The Ottoman Empire

Figure 1.--This armoured warrior is on displayt at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. He and his mount are Ottoman which according to the museum date to the late-15th or early-16th Century. This was the time of the macium reach of the Ottomon Empire. The Ottomons had finally seized Constaninople and held the Baslkans, threatening Vienna. They defeated the Safavids in the East. The Ottomans y had defeated the Mamelukes in Egypt and controlled much of the Arab world. Their hold on outlaying areas such as Qatar, howeverm was tenuous. Note how much lighter Ottomon armor was, allowing the horse to move faster and giving the warrior more flexibility.

The image of the Empire founded by Othman in the 13th century is not a popular one in the modern mind. There are no romantic images as surround many other great empires such as those of Greece and Rome. The images that are most in the public mind are those of a war-like, uncivilized people conquering the great jewel of Christianity--Constaniople, the enslavement of Christian children, the asault on Christain Europe, and the supression of the Greeks in the 19th century. The new sultan's murder of his brothers and the titilating stories of harems did nothing to improve the Ottoman image. The geocide of the Armenian people is also often blamed on the Ottomans, although it seems more the result of the rise of Turkish nationalism and the modern secular Turish state. The image of the Ottomans is generally that of the declining Ottoman state of the 19th century when it had become the backward, coruption-ridden Sickman of Europe. This is very different than the state of the Empire at it height. Art and education flowered under the Ottomans at a time when it was many Christain kingdoms that were backwards. Much of the neagative evaluation of the Ottomans comes from the application of 20th century standards which of course is inappropriate. The Ottomans were in fact more open and tolerant through much of their history than contemporaty Christian kingdoms. It is true that there were practices such as child gatherings and the forced conversion and enslavement of Christian children. It is also true as slaves of the Sultan their living conditions were often notably improved. It is also necessary to note what was happening to Jewish and Islamic populations in Chistian kingdoms. There were no expulsions and forced mass conversions as after the Reconquista in Spain and Portugal, no excesses like the Holy Inquisition in Catholic countries, no devestating religious wars, and no terrifying massacres such as the St. Barthomew Day Massacres in France and gettos and periodic pogroms for the Jews througour Chrisendom. In fact, discenting Christain communities usually fared better under the Ottomans than Byzantine and Roman Catholic soverigns. This is not to say that many subject people did not suffer under Ottoman rule. Subject people usually do. Under the Ottomans some did suffer, but others flouished. It is to say that the role of the Ottoman Turks in European history has often not been accurately or fairly presented.


The Ottoman Empire was one of the great imperial states of history. It was founded (1299)wih the defeat of many Turkish tribes as a result of Mongol expansion. It replced the Selejuk Turko-Persian Empire destoyed by the Mongols. The Otoomon seized Aaloia ans expanded into the Christian Balkans, Central Asia, and eventually the Arabs lands of the Middle East and North african. The Ottoman Turks becane a minority in their own Empire. Ir became one of the largest, most powerful and longest-lasting empires in history. It reached a maximum area of 7.6 million square miles (1595). Its geogrphy was particularly important. With territories streaching from the Crimea and southern Ukraine south to the arabian Penimnsula and North Africa. the Ottomans were a massive barrier between Christian Europe and the East with its fabulous products (silk, porcelin, spices, and much more). The Mpire bebefitted from controlling the commerce between East and West. It aded very little of its own to that trade, but controlling the trade routes were a major part of the Ottoman economy. This was a major corcumstance that drove Europeans to seek a sea route to the East--launching the voyages of discovery. Ottoman efforts to stop this adventure were defeated at the Battle of Diu in the Indian Ocean (1509).


The Ottoman Empire was for a long period the dominant Middle-Estern powe and a major force in Europe. For a time in was posed to conquer Central Europe and move into the West. It was fir a time more tolerant and liberal than the West, a vast powerful multi-ethnic empire. Yet it ultimately failed and collapsed into modern Turkey. The history of the Ottoman Empire is perhaps the most poorly understood of of any state in the European stte system. There are a number of reasons for this. The primary one is that Ottoman history is so politically controversial in the modern world, even battles and events from medieval era are highly cintentious. In both Turket and the successor states the history of the Ottoman Empire has been obscured by both modern politics and national myth. Ottoman history in Trkey emphasizes the great rulers like Suliman the Magnificent and presents Ottoman history as largely Turkish history, often ignoring the fct that the Empire was a large mult-ethnic entity in which non-Turks often played major roles. The successors states tend to do the opposities, emphazing the oppresive nature of Ottoman rule and in many cases falsifying the historical record. As a result, readers interested in the Empire need to exercise extreme care as to the sources consulted. [Finkel] Another factor is that the Arabs would prefer to forget the Ottomans. The general tendency in the Arab world is to blamne their modern povery and backwardness (unless they sit on a pool of oil) on the Jews and the West. This even though much of the Arab lands were part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries and European colonies for only a few decades if at all. A major factor here is Islam. To focus on the impact of Ottoman rule, the impact of Islam would have to be assesed. And most Arabs refuse to even consider the idea of Islam as responsible for their modern predicament.

