Mehmed II entered through the Adrianople gate into Constantinople as Fetih (Conqueror) sometime on the morning of 29th May 1453. It had been a close run thing but to the victor goes the spoils and to Mehmed went the capital of the Byzantine Empire, 'the Red Apple' which Muslim armies had tried and failed to snatch on so many previous occasions.
His actions over the forthcoming days were an intriguing and enigmatic mix of mercy and brutality and this brief period perhaps records best the full spectrum of a brilliant and complicated man.
In his moment of triumph, as he walked through the crumbling remains of the Boukoleon palace he is reputed to have quoted the Persian poet Saardi,
'The spider weaves his curtains
in the palace of the Caesars;
The owl calls the watches
in the towers of Afrasiab'
We see here the cultured poet Mehmed, a man who enjoyed writing delicate verse and hoovered up whatever he could read about predecessor civilizations such as Persia, Greece and Rome. A man who respected the wonders of the civilisation he was replacing and aspired to embrace and emulate aspects of them much in the manner that Alexander had in his conquest of Persia. This is the Mehmed who would shortly ride to the reputed ruins of Troy to inform the ghosts of Hector and Priam that he had avenged them.
It is interesting also to note that Mehmed's instructions prior to that final attack related to how his soldiers should conduct themselves once the defenses fell. Muslim laws of conquest stipulate that an invading army is entitled to three days of looting and plunder once a defiant city is breached. There is no suggestion that Mehmed wanted to reign in his men's baser appetites after 53 days of tough fighting but even had he wanted to it would have been beyond even his authority. Instead he made it clear that the fabric of the city - the churches, palaces and government chancelleries - were to be his booty and his men could take what they wished of the rest. When he arrived at Hagia Sophia to find a disobedient solider cracking apart a mosaic he had the man killed on the spot. The contemporary chronicler Cristoboulos (who some consider an apologist) has him weeping at the sight of the ransack:
'What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction'
The plan had always been to put on the robes of Caesar and create a third Rome by usurping the authority along with the lands of the Byzantines. It is rare for an invader to intend from the very start to inhabit the target city and put aside his own capital but this was not the first time an Ottoman Sultan had done so. When Adrianople fell in 1369 to Murad I he moved his capital there (renaming it Edirne) from Bursa. A symbolic crossing of the Hellespont by the Ottoman court. This time, however, Mehmed did not waste any time at all in declaring Constantinople his capital whereas it had taken a period of months or even years (the exact date of Adrianople's fall is still a matter of dispute) for Murad to do the same. Other than the location and the history, perhaps the thing which seduced Mehmed most about Constaintople was Hagia Sophia.
The other great buildings of the Byzantine glory days were largely ruins but the great church was still a functioning, impressive wonder - just as it remains today. Before the fires were out, work began on a wooden minaret and the other bare necessities to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The city fell on a Tuesday and by Friday prayers of that week the switch had taken place.
Mehmet did not restrict his religious attention to his own faith. He was aware of the importance of the Orthodox faith to his newly acquired citizens and he, like his father, followed a policy of religious freedom among his subjects. He knew that to hold Constantinople he needed to control the church and so on the 1st June he appointed a new Patriarch. His choice is an interesting one.
Gennadius Scholarius was something of an aging firebrand. Importantly he was the most vocal opponent of the Church Union, the policy of ending the schism with the Latin church and subverting the primacy of the Patriarch to the Pope. Emperor Constantine had formalised this union in December 1452 in the hope of sparking a crusade to relieve his city. That gamble had been hugely unpopular at the time and it had failed to produce anything in return. By appointing Gennadius, Mehmet signaled to the population his respect for the independence of the Orthodox faith and the rejection of the union. It was a politically savvy move and suggests a great deal of homework had taken place prior to the siege - exactly the sort of post invasion nation-building lacking in the second Iraq war.
On the same day, 1st June 1453, Mehmed beheaded his Grand Vizier, Halil Candarli. It seems an incredibly impulsive act and strange when one considers that execution had not taken place for any Byzantine or Italian prisoners at this stage. It can only have been as premeditated as the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Why would a victorious Sultan wish the death of his most senior adviser in his moment of triumph? The answers lie in the years leading up to 1453.
