The great power in Asia Minor.
Who were the Ottomans?
The early modern period is usually defined as the span of centuries between 1450 and 1800. This was an era of empires, when some of the largest civilizations in human history came to blows around the world. They used new technology, like gunpowder weapons, and sent ships to explore the globe.
One of the many powerful forces to rise in this period was the Ottoman Empire. They started off as a small Anatolian tribe, but by 1453, they had conquered Constantinople, and founded an empire that would influence the world for many centuries to come.
The Ottoman siege of Constantinople was so significant that modern historians often use it to mark the start of the early modern period. It set the scene for the next few centuries – a culture rising from humble beginnings, then claiming its place in the world.
The origins of the Ottomans
The origins of the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to a small, Muslim tribe from Anatolia – a region which now forms a part of modern Turkey. The tribe was led by Osman I; the word ‘Ottoman’ is derived from his name.
No written sources survive from Osman’s lifetime, but he is believed to have been a skillful and charismatic leader. During his reign, the tribe started to expand, claiming territory from other Anatolian tribes.
Again, no sources survive from this period, but somehow the Ottomans claimed a significant chunk of land. Some historians believe their expansion was built upon religious fervor, but this theory is not widely accepted. Ultimately, no one knows how the Ottomans did it, but one way or another, they took control of Anatolia.
Osman died in 1299, probably from gout – a form of inflammatory arthritis. After his death, stories were told about him, and he became a legendary figure in early Ottoman folklore.
The most famous story was the tale of Osman’s dream. Supposedly, when Osman was still a young man, he dreamt about a tree growing out from his navel, with branches so wide that they cast shade on the entire world.
This dream was a metaphor for Ottoman ambition: they wanted to build an empire as large as that tree. Osman’s successors set out to continue what he had started, and expanded into Europe. Over the next few decades, they took control of parts of Macedonia, Kosova, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Greece.
The siege of Constantinople
In 1444 CE, Mehmed II ascended to the Ottoman throne. He was a direct descendant of Osman I, and found himself ruling a large, Islamic empire.
But there was one piece of land which eluded the Ottomans: the Christian city of Constantinople, whose colossal walls had been standing firm since the days of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Middle Ages, many people had believed that these walls were completely impenetrable.
These people were wrong. In 1453, Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople, with the help of some cutting-edge gunpowder cannons designed by a Hungarian engineer. These cannons blasted through the city walls, and the Ottomans took control, changing the city’s name to Istanbul.
Modern historians refer to the Ottomans as a ‘gunpowder empire’. This technology was one of the defining features of the early modern era.
The Ottomans were renowned for their strong leaders and gunpowder weaponry, but this empire also had a softer side. They were famous for their religious tolerance, as they generally allowed non-Muslims to practice their own religion.
They allowed non-Muslim communities to have their own courts, called Millets. These courts were allowed to follow religious laws, like Jewish halakha or Christian canon, instead of a centralized Ottoman code.
However, this religious tolerance had its limits. The Devshirme system took young boys from Christian families, and converted them to Islam. These boys also received a first-class education, and often became advisors to the Ottoman government, or part of an elite group of soldiers called the Janissaries.
Art and architecture
Suleiman the Magnificent was one of the most influential rulers in Ottoman history, reigning from 1520 to 1566. During his reign, he continued to expand the empire’s borders, but he also made significant contributions to art, architecture and science.
Hundreds of artistic societies were given government funding. Suleiman himself was an accomplished poet and gardener. He was famous for cultivating a white tulip, which artists began to include in their designs on pots and rugs.
This was also a golden age of Islamic architecture. Suleiman sponsored hundreds of projects, including stunning mosques in Mecca, Istanbul and Baghdad. Many of these mosques are still standing – an enduring legacy from the age of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The myth of Ottoman decline
Historians once believed that the Ottoman Empire declined after Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign, but this is no longer widely accepted.
They did shift their attention from territorial expansion, and began to focus on securing their borders instead, but this should not be seen as a sign of decline. They were simply adapting to changing times, as other empires were rising on either side, and they needed to secure their position.
They also began to pursue trade deals with some of these other powers. In the 1700s, they drew up treaties with Britain, Holland, Denmark, Prussia and France. Again, these deals were not a sign of Ottoman weakness. They were simply adapting to the changing world.
The real Ottoman decline
The real decline of the Ottoman Empire began in the 1800s. It is often linked to the Industrial Revolution, when European powers began to rapidly modernize. The Ottomans were unable to keep up, as Europe began to produce goods and weapons more efficiently than ever before.
The Industrial Revolution is often used to mark the end of the early modern era, and the beginning of modern history. It aligns with the lifespan of the Ottoman Empire – they rose at the start of the early modern era, and declined when the period reached its end.
This decline culminated in World War One, where the Ottomans fought on the side of Germany, and were heavily defeated by Allied forces. They lost almost 500,000 soldiers during the course of the war, and saw their territories claimed by foreign powers. This marked the official end of the Ottoman Empire, after six hundred years of rule.
The legacy of the Ottomans
The Ottomans collapsed in the 1900s, but they left a lasting legacy on modern Turkey. For example, Islam remains the dominant faith in the country. If the Ottomans had never claimed control of the region, Turkey would probably be a Christian country instead.
The Islamic architecture of the Ottoman Empire is another legacy of their time in power. This is particularly evident in Istanbul, where iconic landmarks like Hagia Sophia are testament to Ottoman influence.
Another legacy of the Ottoman Empire are the scars of the Armenian genocide. During World War One – the final years before Ottoman collapse – a million Armenians were put to death by the Ottoman government, who were supposedly trying to protect the state from an Armenian revolution. It was a dark ending for an empire once famed for its art, architecture, and tolerance.