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Geography of the Ottoman Empire

THE OTTOMAN DYNASTY created the most enduring empire in human history. The Ottomans originally migrated from Central Asia as nomads and settled in the early 14th century as a military Turkic principality in western Anatolia (present-day Turkey), between the frontier zone of the Seljuk state and the Byzantine Empire. The Ottomans emerged into a dominant Muslim force in Anatolia and the Balkans and became the most powerful Islamic state since the breakup of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258. At its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, the empire was the most powerful in the world. Made up of diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and Slavs, the empire stretched from Central in the west to Baghdad (Iraq) in the east, from the Crimean Sea in the north to the Upper Nile in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia) in the south. Named after the founder and first sultan (ruler) of the dynasty, the Ottomans came into prominence with their gradual invasion of the Byzantine Empire that had occupied parts of Asia Minor and southeastern Europe for nearly a thousand years. With the conquest of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1453 under the rule of Muhammad II (1451–81), famously known as “Mehmet the Conqueror,” the Ottomans extended their dominance over much of Anatolia and southeastern Europe. Constantinople then became the capital of the Ottoman Empire and was renamed Istanbul. After taking Constantinople, the Ottomans, conquered the Fertile Crescent, North Africa from Egypt up to Morocco, and the Arabian Peninsula, including the Hijaz, seizing control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66), they expanded into the Balkans in 1521, capturing Belgrade (Serbia and Montenegro) and even besieging the Habsburg capital of Vienna (Austria), forming the largest and 1 the most powerful empires of the 16th-century world. After the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, the Ottoman Sultans, also known by the Persian title of Padeshah, became increasingly dependent on the crops of Janissaries, captured Christian slaves trained into elite soldiers, and the clergy class or the ulama, who gradually gained power at the court. The Janissaries were not only a military organization that protected the sultan, but also a warrior, spiritual fraternity, an association inclined in the mystical dimension of ISLAM that upheld a chivalric code of ethics; they were a powerful elite body in the Ottoman Empire. Although the sultans made the important decisions for the empire, including exercising the power to appoint officials to collect taxes and maintain stability within the empire, the grand mufti, the chief religious cleric, legitimized the authority of the sultan as the ruler of the empire. In contrast to their contemporary Muslim states, the Safavids and the Mughals, the Ottoman Sultans shaped the clerics into a state bureaucracy rather than allowing them to evolve into an independent institution.


The Ottoman government was organized in the form of a hierarchy with the sultan in the top and ministers and advisors known as vizirs below him, followed by court officials and military officers. Central to the Ottoman sultanate was an organized bureaucracy drawn from the sultan’s court that strictly controlled local provinces of the empire. The empire was divided into 2 distinct classes. The ruling elites, primarily the imperial family, landowners, and military and religious leaders, ruled the conquered territories without paying taxes; whereas the ordinary Muslim population, mainly comprised of peasants and craft workers, paid an annual tax to the state in return for protection against invasion and abuse of power. The non-Muslim section of the empire was divided into millets, which were administrative units set up on the basis of religious affiliation; they mainly included Armenian, Catholic, Orthodox Christians and Jews.
Ottoman Empire

At its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful in the world. With the creation of Turkey in 1923, the oldest imperial power in the world was finally abolished and replaced by a secular republic.

The Ottomans saw the first serious sign of the supremacy of Europe with the naval defeat of Lepanto in 1571 by the Spanish, the papal states of Italy, and the Venetians under John of Austria. Although Murad IV restored the Ottoman military in the 1638 victory over Safavid Persia, Vizir Kara Mustafa’s army surrendered to Polish forces in 1683. The ensuing years saw the loss of Hungary and parts of the Balkan territories, such as the Mora Peninsula and Greece, through a 1699 treaty, after a series of defeats to various European powers, including the military forces of Charles V of Lorraine and Eugene of Savoy. In the 18th century, the process of decline began to accelerate. Following the war of 1716–18 against Austria and Venice, the peace of Passarowitz led to the additional loss of the remaining parts of Hungary and Transylvania, including Belgrade.

This marked the end of the Ottoman expansion into European territories—with the exception of the recapture of Belgrade in 1739. With the rise of Russia to power as a formidable opponent, the Ottomans faced further complications in the 18th century. The formation of Crimea (present-day Ukraine) into an independent region, along with the rise of various Danube principalities under the protection of Russia in the late 18th century, identified a major military weakness of the Ottoman Empire, a weakness that led to further defeats by Karim Khan Zand of Persia (1776) and the war against the Russians. The 19th century saw the beginning of reform and the gradual end of the dynasty. In this period, the increasing expansion of European powers into Muslim territories forced the Ottomans to initiate economic, military, and political reform. The tanzimat, the modernization reform movement, inaugurated an era that aimed to review the body of Islamic knowledge and the economic, social, and technological apparatus of the empire and adapt the Ottomans to the modern world. Although reforms were originally under way under the reign Sultan Selim III (1789–1807), in 1839 Sultan Abd al-Majid (1839–61) issued a decree including a significant set of civil reforms. The reign of Sultan Abd al-Aziz (1861–76) saw the rise of new liberal political parties and the emergence of new elites and state bureaucrats to mange the changing economy and political system of the empire. The reforms marginalized the artisans, the merchants of the bazaar, and the travelodge or caravanserai, which had long supported the ulama and the sufi classes. The reforms also provided the empire with major technological transformations, such as the introduction of steam and electricity power, the telegraph, telephone, and eventually television communications. In 1908 a group of Ottoman military officers, named the Young Turks, forced Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (1876–1909) to reinstate the imperial constitution, originally drafted in 1876 and long suspended because of the Russian invasion of 1877. The Young Turk movement then successfully managed to limit the authority of the sultan as the supreme sovereign of the empire by expanding the authority of an elected parliamentary government. With the outbreak of World War I, the Ottomans lined up with the Central Powers and faced a humiliating defeat as a result. After World War I ended in 1918, the empire was under the occupation of several Allied powers, including Britain and Greece. It was not until the Kemalist nationalist movement—named after its leader, Mustafa Kemal, famously known as Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938)—which ended the foreign occupation of Turkey in 1922, that the Ottoman Empire saw its demise. With the creation of Turkey in 1923, the oldest imperial power in the world was finally abolished and replaced by a secular republic.

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