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Numerous independent Turkish principalities occupied the frontiers between the Selçuk Sultanate and the Byzantine Empire. These warriors traded battles and loyalties for grants of land, aiding the Selçuk rulers in their struggles against the Christians, while selling their services to hopefuls vying for the Byzantine throne. The Osmanlis (or Uthmanli, better known as the Ottomans) were particularly successful in rousing the surrounding Turkic tribes to do the same. Under the leadership of the fearless Osman, patriarch of the Osman (Uthman, Ottoman, whatever) clan, and his son Orhan, the Ottoman expansion was almost inevitable, particularly in light of the vacuum left by the Selçuk defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1243.

The Osmanlis (hereafter referred to as the Ottomans) entered Bursa in 1326, where they set up their first permanent capital. Heading northwest, they rapidly conquered the Marmara shores, crossed the Dardanelles, and established a second fortified base at Gallipoli in 1354.

Orhan was the first Ottoman leader to assume the title of Sultan (formerly an honorary title that caliphs granted to chiefs of Islamic-influenced territories to emphasize their role as spiritual leaders). For the Ottomans, the title had military and political connotations as well. "Sultan" became the standard designation for those in power who answered to no superior other than Allah.

Orhan's son Murat I enjoyed one military success after another. Carving out a wide buffer circumventing Constantinople, he established a European presence at his new capital of Adrianople (now Edirne), and then directed his armies east into the Turkish emirates as well as west into the Balkans, Albania, and Bulgar territories. Finding himself surrounded, the Byzantine emperor, isolated except for sea access, became a vassal of the Sultan and was left with little recourse other than to aid the Ottomans in their conquests of the East.

Murat I defeated a Serbian coalition at the Battle of Kosovo, though he was killed in that campaign. Murat's son Beyazit continued his father's expansionistic tendencies, striking both west and east and earning himself the nickname of Yildirim, Turkish for "lightning" or "thunderbolt." The Ottoman advance to the west began to alarm the pope, who was unable to galvanize a proper offensive, except for two dismal attempts by the French and Hungarian armies during a lull in the Hundred Years' War. The Ottomans defeated the French army at Nicopolis on the Danube in 1396, and again on the Black Sea in 1444. But their continued campaigns into the west left their eastern flanks vulnerable. The Mongols, led by Tamerlane, emerged as a major threat in the east, supported by Turkish emirates inflamed by Beyazit's warring on his Muslim brothers -- an act expressly forbidden in the Koran. Beyazit was eventually imprisoned by Tamerlane, who restored the independent territories. Beyazit died in prison, leaving behind a 10-year power vacuum in which his sons would fight for control.

Mehmet I was the triumphant son, and he and his son Murat II are credited with consolidating the Ottoman territories and absorbing, either by force or by marriage, the Turkish emirates to the east. Nonetheless, they were unable to either penetrate Constantinople's defenses or cut off the city's sea routes.

Mehmet II set a nasty royal precedent by strangling his infant brother in order to solve his own problems of succession. He eventually sanctioned fratricide by law: Whoever got acclaimed first was ruler and all his brothers had to die -- ostensibly assuring the ascension of the most capable son.

Mehmet II set his sights immediately on Constantinople, and in 1453, in a brilliant strategy, circumvented the Byzantine defenses of the Golden Horn by carrying his fleet, ship by ship (by means of a brilliantly engineered "movable path"), over land, behind the Byzantine naval barricade. After centuries of decline and decay, the Byzantine Empire had come to an end.

The Ottoman Empire

With his victory over Constantinople, Mehmet II acquired the title of Fatih, or conqueror, and named his new capital Istanbul, probably after having heard the Greeks say "eis ten polin" (to the city). He immediately began reconstruction, converting churches into mosques and repopulating the city with artisans, merchants, and farmers from all over the empire. The importance of sea power was not lost on Mehmet, who established control over the Black Sea and managed to capture some of rival Venice's islands in the Aegean. The city's importance as a naval and trading center was confirmed and Istanbul quickly became an international city with a mixture of cultures as Christians, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews all were welcomed by the sultan. After all, these diverse peoples brought with them a wealth of knowledge -- and new tax revenues.

Having removed the final obstacle to the unity of his empire, Mehmet the Conqueror resumed his holy wars, dreaming of a world united under Islam. Soon the empire extended into Europe, with conquests of the Balkans, Greece, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia. The Turks had suddenly become a major European presence, influencing the balance of power to the west.

