THL Isabelle de Foix


How long have the Turkish people been around? The first historical reference to the Turks is in Chinese records dating from around 200 B.C.E. The origin of the word “Turk” is obscure. It seems to have been written down in the sixth century of our era to describe nomads with iron-working skills. According to Western scholars, the earlier invaders of China known to the Chinese as Hsiung-Nu were also probably Turks, and it was against invaders like, “uncooked barbarians”,  them that the Great Wall was built. These records refer to tribes called the Hsiung-Nu, which is an early form of the later European word Hun. It is believed that the original meaning of the word “Turk” is “strength”, or close to it. This is popular in Turkey as strength is considered very important by the Turks. They were associated with the Mongols as well as the later Huns. They possessed common folk memories and legends, and they used the same calendars, events being placed in the Year of the Panther, the Hare, Horse, and so on. The earliest Turks followed a “shamanistic” religion. They worshipped earth, air, fire and water, the traditional “elements” of nature. They became known for their endurance, self-discipline, and foresight. Their nomadic lifestyle gave rise to competitiveness and equestrian excellence. The Turkish language developed over a span of thousands of years. The first Turkish alphabet was developed by the eighth century of our era.

            Well, so that’s the origin of the Turkish people. Many people were of “Turkic” origin who ended up with other national names. The Bulgars, who gave us the name Bulgaria, were originally a Turkic people. The Azeri of Azerbaijan, the Kazakhs, the Tatars and needless to say the Turkomen are all Turkic peoples as well. The modern Bulgarians are a Slavic people; the Bulgars were greatly outnumbered by Slavic settlers in their lands and adopted a Slavic language, not a Turkish one. The Huns were also a Turkic people. Another Turkic tribe with an impact on modern place names are the Uzbeks, who inhabit Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan. The first branch of the Turks that concerns us here are the Seljuk Turks, who were the first Turks to live in Anatolia.

            The Seljuk Turks, who originated in the steppe country of Central Asia, abandoned their ancestral faith in the ninth century and accepted the Islamic faith. This was important because it established another Islamic power. There are two groups in the Islamic faith, the Sunnis and the Shias. These groups trace their differences back to political disputes in the early Islamic world and need not concern us here other than the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni.  The Sunnis are regarded as “orthodox” by the majority of Muslims, and the Shi’ites are often marginalized. They share the same beliefs and practices but have different ideas about leadership of the Muslim community. Thus their differences are more political than religious. The Turks became Sunni Muslims. They moved to the west into Iran and Iraq. They occupied Baghdad and made it their capital. The word “sultan” was originally an abstract Arabic noun meaning “sovereign authority” but starting in the tenth century it was used as a personal title. The sultans had two enemies: the Byzantine emperor and the Fatimid caliphs. The Turks, rude “barbarians” from the steppes, poured into Azerbaijan, and fought local peoples like the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Bedouin Arabs. The places conquered by the Turks became Turkish-speaking. The Turks pushed into Asia Minor, Anatolia, and the home of the modern Turks. In 1068 the Byzantine Emperor Romanos decided to invade Armenia to expel the Seljuks. He advanced to Cappadocia where he occupied some terrority. However, by 1071 Romanos had completely alienated his Frankish troops, they refused to fight for him, and this resulted in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert on 26 August of that year. The Emperor himself was captured by the Turkish vanquisher, Alp Arsian, whose name meant “Brave Lion”.  Two years later this Turkish ruler was assassinated. He was succeeded by rivals who used the Greek people of Anatolia for political support. The Byzantines committed political suicide by using Turkish forces to settle Byzantine dynastic disputes. They were having a civil war, and they were having trouble with their Norman French warriors. The Byzantines had a choice of allies: the Norman French, who had come into the area as Crusaders, or the Turks. The Byzantines originally invited the French in as help to help them reconquer lands taken over by the Turks. The Byzantines thought of Constantinople as the holiest place on the planet and couldn’t understand why the French wanted Jerusalem. Almost from the beginning cultural differences between the Norman French and the Byzantines made it difficult for them to work with each other. The Norman French were Roman Catholics in communion with Rome, while the Eastern part of the Empire had broken with Rome over numerous political and doctrinal disputes. This tension was to aid the Turkish cause in Anatolia, and severely hinder the Greeks. The word “Byzantine” was not used until the eighteenth century.  Meanwhile the Seljuk Turkish rulers of Anatolia became separated from those who ruled Persia, and were called the “Seljuks of Rum”, a corruption of “Rome”; this empire was called the Roman Empire. In the twelfth century the Seljuks made their capital in the ancient city of Konya, in central Anatolia. Turkomen from the east continued to spill into Anatolia, reinforcing the region’s increasingly Turkish culture. Power was in the hands of “holy warriors” called Ghazis. The Byzantine Empire was drastically weakened by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, which featured a savage sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. This infamous act occurred on Easter Sunday. The Crusaders, drunk, placed a prostitute on the throne of the Byzantine Church of St. Sophia, the ancient Church of “Hagia Sofia”, “Holy Wisdom”. Hundreds of generations of books were destroyed. Constantinople was ruined as a city.  The Seljuks weakened politically towards the end of the twelfth century as their lands also became the objects of the Crusaders. They suffered a major defeat at the hands of Mongol invaders in 1243. The thirteenth century in Anatolia was a period of political chaos, with a dizzying array of changes that history didn’t record. The Seljuk sultanate disappeared around 1308; no one recorded the exact date of the demise of the last Seljuk. Their realm in central Turkey was divided into two emirates, Kashamuni in the north and Karaman in the south. The western third of Turkey, which had been a Byzantine stronghold, was overrun in the last two decades of the thirteenth century by newly arrived bands of Turks fleeing from the Mongol terror to the east. The Turks kept on moving to the west. As a result, all of ancient Anatolia became Turkish and Moslem in character, despite the fact that Greeks, Jews and Armenians continued to live in its towns. The southwestern corner of Anatolia was divided between six clans, while the northwest was divided between two, the Osmanli (known to Westerners as the Ottomans) and the Karasi. Among these emirates at first Karaman was the stronger since they had the Seljuk strongholds but they lost ground to the Ottomans and never regained it.

            The origin of the Ottoman Turks is shrouded in a veil of legends, all of which came into existence a century after their formative period. These legends claimed that these people, originally called Kayi, had fled a small state in Persia escaping Genghis Khan. When the Kayi, with their leader, entered Anatolia, the legends claimed, they found a battle going on between the Mongols and the Seljuks. They intervened in the struggle to ensure a Seljuk victory, whereupon a grateful Seljuk sultan gave them a village. There’s one problem with this story: the Mongols actually clobbered the Seljuks. The story was invented to make the Ottomans the heirs to the glory of the Seljuk rulers. In truth the Kayi were probably forced into the far northwest of Anatolia by nervous Seljuks. They were “uncouth” nomads who bothered the Seljuks. Their ruler, Ertoghrul, set up an emirate, run by Ghazi warriors. Their capital was in Eskishehir, which is Turkish for “old city”. Ghazi fighters continued to fight Greeks. The Seljuk sultans honored a Ghazi who won an important victory for them with the title of “bey”, or “prince”. His symbols of authority were a robe, a flag, a horse and a drum. It is not clear if Ertoghrul ever received this honor. He died around 1280 and his small realm went to his son, Osman. Since it was traditional for Turks to be named after their leaders, the Kayi were heretofore known as Osmanlis, or Ottomans. There were also many legends surrounding Osman, all written long after his death. In 1299 he established his capital at a place he called Yenishehir, which is Turkish for “new city”. He had his first encounter with Byzantine troops in 1301 when Byzantium sent troops to fight the Ghazi warriors around Nicomedia. The Turks emerged from this encounter victorious, and Ghazi warriors flooded in to help the Ottomans fight the Byzantines. The Byzantine cities were isolated but couldn’t be taken by force since the Turks lacked siege equipment. They resorted to long-term blockades. In 1326 Brusa surrendered. The city was renamed Bursa and became the second capital of the Ottoman realm. A few months later Osman died. He had transformed his people from a nomadic tribe to a stable state apparatus. When a new sultan came to the throne the Ottomans would include this phrase in their prayers: “May he be as good as Osman”.

            The Ottomans were fortunate in their geography. They were on the borders of a crumbling Empire. They were living in the midst of Greeks. They took their time in moving on the Byzantine Empire. Three important cities were within a days’ travel from Osman’s capital: Bursa, Nicaea, and Nicomedia. But at first he attacked none of them. In sixty years of sporadic village warfare, the realm grew a mere sixty miles from Eskishehir to Yenishihir. Its capture obstructed communications between Nicaea and Bursa. Osman built up his army. Ertoghrul’s band of four hundred warriors had grown to four thousand.

            In the first year of the fourteenth century Osman had his first direct conflict with the Byzantine imperial forces. This encounter took place at Koyun Hisar. The Greeks were trying to check an Ottoman raid into a fertile valley near Nicomedia. The Greeks were easily defeated by a swift and impetuous cavalry charge which broke their ranks. This defeat of an imperial army by an obscure Turkoman chief made the Byzantines anxious. Osman’s small state was a force to be reckoned with. “Holy warriors” flocked to his service. His principality was well and truly established.

