By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Discuss the origins of the Ottoman Empire
- Describe how the conflict between the Ottomans and Timur influenced the development of the Ottoman state
- Describe the effect of the conquest of the Byzantine Empire on Europe and the Ottoman Empire
- Describe the intellectual, cultural, and artistic developments of the Renaissance
As the people of western Europe remade their societies following the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines in the east preserved Roman cultural practices for centuries, seeing themselves always as the continuation of a proud and strong Mediterranean empire. By the eleventh century, however, the Byzantines found their power challenged by the arrival of Turkic tribes such as the Seljuks, who settled in the eastern half of their domains and gradually wrested control of the area from them. As different Turkic tribes arrived and settled in the region, one group, the Ottomans, soon rose to prominence over others. Withstanding the last major Mongol onslaught, the Ottomans went on to dominate Asia Minor, invade Europe, and eventually deprive the Byzantines of their last remnants of power. The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 sent many Greek scholars and theologians fleeing to the city-states of Italy, where they contributed to the intellectual and artistic transformation of western Europe in the period known as the Renaissance. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Ottomans had transformed the eastern Mediterranean.
With an empire that bordered both the western and eastern worlds, the Ottoman Turks began to play an important role in Asian and European affairs in the thirteenth century. They were not the first Turkic-speaking people to do so, however. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, a group of Turkic speakers from central Asia arrived first through the Iranian plateau before continuing westward into the area that is now modern Turkey. This group, called the Seljuks after their ruler, converted to Islam in the tenth century. Accomplished archers and riders, they were originally employed by the armies of the Islamic Karakhanid and Ghaznavid dynasties of central Asia before carving out an empire of their own in Persia, Mesopotamia, and eastern Asia Minor. Seizing control of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire and home to the Sunni caliph, in 1055, the Seljuks came to regard themselves as defenders of the Islamic faith and established the Seljuk Empire. Defeating the forces of the Byzantine Empire in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert in eastern Anatolia (another name for Asia Minor), the Seljuks soon dominated that region as well (Figure 17.4).
In 1077, the Seljuks established a state in Anatolia they called the Sultanate of Rum (“Rome”) because the territory had been taken from the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire. The sultanate steadily absorbed other Turkish tribes in Anatolia and brought them under its control, forming a confederation of tribes more than a unified state. The sultanate’s ruler was primarily a military leader, and the provinces were governed by military commanders. Within the provinces, different regions were controlled by different groups of warriors who often fought with one another and sometimes sold their military services to Byzantine rulers.
Seljuk rulers built mosques and madrasas—schools where scholars taught subjects such as science, theology, and Islamic law—especially in Iconium (now Konya), one of the cities that served as the capital of the Sultanate of Rum. They also established caravansaries, inns where merchants traveling along the Silk Roads could safely rest and conduct business. Trade attracted merchants and artisans, and religious scholars took up residence in the Turkish cities. As the Byzantine Empire lost control of Anatolia, Orthodox Christian clergy and monks fled, loosening the peasants’ ties to Christianity and making it easier for many to convert to Islam. Gradually, Anatolia became more Islamic in appearance and nature, and the Byzantine emperors’ grip on the region grew ever weaker.
The Seljuk Empire, centered as it was in Baghdad in Mesopotamia, faced many struggles both from within and from outside forces. The arrival into the region of the western crusaders at the very end of the eleventh century and the establishment of the Crusader States caused major political and social shifts in the region, even though those states would eventually be defeated. The Seljuks were defeated by the Khwarezm-Shah, a central Asian dynasty, whose founder had been enslaved by the Seljuks.
As the Seljuk dynasty lost control of the region, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum—a splinter state of the original group—was left as the sole center of Seljuk power in Anatolia. Even there, however, political and military change continued. Following the Mongols’ invasion of eastern Anatolia and their decisive victory over the Seljuks at the Battle of Köse Dağ in 1243, the Sultanate of Rum splintered into numerous small, independent states called beyliks. In the fourteenth century, one of these beyliks began to rise to prominence as Seljuk fortunes declined in the wake of the Mongol invasions. This beylik was led by a man named Osman, and his followers came to be known as the “Osmanli” or “Ottomans.”