Mehmet's son Beyazit II took up his father's sword, pursuing his empire's expansion eastward against the Safavid dynasty in Iran, a Shiite presence that would challenge the Ottomans' legitimacy for centuries. Beyazit's son Selim the Fierce (known as Selim the Grim, in the West, for his cruelty), impatient with his father's lagging military campaigns, assassinated him and slew his brothers, along with any other possible contender for the throne. He conquered and subjugated the heretic Safavids, and then moved on to subjugate the Mamluk sultans of Syria and Egypt. The guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina wasted no time in recognizing Selim as the new spiritual leader of Islam, and he promptly proclaimed himself caliph.

The long reign of Selim's son Süleyman the Lawgiver (aka "The Magnificent") was the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, distinguished by military successes, administrative organization, economic prosperity, social order, and cultural greatness. Both the city and the empire flourished under his direction; the population grew, road and caravansary networks were extended, trade prospered, and his military machine enjoyed success after success.

Süleyman the Magnificent: Pragmatic Statesman -- In 1520, Süleyman ascended to the Ottoman Empire throne and immediately launched invasions into Europe. In 1521, he gained control of Belgrade and the Danube. He then turned his attention to Rhodes, the last Crusader stronghold and bastion of the Knights of St. John -- the island that stood between him and his Egyptian territories, not to mention Mecca and Medina. Süleyman triumphed after a 145-day siege and mercifully released all the Knights and mercenaries, thus gaining the admiration of much of Europe (though he'd come to regret this act later in his career). Eight years later, the Knights were granted Tripoli and the Island of Malta in a charter sealed by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to thwart movement of Ottoman fleets in the Mediterranean.

Süleyman insinuated himself into the politics of Europe and attempted to destabilize both the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire; he believed that any power in those hands was a threat to Islam. Urged on by Francis I of France, Süleyman defeated the young Hungarian king, Louis II (nephew of Charles V), in 1526, at the battle of Mohács. In 1529, at the request of the appointed king of Hungary, he returned to confront Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Süleyman drove Ferdinand back to Vienna but was unable to penetrate the city's defenses -- a failure that would become a recurrent theme for the Ottomans.

Although Süleyman's reign was characterized by almost constant war, he brought peace to the lands that he conquered. Süleyman was said to have embodied perfectly the characteristics of adale (justice), much like his namesake, King Solomon. Conquered lands often fared better once he took over. Looting was forbidden, and the sultan gained respect by placing provisions along the route of a carefully planned military campaign so as not to take anything from the local peasants along the way. Kings were retained as vassals of the sultan, and as long as the tributes (taxes) were sent to Istanbul, life continued as before.

Above all, Süleyman was a pragmatic statesman. In 1536, he signed a treaty with Francis I of France, conceding commercial privileges to the French in exchange for an informal alliance against their common enemy, the Hapsburgs. With these "Capitulations," the French were exempt from Ottoman taxes and were permitted to fall under French jurisdiction. In response to this French-Turkish cooperation, the Hapsburgs urged the Persians to wage war against the sultan. Turning his attentions east, Süleyman wrestled Iraq from Persian control, arriving as far as the Persian Gulf. Here the Portuguese dominated trade with the East -- a presence he was never able to repress.

The Mediterranean Sea was another source of annoyance; despite Süleyman's conquest of Tripoli in 1551, the Knights of Malta (including many of the Knights released after the sultan's victory over Rhodes) were aggressively cutting off Ottoman sea routes. Süleyman began his siege of Malta in 1565, but the Knights fought back ferociously, the battle dragged on to winter, and Süleyman was forced to stand down.

The Ottoman armor was beginning to show weakness, provoking Süleyman, at age 72, to reassert his empire's superiority by taking Vienna once and for all. But he died in his tent during the campaign on the Danube. According to tradition, his heart is buried in Szigetvár on the spot where he passed away.

