Sultan Mehmed II

Written by Mir Adnan Aziz 6:50 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

Sultan Mehmed II’s Ottoman Empire Compared to Atatürk’s Secular Turkey

In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. The reign of the sultan saw the Ottoman Empire grow exponentially and the city become a world refuge, a center of arts, literature, and culture. Mir Adnan Aziz compares the Ottoman Empire under Mehmed the Conqueror with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular Turkey. He reveals the loss of identity of the people of the once magnificent empire in the name of “westernization”.
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Mir Adnan Aziz is a freelance contributor.

Conquest of Constantinople

It was on a warm afternoon, 29th May 1453 to be precise, that a 20-year-old Sultan Mehmed II entered Constantinople – the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In doing so, he reduced the Byzantine Empire which had endured for 1,123 years, to the annals of history.

As he rode up to the Hagia Sophia, the mother church of Eastern Christendom, the seat of the oecumenical patriarch, and the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom built over 900 years earlier by Emperor Justinian, he dismounted from his horse, bent down to pick up a handful of earth and poured it over his head as an act of humility before God.

On entering the cathedral, considered by the Greeks as the earthly heaven, the throne of God’s glory, and the vehicle of the cherubim, Sultan Mehmed is said to have fallen on his knees in submission. The cathedral soon resonated with the azaan; Hagia Sophia would soon become Aya Sofya and Cami-i Kebir, the Great Mosque.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, was poet, orator and diplomat at the court of Roman Emperor Frederick III. He penned his sentiments to Pope Nicholas V who had called for a crusade against the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople. Aeneas wrote:

“I grieve that Sancta Sophia (Hagia Sophia), the most famous church in the entire world, has been ruined and polluted. I grieve that saints’ basilicas built with wondrous skill should lie beneath the desolation of defilement. What shall I say of the countless books which were there in Constantinople? Here is a second death for Homer and a second destruction of Plato. Where are we now to seek the philosophers and the poets’ works of genius? The fount of Muses (inspirational goddess of literature) has been destroyed!”

This lament was understandable given that Constantinople, the jewel of the Byzantine crown and the bastion of Christendom, was now an Ottoman domain. However, on 6 January 1454 what would define the inclusive foundation of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed restored the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. He also appointed a Jewish grand rabbi and an Armenian patriarch in the city.

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He gathered Greek and Italian scholars and artists at his court and allowed religious freedom to the people of Constantinople. Mehmed II had patriarch Gennadius II Scholarios, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, write a creed of Christian beliefs and had it translated into Turkish.

The Reign of Sultan Mehmed II

In his 25 military campaigns, Sultan Mehmed II extended the Ottoman Empire to over 2.22 million square kilometers extending from southeastern Europe to the Danube and from Anatolia to the Euphrates River. Being as high in intellect and cultural refinement as was his military genius and political acumen, Sultan Mehmed wrote poems under the pseudonym Avni.

Fluent in Arabic and Persian, he could converse in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Serbian. One of the first structures built after the conquest of Constantinople was a huge library in the Beyazıd Old Palace. Sultan Mehmed’s vast library had, apart from Homer’s Iliad (belying the Aeneas lament of a second death for Homer) and Ptolemy’s ancient world map, books on religion, astronomy, philosophy, archaeology, engineering, and geometry authored by the greatest names in those times.

Sultan Mehmed’s love for art can be gauged from the fact that he immediately found an art institute called Nakkashane in Topkapi Palace. He made it home to famous artisans from Anatolia and Edirne and commissioned the famous Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini to his court.

Sultan Mehmet II
Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini

Constantinople became a world refuge, a multinational capital of an empire that became home to seventy-two nationalities. In a span of 29 years, Sultan Mehmed left an indelible mark on history; his legacy had the dark ages give way to mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences reaching their zenith in the Ottoman Empire.

A Secular Turkey

It was five centuries later that Mustafa Kemal Pasha, having subdued British and French forces in Anatolia (Turkey), would be seen as a liberator and hero. He was dubbed Gazi Kemal Ataturk; he was looked upon as a new Sultan Mehmed II, a visage that would soon lay shattered. Mustafa Kemal, in what he proclaimed the creation of a modern Turkey, abolished the Caliphate.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
A Portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the 1930s

He exiled the last Ottoman sultan to Paris. He replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, forbade the azaan in Arabic, abolished the Hijri calendar, outlawed salaam as a greeting, persecuted the ulema and Sufi dervish order, and established the first secular republic in the Islamic world. He imposed a system where there was one secular identity, Kemalism, and one arbiter of political power – Turkey’s military.

