Due to the scarcity of sources about the period, Ottoman historians narrating the siege of Istanbul have relied on information mostly based on rumors. This has brought two discussion topics to the fore. The first of these, one that is very well known, was the transportation of ships over land. The other was whether the city surrendered by force or did so peacefully. It is important to stress the second issue particularly, since it is older in terms of discussion compared to the first one and it has a legal dimension. Our main objective is to outline when, how, and under which circumstances these discussions emerged and how they should be explained.
As is well known, the fact that Mehmed II seized Istanbul after a long and bloody struggle is narrated in the contemporary Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman sources of the period with no doubts. In spite of this fact, discussions on whether the city was conquered through peace or war seem to have appeared suddenly in the sixteenth century. Cenabî discussed the conquest of Istanbul in his general history work, written in the second half of the sixteenth century. He was the first Ottoman historian to state that Istanbul was conquered “by force” from the sea and “peacefully” from Edirnekapısı. According to him, the soldiers united in Aksaray and walked towards Hagia Sophia; therefore, they did not touch the churches in Sulumanastır (Samatya), whereas the churches on the way from Aksaray to Hagia Sophia were converted to mosques subsequently.1 Probably the information given by Cenabî gradually became more common. For instance, embellishing with various stories in his travel book fifty years after Cenabî, Evliya Çelebi tells how the Byzantines surrendered asking for mercy.2 Evliya Çelebi’s statements on this issue can be considered as important evidence of the existence of a rumor that was very common but was not sufficiently reflected in the literature.
Subsequently, Dimitri Kantemir, in his history work written in 1716, stated that Mehmed II and the Byzantine emperor had originally reached an agreement about the surrender of the city and that the conflict occurred as the result of a misunderstanding. Once the fighting had commenced, the Byzantines fighting in the inside walls raised a white flag when the Ottoman soldiers entered the city from the city walls by the sea; a mutual agreement on their surrender was reached and the sultan issued a decree that guaranteed their rights. While all the churches between Aksaray and Hagia Sophia were converted into mosques according to the right of conquest, some churches between Sulumanastır (Samatya) and Edirnekapı were not touched due to this agreement.3
Nevertheless, the two Ottoman sources that describe the conquest of Istanbul in detail, the histories of Tursun Bey and Ibn Kemal—the latter of whom was inspired by the former and narrated events at greater length—do not mention any groups that surrendered peacefully. Byzantine and Latin writers who wrote about the conquest from the inside were probably not informed about the events that were happening in the city due to the turmoil of the siege; therefore, they did not say anything about the territories that surrendered peacefully. On the contrary, they depicted a terrible fight within the city. Only Tursun Bey wrote that a small military troop that was resisting in a tower could not stand anymore and raised a white flag on its own.4 However, he described this as an insignificant incident. In other words, none of the historians who witnessed the conquest mention a part of the city that was taken peacefully. In this regard, it is clear that the idea that Istanbul was conquered peacefully is absolutely incorrect. How, then, did such an idea first emerge?
That the answer of this question is based on a legal discussion among the Ottoman ulema may be highly surprising. The origin of this issue, which became a matter of debate in the second half of the sixteenth century, was the presence of undamaged churches and monasteries and the condition that they could resume their religious ceremonies. Mehmed II had allowed the Christian community of the city to remain, respected their religious rules, and did not touch their churches or monasteries; however, those churches that had been damaged, did not have a congregation, or were located in a place where there was a Muslim majority were converted into mosques or masjids. This process did not begin with Selim I and idea of confiscating the churches and annihilating the Christians; nor did it begin with a sudden conservative turn on the part of the Ottoman ulema and a project to completely remove the Christian community. Actually, the issue arose as the result of a simple incident during Bayezid II’s reign. The incident centered on Pammakaristos Church, which Mehmed II had assigned as the patriarchate and which was located between Çarsamba and Draman. As is known, Mehmed II appointed Gennadius II as the patriarch after the conquest and gave him the Church of the Holy Apostle as his office. When Patriarch Gennadius II wanted to work in Pammakaristos Church, which was a women’s monastery (1455), he emptied the place and this monastery became the patriarchate.5 When the Christian congregation of the church/monastery got smaller towards 1490, the Muslim community, whose numbers were gradually increasing, demanded the conversion of the place into a mosque. However, this demand was probably not accepted by the Ottoman administrators of the period. The reason for this was undoubtedly the fact that this place was not an ordinary monastery and it had the title of patriarchate.
The issue got bigger in time and continued in Selim I’s period, too. Discussions regarding the office of the patriarchate must have been rekindled suddenly, as it was in a Muslim neighborhood during a period when religious sensitivities had increased considerably due to the Ottoman-Safavid struggle.6 Indeed, without paying attention to these matters, Selim I attempted to orchestrate the slaughter of Christians in the city and across the country; it is also widespread knowledge that these attempts were prevented by Zenbilli Ali Efendi. Actually, what frustrated Selim I was that the office of the patriarchate had become a topic of discussion among religious scholars. As a matter of fact, it is quite interesting that this issue was mentioned in an epistle that was written by Husam Çelebi around 1518. It can clearly be understood from the arguments that some scholars had started to question why and how these churches had remained open for service in a city that had been conquered by the sword and why they had not been converted for Muslim use. Hüsam Çelebi stated that churches could be present in a city that had been conquered by the sword, in compliance with Hanafi Islamic laws, and that the law for non-Muslims could be applied in this situation. In other words, according to him, the right of possession was passed on to the sultan, regardless of whether the city had been conquered by force or peacefully. This situation would give the sultan the authorization to implement the rights as he wished.7 With this authority, Mehmed II did not see any harm in issuing a decree to protect the church, and complying with this preference did not seem to be against Islamic law. This interpretation must have been more reasonable for the state administrators in terms of compliance with the rights of Christian subjects. This kind of an “official state policy” lies behind Zenbilli Ali Efendi’s appeasement for Selim I.8 However, it would undoubtedly be approved officially through a warrant or decree given by the sultan.
