Ottoman Empire

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Osmanlı İmparatorluğu
Devlet-i Aliye-i Osmaniye
Map of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire at the height of its power
Imperial motto Devlet-i Ebed-müddet'
(Ottoman Turkish for "the Eternal State")
Official language Ottoman Turkish
Capital Constantinople (İstanbul)
Imperial anthem Ottoman imperial anthem
Monarch/Sovereigns Padishah of the Osmanli Dynasty
Population c. 40 million
Area 6.3m km² (1902); maximum extent larger (1595)
Rise of the Ottoman Empire/Establishment 1299
Fall of the Ottoman Empire/Dissolution October 29, 1923
Currency Akce, Kurus, Lira
Flag Flag of Turkey
The flag of the later Ottoman period

The Ottoman Empire represents one of the largest imperial projects in human history, ruling vast territories in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East over a period of some five centuries. During its history, it did much to sustain Islamic civilization. Outsiders and insiders have had different perceptions of the Ottoman Empire. Outsiders often viewed it as a threat; for insiders, including for much of the time non-Muslims, it represented stability and security. Towards the end of its existence outsiders saw it as decadent and corrupt. Even though it had embarked on a process of democratization that process had been sabotaged by the Young Turks (see below). Entangled by debt, the empire tried to minimize its involvement in the web of European politics by aligning itself with Germany, with whom trade had increased. Germany had not played the British game of on-off, hot and cold diplomacy by supporting the Ottomans in one war but not in another. Towards the end, treatment of non-Turkish subjects had deteriorated and the series of incidents known as the Armenian Genocide, though disputed by Turks, remains for many a blot on the Ottoman record. In the end, it was the desire to retain the empire and to deny non-Turks and non-Muslims a say in its affairs that brought about the empire's collapse. Turkish and German ambitions coalesced but both states were defeated in World War I.

Those who believe that history teaches lessons or that a non-human, supreme reality acts within history will view the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire in terms of wrong choices, pride, and lack of respect for the dignity of all people. On the other hand, historically the Ottomans had treated minorities well and many people in the empire knew security, so aspects of the historical legacy of the empire should not be undervalued.


The Ottoman Empire (Ottoman Turkish language: Devlet-i Aliye-i Osmaniye; Turkish language (Modern Turkish): Osmanlı İmparatorluğu) was an imperial power centered on the borders of the Mediterranean Sea that existed from 1281 (or 1299) to 1923. At the height of power, it included Anatolia, the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and much of southeastern Europe. The empire was established by a tribe of Oghuz Turks in western Anatolia and ruled by the Osmanli dynasty, the descendants of those Turks.

In diplomatic circles, the empire was often referred to as the Sublime Porte or the Porte, from the French language translation of the Ottoman Turkish language Bâb-i-âlî ("great gate"), the grand Palace Gate of the Imperial Topkapı Palace where the sultan greeted foreign ambassadors. It has also been interpreted as referring to the empire's (and especially the capital Istanbul's) position as gateway between Europe and Asia. In its day, the Ottoman Empire was commonly referred to as the Turkish Empire or Turkey by Westerners, though it should not be confused with the modern nation-state of Turkey.

Did you know?
The Ottoman Empire was the center of interactions between Asia and Europe for six centuries

The empire was founded by Osman I (in Arabic ʿUthmān, عُثمَان, hence the name Ottoman Empire). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was among the world's most powerful political entities and the countries of Europe felt threatened by the steady Ottoman advance through the Balkans.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire comprised an area of about 5.5 million km², though much of this was under indirect control of the central government. In 1453, after the Ottomans captured Constantinople (modern Istanbul) the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire, it became the Ottoman capital. From 1517 onwards, the Ottoman Sultan was also for Sunni Muslims the Caliph of Islam, and was synonymous with the Islamic Caliphate until 1922, (when the Sultanate was abolished), or 1924, (when the Caliphate was abolished), although it never enjoyed universal recognition. This was due to the non-Arab origin of the Ottomans, based on a saying (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad that as long as a Quraishi remained, the Caliph would be a member of the Quraishi clan (his own Arab clan) (Bukhari, Book 89, Hadith 253-254). Selim I, who conquered the Egyptian Mamluks, is said to have been ceded the title Caliph by Mutawakkil III, the last of the Abbasids though the title had been used earlier by Mehmed II. The Ottomans thus became the third dynastic Caliphate, in succession to the Abbasids and the Umayyads. However, the Ottomans may not have used the title Caliph until 1774, when the Tsar of Russia acquired some responsibility for Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman territory in return for the Sultan gaining similar status with Russia's Muslims. Certainly, it was in 1517 that Selim took back to Istanbul sacred relics associated with Muhammad, including his mantle, a traditional symbol of Caliphal authority.

