Two Sides of the Medallion Mehmed the Conqueror: Fighter of Islam or Lover of Western Art?

By Nilay Özlü | 20 December 2010


This paper aims to scrutinize the use and abuse of historical figures for ideological purposes, which happens to be a very common practice in the Turkish political arena. The commodification of history and invention of national heroes with an ideological agenda, more often than not, do not reflect a realistic and complete picture of the past. The tendency that has started with the era of Democratic Party for politicizing the Ottoman past has reached its peak in the last couple years. Especially Ottoman Sultans were presented as national heroes and icons of Islamic glory. This article hopes to unveil the discrepancies between the constructed Islamic hero and the actual persona of the very same ruler in his own historical context. A more realistic and holistic picture of one of the most controversial rulers of his time will be presented from a different perspective.

For the last couple years a novel kind of “national day” started being celebrated with an increasing enthusiasm in Turkey. These ostentatious celebrations of nationalist and religious tone, supported with the state-of-the-art technology, offer an audio-visual and spiritual pleasure for the inhabitants of Istanbul. The historic spots of the city became a scene for political spectacle on the 29th of every May. Apparently the day of the “conquest of Istanbul” started being positioned as a significant day to commemorate by the local and central governments. The governing party with a neo-Ottomanist tendency, celebrated the anniversary of the conquest as a public spectacle, organizing number of attractions including Qu’ran reading ceremonies in Rumeli Hisarı, laser animated music shows on Golden Horn, stadium concerts, political speeches, and ceremonial processions of the youth with Janissary clothing together with a mehter band (Fig. 1). Of course, a prayer ceremony at Fatih Complex in front of the tomb of Mehmed II was an essential component of these celebrations.

Obviously, Mehmed II, namely Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror or simply Fatih, commemorated not only as a national hero, but started being positioned as a symbol of Islamic regime and as a figure representing salvation from “secular” Turkey as well. As Fatih saved Istanbul from Byzantine Empire by giving an end to the easternmost castle of Christianity; his memory is believed to save the city one more time from the Kemalist doctrine. Prophet Mohammad predicted that one day Istanbul will be conquered by the fighters of Islam and he is believed to have said that: “They will conquer Constantinople. Hail to the Prince and the army to whom this granted”. By realizing Prophet Mohammad’s prophecy and by converting the church of Hagia Sophia into an imperial mosque attributed Mehmed II a holy status in the Islamic historiography (Fig. 2).



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