Chapter 13 Transformations in Asia and Africa on the Eve of European Overseas Expansion

Section 1 The Ottoman Empire

As the Islamic world struggled to recover from the Mongol invasion and the collapse of the Seljuk sultanate, in Anatolia a small ghazi principality began to expand by fighting against the ailing Byzantine Empire. From this modest beginning, the Ottoman state eventually became one of the most extensive empires in the world, stretching from North Africa to Iraq, and from Central Europe to southern Arabia. At its height, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful state in the Mediterranean world, overshadowing not only most of southwest Asia but also Europe. The imperial system devised by the Ottomans to govern this immense territory was equally impressive. For most of its early history, the Ottoman Empire provided a framework in which its many diverse religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups could co-exist with a remarkable degree of harmony and prosperity.

The Rise of the Ottomans

In the aftermath of the Mongol conquests and the destruction of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, growing numbers of Turkish ghazi warriors began to establish small independent states along the frontiers of Christian Byzantium. Sometime after about 1280, one of these ghazis, a Turkish chieftain named Osman, along with his followers, known as Osmanlis or Ottomans, established themselves in an old Seljuk stronghold in northwestern Anatolia.

            Osman’s success as a ghazi leader brought him many new followers, including other Turkoman warriors, Sufis, and even ex-Byzantine frontier soldiers who had converted to Islam. By 1308, the Ottomans had established themselves on the shores of both the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Unable to take Constantinople, whose walls remained too strong even for committed ghazis, they nevertheless crossed the straits into Europe. Soon they conquered most of Thrace, including Adrianople, present-day Edirne, which became their new capital. By 1396, the Ottomans had taken control of the entire Balkans.

From a small frontier ghazi principality, the Ottoman state expanded into an empire stretching from Anatolia to the Balkans.  



From Principality to Empire

The dramatic Ottoman victories in the Balkans during the 1300s had far-reaching consequences. The Ottoman state was rapidly becoming a true empire. It was not only getting larger in size and wealthier, it was also becoming less uniformly Muslim and Turkish in population. Yet as had happened during the original Muslim conquests in Syria and Egypt, people in the newly conquered areas in Europe quickly came to support and even to welcome Ottoman rule—for many of the same reasons.

            For one thing, the Ottoman policy of allowing religious freedom seemed less threatening to much of the Greek Orthodox population than the less tolerant policies of Roman Catholic powers in western Europe. In addition, Ottoman land and taxation policies actually improved conditions for many peasants. Not least, so long as they accepted Ottoman authority, the Ottomans allowed local feudal lords to keep their privileges and lands.

            Success in the Balkans also led to improvements in the Ottoman army. Ottoman sultans began to use war captives and other enslaved Christians from the Balkans to create a superbly trained elite force of slave soldiers called the Janissaries. The Janissaries became the heart of the imperial army, owing their allegiance solely to the sultan on whom they depended for survival. In addition, many Christian feudal lords on the borders of the sultan’s new lands chose to become Ottoman vassals or allies, and to serve him militarily. 

Setback and recovery. As their empire grew in Europe, Ottoman rulers also became interested in expanding the Islamic territory that owed them allegiance. In the late 1300s, they began to conquer many of the local ghazi states in eastern Anatolia. As the rulers of these states fled east, however, they soon brought vengeance down on the Ottomans.

            Many sought refuge at the court of the powerful Turko-Mongol ruler Timur, better known in Europe as Tamerlane. Responding to their pleas for help as a fellow Muslim, Timur invaded Anatolia. At the Battle of Ankara in 1402 he defeated and captured the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid. Although he allowed the Ottomans to keep the lands they had taken from Christians, he made them restore the lands of the Muslim rulers.

            Bayezid eventually died from the humiliation of his imprisonment. When civil war broke out among his sons over the succession, for a time it seemed as if the Ottoman Empire would collapse. After considerable fighting, however, Mehmed, Bayezid’s youngest son, held the empire together.

