Sultan Mehmed II: The Conqueror of Constantinople

By: Evan Scoboria, Last updated: June 11, 2023

Sultan Mehmed II, known to history as Mehmed the Conqueror, was one of the most influential figures in the 15th century. His life and reign were marked by profound political, military, and cultural achievements, the most significant of which was the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This event marked the Byzantine Empire's end and the Ottoman Empire's rise as a dominant force in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

Born into a world where the Ottoman Empire was a rising power, Mehmed II took the reins and propelled it to new heights. His vision, strategic insight, and determination transformed the empire, leaving a lasting legacy that shaped history. This article delves into the life of Sultan Mehmed II, his ascension to power, and his rule, highlighting the significant milestones and their implications on the world.

Early Life and Ascension to Power

Childhood and Education

Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, was born on 30th March 1432, in Edirne during his father's reign, Sultan Murad II. As a child, Mehmed was educated in the palace school under the supervision of several renowned scholars and teachers. His education was well-rounded, encompassing various subjects such as science, history, literature, theology, and military tactics.

Mehmed was fluent in several languages, including Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, and his native Turkish. This linguistic prowess would later aid him in his role as a statesman and a military strategist. His education also stressed the virtues of leadership and governance, preparing him for his future role as a sultan.

From a young age, Mehmed showed signs of his ambitious nature. He was particularly fascinated by the history of great conquerors like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This fascination with conquest and empire-building indicated what lay ahead in his future.

First Reign and Temporary Exile

Mehmed II ascended to the throne at the tender age of 12 after his father, Murad II, abdicated in his favor in 1444. This first reign, however, was fraught with difficulties. The young sultan faced several challenges, including an attempted coup by his uncle and the threat of a Crusader army led by Janos Hunyadi of Hungary.

His father, Murad II, returned from his retirement in 1446 to defeat the Crusaders at the Battle of Varna, after which he resumed the sultanate. This marked the beginning of Mehmed's temporary exile in Manisa. During this period, he continued his education and prepared for future leadership challenges.

When his father died in 1451, Mehmed II ascended to the Ottoman throne for the second time. He was just 19 years old, but his experiences during his first reign and his time in Manisa had matured him considerably. This time, he was ready to face the challenges and pursue his grand vision of an expansive Ottoman Empire.

Return to the Throne

In 1451, Mehmed II returned to the throne after his father's death. He was now nineteen years old, more experienced, and better prepared for leadership challenges. His return was marked by a renewed sense of determination and a clear vision for the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed's ambitions extended far beyond the borders of his realm. He had a vision of creating a world empire similar to that of the Romans, and he saw the Byzantine capital of Constantinople as the key to achieving this dream. Constantinople was a mighty fortress city at the time, well fortified and challenging to capture. But Mehmed was not deterred.

He spent the first few years of his second reign strengthening his military and preparing for the momentous task ahead. He commissioned the construction of a fortress on the Bosporus strait, named Rumelihisarı, to cut off the city's sea connections and aid in the future siege.

The Conquest of Constantinople

The conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 was a pivotal event in world history. It marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, a power that had stood for over a thousand years, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a significant world power.

Preparations for the Siege

As Mehmed II returned to the throne, his eyes were set on a grand objective: the conquest of Constantinople. This Byzantine capital was not just any city but a symbol of Christian dominance and a strategic chokepoint between the East and West. Mehmed knew that taking control of Constantinople would establish the Ottoman Empire as a significant world power and mark the end of the Byzantine Empire.

From 1451 onwards, Mehmed embarked on extensive preparations for the siege. He understood that capturing a city as fortified as Constantinople required a well-equipped and mighty army. He thus focused on building a formidable military force, recruiting soldiers from across his realm and even from Christian territories.

One of the most notable preparations was commissioning a massive cannon to break Constantinople's robust Theodosian walls. Mehmed hired a Hungarian cannon founder named Orban, who promised a powerful weapon to smash the city's defenses. The result was the "Basilica," a massive bombard that could fire a 600-pound stone ball over a mile.

Simultaneously, Mehmed ordered the construction of the fortress of Rumelihisarı on the Bosporus Strait's European side. This strategic location allowed the Ottomans to control sea traffic and cut off aid to Constantinople from the north.

Moreover, Mehmed mobilized a vast fleet to control the waters around Constantinople, thereby completing the city's encirclement. These measures showcased Mehmed's strategic insight and relentless determination to take the city, setting the stage for the decisive Siege of 1453.

The Siege of Constantinople

From April 6 to May 29, 1453, the Siege of Constantinople marked a significant chapter in Sultan Mehmed II's rule and was a turning point in world history. It represented the final destruction of the Byzantine Empire, a power that had influenced the Mediterranean for over a thousand years and marked the Ottomans' ascendence.

