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The Ottomans[]

The Ottoman Empire was born in Anatolia, or Asia-Minor (in modern Turkey) at the start of the 13th century upon the settlement of the Turkish tribes known in English as the Ottomans. It expanded into three continents and thrived for some six centuries. The empire eventually conquered lands from modern-day Azerbaijan to Algeria and The Horn of Africa to the walls of Vienna. The Ottoman Empire was vast, powerful, and an extremely interesting case of east meets west.

Terrain and Climate []

At its peak, the Empire stretched from Hungary in the north to Basra in the east to the shores of the Indian Ocean in the south to Morocco in the west. With enormous holdings of land on three continents, it's impossible to generalize about the Ottoman terrain or weather. They ruled over mountains, hills, plains, swamps and deserts. Temperatures in Egypt in the summer can rise to as high as 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit), and in Hungary they can fall to well below freezing during the winter.

The Beginning[]

The Ottoman Empire is named for Osman I (1259–1326). Osman was a prince of Bithynia, a small province in Anatolia (Turkey), strategically located bordering the Black Sea, the Bosporus, and the Sea of Marmara. Bithynia had until recently been a part of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, a Muslim empire that had ruled much of Anatolia for over two centuries. As the Sultanate declined in power (following crippling invasions by Mongols), the neighboring power of Byzantium sought to expand into Anatolia. It was unable to fully pacify the region, and Osman I took advantage of Byzantine weakness to push west toward Byzantium.

The Advance into Europe[]

In the 14th century, Byzantium power was fading rapidly. The eastern heir to the Roman Empire, Byzantium once possessed enormous holdings in Italy, Eastern Europe, Anatolia, the Middle East and North Africa, but by 1300 its domain was reduced to portions of Greece, the Balkans, and western Anatolia. Over the next century the Ottoman Empire would steadily grind away at the fading empire, first in Anatolia, then in the Balkans. When the Ottomans captured the Bulgarian capital of Nicopolis, located on the strategic Danube river, the Bulgarian king appealed to Christian Europe for assistance against the growing Muslim menace. In 1396 an army of Knights from Hungary, Burgundy, Venice, the Knights Hospitaller and Bulgaria set forth to defeat the Ottomans.

The Battle of Nicopolis is often called the "Crusade of Nicopolis." The numbers of combatants involved is unknown, with estimates ranging from around 10,000 knights, footmen and archers on either side to 200,000 on either side. (The latter numbers are generally agreed by modern historians to be absurdly high.) According to early historians, one side in the battle was outnumbered by at least two to one, though they tend to disagree vehemently on which side that was. In any event, the invading Crusaders marched south from Hungary and laid siege to Nicopolis.

From all accounts the Crusaders suffered from divided command and gross overconfidence, a not uncommon problem among mixed armies of the day. The siege was sloppy and the Crusaders posted no sentries. However, one Burgundian leader, the experienced veteran Enguerrand VII, Lord of Coucy, disobeyed orders and sent out a reconnaissance in force that encountered the approaching Ottomans, saving the Crusaders from an extremely rude surprise.

On the morning of the battle, the Ottoman forces, under the command of Sultan Bayezid I, were arrayed on a hillside overlooking the city of Nicopolis. The Crusaders were lined up opposite the Muslims in front of Nicopolis, their backs to the Danube.

One of the Crusader leaders noted that the first line of Ottoman troops were militia, untrained and ill-equipped, designed to blunt the force of an attacker before it met the main Ottoman infantry. He recommended that the infantry lead the assault against these troops, and that the Crusader knights be stationed on the flanks, supporting the infantry and engaging the dangerous Ottoman sipahis (cavalry). The French knight Philippe d'Eu denounced this plan, claiming that it was dishonorable and demanded that the knights have the honor of leading the charge against the enemy. This plan was adapted.

The Ottomans had placed a wall of sharpened stakes in their front lines, designed to kill advancing horses and stop a determined cavalry charge. Although the Crusader knights crushed the Ottoman militia, many were unhorsed in the charge, and the attack became quite disorganized. The Ottoman infantry retreated and the Christian knights followed triumphantly without reforming, believing they had crushed the cowardly enemy.