            The Ottomans survived these challenges partly because war was their way of life. In addition to the increasing strength they drew from their slave troops, for example, the Ottomans quickly adopted and integrated new weapons into their methods of fighting—gunpowder, artillery, and muskets. As they mastered these new inventions, the Ottomans developed one of the toughest and most disciplined fighting forces in the world. Soon, they resumed their drive for empire and their commitment to expanding the boundaries of Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) into Dar al-Harb (the abode of war) – particularly against the Christian world in Europe and the Mediterranean. Such commitment to jihad, or war for the faith, underpinned the claims of the Ottoman sultans that they were legitimate Muslim rulers. (Significantly, one of the most important of the sultan’s titles was ‘The Great Ghazi’ – signifying that he was the greatest warrior for Islam and a principal leader of jihad.) The return of Ottoman power became clear in 1444, when Sultan Murad II defeated a coalition of European forces at the Battle of Varna.

Mehmed the Conqueror. Perhaps the most spectacular phase of Ottoman expansion began with the reign of Mehmed II (1451-1481). In their earlier conquests, the Ottomans had simply bypassed the city of Constantinople. In part this was because of the strength of its defenses. In addition, the Byzantine emperors were masters at exploiting internal Ottoman divisions and gaining support from other European powers. Mehmed II, however, had ambitions to make the Ottoman Empire a major world power—he saw Constantinople, the second Rome, as the only suitable capital for his empire. A Venetian visitor to the sultan’s court about this time left a description that makes Mehmed’s goals clear:

“Nothing gives him greater satisfaction and pleasure than to study the state of the world and the science of war. A shrewd explorer of affairs, he burns with the desire to rule. It is with such a man that we Christians have to deal. . . . Now, he says, times have changed, so that he would go from the East to the West, as the Westerners had gone to the East. The Empire of the world, he says, must be one, one faith and one kingdom. To make this unity there is no place in the world more worthy than Constantinople.”[2]

            In 1453, Mehmed attacked Constantinople by land and sea. Using heavy artillery (one cannon was so large that it had to be cast on the spot since it would have been too heavy to transport), the Ottoman forces battered down the powerful land walls that had for so long protected the city. After a long siege, on May 29, 1453, the Ottomans broke through the Byzantine defenses and captured Constantinople, last remnant of the Roman Empire.

            Mehmed prevented his troops from completely sacking the city and made it his new capital under its Turkish name, Istanbul. He restored the roads, bridges, and aqueducts of the city and built a huge central marketplace—the covered bazaar. He also constructed new palaces, mosques, and other public buildings. To repopulate the city, he encouraged people from all over the empire—and even some from outside it, such as Jews who were being persecuted in Christian Spain—to settle in Istanbul. By the end of his reign, the city once more throve as the center of an extensive trade network and the magnificent capital of a vast empire – but this time a Muslim rather than a Christian empire.

Selim the Grim. By the early 1500s, the Ottoman sultans had gained immense power and prestige in the Islamic world because of their victories in Europe. The enlarged Janissary corps of slave soldiers was loyal and effective. Gunpowder weapons were now well integrated into military training and tactics, and the Ottomans even used them in field battles as well as for besieging cities. In addition, the victories had consolidated the Ottomans’ position as major Islamic rulers. Increasingly, sultans measured their prestige in Islamic terms. Above all, they saw themselves as the defenders of Sunni Islam.

            Even as they became concerned about such questions of Islamic legitimacy, however, in Iran a new Shi’ite dynasty, the Safavids, emerged to challenge Ottoman leadership in the Islamic world. The Safavids too had learned to use the new gunpowder weapons and were therefore a considerable military as well as ideological threat to the Ottoman state. Not least, with thousands of Shi’ites living in the eastern parts of the Ottoman Empire, the Safavids might well foment internal rebellion against the sultan.

            For sultan Selim I in particular, the new Persian threat seemed to overshadow all others. Selim, aptly known as “the Grim,” had ascended the throne in 1512 after ruthlessly eliminating all potential rivals—his brothers and their sons. He was convinced that the greatest danger to the Empire now came from the Shi’as. Making peace temporarily with his European foes, he led the Ottoman army into Anatolia. At the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Safavids. He then annexed eastern Anatolia and temporarily occupied the Safavid capital of Tabriz.

