Lecture 26: The Ottoman Empire, 1300 - 1699

The Ottomans are important to the course of this class’ narrative, because they bring together some of the big themes that we have discussed over the last few lectures. Like the Mongols, they were originally nomads that built a large empire, though their empire persisted for over 600 years, and they fought against the Byzantines and the Safavids, as well as Mongol successor states. The Ottomans are also important, however, because they allow us to reflect on some of world history’s deeper rhythms. First, they gave the final push to the Hellenistic world. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453, it was the last gasp of a Greek-speaking Christian region that found its origins in Alexander the Great and Constantine I. Second, they highlight the central role Islam played in shaping the modern world. The Ottomans were both tolerant and religious fanatics. They attacked Christian territories remorselessly out of a desire to expand Islam and exacerbated Sunni-Shiite tensions by battling what they saw as heresy in Iran. Nonetheless, within their empire they showed remarkable religious tolerance, if judged by the standards of their day. The Ottoman Empire became a haven for Spanish Jews that fled persecution in Spain, and the Ottomans also treated heterodox Christian communities better than had the Byzantines. Thus, unlike in Spain, the Ottomans used tolerance to their advantage, deriving benefits from industrious non-Muslim communities, while also improving those communities’ lives. Finally, the Ottoman Empire provides an important perspective on Europe’s rise in world history. By the sixteenth century, the Ottomans controlled the trade routes to the East. This made them very wealthy and turned the European powers westward, who sought cheaper ways to acquire Asian and Indian luxuries. Ottoman supremacy, thus, helped to create the very force that would, ultimately, destroy the Empire, the Atlantic economy.
The first Ottomans originated in a type of Turkish frontiersman called gazi. The Seljuks had made the migration these people’s migration into Anatolia possible, with their defeat of Byzantine forces at the battle of Manzikert (1071). The gazi were classic nomads. They lived in rough country and rode horses, while also constantly raiding Byzantine territory. This created a unique combination. Trained for a life of privation, the gazi were also super Muslims, believing that their fight with the Byzantines was a Holy War against the infidel. Of course, the Seljuks were Muslims, too. However, what set the gazi apart was that they were both religious fanatics and pragmatists, not only tolerating pagan practices within their own religion, but also willing to make short-term deals with infidels in order to advance the larger cause. Moreover, the gazis’ status as the vanguard of the faith attracted many nomads to their cause, and over the years, the foundations of a powerful fighting force appeared.
When the Mongols defeated the Seljuks in 1293, the way was clear for a new political organization in Anatolia. The dynasty that emerged came to be known as Ottoman and was founded by the Ottoman’s first two leaders Osman I (1258-1324) and Orhan I (1288-1360). Some time around 1300 Osman gathered together the gazi nomads and began constructing a military operation. (The name Ottoman actually derives from Osman. The Arabic version of his name is ‘Uthman. Westerners cannot, however, mimic the sound of this name, and Ottoman became the preferred western version, as a result.) The Byzantines were unable to stand up to this new force and the Mongol Il-Khanate was unwilling to render them any aid, so the Ottomans became powerful quickly. Orhan’s reign was a key period for the emerging empire, because he took a city, Bursa, and made it into a capital. This move systematized the raw power that Osman had organized, so that taxes could now be levied on new territories and then spent on further conquest. In 1331, Orhan took the city of Iznik. Izmit fell in 1337. And in 1338, Üsküdar followed.
After establishing his power in northwestern Anatolia, Orhan turned south. The most important event in this drive southward was reaching the Sea of Marmara. This allowed Orhan to cut off a rival city called Aydin, which had been supplying mercenaries to the Byzantines. Without access to new soldiers, the Byzantines found themselves in a very weak position. Orhan was able to have the sitting emperor deposed and replaced, even marrying the successor’s daughter. Orhan then made one of the biggest leaps in the history of Eurasia; he took Gallipoli from the Byzantines, which gave the Ottomans a foothold on the other side of the Dardanelles. The city was then transformed into a military base, which Murad I, Orhan’s successor, used as a springboard for further attacks against Byzantium.
