In-sultan, Out-sultan: Remembering Bayezid II

I make no claim to an exhaustive knowledge of Ottoman history – but I have an interest, read a little, and enjoy wandering around the monuments of imperial Istanbul. By chance, for a reason I’ll tell you later, I made mention the other day, in one of my classes, of a sultan by the name of Bayezid, who presided over the empire in the late 15th century. One of my students took issue with my facts, and I was left isolated with no support from any of the young lady’s classmates. Now if we had been discussing New Zealand or English history, I might have stood my ground more firmly – but humility and common sense make me reluctant to debate events of Turkish history or politics with locals.
Bayezid II ‘The Just’
Nevertheless, a later check confirmed the accuracy of my memory. There was indeed a Sultan Bayezid, the second of that name, seated on the Ottoman throne at that time. And an article in today’s newspaper suggested why my Turkish students were unfamiliar with him, despite the fact that he ruled for 31 years, making him one of the longer occupants of that illustrious seat. The article was reporting a symposium running concurrently at several universities and historic locations around Istanbul, under the auspices of the Beyoğlu Borough Council. This year was chosen for the event because it marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Sultan Bayezid II. Well, the actual date would have been 10 Rabi I, 918 according to the Islamic Hijri calendar in use at the time, but these days, thanks to the modernising reforms of MK Ataturk, we in Turkey generally convert historical dates to the more widely preferred Gregorian calendar.
Beyoğlu is located on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn from the ancient walled city of Constantinople/Istanbul. That it is now a major entertainment centre of the modern metropolis is attributable to the fact that it originated as a kind of satellite city inhabited and administered by Venetian and Genoese traders, and later became home to diplomatic legations from European governments. As a result, attitudes to the consumption of alcohol were freer than across the water. Apparently, Bayezid II made a major contribution to the regeneration of this area after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul by his father, Mehmet II, and the present-day council want to recognise this.
However, despite his contribution to the establishment of Beyoğlu (an achievement little known outside the council and academia, so far as I can discover), Bayezid is not a well-known sultan, as the newspaper article acknowledges. The reason, they suggest, is that his reign was overshadowed, both before and after, by four of history’s favourite Ottoman rulers. The first was Murat II, Padishah from 1421 to 1451. This worthy inherited a crown that was by no means omnipotent, or even particularly secure. He had to deal with a Byzantine Empire that still had pretensions to greatness; Venetians who pretty much ruled the Mediterranean; and east European potentates who resented Ottoman incursions into their territory. On all fronts he was moderately successful, paving the way for his son, the aforementioned Mehmet, to hammer the last nail into the Byzantine coffin with his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thereby earning for himself the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’.
Bayezid’s son Selim, known in English as Selim ‘The Grim’, ruled for only eight years, but during that time, made the Ottoman Empire undisputed ruler of the Islamic world. He conquered Egypt, incorporated the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into his domains and took for himself the title of Caliph, or supreme leader of the Muslim community. If those three weren’t enough to cast anyone into the shade, next on the scene was the greatest of all. Suleiman, known in the west as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Lawgiver’, held the reins of power from 1520 to 1566, making him the longest reigning Ottoman sultan at a time generally regarded as the pinnacle of that empire’s greatness – a hard act to follow, or even to precede, given that historians, like God, operate with the advantage of hindsight.
In contrast with these four mega-monarchs, Bayezid’s achievements are undoubtedly less spectacular. Nevertheless, as the Beyoğlu councillors are keen to point out, they deserve recognition. Given the Ottoman inclination to militarism, and Bayezid’s interest in domestic policies and administrative organisation, it is perhaps understandable that he seems less majestic than his more warlike forebears and offspring. For his achievements in internal affairs he became known as ‘The Just’. One of his major successes was to accept into his empire large numbers of Jews fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition. He is said to have remarked that the Spanish king’s folly was his own good fortune – the Jewish refugees impoverishing Spain by their departure and enriching the Ottomans by their arrival.
At the same time, it would have been impossible for the monarch of a major empire in those days to hold power for thirty years without engaging in a war or two, and Bayezid did his share of fighting. His reign began with the need to defeat his own brother Cem (pronounced ‘Jem’), who, with Egyptian support, had sought to seize the throne. Cem was, in fact, an ongoing threat, and Bayezid’s long-term solution was paying the Venetians a kind of annual reverse ransom to keep the guy out of circulation. Relations with the Venetians, however, were by no means peaceful, and the Ottomans engaged in several battles around southern Greece as the two states competed for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Also at this time, the Savafid dynasty in Iran were a rising power, uniting Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia and other neighbours under the banner of Shi’ite Islam, creating a major new challenge to the authority of the Sunni Ottomans.