            Selim next turned south to attack the Mamluks of Egypt, who had threatened his flank during his campaign against the Safavids. In 1516 he took Aleppo, Damascus, and Jerusalem. When the Mamluks refused to surrender, Selim invaded and occupied Egypt itself in 1517. The Hijaz, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, then submitted to Ottoman rule. These triumphs clearly made the Ottoman Empire the greatest Islamic state of its time and a major world power. In addition to their titles of sultan, great ghazi, and even emperor of Rome, Ottoman rulers now assumed, and jealously guarded, the title of “Guardian of the Holy Cities.” Before long, they also took the ultimate Islamic title—caliph.

Suleyman the Law-Giver. The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith under Selim’s successor, Suleyman (1520-1566), known in the western world as “the Magnificent,” though his own subjects called him “the Law-Giver.” Suleyman was the son of Selim by a daughter of the Khan of the Crimea. As a young prince, he served as the governor of Kaffa in the Crimea and later of Magnesia (Manisa) in Anatolia. At Selim’s death, he inherited a vast empire, enriched by its new sources of revenue and control of the main international trade routes, with no internal disputes, and no foreign enemy capable of seriously threatening its security.

            Suleyman himself was energetic and talented both as a ruler and a military commander. He personally led his armies on thirteen campaigns. In the east, his armies took parts of Iran, the Caucasus, and Iraq and attempted to expand Ottoman influence in the Crimea. His great adversary in Europe was the Habsburg Empire under the new Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Imperial Ambassador to Suleiman’s court, described the sultan in his later years: 

“His years are just beginning to tell on him, but his majestic bearing and indeed his whole demeanour are such as beseem the lord of so vast an empire. He has always had the character of being a careful and temperate man; even in his early days . . . his life was blameless. . . . As an upholder of his religion and its rites he is most strict, being quite as anxious to extend his faith as to extend his empire. Considering his years (for he is now getting on for sixty) he enjoys good health, though it may be that his bad complexion arises from some lurking malady.”[3]

            In his land wars with the Habsburgs, Suleyman occupied Hungary and reached at times to the very gates of Vienna. He also recognized the strategic significance of sea power, however, and expanded the Ottoman navy in order to project Ottoman power into the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. In 1533, he made the pirate captain Khayr al-Din Barbarossa his grand admiral. Barbarossa took over Tunisia and Algeria for the Ottomans and commenced the crucial struggle with the Habsburgs for control of the central Mediterranean. Another admiral led a Turkish fleet in the Red Sea which established Ottoman control over Yemen and Aden and challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.

            Suleyman’s accomplishments at home were just as impressive as his expansion of the empire. He reformed the system of taxation and overhauled and regularized the government bureaucracy. He commissioned the construction of many mosques, schools, hospitals, bridges, caravanserais, baths and other public works. He was particularly concerned with the establishment of justice in his empire. He improved the court system and issued new laws and law-codes to such an extent that he became famous to his subjects as Suleyman “the Lawgiver.”

  Despite setbacks, by the 1500s the Ottomans had created a great Islamic world Empire from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean.  

Ottoman Institutions and Society

Suleyman presided over a sophisticated and highly cultured society that drew on many different cultural traditions—Byzantine, Turko-Persian, and Islamic. Ottoman society was divided into two groups: a privileged governing class called askeri, or “military”, which included everyone who worked for the sultan; and the masses of ordinary subjects known as the reaya or “flock”.

            The reaya class was extremely diverse. It included everyone in Ottoman society who was economically productive and paid taxes, whether nomadic or sedentary, rural or urban, peasants, pastoralists, merchants, or artisans. These different groups spoke many different languages, practiced many different religions, and came from many ethnic backgrounds. The Ottomans’ success in ruling such diverse peoples was largely due to the institutions they developed for governing the empire.

The Ottoman sultanate. In the early centuries of the empire, the most important institution was the sultanate itself. The Ottoman ruler began as a simple tribal chief and leader of a band of ghazi warriors. As the Ottomans acquired more territory and began to build a state, he became a sultan on the traditional Turko-Persian model used by the Seljuks. With the conquests in the Balkans, the fall of Constantinople, and the acquisition of most of the Arab world, however, the Ottoman sultan became something quite new. Reflecting Byzantine and Turko-Mongol as well as Islamic concepts of sovereignty, he became padishah, or emperor—a world-ruler, a lawgiver, the “Shadow of God on Earth.” It was his responsibility to guarantee harmony and prosperity by protecting the state and establishing justice according to Islamic law.

