Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Life of Mara Brankovic

In the words of historian Donald Nicol, "Mara Brankovic was one of the most remarkable products of the melting pot of ruling families that banded together for survival in the Balkans during and after the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century."

Born around 1416, she was the eldest daughter of Durad Brankovic, whom had been anointed Despot of Serbia in 1429 by Emperor John VIII but who ruled under sufferance of the Sultan. He played a hazardous game, pretending to be their faithful vassal while trying to build up a Christian coalition against the Turkish tide. He built the fortress of Smederevo on the Danube near Belgrade, the last capital of medieval Christian Serbia.

Nicol states that Mara's mother was the sister of the Trebizond Emperor, John Komnenos, however he does not attribute a source for this and it appears unlikely for a number of reasons, the main being that there is no record of a Komnenos princess marrying a Serbian Despot from the Trebizond records or any mention of it in other sources. 

The more commonly given genealogy for Mara's mother is Eirene Kantacuzenos, of the  Byzantine noble family. She is named as the mother of Brankovic's other children. Their marriage is recorded as being in 1414. 

One feature of Durad's reign was the increasing number of Byzantines at his court. Partly this was due to his marriage to a scion of the Kantacuzenoi but in addition, the fall of Thessaloniki in 1430 saw a huge influx from that region, the Kantacuzenoi heartland. Mara's Kantacuzenoi uncle, Thomas, was in command of Durad's army for much of his rein and in 1457, during the quasi-civil war that followed Durad's death, Thomas was in Mara's entourage that sought shelter at the Ottoman court. He was still among her household when he died in 1463. It is through this enduring Kantacuzenoi influence that Mara's link to the Byzantine culture can be traced.

In 1431, Durad Brankovic concluded a peace treaty with Sultan Murad II by agreeing to give his eldest daughter as a bride. (Another reason the Nicol assertion is unlikely is that Mara would be nineteen based on his dates - rather old to be unmarried or to appeal to the Sultan in this sort of arrangement). The marriage took place in 1435 at which point Mara joined his three other wives in the harem. She bore him no children (he had 9 by his other wives) and rumours from the time held that the marriage was never consummated. 

Mara appears to have had a close relationship with Murad's son, the future Sultan Mehmed II. Mehmed's own mother died two years before he came to the throne on a permanent basis in 1451 and throughout his reign he is recorded as showing special honour to Mara, his mother-substitute. She held the title of Valide Sultan, or Mother to the Sultan - a venerated position that made her top dog in the harem. She was also allowed to maintain her own estate at Daphni at the foot of the holy mountain of Mount Athos. She seems to have had a great deal of freedom of movement in the years following her husband's death, appearing in both Constantinople, Serbia and Daphni. From there she acted as a bridge between East and West and was instrumental in arranging peace talks between Venice and the Porte throughout the Long War. Her involvement in these diplomatic schemes seems quite remarkable for a woman in the 15th century. Clearly Mehmed valued her opinion but she is lauded as well by the state records of Venice. When peace finally did arrive in 1479, Mara played a full part in the go betweens.

Remarkably (but not uniquely - her Byzantine peers in the Persian court did likewise), Mara retained her Christian faith even after marriage. Furthermore, in the years following the conquest of Constantinople she became an active defender of the religious interests of the Greek Christian population. On several occasions she intervened to try and thwart corruption in the office of the Patriarchate. In 1466 Symeon successfully obtained the Patriarchal throne after he paid the Grand Vizier's faction 2000 pieces of goldMara was outraged by the simoniac action of Symeon, and she went to Constantinople to complain to Mehmed. In response to her requests, and to a donation by her of 2000 pieces of gold, the Sultan deposed Symeon and appointed to the Patriarchate the candidate of Mara, Dionysius. Similarly in 1474 the Holy Synod also accepted to pay an annual fee of 2000 florins to the Ottoman state - effectively putting the office of the Patriarch up for saleOn his return to Constantinople in early 1475, Symeon was outbid by Raphael I, probably supported & funded by Mara. 

In 1459 the Sultan granted to Mara full possession of the Monastery of St Sophia in Thessalonica and all its revenues. Mara's Christian work extended to the recovery of Holy relics and their return to monasteries and churches in the west. In 1469 she arrange for the bones of John of Rila to be returned to Rila monastery. More controversially, In 1463, she is credited with the recovery of the bones of Luke the Evangelist from Bosnia to Venice. This was a pet project of the new Doge, Christoforo Moro who was rebuilding the church of San Giobbe and wanted the saint enshrined there. Embarrassingly, the Benedictine monks of Padua had been venerating bones of the same Saint Luke for centuries and they enacted a legal challenge to the veracity of the recovered relic. Later history seems to strengthen their case. The Padua relic was tested in recent years and showed them to be of the correct vintage to be the saint. If the San Giobbe bones were a fraud, did Mara know?

An unusual footnote to her history was the incident in 1451 when, newly widowed, she became briefly a candidate to wed the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. He had been married twice and lost each without producing an heir. The imperial advisors considered a number of ladies as suitable Empresses, possibly Anna Notaras among them. When Mara came on the matrimonial market, some thought she was the ideal choice. The matter was put to her father who welcomed the idea. It would have made Mara unique - the wife of both Sultan & Emperor. She firmly declined to have anything to do with the idea. She vowed to live a chaste and celibate life from the rest of her days but she did not - as was common for widows of her station - become a nun. She resisted another marriage proposal in 1454 from Jan Jiskra, the Czech mercenary captain who would arrest Vlad Dracula in 1463.  

