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The Ottoman Empire: History

Figure 1.--

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.


The Ottomans were one of a number of Turkish tribes that migrated into Anatolia from the vast central Asian steppe. The Ottomans were a nomadic people following a primitive shamanistic religion. Once in contact with settled populations they accepted Islam and under Islamic influence, the Ottomans acquired a fierce fighting tradition--that of the "gazi" warrior. The Ottoman Empire was founded Othman, who died at Pausa, in Bithynia, in 1326. Othman was followed by a series of waring princes, considered some of the most war-like in history. The Ottoman Empire was founded Othman or Osman I (1259-1326). Othman was born in Bithynia. On the overthrow of the sultanante of Iconium in 1299 by the Nongols, Osman seized a portion of Bithynia and subsequently a portion of Nicæa, and gradually subdued a great part of Asian Minor, and so became the founder of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Sultans

We have not yet succeed in collecting images on Turkish royals, but we have begun to collect some information on Ottoman royals. The Ottoman Empire was founded Othman or Osman I (1259-1326). Othman was born in Bithynia. On the overthrow of the sultanante of Iconium in 1299 by the Mongols, Osman seized a portion of Bithynia and subsequently a portion of Nicæa, and gradually subdued a great part of Asian Minor, and so became the founder of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire. Othman died at Pausa, in Bithynia, in 1326. Othman was followed by a series of waring princes, considered some of the most war-like in history. They rapidly expanding the boundaries of their Turkish dominions in Anatolia, at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. They crossed the Hellespont about 1357 when Murad I made Adrianople the capital of the Turkish Empire, gradually reduceing the dominions of the Byzantines. After a long siege, Mahomet II overcame the defenses of Constantinople. The Ottomans proceeded to conquer the Balkans, but were turned back at the gates of Vienna. Afterwards the Ottoman Empire gradually declined and by the 19th century was known as the Sickman of Europe.

Conquest of Anatolia

The Ottomans rapidly expanding the boundaries of their Turkish dominions in Anatolia, at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. The rise of the Ottomans meant the end of many ancient cultures, but in fact much of Anatolia had already been Helanized. For many people, life after the conquest changed little. Conquest by the Ottomans did not mean mass slaughter, conversion, or expulsion as would have been the case under a Christian conqueror. There was presure to convert to Islam, but usually not force. Except for religion, life went on much as before the Turks. Non-Orthodox Christians indeed found greater freedom to paractice their faith than under the Byzantines. Even into the early 20th century there were great similarities in dress, diet, and life style shared by Greek and Turkish villages in Anatolia.


The Emperor Constantine in 330 AD moved the Capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, founding the Eastern Roman Empire which was to become known asthe Byzantine Empire or Byzantium. One of Byzantium's many achievements was to transform the linguistic and cultural heritage of Ancient Greece into a vehicle forthe new Christian civilization. The Ottomans in the 14th century rapidly conquered Byzantine territory in Anatolia, but the fortifications of Constaninople proved a major impediment. The Ottomans crossed the Hellespont about 1357 when Amurath I made Adrianople the capital of the Turkish Empire, gradually reduceing the remaining European dominions of the Byzantines. After a long siege, Mahomet II overcame the defenses of Constantinople (1453). The fall of Byzantium was a major turing pont in European history. Athens fell in 1456 and most of Greece was in Ottoman hands by 1460. They then pushed further north into the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire for the next 150 years is at the height of its power, exapnding north, east, and south--including areas that has even been outside of the Roman Empire at its height.

European Renaissance

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople sent shock wave across Europe. Thousands of Byzantine refugees fled to Latin West, especially Italy, but spreading out throughout Christain Europe. They carried with them classical and Hellenistic knowledge and presious manuscripts that helped fuel the developing European Renaissance. The thrust of the Renaissance was an increasing focus on man and both the humanities and secular learning. At this point there was no technological gulf between the Christian West and the Ottomans. Expanding secular leaning in the West led to a gradually developing technological gulf. There was no Renaissance in the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere in the Muslim world. Learming remained dominated by religious scholars.

