Ottoman Capital

Under the leadership of Mehmet II, the Turks returned to attack. From 1453 on, Mehmet II bore the well-earned title of Fatih, the conqueror. He took Constantinople with 80,000 men, as against the 200,000 of the emperor Constantine XI Dragases. The Golden Horn being closed to shipping, the sultan ordered his men to carry his ships by land into the water! Furthermore, he was backed by powerful artillery, organized by a Hungarian gunner. On the evening of the 29th of May, Mehmet made a triumphant entry on horseback, into a city littered with the dead of both armies. Passing St. Sophia, the church of the infidels, Mehmet was dazzled. Such noble beauty was made by man for the greater glory of the true God, Allah. The sultan lost no time. He ordered his men to take away the two-headed eagle, emblem of the empire, and to put in its place the Crescent of old Byzantium, to which he added his star, which had led him to glory. And so the old basilica became a mosque.

The town once taken, there was no killing. For many reasons, amongst which the law against the useless taking of life, Islam showed more mercy in victory than Christianity. The fallen townsmen were replaced by Moslems from Anatolia and many churches were made over into mosques; but a Greek patriarch was named, and Galata was left to the Latins. It was the first of concessions given to foreigners, whom the sultan did not wish to rule; they were later given the name of capitulations. The Jewish quarter of Balat was untouched, the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians were free to live and pray there as they pleased. For that reason, it later filled with Jews and Moors chased from Spain in 1492, as well as displaced persons from the provinces conquered by the Turks Bulgarians, Serbians, Albanians, and Romanians.

Following the Turkish conquest, the story of Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) becomes that of the Ottoman Empire, whose capital it was, and since 1518 that of Islam, when the sultan became also the caliph, commander of the faithful.
At the abolition of the Sultanate in 1923 the government moved to Ankara, but the last caliph lingered in the deserted palace till the following year. Ataturk's distrust of cosmopolitan Istanbul led to a sad decline, accentuated by the demolition of whole sections of the old town to make way for broad, featureless boulevards. Yet it always remained the country's commercial and tourist capital; since the 1950s vast suburbs have sprung up especially along and across the Bosphorus, adding the least attractive to the pageant of styles and architectures.


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