Mara died at Daphni in September 1487. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017



As context, a summary of some events in the year leading up to the Fall of Constantinople:

Kuwae, a large volcano off Vanuatu in the Pacific erupts. The event released an enormous amount of sulfur and is credited with causing a global cooling event. It is also one explanation for the unusual and extreme weather conditions which blighted Constantinople in its final six months and gave rise to a tangible sense of doom.  

Byzantine ambassador to Venice reports a massive build-up of Ottoman troops in preparation for an assault and begs assistance. He is told Venice has too much on her plate in Italy to commit to war with the Turks. 

Frederik III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. The first Habsburg Emperor, he would reign for almost 40 years. 

Leonardo da Vinci born.
Mehmed begins work on his 'Throat Cutter' castle on the Bosporus.
War flares between Venice and Milan once again but although armies take to the field there is little open battle.

Philip the Good of Burgundy officially declared war on Ghent.

Pope Nicholas V issues the bull Dum Diversas which allowed for non-Christians to be enslaved in perpetuity. It was primarily a license for the Portuguese King Alphonso V to begin the trading of slaves on the newly discovered West Africa routes if they did not swiftly convert to Christianity.

Mehmed II launches his first campaign against Skanderbeg in Albania. The initial force of 25,000 men under Hamza Pasha and Tahip Pasha is split in two, allowing the swift, smaller Albanian forces to deal with each in turn. 

Rumeli Hisar, The Throat Cutter, is completed, giving Ottoman guns full control of the Bosporus on the Black Sea side of Constantinople. 
Venice dispatches Gabriel Trevisano to Constantinople in response to defend Venetian muda convoy from the Black Sea.
A motion is tabled in Venetian senate to officially abandon Constantinople to its fate. It is rejected. 

Durad Brankovic attacks the Venetian city of Cattaro (Kotor)
Savanarola born in Ferrara

Isidore of Kiev arrives in Constantinople with a body guard of 200 Papal archers from Naples and Bishop Leonard of Chios. He is charged with officially overseeing the consecration of Hagia Sophia to the Latin creed and thus the consummation of the Union of the churches which is more of a submission of the Greek church into the Latin faith.
Birth of future Richard III of York

The Hundred Years War was drawing to a close. England sent troops under John Talbot to Guyene (Bordeaux). 

Turukhan Beg, Ottoman governor of Thessaly breaks the Hexamilion wall at the Isthmus of Corinth and raids the Peloponnese.

Byzantine ambassador in Venice is officially told that he should take his plea for aid to the Pope and that Venice had her own contingency plans. It is as close to an official abandonment as la Serenissima will make.

12th of December. Isidore conducts the official ceremony that consecrates Hagia Sophia as a Latin cathedral. It is abandoned from that day by the populace of Constantinople until the eve of its fall in May 1453.

Grand Pricne Vasily of Moscow establishes the Qasim (Kasimov) Khanate as a buffer client-state between his territory and the Khanate of Kazan. Qasim is one of Ghengis Khan's (many) grandsons. His Tatars will fight for Moscow and conduct raids into Kazan. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Stato da Mar

Bartolomeo Minio was Venetian official who cut his teeth during the long war with the Ottomans but whose career really spanned the post-war period. As governor (provvenditore) of Nauplia he had the tricky task of managing a Venetian enclave in the Peloponnese, surrounded by Ottoman territory. His letters and reports are preserved in the Venetian state archives. The below is a short story I wrote about Bartolomeo and an incident he recorded. It takes place shortly after the time period of the Fall Series. 