Following World War I, during which most of the empire's territories were captured by the Allies, the Ottoman state was in complete disarray. Turkish nationalists, many of whom were former Ottoman officials and high-ranking military distinction, established modern Turkey as an outcome of the Turkish War of Independence. The war was a continuation of the struggle between Greeks and Turks, fought mainly on what was to become Turkish soil by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.



The Ottoman State originated as a Beylik within the Seljuk Empire in the thirteenth century. In 1299, Osman I declared independence of the Ottoman Principality. Murad I was the first Ottoman to claim the title of sultan (king/deputy). With the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the state was on its way to becoming a mighty empire with Mehmed II as its emperor or padishah. The empire reached its apex under Suleiman I in the sixteenth century, when it stretched from the Persian Gulf in the east, to Hungary in the northwest, and from Egypt in the south, to the Caucasus in the north. The empire was situated in the middle of east and west and interacted throughout its six-century history with both Eastern culture and Western culture. It was in 1353 that, by capturing Gallipoli, the Ottomans gained their first foothold in Europe, blockading the Strait of the Dardanelles.

Suleiman Mosque, Istanbul. Built between 1550 and 1557 and considered an architectural masterpiece


Throughout the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire continued to grow in size and extent, expanding into North Africa and battling with the Safavid Empire to the east. At the Battle of Chaldiran in eastern Anatolia in 1514, Ottoman forces under Sultan Selim I won a decisive victory against the Safavids, ensuring Ottoman security on the eastern front. Thereafter, attention reverted to the west, and Suleiman I, upon ascending the throne in 1518, led a series of campaigns into the Balkans. Under Suleiman's often brilliant strategies, the Ottomans advanced steadily northward, taking Belgrade in 1521, defeating Hungary in 1526 at the Battle of Mohács, and besieging Vienna in 1529. There is little doubt that rivalry with Europe was a dominant motive in Ottoman expansion but a religious element was also present. That element was the desire to extend Islamic rule throughout the world. Indeed, it was not altogether inappropriate that the word 'Turk' and 'Muslim' then became synonymous in Europe. The Ottomans saw themselves first and foremost as Muslims, not as members of a particular ethnic group. The Shaikh-al-Islam (chief jurist) was the third-highest state official. The Sultans believed that they had been raised to the Caliphate by God, arguing that they were best qualified to lead the Muslim world. As the “best of ghazis [holy warriors] and of fighters in the Holy War [against un-belief and to extend Islamic rule] or afdal al-ghuzat wa'l-mujahidin, they were the rightful successors to ‘the Prophet and the Patriarchal Caliphs’” (Inalcik, 1970: 320 citing Turkish sources). The Ottomans believed that the ghaza (war against infidels) “had to be fought against the infidel's dominions, dar-al-harb (the abode of war), ceaselessly and relentlessly until they submitted” (Inalcik: 283). The ghaza had been described as the “foundation stone of the Ottoman state.” According to Inalcik, the ghaza “dominated Ottoman history.” It “constituted the fundamental principle” of Ottoman “policies and administration.”

Ottoman expansion through the 1500s and later, was aided by their considerable knowledge of firearms and tactics, and by an overall fairly-advanced military and administrative system. Ottoman forces also had much expertise at laying sieges, which was used to great extent. An example of this was the siege of Constantinople in 1453, where a massive cannon had been used to breach the triple walls, firing shells exceeding one ton in weight. An Austrian general was known to have said that the Ottomans were "almost invincible" during the summer, supported by their many successful campaigns.

