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THE GRAND TURK: Sultan Mehmet II – Conqueror of Constantinople, Master of an Empire and Lord of Two Seas by John Freely
Published by I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84511-704-7
Review in The Journal of Islam and Christian Muslim Relations, issue 21.3

John Freely tells the tale of Mehmet II, one of the world’s great conquering heroes, with admirable precision, economy and a confidence born from a lifetime of intimacy with the historical sources, as well as the landscape and the cities and people of the Aegean and Anatolia. Even if you were unaware of his previous works (his guidebooks to Istanbul, Athens, Venice and The Western Shores of Turkey, his history of the Topkapi Palace, his biography of Mehmet’s son, Prince Jem and his history of the previous Seljuk Dynasty) Freely quickly wins the reader’s trust with the depth and range of his experience. Nor does he squander it by pursuing academic arguments or by presuming on too much previous knowledge from the reader. Instead the importance of various historians is succinctly explained within the flow of the narrative, and Turkish names are referred to that used by Byzantine or Italian sources and useful geographical tags remind one on which island the fortress of Negroponte stands and on which shore sits Valona. For although Freely has taught generations of students, he has also experienced life beyond the dust-flecked library shelves dedicated to Renaissance Studies. He brings to his books other experiences, such as that of a young soldier who served in the marines and witnessed the violence, confusion and boredom of war at firsthand on the beaches of the Pacific.

If one has any interest in whether Turkey will become part of Europe, or revert to its old role as the warrior guardsman of Islam, some knowledge of the man who first placed the nation half in the east, half in the west, is a vital prerequisite to informed opinion. Mehmet is also the man who extinguished the last sparks of the two-thousand-year old Roman and Christian Empire of the East, seized the city of Constantinople from its last Byzantine Lord and by the end of his life had fused his many conquests into a dynamic new Imperium, the Ottoman Empire. The long term implications were enormous: what is more unlike the neglected tombs of other conquering statesmen, such as Cyrus, Alexander or Julius Caesar, the mausoleum of Mehmet II remains honoured by a continuous daily trickle of pilgrims and pious visitors to this day. He is still revered as the grandfather of modern Turkey, the man who gave his people the great city of Istanbul and placed them squarely on the crossroads of the world.

Mehmet’s life can also be enjoyed as a picaresque adventure in its own right. He was first placed on the Ottoman throne as an untried 12-year-old boy, because his own battle-scarred father had decided to resign. Though his father later decided to take back the throne for a while so that when Mehmet did finally become Sultan, aged just 19, he already had a lifetime’s experience of palace intrigue, mutiny and humiliation. This apprenticeship in real-politik may have fuelled the endless cycle of wars, invasions and conquests that he inflicted upon the world over the next 30 years, in the full knowledge that his armies, ministers, allies and agents were best kept loyal through mutual success and ceaseless activity. And this restless activity bore fruit. Whether Mehmet is to be assessed as a battlefield commander, a strategist, a diplomat or a monumental builder of cities, there are very few men who can equal his achievement. Mehmet was also surprisingly well-read and cultured, interested in the history, artists and achievements of other peoples, though this never interfered in the pride he felt for his own Turkic identity and the outward trappings of his Islamic religion. Yet by the end of reading Freely’s meticulous account of Mehmet’s wars and buildings and culture I was left with little knowledge about either the heart or the soul of the Conqueror.

Freely is too professional a scholar and textual historian to wish to speculate on the unknowable secrets of such a man, yet I yearned for some loose, free-thinking speculation on his relationship with his beloved mother, his distant austere father, his influential wet-nurse and why he allowed his wife Gulbuhar to remain a Christian. More salacious questions, of whether he slept with his court of page boys as well as his hundreds of concubines, or whether as a boy he was privy to the murder of this elder brother, or to why did he launch the potentially disastrous attack on both Neapolitan Otranto and Rhodes in the last year of his life are also left unaddressed.

Had I been the publisher I would have argued in favour of axing the last two chapters. It is fine, and indeed fascinating, to take the story on to cover the battle between his two sons, Beyazit and Jem, for the succession. But the book should have ended there, on page 198, and not galloped breathlessly through 300 years of Ottoman history into the 20th century. For the second edition I would also advise the publishers to re-draw the map on page xviii (which was made for another work) and needs to be adjusted to fit the spelling, dates and battles of Freely’s volume more specifically. My deepest regret however, was that I had not read this excellent work, before writing my own account of The Last Crusaders, for in the process of reading THE GRAND TURK I have filled a note-book with stories and incidents that I had failed to discover elsewhere.

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