We often forget about the Ottoman Empire when looking at the history of Europe in the sixteenth century. We’re often more concerned with developments in Christianity, with the rise of the Spanish, British, and Dutch empires, and with the exploration of the New World.
Yet, the Ottomans were not merely a bunch of Muslim warriors with whom Europe fought for centuries. The most interesting thing about them is not the common legend of the Sultan disguising himself as a common man and prowling the streets at night – nor is it the endless stories of royal fratricide (the acting of killing one’s sibling) or of princes with multiple wives.
Rather, the Ottoman Empire was a highly successful, culturally rich, and relatively liberal political body whose legacy is still felt today.
The Ottoman Empire was centred in Istanbul, where the Sultan resided, and it lasted for just over six centuries – from roughly 1301 to 1922, when it collapsed after the First World War.
The territory it covered was spread over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, in modern day Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It stretched from the south of Algeria right up to the River Danube.
You may well have heard of Suleiman the Magnificent – who ruled in the sixteenth century between 1520 and 1566. These years are known as the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, at a time when he was attempting to conquer territories in Persia, Austria, and Russia.
The tide changed a little for the Turkish after 1571, when the Ottoman navy took a beating at the hands of the coordinated forces of the Europeans – under the leadership of the Pope. After this, their influence in Europe slowly faded and, after further failed campaigns, the Empire entered into centuries-long decline.
The map of the Ottoman Empire’s territory over the centuries.
Osman I is generally credited with inaugurating the Ottoman Empire – as it is named after him!
He was a tribesman from Anatolia – an area of Turkey – whose father is thought to have led his tribe there to escape from the Mongolian Empire in the mid-thirteenth century. Whilst leading one of many tribes in Anatolia at the time, Osman’s success came through the fact that he increased his territories by attacking the Byzantine Empire (the end of the Roman Empire) based in Constantinople (previously known as Byzantium).
One hundred and fifty years later, in 1453, Osman’s Empire – now under the leadership of Mehmed the Conqueror – laid siege to Constantinople and conquered it for the first time in a thousand years. They renamed the city Istanbul – the City of Islam – and established there the seat of the Ottoman Empire.
Anatolia was where the Ottoman Empire originated.
Following the capture of Istanbul, Ottoman power enjoyed over a century of almost uninterrupted glory. The armies under Bayezid, Selim I, and Suleiman, ‘The Grand Turk’, captured territories including Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, and Egypt.
Throughout this period, Imperial Turkey flourished. However, after Suleiman – with the ruler, Selim II, on the throne – things began to change: Turks began to revolt, the Ottomans were defeated by European armies, and the dynasty’s imperial might began slowly to wane.
During the Golden Age of the Ottomans, the Sultanate took advantage of the hugely significant location of Istanbul to enhance its trading and commercial power.
Istanbul has always sat at a very strategic place in the trading routes between east and west – between Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Ottomans traded with China in the far east and with Venice in Italy – and they benefited hugely from the flow of expensive goods, including silk, dyes, and spices, throughout Asia Minor. The Ottoman conquest of Yemen, for example, brought Turkish control of the region’s coffee, which, when sold in the Egyptian capital, made Cairo an incredibly prosperous city.
Many of the Empire’s conquests were attempts to gain control of different trade routes. The Turkish navy controlled much of the Mediterranean, whilst overland they pursued trade wars with Russia. As Portugal was attempting to build its presence in the Indian Ocean, the Ottomans fought determinedly to maintain their influence there.
The years under Suleiman were an incredibly fruitful time for Ottoman art. Huge developments took place in Islamic calligraphy, poetry, painting, music, and ceramics. Mathematics, chemistry, and philosophy were all practiced, and it is thought that a lot of the surgical instruments we use now in medicine were invented by the Ottoman Turks.
The architect Sinan has been credited with changing the face of the Middle East under Suleiman, whilst European artists – such as Titian and Bellini – spent time in Istanbul too.
The enmity and distrust felt between early modern Europe and the Ottoman’s was in part based on religion: Europe was aggressively Christian whilst the Turks were Muslim.
Whilst the Ottoman has now been recognised as being a very religiously liberal regime, there were many horror stories at the time regarding the role of Islam. Much literature and propaganda were disseminated – such as Shakespeare’s play Othello – which spread suspicion of Islam.
The Turkish were thought to have forcibly converted many Christians to Islam, and the devshirme system took prisoner twenty percent of male children from the Christians that were captured. They were converted and used as slaves or trained in government.
Suleiman, however, was both a religious and political leader. He developed lots of primary schools for religious and literacy education, and the title of Sultan included responsibilities as the protector of Islam. Unlike in most of Christian Europe, Jewish people had a very important role in Ottoman society, and they were actively encouraged to come to Istanbul.
It is well worth thinking about how exactly the Ottomans survived for so long – and how their techniques of government enabled a single family to rule for nearly seven centuries!
The Ottoman government was known for its strong centralisation and stability. Whilst this was a testament to the strength of the royal family, the dynastic continuity came with a murderous side – as royal sons plotted against each other to ensure succession for themselves.
A common legend about the Ottomans is that the Sultan would often disguise himself to exit from his palace, Topkapi, and check on officials – to ensure that everyone was performing his duty correctly. He also surrounded himself with knowledgeable statesman. However, the Sultan’s word would be final.
Alongside the central strength of the absolute monarchy, the Ottomans maintained power – and spread their reach through the conquest of new lands – with an incredibly strong army. This has been thought to have been populated largely by slaves – yet the skill and knowledge of the military and naval leaders made the Ottoman armies feared and renowned.
Like all great empires, the Ottomans in Istanbul finally lost their grip on power and on the people that they dominated. But, in this case, the process of deterioration continued for centuries.
A major turning point for the Ottoman Empire was in 1571 when they fought and lost a major naval battle with the Holy Roman Empire at Lepanto. Following the magnificent reign of Suleiman, this event suggested to all the world that the Turkish navy was no longer invincible.
Some two hundred Turkish boats were destroyed, along with forty thousand men being killed. This number included many of their most brilliant naval officers – and this signalled the end of Turkish domination in the Mediterranean. Thousands of Christian prisoners were also freed.
The Battle of Lepanto was a major defeat for the Ottoman Empire.
After this battle, which historians think started the Empire’s decline, the Turkish seventeenth century was marred by a number of military defeats. The most significant of these was probably the Siege of Vienna in 1683, which ended in failure.
This was the second attempt by the Ottomans to capture Vienna (with the first in 1529), but this particular failure halted Turkish attempts to conquer further land in Europe. This tactical decision meant that the Turks failed to accumulate further land, and the Empire started to stagnate.
Military failures besides, there were further factors that consolidated the decline of the Ottoman Empire.