The Ottomans were Turkic-speaking pastoralists who occupied lands in northwestern Anatolia. Like the Seljuks, they regarded themselves as ghazis, warriors who fought to expand and protect the borders and influence of Islam, and this recognition came to form an important part of Ottoman Turkish identity. The Ottomans had originally stepped into the power vacuum left in northwestern Anatolia by the attack on Constantinople in 1204, when European crusaders raided, ransacked, and demolished parts of the city. Civilians were brutally assaulted and killed. Priceless religious relics were looted and destroyed, erasing ties to the history of the Byzantine Empire. After this “sack” of Constantinople, Venice and its allies divided the empire, and political upheaval took place in the years that followed. Although the Byzantines attempted to rebuild their capital and state, they were no match for the Ottomans. The empire lasted another two hundred years, but it controlled relatively little territory in Anatolia. The Ottomans laid siege to the Byzantine cities of Anatolia, conquered them, and made one, Bursa, the capital of a growing Ottoman state with imperial ambitions. They built mosques and madrasas in the city, turning it into an important religious center.
Following Osman’s death, his son Orhan I, who took the title of sultan, expanded Ottoman territory into Europe. In 1354, his troops established a base on the European peninsula of Gallipoli, on the northern side of the Dardanelles, one of the straits that separate Asia Minor from Europe. Control of Gallipoli gave the Ottomans control over oceanic traffic between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It also gave them the ability to interfere with ships bound for Constantinople, which sat on the European side of the straits of the Bosporus, should they so desire. The Ottomans steadily took control of the European portion of the Byzantine Empire, the area that is now northern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and Thrace, the western part of modern Turkey.
Orhan’s son Murad I established a new capital at Edirne, on the European side of the Dardanelles, in 1362. Turks from Anatolia were invited to settle in Ottoman-controlled territory in Europe and take over the lands of fleeing European landowners. The European peasants who came under Ottoman control did not necessarily resent their new masters; the majority were Orthodox Christians, and they were allowed to practice their faith without interference so long as they paid the special tax, the jizya, and recognized their status as Ottoman subjects. The Ottomans also realized that non-Muslim clergy could help in the governing of their empire, because people were accustomed to turning to their religious leaders for direction on a variety of issues. To win the assistance of Christian clergy, therefore, the Ottomans refrained from efforts to stamp out their religion. Many peasants likely regarded the religiously tolerant Ottomans as better overlords than the European Roman Catholic soldiers, who had attacked the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire on more than one occasion. They also welcomed the lighter tax burden imposed by the Ottomans.
Murad sought to take advantage of the death of the Serbian king in 1355 and incorporate his land into the Ottoman domains as well. At the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Ottomans defeated the Serbian army and made Serbia, the last major Orthodox Christian state, a vassal of the empire. Both Murad and the Serbian ruler Prince Lazar died in the battle, although Serbian myth claims that a Serbian soldier used trickery to secretly kill the Ottoman sultan in his tent (Figure 17.5).
The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 serves as a focus for Serbian national identity, and its anniversary is a national holiday. In this blog, you can learn more about how the Battle of Kosovo has affected Serbian views about political independence.
Murad’s son and successor Bayezid I (called “the Thunderbolt”) attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate all remaining Byzantine governance in the region by capturing Constantinople. In 1396, the Ottomans blockaded the city, but the pleas of the Byzantine emperor led Pope Boniface IX to call for a crusade to rescue the Greek Orthodox Christians from the Muslim Turks. Roman Catholic knights from throughout Europe responded. Ottoman troops, fighting alongside Bayezid’s Serbian vassals, crushed the crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis on the Danube River (Figure 17.6). The blockade of Constantinople ultimately failed, however, for the Ottomans had no way to break through the city’s walls, and Bayezid soon found himself facing a more formidable foe, the Mongol conqueror Timur.
