A dynasty divided

SULTAN MURAD I died on the western frontier of his state. His son and successor Sultan Bayezid I hoped that the weakened position of Serbia and his marriage after the battle at Kosovo Polje to Olivera, sister of the new Serbian despot Stephen Lazarević, would prevent any further attacks on his Balkan possessions, for he had business in the east where his father’s expansion of the Ottoman territories had made conflict with the numerous other Turcoman Muslim emirates of Anatolia inevitable. The great energy he devoted to campaigning earned Bayezid the soubriquet ‘Yıldırım’, ‘Thunderbolt’.

The succession of Bayezid emboldened the Anatolian emirates to join an anti-Ottoman alliance headed by his brother-in-law Alaeddin Bey, emir of Karaman, the most indomitable of all the Turcoman Muslim states in its efforts to counter Ottoman expansionism. Alaeddin Bey had wed Bayezid’s sister Nefise Sultan in 1378 when the balance of power between the two states was still unresolved. Dynastic marriage could be a useful diplomatic tool, but did not always guarantee the allegiance of a potential ally or secure the loyalty of a potential foe. Since the inferiority of the bride’s family was implicit, the Ottomans gave their princesses in marriage only to other Muslim princes, not to Christians (although Christian and other Muslim rulers alike gave their princesses in marriage to members of the Ottoman house in its early years in hope of an alliance).1 Nor did they give them to their partners in conquest – the Evrenosoğulları, Mihaloğulları or Turahanoğulları – fearing perhaps that this might embolden these Ottoman marcher-lords to challenge the pre-eminence of the Ottoman household.2 Recognition of Ottoman ascendance over one rival emirate was symbolized by Bayezid’s marriage to the Germiyan princess Sultan Hatun in 1381, by which he acquired the emirate of Germiyan.

The Ottomans were eager to push southwards towards the Mediterranean through Germiyan and the emirate of Hamid – supposedly sold to Murad in the 1380s – in pursuit of the reliable sources of revenue they needed if their state was to flourish. One of the main trade routes from the east crossed the Mediterranean to the south Anatolian port of Antalya and ran north through Hamid and Germiyan to the Black Sea basin or into the Balkans.3 Karaman was prepared to contest Ottoman attempts to control the trade routes and the customs dues and other taxes that went with the territory, and the first clash occurred in 1386, while Sultan Murad was still alive. In the Ottoman chronicle tradition, correctness required that Alaeddin be blamed for initiating hostilities, and he is therefore said to have attacked Ottoman territory at the entreaty of Murad’s daughter, Alaeddin’s bride; Murad did not pursue the conflict at this time.

Having secured his western frontier, Sultan Bayezid swiftly moved east. His army recovered Germiyan – apparently lost since his marriage to Sultan Hatun – and annexed Aydın, whose princess he also married.4 He reduced the emirates of Saruhan and Menteşe at this time so that the Ottomans controlled all of western Anatolia and their domains bordered Karaman in south-central Anatolia. In 1391 Bayezid summoned his vassals Stephen Lazarević and Manuel II Palaeologus, who was now the Byzantine emperor, and together they marched east to seize the north-central Anatolian territory of Kastamonu from the İsfendiyar emirs. Little more was achieved and the armies returned home by December of that year. Manuel Palaeologus appeased Bayezid, but the letters he wrote on campaign vividly convey his despair and deep unease at his invidious position:

Certainly the Romans had a name for the small plain where we are now when they lived and ruled here . . . There are many cities here, but they lack what constitutes the true splendour of a city . . . that is, human beings. Most now lie in ruins. . . not even the names have survived . . . I cannot tell you exactly where we are . . . It is hard to bear all this . . . the scarcity of supplies, the severity of winter and the sickness which has struck down many of our men . . . [have] greatly depressed me . . . It is unbearable . . . to be unable to see anything, hear anything, do anything during all this time which could somehow . . . lift our spirit. This terribly oppressive time makes no concession to us who regard it of prime importance to remain aloof from and to have absolutely nothing to do with what we are now involved in or anything connected with it, for we are not educated for this sort of thing, nor accustomed to enjoy it, nor is it in our nature. The blame lies with the present state of affairs, not to mention the individual [i.e. Bayezid] whose fault they are.5

In the winter of 1393–4, relations between the two rulers entered a new phase when Bayezid heard that Manuel had proposed reconciliation to his nephew and rival John VII Palaeologus – who had ruled as emperor briefly in 1390 – in the hope that united they might be able to resist the Ottomans. It was John himself, eager to secure Bayezid’s favour, who reported Manuel’s suggestion.6 Shortly thereafter Bayezid summoned his Christian vassals to Serres in Macedonia: they included Manuel’s brother Theodore, despot ofthe Morea (roughly, the Peloponnese), Manuel’s father-in-law Constantine Dragaš, Prince of Serres, Stephen Lazarević of Serbia – and John VII. Their arrival in Serres was orchestrated so that each would arrive separately, unaware that the others would be present. Manuel’s account makes it clear that Bayezid’s invitation was not one that could be refused, and that he feared the Sultan intended to kill them all:

For the Turk had with him those who in some capacity or other were leaders of the Christians . . . wishing utterly to destroy them all; while they thought to go [to Serres] and face the danger, rather than do so later on as a result of disobeying his orders. They had indeed good reason for thinking that it was dangerous to be in his presence, especially together at the same time.7

Manuel’s fears for their immediate safety proved groundless. Bayezid reprimanded them sternly for misgoverning their domains – perhaps to justify future incursions into their territories – and sent them on their way. In spring 1394, however, the Sultan embarked upon a siege of Constantinople, first constructing a castle at the narrowest point of the Bosporus, some five kilometres north of the city on the Asian shore; this was called Güzelcehisar (‘Beauteous Castle’), today Anadolu Hisarı. The walls of Constantinople had withstood many sieges over the centuries and again defied all attempts to breach them.

It was not only to Byzantium that the Ottomans posed a threat. Bayezid also aimed to weaken Venice, which was a significant naval power with numerous colonies and possessions in the Aegean, on the Dalmatian coast and in the Peloponnese. Venice relied on trade for its prosperity and the continuing presence in the region of Florentine, Catalan, and Neapolitan outposts, each with their own commerical and political interests, made for an uneasy pattern of alliances which was complicated by the rise of Ottoman power as different Christian lords sought Ottoman help against their rivals. Sultan Murad I had inclined towards Venice in his overall strategy; Bayezid’s policy was closer to that of his grandfather Orhan who had allied with Genoa against Venice.8 Bayezid’s threat to Byzantine strongholds in the Peloponnese during the early 1390s, as well as his occupation of Thessalonica in 1394 and his siege of Constantinople, were in part directed by his need to pre-empt a Byzantine–Venetian alliance.9 The Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in Rhodes were yet another force in the region. They were a military religious order which had emerged in Jerusalem during the crusades of the twelfth century. Following the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, they were based at Acre for a century before being forced to move to Cyprus with the fall of that city in 1291, and in 1306 they made Rhodes their headquarters. During the final years of the fourteenth century the Hospitallers were engaged in trying to create a presence in the Peloponnese, and in 1397 took over Corinth from Despot Theodore, in exchange for a promise that they would resist Ottoman attacks from the north. They took control of Mistras in 1400, but Latin occupation of the capital of the despotate provoked an insurrection, and by 1404 the Hospitallers agreed to withdraw.