            The first ten Ottoman sultans were all capable and successful. Only after the death of Suleyman did the quality of the rulers decline. One reason for this was the unusual system of succession to the throne followed by the Ottomans. As they came of age, the ruler’s sons were usually each appointed governor of a province. In these posts they learned the craft of governing and administration – and gradually attracted their own supporters. This tradition thus helped guarantee the ability of the new ruler, but it also often led to bitter and bloody struggles between rival brothers. When the old sultan died, the throne went to whichever son was the strongest, or clever enough to reach the capital first and seize the throne.

            To prevent such dynastic disputes, the Ottomans eventually began to deal harshly with the losers in the succession struggles. Mehmed II, for example, decreed a law affirming the right of the new sultan to execute his brothers in the interest of political stability.

“To which ever of my sons the Sultanate may be vouchsafed, it is proper for him to put his brothers to death, to preserve the order of the world. Most of the ulema allow this. Let them therefore act accordingly.”

They did. When Mehmed III ascended the throne in 1595, the court executioner strangled some 19 of the new sultan’s brothers.

            When Mehmed III himself died, however, he left only two small sons, aged 12 and 13. If the younger were executed and the elder died before having children, the dynasty would come to an end. Unwilling to risk the survival of the dynasty, from this point on the Ottomans stopped the practice of fratricide. Instead, to prevent the old struggles for power they kept all Ottoman princes in the “cage.” This was a special group of buildings in the palace where the princes lived along with their mothers, nurses, wives and concubines, and their slaves. From the cage, a prince emerged only once—either to reign or to be buried. With this system, the oldest usually became sultan. Without the administrative experience and training that came with provincial government, however, few sultans raised in the cage proved capable rulers when they finally ascended the throne.

Government and administration. The Ottoman Empire was a large and highly centralized state, and its governing class was complex. It was basically composed of three subdivisions: the “men of the sword” who made up the military; the “men of the pen” who staffed the bureaucracy; and the “men of learning” in charge of religious and judicial institutions.

            At the heart of the Ottoman system of government was the devshirme. The devshirme was a tribute levied every few years on the sultan’s Christian subjects. The tribute consisted of their healthiest and brightest young boys who became the sultan’s personal slaves. These “children of devshirme” were taught Turkish, converted to Islam, and given training to prepare them for government service. Most entered the Janissary corps, but the best were given special education in the palace schools. According to ability, they then became Janissary officers, slave cavalry, or government officials.

            These “slaves” really constituted one of the most elite groups in the Ottoman Empire. For example, for a time virtually all of the Grand Viziers were of slave origin. Indeed, as the system became established some Christian parents actually tried to bribe the devshirme officials to take their children, knowing this was a sure road to fortune and power in the empire. In later years, this slave institution became corrupted, but at its peak it provided the Ottoman sultans with a dedicated, loyal, and competent body of soldiers and officials.

The millet system. Although officially the champions of Sunni Islam, the Ottomans ruled over an extremely diverse empire with remarkably little internal dissent. In the early years, Muslims and non-Muslims were remarkably well integrated at all levels of society. As the sultans acquired more and more Islamic territory, however, and became more concerned with their image as Islamic rulers, the social structure also became more thoroughly Islamic. Rigid barriers began to separate Muslims and non-Muslim. Even then, the Ottomans did not try to force Islam on non-Muslim subjects. Instead they largely allowed them to run their own affairs through the millet system.

            A millet was a religious community, and there were four of them recognized in the Ottoman Empire: Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Armenian Christian, and Jewish. Each had its own religious hierarchy, with the top leader responsible to the sultan. Each followed as much as possible its own system of religious law and regulated its own internal affairs.

            Such flexibility and tolerance contributed greatly to the success of the empire in maintaining internal peace and relative stability for much of its existence. At the same time, however, by reinforcing peoples’ primary sense of identity in religious terms, the millet system prevented the emergence of a single, cohesive sense of Ottoman identity in the empire. In later years, this lack of cohesion would make the empire extremely vulnerable to challenges and influences from Western Europe.

