The Muslim caliphates

The Ottoman empire


The empire which rose to replace the Abbasids were the Ottomans, but the Ottomans were Turks with their origin in Central Asia, and they spoke Turkish, not Arabic. Although the Turks too were Muslim and called themselves a “caliphate” — the Ottoman Caliphate, 1517-1924 CE — their capital was the former Greek city of Constantinople, and while they ruled much of North Africa and the Middle East, they ruled much of Europe too — the Balkans in particular and large parts of Eastern and Central Europe. First founded by Osman I in 1299, the Ottoman empire began as one of many small states on the territory of what today is Turkey. After having conquered most of their neighbors, the Ottomans moved across the Bosporus and into Europe in the early fifteenth-century, where they before long came to completely surround the Byzantines — now reduced to the size of little more than the city of Constantinople itself.

The Byzantine empire claimed a legacy which went right back to the Roman era, well over a thousand years. In the year 330 CE, emperor Constantine had moved the capital, Rome, to the eastern city that came to carry his name, and, rather miraculously, when the western section of the empire fell apart in the fifth- and sixth-centuries, the eastern section survived. Over the years Constantinople was besieged by Arabs, Persians and Russians, and in 1204 the city was sacked and destroyed by members of the Fourth Crusade, but despite these setbacks the Byzantine Empire managed to thrive both culturally and economically. “Byzantine,” in English, is an adjective meaning “excessively complicated” or “devious,” and the word is often used in relation to the operations of a bureaucracy. Yet the bureaucracy of the Byzantine Empire itself was both efficient and surprisingly non-bureaucratic.

Under Justinian in the sixth-century the army successfully reclaimed lost lands in Italy, the Balkans and North Africa, but the emperor also agreed to pay a large annual tribute to the Sasanian empire in Persia. In the seventh-century the wars in the east erupted with new force and Persians and Byzantines fought to an exhausting standstill. From this time onward Constantinople relied more on its diplomats than its armies. [Read more: The Byzantine diplomatic service] But not even its skillful diplomats were able to avoid the final disaster. In May 1453, after a seven week long siege, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, led by sultan Mehmed II, henceforth known as “Mehmed the Conqueror.” The city was renamed “Istanbul,” and the famous cathedral, Hagia Sophia, was turned into a mosque. The defeat was met with fear and trepidation by Christians all over Europe and it is mournfully remembered by Greek people to this day.

Many of these fears were clearly exaggerated. In the Ottoman Empire, much as the Arab caliphates which preceded it, the dhimmi enjoyed a protected status. Known as the millet system in Turkish, the Ottoman empire gave each minority group the right to maintain its traditions and to be judged by its own legal code. Indeed, Jews — like the Jews forced to leave Spain once the Christians conclusively had conquered it in 1492 — were officially encouraged to settle in Ottoman territories since the sultan needed the knowledge and the contacts they could bring. In the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries, Constantinople was thriving. The city’s strategic location at the intersection of Europe and Asia was as beneficial to Ottoman traders as it had been to Byzantine, and the expanding Ottoman empire guaranteed that trade could proceed peacefully over an ever-widening area. The state manipulated the economy to serve its own goals — to strengthen the army and to enrich the rulers — yet the administrators employed for these purposes were highly trained and competent and the state-sponsored projects which they embarked on, such as the construction of roads, canals and mosques, helped spur economic growth. The empire was prosperous and in the cities markets were established for both consumer items and fashion. [Read more: Tulipmanias]

The first generations of sultans were successful as military commanders. Selim I, 1512-1520 CE, dramatically expanded the empire’s eastern and southern frontiers by defeating Persia, the Mamluks in Egypt, and by establishing an Ottoman navy which operated both in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina were now in Turkish hands and the sultans began calling themselves “caliphs,” implying that they were the rulers of all Muslim believers wherever in the world they lived. Suleiman I, known as “the Magnificent,” 1520-1566 CE, continued the expansion into Europe. He captured Belgrade in 1521 and Hungary in 1526, laid two sieges on Vienna, one in 1529 and the other in 1532, but failed to take the city. The Ottoman army responsible for these military successes was quite different from European armies of the time. Like other armies with roots in a nomadic tradition, the Ottomans relied on speed and mobility to overtake their enemies, fighting with bows and arrows on fast horses. But the Ottomans were also one of the first armies in the world to use muskets, and during the siege of Constantinople they used falconets — short, light, cannons — to great effect. More surprisingly perhaps, the Ottomans had a powerful navy which helped them keep their possessions, on all sides of the Mediterranean, together. When they eventually were defeated by a joint navy of Christian states at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, it only took the Ottomans a few years to completely rebuilt their fleet. The Ottoman army, much as armies elsewhere in the Muslim world, relied heavily on foreign-born soldiers. [Read more: Janissaries and Turkish military music] In the case of the Ottomans too, these former slaves soon established themselves as rulers in their own right and in this way the Ottoman provinces of Egypt, Iraq and Syria soon came to assume an increasingly independent position.

The Ottomans were active in diplomacy too, and despite the official Christian fear of the Turks, the Ottoman empire was after 1453 a European power and as such an obvious partner in both alliances and wars. This was particularly the case for any European power that opposed the countries which also were the main enemies of the Turks — the Habsburg empire and Russia. The French, for example, quickly realized that the Ottomans constituted a force which could be convinced to attack the Habsburgs from the back, as it were, and during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth-century, the king of Sweden drew the same conclusions. Sweden was also eager to conclude an alliance with Turkey during its wars with Russia in the early eighteenth-century. And much later, in the 1850s, Great Britain and France relied on Turkey as an ally in making war against Russia in the Crimea. At the Congress of Paris, 1856, which concluded the Crimean War, the Ottoman empire was officially included as a member of the European international system of states.

Remarkably, the same dynasty, the Osmans, were in charge of the empire from Osman I in the thirteenth-century until the last sultan, Mehmed VI, in the twentieth. There were two attempts to unseat the dynasty but both failed, and although altogether eleven sultans were deposed, they were in each case replaced by another member of the same family. The Ottoman empire was flexible enough to deal with changes and powerful enough both economically and militarily to deal with challenges. Yet for much of its latter history, the empire was in decline. Economically it suffered when international trade routes, from the sixteenth-century onward, were directed away from the Mediterranean, and together with the rest of Eastern Europe they suffered when, from the end of the eighteenth-century, the western parts of Europe began to industrialize. The siege of Vienna in 1683 can be seen as the symbolic start of the decline. The Ottomans held the city ransom for some two months, during which time food was becoming exceedingly scarce and the Austrians increasingly desperate. [Read more: Coffee and croissants] Yet in the end the siege of Vienna failed and the Ottomans were decisively defeated, losing perhaps 40,000 men. Before the end of the seventeenth-century they had lost both Hungary and Transylvania too to the Austrians. In the nineteenth-century, the Ottoman Empire became known as the “the sick man of Europe,” and a place which Europeans never visited without remarking on the “backwardness” and “stagnation” they witnessed. A number of administrative reforms were tried during this period, and after the revolt of the so called “Young Turks” in 1908 — a secret society of university students — the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy in which the sultan no longer enjoyed executive powers. The Ottoman empire was replaced by the state of Turkey in 1922.