At its greatest extent in 117 AD, the Roman Empire stretched from modern day England to Egypt, there was no immediate competitor that could hold a candle to it. As with many empires that grow too big, it begins to rot on the inside. First began a split of the empire into two (the diarchy) emperors, this led to the founding of Constantinople in 330 AD. Soon after the Roman Empire split officially into two – a Western and Eastern Roman Empire. While the Western Roman Empire soon splintered into its constituent empires, the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople continued all the way till 1204.
The Eastern Roman Empire was eventually replaced briefly by the Latin Empire from crusaders from Western Europe before a being restoration under the Byzantine Empire. The small Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople was weak and faced challenges like never before. To its north were European empires (the Serbian Empire, the Bulgarian Empire and remnants of the Latin Empire), to its south was a rising force called the Ottomans Turks. The enemies on both sides were hostile and over a span of almost two centuries, the lands of the Byzantine Empire were slowly chipped away bit by bit.
The power that was to rise, was not the Christians in the north but the Muslim sultanate – the Ottoman Turkish sultanate.
Founded in the small city of Bursa, the name Ottoman comes from the founding king of the Dynasty, Osman I, ruler of the House of Osman – whose arabicised name was Othman. The house was formed in 1299 when Osman I became king and drew people to him. Among his followers were nomadic Asiatic Turks, Greeks, disaffected peoples of the Byzantine Empire and a multitude of races. Few historical data sources credibly explain how the Ottomans grew except for the fact that by the end of Osman I’s reign, Ottoman rule had already stretched from Anatolia to the Balkans.*
Piece by piece important cities in the Balkans and Aegean were picked up – Bursa (1326), Thessaloniki (1387), Kosovo (1389). These conquest began to encircle the major prize – Constantinople.
Even though most of the lands of the Byzantine Empire had no switched hands, the heavily fortified city of Constantinople was a significant challenge. Many others had tried and failed.
It was in 1453, that the gates of Constantinople finally gave way, and the Byzantine Empire was effectively overthrown. Sultan Mehmed II marched his soldiers into this prized land. The prize of a city was finally in Ottoman hands, and a serious Empire had now a important metropolis to call its own. Constantinople when the Ottomans marched in, was a shadow of its former self, but from the ashes was a city that had the potential to shine brightly again.
The Ottoman Empire knew only one real path from that point on – expansion. It expanded all the way till Budapest in the north, Athens in the west, Jerusalem in the south, stopping short of Vienna in Europe and the then-baren lands that now make up Qatar.
A large empire, needed a grand palace to call its own. Barely 6 years after conquering Constantinople, Mehmed (know given the epithet, the Conqueror), he announced the construction of a New Palace. Mehmed was hands on with the construction, playing a key role in deciding where different structures should be. The structure was atypical of European palaces or even Asian ones making it a unique site. The palace was constructed in a way to give maximum seclusion and privacy to members of the royal family.
This palace was full of intrigue and drama, the Empire may have been muslim in origin, but it was also a very human place for of lust and politics. Perhaps none more so dramatic than during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificant, who was not a transformative Sultan but who ushered in the golden age of the empire (and with it the most luxurious time in the empire).
The reign of Suleiman has been mythologized and became the backdrop of some amazing dramas, such as this 2011 series Magnificent Century.
The palace was the home of the Ottomans, but the redo of the city had only just began…
*It might surprise you to know that the House of Osman still exists, although the whole family has been exiled from Turkey since 1922 when the Sultanate was abolished and currently lives in exile
ON THE MAP