            Osman made no attempt to conquer Nicomedia itself; he contented himself with ravaging the lands around it. Seven years elapsed before he advanced again, this time to attack the fortresses of Ak Hisar near Nicomedia.   

Osman’s successor was Orban. He grabbed the ancient city of Brusa in 1326, as Osman lay dying, and renamed it Bursa.  He created an elite military force called the Janissaries. The name is anglicized from the Turkish “yeni cheri”, “new soldiers”. They were encouraged as a counter power to the challenge of the Ghazi nobility. They looked for glory and delighted in their camaraderie. Orban decided not to use the title “bey” since the Seljuk sultanate was gone. He adopted the title of Sultan for himself. Under Orban’s leadership the Ottoman army became a formidable military machine. He captured Nicaea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. Meanwhile, many people in Anatolia gave up their Greek identity, preferring Turkish rule to the influence of the Norman French Crusaders in Byzantine politics. They did not care for people who were loyal to the Pope in Rome for both religious and political reasons. Tired of Constantinople’s inertia, they had come to consider the Byzantine government a bad joke and thought it was only a matter of time before it fell apart. They accepted the Islamic faith as the discipline of the Greek Orthodox Church had become extremely lax. Constant disputes between the Roman Catholic West and the Eastern Orthodox East further complicated the situation for the Byzantines. At one point the Italian scholar Petrarch wrote to the Pope “The Osmanlis are merely enemies, but the schismatic Greeks are worse than their enemies”.  Turks and Greeks intermarried and the Greek identity became submerged in the Turkish. The Sufis who heavily influenced the Ottoman state were Sunni Moslems. The “dervishes” of the Sufi movement encouraged the Ghazi warriors. This is the same branch of Islam that produced the famous “whirling dervishes”. By 1350 Anatolia could accurately be referred to as “Turkey”. Military success took Ottoman power to the Bosporus, the narrow waterway separating Europe and Asia. In 1354 the Turks established themselves at Gallipoli, or, as the Turks call it, Gelibolu. They had a little help from Nature here. There was an earthquake there the night the Turks arrived. The Greek castle in the town was destroyed and immediately occupied by the Turks. The Ottomans were accompanied by impoverished peasants looking for better lives in newly conquered territories.  In 1362 they conquered their first European city, Adrianople, or Edirne. They had isolated Constantinople, and in 1416 Edirne became the third capital of the Ottoman Empire. Thrace had become Turkish.

            These conquests disturbed the Europeans. After all, the Turks were Muslim and the Europeans feared for the safety of Christendom. In 1366 the pope called for a Crusade to save Europe from the Turks. It was too late. The Byzantine Emperor went to Buda in Hungary to enlist help, and on the way back he was kidnapped in Bulgaria. The Catholic, or “Latin” powers, attempted to push the Turks back to Anatolia, and retook Gallipoli. They were determined to rid Europe of Islam.  The Ottomans quickly regained this city and pushed into the Balkans. The dominant political factor in the Balkan Peninsula was fear of the papacy as they were of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Local leaders and clergy were unhappy with offers of help from Catholic powers. Some Balkan rulers did accept military help from the West and submitted to Rome. This made their subjects unhappy and caused political tension. The people accepted Turkish rule; their rights to practice their Orthodox faith were respected by the Turks. Thus they accepted rule by the Islamic Turks. Fear of papal authority and local dislike of European feudal lords helped the Ottomans conquer the Balkan Peninsula. In Serbia, serfs owed their lords two days of labor a week. Under the Ottoman Turks, peasants only owed their lords three days of labor a year. Thus they considered the Turks “liberators”. The Turks took Macedonia, and the Serbian ruler began paying the Ottomans tribute in money and young men for their military. However, in 1389 the Serbs suffered a bitter loss to the Turks at Kosovo Polje, which means “Field of the Blackbirds” in Serbian. This battle was of particular significance. The background to the battle was a situation in which Murad was engaged in another war in the Balkans in the late fourteenth century due to policy circumstances. To avoid antagonizing the Muslims of Asia Minor, Murad ordered his troops to refrain from looting and violence. This order enraged his Serbian contingent, who regarded loot as their right as soldiers and as payment for their service. A number of Serbs who broke this order were executed. The rest went back to Serbia, furious. The ruler of Serbia took advantage of this to stir up opposition to Turkish rule in his lands. This prince, Lazar, formed a pan-Serbian alliance with the support of the prince of Bosnia, whose power extended to the Adriatic Sea. The Ottomans crossed the Vardar and invaded Bosnia. Hopelessly outnumbered, they lost at Plochnik, losing four-fifths of their troops. The Slavs rejoiced at this development. The Serbians, Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Wallachians and Hungarians all united around Lazar. Murad stayed in Asia Minor; he was in no particular hurry to avenge his defeat. He had to recoup his losses, and he knew that Balkans alliances didn’t always last. In 1388 he started a campaign to complete the conquest of Bulgaria. Prince Sisman of Bulgaria withdrew at an early stage to a fortress on the Danube and sued for peace. The Turks defeated and captured Sisman, and solidified their hold on all of the Balkans south of the Danube. They now turned their attention to Serbia. Murad, now seventy years old, personally led a large army in a final campaign against the Serbs. He was joined by the forces of a Bulgarian and two Serbian renegades. The battle was fought at Kosovo Polje, a desolate mountainous plain. Murad had ordered that no castles, cities or villages be destroyed, which was a wise decision. On the eve of the battle, the Serbian ruler accused his own son-in-law, Milos Obravic, of treason. Murad passed the night praying for a martyr’s crown. The Slavs’ alliance proved to be weak for the battle when one of Lazar’s sons-in-law, Vuk Brankovic, deserted. Murad’s prayer proved to be too effective for his own good; he lost his life the day of the battle. After the battle Milos Obravic, perhaps stung by the accusation of treason, broke into the Sultan’s tent and stabbed him to death. He had gained access to the tent by claiming that he had changed his allegiance to the Turks. Obravic knelt in respect before the Sultan, then plunged a dagger into his breast. After this Obravic was killed by the Turks.  After the assassination, one of the Sultan’s sons killed the other to secure the succession. Shortly after the triumph of Kosovo Polje the Turks received a jolt from the advance of the leader Timur, leader of the Tatar people of Central Asia, in the first years of the fifteenth century. This was a development of great concern to the Turks. It disrupted for awhile the growth of the Ottoman Empire as it was an attack on it. The new threat from the East gave the Byzantines temporary relief.

Timur was born into a small Tatar tribe in Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan. In his youth he became the chief of his tribe. He was renowned for his courage, fierce energy, a unique gift of leadership, and supreme military genius.  Building up a massive army, he rode at the head of it in a career of spectacular conquest. He became the sovereign of three kingdoms, India, Persia, and Tatary, which included Turkestan.

Timur’s personal domination was absolute. He ruled without ministers. He walked with a limp, thus he was known as “Timur the lame”, or Timurlenk. At times his infirmity was such that he was unable to sit on a horse and was carried by his men on a litter.

Taciturn in his manner and devout in his religious beliefs, he was a master of calculation and planning who spent hours of his time sitting at a great chessboard. He manipulated the figures to plan his military campaigns, which were all successful. His horses were numbered in the six figures. By the end of the fourteenth century Timur ruled over an Empire that eastward extended to the Great Wall of China, northward into the steppes of Russia, southward to the River Ganges in India and the Persian Gulf, westward into Persia, Armenia, and the upper waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. At first Timur had no desire to conquer the Ottoman land of Anatolia. However, the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, acted in such a manner as to goad Timur’s action against him. Bayezid had occupied a great deal of Anatolia, but he had left behind refugees from his various provinces resentful princes who wanted to regain their powers and be free from Ottoman rule. In 1399, the Ottoman Sultan chose to use the fortified city of Sivas as a base for an advance further east. Under the command of his son, Suleiman, the Ottoman troops entered the territory of a Turkoman prince under Timur’s protection, Kara Yassuf, who fell into Ottoman hands.

            This angered Timur. He wrote Bayezid an irate letter in which he demanded the return of his subject. “What is the foundation of your insolence and folly?” he demanded.  “You have fought some battles in the woods of Anatolia: contemptible trophies”.

            Bayezid treated this letter with contempt. He sent Timur a letter commending the strength of his armies, but he claimed that they were no match for his Janissaries. Timur took the field in Sivas against the Sultan’s son Suleiman. Timur took this city, and then went southward, conquering Damascus and Baghdad. In 1402 he renewed his campaign against Bayezid. He was sought as an ally by the Europeans as a tool against the Turks. Bazeyid marched to meet him in Anatolia near Angora (modern Ankara). A quarter of Bazeyid’s troops were Tatars and thus of questionable loyalty. The troops were exhausted from long marches. Furthermore, he was erratic in his payments to the troops. And the Sultan’s soldiers disagreed with his plan of campaign. They argued that he should remain on the defensive, but Bayezid, obstinate, insisted on an offensive strategy.  He wanted a head-on encounter with Timur. He went into battle and disappeared. For days his scouts had no idea where the Sultan was. From Sivas south he moved down the river valley to Kayseri. Meanwhile Timur moved into Angora, and this is where the troops met in battle. The Tatars captured Bayezid. There are horror stories of Timur’s treatment of his eminent captive. He was supposedly kept in chains, he was Timur’s footstool, and he humiliated Bazeyid’s Serbian wife, Despina, by forcing her to serve him naked at table. Within eight months, Bayezid was dead, perhaps by his own hand, perhaps due to an apoplectic seizure.

