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The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire is often seen, by Europeans at any rate, as a huge but ramshackle state which was no match for the more dynamic nations of Europe.

In fact it was one of the great empires of world history, with huge achievements to its name. For more than two centuries it was feared by contemporary Europeans as an existential threat to their own civilization. In an age of European bigotry, when Christians were killing other Christians on a massive scale, it was a model of enlightenment and tolerance.

As for its long decline into a ramshackle state, this has been greatly exaggerated in popular European imagination. Even in the late 19th century it was able to actually strengthen its rule across much of the Middle East, and its famous turning back of a determined modern European army at Gallipoli in the First World War shows that ideas of terminal decline are wide of the mark.

The origins and early growth of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire emerged in Anatolia (Asia Minor, in modern Turkey) during the 13th and 14th centuries, and spread throughout south-western Europe, much of the Middle East and North Africa during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Its extent, duration and impact made it one of the greatest empires in world history.

The word “Ottoman” derive from the name “Osman”, a minor Turkish warlord of the late 13th/early 14th century who founded the line of rulers who would later conquer and rule the “Ottoman” (Osmani) empire.

Osman was the leader of one of several small Muslim principalities on the borders with the Byzantine Empire. These ghazi (warrior) emirates had come to cover much of western Anatolia during the late 13th century, as the Seljuq sultanate of Rum broke up. They were small, highly militarized states whose main purpose was to wage war in the name of Islam against the Christian Byzantines. Their organization owed much to their roots on the steppes of central Asia. The ghazi warriors were Turkish nomads; they fought on horseback and were armed with bows, arrows and spears. They were formed into bands under warrior chiefs, and lived mostly on booty from raids, plus tribute levied on the farming populations of the lands they occupied.

The principalities were thus made up of a number of small lordships, whose chiefs owed fealty to the prince (bey). The bey,  however, had only limited authority over the subordinate chiefs, and even then only while he enjoyed their confidence and respect (which in realty meant, while he led them on profitable raids which brought back plenty of booty).

Expansion in Asia Minor and southeastern Europe

Osman’s successors extended their rule in Anatolia, at the expense of the Byzantine Empire but also of other ghazi principalities. During the 14th century Ottoman rule came to cover western Asia Minor, and by the end of the century Ottoman forces had crossed over into southeast Europe and were taking territory, not only from the Byzantines but also from other Christian nations such as the Bulgarians and Serbs. In 1396 they crushed a Christian army sent on crusade to stop their advance at the battle of Nicopolis, in western Greece.

As they expanded, the Ottoman rulers acquired immense prestige within the Islamic world, and after their victory at Nicopolis were recognized by the title of sultan by other Muslim rulers.

Internal changes

The Ottoman rulers had not only acquired new territories; they had also gained greatly in authority within their territories.

Newly-conquered land was divided up into fiefs (timars) which the sultan assigned to subordinate chiefs on condition that the revenue they yielded was used to feed, supply and arm the chiefs’ men for the sultan’s service. During this process, the prerogatives of individual chiefs were limited and regularized, and set more firmly within the overall authority of the sultan.

The balance of power thus shifted decisively away from the ghazi warlords and towards the sultan and his court, which became increasingly elaborate, based on the older Islamic and Byzantine models.

New stresses

New stresses had emerged in the state, however. The more distant and longer campaigns of conquest, however, had shown up the limitations of the ghazi warriors. These undisciplined cavalrymen, with their penchant for raiding and looting rather than long, hard campaigns, were not suited to the new conditions.

The sultans therefore organized a separate standing army made up of hired mercenaries. Most of these were Christian soldiers from the Balkans. The army was officered and commanded by members of the Turkish nobility (i.e. the families of former ghazi chiefs). Much of the newly conquered lands in Europe were assigned to this group in the form of timars.

The older nomadic cavalry forces were stationed along the frontiers as irregular shock troops, compensated only by booty.

The Janissaries

The new standing army, however, soon became a power-base for powerful generals, who posed a new threat to the position of the sultan. In the late 14th century, therefore, the sultans responded by creating a military force composed of their own personal slaves. This was the origin of the famous Janissary corps, who would prove to be amongst the finest troops in the world at that time.

Timur the Lame

Unfortunately this process was only in its early stages when a great conquer from central Asia, Timur the Lame, attacked the Ottomans from the east. In the battle of Ankara (1402), Timur crushed the Ottoman forces (mostly made up of Christian mercenaries and Turkish cavalry), and took the sultan prisoner. Although Timur was dead within a few years, the Ottoman realm had been thrown into chaos. It was engulfed by civil wars, and recently-conquered territories in Asia Minor and southwest Europe broke free from its control.


