For over 600 years, the Ottomans ruled the mightiest of the Islamic empires. At the height of its expansion in the 1500s, the Ottoman empire encompassed Hungary, the Balkans, Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, much of North Africa, and the area around the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. The Ottomans bridged three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Ottomans ruled a diverse population of Muslims and non-Muslims. These subject peoples provided the means to support the sultan and his court, the military, and a vast bureaucracy that provided the administration necessary to run the empire.
During much of their rule, the Ottomans coexisted with two other great Islamic dynasties: the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. In creating their own identity, the Ottomans drew significantly upon the cultural heritage of Persia. However this emphasis shifted towards Europe from the 1600s through the 1800s. Indeed Europe’s political fortunes and cultures owe much to the influence of the Ottomans. What follows is a brief history of the Ottomans from their beginnings through the height of their expansion, including the nature of Ottoman rule, the military, and court life in the sultan’s palace.
Establishment of the Ottoman Dynasty (1299–1922)
The Ottomans were descendents of Turkoman peoples who had migrated west (originally from the area of present-day China) into the Iranian plateau, and then advanced further west into Anatolia as result of the Mongol invasions of the 1200s. An earlier group of Turkish peoples had established the Seljuk dynasty that ruled Iran, Iraq, and most of Syria. One branch of the Seljuk family later took over parts of Anatolia from the declining Byzantine empire. The Seljuks, however, were soundly defeated in battle by the Mongols in 1243. As the Mongols themselves withdrew, a power vacuum was created that the future Ottomans exploited.
The Ottomans claimed descent from the founder of the dynasty, Osman Gazi (1280–1324). A chieftain from one of the many nomadic Turkish clans who lived on the eastern frontier of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Osman used his skills as a strong military leader and astute politician and diplomat to unite the clans and spread the influence of Islam. These clans were mainly small groups of ghazi or “warriors of the faith,” who lived on the frontiers of eastern Anatolia. As word spread of Osman’s victories against a weakened Byzantium, his own growing empire, which became known as the Ottomans or “sons of Osman,” became feared and respected by enemies and allies alike.
Osman’s reputation as a judicious and pious leader set the standard for his successors. Each of these successors served as both the supreme authority over the government and the military, and as the Chief Defender of the Faith. The prayer “May he be virtuous as Osman,” was invoked by religious leaders when a new sultan assumed the title. This particular hope was realized over the next few centuries during the reigns of several sultans who proved to be especially strong and capable rulers. It became the custom for new sultans to begin their reign with a military campaign of expansion. Osman’s descendants consolidated Ottoman power and extended the empire’s dominance until it reached its greatest power in the 1500s.
Growth of the Ottoman Empire
Osman’s son Orhan continued the pattern of expansion set by his father, and established Bursa in1326 as the first Ottoman capital. By 1345, the Ottomans had reached the coast and could look across the straits of the Dardanelles at Europe. They quickly began an invasion of the Balkans, where competing groups were unable to unify their forces to halt the Ottoman advance. The conquest of the Balkans continued under Murad I (1360–1389), who defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo but was killed in the process. Consolidation of these gains, as well as further expansion in Anatolia continued under Murad’s son Bayezid I, known as “the Thunderbolt.” His eastward expansion provoked the intervention of Timur (Tamerlane), a descendent of the Mongols who defeated the Ottomans in 1402 and took Bayezid prisoner. It proved to be a temporary set back. Ottoman fortunes were restored under the succeeding sultans Mehmed I and Murad II.
Murad II’s son, Mehmed II came to the throne in 1444 at the age of twelve. His father had hoped to retire to a life of religious detachment, but he was called up again almost immediately to repulse an attack on the European frontier. A military revolt followed, and the old sultan was placed back on the throne a second time. After Murad II’s death in 1451, Mehmed II was finally reinstated. The young sultan set his sights on Constantinople.