The Ottoman Empire lasted for over 600 years, controlling most of the Middle East and parts of Southeastern Europe and North Africa at its peak of power. Traces of the Ottoman legacy can be seen today throughout Turkey, the Middle East, and beyond.
In this article, we will explore the timeline of the Ottoman Empire, from its initial expansion in Anatolia to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
Roots of the Ottomans
Around the year 1299, Osman I, a Seljuk Turk tribal leader of a small principality in Anatolia, founded the Ottoman Empire. During the first decades of the Ottoman Empire’s existence, it spread its territory and set up a centralized formal government. Osman’s son, Orhan, succeeded Osman after his death and started a campaign to capture Byzantine territory in northwest Anatolia.
In 1326, the Byzantine city of Bursa was taken by the Ottomans and became the empire’s capital city. Orhan was succeeded by his son Murad I, who began spreading Ottoman territory into the Southeastern European Balkans.
Murad I began a successful strategy of conquest that helped limit resistance in all his conquered territory: he allowed local rulers to retain power as long as they peacefully accepted rule under the Ottoman sultanate.
The Fall of Constantinople
In 1422, Murad II sieged the Byzantine capital of Constantinople but failed to take the city. By this time, the city reflected the decaying nature of the Byzantine Empire. Much of the city was deserted and in ruins. Despite the failed siege of 1422, the Ottoman military was dedicated to capturing the city and removing Byzantine influence from Anatolia.
In April 1453, Mehmed II the Conqueror led 80,000 Ottoman forces to Constantinople and laid siege on the city again.
The Ottoman attackers were at a great advantage due to their vast numerical superiority and their abundance of heavy cannons that could knock down the city’s protective walls. The Ottoman fleet was carried across land to attack the city from the Golden Horn, an unexpected place of naval attack.
The city put up a spirited defense but could not beat back the superior Ottoman army. The final emperor of the Byzantines, Constantine XI, was killed during the defense. The Ottoman victory at Constantinople put an end to the century-long reign of the Byzantine Empire.
After the battle, the city was initially pillaged by the victorious Ottoman troops, but Mehmed II brought order to the city soon after Constantinople’s fall. Byzantine survivors of the battle were ordered to emerge from their hiding places and were guaranteed their freedom to live in the city. Sultan Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul and made it the Ottoman Empire’s capital city.
Life in Ottoman Istanbul
Under Ottoman control, the city was transformed from a Byzantine Christian city to a center for Muslim culture. Mosques were constructed throughout the city, as well as lavish palaces, sculptures, and monuments.
Despite this transformation to a Muslim city, Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities living in the Ottoman capital were still allowed to keep many churches and synagogues and worship openly.
When the city was captured by the Ottomans, it was nearly deserted. When Mehmed II decided to make it the empire’s capital city, he began sending conquered people, mostly Greek, into the city to populate it. By 1480 the city’s population was between 60,000 and 70,000.
The city quickly became an important center for commerce in the region due to its prime location connecting Asia and Southeastern Europe. The mid-16th century under the reign of Suleyman saw the prominence of the city grow greatly, as architect Mimar Sinan transformed the city into a distinctive Ottoman cultural center.
The leader of the Ottoman Empire was given the title of “Sultan.” During the time of the Ottoman Empire, 36 sultans ruled. These sultans lived in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a lavish complex that included over 300 rooms.
This title of sultan not only gave the leader the secular administrative power over the empire but also religious power. As the Ottomans conquered more Muslim land, the title of Sultan was increasingly used as a religious and spiritual leadership position of Islam, used to unite the Muslim world under Ottoman rule. This was especially used during the stagnation of the empire during the 19th century when European imperial ambitions began to threaten the empire.
Along with the taking of Constantinople, Mehmed II created another significant addition to the Ottoman Empire: The policy of fratricide.
Fratricide was an Ottoman policy that stated when a new Sultan came to power, his brothers would be imprisoned and eventually killed when the Sultan’s first son was born. This policy was carried out to secure the throne for the rightful heir.