After ten years stability was restored by the forceful sultans Mehmed I (reigned 1413-21) and Murad II (reigned 1421-44 and 1446-51 – Murad abdicated the throne to live a contemplative life but was asked back by his son, Mehmed, at that time only a teenager and struggling with the awesome responsibilities of rule).

The lost territories were gradually recovered, and expansion was renewed with victories over the Hungarians and Poles at the battles of Varna (1444) and Kosovo (1448). Internally, the centralizing policies of earlier sultans were renewed with greater purpose. The Janissary corps became the most important element of the Ottoman army, and to man it Murad inaugurated the devsirme system, whereby the best Christian youths from southeastern Europe were recruited as slaves into the sultan’s personal service, converted to Islam and trained in both military and administrative matters.

From now on, indeed, accepting the status of a slave of the sultan’s was the only way to hold positions in the Ottoman army or administration. State service was open to all, including members of the Turkish nobility and their followers (sipahis), so long as they swore absolute obedience to the sultan, and devoted their lives, properties, and families to him. Now, all government servants, from ordinary Janissary infantrymen up to chief minister at court, were technically slaves in the personal service of the sultan. Under Murad, the Ottomans established the principle that all members of the ruling class were subject to the absolute will of the sultan.

The capture of Constantinople and its aftermath

The succession of great sultans continued with Mehmed II (the “Conqueror” – reigned 1444-6 and 1451-81). His immediate objective was the capture of the great Christian city of Constantinople. He gathered his forces, which included some huge cannons, and encircled the city by land and sea; after a two-month’s siege the city fell.

Mehmed’s first act was to convert the Hagia Sophia, up to now one of Christendom’s most famous cathedrals, into a mosque. Very soon he moved the Ottoman capital to Constantinople, and set about rebuilding its public edifices and repairing its defenses. He took steps to repopulate it, and it was soon once again the large, thriving city it had been for more than thousand years.

More conquests

With little pause, Mehmed continued his conquests. The remaining pockets of Byzantine territory in Greece and Asia Minor were soon occupied by the Ottomans. He conquered Albania and the Adriatic coast up to Bosnia, invaded and occupied much of Serbia, attacked Moldavia, conquered the Crimea, and fought a successful war with the Kara Koyunlu (White Sheep Turks), who had posed a threat from the east.

The Ottoman Empire at its height

In the early 16th century, the center of gravity of the empire from Europe to the Middle East with sultan Selim I’s conquest of the Mamluq sultanate (1516-17). This had covered Syria, Egypt and much of Arabia, and thus constituted a dramatic expansion of the Ottoman Empire. It also placed the most holy sites in the Muslim world, the cities of Mecca and Medina, under Ottoman protection, thus further enhancing the prestige of the Ottoman sultans.

The Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power under its famous sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66). He completed the conquest of Serbia, and brought most of Hungary under Ottoman rule. He advanced as far as Vienna, one of the most important European capitals at that period, but failed to capture the city (1529). Further conquests followed in the Balkans and eastern Europe, as well as in the east, where Ottoman forces took Baghdad and most of the rest of Iraq from the Safavid Empire (1535), and in Africa, where territories were acquired as far south as the Sudan and Somalia (1559).

After Suleiman

After the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, a series of weak sultans sat on the Ottoman throne. Perhaps also Ottoman expansion had over-reached itself under Sulemein. The Ottomans suffered reverses to their naval power in the Mediterranean with their failure to capture the island of Malta from a comparatively small group of Christian knights (1565), and in the defeat of their navy at the hands of a Christian fleet at the battle of Lepanto (1571). They also experienced some significant reverses against Persia, in the east. Ottoman expansion in North Africa continued, however, and much territory was recovered from the Persians in 1639. The island of Crete was conquered from the Venetians in 1669, and further conquests were made in the Ukraine.

Society under the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman society was divided between a small ruling class of Ottomans, on the one hand, and the rest of the population, on the other. The task of the ruling class was to govern and defend the state; the rest of the population formed the “protected flock” (rayas) of the sultan, whose job was to produce the wealth without which the empire could not function, by working in farming, trade or industry, and then paying a portion of their earnings to the sultan in the form of taxes.

The Ottoman ruling class

To be a member of the Ottoman ruling class an individual needed to profess loyalty to the sultan, be a practicing Muslim; and conform to a complex system of behavior and manners known as the Ottoman Way. 

Ordinary subjects who were able to rise to this standard could become members of the ruling class; while Ottomans, even of long pedigree, who failed to do so found themselves excluded.