Bayezid’s most dangerous enemy in the Balkans was the kingdom of Hungary, at this time one of the largest states in Europe. Because it had resisted the Mongol invasion of the mid-thirteenth century and served the interests of the pope by sending missionaries to stamp out the heresies of Orthodox Christianity and of the Bogomils, it was regarded as Catholic Europe’s eastern bulwark.10 Hungarian and Ottoman spheres of influence had come into collision after the battle of Kosovo Polje and Bayezid’s aim now was to undermine Hungary’s attempts to rally its Balkan allies. In 1393 he had annexed the rebellious John Shishman’s possessions in Danubian Bulgaria to counter the raids south across the Danube of Voyvode Mircea of Wallachia, a Hungarian client. In 1395 Bayezid went into battle against Mircea, who had concluded a defence pact with Hungary – Mircea was forced to flee. The Ottoman conquest of Macedonia was completed in the same year. Such Ottoman successes in the Balkans lent urgency to Hungarian pleas for help from the West, and this time the threat coincided with a rare period of co-operation between would-be crusaders – notably the knights of France and England – and their governments. On 25 September 1396 the crusading armies met the Ottoman forces under Bayezid’s command at Nikopol (Nicopolis) on the Danube. The crusaders were inspired more by the successes of their forebears than by religion. In their impatience to meet the enemy, the French knights refused to concede that King Sigismund of Hungary’s Wallachian allies were more experienced in fighting the mobile Ottoman cavalry than were the cumbersome western armies, and deprived him of overall command. Notwithstanding, Sigismund’s own forces came near to putting Bayezid to flight (though Sigismund himself was only saved by his vassal Stephen Lazarević); but the outcome was victory for the Ottomans.11

The Ottoman success at Nikopol gave Bayezid control over the Balkans south of the Danube. After the battle he crossed the river into Hungary for the first time, and his army raided far and wide. A young Bavarian crusader named Johann Schiltberger described his narrow escape from execution: the day after the battle, many Christian prisoners were killed in cold blood, but he was spared because of his youth and taken into captivity together with a number of nobles.12 By contrast, the nobles captured with him were ransomed within nine months after the intercession of their peers and the presentation to Bayezid of sumptuous gifts and 300,000 florins in cash.*13

Sultan Bayezid’s successes in the Balkans did not impress his brother-in-law Alaeddin. The Karamanid ruler refused to acknowledge himself subject to the Ottomans. ‘I am as great a lord as thyself,’ he claimed, in the words of Schiltberger,14 who was in Bayezid’s suite as he led a victorious army against the Karamanid city of Konya after his victory on the Danube. Alaeddin paid with his life for this hubris and the Karamanid emirate lost its independence.

This annexation of Karaman relieved the pressure from one rival state, but on their eastern frontier the Ottomans were still challenged in the north by Kadı Burhan al-Din Ahmad, who had eluded Bayezid on an earlier campaign. Kadı Burhan al-Din, a poet and man of learning, had usurped the throne of the Eretna dynasty whose seat was at Sivas in northern Anatolia.15 Whereas the Ottomans saw themselves as heirs to the Seljuk state in Anatolia and Karaman’s resistance to their bid for domination was that of a rival emirate of similar Turcoman origins, Kadı Burhan al-Din represented the Ilkhanid inheritors of the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan. As the armies of Tamerlane, the already legendary Mongol ruler of Transoxiana in Central Asia, were to prove, the Mongol challenge was vastly more dangerous. The distinction between the Ottomans’ subjects and those of Kadı Burhan al-Din was noted by Emperor Manuel II as he moved east with Bayezid on campaign in 1391; he referred to the Turkish population of western Anatolia as ‘Persians’, the common Byzantine usage at this period, but called Kadı Burhan al-Din’s people ‘Scythians’, the word used to indicate Mongols.16

By 1397 Bayezid’s siege of Constantinople had become a relentless blockade and Emperor Manuel again sought help from abroad to save the Byzantine capital. In June 1399, after much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing between Paris, London, Rome and Constantinople, Charles VI of France sent a small army to aid Manuel. At its head was a marshal of France, Jean Boucicaut, one of the nobles captured at Nikopol, imprisoned and then ransomed by the Ottomans. Only by forcing his way through the Ottoman blockade could Boucicaut reach Manuel. He realized that his army was inadequate to relieve Constantinople and prevailed upon the Emperor to travel to Europe and put his case in person. In December Boucicaut began the return journey with Manuel in his company, travelling to Venice by sea and thence slowly overland to Paris where the Emperor remained for six months. On 21 December 1400 he arrived in London and was escorted into the city by King Henry IV. Manuel’s evident piety and sincerity won him sympathy and the exotic appearance of his suite of bearded priests was a cause of wonder wherever they went during the two months of their visit. As Adam of Usk, a contemporary English chronicler, observed:

This Emperor always walked with his men, dressed alike and in one colour, namely white, in long robes cut like tabards . . . No razor touched head or beard of his chaplains. These Greeks were most devout in their church services, which were joined in as well by soldiers as by priests, for they chanted them without distinction in their native tongue.17

Received by both Charles and Henry with splendour and accorded every courtesy, Manuel was convinced that whatever help he needed to resist Bayezid would be forthcoming. But the money collected for Manuel throughout England seemed to have disappeared (and the matter of its disappearance was still being investigated in 1426).18

Manuel returned home early in 1403 to find his world greatly changed. His city had been saved from imminent destruction by an event which seemed to presage the end of Ottoman power: the defeat at Ankara of Bayezid’s army by that of Tamerlane. Bayezid’s defeat turned Anatolia upside down and brought severe disruption to the Balkans. In the longer term, it also enabled Constantinople to survive as the Byzantine capital for another half-century.

Thirty years previously, Tamerlane had embarked on a series of campaigns which took him from China to Iran and culminated, as far as the Ottomans were concerned, with the confrontation at Ankara. Tamerlane saw himself as the successor of Genghis Khan and inheritor, therefore, of the Seljuk–Ilkhanid territories in Anatolia – which put him in a powerful position to exploit the divisions rife among the patchwork of local dynasties who were still independent. Bayezid, however, was encroaching upon these same lands and with Ottoman seizure of Sivas after the murder of its emir Kadı Burhan al-Din Ahmad in the summer of 1398, Bayezid’s and Tamerlane’s spheres of influence abutted in eastern Anatolia. In a defiant statement of his own independence from Tamerlane, Bayezid applied to the Caliph in Cairo for the title of ‘Sultan of Rum’, borne by the Seljuk sultans of Anatolia. Tamerlane demanded that Bayezid recognize him as suzerain but Bayezid refused unequivocally.19 Kadı Burhan al-Din’s murderer, the chief of the Akkoyunlu (‘White Sheep’) Turcoman tribal confederation whose base was at Diyarbakır in south-eastern Anatolia, appealed to Tamerlane who responded in 1399 by embarking on the longest expedition of his reign. This was to last seven years.

At around the same time Bayezid was persuaded by his allies Sultan Ahmad Jalayir of Baghdad and the chief of the Karakoyunlu (‘Black Sheep’) Turcoman tribal confederation, centred on Van in eastern Anatolia, to organize a campaign to seize some Mamluk strongholds west of the Euphrates. This met with some success but was a bold affront to Tamerlane. In the summer of 1400, while Bayezid was occupied with the siege of Constantinople, Tamerlane took Sivas and then advanced south along the Euphrates and into Mamluk territory as far as Damascus, before turning towards Azerbaijan.20

Tamerlane’s and Bayezid’s armies met near Ankara on 28 July 1402. Tamerlane fielded some 140,000 men while Bayezid’s army totalled 85,000. Among his forces Tamerlane could count the disaffected former rulers of the western Anatolian emirates whose lands had come under Ottoman control soon after Bayezid came to the throne. These rulers, the deposed emirs of Aydın, Saruhan, Menteşe, and Germiyan, had all sought refuge at Tamerlane’s court while the men who had formerly owed them allegiance were now Bayezid’s subjects and under his command. Bayezid’s own forces of cavalry and infantry supplied the core of his army – among the latter were janissaries, yeniçeri in Turkish, meaning ‘new force’, the infantry corps which was first raised during the reign of Sultan Murad I from prisoners of war captured in the Christian lands of the Balkans and was institutionalized through Bayezid’s use of the devşirme levy of youths among his Balkan Christian subjects to ensure a reliable source of manpower.* Also in Bayezid’s army was his vassal Stephen Lazarević of Serbia, and Vlachs from recently-conquered Thessaly. Further support came from ‘Tatars’, who, says Johann Schiltberger in his short eyewitness account of the battle at which he became Tamerlane’s captive, numbered 30,000 men from ‘White Tartary’,21 suggesting that they had fled west before Tamerlane’s advance from their lands north of the Caspian and Black Seas. This has recently been questioned, and it seems that these ‘Tatars’ may instead have been Turcoman tribesmen from eastern Anatolia.22