The Spice Trade

The Ottomans with the fall of Byzantium gained control of the Black Sea. They gradually displaced the Venetians in the northern Aegean. Expansion south into Syria and Egypt further closed lucrative trade routes to European shipping. The control of territory from the Russian steppe to Egypt allowed the Ottomons to interdict established European trade routes to the East. It was Ottoman control of the spice trade routes that was a factor in pushing the European voyages of discovery. The Portugues sailed south around Africa and Columbus sailed west to seek alternative trade routes to the East. While the Ottomans controlled land routes they were unable to stop the Portuguese and other Europeans from reaching India and establishing sea links with the East.

Arab Lands (1517)

The Caliphate which was alreafy in decline was destroyed bythe Mongols who advanced as far as Egypt (13th century). This created a vacuume in the Arab lands which was filled in part by the Eyptiam Mamlukes. The Ottomon defeat of the Mamelukes mafe them the dominate power in the Middle East (1517). It enabled themn to seize not only Egypt, but Syria and Arabia as well, giving them control over the Arab lands and much of the Muslim world. [Hess, p.55.] This helped to make the Sultan not only am emperor in a political sence, but a religious figure as well. (Islam does not compartmentalize political and religious rule as we do in the West.) The Ottomons as a result would rule the Arabs until World War I and the rise of Arab nationalism. The miliitary successes in the Arab lands provided new resources that could be used to pursue their wars with the the Christian West. The Arabs substatially added to the non-Turkish popultio of the Empire. Added to the Christians in the Balkans and other groups such as the Christian Armenians in Anatolia, the Turks were now a minority within their own Empire. The Ottoman rile of the Arab lands varied from country to country. We are developing section on various Arab lands: the Egypt, Levant,Mesopotamia, Palestine, and other areas.


The Ottomans had several advantages in their competion with Christian kingdoms. One was their enormous wealth. The control of trade routes between Asia and Europe was a tremendous asset. European powers, such as Venice and Genoa, paid great sums to the Ottomans to gain access to these routes.

Christian Europe Threatened

The Ottomans proceeded to conquer the Balkans, but were turned back at the gates of Vienna. The Ottomans by the late 16th century had reached a point beyond their ability to effectively project power. The increasing technolohical advanage of the West was another factor. This was first felt in the great sea battle of Lepanto (1571). Military campaigns were pursued with with Austria in the Balkans and with Christian powers in the Mediterranean, but significant adavances were niot achieved despite the expenditure of vast sums. Crete which had held on so long fell in 1669. The Köprülü vizirs prepared a planned new assault on Vienna in 1683, but this resulted in an ignominious defeat.

Ottoman Rule

Ottoman expansion was greatly feared in the Christian West. The Ottomans, often in contrast to the Christian kingdoms, usually allowed religious groups to continue to practice their own faiths within the conquered territories. The Ottomans also tended to preserve the established feudal institutions. They often permitted the the different ethnic and religious groups within the Empire to adopt laws to regulate their own communities. The Ottoman administrative and governmental systems were well developed and highly effective, especially in the early years more so than Christain kingdoms. Most lands under Ottoman rule were competently managed, although this deteriorated in the final era of the Empire.


The Ottoman Empire evolved fro nomadic tribal warriors. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, organized state institutions were needed. One of these institutions was a standing army. Early Ottoman victories were achieved by tribal armies with warriors loyal to their commander. The Empire needed a standing army loyal to the bey or sultan.The first Ottoman standing army was created by Sultan Murad I in the late 14th century. The term janissary (yeniçeri) means new troops in Turkish. The Sultan had a problem in that any troops recruited from Ottoman tribes would have tribal loyalties and thus not completely loyal to the sultan himself. The sultan decided to recruit the janissaries from Christian families in the Balkans. The Ottomon Empire expanded to control areas populated by Christians. These peoples were not conscripted for miliyary service and instead paid a tax. But this limited the Ottoman military capacity. Thus conscripting boys from Christian families made fuller use of the population. And from the sultan's point of view, these Chritian boys had the advantage of not having tribal loyalties. Thus there were first loyalties were to him. As boys they became the sultn's property, essential the legal status of slaves. They were in fact pampered slaves who receive a quality education. Virtually all converted to Islam.