This brutal practice was done for the “good of the people,” as it stopped the chance of internal civil war or intra-family power struggles like those seen in European royal families from hurting the empire. The most brutal example of the policy of fratricide was committed by Mehmed III, who had all 19 of his brothers killed.
Over time this policy became more relaxed, and in 1603, the fratricide policy was changed to stipulate that the brothers of the Sultan were only imprisoned for the rest of their lives.
However, there were some occurrences of an imprisoned brother being called out of isolation to become Sultan. It usually did not go well, as this extreme isolation often gave them mental problems and made them clueless in the day-to-day operations of running the empire.
While Islam was a core component of the Ottoman empire, subjects of the empire were allowed to have relative religious freedom. Non-Muslims were forced to pay extra taxes and were not allowed to hold positions of power but could openly practice their religions.
However, this religious tolerance could differ widely across the empire. In some regions, non-Muslims were seen as social outcasts of some Ottoman populations or even persecuted by local Muslim rulers.
Conquered religious communities were allowed considerable autonomy, as long as they acknowledged the superior Ottoman rule of the region. Most community leaders supported Ottoman rule due to its stability, relative religious tolerance, and the autonomy given to conquered communities.
During the 14th century, the Devshirme system was created, which forced conquered Christians to give up 20% of their male children to the empire. These children were converted to Islam and forced into slavery, though many had the opportunity to rise up in Ottoman society.
Most notably, many of these slaves rose in the ranks of the Ottoman military. The Janissaries were an elite Ottoman military force that was largely made up of these Christian converts. The Devshirme system was later abolished in the 17th century.
Consolidation of Anatolia and the Balkans
After taking Constantinople, Mehmed II turned west and conquered large territories in the Balkans of Southeastern Europe. Mehmed II’s military expansion in the early years of the empire would make him a leading figure of Ottoman legends and folklore.
In 1481, Bayezid II (Mehmed II’s son) came to power and began further consolidating his father’s territorial acquisitions. Bayezid II took Southern Greece and its Venetian ports, which secured Ottoman naval dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Bayezid also brought many Spanish Muslims and Jews into the empire, especially to the city of Istanbul. During the Spanish Inquisition, all non-Christians living in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Bayezid arranged for an Ottoman fleet to rescue the Spanish Jews and Muslims, who were allowed to become Ottoman citizens.
Revolts threatened the final years of his reign in Eastern Anatolia backed by the Persian Shah, who hoped to undermine Ottoman dominance in the region.
While his military expansion dwarfed his father’s, Bayezid II’s reign greatly strengthened Ottoman rule in Anatolia and Southeastern Europe. Bayezid II greatly improved Ottoman society by building schools, hospitals, and mosques throughout the empire. He also contributed greatly to Ottoman arts by funding artisanal workshops and schools.
The Ottoman Golden Age
Selim I deposed his father Bayezid II in 1512, and his reign was marked by significant military expansion, doubling the size of the empire.
Selim I chose to expand into Eastern Anatolia and challenge the Persian Safavids of Iran, who had ambitions to spread Shia Islam throughout the region.
At the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, the Ottoman army greatly outnumbered the Safavid army both in men and artillery and delivered a decisive defeat to the Persian defenders. The Ottomans pushed into Safavid territory and forced the Shah to move his capital to the east.
This victory solidified Ottoman control of Eastern Anatolia and relinquished the religious threat of Shia Islam spreading into Ottoman Sunni Islam territory.
Selim then turned to the Middle East and defeated the Mamluks in the decisive battles of Marj Dabiq and Ridanieh. By 1517, the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt were under Ottoman control.
This made the Ottoman Empire the dominating state for the Islamic religion. Islam became further engrained in the empire as religious scholars from across the Muslim world increasingly traveled to Istanbul.
In 1520, Selim’s son, Suleiman I, came to power. Suleiman immediately turned the Ottoman military’s focus to Europe. In 1521, Ottoman forces took Belgrade and the island of Rhodes 1523. In 1526 the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Mohacs brought a fatal blow to Hungary’s military.
