Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire, Part I

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Barbara Petzen, Director, Middle East Connections

The Ottoman Empire has long captured the public imagination in a way that few other royal houses and empires have managed to do. From the days when its armies threatened the gates of Vienna, its long-rumored decline as the “sick man of Europe,” and the Taksim demonstrations of 2013 when Turkish Prime Minsiter Erdo?an was accused of “neo-Ottomanism,” the legacy that the Empire left is long and vast. But who were the Ottomans? Why were they so successful?  And why have they lasted so long in the public’s imagination?

In the first of a two part series, guest Barbara Petzen helps to shed some light on the origins and rise of the empire that rivaled Europe for centuries. Turkish in origin, the Ottoman state at its best reveled in its diversity and played up the strengths of its multi-confessional multi-ethnic population.

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Standards Alignment | Transcript | Documents and Further Reading


Why do we still talk about the Ottomans? The Ottomans have captured the imagination in a way that we do not talk about the Hohenzollerns or the Hapsburgs. What’s so special about the Ottomans?

The Ottomans are cool! I’m reminded of my daughter who loves Dr. Who, who says “I wear a Fez now, Fezzes are cool.” So, the Ottomans must be cool because of Dr. Who.

Or, the Ottomans are cool because they are a mirror for Europe, they have been since their founding. The Europeans have looked to the Ottomans to see what they were up against, and also who they were. So, in some ways the Ottomans are very interesting historically because of the fact that they are the closest non-“European”–whatever “European” means–empire to Europe. So, they become a reflector, and they’re interesting for that.

They are also interesting in and of themselves because they represent in some ways a culmination and a synthesis of many things that had been happening in the Middle East and Islamic World, and they are on the stage at this fascinating moment when we talk about the world becoming something called “modern.” And the Ottomans bridge that between 1300 and the 20th century. So, they really, in one entity that lasts for an extraordinary long time, encompass and give us a lens through which to look at all of these different trends that happen as the world changes really dramatically from what we think of as the classical medieval period to the contemporary world.

The Turkic tribes had their origins as nomadic herdsmen on the steppes of Central Asia. Some of these Turkish tribes were the Selçuks, the O?uz (from which the Ottomans emerged), the Timurids (forebears of the Mughals of India), and the tribes now associated with the “stans” of Central Asia: the Kazakhs, Turkomen, and Uzbeks. (above: Nurota province, Uzbekistan. Photo by Christopher Rose.)

On that note, the Ottomans, they’re Turks–they’re Turkic–how do they come on the scene? I know it’s a little weird to think about, but a thousand years ago in the place we now call Turkey, there were no Turks. How did that happen?

That’s a really interesting story. I’d start off by saying that the Ottomans aren’t really Turks, but that’s Chapter 2 or 3.

Chapter 1, how they get there, is itself really interesting. I remember when I was in graduate school, my adviser used to talk about the “nomad factory in Central Asia: ACME Nomads,” and every so often they would over produce, and you would get these Turkic nomads, the Selçuks, Timur-i-Leng, the Mongols, spewing out toward the west.

Be that as it may, you do have population pressures that aren’t terrifically well understood that are moving nomadic populations toward the west, and this happens much earlier as well. If you look at the 11th century, for example, we have Turks mostly outside of Anatolia to the east, and then we have the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, these Turks under the Selçuks come into Anatolia, they defeat the Byzantines, and that opens the floodgates for populations to move into Anatolia.

Then you get the Selçuks of Rum, which is a Selçuk split-off empire from within Anatolia, from Konya, and you get a variety of principalities growing after the Selçuks as their vassals, and then independently, that are looking to expand and brand their own polities, and to grown and thrive. And the Ottomans are one of those little principalities around 1300, and that’s where they come from. They come from these Turkic migrations, but remember they’re migrating into a place that was not Turkic. This is not a black-and-white us vs. them. This is a couple of centuries later, when we have the mixing of populations over time. What’s really most interesting to me about this early Ottoman period is just how mixed and heterodox things are both ethnically and especially religiously.

What sets this proto-Ottoman state up? Why are they special? Why are they the ones out of all of these principalities that take over everything?

It’s a great question.