Mehmed initiated the siege with an army of between 80,000 and 200,000, a colossal force compared to the city's mere 7,000 to 10,000 defenders. The blockade started with the continuous bombardment of the city walls by the massive cannons Mehmed had commissioned, including the "Basilica." Despite their size and power, the cannons could have been more effective due to their slow reload time.

A significant element of the siege was the naval blockade. When the Byzantines blocked the entrance to the Golden Horn with a giant chain, Mehmed ordered his ships to be rolled across Galata on greased logs and launched them in the Golden Horn, bypassing the chain barrier. This move was a stroke of military genius that caught the defenders off guard and stretched their defenses even thinner.

On May 29, after more than seven weeks of relentless attacks, the final assault began. The defenders were exhausted, and their numbers were depleted. After brutal hand-to-hand fighting, Ottoman troops broke through the Kerkoporta gate in the early hours. Once inside the city walls, they quickly overran the defenders. When Mehmed entered the city, he famously declared it to be protected and its Orthodox Christian inhabitants to be free to maintain their faith, though under Ottoman rule.

With the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed had not only brought an end to the Eastern Roman Empire, but he had also established Istanbul as the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. This powerful Islamic state would continue to shape history for centuries to come.

Aftermath and Renaming of the City

The fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mehmed II marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, a power that had endured for over a thousand years. The aftermath of the siege set the stage for the city's transformation and the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a significant world power.

The first order of business for Mehmed was to stabilize the city. Despite some initial looting, he quickly restored order and began repopulating. He brought citizens from other parts of his empire to live in the city, effectively creating a cosmopolitan society that included Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims.

One of Mehmed's most significant decisions was to convert the Hagia Sophia, the grand cathedral of the Byzantine Empire, into a mosque. This act symbolized the city's transition from a Christian to a Muslim metropolis. However, he allowed other churches to remain open, reflecting his policy of religious tolerance.

In terms of administration, Mehmed established a millet system, which allowed non-Muslim communities to govern themselves under their laws and leaders as long as they paid their taxes and remained loyal to the Ottoman state. This system was relatively unique and contributed to the empire's stability.

The city, once known as Byzantium and then Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul under Turkish rule. However, the transition in naming took time. For many years, maps and documents referred to the city as Constantinople, and it was when the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Istanbul became the universally accepted name.

Under Mehmed's leadership, Istanbul grew into a bustling, prosperous city and the capital of the Ottoman Empire. His reign marked a period of significant architectural development, including the construction of the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. Mehmed’s conquest and subsequent transformation of Constantinople solidified his legacy as one of the most influential rulers in history, earning him the epithet "Fatih" (the Conqueror).

Sultan Mehmed II's Reign Post-Conquest

Sultan Mehmed II's reign after the conquest of Constantinople was marked by a series of successful campaigns that further expanded the reach of the Ottoman Empire, solidifying its place as a major world power. This period also saw significant administrative, legal, and cultural transformations that reflected Mehmed's vision of a unified and prosperous empire.

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire

Sultan Mehmed II's reign marked a period of significant expansion for the Ottoman Empire. With Constantinople as its capital and a strategic gateway between Europe and Asia, the empire was well-positioned for growth. Mehmed II capitalized on this opportunity, embarking on a series of campaigns that significantly broadened his realm.

Mehmed II's conquests extended beyond the Byzantine Empire's remnants. He subjugated the Serbian Despotate and brought the Balkans under Ottoman control. He also laid siege to Belgrade and fought successful campaigns against Wallachia, Moldavia, and the Crimean Khanate, effectively extending Ottoman influence over the Black Sea region.

Mehmed II sought to unify the various Turkic states under his rule in Anatolia. He launched campaigns against the Karamanids and other Anatolian beyliks, which resulted in their incorporation into the Ottoman Empire. By the end of his reign, most of Anatolia was under his control.

Mehmed II's expansionist policies also extended to the Mediterranean. He captured several key island bases, such as Negroponte and Lemnos, which helped establish Ottoman naval dominance in the Aegean Sea.

These campaigns significantly expanded the Ottoman Empire's territory, transforming it into a transcontinental power. More than just a military leader, Mehmed II established administrative structures and policies that facilitated this expansion and ensured the empire's governance and stability. His reign began the empire's 'Classical Age,' which transformed into one of the world's most powerful and enduring empires.

Administrative and Legal Reforms

Sultan Mehmed II was a formidable military strategist and conqueror and a skillful administrator who instituted several significant legal and bureaucratic reforms that helped consolidate and strengthen the newly enlarged Ottoman Empire.

