|The famous sultan Suleiman|
For the next three World History posts we'll be looking at what Marshall Hodgson and William McNeill described as the 'Gunpowder Empires': the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires. These three empires utilized gunpowder, dominated their respective regions and were Islamic. They were the some of the most powerful states during their time and today we'll look at the first of them: the Ottomans. Often referred to as the 'Turkish Empire' the Ottomans were a multi-ethnic empire with a sizable presence in Europe, Asia, and Africa. At their height they stretched from Vienna to the Red Sea and from Crimea to Tunis encompassing a myriad of different cultures. The Ottoman Empire as often been portrayed as being Turkish, despotic, Islamic and in decline after the death of their most famous sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Today we'll see how much that is true. We'll mostly be focusing on the Ottomans since the mid-fifteenth century until the mid-eighteenth centuries.
Origins and a Brief History
The Ottomans originated in Anatolia, modern Turkey, and like their Russian neighbors to the north, please see here, they owed their existence to the Mongols. In 1243 the Mongols swept away the last vestiges of Seljuk power and divided the region into several regions. When the Byzantines, please see here, recaptured Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade in 1261 they focused on reestablishing their rule in the Balkans more than Anatolia. By the 1300s the last Seljuk sultan was assassinated, Mongol rule in the Middle East in the form of the Ilkhanate was weakening, and the Byzantines were still busy looking west. In this fragmented Anatolia in a beylik (principality) in Bithynia a Turkish leader called Osman rose to power. Competition from Mongols had driven many nomadic Turks near to the Byzantine border where Osman was located. Osman began conquering and unifying the local area until his death in 1324. Several historians believe that the empire's continuous warfare was from Osman's gazi (warrior) ethic - war was needed, especially against non-believers. Osman founded the Osmanli dynasty which became anglicized to become Ottoman. It was under Osman's son Orhan (r.1324-62) that the conquests really began. Later sultans, Murad I (r.1362-89) and Bayezid I (r.1389-1402) expanded the empire so it would cover over 950,000 square kilometers. In 1369 Murad had conquered Edirne, a major city in the region, and moved the capital there; this conquest helped solidify Ottoman claims to be a major Islamic power. Taking advantage of Byzantine weaknesses he invaded the Balkans conquering huge chunks of it and saw victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 despite being killed. Despite the massive victories Murad never called himself 'sultan', he much preferred to be called 'emir'. His son Bayezid would be called 'sultan'. Bayezid continued many of his father's conquests. More land in both the Balkans and Anatolia was added into the empire but Bayezid was smart about this. He had fatwas issued against Anatolian tribes to justify attacking fellow Muslims and had Christian soldiers from the Balkans to fight them. Meanwhile, Sigismund of Hungary feared Ottoman encroaches into Europe so managed to organize a crusade which ended in disaster for the crusaders with their defeat at Nikopol in 1396 on the Danube. It would be Tamerlane who would break Bayezid's rule capturing the sultan at Ankara in 1402.
|A depiction of Tamerlane with Bayezid|
A decade long civil war broke out among Bayezid's sons as Bayezid remained in Tamerlane's captivity until he died - apparently writers in Tamerlane's court wrote that he wept when Bayezid died. It would take until 1687 for Ottoman succession was made that the eldest inherited so most of early Ottoman history is littered with destructive succession wars - some almost wiping out the Osmanli dynasty itself! However, the Ottomans remained a potent force in both eastern Europe and the Middle East, so much so that in 1443 Hungary and Poland (under John Hunyadi and Wladyslaw III respectively) led the Crusade of Varna to halt Ottoman expansion under Murad II as the Karamanids attacked from Anatolia. At the Battle of Varna in 1444 the Ottomans destroyed the Crusaders with Wladyslaw of Poland even being killed. 1453 would bring the greatest conquest. Despite being deposed Murad returned to the throne in 1451 and had his eyes set on Constantinople. It was the seat of intellectualism in the world; controlled the trade routes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (as well as Europe and Asia); was the home of the last Romans, the Byzantines; and constantly blocked Ottoman access to their European provinces. On 29 May 1453 Mehmed conquered Constantinople allowing him to be known as 'the Conqueror'. He moved the capital from Edirne to Constantinople which soon became known as Istanbul - the locals referred to it as 'In the City' or Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque and a stunning new palace named the Topkapi (New Palace) was made. Mehmed also put a popular cleric, George Scholarios as Patriarch of the Orthodox Church leading to Russia to claim to be the head of Orthodoxy. The symbolism of capturing Constantinople was profound. Capturing the Roman capital allowed Mehmed to declare himself to be Rome's successor and the religious importance of the city gave him spiritual prestige. This would begin an unrelenting series of conquests which would last centuries. Serbia was conquered in 1459 with Albania following a few years later, Crimea was made a vassal in 1478 (securing Ottoman rule over the Black Sea), and 1473 the Aqqoyunlu - a Turkish confederation in eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Iraq and western Iran - was defeated.