Naval Power

In addition to gaining considerable territory, the empire extended its influence at sea. Selim I conquered the Safavid Empire, only to lose it soon after; the Safavids later defeated and conquered the Ottomans and captured Baghdad. It established a navy in the Red Sea that succeeded, at least for a time, in countering Portuguese influence on the spice trade. During this period, the empire vied with the emerging European colonial powers in the Indian Ocean. Fleets with soldiers and arms were sent to support Muslim rulers in Kenya and Aceh and to defend the Ottoman spice and slave trade. In Aceh, the Ottomans built a fortress and supplied huge cannons. The Dutch Protestants were helped by the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. The Ottoman navy also had much influence in the Mediterranean Sea, and trade flourished because of the stability afforded to shipping lanes.

The Pax Ottomanica

The period of Suleiman the Magnificent is known as the "Pax Ottomanica." Suleiman the Magnificent is regarded by many Muslims as the near-perfect ruler. Named after King Solomon, whose rule the Qur'an extols, he is reputed to have ruled justly and humanely. He was also a renowned poet and patron of the arts. His architect, Sinan, built some of the most significant mosques, famously the Suleymaniye Mosque as well as public buildings in Islamic history. Suleiman also rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, which survive to this day. He codified Ottoman law, which, based on the Hanafi view where Shariah has no explicit ruling, the Sultan can use qiyas or analogy to extend the law, and virtually replaced Islamic law with kanum. These rules covered taxation and regulation of the military. Both Mongol and Turk tradition understood the rulers' law as sacred. However, the law was far from arbitrary—it was impersonal and was generally administered impartially regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, or social status (see Gerber, 1994). Jews and Christians often preferred to take their cases to the qadis (Muslim judges), even though they did not have to, because of the qadis reputation for fairness. Technically, the Caliph is subject to Shariah and during Ottoman history several were removed for allegedly violating Shariah—Ibrahim I (1648) who was probably mad, Mehmed IV (1687), Selim III (1807), and Ahmed III (1731).

Decline and Reform

In the seventeenth century, the Ottomans were weakened both internally and externally by costly wars, especially against Persia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. There was a long succession of sultans who did not possess the skills or dedication of their predecessors. Several sultans had been imprisoned by their predecessors, so had little training in governance and left this to their viziers. Suleiman's son, Selim II, was known as “the Drunkard,” neglecting governance. One sultan, Mehmed III, left governance to his mother. Mahmud I spent most of his time writing poetry. Consequently, a large and corrupt bureaucracy exercised power. On the other hand, strict measures were put in place to punish corrupt officials, especially those found guilty of overtaxing the people or of mistreating the peasants. The scientific advantage the Ottomans had over the other European countries also diminished. While the Ottomans were stagnating in a stalemate with their European and Asian neighbor countries, the European development went into overdrive. Eventually, after a defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, it was clear the Ottoman Empire was no longer a superpower in Europe. In 1699, for the first time in its history the Ottomans acknowledged that the Austrian empire could sign a treaty with the Ottomans on equal terms, and actually lost a large territory which had been in Ottoman possession for two centuries. Yet for many in Europe the term “Turk,” which was regarded as synonymous with “Muslim,” struck terror in their hearts. The Ottomans seemed a threat to European security. It is from this historical encounter that European Islamophobia partly stems, the idea that Islam is incompatible with the European ethos, and therefore a danger to the European way of life.

The Tanzimat Reforms

Aware that reform was needed, what were known as the Tanzimat reforms took place between 1839 and 1876. They were designed to make the civil service more accountable and efficient. These reforms included the establishing of consultative bodies and the codification of law such as the Ottoman Commercial Code (1850) and the Ottoman Penal Code (1858). In the Chamber of Deputies that was formed, both national and religious minorities were well represented. The sultans tried to impose these reforms to revitalize the empire but many were resisted by conservative forces within the empire, either by the religious cadre or by the now corrupt Janissaries. Even after the Janissaries were disbanded in 1826, reforms came slowly. Eventually, a fairly modern conscripted army was formed. The banking system was also reformed and the guilds were replaced with modern factories. However, adoption of new technologies and industrial techniques may have been slow due to pride that nothing much could be learned from non-believers. A comparison here has been made with China. Externally, the empire stopped entering further conflicts alone, and started entering alliances with other European countries. To aid her flagging economy, too, loans were borrowed from European states and banks. There was a series of alliances with France, Netherlands, Britain, and Russia. A prime example of this was the Crimean War in 1852 in which the English, French, Ottomans, and others united against Russia. However, the European powers changed their policies when it suited them to do so, Britain stood by in 1877 when Russia defeated Turkey at San Stefano whereas just a few years earlier she had aided Turkey against Russia. The Young Turks of the Union (Ittihad) and Progress (Terakki) Party wanted to extricate the empire from foreign entanglements and saw an alliance with Germany as a way of minimizing this. Trade and commerce with Germany was increasing and the Young Turks did not think that Britain could be trusted. Originally the Party had attracted the support of non-Muslims and non-Turks, since it had appeared to stand for equality and democracy. The party's rise to power had even been welcomed in Europe. However, “Turkism” took over and the party's aim was to restore Turkish prestige and pride. This matched the German project; Germany felt left out of the European scramble for empire (controlling only Nubia, Tanganyika, German New Guinea and a few Pacific islands) and some thought that without more overseas possessions Germany would not be able to compete economically with Britain and France, which had large empires. In this view, Britain and France were only able to maintain healthy domestic economies by exploiting their overseas colonies.

