The Byzantine Empire had been in severe decline at the time of its conquest in 1453. Even though Constantinople was one of the largest cities in the world, its population had seriously dwindled, according to Fleischer. Fleischer says that census records from the time determine Constantinople’s population to have been 30,000 people shortly after the conquest.
“After the conquest, repopulation and reconstructions were major priorities,” says Fleischer. The population eventually rebounded to 400,000-500,000 people by the next century, he says.
One of the great rulers of Constantinople was Suleiman ‘the Magnificent,’ also commonly known as Suleiman ‘the Lawgiver.’ Suleiman’s forefathers had done most of the heavy lifting of reconstructing Constantinople by ordering the creation of mosques, universities and hospitals.
“What Suleiman did was … to build in a very distinctive architectural style imperial monuments in the form of mosques and schools and so forth throughout the territories [of the empire],” says Fleischer.
One of the mosques that Suleiman commissioned, was the Süleymaniye Mosque. Constructed by architect Mimar Sinan in the 1550s, the imperial mosque became a significant religious and educational center. The mosque still stands in Istanbul today as the one must-see relics from the Ottoman Empire.
A Cultural, Religious and Commercial Hub
There is no specific date for when, exactly, Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. There had been several centers of power in the Ottoman Empire, including Bursa, which became the “intellectual and spiritual capital of the enterprise by the 15th century,” according to Fleischer. But, he says, “with the conquest of Constantinople and its reconstruction and the construction of imperial mosques and universities, the center, by the middle of the 16th century, really moved to Constantinople.”
Due to its significant geographic location at the crux of Europe and Asia, surrounded by both land and sea, Constantinople was well-positioned as not only a center of cultural and religious activity, but also as a commercial center.
Constantinople formed a hub, or “expanded network of trade routes,” says Fleischer. “And the trade routes were augmented by the construction of caravanserai, which were structures for long-distance traders, all the way from Iran to the borders of what is now known as Austria.”
Most notably, under the Ottoman Empire, a variety of religions and languages flourished, from Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians to Turkish-speaking Muslims. “The Ottomans weren’t trying to convert everybody to Islam,” says Fleischer. They saw themselves and presented themselves as protectors of all of the monotheistic religions of the world — meaning the Christians, the Jews, as well as the Muslims.”
As a result, Constantinople remained a majority non-Muslim area well into the 16th century. Instead of wholly dismantling pre-existing religious artifacts, the Ottoman Empire maintained them, retaining their architectural structures — such as large columns — even when converting them into churches and synagogues.
“The large symbolic churches were converted into mosques. This was normal practice, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the architecture being preserved, but modifications being made to allow for proper orientation for the direction of prayer and so on,” says Fleischer.
Overall, the Ottoman rule favored multiculturalism. “In the Ottoman case, their policy of rule was based on inclusivity and capacity to maintain and tolerate a great deal of diversity,” according to Fleischer.