Mehmed the Conqueror’s Childhood Doodles Changed My View on History Education
The idle daydreams of a future sultan are just as human as your middle school scribbles. ✏️
“Hmph”, the old man with the well-tailored beard grumbled for what seemed like the fiftieth time that afternoon. His position was precarious. He had not worked his whole career with the religious fervor of a first-rate molla, only to be so reduced by an obstinate boy. Yet he was also at the prime station of his career — the duty to teach a son of the sultan was a great honor. He knew also, however, as all the others did, of the many who had come before him in quick succession and were humiliated with dismissal.
Look at him. He does not know how much he needs to know, and how much he will lose if he does not learn. Like this, old tired Ahmet Gürani sat, staring at the boy who had refused to be taught that day, as almost every other suffocating day. He tightened his fingers around the switch — an unprecedented gift from the boy’s father, who would have him beaten rather than be an uneducated prince, useless for himself and for his empire.
As he tested the last of the molla’s patience, little Mehmed sat down and got to creating caricatures of all the turbaned faces that made his life a living hell within the court, and the animals that brought him solace. He felt assured that this replacement man before him could not get him to do anything he did not want to. No one except his father — not even his sour-faced tutor, who stood so firm and regal — could not snatch or kick or tear up his dear notebook, because he had learned from a young age that he was more.
I have been reading The Grand Turk by John Freely. As you might have guessed, it recounts the life and deeds of Mehmed the Conqueror, the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The description of his childhood surprised me, because the young Mehmed who conquered Constantinople and received his global renown was deemed an intellectual genius by many accounts. In this book, Freely presents us with a new side of Mehmed that humanizes him: He was a stubborn child with no intention of studying in any capacity until he was finally beaten by the switch that silenced him and set him to work.
Upon reading a brief mention of his childhood alphabet exercises, I investigated further, and found a notebook that is kept at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Here are the earliest opinions, values, concerns, and curiosities of the boy who would grow up to name himself the “Alexander of the East” and the “New Caesar of Rome”.
This rabbit hole got me thinking about how much room there is for these small discoveries in the history classroom. I believe in the power of tangents to change and guide a student’s understanding in ways that a thoughtful and carefully curated curriculum handed down from a board of education cannot achieve in the least. Although the latter has its place, the former does as well. I know that many history teachers have the interest and motivation to explore the “side quests”, as it were, with their students, but are restricted by various frustrating regulations.
I am fortunate enough to have experienced several educational systems that encouraged the “What’s on your mind?” approach when it came to teaching academic subjects, with a focus on what the student thinks about at any given time, and where those trains of thought can lead. It is the little things — the conversations — that most stuck in my mind after all of these years.
I think that it would benefit students immensely to have an access point into daunting historical figures, which can allow them to form an immediate connection.
Few things in the history classroom could be more deeply impactful for a bored and doodling student than the birth of a discussion on the records that we have of the quattrocento doodles of a future sultan.
Though I admit that this might not be the most efficient tangent in terms of success in short-term factual recall, long-term value gained from adopting a new and more personal perspective on history is a gift that will continue giving. It will accompany the student through the life journey, cracking open the gateway to a future of more intense introspection and newfound beauty.
If we can make time for the conversations about the smaller — and yet much larger — things in between the battles and memorization drills of “major events”, we can see the people who made all of it happen (day by day, not event to event), and for just a moment, we will not feel so different from them. This is an irrevocable push. After this realization, history mutates into a new creature. It is no longer the removed study of of a cold subject.
It becomes our everyday, which turns into history in the blink of an eye.
By gaining the opportunity to recognize the humanizing details, such as a fortunate record of the idle hours of Mehmed the Conqueror, we are not only introduced to a gateway drug into what has been, but we are also able to empower ourselves and find our history within our present and our future.
In my next post, I will present you with a reading list of the works I have read that most aptly humanize history — with both its beautiful and ugly dimensions. I feel confident that occasionally reaching out to surprise students with some intimate yet academically tangential details of far-removed, inimitable, and seemingly irreproachable fellow humans of Planet Earth has a lot of potential. How could it not? This is not a new idea. There exist countless historical fiction books, period dramas, and paintings, all of which aim at something like this. However, there is still an extraordinary amount of room for growth in the average classroom, where minds are most impressionable, yet often least inspired.