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Enter the dragon

The Grand Turk: Sultan Mehmet II
John Freely
I B Tauris, 288pp, £18.99

Paintings of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, just don’t look right: the aquiline nose is suitably military, but the deftly tapered brow and deep-set, almond-shaped eyes point to a thoughtfulness not usually regarded as soldierly, particularly in one nicknamed “The Present Terror of Europe”. In fact, Mehmet, as John Freely shows us, is a figure that history produces every so often: the cultured, educated murderer – a Lorenzo de’ Medici, say. Mehmet slaughtered his way across countries, but spoke seven languages, founded universities (some of which exist today) and was a patron of the arts.

Mehmet descended from Osman, the first Ottoman ruler, from whom the empire derives its name. He oversaw the changing of times, ending the Byzantine era (with his conquest of Constantinople) and extending the Ottoman Empire deep into Europe as far as Hungary and the heel of Italy. All of which makes him that archetype in the occidental imagination: the oriental aggressor, cunning and violent, and implacably there. Three popes ordered crusades against him, Pius II warning of the “venomous dragon” whose “bloodthirsty hordes” threatened the west.

Freely illustrates early on the dual engine of charm and ruthlessness that propelled this unfavoured, third son to glory. On inheriting the throne, he went to visit his father’s favourite wife; the two talked warmly at length; meanwhile, “one of his men was strangling her baby son [his half-brother and potential rival] in his bath”. This, Mehmet believed, was necessary for stability, and he enshrined it into law: “And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers.”

The narrative begins with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Mehmet was just 21. Freely takes a forensic approach to history: we learn the thickness of Constantinople’s walls (five metres), their height (12 metres) and length (12 miles); the exact number of towers in the city (96) and the distance between them (55 metres on average). This could make for a trying read, but here the steady accretion of detail makes concrete the city, and time, in the reader’s imagination.

Like Jerusalem and Athens and Rome, Constantinople lives eternal and pristine in the imagination, but no other city was sacked so horrendously. The fiesta of destruction that had been visited upon it during the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, described by the historian Steven Runciman as “unparalleled in history”, was not to be its last. In accordance with Muslim custom, Mehmet promised his soldiers three days of looting when they took the city. After the first day, he shamefacedly called a halt to proceedings. “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction,” he is said to have lamented. Thus did Byzantine become Ottoman, and Constantinople, which had been a bastion of Christianity for more than a thousand years, become Istanbul (from the Greek eis ten polin, meaning “into the city”), capital of the caliphate until the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.

It is on the man behind the ruler that Freely is at his best, however. In a chapter entitled “A Renaissance Court in Istanbul”, we meet a scholarly individual presiding over a court filled with Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, works by St Thomas Aquinas and Persian poetry recitals. Even Meh­met himself, we learn, turned his hand to verse, though with an “utter lack of originality”.

More importantly, by presenting us with a figure who, according to Dr Celia Kerslake, lecturer in Turkish at Oxford University, “was closer to being a Renaissance monarch than any other Ottoman ruler, and whose own openness to Greek and western culture was unequalled”, Freely adumbrates the dynamism of the Ottoman state. For years western academic study was dominated by the theory of “oriental despotism”, as outlined in works such as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, which held that the great empires ossified under the arbitrary rule of all-powerful monarchs and their titanic bureaucracies, imperturbably resistant to the advancement of science, medicine and technology. Content in this perfumed listlessness, the Islamic world atrophied as the west trod the path to modernity. Freely rejects this notion. It was, he writes, “the rise of Islam that brought Graeco-Islamic science to the west, beginning the modern scientific tradition”. And the detailed description of Mehmet, of his life and of his court, is the plump flesh on the bones of this central argument.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?