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5.9: The Ottoman Empire

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  • The single most powerful state of the early modern period in the region of Western Civilization was not based in Europe, but the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire. As an aside, In many Western Civilization texts, the Ottomans are given a cursory treatment, treated as a kind of faceless threat to European states rather than being described in adequate detail. That is both ironic and unfortunate, since the Ottoman Empire was the very model of a successful early-modern state, politically centralized, economically prosperous, and engaged in not just warfare but an enormous amount of commerce with other states, very much including the states of Europe.

    The Ottoman Empire originated in various small Turkish kingdoms that were left in the wake of the devastating Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. The Turks are an interrelated group of peoples originating in Central Asia; they spoke various related dialects and share a common ethnic origin. Traditionally, along with the Mongol people further to their east, the Turks were among the most fierce steppe nomads, living by herding animals and raiding the “civilized” lands to their south and west.

    The Turks began the transition from steppe nomads to the rulers of settled kingdoms by the tenth century, culminating with the Seljuk invasion of the eleventh century. The Turks were driven by two motivations: the tradition of warfare against non-Muslims, and the straightforward interest in looting defeated enemies. They made frequent war against Byzantium, the Arab Muslims states, and, as often, against each other. While organized initially along tribal and clan lines, they took pains to imitate the more settled Islamic empires that had come before them by practicing Islamic (shariah) law and sponsoring Islamic scholarship. In the early fourteenth century, a Seljuk lord named Osman captured a significant chunk of territory from the Byzantines in Anatolia, and he founded a dynasty named after his clan, anglicized to “Ottoman.”

    The Ottomans went on to conquer vast territories, including both the lands of the earlier Caliphates and, for the first time, parts of Europe that had never before been held by Islamic rulers, including the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, and the Balkans. In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan (king) Mehmet II succeeded in conquering Constantinople and, with it, the remnants of Byzantium itself. He moved the capital of his empire to Constantinople and restored it to its former glory. By his death in 1481, it was once again one of the great cities of Europe, and by 1600 its population had reached 700,000, making it the largest city in Europe or the Middle East. The capture of Constantinople inaugurated a new phase of Ottoman history, one in which the Ottomans saw themselves as the inheritors not only of the earlier Islamic states, but of the Roman Empire as well.

    Over the course of the sixteenth century, relying on a newly-constructed navy, the Ottomans first crippled the Venetian commercial empire and then conquered various islands in the Mediterranean and territories in North Africa. They conquered Egypt in 1517 when the Ottomans defeated a rival Turkic empire, the Mamluks. The Ottomans were the first major empire to take full advantage of the gunpowder revolution of the fifteenth century: their armies excelled at using muskets and field guns at a time when most European armies still relied on pikes and even bows. Ottoman armies were well-trained and well-provisioned, and they consistently bested European armies in open battle.

    Also in the sixteenth century, the Ottomans conquered the western coast of the Arabian peninsula, and with it the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Through a somewhat questionable story about a survivor of the Mongol attacks and his descendants, the Ottoman Sultans claimed the title of Caliph, or spiritual head of the entire Sunni Muslim world. Thus, by the mid-sixteenth century, the Ottomans not only ruled a vast empire, they were the acknowledged spiritual leaders of the majority of Muslims in the world.

    The Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520 – 1566) carried out a stunning series of expansions and conquests during the sixteenth century. His armies occupied the Balkans, then Hungary, and ultimately laid siege to Vienna in 1529, something that would have been unthinkable a century earlier. By his death in 1566, the Ottoman Empire was one of the largest in the world, exceeding the territory that had been held by Byzantium even at its height.

    Map of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe displaying the vast territories within the Ottoman Empire.
    Figure 5.9.1: The Ottoman Empire at the start of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

    Even though there was unquestionably a religious component to Ottoman conquests, the empire itself was comparatively tolerant, something that helps to explain its longevity. Regional governors were dismissed if they were so heavy-handed or intolerant that their subjects rose up in rebellion. Non-Muslims were officially tolerated as dhimmis, protected peoples, who had to pay a special tax but were not compelled to convert to Islam. Both the Christian patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the head of the Jewish congregation of Constantinople (as well as the Armenian Christian patriarch) were official members of the Sultan’s court, with each religious leader carrying both the privilege and the responsibility of representing their respective religious communities to the Ottoman government. They oversaw their own distinct educational systems and were responsible for tax collection among their communities, referred to as millets. To be clear, non-Muslims were held in a socially and legally secondary position within Ottoman society, but they still enjoyed vastly better status and treatment than did religious minorities in Christian kingdoms in Europe at the time.

    Another great strength for the Ottoman state was its use of soldiers and officials who were officially the slaves of the Sultan. The very core of the Ottoman armies, after the conquest of Christian lands formerly held by Byzantium, was the Janissaries, Christians who were taken as slaves as young adolescents and trained in both war and administration back in Istanbul, after being converted to Islam. These men were the most powerful individuals in the empire, yet were technically the slaves of the Sultan himself. Their children were free, and at least during the height of Ottoman power through the seventeenth century, their children did not inherit Janissary status. This ensured that people of importance in the system were valued for competence instead of just inheritance. The Ottomans developed an enormous and highly organized bureaucracy well before the “absolutist” monarchs of Europe tried to do the same. By the sixteenth century, the bureaucracy was divided between the highest officers, recruited from the Christian slave system, and the middle ranks, consisting of free Muslims.

    The height of Ottoman power was the late sixteenth century; their chronological trajectory in that sense matches Spain’s, which enjoyed its real flowering at the same time after a century of plundering the New World. While the Ottoman Empire stopped expanding by the end of the sixteenth century, it remained one of the most powerful states in the entire region of the Mediterranean for centuries to come.