The Timurids and the Aftermath of the Battle of Ankara
Timur was a Mongol from the Barlas tribe, which had been exposed to and assimilated Turkic culture. He was born in central Asia, in a part of the Chagatai Khanate (now modern Uzbekistan), in the 1320s or 1330s. At some point early in his life, he suffered an injury that left him lame in one leg and without two fingers. According to some stories, he had been wounded while attempting to steal sheep, but he may well have sustained his injuries in battle.
Timur sought to rebuild the empire that Chinggis Khan had controlled at the time of his death. Because he could not establish descent from Chinggis, he could not claim the title of khan himself. In the 1360s, he gained control of part of the Chagatai Khanate and placed one of Chinggis’s descendants, Soyurgatmish, on the throne, claiming to act in his name. He also married a female descendant of Chinggis and adopted the title “Royal Son-in-Law.”
Timur soon looked beyond central Asia for lands to control. In the 1380s and 1390s, he conquered Persia, portions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Syria. He taxed the inhabitants of vanquished cities heavily and sent skilled artisans to work in his capital in Samarkand, but he spared people’s lives. Cities that did not submit were treated brutally, however. For example, when the city of Isfahan, in Persia, surrendered peacefully, he treated the residents leniently. However, when the people later rose in revolt, Timur responded unequivocally: he killed an enormous portion of the city’s population, with some reports claiming that 100,000 to 200,000 people were killed. Eyewitness accounts report his soldiers amassing piles of severed heads. Timur’s troops then turned north to the Russian territory controlled by a former follower named Tokhtamish, the khan of the Golden Horde, who sought the same lands in central Asia that Timur claimed. After destroying the Russian cities of Astrakhan and Ryazan, Timur defeated Tokhtamish’s army in 1391.
In the late 1390s, Timur turned eastward toward India. In 1398, he attacked the city of Delhi, the capital of the Muslim-ruled Delhi Sultanate. The sultan’s army rode into battle on war elephants clad in chain mail, frightening Timur’s troops, who had not seen elephants before (Figure 17.7). Timur piled hay on the backs of his camels, set the hay on fire, and sent the burning, panicked animals into the enemy’s lines, scattering the elephants. Victorious, Timur then destroyed Delhi.
Timur also coveted lands in Syria that were controlled by the Mamluk Sultanate and territory in Anatolia that was claimed by the Ottomans. Bayezid I had been steadily conquering weaker rulers in Anatolia and forcing them to become his vassals. In 1397, he defeated the ruler of the beylik of Karaman and went on to subdue smaller Anatolian states. Unwilling to submit to his domination, however, Turkish tribes and Ottoman vassals who Bayezid I believed owed allegiance to him turned to Timur, considering him their means of achieving independence from Ottoman rule. In turn, enemies of Timur such as Kara Yusuf, the leader of the Black Sheep Turks, and Sultan Ahmed, the ruler of the Persian Mongol Jalayir dynasty whose lands Timur had conquered, turned to Bayezid for assistance. Timur wrote to Bayezid, demanding that the Ottoman ruler cease aiding his enemies. Bayezid responded with insults and sent his forces to attack an ally of Timur’s in Armenia.
In 1400, Timur struck back, destroying the city of Sivas in Anatolia, part of Bayezid’s domain. He then went on to wage war against the Mamluk sultans in Egypt in Syria, preventing Bayezid from turning to them for help. He also entered into an allegiance with the Byzantines against the Ottomans, amassed forces from throughout his empire, and headed for Anatolia. Bayezid broke off his siege of Constantinople, which had begun in 1396, and rushed to meet him. In July 1402, Timur’s troops clashed with the Ottoman army at the Battle of Ankara in Anatolia.