The first answer is: location, location, location. They really start in a good spot, sandwiched between these other principalities who are Muslim, and the rump of the Byzantine Empire, or as we like to say, the Eastern Roman Empire on the other. They have a variety of strategies that they can bring to bear of expansion in terms of their own rhetoric, their own brand being Osman and the followers of Osman, this warlord or leaders. Or they can also talk in an Islamic sense in terms of expansion vs. the Christian Byzantines across the way. That gives them a variety of different antagonists against whom to expand, and also whom they can bring into the fold when they are able to overwhelm them, or negotiate with them.

The second thing is that the early Ottomans are very smart in that they are willing to overlook an awful lot of kinds of difference, so they’re willing to use–in some sense, mercenaries, and in some sense warriors for the faith; the two are not mutually exclusive at this point. So, the people have very heterodox religious backgrounds: they might be sorta-kinda Shia, they might be sorta-kinda Sufi, they might have some shamanistic practices, some of them might, in fact, have local Christian practices that they’ve absorbed. And, in this really heterodox kind of religious atmosphere, any band that gets together and is successful militarily, Osman and his followers would bring them on board and incorporate them without looking too closely at their religious affiliations. That’s smart, if what you’re looking for is expansion by any means.

Later on, they would try to consolidate and bring those people more under control in religious terms by bringing them toward orthodoxy, and in religious terms by standardizing the hierarchy of power.

The Tomb of Osman I Gazi in Bursa, Turkey, for whom the Ottoman Empire took its name. (“Osman” is the Turkified version of “Uthman,” the name of the third caliph of Islam, which Italian traders pronounced “Ottman,” which eventually became “Ottoman.”) Photo by Christopher Rose.

So, it’s a mistake to think of the Ottoman state at this point as being the “standard-bearer of Islam.” It was really about whoever comes on board–there were Christian princes and vassal states that joined the confederation as well?

Absolutely. And, again, we draw these lines from a European perspective of who the enemy was, and we make the Ottomans represent Islam, and I think that confuses us on a number of fronts. One, as you say, one of the best strategies for early Ottoman expansion was to make an alliance with a Christian noble of some kind who might ally with you so that he can gain territory at the expense of his rivals, who were also Christian, and then bring him in as a vassal and allow him to keep his holdings. Then, later on you might regularize that so that he keeps his holdings, but his children would be incorporated into the administration, but they wouldn’t get that holding. They’d get a holding somewhere in Anatolia, so that you would not have the risk of them splitting off, so that you wouldn’t run the risk of them changing alliances again, but it would be a permanent incorporation. So, very very clever.

The next thing that might happen is that you might intermarry with Christians, so that the Ottoman sultan might marry a daughter of the royal house of the Byzantines, for example, which would allow for territorial expansion, it would give you imperial “cred,” right? But it also meant that when we think of the Ottomans as Turks, it’s a little misleading. The earliest warriors were Turks, but they very quickly begin to intermarry–and in some ways, the preferred marriages were alliances, reproductive alliances, maybe we can say–often with non-Muslim women who were from the Caucasus or Georgia or the Balkans, and so you have very often the next to line to the throne, the sons, would be half-Turk, and half-whatever their mothers were, and the same with the succeeding generation and so-on and so-on. While it is true that there weren’t always non-Turkish mothers, it’s very clearly the case that most [of the mothers] were not born Muslim. That’s a piece of it, in terms of the DNA component of noble families and royal families, many of them were not born Turkish Muslims.

So, you have a variety of ways in which … and then, of course, as the Empire expands, it acquires territories that had been Christian, a lot of Christians convert to Islam, and very often you have what are called in the texts–I love this term–“renegade” Christians. They’re never called renegade Italians or renegade Hapsburgs, they’re renegade Christians because clearly for contemporary observers, the betrayal that smarted the most was turning on your co-religionists, not against “Europe” or “the West.” Your religious identity was seen as primary. But you had many, many people who would work for the Ottomans, even though they retained their Christian identity, and they might eventually convert as well. So, there were a lot of pathways, so that you can see that the Ottomans were not religiously exclusive, at least in the early days, and you can certainly see that in the beginning they were not religiously orthodox. They were open to allowing a certain amount of heterodoxy.