Economic Impact

While the Ottomans were in th 14th and 15th centuries in many ways more progressive thn many Christian kingdoms, this gradually chganged and the Ottomans did not participate in the economic expansion and scintific development that by the 16th century was beginning to transform Europe. The Ottoman Empire by the 18th century had become a backwater of Europe and the economy and culture reflected this. One reader points out that the Balkans areas that had the shortest history under the Ottomans and reccaimed by the Austraians after a relatively short period of Ottomon rule (Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia) are today the most developed area of the Balkans. The areas under the longest period of Ottoman rule and never ruled by the Austrians (Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia) are among the least developed. (We exclude Greece here because of the significant post-World War II development as a democratic country and member of the European Union which differed from the rest of the Balkans.) Of coure the reason for this difference is more complex than a simple Ottoman/Turkish differnce, but this would appear to be a significant factor.



Ottoman clothing is interesting in part because because it essentially brought Central Asian styles into Europe just emerging from the medieval era. Fashion in medieval Europe is notavle for its slow if at time almost inperceptable rate of change. And the same is true of Ottoman fashion. There was of course change, but at a very low pace. Ottoman fashions had some impact on European dashion. And in the last century of the Empire, we see European fashions mzking inroads, a measure of the degree to whivh the Empirewas weakening. Of course when we speak of Ottoman fashion, we are primarily talking about the Sultan's palace and elaborate court dashions. The common people were prinruly just concerned with practicality and obtaining needed garnents. Here two fctors were involved. One was simple economics. Most people could not afford, elaborate court fashion. This of course was true in medieval Euerope as well. But as Europe prigressed and develooed economically, many Europeans could afford fasionble clothes. And in some cases where commoners could afford fashionable clothes, Ottoman authorities adopted sumptuary laws. European monarchs during the medieval era did not as well, but not in the modern era. The Ottoman peasantryu nd lower classes did not benefit from an xpanding economy as was thecase in Europe. Another factor was that the Ottoman Empire includes a great diversity of etthnicities and ntionl group. Some of these groups were not enclined to adopt Ottoman styls. This was especially the case in the Christian Balkans. the Ottomans did not.


The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Caliphate ruled by a Turish Sultan. The vast Ottoman Empire included Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities. For nearly all of the empire’s 600-year existence these non-Muslim people suffered systematic discrimination authorized by the Koran and not infrequently flagrant persecution. In fairness, however, untill the 19th century, he Ottoman Empire was commonly more tolerant than Western Christendom toward religious practice.


We do not yet have a page on Ottomon education. We do have a page on Ottoman education in Palestine.


The core of the Ottoman Empire was the Anatolina Turkish heartland. The Ottoman Empireat its peak was nuch more than Anatolia which itself was not purely Turkish. The Ottoman Empire was divided into many provinces both within and beyond Anatolia. In fact most of the territory and population lay beyond Anatolia. we habe begun to build pages on Ottoman provinces. We information on the modern countrues that rose after Ottoman rule: Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Chechnya (Russia), Croatia, Crimea (Ukraine), Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Montenegro, Syria, Tunisia, and Serbia. One notable observation from the list is the number of troubled, poor countries that trace their modern origins to the Ottoman Empire. We know of no other great empire that has left so nuch disorder and difficulties achieving modernity in its wake. Each of these countries have their own individual histoties, but a factor od some importance is often the centuries cut off from Western Christendom and the moderizing movements sweeping the west, including the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Here Islam is part of the story, but not the entire story.


One of the interesting questions about the Ottomaan Empire and in facr the wider Muslim world is technology. One of the most obvious creations of humanity is the technology that defines the modern world. Advances in astronmy, biology, chemnistry, matamatics, medicine, physics, and other fields have made possible modern life. Many of our modern desciplines date back to Greek thinkers. And Muslims made importatant advnces during the medievl era, benefiting from a common language at the Caliphate's translation project. There are a long list of Muslims who contributed to scientific leaning, some coming very close to inventing the scientific method. But then something happened. The Islamic worl whic fo centuries was more advancd than the Christian West, about the the time of the Remaissance turned away from secular science and focused almost entirely on religious studies. By this time, the major Muslim power was the Ottoman Empire. Yet we know of no Ottoman or other important scientist or medical figure of importnce after the 15th century. One of the final figures was Ottoman doctor of Urology Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu (1385-1468) who came up with many medicaltreatments including some urology surgeries which are still being followed but with more modern equipment and facilities. But we could not find anything on line if he was Jewish or Muslim. It is not clear just whu from being a hot spot os scientific inquiry, the Muslkm world, including the powerful Ottoman Empire turned into a black hole of leaning which continues to this day. Even more stunning is whu the Muslim world seems unaware of it and is semminly uniterested in why. The Ottoman answer was not reform, but to hire Western expertsand engineers. The cannons which brole through the walls of Constaninople (1452) were manufactured with Western technology. One of the great turning ponts in history, often not asked because of the PC demands of modern academia is why at the very time than man laumced the most important era of leaning and and inquiry, the Muslim world despite its scinentiv=c advances, turned away and toward largely sterile teological inquiry.


