On two separate occasions in the new six-part Netflix docu-drama Rise of Empires: Ottoman the newly appointed Sultan Mehmed II (Muhammad) – who was only nineteen when he took the helm of the Ottoman state following the death of his father Murad II – is offered boxes of gold by those seeking to earn his favour. On both occasions he rebuffs the gifts. For Mehmed has only one over-riding desire: an ambition he has nurtured since he was a child. To fulfil the saying of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the Muslim ummah:
‘Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!’
Twenty-three armies in the previous centuries, including that of his own father, had failed to breakthrough the famous fourteen mile long walls enclosing the city of Constantinople. The walls were first built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century. Now Mehmed, conscious that his newly-acquired authority is not unquestioned, informs his officials that he has had a dream in which those walls had opened before him. “The time of the Romans has ended,” he announces. It is time for a new chapter of history to begin. We are informed that Mehmed has a vision of his Ottoman realm having a distinctly multi-ethnic and multi-religious character.
What follows is an utterly gripping mix of drama and history lesson with regular helpful input and commentary from a variety of Western and Turkish historians and scholars including Jason Goodwin (the author of Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire) and a Professor Emeritus of something or other.
The beleaguered Orthodox Christian defenders of Constantinople are acutely aware that they are outnumbered ten to one by the Ottoman forces but they place their hopes on their reliable walls and assistance arriving from the Catholic city states to the West. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI is also conscious that he is the heir to a one thousand year Roman legacy and refuses Mehmed’s request to handover the city peacefully. So begins the siege of Constantinople and a battle of wits between Constantine XI and Mehmed II.
With each day that he fails to break the defence of Constantinople Mehmed is aware that his army could mutiny and his advisers including the Grand Vizier (Wazir) Candarli Halil Pasha could seek to overthrow him and have him killed.
The Emperor welcomes the Italian pirate Giovanni Giustiniani and his mercenaries to Constantinople and tasks him with leading the defence of the city. The Christians are portrayed fairly and sympathetically as trying to defend their own Roman inheritance. It must have taken a huge amount of courage to refuse to back down in the face of Mehmed’s colossal army. Both sides believe that God is on their side but as the introductory narration from Charles Dance points out, for one empire to rise, another must fall.
Learn lessons from the failures of your father and those before him if you want to be the one that conquers Constantinople, Mehmed’s stepmother advises him. So when Mehmed suffers repeated setbacks during the siege he goes back to the table in his tent to think of new tactics to deploy.
And I think we all know how the battle ends, right?
I could only find a minor criticism to make. While Mehmed was shown to be impetuous, arrogant and impatient – and perhaps that is the point as he was still so young, the actor that plays him is, well, a bit short. In the scene when Mehmed comes face to face with Commander Giustiniani it is difficult not to notice this disparity and realise that it is more like face to belly button. I began to wonder why Giustiniani did not start laughing outright at his dwarf opponent. I have no idea if the actual Mehmed al-Fatih (the Conqueror) was as short, but I have to admit to finding it just a bit distracting.
Other than that I was glad to see that a lot of actual Turkish actors were involved in the leading roles and although the production required them to speak in English, it did not take away from their performances in any way and their accents even added an extra measure of authenticity to the proceedings.