Later on, that changes.

OK, so we have the early Ottoman states that’s growing, expanding in Anatolia. They hop the Dardanelles, without taking Constantinople, taking possessions in Eastern Europe. What’s really the turning point? At what point do we go from, say, a “proto-Ottoman” state to really starting to talk about an Empire?

I think you can look at that even before the conquest of Constantinople, but really, with the conquest of Constantinople that was, for the Ottomans themselves, had clearly been the golden apple from the beginning. So, it’s with the conquest of Constantinople that the Ottoman sultan takes on the title of Caesar, calls himself the Lord of Two Lands, really they see themselves as coming into the legacy of Rome, and marrying the Roman legacy of empire with the Islamic legacy of Empire. And they very explicitly themselves lay claim to this multi-confessional, multi-ethnic expanse, and see themselves as creating a new kind of empire, a new kind of synthesis. And that’s where, I think, it kind of blooms most effusively.

The Ottoman Empire at the height of its expansion (1481-1683). The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. (Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection).

The Ottoman Empire at the height of its expansion (1481-1683). The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. (Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection).

I think the point that you just raised there is worth noting: that the Byzantine state didn’t refer to itself as Byzantium, it was Rome, which had been the goal of conquest since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, and not just Muhammad, Sassanian Persia wanted it as well (this is pre-Islamic), so, in many ways, the Ottomans were fulfilling this long-held desire to conquer Rome by both and Zoroastrian and Islamic lands since time immemorial.

Absolutely, and once they have Constantinople, they’re still looking west, and they would still like to take that other Rome, that first Rome, and all of the other major European centers on the way. So, their sense of self at that point was really tied in with expansion and absorption of European places of pride, these great cosmopolitan centers. That’s what you want as an empire. Of course, the Empire was built on the backs of the peasantry–the Ottomans were very explicit about that, they were very clear that the sultan had a compact with the peasants, that they would provide the wherewithal of the empire to continue to be strong and expand, and that the sultan’s job was to protect them, to allow them to continue to grow things that would feed this expansionary push. So, you have this idea of the Circle of Justice and the Sultan’s role vis-a-vis the subjects, but at the same time there’s this cosmopolitan idea of self that the Ottomans have, and part of that is incorporating the Other, but it’s king of the mountain, right? There’s no point in incorporating stuff that’s valueless, you cant to get those cities that represent the best of what the other is, and incorporate into who you are.

Pera, the neighborhood on the north side of the Golden Horn, was originally a settlement of European traders. Today, its major landmarks are Galata Tower and Taksim Square.

One of the things that I think about is that the Ottoman Empire was really a place of interchange, similar to the story of Islamic Spain, and even Norman and Arab Sicily, which of course, nobody talk about. Even at the same time that the Ottomans were conquering Europe, they were trading, interchanging, with it. Venice, for example, was certainly benefiting from the Ottoman domination of trade in the eastern Mediterranean. How did that play a role in developing this cosmopolitan nature? What kind of lives did the Ottomans live sitting astride all of these trade routes?

It’s a great question. I think the Ottomans were very aware of the value of their location, and the value–the necessity, in fact–of making alliances with, or opening spaces for trade by people who were not necessarily Muslim Turks. In fact, “Turk” for the Ottomans was the equivalent of our work “hick,” or “redneck.” Turks were people who lived out in the hills and tilled the soil and raised the sheep. An “Ottoman” was a very different, and much more cosmopolitan thing, although for the most part Ottoman Muslims were not the most involved in trade. They recognized the need for trade, and so they created openings for other states like the Venetians or the Genoese, etc., to trade. They not only made it possible in terms of tax policy and encouragement, etc., there was actually a very big colony of Europeans engaged in trade in Constantinople. So, you had the center city on the southern side of the Golden Horn, which was the seat of government, etc., and on the northern side of the Golden Horn, you had this walled city that was primarily made up of traders and interests from all over the place. So, it was a very cosmopolitan area, with Genoese and Venetians and all these; you’d have Armenian traders and Jewish traders and Greek traders, so you had this huge ethnic mix that allowed for–it was very smart, in a sense, because they didn’t have a single trading partner that they let in, they had many trading partners, who were all in some sense in competition with one another.

