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Thematic Guide to the Ottoman Empire

Corinne Blake, Rowan University


One of the world's preeminent gunpowder empires and largest and longest-lasting Muslim states, the Ottoman Empire was founded at the end of the thirteenth century by Osman, a Turkish frontier bey (leader) from northwest Anatolia. Between the time of Osman and the empire's final dissolution in World War I, the Ottomans conquered vast territories in southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa and created an elaborate bureaucracy that governed one of the earth's most ethnically and religiously diverse populations.

Ottoman Expansion

The Ottoman Empire began as one of the many small Turkic principalities ruling in Anatolia after the collapse of the Seljuk Dynasty. Early Ottoman rulers quickly surpassed their rivals, capturing additional territory in Anatolia and invading southeastern Europe. From its early capital in Bursa, the Ottoman state expanded rapidly, conquering land in the Balkans, including areas that are now Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and Bosnia, and defeating the Serbian Empire at Kosovo at the end of the fourteenth century. Despite solidification of its rule in southeastern Europe and Anatolia and establishment of a second capital at Edirne, the Ottomans were crushed by Tamerlane in 1402. Ottoman sultans managed to rebuild the empire within two decades, however, and under Mehmed II defeated the Byzantine Empire, turning Constantinople into a magnificent capital city, Istanbul. Subsequent Ottoman sultans gained control of the Crimean Khanates, defeated the Safavid Dynasty based in Iran at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, and conquered the Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt and Syria. With the capture of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1517, the Ottomans became the paramount Muslim empire. Although the Ottomans captured even more territory (such as Cyprus and Crete) at the end of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, historians generally view the reign of Sulayman the Magnificent in the mid-sixteenth century as the apex of the Ottoman state. Sulayman, whose conquests included what are now Hungary, Iraq, and Tunisia, codified the Ottoman qānūn, (laws promulgated by the sultan), earning him the moniker "the lawgiver."

Ottoman State and Society

Like many Muslim states, the askeri or ruling class of the Ottoman Empire included the sultan and his household as well as officials in the central and provincial administrations. Ottoman territory was divided into beylerbeylik or eyelet (provinces) and sanjak (districts), and the government was divided into three branches: askeri (military), kalemiye (administrative), and ilmiye (legal), all of which were represented within both the central and provincial administrations.

Initially, the Ottoman military consisted of ghazis (frontier warriors), most of whom were nomadic Turkmen, but from the late fourteenth century, sultans began to recruit slave soldiers. Unlike other Muslim empires who acquired slave soldiers, or mamluks, from Central Asia or areas outside Muslim control to serve mainly in the cavalry, by the sixteenth century, the Ottomans instituted devşirme, a regular levy of Christian boys from the Balkans. Boys taken through devşirme trained for the Janissaries (the Ottoman infantry), or entered the palace school to train for other military or administrative positions. From the sixteenth century, military and administrative officials of slave origin dominated the Ottoman ruling elite, often serving in top-level administrative positions as viziers (ministers) or even as grand viziers. The Ottomans also incorporated ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) such as qāḍīs (judges) and muftis (jurists) into the state's legal system, which was headed by the Shaykh al-Islām. Cases were adjudicated based on the Sharīʿah (Islamic law) and qānūn.

Ottoman subjects, known as the reâyâ (protected flock), were organized and ruled according to religious community (millet) and occupational guild. In addition to Sunni and Shiʾi Muslims, many religious minorities, including Armenian, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox Christians; Jews; Dönme; Alevis; Alawis; and Druze made up this heterogeneous and multicultural society. Sufi orders such as the Bektāshīyah, Khalwatīyah, Naqshbandīyah, and the famous Mawlawīyah or Mevlevî whirling dervishes also played an important role in Ottoman society. The state regulated its economy to a degree unusual for the time, surveying land for tax purposes, keeping detailed records, regulating guilds, and building bazaars and caravanserai to promote local and long-distance trade. Among the empire's best-known artistic contributions have been poets, such as Yunus Emre; architects, including Mimar Sinan, Hayreddin, and the Balyan family; and calligraphers, such as Şeyh Hamidullah.