Bayezid’s reign ended as it had begun, with a war of succession, involving his two sons, Ahmet and Selim. Initially the two fought each other over who would succeed to the throne – but inevitably dad got caught up in the dispute, and was eventually forced to abdicate by Selim, who had gained the support of the Sultan’s own Janissary regiment.
Well, it’s a grim thing to unseat your own father, so Selim perhaps deserves his English nickname. However, Bayezid seems to have made one or two serious errors of judgement that prevented him from assuming a more prestigious place in history. His entry in the Turkish Wikipedia mentions the following:
Christopher Columbus was, at one stage, experiencing some difficulties getting funding for his proposed trans-Atlantic voyages of exploration. Having been turned down by the king of Portugal, he is said to have next tried his luck in the Ottoman court. Bayezid, however, didn’t take the project seriously, and also rejected him. Subsequently, Columbus applied with more success to the king and queen of Spain, and the Ottomans had four hundred years to rue a lost opportunity. One scrap of good fortune did come their way, though, when a Spanish sea-faring colleague of Columbus fell into Ottoman hands as a prisoner of war. Apparently he had maps of America on him when captured, and these were passed on to the cartographer Piri Reis, of whom more in a later post.
A second unfortunate decision of Bayezid’s seems to have occurred when Leonardo da Vinci, on a visit to the Ottoman capital, drew up plans for a 240-metre bridge to span the Golden Horn. Again, the sultan erred on the side of conservatism, and da Vinci’s project never got off the drawing board. In fact, the suburbs of Beyoglu, Galata and Pera had to wait until 1836 to be linked by such a bridge.
Such are the quirks of history. It might have made a significant difference to the long-term fortunes of the Ottoman Empire if all that bullion from the mines of Central and South America had gone into their royal treasury instead of Spain’s – though, to be fair, it didn’t do Spain much good in the long-term either. It’s also possible that Native Americans might have benefited from the generally more tolerant approach of the Ottomans to conquered peoples – but that’s just idle speculation.
Bayezid gave up his throne on Anzac Day, 1512 (speaking with the benefit of historian’s hindsight), but didn’t live long to enjoy his well-earned retirement, dying a mere month later. History doesn’t tell us that his grim son had anything to do with the business, but I have to tell you, I’ve got my suspicions.
Anyway, next time you’re in Turkey, I’d like to recommend you to include two extra sights on your itinerary. The first is Sultan Bayezid’s grand mosque in central Istanbul next door to the campus of Istanbul University. It was completed in 1506, making it, at the time, the second imperial mosque in the city, a century older than the more famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. The earlier mosque built by Mehmet the Conqueror was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century, however, so the son finally managed a posthumous ‘one-up’ on his father.
The other spot worth a visit, and the reason I happened to mention Sultan Bayezid in my class the other day, is the mosque complex he had built in the city of Edirne near the present border with Greece. These buildings are located outside the town in a picturesque and tranquil spot beside a river, and house a modest but impressive medical museum with displays from a time when Islamic health practitioners seem to have been somewhat ahead of their western counterparts. One wing of the hospital, founded in 1488, was used for patients with nervous disorders, and treatment included listening to music and the sound of water playing in fountains, as well as therapeutic basket weaving.
Well, even if you don’t weave baskets, I hope you find music to soothe your soul this festive season, and a moment of peace to remember the message of love and hope that lies behind all the commercialised brouhaha of Christmas and New Year.
Last time I was in that museum in Edirne I came across this poem, which Dilek and I translated. I take full responsibility for the literary limitations:
      Forever Entwined
In olden times, were in this antique place
Of healing, two young lovers; small
Was the maiden’s room and gloomy,
The boy’s less spacious still.
Dallied they mornings in the yard
Until the hour glass filled with sand;
The maid ringed by a fairy host,
Her beau on a magic steed.
Came to the lovers at last the end;
To health once more were they restored;
But the sweetness of life to them was lost,
Such had been their bliss.
Met they one last time, these two,
Swore to be parted nevermore;
Evading yet all watchful eyes, they
Turned again to their sanctuary.
A guardian spirit taking pity,
Mixed, while Nazir, the doctor slept,
A special potion, of his own brewing,
Into each lover’s cup.
Drinking th’elixir unaware,
The soul of each assumed new form –
The girl, a tree, the boy, wild ivy,
Forever entwined in the silent yard.
                                                               Ahmet Kutsi Tecer
                                                               Edirne 1957

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