Two Sides of the Medallion Mehmed the Conqueror: Fighter of Islam or Lover of Western Art?

Nilay Özlü*

This paper aims to scrutinize the use and abuse of historical figures for ideological purposes, which happens to be a very common practice in the Turkish political arena. The commodification of history and invention of national heroes with an ideological agenda, more often than not, do not reflect a realistic and complete picture of the past. The tendency that has started with the era of Democratic Party for politicizing the Ottoman past has reached its peak in the last couple years. Especially Ottoman Sultans were presented as national heroes and icons of Islamic glory. This article hopes to unveil the discrepancies between the constructed Islamic hero and the actual persona of the very same ruler in his own historical context. A more realistic and holistic picture of one of the most controversial rulers of his time will be presented from a different perspective.

For the last couple years, a novel kind of “national day” started being celebrated with an increasing enthusiasm in Turkey. These ostentatious celebrations of nationalist and religious tone, supported with state-of-the-art technology, offer an audio-visual and spiritual pleasure for the inhabitants of Istanbul. The historic spots of the city became a scene for political spectacle on the 29th of every May. Apparently the day of the “conquest of Istanbul” started being positioned as a significant day to commemorate by the local and central governments. The governing party with a neo-Ottomanist tendency celebrated the anniversary of the conquest as a public spectacle, organizing number of attractions including Qu’ran reading ceremonies in Rumeli Hisarı, laser animated music shows on Golden Horn, stadium concerts, political speeches, and ceremonial processions of the youth with Janissary clothing together with a mehter band (Fig. 1). Of course, a prayer ceremony at Fatih Complex in front of the tomb of Mehmed II was an essential component of these celebrations.

Obviously, Mehmed II, namely Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror or simply Fatih, commemorated not only as a national hero, but started being positioned as a symbol of the Islamic regime and as a figure representing salvation from “secular” Turkey as well. As Fatih saved Istanbul from the Byzantine Empire by giving an end to the easternmost castle of Christianity; his memory is believed to save the city one more time from the Kemalist doctrine. Prophet Mohammad predicted that one day Istanbul will be conquered by the fighters of Islam and he is believed to have said that: “They will conquer Constantinople. Hail to the Prince and the army to whom this granted”. By realizing Prophet Mohammad’s prophecy and by converting the church of Hagia Sophia into an imperial mosque attributed Mehmed II a holy status in the Islamic historiography (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Posters from popular social networking sites.

Conservative media took active part in the construction of the Fatih myth which could be summarized as a military hero, defender of Islam, and merciless fighter against infidels (Figure 3). Together with rather conventional forms of media such as TV, radio, and newspapers; internet was also vividly utilized for the construction of the new vision of Fatih. Dozens of web pages-many having hundred-thousands of members that were devoted to Mehmed the Conqueror could be found in social networking sites, where the nationalist and conservative ideology was explicitly promoted. Within these websites, the axiom “we are the descendants of Fatih” was among the most common. One of the groups in Facebook was named “Atam izindeyiz!… (Fatih Sultan Mehmet)”; this well-known motto of the Kemalists ideology was transformed to refer Mehmed II as the true ancestor of the Turkish nation (Fig. 2).
Following the footsteps of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party, Governing Justice and Development Party politicized Fatih and used his persona as a symbol for propagating their neo-Ottomanist and – needless to say- conservative vision. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan proudly highlighted his Ottoman roots, referenced Fatih quite a number of times in his public speeches, associated Mehmed II with the cultural heritage of Istanbul, named many of the recent projects or buildings after him, and did not even hesitate to use Fatih Mosque as a political arena. Last September, a poster was presented during the latest constitutional election campaigns in which Erdoğan was depicted as Fatih during his siege of Istanbul as saying ‘Yes’ for the constitutional changes, and the Byzantines were presented as the opposing party. A very recent example would be the government’s latest educational reform project being named as “FATIH”. While presenting the project, Tayyip Erdoğan praised Fatih, his intelligence, and his education. He stated that “we have to raise a generation as intelligent and as well-educated as Fatih. He knew several languages at the age of 13; that is what we are aiming for the education of the upcoming generations.”