One of Mehmed II's most notable administrative accomplishments was creating a centralized government structure. He expanded the role of the Grand Vizier, who acted as the sultan's chief minister and was responsible for the day-to-day running of the empire. He also established a hierarchical system of regional governors and local officials directly accountable to the sultan, ensuring greater control over his vast territories.

Regarding legal reforms, Mehmed II codified a set of laws known as the "Kanun of Mehmed II." These laws, which covered a wide range of subjects from criminal justice to land tenure, were designed to complement the Shari'ah or Islamic law and provided a comprehensive legal framework for governing the diverse populations within the empire.

Mehmed II also instituted a series of economic and fiscal reforms. He developed a more efficient taxation system, established state monopolies over certain goods, and promoted trade and commerce by granting privileges to merchants and encouraging the establishment of guilds. These measures helped to stimulate economic growth and increase state revenue.

Mehmed II founded several schools and madrasas in education, promoting religious and secular learning. He also patronized the arts and sciences, attracting scholars and artists from the Islamic world.

These administrative and legal reforms played a crucial role in strengthening the Ottoman state, ensuring its stability and prosperity in the years following Mehmed II's conquests. They laid the foundation for the 'Ottoman Classical Age' and set the stage for the empire's ascendancy as a world power.

Cultural and Intellectual Contributions

Sultan Mehmed II's reign saw a significant flourishing of culture and intellectual pursuits. Not only was he a successful military commander and a proficient administrator, but he was also a patron of the arts and sciences, fostering an era of cultural and intellectual growth in the Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed II was deeply interested in classical learning and the humanist ideals emerging in Europe during the Renaissance. He invited European scholars and artists to his court, alongside those from Islamic lands, creating a diverse and vibrant intellectual community in Istanbul. His court became a hub for scholars of various disciplines, including astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers, poets, and theologians.

One of Mehmed's significant cultural contributions was his patronage of architecture. After the conquest of Constantinople, he initiated an extensive building program to transform the city into the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. He commissioned the construction of grand mosques, palaces, public baths, marketplaces, and other structures, many of which still stand today. These include the Grand Bazaar, one of the world's oldest and largest covered markets, and the Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman sultans' primary residence and administrative headquarters.

In addition to architecture, Mehmed II was an avid collector of art. His collection included both Islamic and European works, reflecting his cosmopolitan tastes. He was particularly fond of portraiture and even had himself painted by Italian artist Gentile Bellini. This was a departure from the Islamic tradition, which typically discouraged the depiction of human figures.

Mehmed II also made significant contributions to education. He established numerous schools and madrasas throughout his empire, promoting religious and secular learning. He believed in the importance of education for the development of his empire and saw it as a means of consolidating his power and fostering loyalty among his subjects.

Mehmed II's cultural and intellectual contributions significantly impacted the Ottoman Empire, helping to shape its identity and playing a crucial role in its transformation into a world power. His patronage of the arts and sciences left a lasting legacy and reflected his reign's unique blend of cultures and influences.

Mehmed II's Legacy

Sultan Mehmed II's legacy is vast, complex, and enduring. His life and reign left an indelible mark on world history, shaping events in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. His most notable achievement, the conquest of Constantinople, not only ended the Byzantine Empire but also marked the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a significant world power.

Impact on the Ottoman Empire

The legacy of Sultan Mehmed II is deeply etched in the history of the Ottoman Empire. His conquest of Constantinople marked the Byzantine Empire's end and the Ottoman Empire's rise as a formidable power. Under his leadership, the empire expanded significantly, extending its influence over vast territories in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Mehmed II's administrative and legal reforms helped to strengthen and consolidate the empire, creating a robust state apparatus capable of governing a diverse and vast realm. His codification of the "Kanun of Mehmed II" laid the groundwork for the empire's legal system, and his economic reforms stimulated growth and prosperity.

Moreover, Mehmed II's cultural and intellectual contributions significantly influenced the empire's character. His patronage of the arts and sciences, his promotion of education, and his architectural projects all played a crucial role in shaping the cultural and intellectual life of the Ottoman Empire.

Perception in Modern Turkey and the World

Sultan Mehmed II is often regarded as a national hero in modern Turkey. His conquest of Constantinople is seen as a milestone in Turkish history, marking the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a world power. His image graces various forms of popular culture, and his life and achievements are taught in Turkish schools.

Mehmed II is recognized as a significant historical figure in the wider world. His conquest of Constantinople is often considered one of the most important events of the fifteenth century, marking the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern period. His administrative and military innovations, cultural patronage, and vision for a cosmopolitan empire have earned him a place in world history.