The Ottoman economic ethos was one of provisionism, that is, that for them the most important thing was to make sure that the city, in particular, was supplied. So, they weren’t thinking about balance of trade, they were thinking about keeping the population satisfied so that they don’t revolt, and because it was the role of the Sultan. It goes back to that circle of justice: we provide security to the population and the wherewithal that they need to get on with their lives. So, for the Ottomans, it was really a win/win: you could tax this trade and you kept the population in Istanbul happy with all the goods that were on offer in the bazaar.

Istanbul’s skyline still reflects the multi-ethnic nature of the Ottoman Empire: here, the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) to the left and the minarets above Hagia Sophia to the right. (photo by Christopher Rose)

One of the populations in Istanbul was the Janissaries. Can we talk a bit about the Janissaries, who they were, why they were so special?

The Janissaries are such an interesting story because it’s a story that changes over time. Our image of the Janissaries is typically the Janissaries at the height of their military power, so, in the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire the Janissaries were really a formidable fighting force. They were formidable because the Ottomans had perfected this institution of the slave-soldier, which is a way of making sure that you don’t have soldiers who will become attached to a provincial governor, for example, who may eventually want to break away and create their own state. You make them loyal to the central government by cutting ties to their own communities and making them loyal only to you.

The Ottomans did this in two ways: the first is that they did not recruit from their own, local Muslim population, they recruited from towns mostly at the periphery or in the Balkans that were primarily Christian. So, despite the fact that it’s illegal in Islam to forcibly convert people to Islam, that’s effectively what they did. They got special dispensation to do that. They took young men of extraordinary promise from these communities. Now, this is a huge nationalistic issue. The populations now see this as an enormous, oppressive yoke around the Greek population or the Bulgarian population, etc., and, of course, I’m sure there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth when these boys were conscripted. But, at the same time, they then had open to them a pathway to success and rising up that most Muslim Turks would not have had in the Ottoman Empire. They were converted to Islam, they were farmed out to farming communities so that they would learn Turkish, and how to be a Muslim. They were then brought back to Constantinople and, depending on their skills, they were either trained as soldiers or trained in the palace school to become administrators of the empire. So, for example, Sinan the great architect of the Ottoman Empire was born a Christian and recruited through the devshirme. So, this devsirme system of recruitment populates the Janissary corps. They’re trained all together, they’re housed in barracks together, they’re not supposed to get married so that they don’t have the outside concerns of a family, and in the early years this becomes an incredibly cohesive, well trained fighting force that is the scourge of Europe. Everyone is terrified of them.

Now, like all institutions, you can’t keep an institution intact forever, and over time the rules that require Janissaries not to marry, and if they do marry not to enroll their sons in the Janissary corps, that all begins to fall apart. You end up with a Janissary corps that is deeply embedded in the kind of mercantile fabric of Constantinople, and in fact of other cities as well, and that means that when their interests are threatened not just as soldiers but as participants in the city’s economy in one way or another–whether it’s because their salaries aren’t being paid on time or it’s because the economic policies of the sultan will keep them from getting the kinds of goods of the kinds of access that they want in town, they can become a very important street fighting force–so you have actual violence–bu they also become a political faction. That becomes really important because you have a variety of factions that arise and they end up becoming the kingmakers, or the sultanmakers, when a sultan dies and you have this struggle will become the next sultan, the Janissaries become a faction that’s very important in helping to see who comes out on top.

Documents and Further Reading

Barbara Petzen curated Primary Source’s collection of Websites and Online Curriculum about the Ottoman Empire. Check it out!

Standards Alignment

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills

This podcast addresses the following standards in the Texas High School World History Course:

(4)  History. The student understands how, after the collapse of classical empires, new political, economic, and social systems evolved and expanded from 600 to 1450. The student is expected to:

(D)  explain the political, economic, and social impact of Islam on Europe, Asia, and Africa;

(E)  describe the interactions among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish societies in Europe, Asia, and North Africa;

(7)  History. The student understands the causes and impact of European expansion from 1450 to 1750. The student is expected to:

(D)  explain the impact of the Ottoman Empire on Eastern Europe and global trade;

(16)  Geography. The student understands the impact of geographic factors on major historic events and processes. The student is expected to:

(A)  locate places and regions of historical significance directly related to major eras and turning points in world history;

(B)  analyze the influence of human and physical geographic factors on major events in world history, including the development of river valley civilizations, trade in the Indian Ocean, and the opening of the Panama and Suez canals;

(23)  Culture. The student understands the history and relevance of major religious and philosophical traditions. The student is expected to:

(A)  describe the historical origins, central ideas, and spread of major religious and philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and the development of monotheism; and

(B)  identify examples of religious influence on various events referenced in the major eras of world history.

