The Ottoman Empire was an institution that lasted more than 600 years. During its lifespan, the Americas were discovered, the Tudors ruled England, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fought, and the Industrial Revolution took over the world.
We moved from using swords and bows for weapons to using cannons and guns. By the time the empire fell, the Wright brothers had already taken us to the skies.
But for an empire that lasted such a long time and was so influential, surprisingly few Westerners know much about it. But the history of the Ottoman Empire is as fascinating as it is long.
Read on to learn more about this empire and how it shaped the course of history.
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The Ottoman Empire got its start in what is now Turkey around the fourteenth century. A small group of Turkish warriors migrated north from Central Asia and established themselves in Iran and Mesopotamia in the mid-eleventh century. By the twelfth century, they occupied the central Anatolian peninsula, and they began to fight against the Byzantines and the Mongols.
As military power shifted, independent Turkish principalities began to emerge, and one of them was led by a man named Osman. Osman’s warriors rampaged across Anatolia, defeating Byzantine towns and taking over a huge swath of territory. By the time Osman’s grandson Murad I took power, the Empire had begun to gain a solid foothold in Anatolia.
By 1359, the new Ottoman Empire had taken control of a large portion of northwestern Anatolia. From that foothold, they began to expand their power.
By 1361, they captured Adrianople, the second-largest Byzantine city, renaming it Edirne and making it their new capital. This defeat was crucial to the success of the empire. It provided a strategic center point for them to defend the territory they’d defeated and expanded further into the north.
By 1389, Murad had captured Macedonia, central Bulgaria, and Serbia. Only Walachia (now Romania), Bosnia, Albania, Greece, and one Serbian fort remained outside of his control.
The years after Murad’s death were characterized by annexations, but his son, Bayezid, was not as strong a leader as his father had been. He was taken prisoner by the leader of the Tatar empire and died in 1402.
After Bayezid’s death, his four sons fought over who would get to rule the sizeable empire that had been left to them. Eventually, Mehmed defeated his brothers and took back undisputed control of the entire empire. He then ushered in a new period of expansion for the Ottoman Empire.
By 1451, the empire had begun to expand their control to the Greek mainland. Not only did they control most of western Anatolia at this point, but they also had control of all of Greece, Macedonia, Albania, and part of what is now Romania.
In 1453, the empire finally conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul. This feat made Mehmed, the ruler at the time, the most famous emperor in the Muslim world.
Throughout all this conquest, the role of the ruler of the Ottoman Empire was shifting. When Osman began his expansion, he was little more than a simple tribal ruler. He shared military and administrative power with other tribal chiefs, and he only commanded their loyalty as long as he led them to victory.
But as the empire began to expand, its leaders began to take on more centralized power.
The empire created a more organized power structure, based in part on the existing Byzantine power structures that it had inherited. They began to collect taxes to keep distant lands in check and to support their military ventures abroad.
Sultan Mehmed II came to power in 1451. Although he only ruled for thirty years, his reign set the building blocks for an empire that would last for 400 years.
He began his legacy with the capture of Constantinople and, from there, began to build an empire with all the power and influence that the Byzantines had held. He worked to reestablish Istanbul as a center of trade and culture, and abroad, he was taking steps to expand the borders of the empire.
Mehmed annexed Serbia in 1455 and resumed the war against the Venetian empire, which his successors had abandoned. He conquered his enemies to the east, too, extending Ottoman rule in Anatolia to the Euphrates.
In 1479, he worked out a treaty with Venice. This treaty gave the empire control of Albania and the Morea, as well as a regular annual tribute from the city-state.
Mehmed II ushered in the largest era of wealth and power that the Ottoman Empire ever saw. His direct successor, Bayezid II, spent most of his reign consolidating power in the existing territories and resolving a variety of political, economic, and social problems.
However, his son, Selim, was more focused on conquest.
In 1517, Selim conquered the Mamluk empire, which spanned much of the rest of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the northern parts of Egypt and Libya. In that one-year-long campaign, Selim nearly doubled the size of his empire to span much of the Mediterranean.
This conquest left the Ottoman emperor not only the rulers of the holy places of Islam and the cultural center of Istanbul but also the power controlling the trade routes around the Mediterranean.
Selim’s son, Suleyman I, inherited a position of more wealth, power, and influence than any previous emperor had held. His reign is considered to be the golden age in the empire’s history when the classical Ottoman society was established.
This society was so influential that we still see its patterns extending into modern times.