The battle lasted all day. The opposing armies were drawn up in similar formation with the rulers in the centre surrounded by their infantry – in Bayezid’s case, the janissaries – with their cavalry on the wings. The earliest account of the battle is that of a Cretan who fought with Bayezid but fled the field:

Bayezid’s army was made up of 160 companies. At first, Timur’s [i.e. Tamerlane’s] army routed four of these, the commanders of [three of] which were Tami Cozafero Morchesbei [i.e. Firuz Bey], the great Muslim Leader, Bayezid’s son [i.e. Prince Süleyman] and Count Lazzero’s son [i.e. Stephen Lazarević] . . . [the fourth] was Bayezid’s. His men fought so bravely that most of Timur’s troops dispersed, believing Timur to have lost the battle; but he was elsewhere and immediately sent 100,000 men to surround Bayezid and his company. They captured Bayezid and two of his sons. Only six of Bayezid’s companies took part in the battle, the rest fled. Timur emerged victorious.23

Commentators noted that Tamerlane’s army arrived first at Ankara and camped by a stream, leaving Bayezid’s men and their steeds without water. Schiltberger wrote that Tamerlane had thirty-two trained elephants24 from the backs of which he is reported to have launched the legendary liquid incendiary agent known as ‘Greek fire’ at the Ottoman army.25 This might well account for the confusion which led Bayezid to believe that he had won, only to find himself encircled and defeated. The Ottoman chroniclers, however, agree that Bayezid lost the battle thanks to the desertion of many of his forces: both the numerous ‘Tatars’ and the troops from the once independent west Anatolian emirates who failed to fight. Bayezid and his son Musa were taken prisoner, and possibly also his Serbian wife and his son Mustafa. His sons İsa, Süleyman and Mehmed fled. Bayezid’s conquests were undone in a day. Before Tamerlane’s invasion his domains had stretched from the Danube almost to the Euphrates; now, Ottoman territory was roughly reduced to that bequeathed him by his father in 1389. The eight-year blockade of Constantinople came to an end. Tamerlane restored their lands to the emirs of Karaman, Germiyan, Aydın, Saruhan and Menteşe, and enforced his claim to the rest of Bayezid’s domains in Anatolia in a year-long irruption of raiding and pillage.

When they came to write the story of Bayezid’s defeat at Ankara, the chroniclers sought explanations for the disaster which had befallen the Ottomans. The fifteenth-century chronicler Aşıkpaşazade held Bayezid responsible for the defeat, branding him a debauchee – a view with which the Sultan’s contemporaries concurred26 – and blaming his Serbian wife for encouraging him to drink; he also criticized Bayezid’s vezir Çandarlı Ali Pasha for consorting with holy men whose religious credentials were suspect.27Tamerlane’s victory was sufficiently humiliating, but for later generations, the greatest cause for regret was the struggle that ensued among the sons of Bayezid as they vied to succeed him. With Prince Musa and possibly also Prince Mustafa in Tamerlane’s hands following the battle at Ankara, Süleyman, Mehmed and İsa acted immediately to find allies to support their individual claims to the throne. Another son, Prince Yusuf, took refuge in Constantinople, converted to Christianity and was baptized Demetrius.28 For the next twenty years civil war brought turmoil and suffering on an unprecedented scale to the Ottoman state.

In his ignominious defeat, the once-powerful ruler Bayezid made a tragic figure. Though Ottoman chroniclers a century after the battle of Ankara, moved by his fate, wrote of Tamerlane putting Bayezid in an iron cage as he took the humbled sultan along with him on his victorious progress across Anatolia, historians consider this fanciful. More nearly contemporary Ottoman writers claimed that he died by his own hand, unable to bear the dishonour of his defeat.29 The truth about Sultan Bayezid’s fate appears to be more prosaic: he died of natural causes in March 1403 in the west-central Anatolian town of Akşehir – as Schiltberger had reported at the time.30 His body was mummified and kept at first in the tomb of a Seljuk holy man. It is said by contemporary historians that his son Musa soon obtained permission from Tamerlane to remove the body to Bursa.31According to the inscription on the tomb built for him here by his son Süleyman, he was buried in 1406.32 Several decades later the Byzantine historian Doukas wrote that Bayezid’s grave was subsequently violated and his bones exhumed by the son of Alaeddin of Karaman, to avenge Bayezid’s execution of his father in Konya in 1397.33

The defeat of Sultan Bayezid became a popular subject for later western writers, composers and painters. They revelled in the legend that he was taken by Tamerlane to Samarkand, and embellished it with a cast of characters to create an oriental fantasy that has maintained its appeal. Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great was first performed in London in 1587, three years after the formal opening of English–Ottoman trade relations when William Harborne sailed for Istanbul as agent of the Levant Company. In 1648 there appeared the play Le Gran Tamerlan et Bajezet by Jean Magnon, and in 1725 Handel’s Tamerlano was first performed in London; Vivaldi’s version of the story, Bayezid, was written in 1735. Magnon had given Bayezid an intriguing wife and daughter; the Handel and Vivaldi renditions included, as well as Tamerlane and Bayezid and his daughter, a prince of Byzantium and a princess of Trebizond (Trabzon) in a passionate and incredible love story. A cycle of paintings in Schloss Eggenberg, near Graz in Austria, translated the theme to a different medium; this was completed in the 1670s shortly before the mighty Ottoman army attacked the Habsburgs in central Europe.34


Prince Süleyman and his followers, who included Bayezid’s vezir Çandarlı Ali Pasha, took the strategic decision to leave Anatolia to Tamerlane and assume control of his father’s western territories. Like the Ottomans, Tamerlane had his chroniclers, and these too observed certain conventions: concerned lest his failure to pursue Süleyman be interpreted as weakness, Tamerlane’s official historian Sharaf al-Din Yazdi wrote that his master exchanged envoys with Süleyman, who acknowledged Tamerlane’s suzerainty and in return was accorded a free hand in Rumeli.35 Süleyman began negotiations with the Christian powers of the Balkans, aimed at preempting them from exercising their historical claims to the Rumelian domains of his weakened state which was still, however, the largest in the region. His swift action also prevented his Balkan vassals – Byzantine, Serbian and Latin – from taking as much advantage as the former emirs of Anatolia of the disintegration of the Ottoman realm. Nevertheless, by the terms of a treaty made at Gelibolu in 1403 Prince Süleyman agreed territorial concessions which would have been unthinkable only a few months before. In addition Byzantium was released from its vassal status, as were some Latin enclaves; had the Serbian lords not been at odds with one another, Serbia too might have emerged from vassalage. The south-western shore of the Black Sea and the city of Thessalonica were among the gains made by Emperor Manuel II, who won a further significant concession in Süleyman’s agreement to come to his aid in the event of an attack by Tamerlane. With Byzantium’s fear of the Ottomans thus eased, Manuel was emboldened to expel the Ottoman merchants based in Constantinople and demolish the mosque recently built there to serve their community.36 Venice and Genoa both obtained favourable trading arrangements in the lands Süleyman controlled.37 According to the Venetian negotiator, Pietro Zeno, Gazi Evrenos Bey was strongly opposed to the surrender by a member of the Ottoman house of lands which had been won by him and his fellow marcher-lords.38

The best-known version of subsequent events is that of an anonymous panegyrist of Prince Mehmed, the ultimate victor in the civil war. After the battle of Ankara Mehmed retired to his base in north-central Anatolia, re-emerging when Tamerlane himself returned eastwards in 1403. Mehmed then defeated Prince İsa in battle south of the Sea of Marmara and entered Bursa which had been in İsa’s hands; his forces were subsequently involved in battles with various local lords asserting their regained independence of Ottoman rule. Prince İsa seems also to have fought a battle with Tamerlane’s army in Kayseri after which he retreated into north-west Anatolia until killed by Süleyman later in 1403.39 Prince Süleyman’s Gelibolu treaty bought him a period of stability in the Balkans. In 1404 he crossed over to Anatolia and won Bursa and Ankara from Prince Mehmed who retreated to Tokat in north-central Anatolia. Süleyman ruled both in Rumeli and in Anatolia as far as Ankara, and his future as his father’s successor seemed assured; indeed, some historians consider him to have been sultan and dub him Süleyman I.

