“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!”
Portrait: Muhammad al-Fatih
Known to the west as Mehmed II, he was born on 30th March 1432 in the northwestern province of Edrine, Muhammad al-Fatih was the son of Sultan Murad II (1404-51) and was an Ottoman Sultan who ruled from 1451 to 1481. Muhammad al-Fatih showed signs of leadership right from a young age, gaining leadership skills and experience from governing cities like Amasya. Muhammad al-Fatih’s father wanted to make sure that his son learned from of the best scholars at the time. Muhammad al-Fatih was a devout Muslim and learned under many teachers about the Islamic faith which moulded his mindset. He mastered seven languages; Turkish, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Serbian, Hebrew and Persian.
During his youth, he was heavily influenced by fellow academics and their work in Islamic epistemology. One notable teacher/mentor that played a major role in Mehmed’s life was Muhammad Shams al-Din bin Hamzah who was al-Fatih’s tutor and advisor influencing him from a young age. He also inspired Muhammad to do the impossible, to conquer what had been the most powerful city in the world at that time, that is Constantinople. The seed had been planted and Muhammad al-Fatih dedicated his youth to prepare for what came to be the most important achievement in his life, defeating the Byzantine Empire and conquering Constantinople.
Muhammad al-Fatih’s teacher Muhammad Shams al-Din bin Hamzah
Conquering Constantinople no easy task for Muhammad, as Constantinople had withstood many sieges and attacks over the centuries because of its formidable defences. Even Muslims of the past tried and failed to do so. The Byzantine capital was positioned by the sea making it tremendously difficult to attack and its naval fleet didn’t make things any easier for the opposing forces. The Byzantines had a secret weapon known as ‘Greek Fire’, a highly flammable liquid that was used in naval engagements where it would instantaneously set ships ablaze and it could not be put out by water. (Cartwright and Cartwright, 2017).
‘Greek Fire’ – ancient Byzantium weapon used to destroy their enemies
Constantinople was also fortified by the Theodosian Walls. These walls were a triple row of fortifications. This means that there were three walls stacked in front of each other. The outer wall had a patrol track, the middle wall provided a firing platform to shoot down on opposing forces attacking the first wall and the inner wall was five meters thick and 12 metres high making it the biggest of the three walls (Cartwright and Cartwright, 2017).
Theodosian Walls being attacked by Muhammad al-Fatih
All this made the city of Constantinople impregnable and withstood landside sieges for eight hundred years. Even previous Sultans from the Ottoman Empire tried and failed to capture the Byzantine capital.
Although the Byzantines had been successful in crushing any military force that would attack their city walls, they had no help from western Christian allies because of a crushing defeat to the Crusader army in the Battle of Varna 1444 at the hands of Muhammad’s father Murad II. That battle and the battle of Koscovo 1448 deterred the European states from sending any substantial military assistance to aid the Byzantines. Also, the Byzantines did not want to unite the pope’s church with theirs, so that didn’t help strengthen their relationship. Constantinople had withstood sieges for 800 years which means they had primarily dealt with weapons made in the middle ages. Al-Fatih had one thing which previous besiegers of Constantinople lacked, cannon power. (Cartwright and Cartwright, 2017)
Muhammad al-Fatih was a military genius. His strategic war planning was unparalleled and is evident in his attention to war preparations. His war strategies can be divided into two stages, which are the pre-war strategies and those while the war was ongoing. Muhammad al-fatih adopted a ‘grand-strategy’ as a pattern of pre-war strategies (Isa and Ashari, 2014).
‘Grand-strategy’ is “the process by which all the means available to the state are considered in pursuit of continuing political influence” (Dolman, 2005) This involves planning in terms of diplomacy, information, military and economic power. In terms of the political strategy, before he attacked Constantinople, Muhammad al-Fatih signed peace treaties with three states: Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Stipulated in these treaties are the duties of the states to uphold ceasefire with the Ottomans and not to meddle into any war affairs that the Ottomans have with any other states.
Muhammad al-Fatih managed to accumulate a special fund before the war was actually waged. This was apart of his economic strategy. This involved increasing taxes from states under Ottoman protection and introducing economic policies which allowed him to take control of certain products in the trading sector.