On the field at Ankara, one of the great weaknesses of Bayezid’s Ottoman state was revealed. The Ottomans had built their empire in Anatolia by conquering other Turkish states and absorbing their rulers and the rulers’ descendants into their administration. These men, Bayezid’s unwilling vassals, had no wish to risk their lives for their Ottoman overlords. In addition, Bayezid had chosen to live primarily at Edirne, in Thrace. He had adopted elements of Greek culture and, as part of a strategy to build alliances with other rulers, had taken as wives or concubines a number of non-Turkish women, including the daughter of Prince Lazar. This decision further alienated him from the Turkish nobility of Anatolia. When Timur’s forces attacked at Ankara, therefore, many of Bayezid’s Turkish vassals abandoned the field and left Bayezid to his fate, happy to be free of Ottoman control. The Ottomans were defeated, and Bayezid and his sons Musa and Mustafa were captured by Timur. Bayezid remained Timur’s prisoner until he died a few months later.
Following his rout of the Ottomans and having conquered most of the domains of Chinggis Khan and his sons and grandsons, Timur turned eastward to claim his last prize—China. In 1368, the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China had come to an end. Its successor, the Chinese Ming dynasty, sought to make a tributary vassal of Timur, but the Ming emissaries and the soldiers who accompanied them had instead been imprisoned in Samarkand, the capital of Timur’s empire, in the Mongol heartland near the place of his birth. In December 1404, Timur set out to cross central Asia on his way to China. Within a few months, however, he fell ill, and in February 1405 he died. The invasion of China ended before it had begun, and the Chinese emissaries were released.
At the time of his death, Timur had conquered much of the land claimed in the original Mongol conquests of Chinggis Khan and his descendants. Unlike them, however, Timur made no real effort to rule the places he seized outside Persia. His armies conquered, plundered the riches of the defeated cities, seized artisans and whoever else might be of use to Timur, and sent the wealth and captives on to Samarkand. Thus, it was relatively easy for most places that Timur had conquered to regain their independence. Anatolia is a good example. Following his defeat of Bayezid I, Timur departed, leaving Bayezid’s sons to battle among themselves for control of their father’s lands. Although Bayezid’s son Mehmed declared himself a vassal of Timur, Timur did not assist him in his civil war against his brothers. Following Timur’s death, his own sons and grandsons fought over the lands he had conquered (Figure 17.8). In 1409, his son Shah Rukh emerged as his successor and the next head of the Timurids, the name given to the dynasty founded by Timur.
While many in Asia regarded Timur as a villain, he was a hero of the Turks and Mongols of central Asia. Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historian, credited him with unifying the world’s Muslims into a single empire. Timur’s greatest legacy may be an artistic one. Although conquered people might have been met with brutality, artists, architects, and artisans were spared and sent to Samarkand. During Timur’s lifetime, the city was in a constant state of construction, and buildings like the Bibi Khanum Mosque were erected or remodeled to please him. The Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta praised the city’s beauty, and its gardens made visitors forget the arid lands that surrounded it (Figure 17.9). Timur’s grandson Ulugbek built a madrasa (an Islamic school) and an observatory in Samarkand and invited Muslim mathematicians and astronomers to the city, making it an important site of learning in the fifteenth century. Many Europeans of the time also regarded Timur, whom they called Tamerlane (“Timur, the Lame”), as a hero.
The Ottoman Conquest of the Byzantine Empire
Following the Battle of Ankara in 1402, the sons of Bayezid who had remained free—Mehmed, Suleyman, and Isa—fought among themselves for control of the Ottoman domains. Suleyman held the Ottoman lands in Europe, Isa controlled Anatolia, and Mehmed I ruled Amasya, a region on the Black Sea coast. When Musa was released from Mongol custody, he also joined the fight, and Mustafa later contended for the throne as well.
In 1413, Mehmed emerged victorious in the civil war with his brothers. He and his son and heir Murad II reorganized and expanded the domains of the Ottomans. Members of the cavalry and other highly placed members of the Ottoman administrative and military elite were each granted a timar, the right to collect taxes from merchants, farmers, and artisans in a particular geographical area (Figure 17.10). Timars were awarded regardless of religion or ethnicity, and occasionally elite women were given them as well. At times, conquered local elites were allowed to retain control of their former lands as timariots (holders of a timar). The taxes they collected supported them, so the state did not need to pay them a salary or hire tax collectors.
