As an example, let’s refer to a classic Western example: The collapse and “fall” of Byzantium. The wording of collapse and fall insinuates a negative connotation or meaning. In other words, Byzantium was taken from the “West,” but through another lens perhaps we can better understand how it was saved, by a hero, instead.
Fatih Mehmet II took the throne and became a sultan at the mere age of 12. By 21, he had organized a conquest of one of the most impressive and key footholds of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. Prior to the conquest, the population of Constantinople dwindled to 50,000 people. At its peak the population of Constantinople was up to ten times large than the size of Rome! People lived in Constantinople and the city thrived as center of trade, prosperity and religion. However after 1204, Constantinople struggled to assert the same kind of dominance that it once had. The culture and city that was founded by the Roman Holy Emperor Constantine, was losing its influence in the early modern world and the Ottomans led by Mehmet as their leader would be the heir to their crumbling empire.
It’s often presented in Western literature that Mehmet cruelly took the city of Constantinople in a siege that tragically led to its collapse, demise and downfall, but another perspective might see how Mehmet salvaged the remnants of a city that was losing its influence in the greater Mediterranean world. In May 1453, Mehmet claimed the walled city of Constantinople, but what’s key about this conquest is understanding how the “Fatih,” meaning conqueror, rebuilt this city that was on the brink of disaster. Mehmet was interested preserving the city, its economy and its people’s traditions, even if those traditions differed from his own. Moreover, with a more optimistic narrative, one might see how Mehmet reshaped the city and transformed it to include diverse peoples and how he kept alive many historical traditions and monuments – an unthinkable outcome based on many popular approaches to conquest at the time. (a hem, Mongols…)
Mehmet’s conquest and transformation of the city was unique. For example, as I mentioned earlier, he famously noted how the “buildings are mine!” This bold statement requires some understanding. Mehmet was not interested in demolishing what remained of a Byzantine past, he was interested in restructuring the society and attaching new meaning told ‘old’ monuments. The transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and the integration of the “Golden Gate” into the walled city were examples of how he intended to preserve the history of a conquered people, and reshape the history for a more prosperous and bright future.
This strategy was applied culturally to the diverse groups living in the empire as well. For example, Christians continued to worship with relative freedom. The Orthodox Patriarch still remains a part of Istanbul today, and during the time of Mehmet, Christians congregated, venerated icons even had some political influence in terms of taxation within millets. Similarly, The practice of devishirme, promoted non-Muslims to higher executive privileges in the empire, and while this idea of religious tolerance was rigid and inflexible in some ways, compared to the degree of persecution in parts of Europe during the time, the Muslims, who considered Jews and Christians “People of the Book,” granted them rights, privileges and representation in the government, which was unlike many other parts of the world at the time.
In trade, Mehmet developed a unique strategy to compete and thrive in markets that favored societies with nautical advantages. Mehmet the conqueror was met with a challenge: how can he transform his military into a navy that can compete with Venetians, who have more adept skills and weaponry? Mehmet, strategized about how to maintain the economic life of what was once Constantinople by understanding that trade and alliances with Italian city states, like Venice and Genoa, were crucial to his success. In doing so, he offered opportunities for to continued trade with Italy, despite difficulties after a series of wars between the Italian city-states and the Ottomans. He boldly adapted to new technology of the time and utilized ‘big’ boats like galleys to compete with trading rivals. Additionally, he remained aware of the advantages from trade and instead of punishing his rivals, he opted to create opportunities to stimulate more trade and prosperity.
Mehmet remained steadfastly aware of public and private spaces within in the city too, and he rebuilt a new imperial image for the Ottoman empire. To achieve this, he restructured the government bureaucracy and built many public works projects including the construction of several mosques. Within these mosques, community thrived as soup kitchens extended wealth to the less fortunate and schools educated young boys. He also moved the Imperial capital to Topaki palace, which further drew distinctions about his “kingly” role within the society.
Case in point: narratives and point of view change and adapt to the point of view of the historical ‘seer;’ the trick is to see where the lines are blurred and challenge those assumptions to better understand who the true heroes and villains really are.