Among the billions of people who have walked the earth since the dawn of humanity, only a few are rightfully remembered for their exceptional skills and impact on history, and among these is Mehmet II, the Ottoman emperor who had the honor of conquering Istanbul and thus earning the title “conqueror.”

Mehmet the Conqueror was only 21 years old when he sent the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire to the dusty pages of history and leveled up a Turkish state into an empire that would rule regions in multiple continents for centuries to come.

Much like other leading historical figures still remembered and respected, an interesting story lies behind the success of the conqueror, who became sultan when he was literally just a child.

Fed up with the political grievances and weary after his eldest son’s demise, his father Murad (Murat) II abdicated the throne in 1444 and urged Mehmet II to be the empire’s new leader at the tender age of 12.

However, his first reign came to an end only two years later as significant political and military figures spurred Murad II to return to the throne due to tensions and turmoil in conquered territories, especially in the European region, and the threat of Crusaders while the public was skeptical about a child being sultan.

Even though Mehmet II voluntarily left the throne for his father, it was obvious that he felt humiliated as a leader. He thereafter returned to Manisa, in the Aegean region, where he continued to develop his intellect and got married. The young royal also gained military insight when he joined his father in the Battle of Kosovo in 1448.

Back to the throne

When his father died in 1451, Mehmet II ascended the throne yet again, with many lessons learned from his previous experience as well as mistakes from Ottoman Empire history that had triggered something of a decline.

Seeking to prove himself in the eyes of senior Ottoman figures and the public, and realizing his ultimate goal of making history, his eyes were fixed on the conquest of Constantinople, then the Byzantine capital, and immediately launched preparations for the coming battle.

Although the city had been besieged many times before, nobody had been able to take it, and Mehmet II knew well that achieving the impossible required unorthodox tactics and insight.

The sultan assembled a large army – said to include over 200,000 soldiers, but some historians say the figure was less than half that – and appeared before the city’s strong walls with full confidence.

He surrounded the city by both sea and land, followed by an unexpected move: transporting warships through land around Galata, then a colony of the Genoese on modern Istanbul’s European side.

The military campaign continued for more than 50 days, spearheaded by massive cannonball assaults pounding the walls to open a hole through which soldiers could breach the city.

On May 29, the city finally fell, earning Mehmet II the well-deserved title of conqueror.

The conquest of the city is the best-known victory of Mehmet the Conqueror, but in subsequent years he also ensured Ottoman control over Serbia, Morea, Trebizond (modern Trabzon) in the northern region of modern Turkey, as well as Bosnia, Albania, and some Anatolian (central Turkish) territories.

In over two dozen military campaigns during his reign, the emperor managed to conquer large swathes of territories, increasing Ottoman control to over 2.2 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles).

His swan song victory came in 1480, when he triumphed in Otranto, Italy, and was next planning moves to draw closer to Rome. But fate had other plans, and the conqueror died on May 3, 1481.

Historians in Turkey still argue over whether he was next setting his sights on Rome, which is likely, given his taking Otranto, or would instead turn towards the eastern regions.

Intellectual side

While the great Ottoman emperor is mostly remembered for the dazzling military conquests of his reign, he was also a true intellectual.

Mehmet is believed to have spoken Persian, Arabic, ancient Greek and Italian – which is viewed by many as a sign suggesting his desire to form an empire spanning the West and East alike.

Turkish historians say his library included books on such topics as geometry, religion, engineering, astronomy, arithmetic, archeology, geography, and philosophy.

Known to be a poet, the conqueror was also into art; he commissioned Renaissance painter Bellini to do his portrait.

The Ottoman emperor might have been inspired by the life of Alexander the Great in his pursuit of forming an empire, as he read about the military campaigns of the legendary figure.

Homer’s Iliad was among the books in his library, and Ptolemy’s ancient world map is believed to have been one of the gems of his collection.

In a brief life of just 49 years, the conqueror managed to leave an indelible mark on history and his legacy still lives today; he managed to turn his story from humiliation to greatness.

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