Murad pursued his predecessors’ policies with vigor, but his achievements also showed limitations in the Ottomans’ forms of organization. In 1361, Murad took the city of Adrianople, made it into his capital and renamed it Edirne. This city was strategically located. It controlled access to Thrace and Constantinople, and provided a base for attacks in the Balkans. Here, however, the limitations of the Ottoman armies became clear: they had not real navy and no proper siege techniques. For that reason Constantinople could not be taken. Its walls were too thick and it could be supplied by sea. The Europeans, for their part, made a few attempts to stop the Ottomans’ advance. Instead they often fed on the Byzantine’s weakness. The Emperor of Serbia, Stefan Dušan, had long been harassing the Byzantines. His death in 1355 put an end to the harassment, though it also ended any hope of a European counter attack. Without Serbian leadership, the Hungarians and Bulgarians fell into squabbles and this only aided the Ottomans. The Byzantine Emperor John V even appealed to Rome for aid. This, though, did more damage than good, as it offended the Orthodox hierarchy within Byzantium.
Confusion and weakness among the defenders allowed Murad to make even more striking gains. Murad’s constant military victories allowed him to take much land peacefully, as smaller regions readily submitted to the Ottomans and agreed to pay tribute. The Ottomans also followed a traditional and shrewd practice here; they allowed the local rulers to remain in place, making it their responsibility to collect the tribute and maintain order. Thus, the Ottomans avoided having to develop a costly bureaucracy, and were able to put the tribute toward more conquests. In 1371, Murad took Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s homeland. In 1385, he took Sofia. Niš followed in 1386. In 1389, the Serbian nobility fought a desperate fight and lost at the Battle of Kosovo. (This is still remembered as a great national tragedy among the Serbs.) With local resistance smashed, the Ottomans were the premier power in the Balkans. Only Walachia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, and Belgrade were now out of their control.
Murad’s successor Bayezid I could not continue the Ottoman policy of conquest. With Ottoman power directed at Europe, another Turkish power rose in Anatolia called Karaman. Thus Bayezid turned his attention to Anatolia and put down all possible threats. In 1390, he annexed all independent territories in Western Anatolia. A year late, he annexed all independent powers in Eastern Anatolia. This process of consolidation in the rear, however, encouraged the Europeans to rise up again. From 1390 to 1393 Bayezid had to smash a rebellion in the Balkans. The Hungarians organized a crusade in response, but the attack failed miserably and was defeated in 1396. These victories would have settled matters, except that another powerful force began to take notice of what was happening in Anatolia. Bayezid’s annexations had unnerved Tamerlane (Timur) and he decided that this upstart empire had to be dealt with before it became a threat to his western border.
Tamerlane was yet another heir to the Mongol tradition. A turkicized Mongol, in 1370 he usurped the Chagatai Khanate, which had been founded by Chingis Khan’s son Chagatai. Much like Chingis Khan did, he spent the next 35 years until his death in 1405 subjecting other peoples to his will across central Asia. His descendents did the same; Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire, traced his lineage to both Chingis Khan and Tamerlane. Tamerlane did not want to conquer Anatolia, only to ensure that his western flank remained secure. In 1402, he attacked the Ottomans with a large army and defeated them at Ankara. This was a critical moment in Ottoman history, because Tamerlane divided the region among small warlords, hoping to keep a new power from arising. Thus, began the period called the Interregnum (1402-1413), when the Ottomans first fought among themselves for supremacy before, slowly, reacquiring their lost territories. Had the Europeans mustered the strength to fight, they could probably have smashed the Ottomans for good. By not doing so, however, they sealed Constantinople’s fate.
In 1423, the Interregnum ended after Mehmed I, one of Bayezid’s sons, killed his three brothers in combat and centralized the Ottoman state again. Mehmed I and his son Murad II consolidated Ottoman power and then led their troops into a new era of expansion. In 1422, Murad put down another Balkan revolt, before turning his attention to Constantinople. The latest Ottoman siege ended with a large payment of tribute. Murad also regained Ottoman territories in Anatolia, though he was careful to leave standing some small principalities on his eastern border, lest the Timurids grow restless again. Murad then struck out into the Mediterranean, fighting a war with Venice from 1423 to 1430. The Venetians had been playing the Byzantines and Ottomans off against each other in search of trade preferences. Early on the war was indecisive, since the Ottomans still had no real fleet. By 1430, however, the Ottomans took Salonika from Venice. It is, perhaps, ironic that the Ottomans defeated the great commercial city by building a navy that was based on Venetian model.