The Ottoman Sultans

Osman I 1290-1326

Orhan 1326-59

Murat I 1359-89

Beyazit I Yildirim (the Thunderbolt) 1389-1402

Mehmet I 1402-21

Murat II 1421-51

Mehmet II (Fatih, the Conqueror) 1451-81

Beyazit II 1481-1512

Selim I Yavuz (the Grim) 1512-20

Süleyman I (Kanuni, the Magnificent) 1520-66

Selim II 1566-74

Murat III 1574-95

Mehmet III 1595-1603

Ahmed I 1603-17

Mustafa I 1617-18

Osman II 1618-22

Ahmed I (restored) 1622-23

Murat IV 1623-40

Ibrahim 1640-48

Mehmet IV 1648-87

Süleyman II 1687-91

Ahmed II 1691-95

Mustafa II 1695-1703

Ahmed III 1703-30

Mahmud I 1730-54

Osman III 1754-57

Mustafa III 1757-74

Abdülhamid I 1774-89

Selim III 1789-1807

Mustafa IV 1807-08

Mahmud II 1808-39

Abdülmecid I 1839-61

Abdül Aziz 1861-76

Murat V 1876

Abdülhamid II (the Damned) 1876-1909

Mehmet V 1909-18

Mehmet VI 1918-22

Abdülmecid II (Caliph only) 1922-24

Ottoman Administrative Structure

The Ottoman ruling class was organized into five Imperial Institutions: the military; the scribes, or "men of the pen"; the ulema, Muslim leaders educated in theology and law, assigned the tasks of religious leadership, education, and justice; and the Inner and Outer Palace Services, who took care of the general day-to-day administration of the palace and care of the sultan.

Through territorial conquest, the sultan was provided with a steady supply of the best and most promising boys to serve as slaves and loyal subjects. This "recruitment" was called the devsirme (literally, collection). Candidates between the ages of 8 and 15 were selected and sent to Istanbul, where they were converted to Islam and educated in the palace school. The finest of the devsirme were chosen for continued education and placement in high palace positions, while the majority of the trainees entered into the elite military corps of Janissaries. By 1700, the Janissaries (yeniçeri; literally "new troops") had swelled to over 100,000 from 12,000 during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, ultimately becoming more powerful than the government they served and inciting frequent rebellions.

The Turkish aristocracy, comprised of Muslims, Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, shared the rank of askerî, with the newer devsirme class of Christian converts making up the ruling class. Driven by the gazi guiding principle of jihad (struggle), the Ottomans had transformed themselves from plunderers into conquerors.

The Ottoman Decline

Several factors, both foreign and domestic, contributed to the progressive deterioration of the Ottoman Empire over the subsequent 2 1/2 centuries. Although Süleyman left a legacy of territories on three continents and the splendor of an empire without equal, he also left behind a scheming widow -- Roxelana, the Circassian-born concubine he took as his wife and trusted advisor. Roxelana manipulated her husband, his sons, and the court with sometimes fatal results. She orchestrated events culminating in the murder of Süleyman's favorite sons, Mustafa and Beyazit, thus clearing the path of ascension for her utterly incompetent son, Selim II. Nicknamed Selim the Sot, he preferred the pursuits of physical pleasure to governing the empire.

The abandonment of the traditional practice of fratricide contributed to the weakening of the system as well. Rather than kill off all potential heirs and risk the endangerment of the line, sultans, beginning with Mehmet III in 1595, adopted the practice of imprisoning their sons and heirs instead of assassinating them. Isolated from daily life, inexperienced in the ways of the government or military, accustomed to excess, they either went crazy or emerged completely unprepared for the demands of leadership when called to the task.

Meanwhile, with the abandonment of the policy of celibacy in the Janissary Corps, sons of Janissaries -- who were born free Muslims -- began to enroll. By the mid-17th century, the Janissary Corps had grown to 200,000, squeezing the state for the payroll to support the increase in numbers. The purchasing of office also undermined the merit system, and although the palace school continued to function, the devsirme was abandoned. During times of peace, the corps got restless and turned to corruption and mischief. Sultans, beginning with Osman II in 1622, recognized the threat of a too powerful military, and made sometimes failed attempts at reining them in. Eventually, the internal deterioration of the corps was inevitable, as was the weakening of Ottoman military might.

With the government decentralized, corrupt, and morally hollow, the Ottomans were unable to deal effectively with outside threats or absorb the economic pressures of a Europe in Renaissance. Vasco da Gama's circumnavigation of Africa opened up new trade routes to the east; the East India Company of London could therefore sell its goods in Istanbul for less than the Ottomans would pay for direct trade with India. And with new sea trade routes, merchants no longer paid levies for passage through Ottoman territory. Meanwhile, Western industrialization produced cheaper goods that flooded the Ottoman market, thanks to Süleyman's Capitulations. Silver and gold mined in the Americas drove up prices, the cost of living rose, and peasants abandoned their villages, which had disastrous effects on agricultural production.

The gradual decline was arrested later that century with the reign of Murat IV and his grand vizier, Köprülü, who maintained a policy against corruption and a return to the more centralized system of government. The gazi spirit was reignited, inspiring decades of new campaigns toward further expansion. Köprülü was so effective that the position of grand vizier was handed down to his son and his grandson, Kara Mustafa; this was the first dynasty associated with the post.