In 1409, however, a new actor appeared on the scene and threatened Süleyman’s domains. His younger brother Prince Musa had been released by Tamerlane in 1403 into the safe-keeping of the Emir of Germiyan, and he in turn handed him over to Mehmed. The attack on Süleyman came from a completely unanticipated direction: Musa had sailed from the north Anatolian port of Sinop to Wallachia where he gained a foothold in the region by marrying the daughter of the Wallachian voyvode Mircea. Mircea had transferred to Süleyman his antipathy to Bayezid, and calculated that it would be to his advantage to side with Musa. Musa’s campaign in Rumeli was not without setbacks, but by May 1410 he had occupied Süleyman’s capital at Edirne and reached Gelibolu, causing Süleyman to return in some haste from Anatolia. Emperor Manuel saw the succession struggle as his salvation, and worked to prolong it: he had regained control of the passages between Anatolia and Rumeli as a result of the 1403 treaty and assisted Süleyman across the Bosporus. But Süleyman was soon executed near Edirne on Musa’s order – while drunk, if an anonymous chronicler is to be believed – and the field was left to Mehmed and Musa.

Prince Musa thus inherited his brother Süleyman’s domains in both Rumeli and Anatolia and ruled them uneasily for the next two years. Süleyman’s son Orhan had taken refuge in Constantinople and, fearing that he might provide a focus for dissent against him, Musa besieged Constantinople in the autumn of 1411, an effort that came to nothing. His advisers and commanders gradually deserted him, and his brother Prince Mehmed now crossed the Bosporus with Manuel’s assistance and met Musa in battle near Çatalca in Thrace; Mehmed then returned to Anatolia. Though Musa won, his lands in Rumeli were invaded in the north-west by troops of his former ally Stephen Lazarević – who paid the price the following year when Musa retaliated by attacking a number of Serbian strongholds. In 1413 Orhan landed at Thessalonica, probably with the encouragement of Emperor Manuel who hoped to distract Musa from Serbia.40 Musa managed to capture Orhan but for some reason released him, and failed to retake Thessalonica.

Neighbouring states saw Prince Musa, with his Wallachian support, as a greater threat than Prince Mehmed. Stephen Lazarević called on Mehmed to join him in a co-ordinated campaign against Musa; Manuel also took Mehmed’s part, providing vessels to carry him and his men across once more into Rumeli and supplying troops. By the time that the two armies met to the south of Sofia, Mehmed’s forces included men from the emirate of Dulkadır in south-east Anatolia, thanks to Mehmed’s marriage with the emir’s daughter; Byzantine troops provided by the Emperor; Serbian, Bosnian and Hungarian troops under the command of Stephen Lazarević; troops from Aydın whose support for Musa had been firm until just before the battle; and Rumelian troops commanded by the marcher-lord Gazi Evrenos Bey. Musa’s army attacked strongly in battle, but eventually he was forced to flee. He fell when his horse stumbled and was killed by one of Mehmed’s commanders.41

With Prince Musa’s death in 1413 the civil war seemed once again to be over and the succession resolved in favour of Prince Mehmed, known from this time as Sultan Mehmed I. Sultan Mehmed’s first concern was to win the allegiance of the various Anatolian emirates that had supported him militarily but had no desire to relinquish the independence they had regained following Tamerlane’s victory at Ankara in 1402. Mehmed met with particularly determined resistance from Karaman and also from Cüneyd, emir of Aydın; Cüneyd’s stronghold at İzmir was eventually taken with the help of allies who included the Genoese of Chios, Lesbos and Foça (Phokaia) and the Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes. Cüneyd was appointed governor of Nikopol on the Danube, site of Sultan Bayezid’s victory against the Crusaders in 1396.42 The appointment of former rebels to posts in the service of the state was a leitmotif of Ottoman administrative practice from these early times. The Ottomans found it more politic to conciliate defeated local lords – and, later, overly independent state servants – with a share in the rewards of government than to kill them and risk fomenting further unrest among their partisans.

Within a couple of years Sultan Mehmed had largely recovered the former Ottoman domains in Anatolia and Emperor Manuel found his position weakened accordingly. He could not afford to lose the initiative he had gained during the Ottoman interregnum by aiding one or other of the contenders for the sultanate. The only tool remaining in his hands was Süleyman’s son Orhan. In a last desperate attempt to keep the Ottoman house at odds with itself he sent Orhan to Wallachia, whose voyvode Mircea had remained an implacable enemy of Ottoman power in the region. This marked the end of Orhan’s usefulness as an alternative focus of Ottoman loyalty, however, for Mehmed hurried to meet him before he had gone very far and blinded him. Then, suddenly and quite unexpectedly in 1415, Mehmed’s missing brother Prince Mustafa, or a very credible impostor – he was known as ‘False’ Mustafa – appeared in Wallachia by way of the Byzantine outpost of Trebizond on the north-east Anatolian coast. Mustafa was reported to have been taken into captivity with his father and brother Musa in 1402, but his whereabouts during the intervening years remain obscure.43 It is tempting to believe that he was kept prisoner at the Timurid court and that his release by Shah-Rukh, the son and successor of Tamerlane (who had died in 1405), was timed to reignite the Ottoman succession struggle.44 In 1416 Shah-Rukh wrote to Mehmed to protest at the elimination of his brothers. Mehmed defiantly proffered the justification that ‘One realm cannot shelter two pādişāhs. . . the enemies that surround us are always watching for an opportunity.45 Shah-Rukh had himself come to power only after a struggle of more than ten years against other contenders and, like his father, wanted weak states on his periphery.

It seemed that Mehmed’s recently-reimposed authority in Rumeli would have to face a challenge led by his brother Mustafa, whose envoys had begun negotiations with Emperor Manuel and with Venice. Mehmed’s decision to appoint Cüneyd of Aydın to hold the Danubian frontier against Wallachia proved ill-judged, for his former foe soon defected to Mustafa.46 Nevertheless the two were defeated and, when they sought asylum in the Byzantine city of Thessalonica, Emperor Manuel was persuaded to hold them in custody during Mehmed’s lifetime.47

The appearance of charismatic figures and their ability to attract supporters during times of acute economic and social crisis was as potent a force in Ottoman as in European history. In 1416, the same year that he defeated his brother Mustafa’s challenge, Sultan Mehmed was faced with another rebellion against his efforts to govern his Balkan provinces. This uprising was led by Sheikh Bedreddin, an eminent member of the Islamic religious hierarchy who was born of mixed Muslim and Christian parentage in the town of Simavne (Kyprinos), just south-west of Edirne. Sheikh Bedreddin was also a mystic; following theological studies in Konya and Cairo he had gone to Ardabil in Azerbaijan which was under Timurid domination and the home of the mystical Safavid order. Here he found a sympathetic environment for the development of his pantheistic ideas, and especially the doctrine of the ‘oneness of being’.