 Stato da Màr

It was Sunday and Bartolomeo Minio - although not the most religious of men - was especially fond of the Sabbath. Sundays had an order to themselves and he was a man who appreciated routine above all else. Routine was the delicate thread which held together the empire Venice had strung across half the middle sea; routine brought the spice galleys each August, bearing their precious cargo on to the republic; routine sent other carracks and caravels crisscrossing the waters with cloth to sell in Cyprus, mastic gum for Otranto or good timber for the Knights on Rhodes. Without routine there would be chaos. But unfortunately for Bartolomeo, Venetian provveditore of the tiny enclave of Napoli di Romania, chaos was a way of life in this hot and dusty corner at the southern tip of Greece.
Two years prior, when his posting to the Morea had begun, it had been a delicate moment for the republic and its colonies. The ink was hardly dry on an inadequate treaty ending the long, mindless war between Venice and the Sublime Porte, and the fortified Venetian outposts, which dotted bays and headlands of Greece from Kerkyra to Modon to this little cove the locals called Nauplia, were all as much islands in a mainland Ottoman sea as the archipelago that speckled the Turk-infested Aegean. Be on guard, they had told him - the Turks eyed the Venetian ports as they did a cluster of sweet cherries and if they did not try to pluck little Napoli this year it did not mean they were not ready to, should the chance ever ripen.
That Sunday, as always, Bartolomeo had attended mass at Panagia with his wife Elena. Of course it was the Greek faith they kept there, not his own Latin creed but it was proper, he strongly believed, that the town governor be seen to partake in the rituals of his flock.
In addition he used it as a chance to take the weekly pulse of local opinion and have his ear bent by certain town matriarchs who felt he could solve, somehow, all their petty troubles: would the provveditore not do something about the many youth who spent their days idling about the town square? Perhaps - these veiled ladies would suggest - he might press the boys into physical labour. Perhaps there was another wall to be built? Alas, the walls were now in good repair and there was no call for the licensed banditry which had sustained their fathers through sixteen years of war.
Perhaps then did the provveditore know when the next galley from Venice would call? No, the provveditore did not know, but when it did it had better contain the supplies and equipment he had requested on four occasions now without satisfaction.
            Sunday mass mattered greatly to the Nauplians; it was proper to be present and, if he was honest with himself, he was not immune to the pageantry of the occasion: the procession of the blushing, angelic cross-bearer flanked by two equally cherubic boys who carved the air with censers to leave in their wake a great mist of perfume. In this sweet cloud would follow the bishop and church elders in their tall black hats and brocaded robes and behind these, a long train of churchmen, buttoned to the throat in fine satin, holding aloft icons of crimson and gold or bearing the silvered coffers of holy relics and all of them calling in unison, to God, their quartertone plea for salvation.
If he was really honest with himself he would go further and admit that he had grown very fond of this country and its people. Despite the climate, the malarial air which had almost seen him to his grave during his first summer, despite the frustrations of administration and the concerns of another bad harvest, he knew that a little of Greece had seeped into his heart and altered it a degree closer to the setting of its own.
So he counted it no hardship to join in their rituals and in turn the townsfolk appreciated the sight of their governor turned out each Sunday in his best doublet, a clean high-collar shirt and good leather boots. He took pains to trim his beard and have his servant polish up his sword the night before - he knew how to make an impression on Greeks. His predecessor, they complained, had dressed like a beggar on the few occasions he ventured from his residence and had not a word of Homer’s tongue. 
That day after church, Bartolomeo had taken his usual walk around the walls of the town acropolis, casting a critical eye over his small domain before the onset of the afternoon migraine – one routine he could live without.
The water’s blue carpet lay unfurled on three sides, spangled with waves that had reached the cul-de-sac of the gulf and now gently gave themselves up to the coast’s long strand of gold. Closer to shore, in the mouth of the harbour, the newly built fortress of Kasteli reflected the flash of the sun from its angular stone flanks. At this distance it took on the appearance of a child’s castle of sand.
Closer, between the harbour and the foot of this steep sided citadel, a terracotta field of rooftops clustered about the town’s market square. He preferred the view of the town from this lofty perch. The ubiquitous clay tiles gave the illusion of order to the confusion of streets below and masked the shabby state many of the properties stood in; the stooping timber frames, the crumbling stonework in need of attention for which no mason could be found. He had written to Venice with a wish-list of larch planks, fir posts, large nails and small; beams and rafters and lathes. He held little expectation of anything arriving, for the Duke of Ferrara had seized the salt works at Comacchio and with it Venice’s full attention. For now the Morean colonies were on their own.
That did not overly worry Bartolomeo. He considered it something of a paternal duty as governor to bring self-sufficiency to his little protectorate. They had stone enough, harvested from the ancient sites that littered the countryside, but the nearest stone cutter was in Argos and Bartolomeo would need to convince the Turkish governor there to give him leave to come. He liked Ahmed Beg, but he was loathe to venture too far into the Ottoman Pasha’s debt.     
He sat for a time in the shade of a myrtle and breathed in its soft scent. His thoughts that day were heavy with concern for a missing boat, missing men, and the sad report he must compose on the matter. He had put it off, hopeful of miracles, but there came a point when hope became foolish. He had resolved to report the matter to Venice that afternoon and so as the first twinges of pain began to stir at his temples, he gave a last anxious glance toward the empty waters of the gulf and set off down the hill.
By mid-afternoon the weak November sunshine had capitulated behind a pearly field of cloud and a rheumatic cold had drifted in off the water. In his inadequately heated house, Bartolomeo had slept off the headache and was hunched over the town financial ledger which was four weeks in arrears. It was his clerk’s job to maintain them but his clerk had died of a flux the prior summer and the republic was yet to furnish him with a replacement.
It was his duty to dispatch every three months to Venice a written report along with the clerk’s accounts. His predecessor had only managed one report every nine but Bartolomeo insisted on sending his on time and accompanied with a fully reconciled treasury. In absence of a living clerk, he had taken the task upon himself. He was yet to have a response to any of these reports or the frequent other communications, requests, and letters home.
 His secretary, Eustacio, had the other desk in the room, over by the window with the good light and the bad draft. Eustacio, a priest’s bastard from Cannaregio, was now the only other living Venetian male in the town - a fact Bartolomeo morbidly revisited as he rubbed his neck and looked down at the words of the report he had written so far.
‘It is my solemn duty to inform the ministry of the disappearance of my contestabele, Antonio Marinato, along with sixteen of his men. Thirty-three days have passed since this party set out from Napoli in a seaworthy fusta with orders to recover the hulk of a caravel, which floundered last winter on rocks off the island of Spetses (please refer to my previous report dated January of this year). I believed - and Marinato agreed - that this wreck could be towed back up the gulf and broken apart for firewood (please refer to my previous report on the deficient supplies of heating fuel in the town). When the fusta did not return for two days, a search party was sent to Spetses but found the caravel hulk unmoved and no trace of boat or men. Before a landing party could investigate, two Turk ships were spotted and gave them chase. It is therefore my conclusion that Messer Marinato and his men fell victim to Turk pirates. These have been especially active in our waters over the past several months (please refer to my many previous reports on this matter).’
Bartolomeo put down his pen. That fusta! He shook his head and smiled at the memory. There could be no better measure of the resourcefulness of his friend Antonio Marinato than that sleek little boat.
It was only eighteen months since a sinewy figure with holes in his boots and a smile as crooked as a clipped coin marched into Napoli at the head of fifty Albanian mercenaries who, to judge by their wolfish gazes and overlong whiskers, appeared at least as dangerous as the Turks they had been hired to keep from the town.