In 1523 this military expansion was stopped in its tracks when Ottoman troops could not successfully siege Vienna due to overstretched supply lines and unfavorable weather conditions. Suleiman would again attempt to siege the city in 1532, resulting in an Ottoman defeat.
In 1533 Suleiman then turned his military expansion to the empire’s Shia Islamic rival, the Persian Safavids. The Safavids began conducting a retreating guerilla war against the approaching superior Ottoman forces. By the end of Suleiman’s campaign in Persian territory, he had conquered modern-day Iraq and gained significant territory in the Caucasus region.
Suleiman also greatly increased the Ottoman naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea. He was increasingly worried about Spanish naval competition in the Mediterranean and greatly improved the Ottoman navy. Suleiman brought nearly all of the Mediterranean North African coast under Ottoman control with the capture of Algiers in 1529 and Tripoli in 1551.
Many scholars consider the peak of the empire under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. This period during the mid-16th century was marked by tremendous power and stability throughout Ottoman society.
Suleiman’s administration made great progress in creating a uniform code of law throughout the empire that combined secular and religious laws. Suleiman also took on many infrastructure projects throughout the empire, especially in Istanbul.
This period saw notable cultural and scientific achievements, as the empire became a melting pot of many different cultures. Ottoman poetry, music, textiles, painting, and ceramics spread widely throughout Istanbul and other major Ottoman cities.
Ottoman architecture became world-renowned, as mosques and public buildings were constructed across the region. Istanbul’s most prominent architect Mimar Sinan spread a distinctively Ottoman architectural style that blended Byzantine, Turkish, and Muslim influences.
The Ottomans made many scientific advances, especially in medicine. They invented catheters, scalpels, forceps, and many other medical tools that are used widely today.
Loss of European Territory
In September 1697, Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mustafa II made another attempt to take Hungary. Habsburg forces ambushed them at the Tisza River in what became known as the Battle of Zenta. The Ottomans took heavy losses and were forced to retreat.
The Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Zenta marked the beginning of a gradual loss of Ottoman territory in Europe. The 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz forced the Ottomans to relinquish their holdings in Hungary. This greatly diminished Ottoman control in Central Europe and left Austria as the dominant power of the region.
The “Tulip Period” of 1718 to 1730 was characterized by relative peace and flourishing Ottoman art and culture. The defeat in Central Europe humbled the Ottoman government, which began to understand the importance of diplomacy with European powers.
During this period, the elite of Istanbul sought to “westernize,” as elite Western cultural influences became more ingrained in Ottoman cities. The extravagant spending of the Ottoman elite and its perceived weakness in foreign affairs caused a rebellion that forced the Sultan to abdicate in 1730.
In 1821 an independence movement began to take over Greece, and by the beginning of 1922 Greece was declared independent from the Ottoman Empire. However, the internal struggles of various Greek factions hindered the establishment of a strong independent nation. Ottoman forces were sent into the Peloponnese but were not able to fully take back the region.
The Egyptian navy came to the aid of the Ottoman forces as they began to take parts of Southern Greece in 1826 and 1827. A coalition of Britain, France, and Russia (who all wanted an independent Greece) offered to help negotiate a peace deal between the two powers.
When the Ottomans refused, the coalition sent a large naval force that decimated the Egyptian fleet. Though some fighting continued, the Ottoman sultan officially recognized Greece as an independent nation in 1832.
Despite this conflict against the Western European powers, both Britain and France shifted towards friendly diplomatic relations with the Ottoman government, mainly to combat the Russian threat in Eurasia. In the 1853-1856 Crimean War, both British and French troops came to the aid of the Ottomans when Russia encroached into Ottoman-controlled territory in modern-day Romania.
The Russian army invaded the Danubian principalities on the Russian-Ottoman border, stating that it had the right to protect the Orthodox Catholic population living in the region. The British-French-Ottoman alliance emerged victorious and delivered a decisive defeat to the Russians, whose economy lay in shambles because of the conflict.