In their second attempt to capture Vienna, in 1683, the Ottoman army was doomed in the face of new European artillery. The army's retreat was met by ambushes and further defeats, ending in the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, which granted Austria the provinces of Hungary and Transylvania, and marked the first time in history that the Ottoman Empire actually relinquished territory.

The 18th century was, for the most part, characterized by wars with Austria and Russia, the latter continuing to push into Muslim territory in an attempt to become a Black Sea power.

In the first half of the century, the Ottoman military met with many successes, not the least of which was the defeat of Peter the Great at the Prut River in 1711. Nonetheless, two additional clashes with Russia culminated in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which followed a 1774 victory by Catherine the Great. (She, as champion of the Christian Orthodox faith, actively encouraged revolt in Russian-populated Ottoman territories.) In addition to annexing European territories, the treaty granted the Russians extensive commercial privileges in the Black Sea, a diplomatic presence in Istanbul, and the protection of the Orthodox Christian faith on Turkish soil. The desire for territorial and economic dominance, along with the trafficking of loyalties, would characterize the Russian-Turkish conflict well into the 20th century.

Reform Attempts

It was obvious to Selim III that reform was needed. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, he created a new corps, the nizam-i jedid ("the new order"), on Western models, even adopting European-style uniforms. The Janissaries revolted over what they saw as a loss of power and privilege, and in a conciliatory gesture that cost him the throne, Selim dissolved the nizam-i jedid in 1807. In the next few years, the Janissaries executed many of the reformers as well as Selim's successor, Mustafa IV; Mahmud II was spared only because he was the sole surviving Ottoman prince. Proceeding with caution, Mahmud's first action was to deal with the anarchy that had taken root in the provinces, but as nationalist uprisings in Serbia, Greece, Algeria, and Romania saw the empire eroding at its borders, it was clear that the Janissaries were of little use in the defense of the empire. This allowed Mahmud to gain enough support to finally have the corps destroyed.

Finally rid of the Janissaries' influence, Mahmud II, followed by his successor, Abdülmecid, was able to embark on significant modernization that would last for 40 years. The period of Tanzimat (literally, "reordering") was ushered in, aimed at strengthening the power of the government while encouraging an economic and social structure similar to that of Europe.

Influential during this period was the arrival of telegraph lines into Istanbul in 1855, facilitating a literary renaissance that would develop into an incubator for new (dissident) nationalistic ideas. Supporters of this patriotism were called "New Ottomans," whose objectives of preserving territory and limiting autocratic rule would be attainable through the adoption of a constitution. The reforms, however, failed to alleviate a worsening financial crisis brought on by a flood of foreign products, ending in a Franco-English monopoly on tobacco, salt, alcohol, silk, and other essentials. Loans to foreign banks were bankrupting an empire that had degenerated so much as to be known as "the Sick Man of Europe." The empire was demoralized, having gone from imperial power to political pawn in less than 300 years.

Abdülhamid II succeeded in temporarily reinvigorating the failing empire, but it was too little too late. In 1875, he was confronted with a rebellion by a Russian-backed Pan-Slavic movement in the Balkans. Battered and driven back almost to Istanbul, the Ottomans were forced to sign the disastrous Treaty of San Stefano in which much of the Ottomans' European territory was lost. The Ottoman territorial hemorrhaging would later continue: Tunisia would be lost to the French in 1881, Egypt to the British in 1882, and East Rumalia to Bulgaria in 1885.

Abdülhamid II responded by reaffirming his designation as caliph and beginning a policy of reinvigorating Islamic unity. But the tidal wave of nationalism was relentless. Succumbing to external and internal pressures, he reluctantly instituted the first written constitution establishing a parliamentary system modeled on those in the West. For the first time in the history of the empire, absolute Ottoman rule had been relinquished, but as a condition to accepting the document, Abdülhamid insisted on retaining the right as final arbiter on unresolved issues. When the opposition became too outspoken in 1877, he simply neglected to reconvene the parliament and ruled autocratically and in an almost constant state of paranoia for the next 30 years.

In the late 1880s an organized movement called the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), made up primarily of military officers and rebels in Macedonia, was organized in the name of "Liberty, Justice, Equality, and Fraternity." These Young Turks, led by a triumvirate dominated by Enver Pasa, orchestrated a successful nonviolent coup d'état in 1908, which was designed to reinstate the constitution. Abdülhamid was deposed, and his brother Mehmet V was released from prison as token head of state.

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