The Ottoman Empire was one of history’s largest and longest-lasting empires. It was founded around the end of the 13th / beginning of the 14th century and lasted for about six centuries. The empire was created by Turkish tribes based in Anatolia (today part of Turkey) and increased in size over the centuries.
At its zenith, the Ottoman Empire included most of southeastern Europe, parts of the Middle East, North Africa all the way to Algeria, and portions of the Arabian Peninsula. By the middle of the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire was severely weakened, so much so that it was referred to as the ‘sick man of Europe’.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed shortly after the end of the First World War. The centuries-old monarchy was abolished and Turkey was declared as a republic. Although the Ottoman Caliphate was allowed to exist as an institution, it too was eventually abolished by the new republic.
Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, entering Constantinople. Source: Karamanli86 / Public Domain .
The Founding and Initial Conquests of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire is named after Osman I (known also as Osman Gazi), who is credited with the establishment of the empire. Although Osman is a key figure in the history of the Ottoman Empire, little is known for certain about his life. He is believed to have been born around the middle of the 13th century and belonged to the Kayi branch of the Oghuz Turkmen.
His father, Ertugrul, had established a principality in Sogut (in the northwestern part of modern Turkey), and was in conflict with the Byzantines to the west. Osman is said to have succeeded his father at the age of 23 and continued the fight against the Byzantines. According to a legend, Osman had a dream while staying at the house of a sheikh by the name of Edebali.
Osman saw the sheikh in his dream, and a moon, which appeared on the sheikh’s breast, rose, and descended onto his own breast. After that, a tree sprang from his navel and grew so large that the shadow of its branches covered the whole world. Osman described his dream to the sheikh, who interpreted it to mean that he and his descendants were destined to rule the world.
Around 1300, Osman declared himself the supreme leader of Asia Minor, thereby founding the Ottoman Empire. While Ottoman tradition claims that Osman died in 1326, after the capture of Bursa, others have argued that he died in 1324, when his son, Orhan, ascended the throne.
Map showing the area of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Osman I. (Удивленный1 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The first phase of the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1402. In the decades following Orhan’s death, the Ottomans expanded ever farther into Byzantine territory. Adrianople, the second city of the Byzantine Empire , was conquered by the Ottomans in 1361. The city was renamed as Edirne and became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans then expanded into the Balkans, which culminated in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Although neither side could claim tactical victory (both sides suffered heavy losses), the Ottomans could claim strategic victory, since they could replenish their forces with more men, while the defending Serbs had not only lost their army, but also the majority of their political elite. Nevertheless, the conquest of southeastern Europe by the Ottomans was only completed in 1459.
The Ottoman Empire Focuses on the Home Front
The Ottomans were unable to continue their invasion of Europe immediately after the Battle of Kosovo due to problems at home. In Anatolia, the Ottomans had been expanding peacefully, i.e. through marriage alliances or territorial purchases, which allowed them to focus on the military conquest of Europe. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, this policy also allowed the rise of other Anatolian principalities that could potentially challenge the Ottomans.
This was the case with Karamanids, who created a powerful principality in south-central Anatolia. During the Battle of Kosovo , the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid I, was killed, and he was succeeded by his son, Bayezid I.
It was Bayezid who had to deal with the Karamanids and they were eventually subjugated in 1397. By that time, the Ottomans had annexed the rest of the Anatolian principalities and scored a decisive victory over a crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.
Bayezid’s rise, however, attracted the attention of Timur (better-known as Tamerlane), who created a powerful Tatar empire that stretched across Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mesopotamia. In 1398, Timur intended to invade India, but halted his plans as he was worried that the western part of his empire would be left vulnerable to an Ottoman attack.
Some of the Turkmen rulers who had lost their principalities in Anatolia to Bayezid had fled to Timur’s court and encouraged the Tatar ruler to attack the Ottomans. Therefore, Timur decided to invade Anatolia in order to cripple the power of the Ottomans, before resuming his invasion of India.
In 1402, Timur defeated Bayezid at the Battle of Ankara. The Ottoman sultan was captured and died in captivity within a year. Timur had no long-term plans on Anatolia. Therefore, he restored the Turkmen princes who were with him to their thrones and returned to his own empire.
Bayezid I at the hands of Timur. After the Ottoman Empire victory at the Battle of Ankara, Timur became the dominant ruler in the Muslim world. (SAİT71 / Public Domain)
The Reunification of the Ottoman Empire
The period between 1402 and 1413 is known today as the Interregnum, during which four of Bayezid’s sons competed with each other for control of the entire empire. Ultimately, it was Mehmed I, the fourth son of Bayezid, who triumphed, and reunified the Ottoman Empire. Following this reunification, the Ottoman Empire continued its expansion.