Selim and Suleiman
These are perhaps the two most famous sultans. In this section we'll briefly cover their rules but what they did will be referred to throughout the rest of the post. Selim I, or 'Selim the Grim', came to power in 1512 and despite reigning for eight years he would make huge changes. His father, Bayezid II, came to power during a weak time despite Mehmed's victories. It was due to Mehmed's victories that Bayezid was weak - he had to deal with a depleted treasury caused by wars. He was never properly able to bounce back and his fiscal measures, which started under Mahmud, devauled Ottoman silver greatly upsetting the urban elite. He also was weakened as his brother, Jem, was a captive of the Knights of St John and later the pope. Instead Bayezid's rule was marked out for a boom in the arts and increased religious tolerance (something to be discussed later). However, his inaction allowed a threat to emerge on his border in Iran. In 1501 the kizilbash (Red Heads) brought to power Ismail in Iran who became the Shah of the new Safavid dynasty. Quite dangerous for the Ottomans was that the Safavids adopted Shia Islam and the initial inaction allowed them to grow very powerful. Ismail even declared himself the Mahdi, 'savior of Islam'. In 1511 they even managed to get a revolt in Ottoman lands called the Shah Kulu rebellion which further discredited Bayezin.
His son Selim decided to reverse this trend (going as far as to depose Bayezid) and even used religion to his advantage. He had fatwas issued against Ismail to discredit the Safavids and eased the minds of his soldiers who likely would be opposed to fighting fellow Muslims. Using 500 cannons and 12,000 infantry he showed the advantage of using firearms at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 in Azerbaijan where he slaughtered the Safavid army. Selim would also finally conquer the Aqqoyunlu securing Anatolia for the next few centuries but doing so brought him into contact with the Mamluks, another major Islamic power stationed in Cairo. The war with the Mamluks definitely required fatwas: the Mamluks were fellow Sunnis, had the last Abbasid caliph (spiritual leader of Islam) in Cairo, and were the protectors of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Selim accused them of an alliance with the Safavids stating 'he who aids a heretic is a heretic himself'. Armed with firearms Selim met the Mamluk forces at Marj Dabik outside Aleppo on 24 August 1516. The Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri apparently died of a heart attack caused the Mamluk forces to flee and for Aleppo and Damascus to surrender. On 23 January 1517 another great clash happened at Raydaniyya outside Cairo leading to the death of the new sultan Tumanbay. Cairo soon surrendered and Selim received the fealty of Mecca and Medina. Now the Ottomans ruled Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus - all cities with sacred sites. Generations later due to this the Ottoman sultans would declare themselves caliphs as well although they would also claim that Selim had declared himself caliph. Selim's conquests would also bring Arabs under Ottoman rule further enduring the Ottomans as a multi-ethnic empire.
Finally, we have Suleiman. Europeans referred to him as 'the Magnificent' for the splendors of his court (many Renaissance elite would have their portraits done to replicate his portrait) while his subjects referred to him as 'Lawgiver'. Suleiman really had a far more diverse reign depending on your viewpoint compared to other notable sultans. Selim had lost legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims as most of his wars were against fellow Muslims despite uniting the major sacred sites under one state. As a result Suleiman spent most his time fighting Christians - Suleiman had thirteen campaigns spanning a quarter of his reign. When he did fight Muslims it was largely Shia Muslims - three campaigns against the Safavids (1534-5, 1548-9 and 1553) brought Iraq and Kuwait into the empire. The 1555 Treaty of Amasya with Iran made the Ottoman's eastern border virtually unchanged until World War I. His wars in Europe brought Hungary into the empire (1541) and threatened Vienna twice (1529 and 1532). If Vienna had fallen European history would have been very different. The Ottoman navy was greatly expanded under Suleiman and became a ferocious force under noted admiral and former pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa who helped conquer key cities in North Africa like Tunis from the Spanish. France and the Ottomans had a long history of alliances which began under Suleiman who were united under the common cause of being anti-Habsburg (the family ruling Austria). In fact, France was the first state to receive special privileges in the empire due to this. Suleiman could not touch sharia (religious) law but he did reform kanun (secular) law. Many of this involved religious minorities which we'll cover later but he did many other reforms. More schools were built and madrases (higher education) was made easier to access. He collated all the laws put forward by the previous nine sultans, removed repetitions and laws he disliked, and keeping in line with sharia he streamlined and created one singular law code. Taxes were placed on certain products and officials known to be corrupt would have lands confiscated. Through Suleiman's reforms the Ottoman Empire soon became more of a meritocracy. A 'Golden Age' of the arts supposedly happened under Suleiman - he himself wrote many poems in Turkish and Persian. After Suleiman's death a traditional historiography stated that the Ottomans went into decline but that shall be debated later.
