Film review: Fetih 1453

Sultan Mehmed II leading his army in prayer before the siege of Constantinople

I watched Fetih 1453 when it was released in UK cinemas in February 2012. But I felt that with recent events in Turkey unfolding, that it seemed the most appropriate time to write a review on the only film ever made specifically addressing the famous Muslim conquest of Constantinople. With Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP party being in the media limelight in regards to Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies, Dilly Hussain writes how the film reflects Turkish attitudes towards Ottoman history.

The title of the movie immediately caught my attention, so I felt obliged to go and see the film directed and produced by a Turkish Muslim which covers one of the most famous conquests in Islamic history.

In general, I liked it – it was well-acted, historically accurate with exception to some details, although its attempt to intertwine the main theme of the movie with a love story left me slightly annoyed like many Bollywood movies do.

Ottoman history

The opening scene of the movie starts in Madina, with the famous hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) being narrated by Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (ra) who died fighting the Byzantines and is buried outside the old walls of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul:

“Constantinople will surely be conquered. What a blessed commander is its commander and what a blessed army is its army. The first army to conquer Constantinople will enter paradise.” (Sahih Muslim in chapter Qital e-Rum)

The first part of the film displayed how the leadership of the Ottoman empire was weakened with the death of Sultan Murad II and his eldest son Prince Usman. The throne was succeeded by 21 year old Mehmed II (Devrim Evin), a somewhat politically inactive young prince immersed in hobbies. But all this changed when he became the sultan and drew inspiration from the famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).

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Sultan Mehmed II intended to finish what his father was unable to accomplish, the conquest of Constantinople. He regrouped the Ottoman army, appointed new wartime viziers and gave his personal friend and mentor Ulubatli Hasan (Ibrahim Cellikol) the control over the Ottoman cavalry. Hasan eventually dies as a martyr whilst placing the Ottoman flag on the walls of Constantinople. The sultan’s zeal for conquest was so intense that family time with his wife and son became non-existent.

The romantic side story between Hasan and the adopted daughter of Hungarian cannon engineer Urban (Erdogan Aydemir), Era (Dliek Sirbest) disrupted my concentration in many instances during the movie because it would always occur in the middle of an important historic, action packed or suspense filled scene – I didn’t understand the director’s (Faruk Aksoy) motive for such an unorthodox technique. The last straw for me, was when the love scene hit its climax and became quite explicit as I’ve never understood the relevance of such scenes in a serious historical or religious movie.

Concept of jihad and martyrdom

A strong theme which ran through most of the film was the concept of jihad and martyrdom. Whenever Mehmed II or Hasan addressed the Ottoman army, they would stir the emotions and momentum by mentioning the noble act of jihad and the virtues of dying as a “shaheed” (martyr).

In one scene, when the advisers of the sultan highlighted the increasing number of deaths of Ottoman troops as a result of the long siege of Constantinople, Mehmed II responded with the justification of dying an honourable death of a martyr with the intention to expand the domain of Islam into the land of the Crusaders.

This came as quite a pleasant surprise to me, as some films and books had previously refrained from the topic of jihad and martyrdom when discussing Islamic conquests in a modern context post 9/11.

Historical inaccuracies  

Fetih 1453 was historically correct in most parts according to Islamic narrators and accounts. However, one scene that really enraged me was when a respected scholar dug up the grave of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (ra) to prove to Mehmed II that the companion of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the narrator of the famous hadith regarding the conquest of Constantinople was actually buried outside the walls of Constantinople. This was done because the morale of the Ottoman troops and their sultan was near depletion as a result of the long siege and increasing death toll.

Western and Christian commentators have criticized the film for being historically inaccurate for the following depictions:

– The portrayal of the Byzantine emperor, Constantine as a hedonist was false. The city had lost its magnificence as a result of being repeatedly sacked by western crusaders.

–  The idea that Mehmed II led a unified Islamic army is untrue because according to western accounts, there were many Christians from the Balkans including Orthodox Greeks.

– The Byzantines were portrayed as being too confident. In reality the Roman Empire by 1453 had been reduced to the city and its immediate surroundings. The Byzantines did not have the money or resources to adequately defend Constantinople.

– Their actual manpower was also over-represented, according to Christian accounts it was roughly 7-8,000 troops, half of which were from the Italian republics.

– The biggest criticism by western and Christian commentators was how the movie depicted the gentle and gracious attitude of Mehmed II towards the city’s residents. Whilst many commentators admit he did show mercy to different ethnic and religious groups residing in the city, he still allowed Constantinople to be ransacked for three days.

The last point of contention I saw as a matter of difference of opinion in regards to the principles of warfare in Islamic law according to that time, when spoils of war was the financial reward of a victorious army including the enslavement of the city’s inhabitants.

Ottoman glory or Turkish nationalism?

Whilst the movie addressed certain fundamental historical and religious principles, my mind kept questioning the intentions of the director in the context of modern Turkey.

Yes, Fetih 1453 started the opening scene in Madina, with the famous hadith of Prophet Muhammad (saw), the concept of jihad and martyrdom which was well ingrained throughout its duration.

But the love story between Hasan and Era, the absence of any foreign soldiers within the Ottoman army (Arabs and Africans) who were all under Ottoman rule at that time, made me question the film – was it really depicting Ottoman glory in an Islamic context or Turkish nationalism and interventionism in the modern world?

If it was trying to depict Ottoman glory in an Islamic context, it succeeded to a certain degree. But the love story, the all Turkish cast and all Turkish army made me wonder, was this an attempt to display what many Turks have labelled PM Erdogan to be – a modern neo-Ottomanist sultan? Even though I strongly disagree that Erdogan is, perhaps that was the perception Faruk Aksoy had about his Prime Minister.

You can follow Dilly Hussain on Twitter @DillyHussain88

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