To begin with Bartolomeo had not expected much of his new contestabele; he seemed overly young, lacking in both kit and discipline and Bartolomeo had neither requested his company of fanti nor possessed the means to pay their salaries. Despite several letters it would be many months before a boat from the lagoon brought funds and then only half the pay owed.
The expectation had therefore formed in Bartolomeo that these men would soon grow rebellious and he had steeled himself for a confrontation with their leader Antonio, but instead the man proved to be easy natured and understanding of the provveditore’s problems.
When ships put in to the harbour he would appear at the doorway of this study with a single raised eyebrow to see if the paymasters of La Serenissima had remembered their brave soldati keeping watch along the frontier of the priceless trade route. A sympathetic shake of Bartolomeo’s head was all that was required to send Antonio away with a philosophical shrug but Marinato would often return later with a jar of wine to share and show he bore no grudge.
Along with his easy nature, Marinato proved to have a sharp mind, and the long march south had hidden his men’s professionalism beneath a veneer of dust. Despite the lack of pay, the fanti did not remain idle and proved resourceful hands around the town, always ready to help mend a broken well or pull up a stubborn tree stump; so there was perhaps less surprise than there would otherwise have been when Antonio Marinato and his men sailed into port one day at the helm of a gaily painted, three mast fusta.
            Once Bartolomeo had satisfied himself that the previous owners had been Turks and more than likely employed in a rougher trade than fishing, the provveditore had chosen not to ask too many more questions about how Marinato had got his hands on the boat. Since they were no longer at war, a Venetian governor could not knowingly condone piracy of any sort.  
Still, he regretted his leniency now that it appeared God, in his divine, ironic wisdom, had chosen the illicit vessel to deliver Antonio to an untimely fate.      
Bartolomeo took up his pen once more and turned his attention back to the letter.
‘I have twice written to the Ottoman governor at Argos - whom I know to be a good man - and vigorously protested the matter, but he begs no control over the corsairs and claims to have no knowledge of any incident in the waters off Spetses. I have waited some time in hopes of gaining further news but regrettably, it now seems certain that Messer Marinato and his men are all either dead or enslaved. May God have mercy upon their souls.’
It was at this moment, as Bartolomeo Minio set down his pen, rubbed his brow and contemplated the faint smell of lamb coming from the kitchen, that the sound of heavy boots rang up the staircase, the door of his study flew wide and a grinning figure leaned against the frame with a cry of ‘Ciao ragazzi!’
It was Antonio Marinato.        
Behind him, Bartolomeo heard his secretary blaspheme; he shared the sentiment but as a patrician, mastered his surprise. Instead he made sure his mouth was not gaping and stood to meet the offered embrace of his lost contestabele. Then he picked up the report from his writing desk and theatrically tore it into quarters. ‘I shall have to write a new one,’ he said.
Marinato came into the room and deftly perched himself on the table’s corner. He was followed by a second man, who neither spoke nor was introduced by the contestabele. This second guest had the tanned complexion and salt-scoured features of a mariner and there was the shyness of a fish out of water in the glance he cast toward the Venetian governor in his fine doublet. He lingered by the doorframe, stroking his whiskers as a priest might worry a rosary.
Bartolomeo said, ‘I shall have to write a new one and explain to the ministry that the disappearance of the republic’s dear citizen Marinato - the recovery of whom we have been spending precious diplomatic capital upon - owed nothing to Ottoman aggression but a sudden need to hide from a husband. Unless I miss my guess and you have a better explanation?’ He was still smiling but Marinato would not miss the bass note of irritation in his voice.
‘Oh, be sure I have a story,’ said Marinato.
The provveditore did not doubt it.
‘Pirates?’ Eustacio said from the window.
A smile spread across Marinato’s face like butter in a hot pan. ‘Pirates, oh yes! Boatfuls of them. Before we ever reached the island they had our little fusta covered by their guns. We could do nothing but hove to and pray.’
‘You didn’t fight?’ said Bartolomeo. It sounded unkind even to himself but it was his hand that counted out the salaries of these men - men who were paid to fight Turks - and he felt at that moment an overwhelming sense of having been short changed.
Marinato carelessly shrugged. ‘They had bombast and we did not. The alternative wasn’t fighting, it was dying. They gave us another choice shortly thereafter. Their captain turned out to be a pious man and felt it his duty to pillage souls for Allah as much as he did bounty for his Sultan. Once they had come aboard and put us under guard he offered each of us our freedom if we converted to his faith and joined his crew. Some of those dogs could not wait to put on a Mahomeddian turban but I’m a good son of the church and I did not flinch towards Mecca.’
‘How many of your men took up this offer to become Muslim pirates?’ said Bartolomeo. He had picked up a new sheet of paper and begun to take notes.
Marinato said, ‘All of them. All of them except Antonio Marinato!’ He proudly prodded a thumb into his puffed-out chest.
‘Which must have presented the pious pirate captain with something of a problem,’ said Bartolomeo. ‘One Christian head and a well-used fusta was not much of a prize. He cannot have foreseen such widespread enthusiasm for the crescent.’
Crossing the room, Marinato helped himself to Eustacio’s pot of warmed wine. ‘He might have done,’ he said, wiping his chin. ‘When you looked closely under the turbans of his crew there were few real Turks to be found. But yes, all they had to show for their effort was a leaky boat and me, and even I would not put my value beyond forty ducats on the local auction block. Their optimistic captain thought I might fetch four thousand aspers in the Chios slave market so he instructed some of his men to take me there in the fusta.’
‘Well now,’ said Bartolomeo, ‘that seems a short sail to double a man’s value.’
Marinato said, ‘He should have heeded Aesop. Much can happen on the shortest of voyages. For instance a man might talk to his captors and learn that the land on the southern horizon is Crete, where their mothers had birthed them. A man might see the thirst for home in their eyes and guess that the life of a Muslim pirate had not proven all they might have once hoped; a man might guess that they had arrived into it in a manner not unlike his own former crew.’
‘They were Candians?’ Bartolomeo said with surprise.
‘Homesick Candians,’ Marinato said with a nod. ‘Guilt-riven, regretful Candians who feared they had endangered their souls to follow a mutton-headed captain in an unprofitable trade.’
‘So they let you go?’
‘Ha! Not even the devil has such luck,’ said Marinato. ‘No, the boat continued to Chios but we began to haggle. I struck the deal within sight of the slave market, God be praised. My freedom in exchange for fifty ducats, a letter of good character from a respected Venetian official to the Governor of Candia and the arrangement of an abjuration with an open-minded Greek priest. Neither party seemed much interested in the fusta.’
Bartolomeo looked up from his note taking. ‘Antonio, where does a half-starved soldati, who has not received so much as a silver tornesello in six months, find fifty ducats whilst under conveyance to the slave auction block?’
Marinato grinned. ‘I undertook a loan.’
‘Not from any bank, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Bartolomeo. There was a momentum to Marinato’s tale that seemed to him to be heading with unstoppable force in a particular direction and he was not at all sure he liked it.
‘No. Not from any bank,’ Marinato said. ‘From the pirates themselves. I took the liberty of assuming the republic would underwrite my credit.’
‘You took the…oh no.’ Bartolomeo stopped his note taking and reached for a fresh sheaf of paper. He had a strong suspicion he was about to write another letter.
Marinato had put down the empty pot of wine and said, ‘Do you happen to know if the bishop is in town?’ He was already moving towards the doorway.
Bartolomeo thought of the morning procession; of the innocent boys, the icons and relics and all the high pageantry of the rite. He looked at his contestabele, in his patched hose and dirtied shirt and thought of another procession he had once seen; wretched men chained and beaten across the Argolid plane towards an auction block where the call of strangers would set their life’s worth. That was a fate he could blame no man from avoiding. He wondered if the bishop had known only incense. He wondered if the bishop could reconcile those two worlds into one; he himself could not.
‘Yes, I expect the bishop is hereabouts,’ Bartolomeo said as he wrote out the Governor of Candia’s name.
‘I shall give him your regards,’ said Marinato. He had stopped at the threshold and placed a hand firmly on the shoulder of his silent companion. ‘Oh, and Bartolomeo, would you be so kind as to pay this fine gentleman his fifty ducats.’