Reversal of Reform

By the end of the nineteenth century the empire was weakened to a great extent. Economically, it had trouble paying back loans to the European banks. Militarily, it had trouble defending itself from foreign occupation. For example, Egypt was occupied by the French in 1798, and Cyprus by the British in 1876 to name two instances. Socially, the advent of nationalism and the yearning for democracy were making the Ottoman population restless. Non-Turks were either revolting against the empire or agitating for independence. The Greeks revolted in 1821, the Bulgarians in 1876, Moldavia and Walachia gained autonomy in 1861, and nationalism was growing in the Arab provinces (where a pan-Arab movement was also developing) and in Armenia. The Young Turks (in power from 1908 to 1918) were nationalists too, but their policies led to harsh treatment of non-Turks, especially of non-Muslims. They believed that the empire was too dependent on non-Muslims and that Turks were losing control of their own empire. Many of the earlier reforms were reversed. The Young Turks were involved in a series of military coups and counter coups that resulted in a constitutional monarchy under which the sultan now had little to no power. The Young Turk's nationalistic policies led to the secession of the Balkans and the Balkan War of 1910-1912. Between 1915 and 1917, Armenian unrest resulted in a ferocious policy of deportation and imprisonment during which thousands of Armenians died. This was also in retaliation against Armenians for aiding Russia against the empire. The series of events is referred to by non-Turkish historians as the Armenian genocide or holocaust, and remains the cause of controversy. The Young Turks' rule was increasingly oppressive.

European powers were jealous of the Ottoman Empire on the one hand, and on the other saw it as feudal and backward compared with themselves. While European nations had developed parliamentary systems of government, they ruled their empires overseas with little or no reference to the will of the people. Nonetheless, they felt a moral superiority over the Ottomans, expressed by Czar Nicholas I of Russia who called Turkey the “sick man of Europe.” They wanted to divide the empire up among themselves, much as they divided Africa but with no single power gaining too much territory, to the others' disadvantage. The bureaucracy of the Ottomans had become inefficient but the empire had some strengths—loyalty to the service of the empire was well-rewarded (several former slaves rose to become vizier), race and ethnicity was generally no barrier to progress, and law was uniformly administered. The Ottomans saw themselves as “Muslims” and understood Islam as a transnational reality. They reversed the earlier tendency within the Muslim world that saw non-Arab Muslims as less authentically Muslim. From the Tanzimat reforms on, Turkey increasingly looked to Europe for its models and ideas and what has been called an Occidental Orientalism developed—Orientalism refers to the Western depiction of the Orient as backward, decadent, and static in contrast to the West, which is depicted as oriented towards the future, moral, and dynamic. The Ottomans started to share this analysis and saw little of merit in their own civilization. Eventually, however, it was the Young Turks' desire to retain the empire and to do so in a way that privileged Turks that resulted in its destruction.

The End of the Ottoman Empire

In a final effort to keep power in their hands by regaining at least some of the lost territories, the triumvirate led by Enver Pasha joined the Central Powers in World War I. The Ottoman Empire had some successes in the beginning years of the war. The Allies, including the newly-formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), were defeated in Gallipoli, Iraq, and the Balkans, and some territories were regained.