Members of the ruling class were technically slaves of the sultan (see above).  Strangely to Western ideas, as slaves they occupied the highest rank in Ottoman society; however, their properties, lives, and persons were entirely at the sultan’s disposal.

The ruling class was itself divided along functional lines: the military establishment; the bureaucracy (or scribal institution), organized around the imperial treasury; and the religious hierarchy, the ulama. This last was not only responsible for leading worship in the mosques and maintaining purity of religious doctrine, it was also in charge of the religious (Sharia) courts.

These three hierarchies were presided over by a fourth institution, the palace, headed by the sultan himself. This provided the leadership and direction for the other institutions, and therefore for the whole of Ottoman society.

Ottoman fiefs

Members of the Ottoman ruling class were either remunerated by salaries, as were the Janissaries, or by the proceeds of fiefs (mukâṭaʿa) granted them by the sultan.

These bore only a loose resemblance to the kind of fiefs prevalent in western Medieval Europe; in particular they did not confer any of the rights that the European fief-holder enjoyed, and they were not inheritable. They came in three kinds: timars, emanets, and iltizāms.

The timar-holder had the rights to all the revenue from his estate, in return for serving the sultan in a specified capacity (officer in the Janissary corps, administrative official, and so on). Timars were often granted in lieu of a salary, though sometimes they came in addition to one. Originally, the timar-holders had been ghazi chieftains, but over time the Janissary class came to predominate.

The emanet-holder, on the other hand, forwarded all the earnings of his fief to the treasury. In return he had a salary. His job was the administer his fief, which usually did not take the form of a landed estate but of an administrative office, such as customs collector or market supervisor. As such, emanets were closely supervised by the central government.

The most common kind of fief, and the most prevalent type of administrative unit in the Ottoman system, was the tax farm. The tax farmer could keep only a portion of the tax he collected, turning the rest over to the treasury. Most of the empire’s Asian territories were administered in this way.

The subject class

The Millet

The basic divisions of the bulk of the population of the Ottoman Empire was between the different religious groups. Each of these formed a self-contained religious community called a millet, whose members lived by their own laws and customs. Each millet was headed by a religious leader responsible to the sultan for the loyalty and behavior of all the millet members, and for the fulfillment of the tax obligations they had. Probably the best-known millet was made up of the millions of members of the Orthodox Church, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Other millets were for Armenian Christians, Syrian Christians, Jews and Roman Catholics. The Jewish community, which was scattered throughout the empire (especially after 1492 when large numbers of Jewish refugees from Spain made their home in Ottoman dominions), formed one of the largest millets in the Ottoman Empire.

Each millet was responsible for such matters as marriage, divorce, birth and death, health and education for its members. It maintained its own courts, administering justice according to their own customs, and policed the behavior of its members.

There was constant tension, sometimes turning violent, between different millets, notably the Orthodox and Jewish ones; but on the whole the system worked well in keeping a multi-cultural society comparatively peaceful.


Apart from the millet, another important institution in Ottoman society was the guild. There were guilds for many different occupations, and, as with guilds in other parts of the world, they were responsible for maintaining quality and setting prices, and also caring for members and their family who had fallen on hard times.

To some extent, the guild system dove-tailed with the millet system as particular occupations tended to be monopolized by members of one religious community or another. Some trades, however, were practiced by members of different religions, and in these cases guild membership crossed religious boundaries. Members of different religions were required to work together for their common wellbeing.

Law in the Ottoman Empire

Law in the Ottoman Empire did not form one monolithic system. As we have seen, each non-Muslim religious community, or millet, followed its own laws. The Muslim majority was under the sharia, or Muslim religious law, and civil law

The sharia covered all aspects of life for the Muslim, being particularly prescriptive of matters of personal behavior, especially where such issues had affected the early Muslim community and were therefore reflected in the Qurʾān and early Muslim tradition. On matters of public, social or economic concern it was less developed, and the religious establishment, the ulama, recognized the right of the sultan to enact civil laws so long as these did not conflict with the principles embodied in the sharia.

The sultan therefore had considerable leeway to issue secular laws to meet the practical needs of society. This was particularly beneficial in a multi-cultural society where many disputes had to be settled across religious lines.

The “Long Decline” of the Ottoman Empire

As noted above, Suleiman the Magnificent was followed on the throne by several weak sultans. Under them, factionalism at court, already apparent in the later reign of Suleiman, grew worse. Alliances between senior court officials with women in the harem eager to place their infant sons on throne created an atmosphere of intrigue. High office often went to court officials with affiliations to dominant factions rather than those with ability and experience.

Weakening administration

This situation allowed corruption to spread throughout the administration and the army – posts in these were increasingly regarded as sources of income rather than substantive jobs. Laxly supervised tax farmers made harsh demands on their cultivators, leading in some cases to the latter fleeing their land. Brigandage increased and some peasant rebellions even broke out.