To achieve what many had tried and none had accomplished - the Conquest of Constantinople - at the tender age of 21 might give the impression of a smooth, meteoric rise but Mehmed's path was not the same as Alexander the Great. He was the third son of Sultan Murad II and never the favourite but when he was 5 years old his elder brother died suddenly. Then when Mehmet was 11 years old his other brother, Alaeddin Ali, was murdered (many are speculated to have been responsible, from Mara Brankovic to Halil Candarli, but the killer, Kara Hizar Pasha, never revealed his motive). Elevated suddenly to heir presumptive he was made Sultan just fifteen months later when his father - still heart broken over the death of Alaeddin Ali - abdicated. Murad's Grand Vizier, Halil Candarli, was made regent for the 12 year old Sultan - and clearly didn't want the job, he wanted his old Sultan back and one way or another he was just two months later, leading the Ottoman army at the battle of Varna before immediately handing the reigns back. The young Sultan and his regent clashed several times over the coming two years, often over the subject of attacking Constantinople, which Halil Candarli strongly counselled against. In 1446 a mutiny broke out among Janissary troops in Edirne demanding higher pay. Mehmet capitulated and Murad was recalled from retirement to steady the ship of state.
When Murad died in 1451, it was a surprise, given their previous tempestuous working relationship, that Halil Candarli should be reconfirmed by Mehmet as his Grand Vizier. The story goes that when he was first summoned to an audience with the new Sultan Halil hung back in fear until Mehmet called him forward and embraced him.
Hindsight suggests Mehmet was keeping his friends close and enemies closer. His actions on 1st June 1453 in this context seem that of someone who wanted his doubters to see his triumph before they paid the ultimate price for previously undermining him. It is also possible that Mehmet suspected Halil Candarli of being in concert with the Byzantines. His opposition to the war was such that his nickname at the Erdine court was 'the Greek'. Leonard of Chios reported that Loukas Notaras told Mehmet that Candarli had sent numerous letters to Emperor Constantine and urged him to stand firm.
Mehmet was not done with his executions though. Two days after Halil Candarli met his death, the Megas Doux, Loukas Notaras was executed along with two of his sons. With the Emperor dead, Notaras was the most senior living Byzantine. That might seem motive enough but the mystery surrounding his end is the sudden change of heart Mehmet appears to have undergone.
Initially Mehmet seems to have honoured Notaras and is quoted as meeting his wife and consoling her on the fall of her city, 'Mother, do not weep. I shall give to your people far more than I have taken.' His attitude changed by the 3rd of June and the reasons vary according to several different accounts, none of them from witnesses. The most lurid tale has Mehmet taking a shine to the teenage son of Loukas Notaras and ordering the Megas Doux to send him the boy for his harem. Whilst Mehmet's is considered by many to have been bisexual (with Vlad Dracula's brother, Radu, most often given as the Sultan's long term lover) this particular story to me has the ring of salaciousness about it. The source, Doukas, is prone to exaggeration and was writing for a contemporary audience who viewed Mehmet as a bogeyman figure. It is possible that this version is based on the actual event - perhaps Notaras, who was famously devoutly Orthodox, objected to his son being forced to convert to Islam - as the sons of many other Ottoman enemies did. Alternatively it could be, as Edward Gibbon believed, that Mehmet uncovered an intrigue involving Notaras - some have suggested embezzlement. Finally it could simply be that having taken stock of the persons at his disposal, Mehmet judged Notaras more of a danger than a help in bringing the Byzantine population to heel. The following day around 30 other Byzantine nobles were executed. Assuming these all didn't have sons bound for the harem, this might suggest Notaras was the first of a purge.
After a lifetimes preparation and a brutal 53 day siege, one might have forgiven a conqueror from resting on his laurels or at least enjoying a few days of debauched celebration but instead Mehmet's first five days in Constantinople were a whirlwind of deliberate, premeditated action which encompassed the religious and political aspects of both Greek and Ottoman camps. It was the action of a man of destiny for whom The Fall was only the beginning of his burning ambitions.