A reform movement called the Tanzimat was created to rejuvenate the empire from 1839 to 1876. Up until this point of reform, the Sultanate combatted the problem of governing a massive, multi-ethnic empire by giving localized rulers significant power in their respective regions. The Tanzimat reforms were centered around centralizing the Ottoman government in order to modernize the empire.
The reforms were largely based on Western European societies. The Ottoman reformers implemented new changes in the law system to keep secular law separate from religious jurisdiction. The school systems of the empire were also improved, along with a massive reorganization of the Ottoman army.
The Rise of the Young Turks
Abdulhamid II became Sultan in 1876 and created the first constitution, but withdrew it a year later and began to rule as a dictator with an increasingly authoritarian government.
In 1878 the Ottoman Empire officially lost all of its European territories after losing Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish wars against Russia. The Ottoman defeat in the conflict blew a horrific blow to the empire. The Ottoman Empire lost some of its most industrialized regions that generated massive tax revenues.
A growing Turkish nationalist movement caused by the authoritarian rule of Abdulhamid II spread throughout the empire during the late 19th century and called for the reinstatement of the constitution. In 1908 the Young Turk nationalist movement finally overthrew the Ottoman government and set up a constitutional government.
Upon taking power the nationalists began a process of modernizing and industrializing the empire. The Young Turks shifted the religious law system of the empire to a more secular, modernized form of law. The new government also prioritized improving schools and gave women many more rights than they had previously.
World War I
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Central Powers, which included Germany and Austria-Hungary. This choice to side with the Central Powers was mostly caused by its rivalry with Russia, and the influence German military advisors had in the Ottoman military.
Ottoman forces fought in campaigns in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, but the most significant role played by Ottoman forces in the conflict was on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
British and French troops launched a massive naval invasion of the Dardanelles Strait, which would help them attack Istanbul and connect naval trade routes with Russia.
However, this naval attack was repulsed by underwater mines and Turkish coastal defenses.
After the failed naval attack through the Dardanelles thousands of allied troops were deployed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, but were eventually forced to withdraw due to heavy casualties and fierce Turkish resistance.
After years of brutal warfare, the Central Powers were defeated in 1918. The allied powers occupied Istanbul and divided much of the empire, which was reduced to the size of modern-day Turkey. The defeat and enormous loss of land greatly increased Turkish nationalist sentiments throughout the empire.
During the war the most infamous event of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide, resulted in the deaths and displacement of thousands of ethnic Armenians.
Armenians living in Russian Armenia, which was Ottoman territory, greatly worried the empire. Ottoman leaders had a history of persecuting the Armenians, who were considered outsiders of Ottoman culture. This persecution was exacerbated when the Young Turks took power, due to their aspiration to “Turkify” the empire.
Many Armenian soldiers were fighting for the Russian army at the early stage of the war, and played a decisive role in the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Sarikamish in 1914. Many Armenians despised Ottoman rule and hoped that a Russian victory in the war would give them independence.
Violence against Armenians grew steadily, culminating in 1915 when Ottoman forces killed several citizens of the Armenian city of Van. The population of the city took up arms and successfully defended the city, which caused the Ottoman government to move towards a centralized policy of getting rid of the Armenian population.
On April 24, 1915, or “Red Sunday,” thousands of Armenian leaders and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed by the Ottoman government. Thousands of ordinary Armenians were forced out of their homes into long death marches across horrid desert conditions. Many of these marches were conducted explicitly to kill the Armenians, as they were given no provisions of food or water during the long marches.
Along with these marches many Armenians were executed through various methods carried out by killing squads, including many mass shootings. Mass rapes were common, and there were many instances of Armenian children being kidnapped and sold to ethnic Turkish families.
By the end of the genocide, an estimated one million Armenians had been killed, with many more displaced from their homes. Other groups were targeted, including the Assyrians and Greeks.
The Turkish government today still refuses to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian Genocide. Turkish deniers often claim that the casualty numbers are vastly overexaggerated and that there was a real threat to Ottoman national security due to Armenian insurgency.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
After the allied victory of World War I, Turkish nationalism began to erupt throughout Turkey as the allied victors began to occupy and divide up the empire. The Ottoman Sultan still technically controlled Istanbul, but the capital city was occupied by allied forces and subject to enormous allied political influence. This caused Turkish nationalism to spread throughout Turkey, which centered around the ultimate goal of establishing an independent Turkish democratic government.