|The Empire under Suleiman|
|The Topkapi today|
It is difficult to talk about Ottoman administration as it often was flexible in this period and changed regularly - hence how the empire survived during the various succession wars. As a result we'll go over a brief overview. At the top of society was the sultan which Europeans in the nineteenth century denounced as being despotic and this view has persisted to this day. The sultan would rule as any other monarch from the Topkapi but they were not alone in ruling. There existed a position named the Grand vizier (working from the Sublime Porte) which lasted until the collapse of the empire in 1922, the first was Alaeddin Pasha, who acted as the sultan's chief adviser and at times military general. Some of the conquests was done under the grand vizier, such as Mahmud Pasha being sent to conquer Serbia in 1458. I should mention that it took until the reforms of Ataturk in the 1920s for Ottomans to get surnames, until then your surname was your occupation. A vizier's position was not always secure; Selim I was known for often executing viziers which displeased him. One jokingly asked to be told before he was executed so he could get his affairs in order, Selim replied that it would be a long time in the future as there was no one competent enough to replace him. The highest governmental organ was the Divan-i Humayun, or Imperial Council, which originally was a court of justice and appeals but then evolved into an almost cabinet of officials. Until Mehmed II's reign the sultan would personally oversee the Divan's meetings but afterwards this fell into decline. However, one French diplomat in the 1500s wrote that 'Lying was mortal' because the sultan was 'often listening at a window overlooking the said Chamber without being seen or noticed'. It was also important for the Divan and sultan to notice the ulema (religious community) who often had a say in government through those who were free-born Muslims (slavery existed in the empire) who had graduated from a madras.
The Ottomans never referred to themselves as 'Turks' as this was seen as a patronizing term for a peasant in Anatolia. Instead they referred to themselves as 'Ottomans' and if you spoke Turkish, was a man, and was a Muslim you could become an administrator. Selim even got a Kurdish scholar, Idris of Bitlis, to get a Kurdish alliance before his war with the Safavids. Few Turkish lived in the Arabic lands so often Arabs ruled themselves. In theory all ethnicities were equal but there was the exisitng of zanj slavery. It was common for Ottomans to buy slaves from what is now Sudan. At times they could become equal but this was rare. Ottoman lands were divided into eyalets (provinces) ruled by a beylerbey which then was divided into sanjaks (districts) under sanjak-beyi. However, often the Ottomans used the multi-ethnic nature of their empire to their advantage by having beylerbeys and sanjak-beyi from other areas of the empire to rule over different ethnic groups - the rulers of Egypt were often taken from Albania or the Caucasus. Taxes were in theory egalitarian. The jizya was applied to non-Muslims while the zakat was applied to Muslims. However, tax farming (illtizam) was used to collect taxes which led to abuses of power by the tax farmers (multazim) who would squeeze peasants of money or horde it for themselves.
|A European depiction of janissaries|
Finally there were the janissaries. They were originally the elite bodyguard of the sultan but evolved to become the elite soldiers and when retired they went into the bureaucracy. Janissaries were a form of slavery. When the Ottomans expanded into Europe they imposed a tax called the devshirme or 'boy tax'. Christian communities were expected to give over their young boys who were converted to Islam and trained to be both administrators and soldiers. Due to this many communities adopted Islam themselves to avoid this tax (alongside other reasons) which partially explains why certain areas of the Balkans, like Bosnia and Albania, have majority Muslim populations. Unlike most other slaves janissaries earned a wage and, if they did not die in battle, would eventually become free to normally become administrators. Through this some Christian communities could become more influential than Muslim ones. The janissaries themselves could even control the sultan at times: janissaries regularly deposed sultans they didn't like and during Selim's campaign against the Safavids as the janissaries refused to spend the winter in Tabriz he was forced to retreat. By the end of the empire's life when a weak sultan was in power the janissaries could even use him as a puppet.
