History of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic Nation where Jews Lived


Early in the 14th century the Turkish tribal chieftain Othman (Osman) founded an empire in western Anatolia (Asia Minor) that was to endure for almost six centuries. As this empire grew by conquering lands of the Byzantine Empire and beyond, it came to include at the height of its power all of Asia Minor; the countries of the Balkan Peninsula; the islands of the eastern Mediterranean; parts of Hungary and Russia; Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus, Palestine, and Egypt; part of Arabia; and all of North Africa through Algeria.

The Early Empire, 1300-1481

The dynasty that Othman (1258-1326) founded was called Osmanli, meaning "sons of Osman." The name evolved in English into Ottoman. The Ottoman Empire was Islamic in religion. During the 11th century bands of nomadic Turks emerged from their home in Central Asia to raid lands to the west. The strongest of the Turkish tribes was the Seljuks. In time they established themselves in Asia Minor along with other groups of Turks.

Following the defeat of the Seljuks by the Mongols in 1293, Othman emerged as the leader of local Turks in the fight against the tottering Byzantine Empire. The final conquest of the Byzantines was not achieved until 1453 with the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul), but by that date all the surrounding territory was in Ottoman hands.


The initial areas of expansion under Othman I and his successors Orkhan (ruled 1326-59) and Murad I (ruled 1359-89) were western Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, primarily the Balkan Peninsula. During Orkhan's reign the practice began of exacting a tribute in children from Christian subjects. The boys were trained to become soldiers and administrators. As soldiers they filled the ranks of the infantry, called the Janizaries (also spelled Janissaries), the most fearsome military force in Europe for centuries.

Murad I conquered Thrace, to the northwest of Constantinople, in 1361. He moved his capital to Adrionople (now Edirne), Thrace's capital and the second city of the Byzantine Empire. This conquest effectively cut off Constantinople from the outside world, and allowed Murad to control the principal invasion route through the Balkan Mountains, giving the Ottomans access to further expansion to the north.

During Murad I last victorious battle against Balkan allies, he was killed. His successor, Beyazid I (ruled 1389-1402), was unable to make further European conquests. He was forced to devote his attention to eastern Asia Minor to deal with a growing Turkish principality, Karaman. He attacked and defeated Karaman in 1391, put down a revolt of his Balkan subjects, and returned to consolidate his gains in Asia Minor. His successes attracted the attention of Timur Lenk (Tamerlane). Encouraged by Turkish princes who had fled to his court from Beyazid I's incursions, attacked and overwhelmed him in 1402. Taken captive by Timur Lenk, Beyazid died within a year.

Timur Lenk soon retired from Asia Minor, leaving Beyazid's sons to take up where their father had failed. The four sons fought for control until one of them, Mohammed I, killed the other three and took control. He reigned from 1413 to 1421 and his successor Murad II, from 1421 to 1451. Murad II suppressed Balkan resistance and eliminated all but two of the Turkish principalities in Asia Minor. The task of finishing the Balkan conquests and seizing all of Asia Minor fell to Murad II's successor, Mohammed II (ruled 1451-81). It was he who completed the siege of Constantinople in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The whole Balkan Peninsula south of Hungary was incorporated as well as the Crimea on the north coast of the Black Sea. Asia Minor was completely subdued.

In addition to conquering a large empire, Mohammed II worked strenuously for consolidation and an adequate administrative and tax system. He was assisted by the fact that the whole Byzantine bureaucratic structure fell into his hands. Although Islamic, Ottoman sultans were not averse to using whatever talent they could attract or sometimes, capture.

The Golden Age, 1481-1566

Three sultans ruled the empire at its height: Beyazid II (1481-1512), Selim I (1512-20), and Suleyman I the Magnificent (1520-66). Beyazid extended the empire in Europe, added outposts along the Black Sea, and put down revolts in Asia Minor. He also turned the Ottoman fleet into a major Mediterranean naval power. Late in life he became a religious mystic and was displaced on the throne by his more militant son, Selim I.

Selim I's first task was to eliminate all competition for his position. He had his brothers, their sons, and all but one of his own sons killed. He thereby established control over the army, which had wanted to raise its own candidate to power. During his short reign the Ottomans moved south-and eastward into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Arabia, and Egypt. At Mecca, the chief shrine of Islam, he took the title of caliph, ruler of all Muslims. The Ottoman sultans were thereafter the spiritual heads of Islam thereby displacing the centuries-old caliphate of Baghdad.

By acquiring the holy places of Islam, Selim I's cemented his position as the religion's most powerful ruler. This gave the Ottomans direct access to the rich cultural heritage of the Arab world. Leading Muslim intellectuals, artists, artisans, and administrators came to Constantinople from all parts of the Arab world. They made the empire much more of a traditional Islamic state than it had been.

An added benefit of Selim I's efforts was control of all Middle Eastern trade routes between Europe and the Far East. The growth of the empire had for some time been an impediment to European trade. In time this led European states to seek routes around Africa to China and India. It also impelled them to face westward and led directly to the discovery of the Americas.