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Great Pretender

Exiled pretenders were a reality of just about every throne in the middle ages. Prior to the fall there had been a 'Prince Osman' living in Constantinople (and the treat by Constantine XI of releasing him from house arrest was one pretext Mehmed used to justify his attack). One of the little known pretenders of history is the case of 'Callixtus Ottomanus' a mysterious figure who floated at the periphery of events for around fifteen years. He first is mentioned in June 1456 when Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, received a report of a young boy supposedly brother to Sultan Mehmed and said to have been entrusted to a Latin Knight, one Giovanni Torcello by the Grand Vizier, Halil Candarli. The boy had come into the hands of agents of Pope Calixtus III, and reached Venice that spring. 

From Venice he was taken to the Apennine fortress of Spoleto. In a work appearing in 1458, Candarli Halil Pasha is credited with a role in sending the boy to Italy. The truth or otherwise of this remains unknowable, but it has a certain amount of logic to it. Candarli was a court maneuverer par excellence. It seems very likely that he had tried (and largely failed) to make Mehmed his puppet and so perhaps saw a pretender in reserve as a prudent fallback. This is, of course, baseless speculation but the boy clearly arrived with some sort of provenance. 

The European rulers through whose hands he moved over a two decade period seem to have made little real effort to press the putative claim to the Ottoman throne. This is perhaps not surprising - their focus was to reinstall the Byzantine heirs. In that regard the existence of a pretender was a little more than a negotiation counter or - should military events go their way - a tame-Turk to pop on the throne in Bursa once the dust had settled. Bayezid Osman remained in Spoleto until 1459, when - having been christened Callixtus Ottomanus - he was taken by Pope Pius II on his progress through Italy, culminating in the congress of Mantua, at which a crusade to recover Constantinople was proclaimed. 

Bottom Right of picture: Callixtus Ottomanus

In 1464 the Pope again paraded his charge in public: he had the boy, now sixteen, bid farewell to the fleet setting off from Ancona against the Ottomans, a scene commemorated in a fresco by Pinturicchio in Duomo of Siena. Then disaster struck, the Pope died before the fleet could depart and the whole Crusade was put on ice. The next year Bayezid Osman / Callixtus Ottomanus, was in Venice - the new hotspot for Crusade- before moving on to the court of King Corvinus in Buda. The long war failed to make progress towards unseating Mehmed and by 1473 Bayezid Osman was at the Viennese court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III who was famously fascinated with Turkish style - particularly dress. Bayezid Osman toured around his domains in the imperial retinue like an exotic beast. In 1474 he married an Austrian noblewoman, and subsequently disappeared from history's view. 