|A 19th Century Italian depiction of a harem|
It is unsurprising that the Ottomans were a patriarchal society. Women were barred from office, owning property and equality before the law. Men were allowed to have multiple wives but women were barred from polygamy and often confined to the harems. Although exempt from the devshirme female slaves often could be subjected to sexual abuse (at times boys could be as well) or even kept as sex slaves. However, this narrative strips agency away from women and often fits into the rhetoric of Western Orientalism. The harems are a good example. Largely only the wealthy could afford to keep a harem - most Muslims in the Ottoman Empire were rural peasants so needed as many hands as possible to work the land. Harems were more common in the cities but even then it was more useful for poorer families to have the wives and daughters working. A typical depiction of the harems is a place of sexuality and debauchery but this is more a case of Orientalist, bourgeois flights of fantasy (or sexual repression) from the nineteenth century. Poorer families who had a harem had the women raising children or helping out with work in the harems. Meanwhile, richer families had the harems as a place of education and consumption of the arts. The harem in the Topkapi could even be used for political means. Since 1617 part of the Imperial Harem, the Kafes, was devoted to keeping the heir safe. Suleiman's wife Hurrem Sultan, sometimes called Roxelana, is an example of how the harem could influence the sultan. Originally a Christian slave she became Suleiman's concubine and later wife. She would exert great amounts of influence over Suleiman, such as getting her son Selim to inherit the throne, and she repeatedly wrote letters advising her husband. We don't have the response that Suleiman sent back but from Hurrem's letters we understand that he was convinced by her words. She was also a proficient poet writing many love poems to Suleiman in fluent Ottoman Turkish.
|A depiction of Hurrem Sultan|
Suraiya Faraoqhi has also highlighted the different ways women managed to have agency in the Ottoman Empire - although she has stated that this was largely rich women. Court records, especially in Cairo, reveal that many women went to court over dowries, property rights and a variety of other matters. The fact these exist show that women had agency in the Ottoman world. The wife of the British ambassador Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) reported how polygamy was frowned upon in wealthy Istanbul families. She reported that a man who married a second woman earned the wrath of his first wife who refused to let him into her room and had him ostracized from their friends by appealing to her female friends. According to Faraoqhi widows and unmarried women could even invest. Despite being often barred from physically owning a business or enterprise often they acted as 'silent partners' using their dowries to invest. Women also engaged in the arts through creation and consumption. Largely wealthy women could buy or patronize the arts ranging from books to architecture. Mihri Hatin (c.1470-after 1515) became a well renowned poet in her own right. Meanwhile, poorer urban women could have their own agency. Young girls were sent to rich households as servants since sixteenth century Ankara where her employers would pay for her upkeep and dowry. While European guilds often barred women from working the Ottomans made no distinction in regards to weaving but they had to do it in their homes. Despite being subjugated some women still had agency.
Religions and Cultures
The Ottoman Empire was Islamic and favored Muslims. Only Muslims could hold office, the zakat was smaller than the jizya, were exempt from the devshirme, and were exempt from slavery. Religious minorities could have rights though, especially the 'People of the Book' (Christians and Jews). The Ottoman Empire spanned a huge area ruling many non-Muslim peoples - Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Druzes in Syria, and many Jews in the cities. In 1492 the city with the largest Jewish population was Thessaloniki in Ottoman Greece. Similar to the fate of Jews in the rest of Europe Jews (and Christians) were forced to handle money due to the Qu'ran forbidding Muslims from doing so. At times Jews were welcomed. Despite his weaknesses Bayezid II has gone down in history as the tolerant sultan for welcoming Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 - apparently he wrote a letter to the Spanish monarchs thanking them for giving him his most 'prized subjects'. It can be argued though it was more pragmatics than genuine altruism as the Jews expelled were mostly bankers and artisans, something which the Ottomans were eager to take advantage of. Nevertheless many Jews fled to the Empire: in 1488 Istanbul had 70 Jewish families which rose to 1500 at the start of the sixteenth century. The exile Jewish community in Cairo quickly exceeded that of the native Jewish community. One exile, Yitzhak Sarfati, became Chief Rabbi of Edirne and said 'Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking' and 'Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians?' Suleiman continued his grandfather's actions banning accusations of blood libel (an antisemitic accusation that Jews drank the blood of virgin Christians during Passover) and he grew close to a Jewish doctor, Moses Hamon.