During this time of peace, arts and architecture flourished. People could rise and fall through a society based on whether they could achieve and maintain certain attributes. Many other elements of Ottoman culture, including music, food, poetry, and prose, began to reach the height of sophistication.
But nothing good can last, and Suleyman’s reign also marked the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire. The age of prosperity was widely enjoyed by all, and most of all, the sultan. But this softer lifestyle left Suleyman and his empire vulnerable to rebellion.
Suleyman began to withdraw from public life to enjoy time with his harem, leaving a grand vizier the central authority. But dividing the public loyalty to the sultan and the central administration of the grand vizier left the government weak and unable to impose its will.
The devshirme class saw an opportunity and began to take over large pieces of the government for themselves.
At this same time, the Dutch and British closed down old trade routes in the Middle East. This left the empire economically challenged. And a growing population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created social unrest as people struggled to grow enough to feed themselves.
Rebel factions began to emerge, and by the late 1600s, unbeknownst to its foreign allies and enemies, the Ottoman Empire was beginning to crumble from within.
Soon, however, the empire’s European enemies began to figure out that the empire wasn’t doing as well as they would have everyone believe. They saw an opportunity, and several different groups began working to take their old territory back from the Ottomans.
The question of who would rule the East began to emerge once more.
The Hapsburgs set out to recapture Hungary, Serbia, and the Balkans, and Venice started trying to regain its naval bases along the Adriatic Coast. Russia wanted to extend its influence through the Bosphorus and down to the Aegean.
Only France and Sweden tried to support the empire, and the rest of Europe joined in on the power grab.
Not only were the various nations in Europe working to take back their territory from the Ottoman Empire, but the internal unrest continued.
A series of weak sultans had shattered public confidence in the monarchy, a fact that was not helped by the court’s habit of keeping its princes as sheltered and uneducated as possible. There were no strong rulers who could unite the crumbling empire to face their external enemies.
Nobles began to form their private armies and ruled areas that resembled kingdoms more than anything else. And because most citizens benefited from the anarchy happening in the government, there was a lot of resistance to any efforts at change.
This also combined with isolation from Western culture that left many citizens believing that the military defeats were not due to the prowess of the European armies, but a failure of Ottoman generals to use the techniques that had worked so well in the past.
By 1807, the sultanate had grown so weak that the sultan of the time, Selim III, was overthrown and imprisoned in his palace.
A conservative resurgence under the sultan Mustafa IV took over, spreading a message of nationalism spurred on by agents of Russia, Austria, and Revolutionary France. They ended any reforms Selim had been trying to make and murdered most of the reformers.
There were some efforts to restore Selim to power, but these just resulted in his death. Mustafa IV didn’t have a very long reign, and in 1808, his cousin Mahmud II came to power. Mahmud would prove the last great hope of the Ottoman Empire.
Mahmud was able to work out a treaty with the Russians and then concentrate on unifying internal power. He recentralized the government and was able to consolidate power back with a centralized government.
But the lost Ottoman territories could not be recovered.
The empire had lost control of Egypt and Serbia, and their control over Greece was slipping. They did have control of Anatolia, Iraq, and much of Rumelia, but by 1832, they were forced to grant the Greeks independence, and the long series of compromises and reforms began.
Mahmud II’s sons began introducing a series of reforms that have been the subject of much debate.
Some believe they were attempts to improve and strengthen Ottoman society, while others say they were an effort to gain favor with vital European powers at the time. However, the power of the sultanate was lost for good, and a series of settlements began to strip the empire of more and more territory.
A series of internal revolts also left the government weak and unable to unite its citizens. In 1876, a constitution was signed in an attempt to keep public peace and unity. But groups like the Young Turks revolted, leaving the empire weaker than ever.
By 1914, there were just 25 million Ottoman citizens left, and World War I devastated what was left of the empire. The empire fought in the war, but the land divisions in the treaties following the war were the empire’s death knell.
The Ottoman Empire was an amazing institution that spanned the bridge from the ancient world to the modern world. Over 600 years, they rose to enormous heights of power and prestige, ruling much of the land north and east of the Mediterranean. And even though the Ottoman Empire is gone today, we still hear the echoes of the great society they once were.
If you’d like to experience the Ottoman Empire for yourself, come travel with us at Made in Turkey Tours. We can take you on guided, personalized tours of Turkey and much of the land where the Ottomans once held power. Contact us today and begin your journey in the footsteps of the great men who once held power over the most influential regions of the ancient world.