Leading the Turkish National Movement was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a commander who led the defense of Gallipoli in 1915. During the summer of 1919, Greek forces began encroaching into Anatolia, which began the Turkish War of Independence. The Greeks were eventually defeated by Ataturk’s forces and driven out of Anatolia in 1922.
The final sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed VI, was forced to flee the region in 1922. The country of Turkey was declared a republic in 1923, bringing an end to the Ottoman Empire.
Ataturk would serve as the first President of Turkey and began implementing reforms that moved Turkey towards a more secular and modernized future.
Why Did the empire Fall?
Most historians do not consider the final centuries of the empire as an explicit “decline.” They instead look at this late period of the empire as transformation and adaptation to changing circumstances.
In the end, stagnation and the inability to compete with European powers led to the death of the empire. Many different factors contributed to this stagnation and inferiority to the West.
The Ottoman Empire had a much lower population density than its competing empires. While in the 17th century, many European powers saw large population growth, the Ottoman Empire stayed significantly less populous.
This meant that the overstretched empire simply did not have the massive population needed for tax revenue and ambitious military campaigns. Also, European trade with Asia increasingly became more common overseas instead of through Ottoman overland trade routes.
By the time of the 19th century, the empire was overstretched and consisted of many diverse ethnic groups that did not rally under a Turkish national identity, making it impossible to turn the empire into a centralized, united modern power.
From the Fall of Constantinople to its peak of power in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire rapidly expanded due to its military superiority in the region. However, by the 19th century, the Ottoman military was significantly weaker than its European competitors, who increasingly had imperialistic ambitions for Ottoman lands. This military inferiority was caused both by its relatively smaller population to draw troops from and its stagnant economy.
The empire was not only increasingly weakened by military defeats against European powers, but many independence movements began to spring up across the ever-shrinking empire. Also, the growing Turkish nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th century increasingly threatened the Ottoman sultanate.
Despite these many causes for their decline, including significant losses in territories, the Ottoman Empire experienced great economic success in the 19th century. It should also be noted that the empire did not blindly walk into its own deterioration. It implemented many reforms that sought to make it competitive with the growing international dominance of European powers.
This points to the conclusion that the Ottoman Empire didn’t necessarily decline. If it remained neutral or joined the Allies in World War I, it may have lasted for many more years. Some may even argue that the gradual loss of territory may have even strengthened the empire under a more centralized governing force.
The Ottoman government’s decision to join the Central Powers was the nail on the coffin for the empire. Many of the allied powers, especially Britain, had advocated for the preservation of the empire due to the stability it brought to the region.
However, its fatal decision to join the wrong side of the conflict ensured that it would not survive. The defeat caused the allies to divide up Ottoman territory and fueled the ever-growing Turkish nationalism growing in the country.
We have covered many aspects of the Ottoman Empire.
Let’s go over the main ideas:
- The Ottoman Empire rose to power during the 14th and 15th centuries through military conquest in Anatolia.
- In 1453 Sultan Mehmed II successfully besieged Constantinople and brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. The city was soon renamed Istanbul and would serve as the capital city of the Ottoman Empire.
- At the empire’s peak, it controlled Anatolia and Southeastern Europe, much of the Middle East, and the entire North African coast.
- The Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of the Central Powers. After their defeat in the war, much of the empire was divided and occupied by the victorious allied powers.
- Kemal Ataturk led the fight for Turkish independence following the war, which resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
While the Ottoman legacy is full of atrocity, persecution, and military expansionism, it is also full of significant scientific, cultural, and technological achievements. Historians also credit the Ottomans for bringing centuries of stability to a tumultuous region.
By the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire reached its conclusion after over 600 years of domination in the Middle East and Southeast Europe. The lasting influences of Ottoman society are still found in Turkey and elsewhere in the region today.