The practice of awarding timars to members of the military ensured their loyalty. The land ultimately belonged to the sultan, who would revoke a timar if the holder did not continue in his service. A timar might also be lost if the population of the land declined; this encouraged timariots to treat the people on their holdings well. Timariots also tried to make the lands they controlled more agriculturally productive. The more crops produced, the more taxes they could collect. They were responsible for maintaining order on their lands, but they could not impose punishments without the permission of a judge appointed by the sultan. The timar was nonhereditary; upon the timariot’s death, the sultan awarded the vacant timar to someone else. This prevented the development of an independent hereditary class of timariots.
The main goal of Mehmed I and Murad II was to conquer Constantinople. Muslim rulers since the seventh century had attempted to capture the Byzantine capital and had always failed. Both Mehmed and Murad realized that in order to rebuild the Ottoman state, they had to drive out the Byzantine rulers. The Byzantine emperor Manuel II had assisted Mehmed’s rivals for the Ottoman throne, attempting to keep the Ottomans weak by prolonging the civil war. The Byzantines were also close allies of the Venetians and Genoese, who controlled trade in the Aegean and the Black Seas and whose ships could interfere with Ottoman efforts to control both sides of the Dardanelles.
Murad II laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, but the effort failed because the Ottomans lacked artillery to destroy the city walls. Murad was also distracted from the siege by his need to combat yet another claimant to the Ottoman throne. As they had done before, the Byzantines called upon European Christians for assistance against the Ottomans. The pope called for a new crusade, and the Roman Catholic knights of Europe responded. Murad defeated them in 1444 at the Battle of Varna, in eastern Bulgaria (Figure 17.11). Nevertheless, Constantinople stood firm. The city was only a shadow of what it had once been. At its height, somewhere between 500,000 and one million people had lived within its walls, but the bubonic plague and Ottoman sieges had reduced the number to perhaps fifty thousand. Nevertheless, so long as Constantinople stood on the western shore of the Bosporus controlling access to the Black Sea, the Ottomans could not rest easy in their domains.
It fell to Murad II’s son Mehmed II (also called Mehmed the Conqueror and Mehmed the Great) to destroy the Byzantine threat. He was better prepared than his father had been. In 1453, he summoned his Muslim and Christian vassals from Anatolia, Thrace, and the Balkans. With the vassals and a core of six thousand elite professional soldiers, he marched to the Bosporus. Ottoman forces included more than one hundred newly constructed ships to prevent Constantinople from receiving reinforcements and supplies via the sea. He also summoned European gunsmiths, the most important of whom was the Hungarian named Urban, to craft bombards, an early form of cannon. One gun was so large that it could fire a twelve-hundred-pound granite ball more than a mile. Constantinople’s defensive walls, which had guarded the city since the fifth century, could not withstand the Ottoman artillery (Figure 17.12).
On the morning of May 29, 1453, after a siege of fifty-seven days, the Ottoman guns breached the walls, and Mehmed’s soldiers rushed into the city. Perhaps twenty thousand people were left to defend it, including the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died fighting for his city. After their Genoese commander was wounded, many defenders abandoned their posts along the walls, leaving them deserted during battle. Constantinople’s residents carried religious icons to the walls and prayed for deliverance. However, they put up little resistance, and the city fell to the Ottomans.
The Fall of Constantinople
Following are two accounts by European Christians of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the behavior of Mehmed II, the conquering sultan. The first excerpt is from a letter from the Convent of the Order of Saint John on Rhodes to the military commander of Brandenburg (present-day Germany), a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. The second is an eyewitness account of the event.
After the great Turk had besieged Constantinople by land and sea, on the twenty-ninth of the May just passed he seized the city by force of arms, killed the emperor of Constantinople, cut off the heads of many nobles, gave the entire city over to plunder, and cruelly tortured many. He then obtained the city of Pera, which the Genoese held, without force of arms, made it a tributary, and tore down its walls. This also happened to the walls of Constantinople. . . .