Another result of the spread of corruption was that many timar-holders were able to convert their holdings into private property, thus depriving the state of the services that they were meant to ensure.

Economic conditions

Moreover, economic conditions deteriorated for the Ottoman Empire. European exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries led to new maritime routes to the East coming into operation. This meant that the overland trade routes across the Middle East became less important, weakening the commerce of the empire and reducing customs revenues for the treasury.

To make matters worse, the flood of silver from the Americas led to inflation in the Middle East, just as it did in Europe. This was aggravated by the government’s response, which was to debase the coinage. Salaried government officials found their standard of living declining, and this encouraged them to further acts of corruption and extortion.

Continued successes

Nevertheless, the Ottomans were still generally feared by Europeans, at least up to the second siege of Vienna (1683, see below). The empire suffered defeats, but it scored victories as well, and continued to advance its territories. It was under sultan Murad III (reigned 1574-95) that the Ottoman Empire reached its maximum extent with the conquest of the northern Caucasus. This expansion brought wealthy new provinces into the empire.

Early Reform

Moreover, the Ottoman state remained capable of responding constructively to declining standards of government. Under sultans Osman II (reigned 1618–22) and Murad IV (1623–40), and then under a line of capable viziers of the Köprülü family, who held office during the long reign of Mehmed IV (1648–87), corrupt officials were punished, timars were restored to the state, tax farms were properly supervised and limitations set on how much tax they could demand, revolts were put down and brigands suppressed. Cultivated land expanded again, and industry and trade were encouraged. A sound coinage was introduced to counter inflation.

These reforms were not enough to restore Ottoman strength viz-a-viz its European enemies, however. Since Suleiman’s time, European nations had made huge progress in military technology, training and organization, and had developed of the most advanced firearm armies in the world. Ottoman contact with the West was still limited, and knowledge of what was going on there was superficial at best. The years between 1717 and 1730 are known as the Tulip Period, when the Ottoman court began to imitate Europe courtly dress and behavior, as seen, for example, at the King of France’s palace of Versailles. Western-style architecture made its appearance in Constantinople and its environs. Ottomans of all ranks took up the pastime of growing tulips (still a Turkish passion). The first printed books began making their appearance in the Ottoman Empire. These helped to open the eyes of educated Ottomans to the world beyond their borders, but aroused the hostility of the influential scribal class, who saw in printing a threat to their interests.

Some military innovations also took place in the 18th century, but only at the margins. European military advantage was not as yet large enough to provoke deep-seated change, nor to prevent Ottoman successes. In the 1680s, the Ottoman army pushed the Austrians back and made a second attempt to capture the Austrian capital, Vienna, in 1683.

Ottoman retreats

Like the first attempt more than a century before, this failed; and in fact it marked the high water mark of Ottoman expansion in central Europe. The failed siege was followed by significant Ottoman defeats and important territorial gains for Austria.

The Balkan frontier between the Ottomans and the Austrians, and between the Ottomans and the Russians, see-sawed more than once up to the mid-18th century, though the balance of military advantage was beginning to tip away from the Ottomans. Likewise, although Ottoman forces gained a major victory over the Russians at the beginning of the 18th century, by the mid-century they were going on the defensive. In the late 18th century the Ottomans suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russians. By the end of the century the Ottomans had lost the whole of Hungary and Transylvania, and the empire’s central European border was back where it had been in the 16th century, at the river Danube (compare maps of central Europe 1648 and central Europe 1789).

The early 19th century saw the Russians take all the empire’s territory to the north of the Black Sea, in the Crimea, the Ukraine and the Caucuses.

Foreign interference in internal Ottoman affairs

As well as attacking the Ottoman frontiers militarily, the Russians and Austrians also fomented disloyalty to the sultan on the part of those non-Muslim subjects of the sultan with whom they shared religious affiliations: the Russians with the Orthodox population and the Austrians with the Catholics. In deed, by the terms of various treaties they won from the Ottomans, for example that of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774, with the Russians, they were able to take on the role of protectors of these communities within the empire. This gave these two foreign power the right to interfere in certain aspects of internal affairs within the Ottoman Empire, and these communities, hitherto loyal subjects of the Ottomans, began to act as a fifth column within Ottoman society.

In response, the Ottoman government used conciliation – which tended to encourage further demands – and then repression. The Ottomans were also able to use diplomacy, by (in their turn) fomenting the rivalry between the Austrians and the Russians for influence in the Balkans.