Murad’s reign was crucial in many respects, since he changed the foundations of the Ottoman Empire. As Murad’s conquests increased, the Turkish nobility began to resent him. These nobles were very powerful, since they had gained large estates through Ottoman conquest. These people were against further conquests, since that would have diluted their power. Murad was not about to be constrained, however, and he developed non-Turkish power bases that he played off against the nobility. Murad founded a system of slavery that was called the devsirme. Essentially, it consisted of kidnapping Christian boys from the Balkans and forcing them not only to work for the Sultan but also to convert to Islam. These boys then either became state bureaucrats or soldiers. The latter were organized into a new force called the Janissaries. Neither the bureaucrats nor the soldiers enjoyed any legal freedoms. They were not allowed to own property or to marry. In this way, Murad assured that his state and military apparatus were completely loyal to him alone.
Murad’s new sources of power brought with them an impetus to further conquest. More victories meant more wealth and more slaves. Next, Murad turned on Hungary, defeating János Hunyadi in 1443 at the Battle of Zlatica. In 1444, Murad made peace with the Hungarians and for reasons unknown retired to a life of religious contemplation. His son Mehmed II assumed the throne, though he was still very young.
A young man assuming the imperial throne was Western Europe’s cue for a counterattack. The Pope, the Hungarians, and the Venetians organized a crusade against the Ottomans and sent an army to Varna on the black sea. The army reached Varna, but every other aspect of the operation was a fiasco. The Serbs were reluctant to render aid, fearing Ottoman reprisals, and the Venetians did not offer firm naval support, having had second thoughts about losing their commercial privileges in the Ottoman Empire. On November 10, 1444, the last major crusading effort against the Muslims came to a bad end, as Ottoman troops handed the Europeans a major defeat. Mehmed wanted to pursue the war even further, but this was now the cue for the Turkish nobility to rise up. Nobles gained influence at court and forced the young emperor to stop, which also turned out to be Murad’s cue to return. The retired emperor set aside his son and reinforced all his previous policies, especially the devsirme system and wanton military aggression. Murad sent his troops on additional campaigns in Europe, and in the end only Albania was able to resist Ottoman forces. At Murad’s death in 1451, the Ottoman Empire had secured the Danube border and was now a European power.
Mehmed II assumed the throne for the second time in 1451 and continued the Ottoman onslaught. His crowning achievement was to be the taking of Constantinople, which he felt was a necessary administrative center for the Empire. Turkish nobles were against this campaign, too, fearing that it would provoke another crusade. On April 6, 1453, Ottoman forces put Constantinople under siege. On May 29, the city fell, putting all of Europe in a gloomy mood. The fall included the last Byzantine Emperor riding out to battle to be killed bravely in a last-ditch defense. The Ottoman victory officially ended over 1000 years of tradition, though in truth not much of the tradition was left by the end. Byzantium had fallen into disrepair and was, in fact, mostly abandoned. Mehmed immediately set about adorning his new capital, which was now named Istanbul. The great cathedral of St. Sophia was turned into a mosque, and the city got new water and drainage systems. Mehmed also encouraged merchants to settle in the city by offering them tax breaks. He was especially successful at attracting Jewish merchants, many of which had been to flee an increasingly intolerant Spain.
Taking Constantinople was Mehmed’s crowning achievement. It even garnered him the title of sultan, from a successor Caliph in Cairo. And the conquests continued. In 1455, Mehmed completed the annexation of Serbia. In 1460, he took Morea. In 1461, the Ottomans annexed Trebizond, and did the same to Bosnia in 1463. Albania finally succumbed the following year. From 1463 to 1479 he waged another war against Venice and took from that city the entire Aegean coast. From there, Mehmed attacked Rhodes and southern Italy.
Mehmed’s reign continued the pattern of conquest, but it also revealed very early stages of troubling patterns. The non-Muslims who lived in the new Istanbul were organized into the millet system, which was essentially a network of ghettos. The people in the millet communities lived completely separate lives from surrounding Muslims, and their religious leaders were responsible for the entire community’s conduct. This was the first sign of a dark trend: the Ottomans stopped believing that they had anything to learn from the outside world. Another such sign was Mehmed’s introduction of policies that hurt the economy. All property was declared to belong to the sultan, and the government began seizing large fortunes in order to pay for its increasing expenses. Mehmed also debased the coinage, which resulted in inflation. In addition, he established monopolies for favored merchants, which merely sucked more money out of the economy in the form of higher consumer prices.