However, the Ottomans had kept a force of sipahis in reserve, and Bayezid committed them at this point – a large force of fresh cavalry facing the exhausted and unhorsed knights. At the same time other Ottoman troops began to flank the exposed Crusader positions. Badly outgeneraled at every point, the Crusader force collapsed and surrendered. Many of the European noblemen were ransomed for a good deal of treasure, while a lot of the common soldiers were massacred in retaliation for similar European behavior earlier in the campaign.

The capture of Nicopolis secured the Ottoman holdings in the Balkans for some time. Now all that remained of the once mighty Byzantine Empire was the city of Constantinople.

Tamerlane on the Flank[]

In 1399 the Mughal leader Tamerlane (Timur) declared war on the Ottoman Empire, disrupting Bayezid I's European campaign. Tamerlane was a descendant of Mongol conquerors who led his troops triumphantly through Persia, India, central Asia and Anatolia. In 1402 Bayezid's troops met Tamerlane's army at the battle of Ankara.

Once again it's almost impossible to determine the number of forces involved in the battle, with numbers ranging from 1,000,000 on each side to as few as 140,000 for Tamerlane and 80,000 for Bayezid. Whatever the number, it is generally agreed that Tamerlane's army significantly outnumbered Bayezid's.

The battle opened with a large attack by the Ottomans which was broken up by accurate arrow-fire from the enemy horse archers which inflicted significant damage to the attackers. As the battle progressed a significant portion of Bayezid's troops deserted and joined Tamerlane's army. Now badly outnumbered and exhausted, Bayezid's army was defeated and he was captured shortly thereafter, dying in captivity. Having secured his flank against the Ottomans, Tamerlane left Anatolia and returned to India to continue his own empire's expansion.

After Bayezid's death civil war broke out in the Empire as his four sons fought over the crown. The so-called "Ottoman Interregnum" lasted for some 11 years until 1413, when Mehmed Celebi, the last surviving brother, assumed the title of sultan.

Sultan Mehmed I and his son Murad II spent a number of years restoring central power within the Empire, repairing the damage done during the Interregnum.

Ottoman Recovery and Expansion[]

Having secured his control of the Ottoman Empire, in 1423 Murad II besieged Constantinople, leaving only after he had extorted an exorbitant sum from the Byzantines. Murad then went to war with Venice, an extended affair that ended with an Ottoman victory but on terms that kept Venice as a major mercantile power in the Eastern Mediterranean. He also began a long-running war with Hungary over control of Walachia.


As the Ottoman Empire grew, so too did the power of the Turkish nobility, who Murad II saw as an increasing threat to his rule. To counter the Turks, Murad created the Janissaries, a military force of Christian slaves. He gave the Janissaries lands from his latest conquests, the income and status from which made them an effective balance to the old-moneyed Turks in the Empire. Murad continued to attempt to expand further into Europe until 1444, when he made peace with all of his enemies and retired, passing the throne to his son Mehmed II.


Sultan Mehmed II reigned for some thirty years, 1451-1481. One of his early acts was to once again lay siege to Constantinople. His vizier and other Turkish nobles bitterly opposed the attack, which they rightly saw as a prelude to still further Ottoman expansion and diminution of their power within the Empire.

The siege lasted less than two months. Mehmed had a force of 100,000 at his command, and Constantinople was defended by perhaps 7,000 soldiers. The defenders fought stubbornly, beating off waves of Ottoman assaults accompanied by heavy cannon fire. Eventually the Ottomans broke in and flooded the city, overwhelming the defenders through sheer weight of numbers.

Although the Ottomans enthusiastically sacked the city, Mehmed treated its citizens with mercy, sparing their lives and leaving them their houses and possessions (or at least those that hadn't already been looted). He treated the non-Muslims with respect, and many Jews emigrated to the Ottoman Empire, seeking protection from European persecution.

Mehmed II made Constantinople the capital of his Empire, giving him a strategic foothold at the edge of Europe.

Over the next century the Ottoman Empire continued to expand into Europe, as well as into the Middle East and Africa. In addition to its superb land forces, the Empire had developed a powerful navy. The Ottoman navy dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, and it had a significant force in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, where it competed with growing European naval powers such as Portugal.


Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) continued the Ottoman expansion into Europe, primarily targeting Hungary. His chief European rivals were the Habsburg family, who at the time ruled Hungary (along with much of the rest of Europe); however, he had a powerful ally in the King of France who feared the Habsburgs' designs on his kingdom and was happy to aid any power that could weaken them. In 1521 Suleiman took Belgrade, and by 1526 the Ottomans had conquered perhaps half of Hungary. The war continued for several years, and by 1529 Suleiman had advanced to Vienna, the most powerful European city in the area. Although unable to capture the city and ultimately forced to abandon the siege, Suleiman put the Europeans on the defensive and secured Hungary for more than 10 years.

At sea, Suleiman responded to European pressure by creating a powerful navy under the command of Barbarossa, an ex-pirate turned admiral of the Ottoman navy. Barbarossa captured Algiers in 1529, and Suleiman assigned the entire province to Barbarossa to support his fleet. In the 1530s Barbarossa fought several naval battles against a variety of European forces, emerging victorious from all of them.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire had expanded to about the limit possible given the weapons and supply systems of the day. Suleiman invaded Iran repeatedly, but ran out of supplies before he was able to bring the Iranian army to battle. Once he left, the Iranians simply moved back in and reconquered everything he had taken. In 1555 he agreed to permanent eastern borders, keeping Iraq and Eastern Anatolia but renouncing claims to Azerbaijan and the Caucasus.

At its peak during this period, the Ottoman Empire was both a military and an economic powerhouse. The Empire's treasury was filled by tributary payments from its possessions in Egypt, North Africa and Eastern Europe, and it sat athwart the trade routes between Europe and the Far East, giving it a slice of the profits from the growing spice trade. This is largely responsible for the European Age of Exploration, as they looked for ways to avoid Ottoman territory and trade directly with India, China, and other providers of spice.

The Decline of the Empire[]

Over the next few centuries the Ottoman Empire endured a slow, steady decline. Although it remained a powerful and vital state for many years, it never again reached the height of power it had attained under Suleiman. By the mid to late 16th century the Janissaries had gained almost total ascension in Istanbul (the new name for Constantinople), and with greater power came greater corruption. The position of grand vizier became more powerful as the sultans grew more decadent. Eventually the viziers overstepped their bounds and were overthrown, with power first going to the harem (the "Sultanate of the Women") from 1570 - 1578, and then to the military from 1578 – 1625.

The basic problem facing whoever was in charge was that the empire was simply too large to rule effectively, and over time more and more of it began to slip into something approaching anarchy. Because of increasing corruption as well as external trade pressure the economy of the Empire all but collapsed, with rampant inflation occurring during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Despite its internal weakness the Empire remained a potent international power, greatly feared by Europe. Although it suffered the occasional defeat, it was still far more powerful than any external enemy. It continued to expand over the years, gaining Tunis, Fez and Crete in the Mediterranean, as well as Azerbaijan and a portion of the Caucasus.

However, at the end of the 17th century the Ottomans pushed their luck just a bit too far. In 1683 Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasa once again besieged Vienna. The defenders, led by Polish King Jan Sobieski, held out easily against the Ottoman assault.

Emboldened by the weakness the Ottomans displayed, Sobieski was able to assemble a massive coalition of European forces against the common enemy. The Hapsburgs sought their lost territory in the Balkans, the Venetians wanted their lost Adriatic bases back, while the new power of Russia sought (as always) a warm-water port in the Mediterranean.

This was an uneasy alliance at best, and the allies would periodically break off the assault to fight each other. In addition, the Ottomans were supported by France (still seeking to weaken the Habsburgs) as well as Britain and the Netherlands, who feared that whoever took over the Ottoman Empire would dominate Europe and threaten their growing naval ascendency.

Still, the allies were victorious, and they gobbled up much of the Ottomans' European possessions over the next century. By 1792 the Ottomans had been driven back to the Danube, losing possessions they had held for nearly two centuries. Soon thereafter they lost the northern coast of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, southern Ukraine and the Crimea.