We have no certainty over the veracity of his claim. Mehmed had supposedly had his brothers all killed long before 1456 but it is possible that the far-seeing Candarli smuggled one away. It may be more likely that Candarli simply invented the claim - one sweep of his signature was all it would take once Murad was dead - to bestow the lineage of Osman upon a suitably pliable child and place him into the hands of Mehmed's enemies. Deep down, perhaps the Christian kings suspected the dubiousness of the claim. In any case a better pretender soon came along once Mehmed died in 1481. 

Prince Cem lost the power struggle for inheritance with his brother Bayezid. In 1482 he fell into the hands of the Knights of Rhodes. Here was a candidate for the Ottoman throne who's claim was indisputable. There is no record of Callixtus Ottomanus after 1474. Perhaps he simply died or perhaps he settled down into quiet domestic bliss with his Austrian wife and was thankful for it - the life of a pretender was a precarious existence as Prince Cem discovered in 1495 when, shortly after transferring to the care of the French King, he died - poisoned, rumour had it, at the behest of his brother by a slow acting poison some say applied on a straight razor by his Turkish barber, others point the finger at the Borgias.  

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Life of Anna Notaras

Anna Notaras was the daughter of the last Megas Doux of Constantinople, Loukas Notaras. Her father is remembered both for his court rivalry with George Sphrantzes and his opposition to Emperor Constantine’s policy of ‘reuniting’ (subverting) the Orthodox church with the Latin church – better the Turkish Turban than the Latin Mitre – he is said to have proclaimed but he was clearly under no illusions as to what the Turkish Turban in his city would actually mean and had widely arranged for much of his wealth and some of his family to be removed to the safety of Italy before the city fell and he was executed.
Following the fall of Constantinople, Anna therefore found herself the inheritor of an ample fortune but unlike some of the other surviving Byzantine nobles, such as Constantine’s wastrel brother Thomas Palaiologos, she did not spend her exile squandering it. Instead, Anna Notaras became a pillar of the Greek exile community, first in Rome and more permanently in Venice.

Venice embraced a great many of Constantinople’s refugees but with only a pragmatic warmth. The Republic, now painfully aware of the growing threat the Turks posed to their own interests, was quick to use Greek and Albanian stradiots in its long war from 1463 to 1479 and the rollcall of these mercenaries reads like a who’s who of late-Byzantine noble houses but within la Serenissima, the Venetians were less keen on overt Greek-identity, in particular the Orthodox church which was the very core of Byzantine identity. 

It was Anna who petitioned the Republic to allow the construction of an Orthodox church within Venice (something not granted until 1539) and when the Council of Ten prevaricated, it was Anna who badgered them into a compromise. She was granted permission to build an oratory within her own sizable Casa and hold Orthodox services within it from 1475. There the flame of Greek Orthodoxy in Venice flickered until San Giorgio dei Greci was finally built, almost a hundred years after the fall. To this day, three of its treasured icons were gifted to it from the estate of Anna Notaras, who had brought them with her from Constantinople.

Anna’s efforts did not end with her preservation of her religion. It is believed she was a close friend of Cardinal Bessarion, perhaps – as historian Donald Nicol speculates – it was into Bessarion’s care that the young Anna was first placed by her father in 1453. Bessarion is rightly famous for the hoard of Classical Greek manuscripts and books in his collection (donated in 1468 to the people of Venice). Anna too played an important role in the preservation and dissemination of ancient knowledge salvaged from the fires of her city. In 1470 she acquired a 12th century manuscript Catena of Job written for the Grand Duke of Cyprus. 

Later, in 1499, the first exclusively Greek printing press in Venice began operation under the direction of Zacharis Kalliergis. The first product off the press was the Etymologiucum Magnum and the dedication at the front thanks the ‘most modest lady Anna, daughter of…Loukas Notaras’ who had defrayed its cost. Nicholas Vlastos is often credited with patronising the Greek printing presses of Venice but Vlastos was the factor of Anna Notaras – he was merely an agent for the noble, wealthy lady.

Her work towards preserving the Byzantine / Greek identity through the first turbulent decades of its exile extended beyond the academic and religious sphere to the material as well. Another of her projects was an attempt to create a self-ruled Byzantine colony within Italy. In around 1472 she began negotiations with the Commune of Siena to take possession of the old castle of Montauto and the lands surrounding it. A draft contract was made which allowed Anna to oversee 100 Greek families in a self-governing community. It is unclear exactly why the project never progressed beyond this point but one point of interest from the negotiations is the fact that Anna is referred to as Anna Notaras Paleologina and from this grew the legend that she had been betrothed to the last Emperor. In reality, the styling in the contractual document was likely a political ploy to give the commune the polish of imperial legitimacy. 

She never married, nor became a nun – a somewhat unusual position for a woman of that era but given her wealth she had no material need to make a marriage and appears to have enjoyed her independence. She refused to learn Latin, a point noted by one diarist at her death in 1507. There are no firm dates for her birth, but she would have been at least seventy years old and had outlived not only the other notable exiles of her era but the bane of her youth, Mehmed II. Her achievements demonstrate that men and institutions in fifteenth century Italy were capable of working with and indeed for women under certain circumstances. Her achievements in the fields of politics, religion, book printing were noteworthy by the standards of anyone in that era, the fact they were achieved despite the social disadvantages of her sex suggest she was a woman of quite extraordinary character.  

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

What Mehmed did next


Mehmed II entered through the Adrianople gate into Constantinople as Fetih (Conqueror) sometime on the morning of 29th May 1453. It had been a close run thing but to the victor goes the spoils and to Mehmed went the capital of the Byzantine Empire, 'the Red Apple' which Muslim armies had tried and failed to snatch on so many previous occasions.