The doctrine of ‘oneness of being’ sought to eliminate the oppositions which framed life on earth – such as those between religions, and between the privileged and the powerless – which were considered to inhibit the oneness of the individual with God. The struggle for ‘oneness’ gave the mystic an important role for it was he, rather than the orthodox cleric, who had the wisdom, and therefore the task, to guide man to union with God. This doctrine was potentially highly subversive of evolving Ottoman efforts to establish through conquest a state with Sunni Islam as its religion and their eponymous dynasty at its pinnacle.48

In the climate of opposition to Sultan Mehmed Sheikh Bedreddin must have seen an opportunity to preach his creed. In 1415 he abruptly left his exile in İznik, where he had been sent after the death of Prince Musa under whom he had held the post of chief judge in Edirne, and made his way to Wallachia via Sinop on the Black Sea coast. Sheikh Bedreddin became a figurehead for those, like the supporters of Mustafa and Cüneyd, who were disappointed in Mehmed; the heartland of his support was the ‘Deli Orman’, the ‘Wild Forest’ region lying south of the Danube delta. Here, where the internecine struggles of the past years had further exacerbated the dislocation experienced as a result of Ottoman conquest, he found adherents among disaffected marcher-lords and their followers – whose local power was being compromised by the imposition of Ottoman overlordship – as well as among other mystics and peasants alike. The material interests of the marcher-lords and their men had been adversely affected when Mehmed revoked the land-grants Sheikh Bedreddin had made to them on Musa’s behalf during his tenure as chief judge.

As Sheikh Bedreddin preached his syncretist message, his disciples Börklüce Mustafa and Torlak Kemal spread the word in western Anatolia to the consternation of the Ottoman authorities. Once tolerant of the practice of Christianity within its own ranks, the government now adopted an assimilative stance, using denigrating language in its decrees to describe those who expressed their grievances in religious terms. By stigmatizing them as ‘peasants’, ‘ignorants’ and ‘wretches’, both the state and its chroniclers branded this and later outbursts of popular discontent as illegitimate and intolerable. These manifestations of popular resistance obliged Mehmed to divert to their suppression resources and energy which he would have hoped to employ more productively elsewhere.

Sheikh Bedreddin’s revolt in Rumeli was short-lived: Sultan Mehmed’s men soon apprehended him and took him to Serres where he was judged and executed in the market-place, accused of disturbing public order by preaching that property must be communal and that there was no difference between the various religions and their prophets. Sheikh Bedreddin’s teachings continued to be influential, however. Until the late sixteenth century and beyond his sectarians were perceived as a threat to the state,49 and the doctrines he preached were common currency among anarchic mystical sects throughout the life of the empire. Most notably, they were espoused by the Bektaşi, the dervish order with which the janissaries were associated.

The name of Sheikh Bedreddin lives on in modern Turkey. It is especially familiar to those on the left of the political spectrum thanks to the Epic of Sheikh Bedreddin, a long narrative poem by the Turkish communist poet Nazım Hikmet who ascribed to Sheikh Bedreddin his own inspiration and motivation in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s. The climax of the poem occurs when Sheikh Bedreddin’s followers, proclaiming their ‘oneness’, meet the Sultan’s army:

To be able to sing together

pulling the nets all together from the sea,

together to forge the iron like a lace,

all together to plough the soil,

to be able to eat the honey-filled figs together

         and to be able to say:

                  everything but the cheek of the beloved

                             we all share together


To achieve this,

         ten thousand heroes sacrificed their eight thousand.50

So wary of adverse reaction from the Turkish authorities were Sheikh Bedreddin’s modern-day adherents, that although his bones were exhumed and brought from Greece at the time of the Greco-Turkish population exchange in 1924, they did not find a final resting-place until 1961 when they were buried in the graveyard around the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II, near the Covered Bazaar in Istanbul.

With his brother Prince Mustafa and his ally Cüneyd safely in Byzantine custody and Sheikh Bedreddin dead, Sultan Mehmed returned to Anatolia to try again to overcome the Karamanid state. But Karaman submitted in vassalage to the powerful Mamluks, and Mehmed had no alternative but to retreat. He managed, however, to annex the domains of the İsfendiyaroğulları of north-central Anatolia through which Sheikh Bedreddin had passed on his way to Wallachia, and to force Mircea of Wallachia to pay him tribute. As was customary for vassals, Mircea sent his three sons to Mehmed’s court as hostages against his good behaviour. One of these boys was Vlad Drakul, later known as the ‘Impaler’, who became notorious as a vampire in the folk-legends of Transylvania.

By the time of his death in a riding accident in 1421, Sultan Mehmed had still not succeeded in restoring to Ottoman control all the territories his father Bayezid had held in Anatolia and Rumeli. Illness dogged the last years of his life, and he had ample opportunity to ponder the problems of the succession, his supreme aim being to avert a struggle such as had attended his own bid for power. His vezirs concealed his death until his son Murad, not yet twenty, could be proclaimed sultan in Bursa.

The contemporary historian Doukas reports that Mehmed had decided to send his two young sons Yusuf and Mahmud to Constantinople, to be held as hostages by Emperor Manuel II. By this means he hoped to ensure the continuing custody of his brother ‘False’ Mustafa and thus eliminate the risk of any of the three joining a power struggle to succeed him. In the event, Yusuf and Mahmud were not handed over to Manuel and Mehmed’s death precipitated the release of ‘False’ Mustafa and Cüneyd. Doukas considered that Mehmed’s vezir Bayezid Pasha was responsible for the failure to hand over the two boys, insisting ‘It is not good or consonant with the Prophet’s ordinances that the children of Muslims be nurtured by unbelievers’.51 With Manuel’s assistance Mustafa and Cüneyd landed at Gelibolu in Rumeli, where they were supported by the most prominent marcher-lords of the region, the Evrenosoğulları and Turahanoğulları among them. But before they could reach Edirne they were met by an army commanded by Bayezid Pasha. ‘False’ Mustafa induced Bayezid Pasha’s men to desert by revealing the scars he had, it was claimed, received at the battle of Ankara twenty years earlier. Bayezid Pasha was executed and Mustafa occupied Edirne as his capital, minting coinage there in proclamation of his sultanate, as his brothers Süleyman, Musa and Mehmed had before him.52 The readiness of the Rumelians to go over to Prince Mustafa rather than accord allegiance to Sultan Mehmed’s son and designated heir Murad II was an indication of the continuing unease with which these marcher-warriors viewed Ottoman efforts to impose unified and centralized government on the territories they themselves had conquered as partners of the Ottomans. Mustafa had proved himself their ally by opposing his brother Sultan Mehmed some six years earlier, and many had also been sympathetic to Sheikh Bedreddin’s uprising.

Mustafa’s next objective was Bursa. Sultan Murad planned to confront him at a point north-west of the city where a bridge crossed the river Nilüfer, and ordered the bridge to be destroyed. The two armies faced one another across the river. Murad led Mustafa to believe that he planned to march around the lake from which the river debouched, but instead he swiftly reconstructed the bridge and caught his uncle unawares. The marcher-lords deserted Mustafa, who fled. Most accounts of his end state that Mustafa was apprehended by Sultan Murad’s men north of Edirne as he tried to reach Wallachia early in 1422 and, like Sheikh Bedreddin before him, was hanged as a common criminal which implied that Murad considered him an impostor. Another tradition tells that he reached Wallachia and from there went to Caffa in the Crimea and later took refuge in Byzantine Thessalonica.53 He could not, however, have been certain even of a welcome in Wallachia, let alone the level of support he had received in his previous campaign against his brother Mehmed, for Wallachia was now an Ottoman vassal.

Another Mustafa, Murad’s brother ‘Little’ Mustafa also became the focus of a rival claim to the sultanate. Since the death of their father, ‘Little’ Mustafa had been in one of the Anatolian states opposed to the Ottomans; in 1422, now thirteen years old, the boy was put at the head of an army and Bursa was besieged. When Murad sent a relieving army, ‘Little’ Mustafa and his supporters fled to Constantinople. ‘Little’ Mustafa’s claim to the sultanate was soon recognized throughout much of Ottoman Anatolia, however, but thanks to the defection of Mustafa’s vezir Ilyas Pasha, Murad marched on him in İznik and had the boy strangled after bitter fighting.54 Writing almost a century later, the chronicler Mehmed Neşri had İlyas Pasha justify his treachery on the grounds that his paramount concern was the maintenance of public order, and that no sacrifice was too great to attain this end.55

Like his father before him, Sultan Murad II began to rebuild his state, a daunting task, and he was well into his reign before he managed to stabilize the Ottoman domains. After the defeat of ‘False’ Prince Mustafa his fellow rebel Cüneyd of Aydın returned home to discover that his rule had been usurped. Murad had promised Cüneyd and his family safe conduct but then had them murdered, and Aydın became Ottoman once more. Menteşe was re-annexed at this time and, sometime after 1425, Germiyan, giving the Ottomans full control of western Anatolia once more. Karaman remained independent: Murad had no immediate plans to attack it, nor provocation to do so.