While Erdoğan was emphasizing the superb education that Mehmed II received, he consciously or unconsciously- did not mention the actual details of the young prince’s quite exceptional education. Apart from an Arab speaking philosopher reading him every day, one Greek and one Latin tutor trained the young Prince in ancient history with readings from Herodotus, Laertius, Livy, Quintus Curtius, Chronicles of the Popes, Emperors, the Kings of France and the Lombards. Mehmed II’s passion for books is well known, as he was a generous patron of book production. He owned a large library of a wide selection of books from Eastern and Western world. So far, 90 precious manuscripts were identified, 20 of them on philosophy and five on logic, from his library. The court nakkaşhane for book production and design was founded during his reign within the walls of the Topkapı Palace, setting the foundations of a distinctive Ottoman style in book binding, painting, illustration, and illumination.

Mehmed II ordered and received many European books, most of them focusing on the issues of geography, military science, and medicine. He was particularly interested in the legacies of world emperors, such as that of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. The books of Alexander the Great were being read to Fatih every day, and there are several Greek copies of the book in the Topkapı Library, the most famous being the Anabasis of Arrianus which was known to be copied for Mehmed II. Several Turkish versions of the book, some of them illustrated, named as Iskendername were produced for Meh- med II, who identified himself with the persona of the Macedonian emperor. The Sultan also had his history and his accomplishments written by Tursun Beg and his Greek historian Kritovoulos with the aim of immortalizing his accomplishments. He apparently had the ambition of being the new world- emperor and the inheritor of Roman Empire. Pope Pius II and Georgios from Trabzon actually offered the Sultan to convert into Christianity to unite eastern and western Rome under his sovereignty and to become the real successor of the re-united Roman Empire. Even though their offer was not accepted by Mehmed II, historians believe that he had the ambition of becoming the ruler of the known world, as he defined himself as “Caesar” and attempted to take over Rome.

Figure 4. A page from Mehmed’s school book. Istanbul Topkapı Palace Museum.

Not only the educational background but the artistic tastes of the young Sultan were quite controversial for his time. Actually, his interest in figurative painting had its roots in his childhood education. The school-book with pen and ink drawings be- longing to the young prince includes three-quarter face portrait busts together with arabesque motifs, animals, and his imperial cypher (Fig. 3). Sultan’s keen interest in European, especially Italian art and architecture could have been derived from his ambition of uniting eastern and western Rome under his rule, as well. He patronized several European artists, mostly from Italy to have his portraits done. According to Julian Raby, medals produced from his youth to later years of his life, provide the most consistent evidence for Fatih’s appeal in portraiture. The Sultan used Italian contacts and diplomatic channels to demand the services of specific Italian artists. A well-known Quattrocento artist Costanzo de Ferrara, sent by Ferrante II of Naples, spent many years in Istanbul and produced the finest portrait medal of Mehmed II (Fig. 4). Painter Gentile Bellini and sculptor Bartolommeo Bellano were sent for the service of the Ottoman court by Venetian authorities as demanded by the Sultan.

Figure 5. Portrait medal of Mehmed II by Costanzo de Ferrara (1481). Oxford Ashmolean Museum.

Not only the renowned portrait painting of Mehmed II, but also a cast portrait medal was created by Bellini which was later sent to Lorenzo de’ Medici of Florence. A copy of the medal was produced by the Florentine court artist Giovanni Bertolto to return the favour of Mehmed II. Apparently, the Sultan was utilizing figural imagery as a political tool to reinforce his sovereignty and visibility in the Western world as well.

Figure 6. Mehmed II smelling a rose (ca. 1481). Istanbul Topkapı Palace Museum.