Militarily strategising would require a large proportion of Muhammad al-Fatih’s focus. Muhammad al-Fatih was able to amass hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers as well as cavalries, gunmen and gun carriage drivers from all over the regions. The Ottoman naval forces were formidable and their seapower lasted for centuries in the Indian Ocean. Muhammad al-Fatih always made sure to have a huge naval fleet at the ready for war.
Ottoman Naval Ships were formidable
He also equipped his army with the latest warfare technology. A new artillery technology which had not been owned by other nation except for the Ottomans at the time was bought from a Hungarian engineer. This was a giant cannon that was essential to taking down the Theodosian Walls. Muhammad al-Fatih also ordered fortresses to be built close to the region about to be attacked in order to station the army and provide logistical sites for uninterrupted war supplies.
When it came to geographic planning, Muhammad al-Fatih took no risks. He would sketch his strategies on maps with great care, with some reports stating that he took usually several days to complete his plan and others saying he would spend all night to analyse his war tactics spotting any flaws, mistakes and weaknesses in his planning. Muhammad al-Fatih didn’t stop there, he looked at the historical sieges waged on Constantinople trying to understand their mistakes and flawed tactics.
By learning other Sultan’s and Islamic leader’s mistakes in overthrowing the Byzantine rule in Constantinople, he formulated a new strategy that previous leaders weren’t able to come up with. That is to attack the city from two fronts, the land and the sea. Muhammad al-Fatih understood that the majority of leaders used land tactics to try and capture the city. This failed because the Byzantines was not affected by this, seeing that they used the sea for trade routes and war supplies. So to bypass this issue, Muhammad al-Fatih positioned his foot soldiers and cavalrymen on the land while his naval man was stationed at the seaways to barricade the ships carrying aid and war supplies from other Christian nations. Lastly, Muhammad al-Fatih ensured that his pre-war strategy’s success by taking a long and difficult route to Constantinople. This clouded Byzantine rulers thinking as it was unclear if the Ottomans were heading for them. The sultan has used this tactic many times and famously rulers have surrendered to him without even putting up a fight as they didn’t know the Ottomans were at their doorstep, leaving them unprepared.
During the seige, Muhammad al-Fatih was intelligent enough to change his plans at any moment during times of war because of a change in the situation. In order to do this, Muhammad al-Fatih has to maintain a peaceful mind and make decisions based on rational thinking. This is crucial because, during wars, strategies need to be made efficiently and quickly and any emotional influence might cloud judgment at that moment.
And so on 6th April 1453, the siege of Constantinople had begun. Wave after wave, the Ottomans attacked Constantinople’s walls but were unsuccessful, even with their massive cannons they were unable to do much damage to the walls. On the other side of the siege, Ottomon naval fleet suffered from the same issue and they could not enter the Golden Horn bay due to the massive chain stretched across its entrance. All these problems were troubling Mehmed. He knew that if he were to be victorious, he would have to abandon his prewar plans and adapt to the changing situation. Muhammad Al-Fatih ordered the construction of a road of greased logs to drag his ships over the Hill into the golden Horn bypassing the chain barrier. The defenders were forced to disperse part of their forces to defend the sea walls along the Golden Horn. This gave the Ottomans the opportunity to launch a large scale final assault, attacking the walls with full force. The Byzantines were being overwhelmed at several different points. The Ottoman elite Janissaries were ordered to press forward pressuring the Byzantines to retreat and shortly enough Ottoman flags were seen on top of a small gate. Panic ensued and the Byzantine defence collapsed. Finally after a 53 day siege, on the 29th of May 1453, Sultan Mehmed had conquered Constantinople
Following the conquest, Mehmed protected both Jews and Christians and respected their rights as citizens of Constantinople. By conquering this great city, the Sultan had established a new frontier for the spread of Islam in the west having lasting impacts on the world till today. Muhammad Al-Fatih showed us that in order to accomplish anything, not only do you need to rely on Allah but also to put in the effort. May we learn from his achievements and may Allah bless this noble Sultan.
Cartwright, M. and Cartwright, M. (2017). Greek Fire. [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Cartwright, M. and Cartwright, M. (2017). Theodosian Walls. [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Cartwright, M. and Cartwright, M. (2017). 1453: The Fall of Constantinople. [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia,
Isa, A. and Ashari, M. (2014). Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih: Ottoman’s Great Strategic Planner. Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 20(12), pp.2158-2163.
Dolman, E.C., 2005. Pure Strategy. New York: Frank (1238-1492M) Cass.
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