The Muslim caliphates

The Ottoman Empire

The empire which rose to replace the Abbasids as leaders of the Muslim world were the Ottomans. The Ottomans were Turks with their origin in Central Asia, and they spoke Turkish, not Arabic. Remarkably, the same dynasty, the Osmans, was in charge of the empire from Osman I in the thirteenth century until the last sultan, Mehmed VI, in the twentieth. Altogether there were thirty-six Ottoman sultans. Although the Turks too were Muslim and called themselves a “caliphate” — the Ottoman Caliphate, 1517-1924 — their capital was the former Greek city of Constantinople. 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 Europe.

First founded 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. Before long they came to completely surround the Byzantines — now reduced to the size of little more than the city of Constantinople itself. As far as the Byzantine Empire is concerned, it claimed a legacy that went right back to the Roman era. In the year 330 of the Common Era, emperor Constantine had moved the capital to the eastern city that came to carry his name. Rather, miraculously, when the western part of the empire fell apart in the fifth and sixth centuries, the eastern part 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. Despite these setbacks, the Byzantine Empire managed to thrive both culturally and economically. However, 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.

Even as Constantinople was renamed “Istanbul,” it continued to be a cosmopolitan city. In the Ottoman Empire, much as in 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. It was policies such as these that convinced many Jews to settle here after the Christian occupation of Muslim Spain in 1492. To this day there are Spanish-speaking Jews in the former parts of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the city’s strategic location at the intersection of Europe and Asia was as beneficial to Ottoman traders as it had been to the Byzantines. The state manipulated the economy to serve its own ends — to strengthen the army and to enrich the rulers — yet the administrators employed for these purposes were highly trained and competent. The state-sponsored projects which the Ottomans embarked on, such as the construction of roads, canals, and mosques, helped spur economic development. The empire was prosperous and markets for both consumer items and fashion were established.

The Ottomans continued to enjoy military success. Selim I, 1512-1520, established a navy which operated as far away as in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. He defeated both Persia and the Mamluks in Egypt, dramatically expanding an empire that came to include the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It was now that the sultans began calling themselves “caliphs,” implying that they were the rulers of all Muslim believers everywhere. Suleiman I, known as “the Magnificent,” 1520-1566, continued the expansion into Europe. He captured Belgrade in 1521 and Hungary in 1526, laid a siege on Vienna in 1529, but failed to take the city. The Ottoman army responsible for these feats was quite different from the European armies of the time. Like other armies with their roots in a nomadic tradition, they relied on speed and mobility to overtake their enemies, but the Ottoman armies were also one of the first to use muskets. 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 unite territories on all sides of the Mediterranean. The Ottoman army, much as armies elsewhere in the Muslim world, relied heavily on foreign-born soldiers. In the case of the Ottomans too, these former slaves eventually established themselves as rulers in their own right. This is how the Ottoman provinces of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria came to assume an increasingly independent position, each ruled by its own military commanders.

The Ottomans were skillful diplomats. 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 countries which also were the enemies of the Turks — such as the Habsburg Empire and Russia. The French, for example, quickly realized that the Ottomans constituted a force that could be convinced to attack the Habsburgs from the back. During the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, the king of Sweden drew the same conclusion. 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.

Yet for much of its later history, the empire was in decline. Economically it suffered when international trade routes, from the sixteenth century onward, were directed away from the Mediterranean. Together with the rest of Eastern Europe, they suffered again when, in the nineteenth century, the western parts of Europe began to industrialize and cheap factory-made goods began flooding in. The failed siege of Vienna in 1683 — the second time the Ottomans tried to take the city — is often seen as the symbolic start of the decline. The Ottomans held the city ransom for some two months, during which food was becoming exceedingly scarce and the Austrians increasingly desperate. In the end the Ottomans were decisively defeated, losing perhaps 40,000 men. And before the end of the seventeenth century, they had lost both Hungary and Transylvania to the Austrians. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire became known as “the sick man of Europe.” A number of administrative reforms were tried during this period. 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 ceased to exist in 1922, the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and the caliphate was officially abolished in 1924.

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