It is believed that he is preparing a new fleet from scratch, since he intends to make all the islands of the Aegean archipelago subject to him or to destroy them if he can. For his heart swells with pride and he boasts that he has equaled or surpassed the deeds of Alexander of Macedon. He also threatens that he will attempt to do what Alexander never did—push into Italy and the regions of the West with his arms and might and see whether fortune shall favor him there as it has throughout the East.
—a letter from the Convent of the Order of Saint John on Rhodes to the Margrave of Brandenburg, June 30, 1453, translated by W.L. North
The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions. . . . This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses. . . .
Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. . . .
When Mehmed (II) saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. “What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!” His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.
—“The Sack of Constantinople, 1453,” EyeWitness to History, 2011
- In what ways are these accounts similar? How do their depictions of Mehmed II differ?
- How did the Ottomans create a multiethnic military force? Why would that be useful?
Many Muslim scholars believed the conquest of Constantinople had been predicted in a hadith, an account of the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad. After his capture of the city, Mehmed turned eastward, incorporating the Turkish state of Karaman, the home of the important Islamic religious center of Konya, and other lands ruled by Turkish tribes in eastern Anatolia. In 1461, he sent the Ottoman fleet to conquer Trebizond, an offshoot of the Byzantine Empire and an important trading center on the Black Sea. In Europe, he gained control of most of the southern part of Greece, defeating the Byzantine princes who ruled the area, as well as Bosnia and Albania. He also wrested the Black Sea port of Kaffa from the control of Genoese merchants. At his death, the Ottoman Empire controlled all of Anatolia and nearly all of the Balkans.
Mehmed II, despite being referred to regularly as “the Conqueror” by historians, was a builder more than a destroyer, however. Upon conquering Constantinople, he declared it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, replacing the city of Edirne. He dispatched soldiers to clear away the ruins left from the siege and the Ottoman assault, and he immediately set about appointing a mayor and other important city officials to establish and maintain order. Rather than drive out the city’s European merchants, he allowed them to stay, to retain their property, and to continue to worship in their churches. He demanded only that the Genoese merchants remove the walls that surrounded Galata, the Genoese trading quarter of Constantinople, and surrender their armaments. To protect his new Christian subjects, he forbade his Turkish troops to enslave the Europeans.
Mehmed regarded himself not as a usurper but as the rightful successor to the Byzantines. He declared himself Caesar, the heir to the old Roman imperial throne. He appointed a new leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Gennadius II, who in turn recognized Mehmed’s claim as the legitimate heir of the last Byzantine emperor. The last emperor’s actual heirs, his nephews, were taken into Mehmed’s service and occupied important administrative positions in the empire. One served as Grand Vizier, or chief minister, under Mehmed’s successor Bayezid II.
Mehmed embarked on an ambitious campaign to rebuild Constantinople, now called Istanbul. He built the new Topkapi Palace, where he ruled the empire. The palace also contained his private household, or harem. He ordered that the Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia be left intact and converted into a mosque. He rebuilt the city walls, constructed a weapons foundry, and established a hospital. He also ordered a new mosque, the Fatih Mosque (“Conqueror’s Mosque”), to be built in the city (Figure 17.13). Near the mosque, he erected numerous madrasas in which Muslim scholars taught science, Islamic law, and theology.
Visit this UNESCO site to learn more about Istanbul and to view pictures of its famous historic sites.
Mehmed had a great thirst for knowledge. He spoke many languages and amassed a library filled with works in Turkish, Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic. He invited Muslim scientists to Istanbul and attended debates of religious scholars. He collected Greek antiquities and brought Greek scholars and Italian artists to Istanbul. Some of these artists, such as the Italians Gentile Bellini and Paolo Veronese, painted portraits of him (Figure 17.14).
