed them to print their works on scientific matters.
Sultan Mehmed II took a bold step when he decided to conquer Istanbul, which was known as Constantinople and was the capital of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) in those days.
The city was known for its invincibility, as many rulers had tried to take it from the Byzantine Empire and failed in their efforts.
According to historians, Mehmed II assembled between 100,000 and 200,000 soldiers. His plan was to surround the Byzantine capital from both sea and land. Mehmed II ordered an unexpected move, which went down in history as an intelligent and pathbreaking military manoeuvre, asking his soldiers to carry warships overland by rolling them over wooden logs across the city’s Galata area, located on modern Istanbul’s European side, to gain a dominant position against the rival empire's impenetrable city walls.
A barrage of cannonballs struck the city walls. Many of them landed without causing any damage. During the last leg of the 50-day military campaign, an underground tunnel was dug to plant heavy explosions underneath the wall. The explosion, coupled with cannonball strikes, broke a portion of the wall, creating an opening for the Ottoman troops.
On May 29 1453, the city fell, ending the Byzantine Empire's centuries-old rule. Sultan Mehmed II became Mehmed the Conqueror, and the Ottoman state became a major power centre in the world.
This development was followed by the conquest of Serbia, Morea, Bosnia, Albania, several Anatolian territories and Trebizond (today’s Trabzon, in modern Türkiye’s northern region).
Before his death on May 3 1481, at the age of 49, Mehmed the Conqueror had personally participated in 25 military expeditions and made Istanbul the capital of his empire.
A year before his death, the Sultan conquered Otranto, Italy, a victory that gave the empire firm control in central Europe, opening new possibilities. He had plans to march towards Rome, but his untimely death made this impossible.