His actions over the forthcoming days were an intriguing and enigmatic mix of mercy and brutality and this brief period perhaps records best the full spectrum of a brilliant and complicated man.

In his moment of triumph, as he walked through the crumbling remains of the Boukoleon palace he is reputed to have quoted the Persian poet Saardi,

'The spider weaves his curtains

in the palace of the Caesars;

The owl calls the watches

in the towers of Afrasiab'

We see here the cultured poet Mehmed, a man who enjoyed writing delicate verse and hoovered up whatever he could read about predecessor civilizations such as Persia, Greece and Rome. A man who respected the wonders of the civilisation he was replacing and aspired to embrace and emulate aspects of them much in the manner that Alexander had in his conquest of Persia. This is the Mehmed who would shortly ride to the reputed ruins of Troy to inform the ghosts of Hector and Priam that he had avenged them.

It is interesting also to note that Mehmed's instructions prior to that final attack related to how his soldiers should conduct themselves once the defenses fell. Muslim laws of conquest stipulate that an invading army is entitled to three days of looting and plunder once a defiant city is breached. There is no suggestion that Mehmed wanted to reign in his men's baser appetites after 53 days of tough fighting but even had he wanted to it would have been beyond even his authority. Instead he made it clear that the fabric of the city - the churches, palaces and government chancelleries - were to be his booty and his men could take what they wished of the rest. When he arrived at Hagia Sophia to find a disobedient solider cracking apart a mosaic he had the man killed on the spot. The contemporary chronicler Cristoboulos (who some consider an apologist) has him weeping at the sight of the ransack:

'What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction'

The plan had always been to put on the robes of Caesar and create a third Rome by usurping the authority along with the lands of the Byzantines. It is rare for an invader to intend from the very start to inhabit the target city and put aside his own capital but this was not the first time an Ottoman Sultan had done so. When Adrianople fell in 1369 to Murad I he moved his capital there (renaming it Edirne) from Bursa. A symbolic crossing of the Hellespont by the Ottoman court. This time, however, Mehmed did not waste any time at all in declaring Constantinople his capital whereas it had taken a period of months or even years (the exact date of Adrianople's fall is still a matter of dispute) for Murad to do the same. Other than the location and the history, perhaps the thing which seduced Mehmed most about Constaintople was Hagia Sophia.

The other great buildings of the Byzantine glory days were largely ruins but the great church was still a functioning, impressive wonder - just as it remains today. Before the fires were out, work began on a wooden minaret and the other bare necessities to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The city fell on a Tuesday and by Friday prayers of that week the switch had taken place.

Mehmet did not restrict his religious attention to his own faith. He was aware of the importance of the Orthodox faith to his newly acquired citizens and he, like his father, followed a policy of religious freedom among his subjects. He knew that to hold Constantinople he needed to control the church and so on the 1st June he appointed a new Patriarch. His choice is an interesting one.

Gennadius Scholarius was something of an aging firebrand. Importantly he was the most vocal opponent of the Church Union, the policy of ending the schism with the Latin church and subverting the primacy of the Patriarch to the Pope. Emperor Constantine had formalised this union in December 1452 in the hope of sparking a crusade to relieve his city. That gamble had been hugely unpopular at the time and it had failed to produce anything in return. By appointing Gennadius, Mehmet signaled to the population his respect for the independence of the Orthodox faith and the rejection of the union. It was a politically savvy move and suggests a great deal of homework had taken place prior to the siege - exactly the sort of post invasion nation-building lacking in the second Iraq war.

On the same day, 1st June 1453, Mehmed beheaded his Grand Vizier, Halil Candarli. It seems an incredibly impulsive act and strange when one considers that execution had not taken place for any Byzantine or Italian prisoners at this stage. It can only have been as premeditated as the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Why would a victorious Sultan wish the death of his most senior adviser in his moment of triumph? The answers lie in the years leading up to 1453.

To achieve what many had tried and none had accomplished - the Conquest of Constantinople - at the tender age of 21 might give the impression of a smooth, meteoric rise but Mehmed's path was not the same as Alexander the Great. He was the third son of Sultan Murad II and never the favourite but when he was 5 years old his elder brother died suddenly. Then when Mehmet was 11 years old his other brother, Alaeddin Ali, was murdered (many are speculated to have been responsible, from Mara Brankovic to Halil Candarli, but the killer, Kara Hizar Pasha, never revealed his motive). Elevated suddenly to heir presumptive he was made Sultan just fifteen months later when his father - still heart broken over the death of Alaeddin Ali - abdicated. Murad's Grand Vizier, Halil Candarli, was made regent for the 12 year old Sultan - and clearly didn't want the job, he wanted his old Sultan back and one way or another he was just two months later, leading the Ottoman army at the battle of Varna before immediately handing the reigns back. The young Sultan and his regent clashed several times over the coming two years, often over the subject of attacking Constantinople, which Halil Candarli strongly counselled against. In 1446 a mutiny broke out among Janissary troops in Edirne demanding higher pay. Mehmet capitulated and Murad was recalled from retirement to steady the ship of state.

When Murad died in 1451, it was a surprise, given their previous tempestuous working relationship, that Halil Candarli should be reconfirmed by Mehmet as his Grand Vizier. The story goes that when he was first summoned to an audience with the new Sultan Halil hung back in fear until Mehmet called him forward and embraced him.