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Kemal modeled the seat of the Ottoman Empire on the latest European fashions. In creating a secular Turkey, home to a population of which 98 percent were Muslim, he expelled Islam from the public sphere. Unlike Erdogan’s Islamization policy in Turkey, Kemalism led to the creation of the secular Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Mustafa Kemal, on a visit to the Anatolian town of Inebolu, pronounced in an impassioned speech to a gathering of befuddled peasants, “We shall wear Oxford shoes or ankle shoes from now on; and trousers, waistcoats, shirts, ties, removable collars, jackets and most naturally, hats.” The ruthlessly enforced Kemalism mandated the wearing of western hats. The Hat Law in 1925 was ruthlessly enforced; disobeying it could carry a death sentence.

Not meant to give the otherwise handsome Turks a more appealing look, wearing hats was designed to wean them away from fez, the traditional Turkish headgear. The brimless fez facilitated bowing (sajda) while offering prayers, but the hat did not. This met with resistance and many were executed for defying the same.

Among many that opposed the Hat Law was Iskilipli Mehmed Atif Hoca, a renowned Islamic scholar from Istanbul’s Darul-Funun Divinity School. In a pamphlet titled Frenk Mukallitligi ve Sapka (Westernization and the Hat), Iskilipli argued that forcing Muslims to dress and act like Westerners was absurd. He was arrested and presented before an Independence Tribunal. Knowing that the verdict had been preordained, Iskilipli refused to defend himself. On 4th February 1925, he was hanged.

An emboldened Mustafa Kemal, had the Aya Sofya decreed a museum on 24 November 1934; its beautiful prayer carpet was torn to shreds and its school demolished. He would also have the minarets razed to the ground had he not been told that the structure along with the huge dome would be compromised. The outrageous act hurt the feelings of the Turkish masses but could not be voiced due to the prevailing witch-hunt against Islam.

Hagia Sofia
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul” by David Spender is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The still existing cadastral records and title deed dated 19 February 1936 show the actual change of ownership was the result of a legally agreed sale by the Church authorities in the time of Sultan Mehmed II. It describes the structure as the “Grand Imperial Hagia Sophia Mosque Complex consisting of a Mausoleum, a Clock room, a Madrasa and Leased Property belonging to the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Foundation”.

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A Secular “Monarch”

Mustafa Kemal, in his putsch for a secular Turkey, forced a nation and country rooted in Islamic history to ape western norms and culture; it created a Turkey bereft of identity. Mustafa Kemal, the debonair westernized Turk was no sultan or emperor; however, he chose to live in the Ottoman Dolmabahce Palace on the bank of the Bosphorus River.

The non-emperor Mustafa Kemal also made sure he ruled Turkey till his death. His demise in 1938 ended his 15-year reign that tried to forcibly change a truly great nation’s identity, culture, and history. The larger-than-life persona that he wanted to create for himself was evident to the last. Mortally sick with liver cirrhosis, he refused to be seen on a stretcher and ordered to be carried around in an armchair. His death saw the Turkish military – the defenders of Turkey’s secularism – take upon themselves to safeguard the enforcement of Mustafa Kemal’s oppressive and brutal legacy.

The secular Turkey left by him tried its best to be a part of the European Union but was shunned continuously with “do more” demands at westernization as Turkey’s guiding principles. Pope Benedict (Cardinal Ratzinger) strongly advocated the fusion of Christianity into European lives. In a 2004 interview with Le Figaro magazine, Pope Benedict deemed it a “mistake to omit Europe’s Christian roots in the European Union Constitution.”

He also defined Europe as “a cultural continent, not a geographical one whose roots are Christian.” He also negated Turkey’s endeavor to join the EU citing Turkey as a Muslim population, advising instead that Turkey should “try set up a cultural continent with neighboring Arab countries and become the protagonist of a culture with its own identity.” What the Pope simply meant was that Europe was only for Christians.


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