History of Mehmed the Conqueror by Kritovoulos
Strange it is that the most vivid and accurate picture of a great series of campaigns should come from one of the defeated party—as if the great history of the American War of Independence had been written by an Englishman. But not only did a Greek write this story of the Turkish destruction of the Greek Empire, but it took another Greek to translate it into Turkish.
Equally strange is it that, while Kritovoulos distinctly states that he hopes to influence the Philhellenes in the British Isles by this story of a Turkish sultan, it has been necessary to wait nearly five hundred years before it is put in English.
The work of all authors, especially those who wrote five centuries ago, needs to be tested as to accuracy by the testimony of other contemporaries, and mature judgment on relative worth is not always easy. Everything known until the present, however, indicates that we have here a work of high value, written with the true genius of an historian and with commendable non-partisanship. When compared with the histories of such men as Phrantzes, Khalkondylis, and Dukas, the facts recorded by Kritovoulos seem to be more accurately given in general than the records of the others.
Very little can be found regarding the life and work of Kritovoulos, outside of this one work, which seems to have been his only one. He was a Greek, apparently a native of the island of Imbros in the north Aegean Sea. He was not present at the siege of Constantinople, which he describes so vividly; but very soon after its capture he visited the place and came into the service of the Conqueror, being finally appointed Governor of the island of Imbros. Apparently he became personally acquainted with Sultan Mehmed and studied his career most carefully. He admired the Sultan's military prowess and ability, even while mourning the loss
of the City and the downfall of the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire. Modern Greek historians, such as Papparigopoulos, have been inclined to berate and undervalue Kritovoulos because he made a hero out of the man who defeated the Greeks. Yet such impartial judges as Professor Alexander Van Millingen of Robert College and Sir Edwin Pears, long the Doyen of the Constantinople Bar, rate Kritovoulos very high as an authority on matters pertaining to the entire campaign.
His history has been translated into French by Dr. Ph. A. Dethier and printed, but not published, at Budapest; it was also translated into Hungarian; and some thirty years ago it was at last published in a Turkish edition, translated by Carolides Efendi, Parliamentary Deputy for Smyrna. It now appears for the first time in English.
The work covers only the first seventeen years of the thirty-year reign of Mehmed II. Probably Kritovoulos intended to continue the history up to the end of that reign —as is indicated in several passages in the following pages (see Epistle, concluding paragraphs, and Part I, §6). It seems likely that his death prevented his accomplishing his purpose.
Marked peculiarities characterize this book: not only Kritovoulos' peculiar Byzantine phraseology but also his use of the ancient geographical names—calling the Albanians Illyrians, the Hungarians Paeonians, the Serbs the Triballi, the Danube River the Ister, the Black Sea the Euxine, etc., and giving Greek names for the provinces of Asia Minor. Especially noteworthy is the avoidance of the term, "Turks"; throughout his history Kritovoulos refers to the Ottomans as "Arabs and Persians."
One particular usage requires more elucidation: the name "Roman" is applied by Kritovoulos to the Greeks (Byzantines) of Constantinople, for, in common with most Easterners of the day, he regarded the City as New Rome and the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Roman Empire—as it truly was in origin.
In the matter of proper names, Kritovoulos uses the Greek forms. Thus, he refers to the Sultan as Μεχεμέτης, which is
from the Turkish Mehmet, or Mehmed. The Sultan, sometimes referred to by scholars as Mohammed, is usually called by the Turks Fatih Mehmed, or Mehmed the Conqueror, which is the form used in this translation.
Kritovoulos also uses the Byzantine chronology, reckoning 5,508 years from the Creation to the birth of Christ, thus making the year 1451, as the beginning of the reign of Mehmed II, "6959 from the beginning."
The original manuscript of this valuable work is one of the treasures of the Seraglio Point Museum Library in Istanbul today, and it is carefully guarded as such. It was discovered in the Library in 1865, and five years later was transcribed by Herr Karl Müller and printed in Paris in Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, Vol. V. The dedicatory Epistle to Mehmed was published separately by Tischendorf in 1870. The Paris edition of the history was unavailable to me, and I have used the Hungarian edition.
The translator wishes to express his deep appreciation of the stimulus and help rendered him, both in the undertaking of this work and repeatedly as the work went on, by the late lamented Dr. Walter Livingston Wright, Jr., whose encouragement and valuable suggestions contributed much to whatever success it has.
The translator wishes also to express his deep obligation and thanks to Professor Lewis V. Thomas, who, in the midst of heavy responsibilities, has been willing to give time and care to the reading of the manuscript and has made many valuable emendations.
Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey
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