As Mehmed conquered other parts of the Balkans and of Anatolia, including beyliks that had broken free of Ottoman control following Bayezid I’s defeat at the Battle of Ankara, he brought artisans and prisoners of war to Istanbul to rebuild the city. As earlier Ottoman rulers had done, Mehmed allowed Christians and Jews in his lands to worship as they pleased. This arrangement was an early appearance of the Ottoman millet system, in which religious communities were allowed a substantial degree of autonomy and were governed by their own leaders and their own law codes. In addition to naming a head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Mehmed established the position of hakham bashi (“chief rabbi”) to lead the Ottoman Empire’s Jewish community. He also invited the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church to establish a house of worship in Istanbul; because the Eastern Orthodox Church, the religion of the Byzantine rulers, regarded the Armenian church as heretical, it had been banned from the Byzantine capital. And although the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize his right to rule Istanbul, Mehmed allowed Catholic clergy to travel throughout Ottoman lands and worship freely.
Mehmed also moved to exert authority over Islamic clergy in his domains. He made teachers at madrasas employees of the Ottoman state. He issued kanun, laws made by the sultan, as opposed to sharia (religious law) interpreted by Islamic judges, and compiled them in the Kanun-name (“Book of the Law”). Kanun dealt with issues that sharia often did not address, such as taxation or punishment for certain crimes. Mehmed also made use of kanun to centralize his authority and gain unchallenged control over the Ottoman state.
With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the collapse of Timurid authority, the Ottoman state could now assert its authority in both the East and the West, effectively making itself a gatekeeper between the two worlds. Following their defeat of the Byzantine Empire and their capture of Constantinople, the Ottomans gained control of part of the Silk Roads that brought silk, spices, and other luxury goods from East Asia. Besides controlling the overland route, the Ottomans commanded Red Sea ports in Egypt after defeating the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517, which gave them additional control over the spice trade. By the late fifteenth century, Ottoman ships were trading with India, and goods such as Chinese silks and porcelains furnished the homes of the wealthy in Istanbul. The Ottomans also dominated trade on the Black Sea, which until then had been the province of the Venetians and Genoese. The exclusion of Italian merchants from their traditional trade routes, the heavy taxes imposed on goods that traveled overland, many Europeans’ dislike for transacting business with Muslims, and the expense of overland trade led western Europeans to seek all-water oceanic routes to South and East Asia.
The fall of Constantinople was lamented in Europe as signaling that no significant force remained to counter the Muslim advance westward. For many historians, it also marks the end of the European Middle Ages. As the Byzantine Empire collapsed, many Greeks sought refuge in other lands, often wealthy merchants and state officials who brought their riches with them. Many settled in Italy, especially in Venice and Rome. Those who came to Venice were assisted by Anna Notaras, a wealthy Byzantine noblewoman who had taken up residence in the city before Constantinople fell.
Byzantine scholars, theologians, artists, writers, and astronomers also fled westward to Europe, bringing with them the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome that had been preserved in the eastern half of the Roman Empire after the western half fell. Among the texts they brought were the complete works of Plato and copies of Aristotle’s works in the original Greek. Access to these and other writings, many of which had been either unknown in western Europe or known only in the form of Arabic translations that arrived at the time of the Crusades, greatly influenced the course of the Italian Renaissance.
The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” in French, was a period of intellectual and artistic renewal inspired by the cultural achievements of ancient Greece and Rome and marking the dawn of the early modern world. It began in the city-states of northern Italy that had grown wealthy through trade, especially trade with the Ottomans. Beginning in the 1300s, scholars there turned to the works of Western antiquity—the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans—for wisdom and a model of how to live (Figure 17.15). Among these scholars was Petrarch, who encouraged writers to adopt the “pure” Classical Latin in which the poets and lawmakers of the Roman Empire had written instead of the form of Latin used by medieval clergy. He advocated imitating the style of the Roman orator Cicero and the foremost of the Roman poets, Virgil.
Petrarch has been called the father of humanism. Humanism was a movement born in Italy in the fourteenth century that focused on the study of human beings, human nature, and human achievements, as opposed to the study of God. Humanists stressed the beauty and dignity of humanity instead of focusing on its sinful, “fallen” nature. They believed the classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome could provide contemporary people with untold wisdom and a model for life.
