January 28, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Rise of Empires: Ottoman" (Netflix - 2020)

Netflix poster for Rise of Empires: Ottoman

The year was 1453, almost 40 years before the initial Christopher Columbus voyage to the new world. The Ottoman Empire has a new ruler, Sultan Mehmed* II, who assumed the position in 1451 upon the death of his father, Sultan Murad II.

Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481), also commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror (in Turkey, you will see it written as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and you will see it on a lot of things), was the seventh Ottoman sultan. Technically, he ruled twice, first when he was 12 years of age for two years before his father Murad realized he was not ready and re-assumed the position himself, and again at age 19 when his father died. He remained the sultan until his death in May 1481.

This six-episode (4.5 hours) docudrama series begins with the death of Murad II and the uneasy transition of power to Mehmed II. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Mehmed's youth and formative years, and the attachments with his step-mother Mara Branković- a Serbian princess admitted to his father's harem - and Grand Vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha, who also served Mehmed II until his execution on the orders of the sultan following the fall of Constantinople. These two people were very influential in Mehmed's early life.

As Mehmed assumed and consolidated power, he remained focused on his childhood dream of seizing the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium). At the time of Mehmed's assumption of power, Constantinople was ruled by Emperor Constantine XI.

The sultan was also concerned with the presence of the city of Galata, located north of Constantinople on the opposite side of the Golden Horn. Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa.

Mehmed believed that these lands properly belonged to the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, it appears Mehmed was willing to allow the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians to live in the areas, but under the auspices of the Ottoman sultan.

Most people believe the Ottomans approached and assaulted Constantinople (located in Thrakia, on the European side) from Anatolia, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Actually, the capital of the Ottoman Empire was also on the European side, in Edirne. Edirne is located 150 miles northwest of what is now Istanbul, in present-day Turkey - the producers could have been a bit clearer on the geography and included more maps.

If you were not familiar with the history, you would come away with the impression that the seige was launched from Anatolia, across the Bosphorus, then southwest along the shore. While the Ottomans did build a fortress (Rumelihisarı, which has been restored and a tourist attraction today) in 1451 on the strait to block Christian reinforcements coming from the Black Sea towards Constantinople, the action took place almost exclusively on the European side.

Since there are four and a half hours, the series was able to devote sufficient time to discuss the military aspects of the campaign. One of the interesting topics that covered included the use of large-caliber artillery to attack fortifications. The walls of Constantinople were reputed to be among the strongest in the world - construction started in the 4th Century, and improvement were continuous.

A Hungarian engineer named Orban offered his cannon-making skills first to Emperor Constantine, and when the emperor declined because of the expense, to Sultan Mehmed. Mehmed funded the construction of a huge cannon that required 60 oxen to move. I suspect that when Constantine watched the walls of the city being reduced to rubble, he second guessed that fateful decision.

On the other side, the series documented the fighting skills of the Genoese mercenaries hired by Constantine to defend the city. Although they extracted a price from the Ottomans - and there were times the battle could have gone either way - in the end, the overwhelming numbers and some daring decisions on the part of Sultan Mehmed led to an Ottoman victory.

Those decisions included the use of Serbian miners to tunnel under the walls in an effort to weaken them, the use of a naval blockade to prevent Genoese reinforcements and resupply (they got through), and transporting dozens of Ottoman navy ships overland to circumvent the iron chain blockade of the entrance to the Golden Horn. Attrition and treachery from the Galatans gave the Ottomans the upper hand.

The only hope for the besieged city would be the arrival of the Venetian fleet, which never came. The Ottomans launched the final assault on the city, and took it, on May 29, 1453.

The city became the empire's fourth and final capital, lasting until the end of the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate (which had existed since 1299) on November 1, 1922. On November 11 of that year, Ankara was named as the capital of the new Republic of Turkey. At the same time, the name of Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul.

For anyone who has visited Istanbul, this docudrama is a fascinating history - the graphics are well-done and are easily recognizable to what the city looks like today. The mix of reenactment and scholarly comment is well-done. A few years ago, I was able to walk the walls and venues of much of the fighting of the final battles in Istanbul - this series puts it into great perspective. I wish I had been able to watch this before walking the terrain; it would have been more understandable.

I highly recommend it, but suggest keeping your internet search engine of choice handy to clarify things that might not be well-known to people who do not have a background in Middle East history.

Here is the link to the Netflix series.

* Mehmed is the Turkish rendition of Muhammad.