Hindsight suggests Mehmet was keeping his friends close and enemies closer. His actions on 1st June 1453 in this context seem that of someone who wanted his doubters to see his triumph before they paid the ultimate price for previously undermining him. It is also possible that Mehmet suspected Halil Candarli of being in concert with the Byzantines. His opposition to the war was such that his nickname at the Erdine court was 'the Greek'. Leonard of Chios reported that Loukas Notaras told Mehmet that Candarli had sent numerous letters to Emperor Constantine and urged him to stand firm.

Mehmet was not done with his executions though. Two days after Halil Candarli met his death, the Megas Doux, Loukas Notaras was executed along with two of his sons. With the Emperor dead, Notaras was the most senior living Byzantine. That might seem motive enough but the mystery surrounding his end is the sudden change of heart Mehmet appears to have undergone.

Initially Mehmet seems to have honoured Notaras and is quoted as meeting his wife and consoling her on the fall of her city, 'Mother, do not weep. I shall give to your people far more than I have taken.' His attitude changed by the 3rd of June and the reasons vary according to several different accounts, none of them from witnesses. The most lurid tale has Mehmet taking a shine to the teenage son of Loukas Notaras and ordering the Megas Doux to send him the boy for his harem. Whilst Mehmet's is considered by many to have been bisexual (with Vlad Dracula's brother, Radu, most often given as the Sultan's long term lover) this particular story to me has the ring of salaciousness about it. The source, Doukas, is prone to exaggeration and was writing for a contemporary audience who viewed Mehmet as a bogeyman figure. It is possible that this version is based on the actual event - perhaps Notaras, who was famously devoutly Orthodox, objected to his son being forced to convert to Islam - as the sons of many other Ottoman enemies did. Alternatively it could be, as Edward Gibbon believed, that Mehmet uncovered an intrigue involving Notaras - some have suggested embezzlement. Finally it could simply be that having taken stock of the persons at his disposal, Mehmet judged Notaras more of a danger than a help in bringing the Byzantine population to heel. The following day around 30 other Byzantine nobles were executed. Assuming these all didn't have sons bound for the harem, this might suggest Notaras was the first of a purge.

After a lifetimes preparation and a brutal 53 day siege, one might have forgiven a conqueror from resting on his laurels or at least enjoying a few days of debauched celebration but instead Mehmet's first five days in Constantinople were a whirlwind of deliberate, premeditated action which encompassed the religious and political aspects of both Greek and Ottoman camps. It was the action of a man of destiny for whom The Fall was only the beginning of his burning ambitions.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

On this day in 1453...

29th May 1453, as FDR might have said, "a date which will live in infamy". The Roman Empire ends (although it has been something more and less than 'Roman' for centuries at this point).

Around three hours before dawn the final assault of the 53 day siege began. The first wave were irregulars and Azap conscripts. Cannon fodder in other words with little or no protection from the iron greeting that spat from the crossbows of the defenders as they charged the filled-in ditch of the Fosse. No official casualty figures were made but we can estimate thousands fell in that initial rush. Sultan Mehmed hardly cared, the purpose was to exhaust the defenders. Next he sent better trained and armed troops - his Sipahi. These fared little better. One must feel a degree of sorrow for the Sipahi, they were cavalry troops and no very suited to what they were being asked to do here. The final attack, several hours into the assault, were the elite Janissary. Even with this unceasing pressure the defenders appear to have not buckled until their General, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, was struck by a bullet that penetrated his armour. Mortally wounded he told his adjutant John Dalmata to unlock the postern and get him to his ship.

It's important to note that most of the hand to hand combat has occurring in a very narrow section of the three mile wall called the Mesotechion. This area had seen the focus of the cannon barrage and the walls there were reduced to basically rubble and a hastily built stockade of barrels and anything else the desperate defenders could arrange. Prior to this assault, the Genoese mercenary troops and the Emperor's elite bodyguard had taken position in this area and locked the postern gates to their rear. Thus making the psychological statement of no retreat, stand or die. Giustiniani's action betrayed that mindset and triggered a complete collapse. Seeing their leader being carried from the field, the Genoese (who made up the majority of armoured troops) bolted after him. A stampede crushed several in the narrow postern gateway and this area became a massacre.

Tradition has it that this was the moment that Janissaries in another section of the wall (close to the Blachernae palace section where the double walls become a single set) discovered a postern (the Kerkoporta) had been left open (deliberately or not). As morale in the Mesotechion collapsed, the first Turk banners mounted the towers at the Kerkoporta and the Emperor, seeing the day lost, threw himself onto the swords of the Janissary as they broke the last resistance at the Mesotechion stockade.

From there the sack of the city began. The surviving Genoese and Venetians fled to their boats and some managed to escape, including the mortally wounded Giustiniani. They were able to do so largely because the Ottoman navy had abandoned its blockade to join in the looting of the city.

Under Islamic laws of conquest, soldiers were entitled to three days of unchecked looting (ie. the time between the fall and the fourth dawn) when a city fell in such a way. Even had he wished to, Mehmed could not have allowed things differently but it should be noted that he did specify that the buildings of the city were to be his prize and were not to be burned. Thus the sack of Constantinople in 1453 was probably less destructive than the prior one by Crusaders in 1204. Legend has it that Mehmed found a disobedient soldier hacking at a mosaic as he arrived at Hagia Sophia and had the man promptly hung.

Legend also has the Sultan entering the great church and uttering lines of a long forgotten Persian poem: "The Spider weaves his curtain in the palace of Caesars, the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasaib". Given Mehmed's own poetic output there's every chance he was moved to the lyrical by his achievement.