The years following Bayezid I’s defeat at Ankara in 1402 saw the most tumultuous of all Ottoman succession struggles. The haunting memory of these events later inspired Sultan Murad’s son Mehmed II, in the hope that such terrible bloodshed would never be repeated, to sanction fratricide as a means of smoothing the succession to the sultanate, a practice which brought opprobrium upon the Ottoman dynasty in later times. In the absence of contemporary accounts little is known of the path by which Osman and his immediate successors came to the throne. It was perhaps equally bloody: some chroniclers hint that Osman’s bid to head the clan on the death of his father Ertuğrul was contested by his uncle Dündar, and that Osman killed him.56 Osman’s son and heir Orhan had several brothers but the chronicles mention only one, Alaeddin, whose existence is attested by the mosques, bath-house and dervish lodge he built in Bursa.57 Orhan is alleged to have offered Alaeddin the leadership of the Ottoman emirate and Alaeddin to have refused, leaving the way open for Orhan to succeed58 – thus Orhan’s succession to Osman is explained in a seamless manner. The fate of Osman’s other sons is unknown. When Orhan died he left Murad and Halil and possibly another son, İbrahim; if there was a struggle for the succession, it has likewise been glossed over.59 When Bayezid succeeded Sultan Murad I after the latter’s death at Kosovo Polje it was reported, as noted earlier, that he killed his brother Yakub.

Although the contemporary Byzantine historian Laonicus Chalcocondylas reports that Sultan Mehmed’s intention had been to divide the Ottoman domain, giving Rumeli to Murad and Anatolia to ‘Little’ Mustafa, from the time of the foundation of their state the Ottomans had adhered to the principle that their domains should be passed on intact to one member of the next generation. They followed Mongol practice, in that succession was not limited to any particular member of the ruling dynasty: the question of who should succeed was a matter for God to determine. The right to rule rested first and foremost on possession of the throne.60 Sultan Bayezid fathered many sons who were in their turn prolific, and his grandsons also had claims to the succession; their periodic emergence as pretenders, often with the connivance of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II, fuelled the struggle for the throne. Throughout much of Ottoman history, neither fratricide as a tool of policy, nor the efforts of chroniclers to present the succession of the first Ottoman sultans as trouble-free, were effective in preventing the debilitating power struggles which tended to erupt on the death of a sultan. Moreover, simply to possess the throne was not enough: having established that he was God’s chosen ruler, each new sultan needed to gain and keep the support of those who would enable him to exercise his rule – the statesmen and, most importantly, the soldiers of the realm – and seize the treasury which would give him the means to adminster and defend Ottoman territory.

The ability of the Ottoman house to attract and retain the loyalty of marcher-lords who were sometimes rivals and sometimes willing partners, and to encourage other states to identify with its cause, depended on its own success – which was not constant. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Anatolia has recently been described as a place where ‘dominating, centralizing family military ascendancy . . . rebellious and factional marcher lords, and . . . fearful, doomed but complacent petty principalities’61 vied for power, and has been compared to other medieval states – for example, the Anglo-Norman state as it incorporated Wales and Ireland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – in which allegiance to a dynasty or to an individual member thereof dictated the course of political history. Great power politics was another factor influencing the Ottomans and when circumstances demanded even the fiercely anti-Ottoman Karamanids found it politic to agree on a truce when they felt threatened by the stronger Mamluks.

The location of the region where the Ottomans established their state, bordering the most moribund of the old empires, the Byzantine, brought real advantage. The far-flung territories of the Byzantine Empire – Constantinople, Thessalonica, the Morea, Trebizond – made it strategically weak. Internecine quarrels within and between the Byzantine dynasties of Palaeologus and Cantacuzenus, and Byzantine failure to attract assistance from a Europe which espoused a very different Christian tradition and the interests of whose states were invariably in conflict, made this empire vulnerable to an energetic power which relentlessly challenged its existence. In the Balkans, although the expectations which any group – be they marcher-lords, holy men or peasants – had of individual members of the Ottoman family made for periods of violent strife, broadly speaking the Ottoman dynasty retained the loyalty of those it had attracted during the conquests and successes of the fourteenth century. The Ottomans were able to take advantage of the weak states of the region, and after the end of the independent Serbian kingdom in 1389 few of them questioned Ottoman regional dominance. Moreover, Ottoman incursions into the Balkans were not unwelcome to local populations whom the new regime freed from the onerous obligations imposed by their feudal lords. In Anatolia, however, there was a real alternative to Ottoman suzerainty and here, in the years after his victory at Ankara, Tamerlane’s protection allowed the Anatolian emirates to assert their separate identity. For a while, the Ottomans were hardly even first among equals, but the geographical disunity of the emirates and their lack of any common interest beyond antipathy to the Ottomans prevented the emergence of any sustainable challenge to Ottoman expansion.

The respite the Ottoman civil war brought to Venetian, Byzantine and other interests in the region came to an end as Sultan Murad II consolidated his rule. Venice had good reason to fear attacks on its overseas territories from a reconstituted Ottoman state, and was fighting for the survival of its colonies once the civil war ended. The Byzantine despotate of Morea was under threat from the Latin lord Carlo Tocco, an Ottoman vassal whose lands lay in the north-west Peloponnese. Thessalonica, under siege by the Ottomans since 1422, was ceded to Venice in the following year by Despot Andronicus on condition that its Orthodox customs be respected. Thessalonica was a vital hub of commerce and communications, but whatever hopes Venice might have had of its possession were frustrated by the Ottoman blockade. The city was hard to provision and the occupation a burden on Venice’s resources. Several times Venice threatened to produce a claimant to the Ottoman throne, but proof of the descent of such claimants from Sultan Bayezid was by all accounts weaker than that for the two Mustafas, ‘False’ and ‘Little’. One pretender, ‘a Turk called İsmail’, whom the Venetians held on the island of Euboea (Negroponte), was intended as the focus of a rebellion against Murad in 1424, to divert him from the blockade of their new possession.62 The Byzantines were equally desperate: in 1423 John VIII Palaeologus, who had been appointed co-emperor to share the burdens of state with his ailing father, Manuel II, travelled from Constantinople to seek help in the West, but once again to no purpose. In 1424, however, Manuel won some respite by concluding a treaty with Murad by which Byzantium undertook to pay tribute and also hand over some territory on the Black Sea.

Unable to come to terms with the Ottomans, Venice made overtures to Hungary, proposing logistic support if Hungary would invade the Ottoman lands. Judging that they might be willing to join an anti-Ottoman alliance, in 1425 and 1426, respectively, Murad attacked his vassal states of Wallachia and Serbia, putting paid to any hope Venice may have had of help from that quarter. On the death of Stephen Lazarević the following year, King Sigismund of Hungary frustrated Ottoman ambitions in the region by seizing the strategically important fortress of Belgrade, at the Danube–Sava confluence. Murad took the massive stronghold of Golubac, also on the Danube, but some distance to the east. Overlordship of these new acquisitions was formalized in a Hungarian–Ottoman treaty in 1428. Stephen Lazarević had been a reliable Ottoman vassal for some thirty-five years; his death brought Hungarian and Ottoman frontier outposts closer together than ever before.