The Ottomons had not kept pace with technological progress in modern weapons and this had begin to show in the campaign against the Austrians. Cooperation with France, the dominate European power of the era did not prevent more defeats. The Austrains seized Hungary and even southern Greece was loss for a time to Venice. The Ottoman Empire slowly declined and by the 19th century had become known as the Sickman of Europe.

18th century

After the loss of Hungary in the late 17th century and further territory in the early 18th century, the situation improves for the Ottomnas as the regan Serbia and Walachia (1736-37). This stoped further Austrian advances into the Balkans. There was in fact a prolonged peaceful error. The decline of the Empire's military strength was, however, apparent. The Ottomans couldcnot match the tremendous resources of many power and by the 19th centurty, Ottoman technical abilities had fallen seriously behind those of Europe, eben those of Russia--the least developed European power. One has to ask why the Ottoman, once a center of learning and craftsmanship failed to enter the modern era of scientific learning, industry, and entrepreneurship that was sweeping Christian Europe. No great centers of edication were maintained by the Sultans to rival the expanding European universities. One has to be led to the conclusion that the conservative Islam of the Ottomans did not inspire the best minds in the Empire to contemplate scientific questions. The Ottomans themselves were military men, yet increasingly it was the weaponry produced by increasingly sophisticated scientific developments that were desciding battles. Islam also led to a social consevatism not unlike China which saw no need to inovate or learn from people they thought to inferior or non-belivers in Islam. Informs were attempted, but none struck at the very heary of the problem, the very nature of the culture and society and failure to embrace a modern mindset open to innovation and embracing the concept of progress.

19th century

Unable to reform itself, the Ottomans faced even more serious challenges than before. Now internal challenges arose. Subject people were inspired by the nationalism promoted by the French Revolution and then Napoleon. The Ottoman's Christian subjects in the Balkans began to demonstrate a growing nationalit spirit further encouraged by the clear signs of declining Ottoman military power. The first country to achieve independence was Greece, but nationalism and a desire for independence was rising throughout the Balkans. The subject nationalities not only received support from overseas compatriots, but also by direct intervention--especially from Russia which desired to open the Dardenelles and returtn Constantinople to Christendom. The Ottomans by the 19th century were clearly seen as the 'Sick Man of Europe' and unable to resist the Russians by themselves. Far sighted individuals attempted the Tanzimat reforms to redress the problems caususing the Empire's decline. The other Great Powers were concerned with Russia's expansion. The British in paticular were concerned with Russian movement south and possible threats to India and Egypt where there was an overland connection to India and thought was being given to the future Suez Canal. The British, French, and Austria even fought the Crimean War (1853-56) to limit Russian advances. Britain and other European powers were limited in the degree of aid that could be offered the Ottomans as European newspapers were full of lurid stories of Turkish reprisals and attrocities against peoples widely seen as Christian freedom fighters. These stories of attricites, many based on fact, often included references or were in addition to other articles on the white slave trade and Christian women being forced into the Sultan's harem. Lord Byron had gone to Greece to write poetic odes to the valiant Greeks and the other natioanal groups were regarded in much the same light. Gradually the Ottomans were forced to great increasing autonomy to Balkan principalities. The turning point was the Russo-Turkish War (1878-79). And by the end of the century there were independent kingdoms in Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia.