The End[]

In the mid-19th century, several sultans began earnest efforts to modernize the Ottoman state, attempting to enact huge reforms to the army, government, and education system. These reforms occurred slowly, not only because of resistance from those whose power was threatened by the new ideas, but also because the state was nearly bankrupt and under increasing pressure from the external forces who sensed its weakness and who wanted to be in on the kill. Still, by the 20th century thousands of primary schools were in existence, as were a growing number of secondary schools and universities. Advanced military colleges were created on the European model. The government even experimented with a parliamentary system, but this was abandoned after less than a year.

In 1909, a group of reformers known as the "Young Turks" led a revolt to restore the parliament that had been abolished 30 years earlier; this in turn led to a wider mutiny which overthrew the existing government. A new sultan was put in place; he was compelled to reinstate parliament, but real power resided in the military that had put him in power.

In 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and Bulgaria). During the war they held off a spirited but ill-planned assault on the Dardanelles by forces of the British Empire, stopping the British fleet from linking up with Russia. They fought against the Allies in Europe, Egypt, the Balkans, and the Middle East. They also perpetrated a ghastly massacre against Armenian nationals living in Asia Minor, killing perhaps half a million men, women and children.

By late 1918 it was clear that the Central Powers were going to be defeated; the Ottomans agreed to an Armistice on October 30. The victorious Allies dismantled what was left of the Empire, with Britain, France and Italy dividing up North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East as well as portions of Asia Minor. Other sections that no European power especially wanted were carved off and made into new independent countries. The Ottomans were left with just Istanbul and a portion of Thrace.

Much of the Allies' plans came to naught, however, because by 1923 a brilliant Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal, later called "Ataturk" or "Father of Turks", had reunited much of Asia Minor in a new country called "Turkey." By doing so he finally brought to an end the political entity known as the Ottoman Empire, 600 years after it was born.

Eulogy for a Forgotten Empire[]

To summarize: the Ottoman Empire lasted six centuries. It took on all of Europe and beat it. It conquered parts of Persia, Egypt, and North Africa as well as the Balkans. It ended the Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the Roman Empire and remained a challenger to Western European dominance up until the 1800s. The Ottoman State took large strides in uniting the Islamic world.


  • The Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was outside Ephesus. It was destroyed by an arsonist who merely wanted to be remembered in history as doing something "grand."
  • Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents.
  • Tradition in Turkey says that a stranger at one's doorstep is considered "God's guest" for at least three days.
  • The first church dedicated to Virgin Mary is in Ephesus.
  • St. Nicholas, the inspiration for the modern Santa Claus, was born in Demre, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
  • Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that is agriculturally self-sufficient.
  • It was the Turks who introduced coffee to Europe. (God bless them.)


Suleiman I, known as "The Magnificent," "The Legislator," and "The Grand Turk," was the caliph of Islam and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, taking the reins of the Turkish kingdom in 1520 and ruling until his death in 1566. During his rule Suleiman greatly expanded the Empire's territory, earning the fear (and grudging admiration) of leaders across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Early History[]

Suleiman was the son and grandson of sultans. At an early age he studied science, literature, theology, and the military arts in Istanbul. At 17 he was appointed governor of Kaffa by his grandfather, and he was made governor of Manisa during the reign of his father, Sultan Selim I. His father died in 1520 when Suleiman was 26, and he ascended to the throne. Although still quite a young man, Suleiman had nearly ten years of leadership experience when he came to power.

Military Ambitions in Europe[]

According to some historians, Suleiman deeply admired Alexander the Great and hoped to emulate him and create an empire that encompassed Europe, Asia Minor, Africa, and the Middle East. Upon achieving power, Suleiman began planning a campaign against Europe and the Balkans.

In 1521, just a year after achieving power, Suleiman captured Belgrade. In the following year he took the Island of Rhodes from the Knights of St. John. In 1526 he defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs, killing the Hungarian king Louis II in combat.