Increasing weakness of Ottoman position

The various efforts at reform in the 17th and 18th centuries were able to stem the decline in standards of Ottoman governance, but not stop, let alone reverse, it. As well as the increasing assertiveness of religious minorities, another internal development with which the Ottoman government had to cope was the rise of local lords who filled the power vacuum in the localities left by an increasingly corrupt and ineffective Ottoman provincial administration (see the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Arabia and Iraq in the late 18th century).

The early 19th century saw military pressure from Austria and Russia only increase, and an invasion of Egypt by a French army under Napoleon, in 1798, paved the way for the Ottoman viceroy there to become an effectively independent ruler.

Further reforms

These set-backs led to the attempt under sultan Selim III (reigned 1789–1807) to create a European style army. This was fiercely opposed by powerful interests in the Ottoman establishment, and cost the sultan his life. His near-successor, sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-39), however, learning from Selim’s failures, carried out a spectacular strike against these established interests by massacring the Janissary corps. A few years later he abolished the timar system. Meanwhile Mahmud created a modern army, trained and equipped by European instructors and answering directly to himself. He modernized the administration of tax, to pay for the new army; created secular institutions of higher education, initially to train army officers and surgeons; built modern roads; established a modern postal system; and reorganized the central government by creating European-style ministries.

Mahmud used this new modern army and administrative machine to bring the provinces under tighter central control. The local lords in Asia Minor were brought to heal, as were the provincial authorities in Iraq and later Syria, which had been drifting away from central authority for some time. Only the ruler of Egypt, Muhammed Ali, succeeded in maintaining his independence. Indeed, under Mahmud’s successor, the sultan was forced to officially recognize Egyptian independence in 1831.

These dramatic changes in the Ottoman state were symbolized by the adoption of the fez as headgear in place of the turban.

By this time, however, another force was sapping Ottoman strength: the upsurge of nationalism amongst the Balkan peoples (part of a wider movement of nationalism throughout Europe). The Serbian revolution (1804–1815) was followed by the Greek war of independence (1821-9), which led to  the first territory of the Ottoman Empire gaining its independence. Pressure from Austria and Russia ensured that other Balkan states were moving towards independence by the mid-19th century.

The Tanzimat period

Meanwhile the reform of the Ottoman state continued apace, and under Mahmud’s successors entered a phase known as the Tanzimat reforms (1839-76). They began with an edict proclaiming freedom for individuals before the law, and went on to change all areas of state and society – central and provincial administration, the military (to try and keep pace with advances in Europe), law (the introduction of a system of law based on the Napoleonic Codes), and education (the creation of a state education sector and of Western-style higher education).

The reforms of the 19th century were carried out in the face of great difficulties – a shortage of suitably qualified people to implement the government diktats on the ground, hostility from influential traditionalists – but they constituted an amazing achievement. They are regarded as having come to an end with the promulgation, then rapid suppression, of the 1876 constitution, which set up a short-lived parliamentary system (1877). Although moves toward a more liberal politics and society were suspended, the modernization of the Ottoman economy and society proceeded as before. The army and administration continued to be improved, a telegraph system was introduced and railway network laid down; reform of the legal system was completed and higher education expanded.

In the late 19th century defeats at the hands of Russia and Austria led to Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro all gaining full or partial independence from the Ottoman government (compare the map of the Balkans in 1871 with that of the Balkans in 1914). The Austrians gained control of Bosnia Herzegovina, the British of Cyprus, and the Italians of Libya; and for a time the British gained a large measure of control over Ottoman government finances. The Ottoman Empire was known as the “Sick Man of Europe”. Nevertheless, these were the years which saw European nations spreading their empires far and wide over almost the entire world, and the Ottoman Empire had to operate in a fast-changing and deeply threatening environment. It was a major achievement of Ottoman statesmanship to keep their empire more or less intact at this time.

The end of the Ottoman empire

In 1908 a group of young Ottoman army officers and politicians known as the “Young Turks” took power and restored the constitution 1876.  A series of root and branch reforms of the Ottoman government and army were enacted over the next six years.

By now, however, Europe – and with it, the Ottoman Empire – was hurtling towards war. The First and Second Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913) led to the almost complete loss of its European territories, and the empire’s participation in the First World War (1914-8) as an ally of Germany sealed its fate. Despite some notable Ottoman victories, for example at Gallipoli in 1915-6, Allied troops and Arab nationalists drove the Ottoman army out of the Arabian peninsula, Palestine and Syria, and at the end of the war Allied troops occupied Constantinople. In the peace treaties which followed the war (1918-22) the Ottoman Empire was partitioned amongst seven new countries (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq). The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI, left the country in November 1922 and Turkey became a republic.