The Arnolfini Portrait
Humanism influenced the manner in which people were depicted in works of art as well as the types of people who were portrayed. Many of the subjects of Renaissance paintings were wealthy members of the merchant class. Merchants might appear as worshippers in paintings with religious subject matter, but many paintings of the period also depicted such people in secular settings as well, often in a manner meant to display their wealth. This 1434 painting, by Jan van Eyck, an artist from the Netherlands, is believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (Figure 17.16). The image may have been painted to commemorate the Arnolfinis’ marriage. Mrs. Arnolfini (her exact name is unknown) is not pregnant. The fashions of the time featured gowns with cloth gathered at the front to give the illusion of a large belly, very different from what is considered stylish today.
- What details in the painting may indicate that the Arnolfinis are wealthy people?
- In what ways do the values of humanism seem to have influenced this painting?
- Why may artists of the time have included members of the merchant class in their paintings?
Before the arrival of Byzantine scholars and their copies of Plato and Aristotle, Italian humanists had focused primarily on the study of rhetoric and ethics. They displayed little interest in metaphysics, the philosophical study of the nature of existence. Access to Plato’s complete works changed that, and many scholars were influenced by Byzantine Neoplatonism, an intellectual movement that sought to synthesize the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers, and Arabic philosophy. One of the most important of the Italian Neoplatonists was Marsilio Ficino, who translated all of Plato’s works from ancient Greek to Latin and synthesized Platonic thought with the teachings of Christianity.
In the Neoplatonic conception, the universe was an ordered hierarchy with God, “the One,” at the top, and everything else existing as “emanations” of God at descending levels with the earth at the bottom. If God was perfect, the physical world in which humans lived was least perfect. However, Ficino argued, the human soul existed at the center of the universe, because it combined aspects of both the godly world and the physical world in which humans lived. Because humans possessed a soul, they were thus the center of creation. Ficino’s ideas fit well with the humanist perception of human beings as special creatures and worthy of study.
Another Neoplatonist, Nicholas of Cusa (Nicholas Cusanus), also had a profound effect on the Italian Renaissance and one of its most important legacies, the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Greek philosopher Aristotle had stressed the study of the world through direct observation, a method known as empiricism. For Plato, however, the world of ideas, of abstract concepts, was superior to the components of the physical world. Thus, mathematical thought was superior to sensory observation as a way of arriving at ultimate knowledge of the “truth” of the world. Nicholas also stressed that mathematical knowledge of the world was superior to knowledge derived from mere observation. He went so far as to state that through mathematics, humans could know the very mind of God.
The idea that the physical world could best be understood through mathematical formulas was espoused by Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer who believed the model of the universe that made the most sense mathematically was the true model. It was through mathematics that Kepler discovered three of the laws of planetary motion and was able to explain how the planets moved in the heliocentric, or sun-centered, model of the universe earlier proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (Figure 17.17). This was the same view of the universe held by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei: the true nature of the universe could be discovered only through mathematics.
Although the Neoplatonists did not value Aristotle’s empiricism, they did not completely cast his ideas aside. First, his concept of “virtue” influenced the humanists’ idea of human excellence. And his emphasis on acquiring knowledge through observation influenced scientists in fields other than astronomy. Observation of nature became of importance not only to scientists but also to the visual artists of the Renaissance. The fifteenth-century Florentine painter Masaccio was the first to incorporate the principles of linear perspective into painting (Figure 17.18). The use of linear perspective had been a “secret” known to the ancient Greeks and Romans but lost and then “rediscovered” by the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi, whose drawings inspired Masaccio. This technique created a sense of realism in visual imagery that had been lacking in medieval art. Later artists such as Leonardo da Vinci conducted studies of animal and human anatomy to make their works more realistic. Michelangelo went beyond attempting to make human beings look realistic and instead idealized the body, in keeping with the new position into which the thinkers of the Renaissance had elevated humans.