            Timur quickly overran all of Anatolia. He took Bursa, pillaged the city and burned it. However, he failed to capture the Sultan’s son Suleiman. Suleiman made his way to Europe and safety. Timur conquered Smyrna (modern Izmir), the last Christian stronghold of Anatolia. He restored the Ghazi princes of Anatolia to their realms. He retreated from Anatolia in 1403 on his way back to Samarkand. Two years later he died, and after a dynastic dispute, Sultan Mehmed was enthroned in 1413. Mehmed was only Sultan for eight years, but he effectively restored the Ottoman Empire as a power in Anatolia and beyond. Needless to say the Christians of Europe were acutely disappointed at this development.

Mehmed the Conquerer was the grandson of Mehmed I and the son of Murad II. His father, Murad, was an enlightened ruler who over a reign of thirty years won the affection and respect of the Ottoman people for his spirit of honor and justice, his sincerity and simplicity, his effective charitable concern for their welfare. He was essentially a man of peace. But he had wars thrown into his lap, so to speak, and he dealt with them effectively.  He sought peace to build stability so that it might become internally stabilized, following the decade of disorder which his father had stopped. He also sought it for his own personal peace of mind. Nonetheless he was obliged to take action against the Venetians when the Byzantine Emperor sold the important port of Salonika to them. This city had long been a bone of contention between the Ottomans and the Greeks. In 1438 Murad, concerned with the security of the lands south of the Danube, captured the strong fortress of Semendria, which he had previously allowed the Serbians to erect on the Danube. He drove out the Serbian despot George Brankovic, whose increasing power he mistrusted and who now sought the assistance of Hungary. Sigismund’s death in 1437 he was able to get control of Wallachia, and resumed Ottoman raids into Hungary. Hungary chose to come under control of the King of Poland, King Ladislas. A Hungarian national hero, Hunyadi, a warrior leader, came into prominence. For twenty years he was to be a thorn in the side of the Turkish rulers. Little is known of Hunyadi’s background. He was also known as John Corvinus Huniades, and the Turks called him Yanko. He was a man of Romanian noble background and mysterious parentage who came to govern, on behalf of King Ladislas, a large territory in Transylvania and eventually the whole of Hungary. To the Hungarians and Serbs he became a romantic “White Knight”, leading his cavalry in shining silver armor, whose heroic feats of arms offered hope to Eastern Christendom. He promised to liberate Eastern Europe from Turkish rule. However, his “crusade” only had support from Hungary and Poland, with some assistance from the Serbs, the Bulgarians, the Bosnians, and the Albanians. His campaign had some success, crossing the Danube in 1443, they captured Nish, restored George Brankovic to his Serbian domains, occupied Sofia, then boldly marched in wintry weather right across the snow-covered, icebound Balkan mountain range to reach the Thracian plain. In the end the Turks gained BosniaHerzegovina. The pope called for another crusade, but it was no use. Many Balkans had no use for the conquerers from the west. Bosnia was peopled by a sect called the Bogomils who had been mercilessly persecuted by the orthodox rulers of Hungary, and these people welcomed the Turkish invaders. The Bogomils accepted the Islamic faith of their conquerers. That’s why the Bosnians are Muslims to this day. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was almost isolated. It was hardly even a city, according to the conquering Sultan, it was “a city only in name, an enclosure of vineyards and plants, worthless houses, empty walls in ruins”, surviving on ceremonial. It contained sixty churches, from the magnificent Cathedral to roofless chapels. The population had shrunk to fifty thousand, a mere shadow of its former self.

Mehmed, the Sultan who conquered Constantinople, was born under ominous auspices. A plague had broken out. He was the third son of a father who preferred his two elder half-brothers, Ali and Ahmed. He was not considered a likely successor the throne. In these circumstances, his childhood was unhappy. The mothers of these two elder half-brothers were prominent women; his mother was a slave girl, of unknown, probably Christian, origin. He was raised with his brother Ali in Amasya, in northern Anatolia between the central plateau and the Black Sea coast, where their fourteen-year old elder brother served as governor. It was a place occupied by old and influential Ottoman families, into one of which Murad’s father had married, and a religious center both for the Islamic establishment and for itinerant dervishes, heretics from Persia. It was the birthplace of Murad himself, whose custom it became, in common with later sultans, to send his sons, under the influence of trusted officials, to such Asiatic provinces far from the capital, thus ensuring their isolation from the bulk of the people and from possible movements of revolt nearer home. Here was a form of insurance against sedition more civilized than the practice of imperial fratricide introduced by his grandfather Bazeyid and later to be given the force of law by his son Mehmed himself.

But Mehmed’s older brothers were to die prematurely. Ahmed died suddenly in Amasya, while still in his teens. Mehmed succeeded him as governor of the province at the age of six, while his surviving bother Ali was transferred as governor of Magnesia. Two years later, they changed places of governance, and some years later Ali himself died. Ali was alleged to have been strangled in his bed; he had been his father’s favorite son and he grieved over his loss. This unhappy state of affairs made Mehmed heir—apparent at the age of eleven. The Sultan was shocked at Mehmed’s lack of education. The boy’s teachers had found him a difficult pupil, reluctant to learn, and in particular indifferent to religious instruction. His father therefore chose as his instructor in the Koran and religious beliefs an illustrious mullah named Ahmed Kourani, a noted scholar and teacher of Kurdish origin. The Sultan gave this teacher a rod, with permission to strike the boy to teach him obedience. At first he laughed, but he became a model student after the teacher struck him several times.

At times Mehmed showed that he had a mind of his own. He caused much concern among the Islamic establishment by befriending a Persian heretic. This Persian had preached a series of sermons expressing some unorthodox views, including an affinity between Islam and Christianity. The religious officials were outraged. Eventually Mehmed had to relinquish his controversial protégé to the Mufti, who denounced him from the pulpit of the mosque. The Mufti so excited the public sentiments against the Persian that he was burned at the stake. The heretic’s followers were likewise exterminated. To say the least, this created an uncomfortable relationship between the future Sultan and the religious establishment. Mehmed never ceased to be bitter over this incident.

Shortly after this there was a revolt of the Janissaries. They resented having to take orders from the inexperienced and overbearing son of the Sultan. They demanded an increase in pay. When this was refused they rose against him, starting a serious fire in Edirne. A prime objective of their anger was Mehmed’s private counselor, the eunuch Chihab-ed-Din Pasha, who was obliged to take refuge in the palace. In the end the pay increase was granted. Still, resentment smoldered over the rise of renegade Christians at court. In fact, Chihab was one such Christian. The powerful Muslims at court, particularly Halil Chandarli, Murad’s Grand Vizier, resented the power of these Christians as they were excluded from power at court. Murad wished to retire, but had to come out of retirement twice to resolve crises. At last he died in 1451, and Mehmed was Sultan from then on. When Mehmed received the news that his father had died, he immediately jumped on his Arab horse and rode northward to the Hellespont with the words “Whoever loves me, follow me!”

Mehmed stopped at Gallipoli to await the arrival of his entourage. He then went to Edirne, where he officially mounted the throne. He noticed that Halil and his father’s closest friend stood a little apart, as though nervous about their futures. He bade them to take their accustomed places. He confirmed Halil in his position and appointed his friend governor of Anatolia, with instructions to take his father’s body to Bursa.

Once again Mehmed faced a revolt of the Janissaries. He suppressed the revolt, expelling many from the corps. At the same time he showed his shrewd nature by raising the pay of the rest. This set a rather awkward precedent for subsequent sultans. At the same time he formed a number of new units from among the palace huntsmen and falconers. Thus reorganized, the Janissaries developed into a more powerful nucleus of the Ottoman Army than ever before. Soon Mehmed was ready to launch the great enterprise he had looked forward to, the conquest of Constantinople.

Initially the European powers were not impressed with this new Sultan. However, he grew up into a personage of consequence. Short in build, but strong and handsome, he had a dignified presence and a courteous but reserved disposition. Aquiline in features, with a penetrating gaze, he was cold and secretive in character. He made people around him uneasy, but he earned their respect for his intelligence, energy, and a relentless sense of purpose.