The Ottomans also had a system called rayah or 'flock'. These were the population that were not either the ruling class, askeri, or slaves, kul, and under Suleiman a new code granted them greater equality - something which attracted Christian serfs from Europe to go to the Empire. Among the rayah were the dhimmi or 'protected peoples'. Christians, Jews, and certain other groups were granted this status which allowed them increased autonomy and self-rule; as long as they paid the jizya and respected kanun law they were exempt from sharia and could in part rule themselves. For example, Druzes in Syria could potentially be tried by their own people instead of a sharia court. To hold office you had to be a Muslim but it did not matter for how long which allowed Christians and Jews to enter office. Baki Tezcan has argued that this created a strange paradox where an Arab Muslim could be less likely to get into office compared to a Christian or Jewish Arab. However, like with women, religious and ethnic tolerance could be limited. There are occasions when religious clashes broke out and religious minorities on the borders, like Armenians, could at times be met with intense violence. Not all cultures were seen as equals - quite often Arabs and Turkish askeri referred to each other as 'foreigners'. Also, their was prejudice against African slaves. Some did become powerful, such as Mullah Ali who went on to oversee the European provinces, but it was far rarer than white slaves (who would also face prejudice). In the period we're looking at today prejudice was a lot less compared to other areas and even the Empire in the nineteenth century.
|A depiction of the Battle of Lepanto (notice how angels are helping the Europeans)|
Until the 1970s it was common to argue that after the death of Suleiman the Empire went into a decline and this view persists in the depictions of the Ottomans. There is some truth to believe this: after Suleiman there were many weak sultans (his son was even called Selim the Sot); in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto the Ottoman navy was destroyed; from around 1550 to 1700 irregular troops led by bandit chiefs in Anatolia led revolts called the Celali rebellions; the currency became depreciated; climate change shattered Ottoman agriculture (the backbone of Ottoman life); European trade had started to drift away from Istanbul; and Europeans were winning more wars taking more land. The 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz stripped the Ottomans of almost all their lands in Hungary which became accentuated by the Treaty of Passarowitz almost twenty years later which saw the loss of Serbia. Although times were bad for the Ottomans it was not a decline. For one, Colin Imber has argued that 'Lepanto...was a battle without strategic consequences' and by 1572 the Ottoman navy had been rebuilt so during the peace treaty they could take Cyprus. Crete would later also be conquered. Lepanto has been seen as the start of the decline as Europeans vaulted it at the time. Historians have now started to argue that the losses of land to Austria and Russia did signify the end of the Ottomans the most important power in Europe but not their collapse. Instead it was a solidifying of their rule. The Ottomans had overextended themselves so by losing lands too far away they could focus more on things closer to home.
In the 1700s the Ottomans had started adopting more European style tactics and technology with them opening the Istanbul Technical University to do this. Trade, although dipping, still remained big for the Ottomans with them straddling three continents taking produce like coffee from Africa and spices from the Indian Ocean as they received European goods. 'Ottoman' furniture entered Europe during this period as an example. Under bibliophile Ahmet III (r.1703-30) the 'Tulip Age' began where a long period of peace was noted for the court obsession with tulips. Tulips were used to represent wealth, prestige and consumption, something which has remained with Turkey today with tulips appearing on the planes of Turkish Airlines. Ottoman rule in North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East would remain in tact until the 1800s (some areas until World War I). Only until Europe truly overtook the Ottomans through the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s did the Empire really start to decline.
The Ottoman Empire is a unique aspect of world history. Lasting from the early-fourteenth century until 1922 it straddled the Medieval, early Modern and Modern worlds and encompassed parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. It remained a key player in the world as both a military, economic and diplomatic power that had a variety of religions and ethnicities living within its borders. Despite being called 'Turkish' it did viewed itself as being the followers of the founder Osman. It is interesting to note that out of the three 'Gunpowder Empires' it lasted the longest and lasted until the twentieth century whilst the others collapsed in the eighteenth and nineteenth. The Ottomans may be gone but their legacy lives on, and we will eventually come back to them to see how this Empire went from strength to collapse, from limited tolerance to at times genocide. Nevertheless, the Ottomans remained a huge part of our history.
Thank you for reading. Next time we'll look at the second 'Gunpowder Empire': the Safavids. The sources I have used are as follows:
-Christine Woodhead, (ed.), The Ottoman World, (Oxon: Routledge, 2012)
-Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Empire, Second Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
-Suraiya Faroqhi, Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire, (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995)
-Rifa'at 'Ali Abou-El-Haj, Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Second Edition, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005)
-Gabor Agoston, 'Asia Minor and Beyond: The Ottomans, 1281-1922', in Jim Masselos, (ed.), The Great Empires of Asia, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010)
For other World History posts please see our list here. For future blog updates feel free to find us on Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.