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The Ottoman Empire spread from northwestern Anatolia when it was formed as a clan of Turks (named after the founder, Osman=Othman). (Perhaps we can compare the way a country of about 5 million people came to dominate the world in the British Empire.) The core group absorbed others to become an important power, eventually taking over the central part of the Islamic world, and extending it into new areas, including the Balkans. They moved first into areas which had been the earlier Seljuk Turkish empire and were depopulated, partly a result of the Mongol destruction of Central Asia and much of the Muslim world.

It was the Ottomans who conquered the last remnant of the Roman Empire when they occupied Constantinople in 1453. By then it was only a city state but its capture was hugely symbolic and was followed by the occupation of a large part of Europe, as far west as Wien (Vienna). The head of the empire was known as the Sultan (= power holder), but he also gave himself the title of Khalif of Islam (=Successor or Deputy of the Prophet), a symbolic role.

For western Europe its rise had three effects:

  • blocking the spice and luxury trade to the east;
  • conquering the Venetian colonies in the Levant
  • losing control of seas, even as far as the English Channel.

These were the stimulus for Portuguese expeditions round Africa to bypass the Ottoman territories to get at the spices (see European hegemony.

The Ottomans and the Portuguese were to meet in the Indian Ocean. For the Islamic world the Ottomans were the last of a series of Turkish states which dominated the main cultural centers (except Morocco). For the Arabs and the occupied Balkan Christians they were colonial oppressors. They were at least as bad as the western Europeans in their treatment of those they considered inferior.

The Ottoman-controlled territories in North Africa produced a culture of seafaring and piracy that terrorised the seas as far as western Europe. (See Linda Colley - Captives for a history of the Barbary Pirates taking English and Irish slaves from land and sea until as late as the 17th century.)

Notable conquests were:
  • 1354 Gallipoli (entry into Europe);
  • 1389 Kosovo (defeat of the Serbs -(see Kosovo);
  • 1400 Bulgaria; 1444 Varna (whole of Balkans);
  • 1453 Constantinople (final end of Roman Empire);
  • 1514 Persians;
  • 1515 Armenia & Kurdistan;
  • 1516 Syria (Palestine and Lebanon);
  • 1517 Egypt;
  • 1519 Algeria;
  • 1521 Belgrade;
  • 1522 Rhodes;
  • 1526 Hungary and siege of Vienna;
  • 1547 Hejaz and Aden;
  • 1569 East African coast (first visit);
  • 1571 Lepanto (defeated by western navies);
  • 1573 Cyprus;
  • 1580 Persian Gulf;
  • 1585 Swahili coast (brief occupation of Mombasa);
  • 1669 Crete;
  • 1683 last siege of Vienna.

The decline and break up of the empire has affected or caused many of the problems of the modern world, including: Iraq and the Gulf; the Balkans; the Caucasus.

The first defeat was the naval battle of Lepanto, but the first loss of territory was to Persia in 1618 when Armenia and Georgia (Sakartvelo) were lost. (These were conquered by Russia in the 19th century). 1683 was the beginning of the end in Europe when they failed to occupy Vienna. In 1699 Austria gained much of Hungary with Transylvania, Croatia and Slavonia. It was then that Austria settled Serbs in eastern Croatia creating the conditions for the 1992 civil war at Knin. In 1699 territory was also lost to Poland and southern Greece to Venice. By 1718 Austria took some of Serbia but lost it again in 1739. Russia took the sea of Azov in 1702 and nibbled away at the northern area, taking the Crimea in 1783 and the Dniester (Moldova) in 1792. Egypt was temporarily lost to Napoleon. During the 19th century the empire fell behind Europe in technology and a series of weak sultans (the Ibn Khaldun syndrome) caused its administration to grow corrupt and ineffective. This led to a gradual loss of north Africa as the rulers (Beys=governors) became increasingly independent. In Egypt an Albanian general, Mehmet Ali, made himself Khedive (=viceroy) and became increasingly independent, though extending the empire into Africa through Sudan as far as northern Uganda. Sudan then was shared with the British. Egyptian forces began to push down the Red Sea towards East Africa.

The independence struggles of the Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks exercised European diplomats through the 19th century, and the weakening of Turkish power in the Balkans produced the wars that culminated in the 1991-3 wars.

The Barbary Pirates began to come under control in the 18th century with the rise of the British Royal Navy and its bases in the Mediterranean. One of the first acts of the United States navy was to attack them in their home grounds - Algiers and Tripoli (Libya).

During the 19th century the North African possessions fell into the hands of the French - who took Algeria and Tunisia; Italy who took Libya; and Britain who took Egypt.

Interesting Reading

Linda Colley - Captives the Barbary Pirates

The Legacy
The end came in the first world war when Turkey was allied with Germany. The loss of the Arab and African provinces reduced Turkey to its ethnic heartland of Anatolia and Thrace, though the dying empire took with it in 1915 many Armenians in a horrifying massacre of over half a million and perhaps a million - in an early example of ethnic cleansing.
Towards the end the administration was notorious for corruption and brutality.

It left behind:

  • the Muslims of Albania and Yugoslavia (mainly Bosnia but also the Sanjak of Novi Pazar);
  • the Turks of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Macedonia;
  • the hatred of the various Greek and Slavic peoples for the Turks and each other;
  • the mixture of peoples who make up the modern Middle East. (Perhaps Iraq cannot be blamed on the Turks, as it was the British who created it from three Ottoman governorates.)

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute began with Jewish purchase of Arab land under Ottoman law which considered traditional grazing land as Imperial (instead of Common) and therefore alienable.

Was Kuwait an Ottoman province? If so should it be ruled from Basra? Should the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul have been put together to make Iraq? Should the provinces of Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem have been separated?

After the first world war Kemal Ataturk abolished the Sultanate and also the Khalifate, which had become a title of the Sultan. Should the Khalifate be revived as the Successor and authority of all Islam? Who would the Khalif be? The end of the Ottoman Empire has not solved the problems that existed during its final decline, though Russia at least appears to have renounced interest in Constantinople, which the Tsars were obsessed with throughout the 19th century and earlier. Will the modern Turks be interested in their relatives in the new Turkic states of the former Soviet Union? They have already formed a Black Sea Economic Community and tried to sponsor a Central Asian community. A new Turkic federation seemed quite possible, as there was no-one to stop it. However, now the reviving Russian power is likely to resist such a development. The Armenians and Kurds fear it. The Great Powers might well accept it as the only non-Russian way to bring stability to the former Soviet Central Asia (and gain control of the oil).

But perhaps Turkey itself will join the European Union - though at present - 2007 - it seems unlikely. The voters in Austria, remembering the numerous attempts of the Ottomans to attack Vienna, are still opposed, as are voters in France and Germany.

Colin Imber - Ottoman Empire

Caroline Finkel - Osman's Dream

Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923: The History of the Ottoman Empire

Last revised 15/07/12



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