However, the Ottomans were eventually defeated by the Allies in the Balkans, Thrace, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, and its territories were annexed by the victors. Palestine went to Britain (who established the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the east of the Jordan River) as did Iraq (where they also established a monarchy); Syria and Lebanon went to France; and Libya went to Italy. Some Arabs, led by the Hashemite family, had supported the British in a bid for their own independence from the Ottomans, and their reward was the thrones of Jordan and Iraq. In the Caucasus there was a stalemate between the Ottomans and the Russians. The Russians used their advanced guns and cannons and, as most Turkish historians claim, outmaneuvered the Ottomans using their Armenian allies within the empire. Militarily, the Ottomans made use of the mountainous terrain and the cold climate, launching a series of surprise attacks. The Russian forces retreated after the Communist revolution in Russia, resulting in Ottoman victory on this front.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk, who had made his reputation earlier during the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns, was officially sent from occupied Istanbul to take control of the victorious Caucasus army, and to disband it. This army was instrumental in winning the Turkish War of Independence (1918–1923), and the Republic of Turkey was founded on October 29, 1923, from the remnants of the fallen empire. The last sultan was taken into exile on a British warship, the Malaya.

State organization

Ottoman state organization was based on a hierarchy with the sultan, who was usually the Caliph at the top, and below him his viziers, other court officials, and military commanders. The primary responsibility of the sultan was to ensure that justice was served. A body called the Diwan advised the sultan. Public opinion was regarded as important and the Ottomans made some use of polls to ascertain the popular will. All laws and taxes were posted in public so that the people knew their content. Provinces were originally governed by designated local military leaders, who often acquired large landholdings and passed the position on to their offspring. Later, administrators called Pashas were appointed. Provinces were subdivided into smaller units and supervised by beys. The leaders of the millets (legally protected religious minorities) collected taxes and oversaw their community’s legal systems. At times, the millet leaders and the sultan's representatives worked closely together, but sometimes clashed.


During the medieval age, the Ottoman Turks had a high tolerance of alien cultures and religions, especially compared to the Christian West. Early on, the Turks drove the Byzantines from Anatolia and later pursued them into Europe. But as the Ottomans moved further west, the Turkish leaders themselves absorbed some of the culture of the conquered people. The alien culture was gradually added to the Turks' own, creating the characteristic Ottoman culture. After the capture of Constantinople (later dubbed Istanbul) in 1453, most churches were left intact; however, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Ottoman court life in many aspects resembled ancient traditions of the Persian Shahs, but had many Byzantine and European influences. It was under the regime of the Young Turks (1908-1918) when the sultan had been sidelined that treatment of non-Muslims (and of non-Turks) deteriorated, resulting in atrocities.

Although Western writers have typically depicted the Ottoman Empire as decadent and corrupt, life for many people in the vast empire was secure and peaceful. Over-taxation was not common and, as noted earlier, law was uniformly and fairly administered. People could move freely throughout the empire. Ethnicity and race were not barriers to progress. The compulsory recruitment of non-Christian boys into the military, though, was problematic for the families concerned. On the other hand, many such children rose to prominence.

The Sufi form of Islam, renowned for its tolerance, flourished in Ottoman Turkey, where Rumi (1207-1273) founded his order of “whirling dervishes” and taught the unity of all beings, goodness, charity, and love.

Jews in the Ottoman Empire

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the refuge of the Jews of Europe, who did not have the freedom of religion in Europe that the citizens of the Ottoman Empire did. Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 found refuge in the Balkans and elsewhere in Ottoman territory, where the sultan decreed they should be welcomed. Famously, Sultan Abdulmecid rejected the Christian “blood libel” against the Jews. Jews and Christians held significant posts such as ambassadors and court physicians. Christians and Jews could become viziers as several did at various times.

Lewis (1984) cites a fifteenth-century Jew writing to Jews in Europe and urging them to migrate to Turkey: “Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than Christians? Here every man may dwell at peace under his own vine and fig tree. Here you are allowed to wear the most precious garments. In Christendom, on the contrary, you dare not even venture to clothe your children red or blue—without exposing them to the insult of being beaten black and blue…[in Germany Jews] are pursued even unto death” (135-6). Lewis comments that Jewish reports on Turkish behavior and attitudes “are almost uniformly favorable.” On the other hand, Ivan Vozov's classic novel, Under the Yoke (1888), about the struggle for Bulgarian independence depicts centuries of rape and pillage against “the defenseless Bulgarians” (453).