Decentralization and Reform

Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire experienced political, economic, and military challenges that historians have often characterized as decline, though more recent scholarship has cast its shift in terms of imperial adaptation and state transformation. Challenges included corruption and other problems in the central administration; loss of territory to Russia and the Hapsburgs; the Celali Revolts in Anatolia; the rise of autonomous dynasties within the empire such as the Qaramanlı and Ḥusaynid dynasties in North Africa; and increasing European economic dominance facilitated by the Capitulations, commercial privilege agreements with France, Great Britain, and other countries. Problems intensified in the nineteenth century, with the establishment of autonomous dynasties by Ottoman officials such as Muḥammad ʿAli in Egypt, the loss of outlying areas of the empire including Algeria and Tunisia to European nations, and the rise of nationalist movements in southeastern Europe, leading to the establishment of independent states such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia in former Ottoman territories. During the same century the empire absorbed millions of Muslim immigrants, including Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and other people from the Caucasus who were forced to leave after Russian conquests of the area.

At the end of the eighteenth century Ottoman leaders attempted to strengthen the state through modernizing reforms. Beginning with a reorganization of the military, reforms were expanded to include the restructuring of a wide range of institutions and the development of the empire's infrastructure and economy. During the period of the Tanzimat (Reorganization) in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, an eclectic new civil code, the Mecelle, was introduced, along with educational, administrative, and financial reforms based on European models. Reformers also tried to introduce Ottomanism, the concept of an Ottoman nation. Toward the end of the Tanzimat, the Young Ottomans, a diverse group of officials and writers including Mehmet Namik Kemal, Ibrahim Ṣinasi, and Ali Suavi criticized the excessive secularism of the new model and promoted constitutionalism instead, which they argued was compatible with Islam. A constitution was drawn up in 1876 but was quickly suspended by Sultan Abdülhamid II, who continued to mandate westernizing reforms and infrastructure development while promoting Pan-Islamism in place of Ottomanism.

The Young Turks and the End of Empire

In 1889, the Committee of Ottoman Union (later known as the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP) was founded by Abdullah Cevdet and other dissidents with the aim of reinstating constitutional rule. An amalgamation of antiregime activists known as the Young Turks forced a revolution in 1908, and the 1876 constitution was reinstituted. A diverse coalition that included Islamist leaders such as Mehmed Said Halim Pasha and Muhammed Hamdi Yazır Elmalılı, as well as nationalists such as Mehmet Ziya Gökalp, Yusuf Akçura, and Cevdet, the Young Turks attempted to institute military, political, and administrative reforms. Following an unsuccessful counterrevolution led by the Īttihad-i Muhammadi Cemiyeti (Muhammadan Union) in 1909, however, the Young Turks faced an escalating series of crises, including the loss of Libya to the Italians, Zaydi rebellions in Yemen, and the Balkan Wars, which resulted in the loss of almost all of southeastern Europe and the creation of Albania, a predominantly Muslim nation in former Ottoman territory. Support for pan-Turkism and Arab nationalism increased during this period as well, and activists such as ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kawākibī called for the establishment of an Arab caliphate; nevertheless, most Muslims, including Sāṭiʿal-Ḥuṣrī and other Arab leaders who later became prominent nationalists, continued to support the Ottoman Empire as the last great independent Muslim state.

In 1913, the CUP triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Cemal Pasha seized power and entered World War I the following year on the side of the Central Powers. Internal opposition intensified during the war: the Ottomans faced a revolt in the Hejaz led by Ḥusayn IbnʿAlī and brutally crushed Armenian rebellions in the controversial Armenian massacres. After the war, Turkish nationalists, led by an army officer who became known as the legendary Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, fought against Allied plans to partition the empire. They were successful, and the independent republic of Turkey was established in 1923. The Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, however, were divided into five successor states—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan—and placed under British or French colonial rule through the mandate system.

Further Reading

  • Abou-El-Haj, Rifa'at 'Ali. Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.
  • Aksan, Virginia. Ottoman Wars, 1700–1870: An Empire Besieged. London: Longman Press, 2007.
  • Faroqhi, Suraiya. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
  • Findley, Carter Vaughn. Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A History, 1789–2007. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Finkel, Caroline. Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. London: Basic Books, 2006.
  • Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and the Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Hanioğlu, Şükrü. A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Hathaway, Jane. The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516–1800. London: Longman Press, 2008.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Inalcık, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300–1600. London: Phoenix, 2000.
  • Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Kasaba, Resat. A Moveable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants, and Refugees. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.
  • McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. New York: Longman Press, 1997.
  • Murphy, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare, 1500–1700. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
  • Pierce, Leslie. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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