Slavery is an ancient central to the ecomonies of many ancient societies. This did not change with the coming of Islam and subsequently the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Slavery as an institution is recognized and thus sanctioned by the Holy Koran. The Koran consuls fair treatment of slaves, but slavery is sanctioned by Sharia Law. Thus approved by both religion and custom, slavery became an important institution in both the Ottoman economy and society. It was not as important as in some societies, but it was important. Slavery was entrenched in the operation of the Ottoman state in both administrative and militiary areas. [Erdem, p. 18.] Slavery was was a central element in the harem system as part of the use of slave domestics and concubines. Slavery was an important aspect of the privat lives of individuals in the Muslim areas of the Empire. This was much less true in the Christian areas (primarily the Balkans) where slavery had largely disappeared by the time of the Ottoman conquest. The source of slaves varied over time. Both the Crimean Tartars and the Arabs played an important role in the Ottoman slave trade.


The Ottomans were one of a number of nomadic Turkish tribes originating in the vast Eur-Asian steppe. They were not the first to emerge from the Steppe preced by other fierce warrior people like the Huns. The first Turkic people to enter the Mideast were the Selejuk Turks. The Turkic tribes followed a primitive shamanistic religion. Once in contact with settled populations they accepted Islam and under Islamic influence, the Seljuks played a key role in the development of the Mideastern Turko-Persian tradition. They helped bring Persian culture to Anatolia. It also led to the settlement of other Turkic tribes in the northwestern peripheral parts of the empire. This played the strategic purpose of fending off invasions from other Steppe tribes and neighboring states and resulted in the Turkicization of the area. The Selejuks wre weakened y wars with the Crusaders. The Ottoman rose out of one of the various Turkic tribes tht had been drawn into the Mideast, the Oguz Turks, Their time came as the Mongols devestated the major states of the Mideast. Led by Oman, they began a spectacular rise in the power vacuum created as the Mogols fell bavk to Central Asia. by the The Turks were the core of the Ottoman Empire, but as they conquered other people, primarilt the Christian Balkans and Arab lands, they became a minority in their own empire. Ethnic data on the Ottoman Empire is not known with any precession until the final years of its existence. The Empire dfubctioned for five centuries. The first official census was a major undertaking (1881–1893) and by that time the Christian Balkans had been lost. And even the Census that was compiled had some weaknesses because it relied heavily on tax data and there are major problems wth useing taxation system for census purposes. The ethnic groups composing the Ottoman Empire has varied over time as the Empire first expanded and than declined. These people have included besides the core Turkic popultion: Albanians, Arabs, Armenians, Bosnians, Bulgars, Croats, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Serbs, Slovenes, Ukranians, Tartars, and others.

Modern Turkish Views

One of the fascinating aspects of the internet is the ability to exchange ideas with people around the world. One Turkish blogger tells us, " As a Turk, I am glad that Ottoman Empire has ended because now, thanks to Ataturk, we are a republic and a secular country. But I am also sorry and regretful because it took thousands of soldiers' blood to establish this new republic." We asked, Many of your countrymen are working to make Turkey less secular. Do the regret the end of the Ottoman Empire? He tlls us, "Yes they regret it, because they think that the western civilization is evil and immoral, we have to return ourself (!) Recently, a congressman of our national parliament said, 'Ottoman Empire's 90 years of break is over.' Do you believe that? Republic's congressman said that democracy and republic must go and the Empire needs to come back. But this republic has been given us by Ataturk and we are the ones who will defend it. So I don't like them and I am not scared of them." We are not posting our soources's name because in Turkey and othe Muslim countries, such open criticism of government and Islamists can be dangerous.


Erdem, Y Hakan. Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its Demise,

Finkel, Caroline. Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire (2006). This is an excellent ballanced history of the Ottoman Empire.

Hess, Andrew C. "The Ottoman conquest of Egypt (1517) and the beginning of the sixteenth century world war," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. IV (1973), pp. 55-76.


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Created: May 30, 2002
Last updated: 3:41 AM 12/11/2016