Selim I's's surviving son, Suleyman, came to the throne in an enviable situation. New revenues from the expanded empire left him with wealth and power unparalleled in Ottoman history. In his early campaigns he captured Belgrade (1521) and Rhodes (1522) and broke the military power of Hungary. In 1529 he laid siege to Vienna, Austria, but was forced to withdraw for lack of supplies. He also waged three campaigns against Persia. Algiers in North Africa fell to his navy in 1529 and Tripoli (now Libya) in 1551. In more peaceful pursuits he adorned the chief cities of Islam with mosques, aqueducts, bridges, and other public works. In Constantinople he had several mosques built, among them the magnificent Suleymaniye Cami named for him.

Imperial Decline, 1566-1807

During Suleyman's long reign the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its political power and close to its maximum geographical extent. The seeds of decline, however, were already planted. As Suleyman grew tired of campaigns and retired to his harem, his viziers, or prime ministers, took more authority. After his death the army gained control of the sultanate and was able to use it for its own benefit. Few sultans after Suleyman had the ability to exercise real power when the need arose. This weakness at home was countered by a growing power in the west. The nation-states of Europe were emerging from the Middle Ages under strong monarchies. They were building armies and navies that were powerful enough to attack a decaying Ottoman military might.

In 1571 the combined fleets of Venice, Spain, and the Papal States of Italy defeated the Turks in the great naval Battle Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. This defeat, which dispelled the myth of the invincible Turk, took place during the reign of Selim II (ruled 1566-74). But the empire rebuilt its navy and continued to control the eastern Mediterranean for another century.

As the central government became weaker, large parts of the empire began to act independently, retaining only nominal loyalty to the sultan. The army was still strong enough, however, to prevent provincial rebels from asserting complete control. Under Murad III (ruled 1574-95) new campaigns were undertaken. The Caucasus was conquered, and Azerbaijan was seized. This brought the empire to the peak of its territorial extent.

Reform efforts undertaken by 17th-century sultans did little to deter the onset of decay. The Ottomans were driven out of the Caucasus and Azerbaijan in 1603 and out of Iraq in 1604. Iraq was retaken by Murad IV (ruled 1623-40) in 1638, but Iran remained a persistent military threat in the east. A war with Venice (1645-69) exposed Constantinople to an attack by the Venetian navy. In 1683 the last attempt to conquer Vienna failed. Russia and Austria fought the empire by direct military attack and by fomenting revolt by non-Muslim subjects of the sultan.

Beginning in 1683, with the attack on Vienna, the Ottomans were at war with European enemies for 41 years. As a result, the empire lost much of its Balkan territory and all the possessions on the shores of the Black Sea. In addition, the Austrians and Russians were allowed to intervene in the empire's affairs on behalf of the sultan's Christian subjects.

The weakness of the central government, as manifested by its military decline, also showed itself in a gradual loss of control over most of the provinces. Local rulers, called notables, carved for themselves permanent regions in which they ruled directly, regardless of the wishes of the sultan in Constantinople. The notables were able to build their power bases because they knew of the sultan's military weakness and because local populations preferred their rule to the corrupt administration of the faraway capital. The notables formed their own armies and collected their own taxes, sending only nominal contributions to the imperial treasury.

Selim III (ruled 1789-1807) attempted to reform the empire and its army. He failed and was overthrown. When Mahmud II (ruled 1808-39) came to the throne, the empire was in desperate straits. Control of North Africa had passed to local notables. In Egypt Muhammad Ali was laying the foundation of an independent kingdom. Had the European nations cooperated, they could have destroyed the Ottoman Empire.

In 1826, five years after Greece began its fight for independence, the Janizaries revolted to stop reforms. Warfare between the Turks and Greeks was fierce, and eventually a new military system in the style of European armies. He also reformed the administration and gained control over some of the provincial notables, with the exception of Egypt. By the time of Mahmud's death the empire was more consolidated and powerful, but it was still subject to European interference.

Mahmud's sons, Abdulmecid I (ruled 1839-61) and Abdulaziz (ruled 1861-76) carried out further reforms, especially in education and law. Nevertheless, by mid-century it was evident that the Ottoman cause was hopeless. Czar Nicholas I of Russia commented on the Ottoman Empire in 1853: "We have on our hands a sick man, a very sick man."

The "Sick Man of Europe" 1850-1922

The conflicting interests of European states propped up the Ottoman Empire until after World War I. Great Britain especially was determined to keep Russia from gaining direct access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Britain, France, and Sardinia helped the Ottomans during the Crimean War (1854-56) to block the Russians.

The Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 brought Russia almost to Constantinople. The Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of San Stefano, which would have ended their rule in Europe except that the European states called the Congress of Berlin. It succeeded in propping up the old empire for a few decades more.

Abdulhamid II (ruled 1876-1909) developed strong ties with Germany, and the Ottomans fought on Germany's side in World War I. Russia hoped to use the war as an excuse to gain access to the Mediterranean and perhaps capture Constantinople. This aim was frustrated by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and withdrawal from the war. Ottoman defeat in war inspired an already fervent Turkish nationalism. The postwar settlement outraged the nationalists. A new government under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk (father of the Turks), emerged at Ankara. The last sultan, Mohammed VI, fled in 1922 after the sultanate had been abolished. All members of the Ottoman Dynasty were expelled from the country two years later. Turkey was proclaimed a republic, with Ataturk as its first president.

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