“Peace was on his lips”, wrote Gibbon, “but war was in his heart”. Receiving foreign envoys, he confirmed his father’s treaty relationships. These were with the Genoese, the Venetians, the Hunyadi, Serbia, Wallachia, Ragusa, the Aegean Islands, the Knights of Rhodes, and the Byzantines. One of the Sultan’s kinsmen, a pretender to the throne, was in Byzantine captivity. An agreement for his maintenance with the revenues of certain Greek towns was reached. The Grand Vizier, Halil, gave the Byzantines a candid warning, as written by Gibbon:


Ye foolish and miserable Romans, we know your devices and you are ignorant of your own danger! The scrupulous Amurath is no more; his throne is occupied by a young conquerer, whom no laws can bind and no obstacles can resist…..Why do you seek to affright us by vain and indirect menaces? Release the fugitive Orkhan, crown him Sultan of Romania, call the Hungarians from beyond the Danube, arm against us, nations of the West, and be assured that you will only provoke and precipitate your ruin.


The Byzantine Emperor had given the Sultan a pretext for disregarding his pledge to respect Byzantine territory. At Edirne, the Sultan ordered the expulsion of the Greeks from the Struma towns and the confiscation of their revenues. On his return to Anatolia, he gave orders for the building of a castle on the European side of the Bosporus, on Byzantine territory. This would secure him control of the straits and give him a base for the conquest of Constantinople. The Byzantine Emperor immediately sent an envoy to protest this breach of the treaty between them. But the Sultan refused to even receive the envoy. Work on the fortress began. A final embassy arrived, requesting an assurance that the building of the castle did not mean a conquest of Constantinople. The Sultan imprisoned the ambassadors and cut off their heads. Fear ruled Constantinople. “This is the end of our city”, they said, “the end of our race. These are the days of the Anti-Christ”.

During the winter of 1451 the Sultan ordered the recruitment of a labor force of some five thousand masons and other workers from all parts of his empire. Building supplies were requisitioned from all over, and in the following spring churches and monasteries were demolished to clear the site and its surroundings and to provide the builders with masonry. The fortress was built in four and a half months and named “Boghaz Kesen”, meaning “the cutter of the Strait”, or “of the throat”. The Greeks called it “Rumeli Hisar”, “the castle of Romeland”, in contrast with the opposing “Anadolu Hisar”, “the castle of Anatolia”. The Sultan then marched to the walls of Constantinople, where he spent three days reconnoitering the fortifications. He left orders that every vessel crossing the Straits, in either direction, should be obliged to lower its sails and anchor before the castle, to obtain authorization to continue its voyage and to pay for the right of passage.  In the event of a refusal, the ship would be sunk by the castle’s artillery, three huge cannons strategically placed on a tower near the water. These cannons were the work of a Transylvanian metal caster named Urban.

In the summer of 1452 Urban offered to build cannon for the Byzantine Emperor. The Emperor could not afford to pay him what he wanted, nor could he give him any materials. Urban then went to the Turkish Sultan, Mehmed, and made the same offer. He boasted that he could make the Sultan cannon strong enough to take on heavily walled Constantinople. These walls had proved a formidable obstacle in the way of previous attempts to conquer the city going back as far as the first Muslim attempt to conquer it in the seventh century of our era.  The Sultan offered him four times as much money as the Byzantine Emperor as well as all of the materials he needed. He made cannon for the tower of his new fort, Boghaz Kesen, which had sufficient range to cover the Bosporus. The Sultan had him build an even larger one at Edirne. Urban unveiled a “monster” in Edirne that was twice as large as the cannon in Constantinople, 28 feet long, firing huge balls that required seven hundred men and thirty oxen to draw them. At the unveiling, the citizens of Edirne were warned to expect a loud noise and advised not to panic. The ball traveled a mile and sank six feet to the ground. This new weapon probably gave the Turks the advantage they needed to finally conquer Constantinople. Meanwhile Mehmed was organizing an army to conquer the city. Assembled in Thrace, it numbered around a hundred thousand troops. Its hard core was the twelve thousand Janissary force. One problem with previous sieges of Constantinople was that they had all been launched from land. The Byzantines had been able to use the water to protect themselves. A huge naval force was assembled to attack the city from the sea, and the Byzantines had lost their previous naval advantage. The fleet was constructed in Gallipoli, and under the command of a Bulgarian-born commander, it sailed through the Marmara Sea to the Bosporus. During the cold winter of 1452-53, Constantinople was hit by earthquakes, torrential rains, and floods. Stars mysteriously shot through the night skies. On Christmas Day of 1452 a prayer service was held in the church of Hagia Sofia. The Emperor in Constantinople declared that if the city was taken by the Turks he would have no empire left, and the citizens supported him. The Turkish attack on Constantinople began on April 2, 1453. At last Constantinople fell to the Turks on 29 May 1453. It became the fourth capital of the Ottoman Empire, and the Sultan achieved the prestige that had previously belonged to the slain Greek Byzantine Emperor. Although Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque, the Greek Christians, under a newly appointed Patriarch, were free to practice their religion. A Jewish chief rabbi was chosen; to this day Turkey has a Chief Rabbi, direct in succession from this first choice. Contrary to popular notion the Turks never officially changed the name of the city; they continued to call it “Konstantiniyye”. “Istanbul” was originally a popular name for the city; its etymology is not clear. The desperate attempt of the last Byzantine Emperor, John Palaeologus, visiting Venice trying to get support against the Turks, was in vain. Venice was too self-absorbed to have time for the hapless Greeks. By 1464 the Turks also controlled Athens. By 1478 they controlled Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Wallachia and much of the rest of the Balkan Peninsula. The Venetians battled the Ottomans for their Black Sea ports, and lost. The Ottomans conquered the Tatars of the Crimea, now part of the Ukraine. Christendom was further split in the early sixteenth century with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. This distracted the Holy Roman Emperor and was a big help to the Turkish cause.

            Starting in 1356, the new ruler, Muhrad, the Sultan who would meet his end in the famous Battle of Kosovo Polje, started a famous military tribute system. Every three years, the Turkish tribute officers went into small villages in the rural areas of the Empire in both the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia. They chose the finest Christian youths for the sultan’s service. They found them by looking at parish rolls provided by the local parish priest. There were still Christians of Byzantine descent in Anatolia, and some of these were also conscripted. They did not take only sons or the sons of widows. This was called the devsirme, or “boy-tribute system”. These were to become the sultan’s slaves, and no born Muslim could be enslaved. So their own children couldn’t take their place, and indeed, the Ottoman Empire had no hereditary aristocracy because of this practice. According to the Koran, Islamic rulers were allowed a fifth of the booty from war, and the first sultans took this in gold. The Turks began to take this in slave captives as well. These Christian youths were taken to the capital, then sent to an Anatolian farm where they learned strength, still a revered item in Turkish society, and, after formal conversion to Islam, they were sent to school where they polished up their Turkish. They were not allowed to marry, to own property, or to perform any other form of work. They went into a two-tiered system of service to the Sultan. Some became members of the Noble Guard or joined the royal order of chivalry, the Spahi of the Porte. The lower tier of these slaves became Janissaries; they became gardeners, gatekeepers, kitchen scullions, the marine troops, and the infantry. They had gone to schools where they learned martial arts and many branches of learning. They learned reverence and humility, as these were believed to be ideal traits of the future powerful. They’d gone from lives of drudgery in small villages to membership in an elite class, and they relished it. They were initiated into the force in a ceremonial, which consisted of a benediction, after which they donned white felt caps. Thirty-four consecutive viziers were Greek or Slavic Christians by birth and Muslim by conversion. Suleiman’s famous vizier Ibrahim Pasha was of Greek Christian birth. Another one of Suleiman’s Viziers was a Bulgarian, Rustem Pasha, who so skillfully handled the imperial finances that the Empire more than doubled its revenues during his tenure. Yet another, Sokollu Pasha, was a Slav from Bosnia who had served as an acolyte in a Serbian Orthodox Church in his youth. There was no social stigma attached to servile status in Ottoman society. Indeed, the highest officials of the land were all of Christian and European birth. They were proud to be designated “slaves of the Signor”. A Venetian official commented, during the reign of Suleiman,  “It is a fact truly worthy of much consideration that the riches, the forces, the government, and in short the whole state of the Ottoman Empire is founded upon and placed in the persons all born in the faith of Christ”. They were simply completely and totally dependent on the good will of the Sultan. They gave up little when they became slaves. Priests were rare in their highland villages; churches were scarce. Religion was mostly informal, and their conversion to Islam was probably their introduction to formal religion, except in rare cases like that of Sokollu Pasha. They were attached to the Bektashi order of Islam, an interesting interpretation of Islam which didn’t forbid wine or mandate the veiling of women. In the time of Murad they probably numbered no more than a thousand men. Many families converted to Islam so as to not have their sons at risk for conscription. In the Islamic faith it was forbidden to enslave a Muslim.

The Europeans were shocked and outraged by this system. They were angry that these boys had been snatched from their villages, their families, and worst of all converted to another faith.  They had gone from freedom to servitude in their minds. The devsirme was abolished when the pressure to admit the sons of these men into membership became overwhelming. The exact date for this development is not clear. Because of this development the system was no longer based on merit. The Janissaries eventually became a threat to the Sultanate. Whenever they felt like their privileges were under attack, they staged violent riots, which no one dared to oppose. They finally met an ignoble end with the infamous “Auspicious event” of 1826, which was basically a massacre of the Janissaries. Nonetheless the devsirme system left a sour taste in Balkan mouths; I found an indignant denunciation of the practice in a modern Bulgarian newspaper, published in Sofia. The article was a bitter look back on the country’s occupation by the Ottomans. To them this was “four centuries of darkness”. In this part of the world your neighbors aren’t your friends.

