Ottomans at the Gate
The Seljuks had become a force to be reckoned with, growing from a small principality in Anatolia to a powerful army, known as the Ottomans. They ruled over the Balkans, the area all around Constantinople and much of the remainder of the Byzantine Empire.
The fall of Constantinople can be attributed directly to the brilliance of Mehmet II, the Conqueror. In 1451, Mehmet prepared two magnificent fortresses on the Bosphorus for his invasion. Anadolu Hisarı on the Asian side was strengthened, while a second fortress, Rumeli Hisarı, on the European side, was constructed in just a few months. Together, the two fortresses guarded the narrowest section of the Bosphorus.
Mehmet meanwhile brought in master craftsmen from Europe to build huge cannons, and in May 1453 started to build up his forces around the walls of Constantinople. The Byzantines had installed massive chain links across the Golden Horn, so Mehmet took them by surprise.
He bombarded the city walls by night and stealthily transported his ships overland, from a cove behind Galata where the Dolmabahçe Palace now stands, on rollers up the hill and down into the Golden Horn behind the chains. The emperor Constantine XI died fighting on the walls.
Mehmet entered the city on 29 May and immediately went to pray in the Hagia Sophia, which was cleansed and declared a mosque. Many other churches were turned into mosques, although those areas which had not resisted the Ottoman forces were spared. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, which stems from the Greek ‘Istanopolis’ or ‘to the city’, and declared it the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Mehmet began the process of transforming Istanbul into a fabulously wealthy capital. He repaired the city walls and built a new mosque, the Fatih Camii, as well as Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. New districts of the city were established and seaside mansions constructed.
Under Süleyman the Magnificent (1522 – 1566), the Ottoman Empire was at its peak, extending from Vienna to the Arab peninsula and as far south as Sudan. Süleyman’s greatest landmark is perhaps the exquisite Süleymaniye Mosque, built in 1556.
Decline of the Ottoman Empire
After Süleyman’s death, the empire began to decline, falling behind Europe in technological innovation and under threat from Tsarist Russia in the north. The crack Janissary Corps, a much-feared army of former Christians who had been forcibly converted to Islam, rose up against Sultan Mahmut II in 1826 and was slaughtered en masse in Sultanahmet.
This, combined with a series of weak rulers, meant the empire lost more and more land, and gradually Greece, Bulgaria, the Balkans and Egypt won their independence. Istanbul nonetheless retained a kind of faded glory, with some of the magnificent 19th-century buildings, such as the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Yildiz Palace, still popular today.
World War I
The Ottomans entered World War I on the side of the German and Austro-Hungarian forces, a decision that was to prove a fatal mistake. The single bright spot in the whole of the war was the successful defense in 1915 of the Gallipoli Peninsula by a hitherto unknown colonel, Mustafa Kemal.
By the end of the war the Ottoman Empire was in ruins, its armies totally defeated, and Istanbul occupied by an Allied army. The sultan was in the power of the Allies, forced to sign a humiliating peace agreement that reduced the empire to a rump comprising Istanbul and part of Anatolia, while the Italians invaded Antalya and the Greek army marched towards Ankara.