The military state. The Ottoman system suffered from one major flaw—it depended on continuing conquest. The entire Ottoman state was essentially a support mechanism for the army. So long as the army brought in new lands and new booty, the state remained stable. When expansion ended, however, the expense of maintaining the military and the imperial administration gradually became unbearable.

            Perhaps even more importantly, without continual expansion the whole justification for the sultan’s rule as a ghazi was called into question. This undermined both the Ottomans’ own sense of identity, and the legitimacy with which they could claim to govern other Muslims. Ironically, perhaps, Suleyman’s reign, which saw the empire at its height, may also be seen with hindsight to mark the end of major Ottoman expansion—and thus the beginning of Ottoman decline.

Although internally practical and flexible, Ottoman institutions depended heavily on the sultans and continuing conquest.

Ottoman Arts and Culture

The high culture of the Ottoman Empire, as opposed to the many local folk cultures of the reaya population, reflected the influences of the older and more sophisticated civilizations the Ottomans had conquered. Some commentators and scholars have argued that Ottoman culture was therefore artificial and unoriginal. Nonetheless, the Ottomans achieved considerable brilliance and beauty in many cultural fields, especially art and architecture. Even in poetry, in which Ottoman writers did largely copy the styles of earlier Persian and Arab poets, Baki, the greatest Ottoman poet of the 1500s, is still worth quoting as an example of the elegance of much Ottoman literature. Perhaps his finest work was an elegy written on the death of Suleyman the Law-Giver, his patron and friend:

  “The day is born. Will not the lord of the world awake from sleep?

    Does he not show himself from his pavilion that is like the heavens?

    The colour of his cheek has gone, he lies dry-lipped 

    Like a fallen rose apart from the rose water.

    May the sun burn and blaze with the fire of your parting;

    In grief for you, let him dress in black weeds of cloud.”

Architecture and the arts. From Budapest to Basra, the Ottomans also left behind a rich legacy of mosques, palaces, forts, caravanserais, baths, schools, hospitals, bridges, mausoleums, fountains, and other monuments. Byzantine influence on the Ottoman style was very strong, especially in the use of domes and semi-domes. The master of this type of building was undoubtedly Sultan Suleyman’s famous architect Sinan Pasha (1489-1588).

            Over a 50-year period, Sinan designed and built more than three hundred monuments of all types throughout the empire.[4] He was a master at finding graceful solutions to the classic architectural problem of combining a round dome with a rectangular building. His designs overshadowed even the famous dome of the St. Sophia church built by Justinian. The Suleymaniyye mosque complex in Istanbul and the Selimiye mosque in Edirne are considered his masterpieces.

            Ottoman artists also excelled at miniature illustrations in manuscripts, but perhaps the finest Ottoman art was calligraphy. The fluid and elegant Arabic script was applied not only in the production of sumptuous books but also in the decoration of private and public buildings. Ottoman artists refined several of the old styles of calligraphy and invented some new ones. Among the most impressive examples of Ottoman calligraphy were the official documents or firmans produced by the Ottoman chancery and the royal emblems, or tughras, devised for the signatures of the Ottoman sultans.

  Scholarship. In addition to Islamic religious studies, the Ottomans also allowed some non-religious studies at the madrasas and the libraries. At least in the early centuries the Ottomans produced eminent scholars of philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the sciences. Several sultans encouraged the study of astronomy and astrology. The astronomical observatory founded in Istanbul in 1577, for example, was among the finest ever built in the Islamic world.

            History and geography were subjects of particular interest to the Ottomans and Ottoman scholars excelled in them. In history, they were concerned with recording the origins and development of their own empire and in comparing their history to that of earlier peoples. As a result of their emergence as a naval power and extensive contacts with outside powers, the Ottomans also expanded Islamic geographical knowledge about the rest of the world. The Book of the Sea by the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis is particularly famous for its accurate maps and charts of the known world and comprehensive summary of nautical knowledge.

Ottoman culture borrowed heavily from earlier civilizations, achieving a mix of Persian, Turkish, Islamic, and Byzantine elements.