Christians in the Ottoman Empire

In the late seventeenth century, some Greek Christians who had served in diplomatic posts were rewarded with the designation hospodar (prince) and governed the provinces of Moldavia and Walachia on behalf of the sultan.

Millet is an Ottoman Turkish term for a legally protected religious minority. It comes from the Arabic word milla for confessional community. The Arabic term is a very general one; the Jewish neighborhoods in Morocco and Tunisia were named mellah.

The millet was an alternative to autonomous territories that had long been the European norm for dealing with minority groups. The millet system has a long history in the Middle East, and is closely linked to Islamic rules on the treatment of non-Muslim minorities. The Ottoman term specifically refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to personal law under which minorities were allowed to rule themselves with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government.

The main millets were the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian ones (which included gypsies, Georgian Orthodox, and several other communities). By the nineteenth century there were 14 millets. A wide array of other groups such as Catholics (Catholics and Protestants were under a wakil or representative who was not officially head of a millet), Karaites, and Samaritans were also represented, but not the non-Sunni Muslim communities (Shi'as, Druzes, Alawis, Alevis, Yezidis, etc.) which had no official existence in this Sunni Muslim Caliphate even if the Druzes of the Djebel Druze and Mount Lebanon enjoyed a rather feudal-type autonomy, like the (Christian) Assyrian villages under Mar Shimun in the Hakkiari mountains. These groups were spread across the empire with significant minorities in most of the major cities. Autonomy for these groups was thus impossible to base on a territorial region. Millets were therefore dealt with as dispersed communities. Often, there was relatively little contact between different millets. However, according to Courbage and Farques (1998), Christianity and Judaism were “revived and flourished under” the Ottomans. Technically, the jizya tax (the tax paid by non-Christians in return for the protection of the state and the right to practice their religion) remained in force but the main tax was on capital and all taxes were collected by non-Muslim intermediaries (xi).

Each millet was under the supervision of a leader, most often a religious patriarch, who reported directly to the Ottoman Sultan. The millets had a great deal of power—they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. All that was insisted was loyalty to the Empire. When a member of one millet committed a crime against a member of another the law of the damaged person applied. The Muslim majority was seen as paramount and any dispute involving a Muslim fell under their law. Under the Tanzimat reforms, the jizya was abolished but it was actually replaced by a very similar military exemption tax.

The Millet Systems' Contemporary Legacy

The millet system was altered by the increasing influence of European powers in the Middle East. The various European powers declared themselves protectors of their religious cohorts in the empire. Thus the Russians became guardians of the Eastern Orthodox groups, the French of the Catholics, and the British of the Jews and other groups. New millets were created in the nineteenth century for several Uniate and Protestant Christian communities, then for the separate national Eastern Orthodox Bulgarian Church, recognized as a millet by an Ottoman firman (decree) in 1870 and excommunicated two years later by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1856, as part of the Tanzimat reforms, all Ottoman subjects became equal under the law.


The Ottoman military was a complex system of recruiting and fief-holding. In the Ottoman army, light cavalry long formed the core and they were given fiefs called timars. Cavalry used bows and short swords and made use of nomad tactics similar to those of the Mongol Empire. The Ottoman army was once among the most advanced fighting forces in the world, being one of the first to employ muskets. The famous Janissary corps provided elite troops and bodyguards for the sultan. Established in about 1300, the Janissary consisted originally of slaves but later of non-Muslims boys conscripted between the ages of 5 and 14. Highly trained and disciplined, their conversion to Islam was encouraged. The soldiers led almost Spartan lives and until 1566 were celibate. However, they were well paid and after retirement many became scholars and senior administrators. Albanians, Serbs, and Bulgarian boys were especially favored. Realizing their own power, the Janissaries became increasingly wealthy and demanding and at times were able to control the sultan, exercising power through him. After the seventeenth century, however, the Ottomans could no longer produce a modern fighting force because of a lack of reforms, mainly because of the corrupted Janissaries. The abolition of the Janissary corps in 1826 was not enough, and in the war against Russia, the Ottoman Empire severely lacked modern weapons and technologies.