This podcast addresses the following standards in the Texas High School World Geography Course.

17)  Culture. The student understands the distribution, patterns, and characteristics of different cultures. The student is expected to:

(A)  describe and compare patterns of culture such as language, religion, land use, education, and customs that make specific regions of the world distinctive;

(B)  describe major world religions, including animism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, and their spatial distribution;

(C)  compare economic, political, or social opportunities in different cultures for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and other underrepresented populations; and

(D)  evaluate the experiences and contributions of diverse groups to multicultural societies.

(18)  Culture. The student understands the ways in which cultures change and maintain continuity. The student is expected to:

(A)  analyze cultural changes in specific regions caused by migration, war, trade, innovations, and diffusion;

(B)  assess causes, effects, and perceptions of conflicts between groups of people

This podcast addresses the following standards in the National Standards for World History, Basic Edition:

World History Era 5

Standard 1C: The student understands how pastoral migrations and religious reform movements between the 11th and 13th centuries contributed to the rise of new states and the expansion of Islam.

  • Analyze how the migrations of Turkic peoples from Turkestan into Southwest Asia and India in the 11th and 12th centuries contributed to Islamic expansion and the retreat of Byzantium and Greek Christian civilization.
  • Assess Sufism as an important dimension of Islamic faith and practice and how it enriched Muslim life and contributed to Islamic expansion.

Standard 1D: The student understands how interregional communication and trade led to intensified cultural exchanges among diverse peoples of Eurasia and Africa.

  • Identify the maritime routes extending from East Asia to northern Europe and assess the importance of trade across the Indian Ocean for societies of Asia, East Africa, and Europe.
  • Compare the importance of such cities as Canton (Kuang-Chou), Melaka, Calicut, Samarkand, Kilwa, Cairo, Constantinople, and Venice as centers of international trade and cosmopolitan culture.
  • Explain connections between trade and the spread of Islam in Central Asia, East Africa, West Africa, the coasts of India, and Southeast Asia.

Standard 5C: 

The student understands major political developments in Asia in the aftermath of the collapse of Mongol rule and the plague pandemic.

  • Analyze the origins and early expansion of the Ottoman state up to the capture of Constantinople.

Standard 7A: The student understands major global trends from 1000 to 1500 CE.

  •  Trace major migratory and military movements of pastoral peoples of Asia and Africa and analyze the consequences of these movements for agrarian states and societies of Eurasia and Africa.
  • Account for the continuing spread of Islam and explain the importance of Muslims and Muslim civilization in mediating long-distance commercial, cultural, and intellectual exchange.
  • Analyze ways in which encounters, both hostile and peaceful, between Muslims and Christians in the Mediterranean region affected political, economic, and cultural life in Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.
  • Define “capitalism” and analyze the extent to which capitalistic institutions and productive methods were emerging in Europe and other parts of Afro-Eurasia.

World History Era 6

Standard 3B: The student understands how Southeast Europe and Southwest Asia became unified under the Ottoman Empire.

  • Analyze how the capture of Constantinople and the destruction of the Byzantine empire contributed to the expansion of Ottoman power.
  • Analyze reasons for Ottoman military successes against Persia, Egypt, North African states, and Christian European kingdoms.
  • Analyze the political, institutional, and economic development of the empire in the context of its religious and ethnic diversity.
  • Analyze how Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish peoples interacted in southeastern Europe under Ottoman rule.
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2 thoughts on “Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire, Part I

  1. Pingback: Episode 27: History of the Ottoman Empire, Part 2 | 15 Minute History

  2. Pingback: Episode 37: The Ottoman Balkans | 15 Minute History

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