            The greatest of the Turkish rulers was Suleiman, who was named after the Biblical ruler Solomon. He became Sultan in 1520 at the age of twenty-six. He was the tenth in the line of Ottoman Sultans, and many things about him were associated with this number. He reigned at the beginning of the tenth century of the Hegira, the Muslim Age. Ten was the number of fingers and toes, the ten parts of the Koran and its variants, the Ten Commandments, the ten disciples of the Prophet, the ten skies of the Islamic heaven, and the ten spirits residing in them. His Empire stretched from what is now Iraq to thirty miles from Vienna, and included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Arabia. During his reign the Ottoman Turks conquered Belgrade, Budapest, and Baghdad. They expanded their Empire across northern Africa. The first Ottoman siege of Vienna took place in 1529.  The Christian armies were victorious here; this was Suleiman’s only defeat. Suleiman signed a treaty of alliance with the King of France, Francis I, against their common enemy the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1535. This shocked Francis’ fellow Christian monarchs. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, accused Francis of having inappropriate pro-Islamic sympathies. The Turks also maintained relations with Venice. The Venetians provided the Turks with intelligence information. Despite its decline Venice was well able to keep the Turks informed on events and plans in Europe. One account of the new Sultan came from a Venetian diplomat, Bartholomeo Cantarini, who wrote:


He is twenty-five years of age, tall, but wiry, and of a delicate complexion. His neck is a little too long, his face thin, and his nose aquiline. He had a shadow of a moustache and a small beard; nevertheless he has a pleasant mien, though his skin tends to pallor. He is said to be a wise Lord, fond of study, and all men hope for good from his rule.


Suleiman was educated in the palace school in Istanbul. He became very popular in Istanbul and Edirne as a prince studying to undertake his responsibilities. As part of his education, he served as governor of three provinces. Suleiman was a generous patron of the arts. His chief architect was the brilliant Sinan (1490—1588), who is particularly renowned for his impact on mosque architecture. Sinan was a product of the devsirme system; he was of Greek Christian origin, from Anatolia. Suleiman died while on a campaign in Hungary. He had designs on the realm of Charles V throughout his reign; he thought of Charles as his principle adversary, and wanted to capture his domains. His main military goals were to conquer Belgrade and the entire Kingdom of Hungary. He conquered the island of Rhodes, expelling the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Many of the troops he used for this feat were of Balkan origin, conscripts from Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Wallachia. During his reign there was a population explosion; the population of the empire was about 12 million when he became Sultan; by the time he died in 1566 it was 22 million. This created problems.

            What was Suleiman’s court like? The Emperor’s schedule was as regimented as that of Louis XIV of France. The day started with a formal levee and ended with a couchee, though, of course, these French words were not used. After the levee in the morning the Sultan was attended by select members of his household. He would be dressed in a caftan that he would only wear once. He always had twenty gold ducats in one pocket and a thousand pieces of silver in the other. At the end of the day his chamberlain acquired both the robe and the unspent money. The Sultan’s three meals of the day were brought to him by a stream of pages, to be eaten alone from fine porcelain and silver dishes on a low silver table, with sweetened and perfumed water (occasionally wine) to drink. A physician was always present in the event of attempted poisoning of the Emperor.

            Suleiman retired to rest at night on three crimson velvet mattresses, one of down and two of cotton. In the summer he had sheets of delicate tissue, and in the winter he had fur of either sable or black fox. Above his couch there was a gold canopy, and around this stood four wax tapers on silver stands. For security reasons he would sleep in a different room of his choosing every night.

            Much of Suleiman’s day would be spent with officials and in consultation. He might meet with his Divan, or war council, when he was on campaign. When not in meetings he might read “The Book of Alexander”, a fanciful account of Alexander’s life written by a Persian writer. He often studied philosophical and religious treatises, listened to music, or watched dwarves for amusement. In the afternoon he would take a siesta on two mattresses, one brocaded with silver, the other brocaded with gold. After this he might retreat to a garden on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus. He also had access to another garden, planted with palm trees, cypress and laurel, complete with a glass-domed kiosk over whose roof in the hot summer sparkling water flowed.

            Suleiman’s public entertainments matched his reputation for magnificence. In 1530 he sought to distract attention from his failure in Vienna by celebrating the circumcisions of his five sons. This took place in the summer, and the festivities lasted three weeks. The Hippodrome became a city of tents, featuring a pavilion in which the Sultan sat on a throne with columns of lapis lazuli. Over the throne was a canopy of gold encrusted with jewels. Soft, colorful carpets adorned the tents. Pitched around the Imperial tent were the immensely colorful tents of rulers conquered with Ottoman arms. Entertainment for the populace included games, tournaments, sham fights, dances, clowns, acrobats, and other choice entertainment, a gift from the Sultan to his people. Constantinople had never seen luxury and spectacle on this scale.

            When at last the festivities had ended, Suleiman asked his vizier whose festivities had been the grandest, those of the circumcision feasts or the wedding feast of the vizier. Much to Suleiman’s distress, Ibrahim claimed that nothing could match his own wedding feast. The Sultan himself had attended his wedding, but no one else of similarly exalted station had attended the Sultan’s festivities save the Sultan himself. Suleiman’s relationship with Ibrahim is one of the most interesting aspects of his reign. Ibrahim was a Christian Greek by birth, the son of a sailor from Parga, on the Ionian Sea in Epirus, Greece. He was captured in his youth and sold as a slave. In his youth he became the property of Suleiman during his years as heir to the throne. Suleiman first made him his personal page. On Suleiman’s accession to the throne he first appointed him Head Falconer. A series of appointments to other prestigious offices followed this. He had a special relationship with the Sultan, sleeping in his apartments, taking his meals with him, sharing his recreations, and exchanging notes with him through mutes when they were apart. Ibrahim was married to one of Suleiman’s sisters in a wedding of great pomp and splendor.

            A noted observer of life at the Court of Suleiman was an aristocratic native of Flanders. This was Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, envoy from 1554 onwards of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  Busbecq was an intelligent, open-minded and fair observer and he was to give the West a fresh, intelligent and open look at life in Istanbul at Suleiman’s Court. Soon after his arrival in Constantinople he reported on the Sultan’s hall of audience at Amasya:


            Now come with me and cast your eye over the immense crowd of turbaned heads, wrapped in countless folds of the whitest silk, and bright raiment of every kind and hue, and everywhere the brilliance of gold, silver, purple, silk and satin…….A more beautiful spectacle never was presented to my gaze. Yet amid all of this luxury there was a great simplicity and economy. The dress of all has the same form, whatever the wearer’s rank; and no edgings or useless trimmings are sewn on, as is the custom with us….what struck me as particularly praiseworthy in that great multitude was the silence and good discipline. There were none of the cries and murmurs which usually proceed from a motley concourse and there was no crowding. Each man kept his appointed place in the quietest manner possible.


            Busbecq was quick to clarify the principles which operated at the Sultan’s court, a society in which democratic values prevailed beneath the exterior of absolute autocracy. It was a system in which merit counted, not the circumstances of birth. The Sultan considered merit, character, natural ability and disposition of each man regardless of wealth, and offices were filled with men with the ability to perform each one.

            The Sultan received him, Busbecq tells us, “seated on a rather low sofa, not more than a foot from the ground and spread with many coverlets and cushions embroidered with exquisite work. Near him were his bow and arrows. His expression……is anything but smiling, and has a sternness which, though sad, is full of majesty…..After going through the pretence of kissing his hand, we were led to the wall facing him backwards, so as to not turn our backs or any part of them towards him”.

            Busbecq then stated the purpose of his mission, which was to persuade the Turks to check their raids into Hungary. This was not consistent with the Sultan’s policy. The Sultan simply answered “well, well”, and dismissed the Emperor’s envoys. Busbecq was not at all surprised at the Sultan’s cold treatment of his request. After all, he was not from an allied country like Venice or France. Suleiman had signed a peace treaty with the arch-enemy of the Holy Roman Empire, France’s Francis I, in 1535. The Persians, who were allies of the Turks, had their request for peace granted immediately. Busbecq could only get a peace for six months. He went home to Vienna with a letter from the Sultan intending to return with a reply. Once again in the Sultan’s presence, “two ample embroidered robes reaching to my ankles were thrown around me, which were as much as I could carry. My attendants were also presented with silken robes of various colors and clad in these, accompanied me. I thus proceeded in a stately procession, as though I were going to play the part of Agamemnon or some similar hero in a tragedy, and bade farewell to the Sultan after receiving his dispatch wrapped up in cloth of gold.”