In 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was finally conquered by the Ottomans, who were led by Mehmed II. This was a momentous event in history for a number of reasons. The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, which had been in existence since the 4th century AD.
In addition, Constantinople was considered by the Europeans to be a powerful defense against an Ottoman invasion. Now that the city was in their hands, however, the Ottomans were able to launch invasions more easily into eastern Europe. Furthermore, after his conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed began to view himself as ‘Caesar of Rome’, believing that he was heir to the Roman Empire and all its historical lands.
Indeed, by the late 15th century, Mehmed had thoroughly subjugated both the Balkans and Greece. In the century following Mehmed’s death, parts of the former Roman Empire, including North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, came under Ottoman rule as well.
The Ottoman Empire Peaks
The Ottoman Empire reached its height of power in the 16th century. During the reign of Selim I , the Ottomans overthrew the Mamluks Sultanate, and annexed their lands, which included Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. As the Ottomans were now in control of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam, Selim adopted the title ‘Servant of the Two Holy Cities’.
According to later tradition, the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, who was residing in Egypt, transferred the caliphate to Selim. Regardless of the veracity of this tale, the Ottoman Empire had now assumed leadership of the Islamic world, a role it would play until its dissolution.
The Ottoman Empire continued to prosper during the reign of Selim’s successor, Suleiman the Magnificent. Unlike Selim, who reigned for just eight years (from 1512 to 1520), Suleiman’s reign lasted almost 50 years (from 1520 to 1566). During this period, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand in the east and in the west.
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Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, marching with army in Nakhichevan, summer 1554, (Wetwassermann~commonswiki / Public Domain )
In the former, the Ottomans fought and defeated the Safavids, extending their empire into the area of modern Iraq. In the latter, they fought against the Christians, most notably the Kingdom of Hungary, and won as well. The Ottomans went as far as gates of Vienna and laid siege to the city in 1529.
Suleiman, however, failed to take the city. This was the maximum extent of Ottoman expansion in central Europe. Suleiman is not only remembered for his military campaigns, but also for his administrative and legal reforms.
Suleiman’s complete overhaul the Ottoman legal system, which was hitherto an unsystematic set of laws, earned him the title ‘the Lawgiver’. Apart from that, Suleiman also reformed the tax system, instituted protections for the empire’s Christian and Jewish subjects, and changed the appointment of officials from one based on family connections to one based on merit.
In spite of all his successes, Suleiman failed in one crucial aspect as a ruler – choosing a capable successor to continue his legacy. The sultan had two official wives (in addition to numerous concubines), the first being Mahidevran Sultan, and the second Hurrem Sultan. Suleiman and Mahidevran had a son by the name of Mustafa, who the heir to the throne.
Mustafa is said to have been an intelligent and talented individual and would probably have been an excellent sultan. Hurrem Sultan, however, started a rumor that Mustafa was plotting to overthrow Suleiman. When the rumor reached the sultan’s ears, he summoned his son to his tent in an army camp.
In 1553, Suleiman strangled his own son and heir to death. Thus, when Suleiman himself died, he was succeeded by one of Hurrem Sultan’s sons, Selim.
The Ottoman Empire at the time of the death of Suleiman the Magnificent. (Renato de carvalho Ferreira / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Decline of the Ottoman Empire
Following Suleiman’s death, the Ottoman Empire began to stagnate, and subsequently underwent a long and slow decline. The sultans who succeeded Suleiman were much less capable than himself. For example, his immediate successor, Selim II (known also as ‘the Drunkard’) neglected the governance of the empire.
Another sultan, Mahmud I, who ruled much later during the 18th century, spent more time writing poetry than running the empire. Due to a long succession of inept sultans, other internal problems cropped up, most notably the emergence of a large and corrupt bureaucracy. In addition, the Ottomans had to deal with economic problems, as well as social unrest within the empire.
The Ottomans eventually lost their military superiority over their enemies as well. For instance, the Ottomans went to war with the Safavids again between 1603 and 1618. This time, however, the Safavids emerged victorious, and the Ottomans lost many of their eastern provinces. Towards the end of the same century, the Ottomans were at war with Europe once more.
In 1683, Vienna was besieged by the Ottomans for the second time. After a siege of two months, a battle was fought and the Ottomans were defeated by the Holy League. This, however, was only the beginning of the Great Turkish War, known also as the War of the Holy League. When the war ended in 1699, the Ottomans were defeated, and were forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz, resulting in the loss of much of their territories in Central Europe.