20th century

The chronic weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the disolutory leadership of the sultan resulted in a revolt by the Young Turks (1909). The Young Turks had some liberal ideals. They forced Sultan Abdul Hamid to end absolutionist rule and approve a constitution as well as install a liberal government. Many also believed in a more ethnically pure Turkish state. The reforms, however, had only limited impact on the Ottoman state. The Ottomans suffered other defeats in a war with Italy (1911–1912) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913). The Ottoman Empire which was heavily courted by Germany had been hard-pressed by Russia saw the opportunity to win back lost territory and joined the Central Powers in World War I. The Ottomans entered the War after the Western Front had settled down to static trench warfare, but the Germans had achieved major victories against the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Ottomons declared war on Russia on October 29, 1914. The first operation was a combined German-Turkish bombardment of Russian Black Sea ports. Russia and Britain and France quickly declared war on Turkey (November 2-5). The first Ottoman offensive was aimed at the Russian Caucauses (December). After initial successes, the Russiand retook much lost ground (August 1915). Russian pleas for assistance was one of the factors leading to the dusastrous Allied offensive at Galipoli (February 15). The Turkish forces at Galipoli were commanded by Mustafa Kemal who later as Kemal Attaturk was to found the Turkish Republic. After heavy losses of both ships and men, the Allies withdrew (December 1915). Beritish Indian forces launched an offensive against Turkish held Mesopotamia (late 1914). The campaign there seasawed Back and forth (1915). A British Army was destoyed, but the British finally took Bagdad and moved into northern Mesopotamia. The campaign in Egypt and Palesine began with an Ottoman attack on Suez. The Brirish struck back and finally took Jerusalem. The Arab Revolt further undercut the Ottoman poition. The final British offensive destoyed three Ottoman armies. The Ottomans with their armies being destroyed in the field agreed to an armistice on Mudros, endng the fighting. After four centuries of dominating the Balkans and the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Turkish Republic

Turkish history of course includes the history of the ancient peoples of Anatolia and the Turkic people, especully The Ottomans. he history of the Turkish Reoublic is much shorter and far different. Anatolia's p;ace in history was in large measure a matter of geography--a connecting point between Europe and Asia. But this ws changed with the Ruropean maritime outreach. And the Islanic decline which tuned central Asia in to a tome capsule of the medieval wotld. This led to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Young Turks had to remake society and the Empire. This tragically began with the mirder of the armenians--the Armenian Genocide. This was a deore to create a swath of Turlish people straching fom Antolia into Central Asia. This destoyed the Christian Armenian ebclv in eastern natolia. But World war I also shttered what was ledt of the Ottoman Empire. Imperial officls were forced to sign the Mondros Armistice (October 30, 1918). This allowed the Allies to occupythe Empire. And this was esentially the end of the Empire. A Turkish national resistance movemnt emerged led by Young Turk officer Mustafa Kemal. He united disorganized resistance groups and forged a disiplined new force.He is today known as Ataturk or 'Father of Turks'. He launched the Turkish National Liberation War to create a new state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Fihgting was intermyent, but lasted 4 years (1919-22). Attaturk's smll army won in large part becuse the Allied powers, sickened by the tragedy od Erld wat I did not want to fight another war, evn a small one. Ataturk's victory was not merely military, but it was also diplomatic. The Allies agreed to a softer peace--the Lausanne Peace Treaty (July 24, 1923). The Treaty recognized the mew Turkish Republic. The Republic was proclaimed (October 29, 1923). The Turkish people enjoyed self-rule for the first time in a largely Tirkish ethnic state. Mustafa Kemal was elected as the first president of the Republic of Turkey. He govned Turkey for 15 years, until his death just before World War II (1938). As president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced a broad range of reforms in the political, social, legal, economic, and cultural areas. These were some of the the most sweeping reforns in history. Especially notable as they occured in a largely Muslim country. Atatürk created a secular state, the first secular Muslim state.


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: 4:25 PM 12/26/2014
Last updated: 1:02 AM 8/13/2016