            Indeed, Suleiman’s main military goal was to chip away at Charles’ Empire in Eastern Europe. It was his good fortune, then, that Hungary was in a disordered and divided state at this time, split between rival political factions. It was divided between a “court party” of the king and his nobility and a “national party” of John Zapolya, governor and effective ruler of Transylvania, along with an oppressed peasantry who saw the Turks as liberators. Suleiman started on his western campaign on 23 April of 1526. Since the fall of Belgrade, Turks and Hungarians had been having frontier skirmishes. He led about a hundred thousand troops. About half of these were the hard corps of disciplined troops, composed of infantry (the Janissaries), cavalry (sipahis), and artillery. The other half were irregulars, serving without pay, but living by the spoils of war. These consisted of infantry (azabs) and cavalry (akinjis).

            The troops encountered severe weather in the Balkans. Torrential rains and hailstorms recurred, with flooding making progress difficult at times.

            Discipline in this army was strict. Punishments were recorded in the Sultan’s diary. “May 10. A soldier is decapitated for trampling down the harvest, near the village of Kemal……..May 11. Two soldiers accused of stealing horses have their heads cut off.” Later: “June 5. Two silihdars (sword—bearers) are decapitated for pasturing their horses in unharvested fields.” Ibrahim, who had become Suleiman’s Grand Vizier, was sent ahead of the army, to prospect and prepare the way for the conquerors. The troops arrived in Belgrade, and found two bridges across the Sava. The battle was fought on marshy ground near Buda, a plain to the west of the Danube. When a local prelate found out about the choice of battlefield, he said “the Hungarian nation will have about twenty thousand martyrs on the day of this battle, and it would be well to have them canonized by the Pope”. The battle was decided by the clearly superior Turkish artillery. The Turks broke through the circle of European troops, scattering the enemies to the four winds. The King of Hungary himself was killed. On September 10, the Sultan entered Buda. Before this, Suleiman had written in his diary “September 4. Order to massacre all peasants in the camp. Women alone exempted: Akinjis forbidden to plunder”. This prohibition was ignored, and Suleiman did not enforce it. The Turks built a bridge across the Danube to the neighboring city of Pesth. Due to the killing of the King of Hungary, the Crown of Hungary was claimed by two rival claimants. Archduke Ferdinand, the brother of Emperor Charles, was one; the other was John Zapolya, who protested that Ferdinand was not from Hungary.  A Diet of Hungarian nobles chose Zapolya, A few weeks later a rival pro-German Diet chose Ferdinand, plunging the country into civil war. John Zapolya sent an envoy to Istanbul to offer the Sultan his support in an alliance. The Sultan agreed to grant him the title of King. In effect, this made him master of the lands of Hungary. Ferdinand then sent an envoy to Istanbul with the same offer. However, these met with a hostile reception and were thrown into prison. Zapolya was King, and a vassal of the Sultan. After burning the city, Suleiman returned to Istanbul.

            He left again for the Hungarian frontier on 10 May of 1529. His army was bigger than ever, and again, Ibrahim was in charge. Upon his arrival in the environs of Vienna, which he had imperial designs on, he was greeted by the Hungarian potentate who supported him, John Zapolya. He crowned Zapolya King of Hungary with the ancient crown of St. Stephen. He was then received in Buda as King of Hungary. On 27 September the Sultan reached Vienna. Already the residents of Vienna had seen the flames of burning villages in the distance. The countryside, as far as they could see, was dotted with white Muslim tents.

            Ferdinand made plans to defend Vienna. He had some difficulty raising troops, and even had a disagreement with his brother, the Emperor, on military strategy. The Emperor wanted Ferdinand to give up his campaign in the East as he was occupied with hostilities against France. Undaunted, Ferdinand continued raising troops throughout his lands. All promised contingents, and every tenth man was conscripted in Austria itself.  He sent an appeal for help to the German princes at the Diet of Speyer. He stressed Suleiman’s boast that he would not lay down his arms before he had erected a monument to his victory on the Rhine. Martin Luther, reforming the church in Germany, called for action against the Turks, and Protestants joined Catholics in a common interest, keeping the Turks out of Europe. This army took some time to mobilize. Fortunately for Vienna, rains impeded Suleiman’s advance by a month. Reinforcements only showed up three days before Suleiman’s troops arrived. This raised Vienna’s garrison from twelve to twenty thousand. They were, moreover, no mere feudal levies, but well-trained professional infantry, veterans of the Emperor’s campaigns in Italy, and they were commanded by a brave and experienced general with half a century of service to his credit, Count Nicholas von Salm. Fortunately for the Europeans, Suleiman had been obliged to leave most of his heavy siege artillery, which had been crucial in his Rhodes campaign.

The defenses of Vienna had been hastily but resourcefully improvised. The defenders had to transform a half-ruined city surrounded by medieval walls barely six feet thick into an effective fortress. It had a frail outer palisade named the “city hedge”. Houses too close to the walls were razed to the ground. Eight hundred buildings in the suburbs were burned. This included the city hospital, several churches, and several convents, as well as a castle on a hilltop which might have served the Turks well as a fortress. Inside of the city, new entrenched earthen defenses were constructed and a new wall, twenty feet high, with a new ditch, was added. The bank of the Danube was similarly entrenched and palisaded. The countryside was scoured to lay in stocks of provisions. Inflammable roofs were removed from buildings.

Because Suleiman was not able to take his siege artillery to Vienna, he only had lighter cannon for his campaign. These were not able to make any impact on the strengthened walls of Vienna. Furthermore, he underestimated the difficulty of his task. He called on the garrison of Vienna to surrender, declaring that he only sought to follow and find King Ferdinand. He boasted, in the event of Viennese resistance, that he would be breakfasting in Vienna within three days on the feast of St. Michael. After this, he said, he would destroy the city. A fortnight passed, and the Viennese still held out. St. Michael’s Day brought rain, which made the Turks, in their light tents, miserable. A released prisoner was sent with the message to the Sultan that his breakfast had grown cold and he must be content with such sustenance as the guns from the wall might provide.

The musketry of the Turks was so skilled as to make it impossible for any defender to appear on these walls without being hit. Their archers, concealed among the ruins of the suburbs, discharged an incessant hail of arrows with so deadly an aim that they penetrated the loopholes and embrasures in the walls, making it hazardous for the citizens to take the streets. Arrows flew in all directions, and the Viennese kept as souvenirs some—presumably launched by Turks of distinction—which were wrapped in costly fabrics and even set with pearls. Mines were exploded by the Turkish sappers, and despite active countermining from the cellars of the city, breaches were thus made in the walls. But the ensuing Turkish assaults were repulsed through the courage of the defenders, who celebrated their success with the sound of trumpet and martial music. Periodically the Turks made sorties, sometimes returning with prisoners and booty which on one occasion included eighty men and five camels.

Suleiman surveyed the operations from a carpeted tent, hung with fine tissues and furnished with bejeweled divans, whose numerous pinnacles, crowned with knobs of gold, soared high above the Turkish encampment. Here the Sultan interviewed Christian prisoners and sent them back into the city with threats and promises, laden with gifts of robes and Turkish ducats—but without any effect on the defenders, who, in the words of a popular song, were to the Sultan “not men but devils”. Ibrahim Pasha, directing the siege, sought to encourage the attackers by distributing gold in reward for an enemy’s head or an important capture. But as their spirits flagged, they were driven on by blows with sticks and whips and sabers.

On the evening of 12 October a Divan, or war council, was called in the Sultan’s camp. They were trying to decide whether or not to keep up the siege. Ibrahim, expressing the view of the majority, expressed the view that they should withdraw. Morale, he pointed out, was low. Winter was approaching, supplies were running short, the Janissaries were complaining, the enemy expected imminent reinforcements. After discussion it was decided to attempt a fourth and last major assault, with the offer to the troops of exceptional pecuniary rewards for success. On 14 October it was launched by the Janissaries and the pick of the Sultan’s army. It met hour after hour with a ferocious resistance, the attackers failing to storm a breach in the walls 150 feet wide.

The Sultan’s army was basically a summer force, limited in its offensive scope by the fact that its feudal cavalry could not face a winter campaign lest their horses perish, hence were confined to a campaigning season of barely six months. Nor could the Sultan himself, and the ministers who accompanied him, conveniently remain absent from Istanbul much longer. Thus, now that it was already mid-October and the last assault had failed, Suleiman ordered a general retreat. The Turkish troops set fire to their camp, massacring or burning alive all their prisoners from the Austrian countryside, except those young enough to qualify for the slave market. The army started on its return to Istanbul, harassed by skirmishing enemy cavalry and by weather even worse than before. Turkish losses were so heavy that discouragement was widespread.

This was the only defeat of Suleiman’s entire career. St. Stephens’ Cathedral in Vienna celebrated with a Te Deum of thanks. Hans Sachs, the great meistersinger, composed his own ballad of thanksgiving, with the words “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh in vain”.

            Suleiman sought to save face and avoid embarrassment by pretending that he had only come to fight Ferdinand, not to conquer Vienna. Ferdinand was no king, declared the Sultan. He called Ferdinand simply Ferdinand, with no title, and he refused to refer to Charles as an Emperor. He contemptuously called Charles “King of Spain” rather than “Holy Roman Emperor”; in his mind, he, Suleiman, was the only Emperor alive. However, he was not able to penetrate into Europe, and this part of Suleiman’s agenda, the conquest of Charles’ Empire, was never realized.

