There’s an anniversary this week we might do well to recall. On May 29, 1453 – just 555 short years ago -- troops led by Mehmed II broke through the walls of the ancient Christian capital of Constantinople.
Mehmed the Conqueror – as he would be known from that day forward -- rode triumphantly into the city on a white horse. Soon, churches would be converted into mosques. Constantinople would become Istanbul.
“For the West this was a dark moment,” writes historian Efraim Karsh in his masterful book, Islamic Imperialism. “For Islam it was a cause for celebration. For nearly a millennium Constantinople had been the foremost barrier – physically and ideologically – to Islam’s sustained drive for world conquest and the object of desire of numerous Muslim rulers.”
Mehmed cast himself as not just as a master builder of the Ottoman Empire, but also as the caliph – the supreme spiritual and temporal ruler of all the world’s Muslims, chosen to “act as Allah’s Sword ‘blazing forth the way of Islam from the East to West.’” He would go on to conquer Greece, Serbia, the Balkans south of the Danube and the Crimean peninsula. His grandson and great grandson would extend the caliphate to include the Levant, Egypt, the Arabian Hijaz including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Iraq, North Africa, and most of Hungary.
The desire to conquer the world – or even just one’s neighbors -- is hardly an Islamic invention. Genghis Khan is not a name: It’s a title. It means “universal ruler.” The man history knows as Genghis Khan believed it was his divinely ordained mission to lead the Mongols to global domination.
And he loved his work. “Man's highest joy is victory: to conquer his enemies,” he said, “to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.”
Upon entering the city of Bukhara in 1220 he proclaimed: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
Genghis Khan was a pagan, a shamanist, as was his descendant, Hulagu, who in 1258 conquered Baghdad -- among the world’s most sophisticated cities at the time -- and executed the reigning caliph.
A few years ago, Osama bin Laden, on one of his audio tapes, compared Colin Powell and Dick Cheney to Hulagu, saying they had inflicted more damage upon Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf War than had the Mongol king. Bin Laden may take some consolation in the fact that Hulagu’s son, and many other members of the ruling Mongol elite, eventually embraced Islam. (Whether the same will be true of the heirs of Powell and Cheney only time will tell.)