The influence of European artists could be traced in the imperial nakkaşhane as well. A new genre of portrait painting combining Timurid style of miniature painting with European style of naturalistic details appeared in the second half of the 15th century. Two of the court painters, Sinan and Şiblizade Ahmed, could be identified from this era. Sinan was trained by two artists with Italian names (one from Ragusa and one from Dalmatia) and Şiblizade Ahmed was renowned for his talent in portraiture. The famous painting, depicting Mehmed smelling a rose is attributed to Şiblizade Ahmed and the painting brought Timurid and Italian painting traditions together (Fig. 5). The bust portrait of Meh- med painted by Sinan Bey, closely followed the style of Costanzo de Ferrara (Fig. 6). The impact of European naturalism which is clearly visible in this profile depiction of the Sultan came to an end after the reign of Mehmed II. After his reign, Ottoman Sultans turned their back to Western artistic traditions and continued to use Timurid and Persian arts as sources of inspiration.

Mehmed II’s interest in European art was not only limited with figural arts or portraiture paintings. During his ambitious reconstruction of Constantinople as an imperial capital, the incorporation of Italian architects and inspiration from Western and also Eastern architecture are known. In 1480 the Sultan asked Venetians to send a painter named ‘Maestro Bernando’ to Constantinople for the construction and decoration of buildings in Italian style which includes sculptures, large-scale paintings, and frescoes. While embracing the Byzantine and antique past of the city, the building programme of Mehmed II has an immediate agenda of Ottomanizing the city reinforcing the idea of imperial continuity. Even the name of the city was not changed and the term ‘Kostantiniyye’ continued to be used in the imperial documents and coins until the classical era. Several architectural drawings combining Western and Islamic traditions belong- ing to the era of Mehmed II were found in the Top- kapı Palace Archives. The impact of Italian architecture on the octagonal towers and classicizing details of the New Palace (Topkapı Palace) and the star-shaped citadel (Yedi Kule) built at the Byzantian Golden Gate were also apparent. According to Çiğdem Kafesçioğlu, the New Mosque Complex, which is now called Fatih Külliyesi, carries many common features with Ospedale Maggiore in Milan with its strict geometry, symmetry, and axial planning that were strange to Ottoman building traditions of earlier eras. It has been argued that Italian architect Filatere (Antonio Averlino) was involved in the construction of the complex. While the official texts written for the ruling elite were praising the mosque complex and admiring its architectural and spiritual qualities; chronicles by the dervish Aşıkpaşazade or by anonymous chroniclers carried a critical tone against the complex. These anonymous chroniclers high- lighted the abundant expenditure for the complex and criticized Mehmed for spending tax money to secure his afterlife. They also blamed the Sultan of injustice and oppression, since the architect of the complex, Sinan, was im- prisoned and beaten to death and the workers were not paid wages and forcibly deported from their homelands. Apparently, Mehmed II has not yet enjoyed the privileged and holy status that he holds now, in his own era.

Figure 7. Bust portrait of Mehmed II (ca. 1470s). Istanbul Topkapı Palace Museum.

The legacy of the Ottoman Sultan as the patron of Western art did not, however, last long. The idea of positioning the Ottoman Sultan as a Renaissance ruler and a generous supporter of art and architecture leave its place to a more conservative and more orthodox understanding with the era of Bayezid II. Rather than having an appeal for portraiture, the successor of Mehmed II hates figural imagery. After arriving Constantinople to claim the throne, Bayezid sold all the paintings owned by his father. Mehmed II had a large collection of Bellini paintings that also include erotic works of art. It is obviously a twist of history that, one of the symbols of Islamic ideology today was accused as a non-believer of Prophet Mohammad (Che non credeva in Macometto) by his very own son, Bayezid II. Apparently, to better comprehend a historical figure, both sides of the medallion have to be examined. Before consuming the legacy of Mehmed the Conqueror for political purposes, one has to understand the actual position of him in his own historical context. Whether Meh- med II was a fighter of Islam and a cruel enemy of Christianity or a lover and supporter of Western art and architecture needs to be examined one more time. PR


* Nilay Özlü is Doctoral Researcher in Department of History at Boğaziçi University.



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