            This was a huge break for the Christian powers of Europe. A settlement was signed with Ferdinand, with Suleiman granting him peace for “three centuries, as long as Ferdinand does not break it”.  Europe had been saved from the Turkish threat. Suleiman had been defeated for the first time. He had been driven back from the walls of a great capital by a force which outnumbered his by three to one. At Buda, his vassal, John Zapolya, came out to congratulate the Sultan on his “successful campaign”.

            On his return to Istanbul Suleiman celebrated the Circumcision of his five sons, as has been noted. Suleiman pointed out that Ferdinand had never faced him in battle. Ibrahim commented that Ferdinand was “only a little fellow of Vienna, and worth small attention”.

            The Sultan still expressed his determination to cross swords with the Holy Roman Emperor. He set forth on 26 April 1532, headed for the Danube with his army and river fleet. Before reaching Belgrade he was met with further embassies from Ferdinand. He offered peace on more generous terms than before, increasing the amount of the proffered “pension” and ready even on certain conditions to recognize the claims of Zapolya. But the Sultan, receiving his envoys and addressing them in an audience of some splendor in which they were mortified to find themselves placed beneath the envoy of the King of France, made it clear to them that his enemy was not Ferdinand, but Charles.

            Ibrahim remained Vizier until his fall in 1536.  His rise was unlike that of any previous Vizier. Usually the Vizier had been an army judge or provincial governor, not a personal favorite of the Sultan. Ibrahim’s rise established a precedent. After this the Vizier was a personal favorite of the Sultan. The Venetians even nicknamed the Vizier “Ibrahim the Magnificent”.  His status among foreign rulers was such that Francis I and Charles V both wrote letters to him in person. Ambassadors being sent to Istanbul were told to see him first. They believed him when he boasted of his power to make the Sultan do whatever he wanted him to do. “It is I who govern”, he claimed. In 1535 he was responsible for a peace treaty with Francis I of France. This enabled France to maintain a constructive relationship with Istanbul. She carried on a thriving trade with the Turks. The French lived under French law in the Ottoman Empire, and Turks lived as Turkish citizens in France, under their own laws.

            Ibrahim’s last act as Vizier was to secure the surrender of several towns in Persia. The Ottoman Turks had long been at odds with the Persians. The Turks were Sunni Muslims; the Persians were Shi’ite Muslims. However, relations between the two nations were quiet, for the most part. Still, the Turks had signed no peace treaties with the Persians. In the summer of 1534 Suleiman entered Tabriz, and he then moved on Baghdad. He conquered this metropolis at the end of November. He entered Baghdad as the Commander of the Faithful, a leader of the Sunnis. Nevertheless the Shi’ite Muslims kept their freedom of religion and continued to worship peacefully in their mosques. Nonetheless the remains of a great Sunni imam, Abu Hanifa, a renowned jurist and theologian of the era of the Prophet were unearthed, and a great tomb was built to honor this holy man. This marked the deliverance of Baghdad from the heretics. This was held up as a miraculous discovery held to be comparable in the eyes of God to that of the remains of Eyub, the companion of the Prophet, on the capture of Constantinople from the Christian infidel.

            Ibrahim, as any powerful person might do, had made enemies. He had served Suleiman as Vizier for thirteen years. He even had himself addressed as “Sultan Ibrahim”. This made Suleiman suspicious of his loyalty. Ibrahim was accompanied to Persia by a personal enemy, Iksender Chelebi, who took him to task for his use of this title. The two men proceeded to carry out a war of words. The dispute ended in Chelebi’s disgrace and death. Before his execution Chelebi called for pen and paper, and denounced Ibrahim of conspiracy against the Sultan. These were Chelebi’s dying words, and Suleiman believed him. Furthermore, the Sultan’s new favorite in the harem, Roxelana, a concubine of Ukrainian-Russian origin, wanted Ibrahim out of power. She was jealous of his power and wished to have this power for herself. Suleiman decided to act swiftly and secretly. One evening after his return from Persia in 1536, Ibrahim Pasha was invited to dine with the Sultan in his apartments, and to sleep there afterwards. The next morning his corpse was discovered by attendants at the gate of the Seraglio. Marks on his body showed that he had been strangled. He had apparently put up a fierce fight for his life. A horse with black trappings carried the corpse away. He was buried without a stone marker in a dervish monastery in Galatia. It was a black mark on an otherwise brilliant reign.

            Ibrahim’s downfall had much to do with a favored concubine, known as La Rossa, or Roxelana. She was originally from Galicia, the daughter of a Ukrainian priest. The Turks originally called her “Khurren”, or “the laughing one”, from her joyous smile and merry disposition. She had replaced another favorite to become the “first lady” of his harem. She eventually broke precedent by becoming Suleiman’s wife in 1534. She bore Suleiman a child, and sought to become Suleiman’s legal wife.  She feared his son Mustafa. When the interior of the Old Palace was seriously damaged by a fire in about 1541 she moved into the Grand Seraglio, where the Sultan lived and carried on business. She took her possessions and a huge retinue, which included 100 ladies-in-waiting, together with her personal dressmaker and her purveyor, who had thirty slaves of his own. Heretofore no woman had been allowed to sleep in the Grand Seraglio. Roxelana, however, lived there for the rest of her life. In 1543 she achieved another political victory when Rustem Pasha became Grand Vizier. She married her daughter to Rustem Pasha, the Grand Vizier who was a Bulgarian by birth. who came to share her fear of Mustafa, who was being trained to succeed Suleiman as Sultan. Her sons by Suleiman could be legally executed by the new Sultan in a tradition to root out potential rival claimants to the throne.  Roxelana and Rustem persuaded Suleiman that Mustafa was in cahoots with the Janissaries, plotting to take the throne. Mustafa had become popular with his valor, tact, and generosity. “Mustafa”, wrote Busbecq, “was confronted with a difficult choice. If he entered the presence of his angry and offended father, he ran an undoubted risk. If he refused, he clearly admitted that he had contemplated an act of treason. He chose the braver and more dangerous course”, by presenting himself to Suleiman. The unfortunate prince was promptly strangled. The Janissaries were unhappy but powerless to change the situation. Rustem Pasha was relieved of his command and other dignities. Within two years his replacement, Ahmed, was dead, and he was back in office.

            Within three years Roxelana herself was dead. She was greatly mourned by the Sultan. She had secured the succession for one of her sons, Selim, who was an incompetent drunk. The other, Bayezid, resembled his father and had inherited his upright qualities, and he had the support of the Janissaries. The youngest son, Jehangir, a hunchback, robust neither in mind nor in body but a warmhearted admirer of Mustafa, had fallen ill and died, grief—stricken and fearful of his own fate.

            The two surviving brothers hated each other. Suleiman separated them by giving each of them a command in a different part of the Empire. They ended up going to war against each other. Bazeyid was favored by his father, and he was defeated by Selim at Konya in 1559. Bazeyid took refuge at the Persian court. This turned into captivity. The shah handed Bazeyid over to the Turks for a large sum of gold. The prince was not even allowed to tell his four sons farewell; he was immediately executed. Thus Suleiman’s successor was an incompetent drunk.

            In 1540 John Zapolya, who had become joint king of Hungary with Ferdinand, unexpectedly died. The treaty signed with Suleiman specified that in the event that he died childless his territory would revert to Ferdinand. However, at the urging of a noted Hungarian nationalist, the monk Martinuzzi, an opponent of the Habsburgs, he married Isabella, a daughter of the King of Poland. On his deathbed he received news that Isabella had given birth to a son. The infant was declared King of Hungary, and named Stephen, after the country’s first King and patron saint. Ferdinand, receiving the news, marched on Buda, which he claimed as his capital. Martinuzzi and other anti-Habsburg adherents appealed to Suleiman on behalf of the infant King. Suleiman, angered, commented that “these two Kings are unworthy to wear crowns; they are faithless men”. However, Suleiman granted their request in return for payment of an annual tribute. But he wished to make sure that Isabella had really given birth to the child. He sent her an envoy with a request to prove the child’s existence. She met the Sultan with the infant in her arms. She breast-fed the infant in his presence to prove that he was her baby. The Sultan knelt and kissed the feet of the infant King, acknowledging his acceptance. However, he was displeased with these circumstances and prepared for another campaign against Hungary. In the summer of 1541 he entered Buda. Ferdinand led some troops against him. Suleiman falsely claimed that Islamic law prevented him from receiving Isabella. The Christians didn’t know any better. He sent for her infant son, and he was brought to his tent in a golden cradle. The child’s name had been changed to John Sigismund, after two of his Polish predecessors. After looking at the baby Suleiman sent him back to his mother. In theory, the young king was to have tributary status as a vassal of the Sultan. In practice, Hungary was being made a Turkish province. Buda was made a Turkish city, and its churches were converted to mosques. This disturbed the Europeans, who feared for the security of Vienna. Ferdinand sent gifts to the Sultan along with envoys asking for peace. These gifts included a large clock which told not only the hours but also the days and months of the year. Suleiman loved astronomy, and this gift took this into consideration. But he refused to give in to the Habsburg demands. He claimed that Ferdinand was “out of his mind” to think that he would give up something he had won by right of arms, meaning the tribute state of Hungary.