Though war between Venice and the Ottomans was not officially declared until 1429, the relationship between them had been deteriorating ever since the Venetians’ acceptance of Thessalonica from the Byzantines. Only when that city fell to him in 1430 did Murad agree to conclude a treaty with Venice. As soon as he won Thessalonica Murad restrained his troops from wholesale looting and swiftly expelled them from the city. The former inhabitants were resettled, including those who had fled during earlier phases of the siege. Reconstruction of the city was ordered and church property was returned to its owners; only two churches were immediately converted into mosques, an indication that the Muslim population was small at this time, probably consisting only of the garrison. Two years later Murad returned, this time taking over some Christian religious establishments and surveying the resources of the city with a view to facilitating its transformation into an Islamic centre.63

The great power struggle in the Balkans between the Ottomans, Venice and Hungary was Murad’s major preoccupation after the fall of Thessalonica. Even before the expiry of the 1428 Hungarian–Ottoman treaty in 1431, Murad had moved to counter Venetian claims in Albania. Ottoman troops had been invited into Albania in the 1380s during the reign of his namesake Murad I, to help one of the local lords against a Serbian rival; their success in thwarting the latter’s ambitions led to the imposition of a degree of Ottoman authority which increased both during Bayezid’s reign and subsequently under Mehmed I. Albania was ruled by many lords with conflicting interests, and its incorporation into the Ottoman state was therefore a gradual process. A cadastral survey conducted there in 143264 further strengthened Ottoman control, resistance to which was soon crushed.65 The uncertain allegiance of Serbia following the death of Lazarević in 1427 provoked Ottoman attacks in the mid-1430s and the vassaldom of Serbia to the Ottomans rather than to Hungary was formalized through the Serbian despot George Branković’s payment of tribute and the marriage of his daughter Mara to Murad.

With the Ottomans so deeply engaged in the Balkans, the emir of Karaman, İbrahim Bey, saw his opportunity and began to attack their territory in Anatolia. Several years of strife brought Murad some acquisitions in the west of the Karamanid state66 but Ottoman resources were unequal to its permanent subjugation at this time. Karaman enjoyed two significant advantages: its geographic location as a buffer between Ottomans and Mamluks meant that it could play one off against the other, while its predominantly tribal, nomadic population was skilful in confounding Ottoman attack in the mountainous terrain. This region, like the Balkans, proved itself the locus of a long-lasting power struggle.

In 1435 Tamerlane’s heir Shah-Rukh sent ceremonial robes to the rulers of the various Anatolian states, including the Ottoman sultan, demanding that they wear them as a mark of allegiance. Murad did not feel able to refuse, but apparently did not wear them on official occasions. He fought back with a propaganda campaign of his own, minting coins with the seal of the Kayı tribe of the Oğuz Turks of Central Asia from whom the Ottoman house sought to establish its descent, a dynastic conceit which found acceptance in the east-central Anatolian Turcoman emirate of Dulkadır and among the Karakoyunlu, who unlike the Karamanids and the Akkoyunlu were partisans of the Ottomans. Like the other anti-Ottoman dynasties with strategic interests in eastern Anatolia, however, Shah-Rukh had no regard for this supposed link to the Oğuz tribe, viewing the Ottomans as upstarts.67

The balance of power in the Balkans occupied Murad for the remainder of his reign. Ottoman policy became more resolute, aimed at securing the Danube–Sava line west of Belgrade against Hungary by incorporating the long-time vassal state of Serbia into the Ottoman realm. That Serbia’s despot George Branković was Murad’s brother-in-law counted for little against the imperative of politics. A punitive invasion through the Ottoman vassal state of Wallachia into the Hungarian province of Transylvania was followed in 1438 and 1439 by campaigns against Serbia in which the recently-built Danubian fortress of Smederevo fell to Murad. The key stronghold of Belgrade, his next target, failed to succumb to a six-month siege in 1440.

John VIII Palaeologus had been emperor in Constantinople since Manuel II’s death in 1425. In 1437, he pressed for renewed consideration of the thorny issue of church union at the Council of Ferrara which had been called for the purpose. Repeatedly the centuries-old schism between Catholic and Orthodox had served as an excuse for foot-dragging among the Christian states of Europe when the Byzantines begged for support. Since Ottoman resurgence after the reconquest of Thessalonica not only put his own domains at risk but also presented a more direct threat to Venice and Hungary, John hoped the Catholics would look favourably on his proposal for union. Among the most critical theological issues dividing the two Churches were the use of leavened or unleavened bread in the service of Communion, the Latin doctrine of purgatory, not accepted by the Orthodox, and the matter of papal supremacy. In July 1439, after a year and a half of intermittent debate and the removal of the Council to Florence after plague struck Ferrara, the 375-year schism was brought to an end with the signing of a document of union.

At first it appeared that John had miscalculated. Union with Rome brought upon his head the wrath of the Orthodox establishment, and of most of the Byzantine population. It even provoked a joint attack on Constantinople by his brother Demetrius, despot of Mesembria (Nesebŭr) on the western Black Sea coast, and a Turkish force. Further afield, Bishop Isidore of Kiev (Kyiv), who had been made a cardinal by the Pope, was deposed and arrested when he visited Moscow, and had to flee to Italy. The patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch (Antakya) disowned the union. The Orthodox world was divided against itself, but as far as John was concerned his bold action was paying off, because the Pope was mobilizing support for the promised crusade against the Ottomans.

There was optimism in Europe that success would this time attend a united effort to contain the Ottomans. The potential gains were significant – Hungary would acquire territory in the Balkans, Serbia would regain its independence, the threat to Venice in the Aegean and Adriatic would disappear, and Constantinople would survive – and the omens were favourable. The capable military commander John Hunyadi, voyvode of Transylvania, held his position against two Ottoman attacks through Wallachia before being driven back by the Ottomans in the snowy Zlatitsa pass, east of Sofia, in the winter of 1443–4. The incipient anti-Ottoman revolt in northern Albania of ‘Scanderbeg’, İskender Bey – who came of a local Christian warlord family and had been brought up a Muslim at Murad’s court – and the extension of Byzantine authority in central Greece by John VIII’s brother Constantine, despot of the Morea and based at Mistras, were further straws in the wind. Constantine’s especial triumph was the rebuilding by spring 1444 of the Hexamilion wall spanning the Corinth isthmus, demolished in 1431 by Turkish attackers.68 Concern at the momentum produced by the ending of the Christian schism focused Ottoman minds on the very real possibility that the crippling blow dealt their state by Tamerlane might be repeated through the united efforts of the anti-Ottoman powers of the West.

However, the interests of the central European powers – Hungary and Poland, now united under the young king Wladyslaw I and III, and Serbia, under Despot George Branković – proved to be at odds with those of the Latins of the Mediterranean. For the Latins the crusading ideal was a continuing obsession, their attitude little different now from what it had been in 1396, when French insistence on taking over the lead from the more experienced troops of King Sigismund of Hungary had been a significant element in the débâcle at Nikopol. The painful and disorderly retreat of the allied Hungarian army in the campaign of 1443–4 was another bitter experience which caused the central European neighbours of the Ottomans to question whether they really could hope to make substantial gains, or whether a negotiated balance of power might not be more to their advantage. Through contacts facilitated by the Sultan’s Serbian wife Mara, the leaders Wladyslaw of Hungary-Poland, John Hunyadi of Transylvania and George Branković of Serbia sent an embassy to Murad in Edirne where, on 12 June 1444, a ten-year truce was agreed. Around this time Murad called his young son Mehmed to Edirne from the west Anatolian city of Manisa, former capital of the Saruhan emirate, where he was prince-governor of the province of Saruhan. Bemused, Murad’s commanders warned him of the threat from the crusading Venetian fleet – which by mid-July was off the Peloponnese69 – but to the amazement of all, he announced that he was giving up the throne.70 The abdication of a sultan was unprecedented in Ottoman history. Murad II’s motive for taking this step at the age of only 41 is a matter for speculation. He had suffered tribulations in recent months – for instance, the sudden death of his eldest and dearest son Alaeddin, next to whose tomb in Bursa he ordered that he himself be buried.71 Perhaps, after an active reign of more than twenty years, he was simply tired.