Following Louis II's death, the Hungarian throne was taken by Ferdinand I, the Habsburg archduke of Austria. Seeking to weaken Habsburg power in Eastern Europe, Suleiman supported the claim of John Zapolya, lord of Transylvania. In 1529 he laid siege to Vienna. The siege was unsuccessful, however, but it did serve to keep Hungarian power concentrated on Vienna, effectively ceding control of most of Hungary to Suleiman's puppet, John. When John died in 1540 the Austrians moved back into central Hungary. The two forces would continue to battle inconclusively for the next twenty years, until a peace treaty was signed in 1562, four years before Suleiman's death. To support his land campaigns Suleiman also created a great navy on the Mediterranean, the first such in Ottoman history. He put his forces under the command of admiral Khayr al-Din (known in the west as "Barbarossa"), a sometime pirate with a natural genius for naval warfare who defeated the combined Spanish-Venetian fleets in 1538, effectively giving the Ottomans dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean for the next forty years.

Military Adventures in Persia[]

Suleiman waged three major campaigns in Persia during his reign. The first campaign (1534–35) won the Ottomans control over a portion of eastern Asia Minor as well as most of Iraq. The second campaign some ten years later (1548–49) won some additional terrain around the strategically important Lake Van on the border of Persia and Asia Minor. The third campaign was inconclusive, as the Ottomans were unable to sustain an offensive deep in Persian territory and thus were unable to hold onto their gains.

Domestic Improvement[]

As sultan, Suleiman surrounded himself with competent, often brilliant, statesmen and administrators. He built mosques, bridges, roads and fortresses across his territory, and the period is seen as a golden age of Ottoman architecture. He also worked to reform and codify the empire's legal system. "The Lawgiver's" legal system would survive almost unchanged for three centuries. He paid attention especially to the plight of his Christian subjects, who until then had been little more than serfs. Jews also were protected, to such an extent that many emigrated to the Ottoman Empire from Europe, where they were much more harshly treated.

Culture, Religion and the Arts[]

While his territorial accomplishments were impressive, the Sultan did not ignore the culture of his homeland, Suleiman himself a skilled poet and fervent Muslim. During his rule hundreds of artistic societies flourished across the country. Suleiman commissioned numerous new mosques of a previously unseen grandeur, many designed by master architect Sinan.

Verdict of History[]

Suleiman died in 1566 while (once more) campaigning in Hungary. At the time of his death he was famous across the known world. In Europe he was envied for his unbelievable wealth, his magnificent treasury containing more riches than any other leader had possessed in history. He was admired for his military prowess and respected for his fair treatment of non-Muslim subjects.

Muslims respected the Sultan for his belief in the rule of law. The Sultan adopted Islamic sacred law to compliment the traditional law already in place from his predecessors, providing a model for Eastern powers for centuries to come. Almost everyone − Christian and Muslim alike − agreed that he was fully worthy of the title "The Magnificent."

Unique Components[]


The sipahi were the lancers of the Ottoman Empire. Founded during the reign of Murad I (ruled 1362 – 1389), the sipahi were drawn from the ethnic Turk landed gentry. They were extremely highly-motivated and loyal fighters and were the sultan's personal bodyguard. The sipahi were great rivals of the Janissaries (another special Ottoman unit), who were drawn from both Turkish and non-Turkish soldiers. In fact the sipahi enthusiastically assisted in the violent disbandment of the Janissaries in 1826, following an unsuccessful revolt by the latter group.


Janissaries were members of an elite corps in the army of the Ottoman Empire. Created in the late 14th century, the original Janissaries were Christian youths (often slaves from the Balkans) who were converted to Islam and then drafted into the Ottoman army. The original Janissaries were forced to remain celibate (which might help to explain their ferocious fighting spirit), but this was eventually relaxed. As the years passed, the Janissaries gained huge political influence in the Empire, engineering frequent palace coups in the 17th and 18th centuries. But as their influence grew they became tradition-bound and stubborn, refusing to update their weapons and tactics to keep pace with the rest of the world. In 1826 they were forcibly disbanded and replaced by more modern Ottoman troops.


Cleanliness was extremely important in Ottoman culture. Before modern plumbing, the Ottomans constructed communal steam baths ("hammams") throughout their major cities. In early times many of these were attached to mosques - ritual cleanliness played an important part in the Ottoman religious beliefs - in later periods they evolved into separate buildings and eventually, into enormous complexes of buildings.