            Ferdinand again took the field to attempt to take Pesth. However, the campaign was not a success and his forced dispersed. Suleiman marched back into Hungary in 1543. Hungary was converted to a Turkish state, and remained such for a century and a half. The Holy Roman Emperor didn’t want to fool with Hungary as he had his hands full with problems in Europe. He and Ferdinand signed the treaty of Edirne in 1547. Under the terms of this treaty Suleiman retained all of his conquests, except for a small part of Hungary reserved for Ferdinand. Ferdinand agreed to pay a tribute to the Porte. Unfortunately, the truce of Edirne didn’t run its five allotted years. Queen Isabella planned for her son to inherit the throne, but the country was controlled by Martinuzzi. Isabella complained to the Sultan about the meddlesome monk. Martinuzzi secretly persuaded Isabella to relinquish Transylvania to Ferdinand in return for lands elsewhere, thus making it a part of the Austrian dominions. For this he was made a Cardinal by the pope. But the Sultan, receiving news of this maneuver, immediately flung Martinuzzi into a notorious prison, the Black Tower of Anadolu Hisar. A trusted commander of Bosnian Slavic origin, Mehmed Solollu, marched into Transylvania, where he captured Lippa. Martinuzzi joined with Ferdinand to recover Lippa, but he sought in secret to placate the Turks. Warned of this treachery, Ferdinand put Martinuzzi to death.

            In 1552 Turkish forces invaded the country again. They scored some victories, but then suffered a loss and had to retreat. Suleiman actually died while on campaign in Hungary. He never achieved his objectives there.

The sultans who succeeded Suleiman were weak rulers. Bribery, purchase of offices, favoritism, and nepotism all reared their ugly heads. Because Suleiman’s two designated successors were executed, his successor, Selim, had not been trained for the responsibilities of the sultanate. Selim was overly fond of sexual and alcoholic pleasures and is known to history with the unflattering nickname of Selim the Drunk. Short and obese, with a flushed complexion, he was indolent, a nonentity in the government of the Empire. This showed the fundamental weakness of the Ottoman state; way too much of its welfare depended on the abilities and efforts, or lack thereof, by one man.  Selim left the government in the hands of his Vizier, and this became a pattern for the sultans.  The Empire weakened militarily, and the economy was shot by the inflation that also hit Europe as a result of the influx of precious metals from the New World. The coinage was debased. Europeans stopped using the Empire’s trade routes due to new travel routes to the Far East. The Sunni Muslim scholars of the Empire were not challenged and became conservative and intolerant, resisting new ideas. And now we come to end of our era, 1600.

            And now we’ll talk about an interesting social and cultural institution of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the caravanserai. The word itself is from the Persian word “karwansarai”. “Karwan” became our word “caravan”, and means a company of travelers.  “Sarai” means “palace”.

            Caravanserais were a network of inns across the Islamic world arranged to provide services for travelers. Muslim society was very mobile as the economy was mostly operated by traveling merchants.  In Turkey, there are natural roads between settlements of people. There are three main roads that connect residential areas with each other. These roads are known as the Silk Roads, used by merchants to sell their silks, many of which were made in China. People in the silk business traveled on these roads carrying great sums of gold and silver to pay for expensive silks. They wanted secure travel conditions. They needed a place to stay for the nights that they were on these long journeys. During the Middle Ages this meant that they needed these places at the intervals in the trip between their outset at dawn or shortly thereafter and dusk. They had to get to the next inn before dusk. These needs were met by the caravanserais. The first caravanserais in Turkey were built by the Seljuk Turkish rulers. They encouraged mercantile activities, signing trade agreements with foreigners and making policies to facilitate trade. They provided insurance, one of the earliest known uses of insurance in history. They did this by penalizing thieves. If a theft occurred on the road the people in the area where the theft occurred would be taxed. Areas free from theft were not taxed. So the inhabitants of areas along the trade route insured the safety of the travelers in return for exemption from taxation.  They built and maintained roads, bridges, opened passes through Turkey’s many mountain ranges, and encouraged the development of the caravanserais. There was a saying in those days that “Nothing will happen to you, even if you travel from Izmir to Van with a pot of gold on your head”.

            Caravanserais were open to everyone, regardless of language, religion or nationality. The distances between caravanserais were calculated at intervals that a caravan could be expected to cover in a single day. This distance was called a “menzil” in Turkish, a word that means “journey” in the old sense of the word “a days’ travel”. A menzil was about thirty kilometers. A caravan could travel this distance in six hours, or eight hours in difficult desert terrain. Caravanserais were all over the Islamic world; there was a noted one at Damascus.

            Some certificates of foundation for some caravanserais still exist. They were established as Foundations, and functioned as such. One such certificate is the Karatay Caravanserai Certificate of Foundation. This Caravanserai was founded by Celaleddin Karatay. Karatay was known as a devout Muslim, a kind, generous man of strong morals and a powerful statesman. He served the Seljuk sultanate from 1214 to 1254. His brother also worked for the government and he also built a caravanserai. In the document, the administrators and staff, their duties and their salaries are all described. The document even took into account adjustments in salaries due to any possible fall in the value of coinage. The document lists the services provided by the foundation. They were food and drink for the travelers and their animals, a place to sleep, a place to wash, with soap provided, storage facilities for their belongings, medical attention and medicines in case they became ill, repair of worn shoes, replacement of shoes too worn for repair with new ones, the shoeing of animals, oil and candles to provide light and firewood in case heat was needed. These were all provided free of charge.

            The buildings were designed with these services in mind. There were accommodations for the officials who managed the institution’s income and expenditures. There were also dormitories, an infirmary for the care of the ill, a refectory, larders, stabling for the animals, a small mosque, pharmacy, cobblers’ and shoemakers’ shops and a smithy where shoes for the animals could be made. The staff included a blacksmith, a money-changer, a wainman, a tailor, a cobbler, a physician and a vetenary. Sheep for feeding the travelers were grazed in the pasture next to the buildings. Each traveler was entitled to receive I kg. of bread, 250 g of cooked meat and one bowl of cooked food a day, by they Muslim or non-Muslim. On Friday evenings a mixture of honey and snow was served. A poor traveler and a sultan received the same things. Everything was paid for with income derived from foundations dedicated to the Caravanserai, such as rent from houses, land, field and shops.

            An exhausted traveler coming upon the gates of the Caravanserai would always find them open in the evening. He would be shown to his place in the dormitory. In the morning people rose and packed their bags. A manager would come and ask the guests about their stay. After making sure everyone had all of their belongings and was ready to leave, the manager opened the gates with the word “Bismallah”, an Arabic address from the Koran. It means “In the name of God the Compassionate the Most Merciful”. In Turkey today there is a saying that if you are a guest in Turkey you are God’s guest.

            At one point there were a total of 250 caravanserais in what is now Turkey. Eight of these were built by the sultans, the rest by wealthy statesmen. The eight which were built by the Sultans were called “sultankhans”, “khan” being another word for “inn”. Suleiman was known for his generosity in founding caravanserais. In the eastern part of Turkey caravanserais were built like small, square castles heavily fortified by thick walls of stone. To the west, they tended to be U-shaped and be built of masonry, or even, in some cases of mud brick. Architecturally, they were very impressive buildings, complete with domes, towers, and gates.

            Do any of the caravanserais still exist? Yes, they do. About a third of them are in good enough condition for modern use. But to the Turks there is no need to maintain them if they do not serve the community in some way. They no longer serve the same function that they did when people traveled on foot, camel and horseback. Turkish historian Cengiz Bektas has some ideas about how to make them functional and not have them stand empty with no use. He suggests using them for educational purposes. Anatolia is home to twenty past civilizations lasting over six thousand years. All of these old buildings are not only part of Turkey’s heritage; they are part of our collective human history. They are useful to the tourist industry. They have been the study of studies by UNESCO, the cultural wing of the United Nations. They can also be used by hotels and restaurants as venues for receptions, shopping, catering, meetings, exhibitions and cultural activities. Personally, I’d love to go to Turkey and check out the caravanserais.










Books: Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin, 1998.

The Ottoman Centuries, The Rise and fall of the Turkish Empire, Kinross, John Patrick Douglas Balfour, Baron (1904—1976), first published in 1977

Turkey Unveiled, A History of Modern Turkey, Nicole and Hugh Pope, 1997


Web sites:

Official Tour Guide of Turkey, Burak Sansal, tour guide from Turkey.

Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Culture web site.

“Caravanserais”, Cengiz Bektas, web site.

“Kervanserays of Cappadocia”, Murat Gulyaz, web site.

 UNESCO web site on Caravanserais.


Documentary: “The Silk Road”, a documentary Japanese archeology program funded by the Japanese company NHK, available on CD cassette.