If you want to know about Mehmet the conqueror, the warrior, the military genius, this is the book for you, however, if like me you’d like some insight into Mehmet the man, father, son, husband and scholar, then it’s likely you’ll also be a bit disappointed.

At 21 years old, Mehmet II put a definite end to the Byzantine Empire by conquering Constantinople. He also took over part of Asia and in Europe went as far as Belgrade. He started the Ottoman “tradition” of fratricide, built the Topkapi Palace and had three Popes organizing Crusades against him. He must have been an interesting and charismatic man (after all, he had a reputation for ruthlessness, but chose to pose for one of his few portraits holding a flower to his nose) but Freely never gives us any insight into his thoughts.

There are endless descriptions of battles, conquests and treaties. A whole chapter describes the Topkapi Palace almost room by room, another lists the buildings built during Mehmet’s reign which are still standing in Istanbul today. The last third of the book is actually the story of Mehmet’s descendants up to modern Turkey (which might have been more interesting, had my main interest not been Mehmet himself).

What drove him? What were his motivations and influences? We get little in that respect, except for isolated pieces of information, like the books in his library, his personal take on religion and his bland poetry.

Mehmet the father is only lightly touched and Mehmet the husband is all but absent. He had several wives but was buried next to only one – an interesting detail which I’d have loved Freely to touch. His death was described in a matter-of-fact way, which also took me a bit aback:

Mehmet had called a halt here because he had been stricken by sever abdominal pains. His Persian physician had administrated medicine that only made matters worst and so Mehmet’s old Jewish doctor, master Ya’qub, was called in. Ya’qub concluded that the pain was caused by blockage of the intestines, but despite his frantic efforts he was unable to do anything more than aliviate the Sultan’s agony with powerful doses of opium.

Mehmet lingered on until late in the evening of 3 May 1481, when he passed away at the 22nd hour, according to Giovanni Maria Angiolello. The Sultan was 49 when he died having reign for more than 30 years, most of which he had spent in war. [he then goes on about how the Viziers tried to keep the death a secret and what his sons did next.]

You can feel Freely’s love for Istanbul (which actually made me buy his other book “Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City”), and it’s clear this is a well-researched, solid book about Ottoman history, but it’s too much a list of events to become an engaging biography of Sultan Mehmet. Maybe Freely was weary of making assumptions or going into speculation? That must be the eternal struggle of the biographer, especially when dealing with a subject which died so long ago.

Also, this must hold the record for most paragraphs starting with “Meanwhile”…

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 6: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


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