The problems in Mehmed’s reign did not, however, manifest themselves immediately. In fact, under Mehmed’s successor, Suleiman I the Magnificent the Ottomans continued expanding their empire. As you know from our discussion of the Safavids, Suleiman turned east and delivered a serious blow to the Persians at the Battle of Chaldiran. He also went on to take Egypt, as well as Mecca and Medina, forcing those two cities to accept his protection. Moving into North Africa made the Ottomans an even greater menace to Europe, as Suleiman’s expanding navy allowed him to reach ever further across the Mediterranean. This was an inconvenient time for the Europeans. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was busy fighting religious wars in Germany and trying to keep the French out of Italy. In 1526, Suleiman smashed the Hungarian nobility at Mohàcs. This battle was crucial to the future course of European history, because it allowed the Habsburgs to gain election to the Hungarian Crown, which gave the Habsburgs access to wealth that would come in handy not only against the Turks but also against a future conqueror named Napoleon. The benefits from this were not apparent immediately, however, as the Ottomans stood outside the gates of Vienna in 1529. By 1547, the Ottomans had signed a treaty with the Habsburgs that guaranteed them the payment of a sizeable annual tribute.
It is during Suleiman’s reign that the the origins of many later problems first became clear. War with the Safavids slowly made the Ottomans more religiously rigid. The Shariat, for example, was applied more broadly and zealously under the Ottomans than it had been under the early Caliphs. The Ottoman social structure also became more rigid. The policy of millets and poll taxes for nun-Muslims was intensified, which isolated Muslims from foreign ideas and did significant damage to the local economy. In addition, Muslims had also become more segregated as well over the years. Traditionally, Muslims the Ottomans only allowed the Turkish nobility to join the sipâhîs, or cavalry. Those who fought for the sultan received fiefs. Two things are worth noting here. First, as warfare changed, the cavalry and, hence, the nobility became less important. Moreover, these nobles were completely excluded from the government. All Ottoman bureaucrats were slaves to the sultan, as I have noted, without rights and subject to the sultan’s will. This meant that, over time, the ruling class moved further away from other Muslims, and when the sultans’ slaves became too powerful for him to control there was no counterbalance within the Ottoman Empire to prevent a takeover, which is what eventually happened.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s ascendancy was obviously over. The days of easy conquest had passed and the Empire’s social structure changed to the point where traditional methods of governance no longer worked. For example, from 1590 to 1634, the Janissaries essentially ran the Empire in their own interests. And while this was going on, armed bands began to appear in Anatolia, ravaging the countryside. In addition, European navies began to takeover the oceans. The Spanish, English, and Dutch navies began to extend their influence into the Mediterranean, and the Ottomans were completely unable to keep the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the development of an Atlantic economy, with sources of wealth independent from traditional trade routes, dealt the Ottomans a serious blow. Ottoman control of ancient trade routes was, suddenly, no longer important. Moreover, the flood of Spanish silver that reached Europe from the new world had a powerful effect on Ottoman commerce, driving down the value of the Ottoman currency. By 1584, Ottoman money had dropped 50% in value from the 15th century. Thus, slowly, the Ottomans’ merchant wealth began to dry up, and Middle East became an economic backwater. Cultural decline soon followed.
As a result of the basic economic changes, the Ottoman Empire became a cultural backwater. Its long history of military superiority bred a deep-seated cultural arrogance in the ruling class, and many came to believe that infidel cultures had nothing to offer. Thus, the same dynasty that once readily borrowed military and naval techniques from the west, now professed nothing but disinterest in foreign ways. For example, although Mehmed II still read Greek literature in translation, Suleiman the Magnificent had no interest in learning anything from outside the Muslim cultural sphere. Another example, and more telling, is that the Ottomans ignored the printing press, largely because it was a western invention. The first print shop in the Empire was only opened in 1726 and was closed again in 1742 after having produced fewer than twenty books. In general, the west’s great increases in technological and intellectual power, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were contemptuously ignored.
The resulting loss of military power became clear soon. In 1606, the Sultan signed the first negotiated peace with a western power. In the east, as you know, the Safavid Shah Abbas retook Baghdad in 1603. There was a brief period of revival from 1656 to 1676 under the reformist Grand Vizier Köprülü. The temporary increase in strength that derived from Köprülü’s leadership allowed the sultans to lay siege to Vienna a second time in 1683. This was, however, the Ottomans’ high-water mark and structural problems meant that the impending collapse was severe. In 1699, the Ottomans were forced to sign a humiliating peace with the Habsburgs at Karlowitz that ceded most of Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Morea, and Dalmatia to Austria. In 1702, the Russians annexed Azov. And both powers would take more during the 18th century. The Ottoman Empire would not officially end until 1922. From the Peace of Karlowitz on, however, the impetus clearly lay with the European powers. Europeans were wealthier, technologically more advanced, and would soon outshine the Ottomans in their cultural achievements as well.

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