Not unnaturally, Murad’s withdrawal and the accession of his twelve-year-old son were interpreted by the West as a sign of weakness they could exploit. When the Edirne truce was confirmed by Wladyslaw, Hunyadi and Branković in Hungary in August, Wladyslaw and Hunyadi swore false oaths, having been absolved in advance by the papal legate to the kingdoms of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini.72 Between 18 and 22 September 1444 the crusading Hungarian army crossed the Danube on its eastward march and soon reached Varna on the Black Sea coast. Only George Branković had declined to take part in the advance, Serbia having been promised independence by Murad, and the return of the Danube fortresses of Smederevo and Golubac. In Edirne, a fortnight’s march from Varna, fear was palpable. It was less than a year since the Hungarian army had last advanced through the Balkans and into the river valleys leading to the city. Trenches were dug to protect the city and its walls were repaired. The panic was exacerbated by dervishes of an ascetic sect of Iranian origin, the Hurufi, whose doctrines had much in common with the teachings of the heretical Sheikh Bedreddin; public buildings and private houses alike were destroyed in the commotion that accompanied the suppression of their disturbances.73 To add to the turmoil, the Byzantine emperor John VIII released another pretender to the Ottoman throne. Finding no support in Thrace he turned north to the ‘Wild Forest’, south of the Danube delta, seat of Sheikh Bedreddin’s revolt against Sultan Mehmed I; troops were sent against him from Edirne but he fled back towards Constantinople.74

When Murad appointed Mehmed as sultan in his place, he ordered his trusted vezir Çandarlı Halil Pasha to remain in Edirne with him. Members of the Çandarlı family had been first ministers of the Ottoman house almost without interruption since the reign of Murad I; this intimacy had survived both the Timurid catastrophe and the bitter civil war, and Çandarlı Halil had succeeded his father Çandarlı İbrahim Pasha in the mid-1430s. Çandarlı Halil thought Mehmed too young, and those around him unreliable. Men such as Zaganos Mehmed Pasha, Saruca Pasha, and the talented commander Şihabeddin Şahin Pasha were ‘professional Ottomans’. Unlike marcher-lords such as the Evrenosoğulları or the old Muslim families of Anatolia such as the Çandarlı, they belonged to the new caste of Christian-born statesmen who had come to prominence during Murad’s reign, whether Byzantine renegades or men taken in the youth-levy and converted to Islam. Sheikh Bedreddin’s revolt had revealed the continuing fragility of the Ottoman state and demonstrated to Murad that the faith which he espoused must become its cornerstone. He had therefore expanded the youth-levy as a reliable source of loyal military manpower whose converted recruits professed the religion of his dynasty and his court.

Çandarlı Halil Pasha’s pre-eminent position engendered much jealousy among the clique around Mehmed, who envisaged an Ottoman state different in character from the stable balance of power in Anatolia and Rumeli towards which Murad and his counsellor had been cautiously directing it. Çandarlı Halil was reluctant to allow the enthusiastic young sultan to lead an army against the crusaders and, alarmed at the civil unrest in Edirne, felt that he had only one option – to recall Murad who had been in Manisa. Making his way from Anatolia to Edirne, Murad did not enter the city but led his army directly to the front against the Hungarians. The great battle of Varna on the Rumelian coast of the Black Sea took place on 10 November. The fleet bringing the crusaders from the West had not yet reached Constantinople, but although this left the armies of Wladyslaw of Hungary-Poland and Hunyadi of Transylvania to fight the Ottomans alone, things went badly for the Ottoman army at first. Towards evening, however, King Wladyslaw was killed, and his troops fled. The satisfactory outcome of this encounter was due as much to the effectiveness of Mehmed’s commander Şihabeddin Şahin Pasha in closing the Balkan passes leading to the plain of Thrace to the enemy as to Murad’s generalship. Nor was this the end: the next year a crusader fleet attacked Ottoman positions on the Danube in alliance with Hunyadi and the Voyvode of Wallachia, but again Şihabeddin Şahin Pasha led a successful defence.

During the early months of his first sultanate Mehmed had asserted his independence of his father by taking the unprecedented step of debasing the Ottoman currency, the silver asper, by more than 10 per cent.75 A greater number of coins could thus be minted to meet the ever-increasing costs of defending and administering the Ottoman territory; but while debasement produced income for the treasury it had the undersirable effect of causing hardship to salaried state servants who received the same number of coins as before but of a lower silver content and therefore of lower worth in real terms. Murad withdrew again to Manisa after the victory at Varna but his second attempt at retirement lasted only a little longer than the first. The janissaries were the most vociferous of those affected by the debasement and in 1446 an insurrection broke out in Edirne provoked, probably, by Mehmed’s meddling with the coinage. Çandarlı Halil Pasha again called Murad back to Thrace. Şihabeddin Şahin Pasha became the scapegoat and focus of janissary wrath and took refuge in the palace as the restored Sultan ordered the troublemakers to be hunted down. After this unequivocal assertion of his authority, Murad promised the janissaries salary increases as recompense for the financial distress they had suffered.76

The degree of independence Mehmed enjoyed while his father was in Manisa vexed contemporary commentators as much as modern historians. Some, both at home and abroad, considered that Mehmed ruled over Rumeli, while his father was sultan in Anatolia. The Karamanids feared that Mehmed would break a treaty they had agreed with Murad in 1444, for all acts of a previous sultan had to be renewed on the accession of a new one. Although Mehmed had been de jure sultan and tried to exert his independence of his father, with schemes such as that for the conquest of Constantinople at the earliest opportunity or the debasement of the currency, his real power was limited thanks to Çandarlı Halil Pasha’s success in restraining his and his clique’s wilder fantasies, albeit at the cost of alienating them. Çandarlı Halil may even have encouraged the janissary uprising in order to have a reason to recall Murad; indeed, the removal of Mehmed was one of the demands which the protestors voiced. When the janissaries threatened to join the Ottoman pretender released by John VIII in 1444, who was now back in Constantinople, the demonstration was clearly getting out of hand.77

Mehmed accepted his removal from power and forced return to Manisa with bad grace. As a gesture of defiance against his father he had coins struck in his own name in a west Anatolian mint and attacked Venetian outposts in the Aegean in contravention of the truce. Çandarlı Halil having remained in Edirne with Murad,78 in Anatolia there was no similarly eminent elder statesman to oversee Mehmed’s activities.

Sultan Murad turned to the pressing matter of securing his borders. The Emperor’s brother Constantine, despot of the Morea, had recently made gains in Attica at the expense of both local Latin lords and the Ottomans. Murad led his army south, and with his commander Turahan breached and destroyed the supposedly impregnable Hexamilion wall so recently rebuilt by Constantine. Next he attempted the reconquest of Albania, where Scanderbeg was encouraging rebellion against Ottoman authority. The Ottomans’ most significant triumph came in 1448 when they routed an army mainly composed of Hungarians and Wallachians under the command of the indefatigable John Hunyadi in a second battle at Kosovo Polje, where Hunyadi’s Wallachian allies deserted and he himself fled.

Emperor John VIII died in 1448 to be succeeded by his brother Constantine, who ruled from 1449 as Constantine XI. In 1451 Murad died, and his son assumed the full powers of the sultanate as Mehmed II. He and his counsellors now looked for a great victory to reaffirm their power and independence.

* Schiltberger subsequently entered Bayezid’s service, and six years later at the battle of Ankara was captured by ‘Tamerlane’, the Mongol conqueror Timur, in his victory over the Sultan; he long remained a slave of Tamerlane and his successors, but eventually escaped captivity and returned home after thirty-two years away.

* From this time until the early seventeenth century Ottoman officials would periodically (but as time went by increasingly sporadically) visit Christian villages (at first those in the Balkans rather than Anatolia) to select youths for intensive education as soldiers, for administrative posts, and for service in the palaces of the sultan and his senior statesmen. All the youths chosen were obliged to convert to Islam and those channelled into the military forces, in particular, were trained to be loyal only to the sultan.

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