This issue once again became the subject of debate among scholars during the reign of Sultan Süleyman I. It is striking that this coincided with the years when Süleyman I adopted the title of defender of the faith and considered himself as the most prominent leader of the office of the caliphate and the Islamic world.9 Furthermore, the stricter policy that was becoming more pronounced in Ottoman religious opinion and that was supported by salafi streams turned people’s attention to Pammakaristos Church in the Muslim neighborhood once again. When the tension started to grow again, Patriarch Jeremias I showed Selim I’s decree and prevented any interference.
The History of the Patriarchate, which was composed in 1578, presents an interesting story. Accordingly, in his second term as a patriarch, Patriarch Jeremias faced the decree stating that no churches would be present in a city conquered by the sword. Thereupon, the grand vizier of the period, who favored the patriarch greatly, recommended that Jeremias say that the city was peacefully handed over to Mehmed II by the emperor; thus, the church was protected. The patriarch informed the officials about the situation and had the information that the church was allocated for them confirmed by two Muslim witnesses.10
This story sounds partially correct. Likewise, it can be considered as an argument brought forward at a time when debates about Pammakaristos Church were still continuing. Actually, it is understood from the fatwa of Ebussuud Efendi that such a situation came along during Süleyman’s reign. The opinions put forward by Ebussuud Efendi in his fatwa seem very significant in essence and the question in the fatwa which was put on the record out of its context is as follows: “Did the late Sultan Mehmed (II) Khan conquer the metropolis Istanbul and villages around it through war?” The reasoned answer comes from where this question stemmed from. The following response clarifies the situation: “Conquest by war is well-known; however, old churches are still present which indicates the peace.” In order to justify this, it was stated that this subject was investigated in 1540-1541 (945), that during the course of the investigation the statements of two people who were 117 and 130 years old were consulted, and that these two people had witnessed that Christian and Jewish people in the city covertly reach an agreement with Mehmed II; the ruler respected the rights of these groups after the conquest. Finding this testimony acceptable, the churches were protected.11
Consequently, it seems possible to attribute the discussion among the ulema to the simple desire to seize the church in accordance with valid traditions, rather than considering it as an ancient religious conflict between Christians-Muslims or as a reflection of Muslim conservatism. Some of the modern writers that support the idea that the city was conquered peacefully wanted to present a different ideological frame by relating it to the personality of Mehmed II and his perception of empire in a slightly romantic way. The views claimed by Hüsam Çelebi reflect the Ottoman system and understanding in terms of explaining the situation and they offer a reasonable frame.
1 Cenâbî Mustafa, Cenâbî Târihi (Summarized translation in Turkish), Nuruosmaniye Library, no. 3097, f. 80b.
2 Evliyâ Çelebi, Seyahatnâme, prepared by R. Dankoff, S. A. Kahraman and Y. Dağlı, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2006, vol. 1, p. 48.
3 D. Kantemir, Osmanlı İmparatorluğunun Yükseliş ve Çöküş Tarihi, tr. Ö. Çobanoğlu, Istanbul: Cumhuriyet Kitap Kulübü, 1998, vol. 1, pp. 153-154.
4 Tursun Bey, Târîh-i Ebü’l-Feth, prepared by M. Tulum, Istanbul: İstanbul Fetih Cemiyeti, 1977, p. 58; İbn Kemal, Tevârîh-i Âl-i Osman, prepared by Ş. Turan, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1957, VII. Defter, p. 68 quoted from Târîh-i Ebü’l-Feth.
5 S. Eyice, “Fethiye Cami”, DİA, XII, 460-462.
6 For this period, see F. M. Emecen, Yavuz Sultan Selim, Istanbul: Yitik Hazine Yayınları, 2010, pp. 357-358.
7 L. Öztürk, “Hüsâm Çelebi’nin Risâle Ma‘mûle li-Beyâni Ahvâli’l-Kenâisi Şer‘an Adlı Eseri”, İslâm Araştırmaları Dergisi, 2001, no.. 5, pp. 135-156.
8 Emecen, Yavuz Sultan Selim, pp. 358-359.
9 For this see F. M. Emecen, İmparatorluk Çağının Osmanlı Sultanları-I, Istanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Araştırmaları Merkezi (İSAM), 2011, p. 114 f.
10 H. Çolak, “Sulhen mi Anveten mi? İstanbul’un Fethi’yle İlgili Bir Hikayenin Gelişimi (16.-19. Yüzyıllar)”, İmparatorluk Başkentinden Kültür Başkentine, ed. Feridun M. Emecen, Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2010 2010, p. 206.
11 E. Düzdağ, Şeyhülislâm Ebussuud Efendi Fetvaları Işığında 16. Asır Türk Hayatı, Istanbul: Enderun Kitabevi, 1983, p. 104.