The modernization of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century started with the military. This was the first institution to hire foreign experts and which sent their officer core for training to western European countries. Technology and new weapons were transferred to the empire, such as German and British guns. The empire was successful in modernizing its army. However, it was still no match against the major western powers.


At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire had 29 provinces plus three tributary principalities and Transylvania, a kingdom which swore allegiance to the empire.


The sultan, also known as the Padishah, in Europe sometimes the Grand Turk, was the sole regent and governor of the empire, at least officially. The dynasty is most often called the Osmanli or the House of Osman. The sultan enjoyed many titles such as Sovereign of the House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, and from 1517 onwards, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe, i.e. Caliph, which theoretically also gave him lordship over other Muslim rulers around the world. For example, among the Mughal Emperors, only Aurangzeb had the Khutba (Friday “sermon”) read in his own name. Note that the first rulers never called themselves “sultan,” but rather bey thereby acknowledging the sovereignty of the Seljuk sultanate and its successor, the Ilkhanid sultanate. The sultan title was established by Murad I in 1383. From 1908 (the Young Turks' revolt) until 1922, the Sultan was a constitutional monarch.

  • Osman I (1281–1326; bey)
  • Orhan I (1326–1359; bey)
  • Murad I (1359–1389; sultan from 1383–1389)
  • Beyazid I (1389–1402)
  • Ottoman Interregnum (1402–1413)
  • Mehmed I (1413–1421)
  • Murad II (1421–1444) (1445–1451)
  • Mehmed II (the Conqueror) (1444–1445, 1451–1481)
  • Beyazid II (1481–1512)
  • Selim I (1512–1520; Caliph from 1517–1520)
  • Suleiman I (the Magnificent) (1520–1566)
  • Selim II (1566–1574)
  • Murad III (1574–1595)
  • Mehmed III (1595–1603)
  • Ahmed I (1603–1617)
  • Mustafa I (1617–1618)
  • Osman II (1618–1622)
  • Mustafa I (1622–1623)
  • Murad IV (1623–1640)
  • Ibrahim I (1640–1648)
  • Mehmed IV (1648–1687)
  • Suleiman II (1687–1691)
  • Ahmed II (1691–1695)
  • Mustafa II (1695–1703)
  • Ahmed III (1703–1730)
  • Mahmud I (1730–1754)
  • Osman III (1754–1757)
  • Mustafa III (1757–1774)
  • Abd-ul-Hamid I (1774–1789)
  • Selim III (1789–1807)
  • Mustafa IV (1807–1808)
  • Mahmud II (1808–1839)
  • Abd-ul-Mejid I (1839–1861)
  • Abd-ul-Aziz (1861–1876)
  • Murad V (1876)
  • Abd-ul-Hamid II (1876–1909)
  • Mehmed V (Reşad) (1909–1918)
  • Mehmed VI (Vahideddin) (1918–1922)

Note: Although Abdul Mejid II was chosen as Caliph in 1922, he was not a sultan as the National Assembly had abolished the sultanate. The Caliphate was abolished in turn in 1924. He was in theory the 101st Caliph in succession from Abu Bakr and the 37th Ottoman Caliph.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Colin, Imber. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. ISBN 0333613864
  • Courbage, Youssef, and Phillippe Farques. Christians and Jews Under Islam. Translated by Judy Mabro. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998. ISBN 978-1860642852
  • Gerber, Haim. State, Society, and Law in Islam: Ottoman Law in Comparative Perspective. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994. ISBN 0791418782
  • Inalcik, Halil. “Emergence of the Ottomans.” In The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1, edited by P.M. Holt, Ann K.S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, 263–291. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1970. (Volume 1)
  • Inalcik, Halil “Rise of the Ottoman Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1, edited by P.M. Holt, Ann K.S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, 295–323. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  • Jelavich, Barbara. History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1983. ISBN 0521252490. See chapter 1, "Balkan Christians under Ottoman rule," pp. 39–126.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. ISBN 0691008078
  • Necipoglu, Gülru. Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Boston: MIT Press, 1992. ISBN 0262140500
  • Vazov, Ivan. Under the Yoke. Edited by Raymond Hansen. Sofia, Bulgaria: Pax Publishing, 2005. ISBN 9549403017

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.

  • Ottoman Web Site—Site with a lot of information on the Ottomans.
  • The Ottomans—Good site that covers various aspects of the Ottoman Empire in detail.


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