While some historians and scholars critique his methods, such as his use of force in expanding the Ottoman Empire, they generally acknowledge his effective leadership and profound impact on history. His tolerance towards different religions and cultures within his realm and his support of intellectual and artistic pursuits are often highlighted as testaments to his progressive rule.

Mehmed II's influence can be seen not only in the historical trajectory of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey but also in the physical landscape of Istanbul. Landmarks like the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and numerous mosques and schools witness his vision and ambitious building projects.

His interest in the arts and sciences also left a lasting legacy. The cultural and intellectual flowering under his patronage significantly influenced Ottoman culture and contributed to the broader currents of the Renaissance. It began a period of great cultural richness and diversity in the empire, which would continue for centuries.

Overall, Sultan Mehmed II's contributions to the culture and intellectual life of the Ottoman Empire were significant. His patronage of the arts and sciences, his building projects, and his reforms helped shape the empire's identity, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to be felt today. His reign marked a transformative period in Ottoman history, setting the stage for its rise as a world power.

Sultan Mehmed II in Art and Literature

Sultan Mehmed II left a significant mark on the world of art and literature during his reign and in the centuries that followed. As a patron of the arts, he commissioned numerous works, many of which have become invaluable historical artifacts. Furthermore, Mehmed was a subject of artistic and literary works, reflecting his larger-than-life status.


Mehmed II was a notable patron of the arts. He invited artists from the East and the West to his court, resulting in a rich blend of artistic styles. Notably, he asked the Italian painter Gentile Bellini to court, who painted one of the most famous portraits of Mehmed. This portrait, currently housed in the National Gallery in London, depicts the sultan in a contemplative pose, highlighting his intellectual pursuits alongside his military achievements.

In addition to portraiture, Mehmed commissioned architectural projects, including the Fatih Mosque and the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. These are testaments to his influence on the city's cultural and architectural landscape.


Mehmed II's life and reign have inspired many works of literature across different cultures and periods. He features prominently in Turkish, Greek, and other Balkan literature, with interpretations of his character varying greatly depending on the context.

In Turkish literature, Mehmed is often portrayed as heroic, embodying the ideal Islamic ruler. His conquest of Constantinople is celebrated as a significant achievement that marked the beginning of a golden age for the Ottoman Empire.

In contrast, Greek and other Balkan literature often depict Mehmed as a formidable adversary. The fall of Constantinople, a traumatic event for the Byzantine world, is frequently recounted with Mehmed as the central antagonist.

Recently, Mehmed's character has been explored in various novels, plays, and poems. His complex persona, marked by ruthless ambition and intellectual curiosity, intrigues writers and readers alike.

Mehmed's life and reign have also been depicted in film and television, including the popular Turkish TV series "Mehmed: Bir Cihan Fatihi" (Mehmed: The Conqueror of the World). These portrayals continue to shape public perception of this influential historical figure, demonstrating the enduring impact of his legacy in the realm of art and literature.


Sultan Mehmed II, or Mehmed the Conqueror as commonly known, was undeniably one of history's most influential figures. His life and reign marked a significant turning point for the Ottoman Empire and the world.

From his ascension to the throne at a young age, Mehmed exhibited a unique blend of military prowess, strategic insight, and intellectual curiosity. His vision of an expansive Ottoman Empire was realized through a series of strategic conquests, the most notable of which was the capture of Constantinople. This victory marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, ushering in a new era of Ottoman dominance.

However, Mehmed's legacy extends far beyond his military achievements. As a ruler, he instituted necessary administrative, legal, and fiscal reforms that helped consolidate the empire and set the stage for its 'Classical Age.' His reign was marked by a commitment to education and a profound appreciation for the arts and sciences, attributes that are reflected in the rich cultural and intellectual legacy he left behind.

Mehmed II is remembered as a transformative figure in modern Turkey and the wider world. His conquest of Constantinople, his expansion of the Ottoman Empire, and his efforts to create a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society are milestones that continue to resonate in the annals of history.

His life has been immortalized in art and literature, with depictions ranging from heroic to antagonistic, reflecting his character's complex and multifaceted nature. Through these portrayals, Sultan Mehmed II continues to captivate the imagination of people worldwide centuries after his death.

In conclusion, Sultan Mehmed II's life and reign indelibly impacted world history. His military conquests, administrative reforms, and cultural patronage shaped not only the trajectory of the Ottoman Empire but also the broader patterns of global development. His legacy, etched in the annals of history, is a testament to his enduring influence as a leader, a conqueror, and a visionary.