Wednesday, March 4, 2015

May 3, 1481 - Mehmed the Conqueror Marches on Italy

In characteristic exuberance, Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan, decided to leave Istanbul earlier than expected. His doctors warned him about too much exertion at his age (forty-nine) to which Mehmed scoffed and refused their medicines as a show of his vitality to his troops. They cheered him, and the armies soon arrived in Italy to face crusaders attempting to take back Otranto, which his general Gedik Ahmed Pasha had seized the year before.

Mehmed had come to rule the Ottomans at eleven years old when his father, Murad II, retired after securing peace with the Karaman Emirate in nearby Anatolia. Young Mehmed was immediately mixed up into war with the Hungarians, who broke their treaty. Mehmed recalled his father to office, writing to him, “If you are the Sultan, come and lead your armies. If I am the Sultan I hereby order you to come and lead my armies.” Murad returned for five years, and then Mehmed again became sultan, now ready to lead his own armies.

Mehmed’s first action was to secure the profitable Bosporus Straits. He built up his navy and expanded fortresses, soon besieging the city that had controlled the strait (and much of the world) for a millennium: Constantinople. It had only ever fallen once, due to treachery in the Fourth Crusade, but now Mehmed meant to conquer it. Despite Constantinople’s cutting-edge siege techniques that had defended it for centuries, Mehmed cut it off by land and sea, bringing ships overland to attack from the north. Constantinople fell, and, at only twenty-one years old, Mehmed secured “Caesar” as a new title for himself.

Over the next thirty years, Mehmed continued to conquer in every direction. His armies stormed Serbia, Morea, Trebizond, Karaman, Albania, and Crimea. Wherever he did not conquer directly, he installed a sophisticated system of tribute and vassal states. If any ever threatened to withhold tribute, that was grounds enough to dispatch a new campaign for vicious conquest. Much of Mehmed’s time was spent breaking the authority of the Italian Venetians and Genoese, who had colonized much of the east with vast mercantile forces. By 1479, Venice finally signed an extensive treaty to end the Ottoman onslaught.

Mehmed’s sight was then set on the Kingdom of Naples in Southern Italy. In 1480, he dispatched a force that besieged and took Otranto. Even as the walls crumbled, the populace remained resilient with Bishop Pendinelli and Count Largo making a final stand in the cathedral. To break Italian spirits with shock tactics, the Ottomans seized over eight hundred men from around the city and ordered them to convert to Islam on threat of death. Antonio Primaldi, a tailor, was the first to refuse. He was then also the first beheaded, followed by each of the other martyrs. With the city secure and winter approaching, the main force of the army retreated to Albania to campaign again the next year.

In the meantime, King Ferdinand of Naples began assembling an army. Pope Sixtus IV called for a crusade, which was answered by the French and, Mehmed’s old nemeses, the Hungarians. The crusader army besieged the city on May 1 and was met later that week by Mehmed’s full invading force. After a grueling two-day battle, the crusader army was broken. With reinforcements half a continent away, the Neapolitan army fought a series of retreating battles before Naples itself fell. Rome was evacuated, and the pope fled to France.

With the Papal States in chaos and no military buffer between them and the Ottomans, the Republic of Florence proposed a treaty in 1482. Lorenzo de Medici sent a young artist from nearby Vinci named Leonardo to present a gift of a silver harp in the shape of a horse’s head. Mehmed was impressed with Leonardo’s skills and added him to his court in Istanbul, where he had collected some of the greatest minds in the world.

Many in Europe considered de Medici’s act betrayal of Christendom, but other northern Italian states followed suit to protect themselves from oblivion. Mehmed levied monetary tributes that squelched the growing Renaissance there. Instead, many of the artists and scientists migrated north to Germany or to Istanbul to work in Mehmed’s university, library, and studios. While Islam remained the dominant religion, Mehmed proved tolerant of others as long as they maintained their treaties and paid taxes.

Italy would be the last of Mehmed’s conquests, who died in 1484. His successors continued to expand the empire into Africa and the Middle East, exploiting new innovations in engineering to further their military and infrastructure. Southern Italy proved a notoriously violent province, routinely in rebellion spurred on by Christian states such as Spain, who notably refused the Italian Christopher Columbus’s suggestion to explore west as they needed the ships to challenge Ottoman power in the Mediterranean. He later found an eager ear in the French court, where papal authority was already waning. While Istanbul remained the center of the world, Paris would be the center of Catholicism, constantly battling the coalition of Protestant states to the north and east.


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In reality, Mehmed II died in 1481 before reinforcing Italy, and Otranto returned to Christian control. Legend holds that his untimely death was poisoning at the hand of his doctors, possibly on the order of his son. All through Christendom, church bells rang, and the people rejoiced at the news of their deliverance from a man who seemed to be an unstoppable conqueror.

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