Turkey expert Freely (History/Univ. of the Bosphorus; Storm on Horseback: The Seljuk Warriors of Turkey, 2008, etc.) delivers an oblique portrait of the Ottoman ruler who considered himself another Alexander the Great.
Mehmet II (1432–1481) extended the Islamic empire well into Asia Minor, striking fear into the hearts of Christian warriors during the 30 years of his reign. The youngest son of sultan Murat, Mehmet was, as depicted by observers of the time, well educated in ancient knowledge, resolute and “in every way qualified to realise his soaring imperial ambitions.” He was also constantly at war, from the conquest of the Byzantine empire in 1453, to excursions into Bosnia, Albania the Crimea and Anatolia, to the defeat of Negroponte and, climactically, the capture of Otranto in 1480. Freely concentrates on the highlights of his subject’s life, such as Mehmet’s spectacular conquest of Constantinople. In addition to a grand naval fleet, the sultan also employed a highly effective, albeit motley, army and a corps of engineers, who built a road from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, allowing them to transport more than 70 ships overland. After first sending emissaries into the city to offer terms of surrender, which were rejected, Mehmet ordered the bombardment of the city and sacked it in a matter of days. He then made it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire and, by dint of his openness and devotion to the study of geography, astronomy and ancient works, rendered it a true “Renaissance City”—most impressively demonstrated by the construction of the glorious Topkapi palace. Freely dutifully recounts the facts, but he can’t get a handle on what made Mehmet such a fascinating man.
The first biography of Mehmet in decades finds the sultan a brilliant but elusive subject.