Rapid Expansion to 1520

The Ottoman consolidation of power and expansion to take the Holy Lands of Islam.

Printing Press
A Third

Reign of Bayezid II

After the death of Mehmed II, Bayezid II took the throne and ruled from 1477 until 1512. He largely used this time to consolidate the Ottoman state, further expanding the Ottoman legal frameworks. Under the Ottomans, there were two codes of law.


The first was Sharia law, which was the religious law from the Qur’an. The second type of law was the Kanun law, which was the constitutional and customary law of the empire, created through the proclamation of the Sultan. Bayezid II was the first Sultan to remove contradictions between the two types of Ottoman law. As a result, he is often given the epithet of ‘The Lawgiver.’


Moreover, the capture of Kilia and Akkerman around the Black Sea in 1484 allowed the Ottomans to further consolidate their control over key trade routes for the European powers.

Bayezid II and Cem

Although Bayezid II did have some significant military victories, which provided the springboard for further expansion, his territorial gains don’t appear as large as those of the other Sultans around him. This is largely because his brother, Cem, hamstrung him.


Although Mehmed II prescribed in his original Kannuname that fratricide was the only way of becoming Sultan, Cem escaped from his brother’s attempts to assassinate him in Europe. This posed a significant problem for Bayezid.


While ordinarily, the Ottoman Sultans were relatively secure against the threat of rebellion because the strength of the dynastic legitimacy was so high, having a living brother created a rallying point for dissenters.

Moreover, since Cem was living under house arrest in Europe, any attack against a major European power could lead to his release, destabilizing the Empire and endangering Beyezid’s own position.

Championing of Spanish Jews

The unification of Spain in 1469 under Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille created a new powerful Catholic rule on the Iberian peninsula.

As a show of their power and loyalty to the Pope, in 1492, Spain issued the Alhambra Decree, expelling practicing Jews from Spain within a year.


In reaction to the Alhambra Decree, Bayezid championed the Spanish Jews, transporting immigrants using the Ottoman navy and allowing them to settle within the empire. This brought two benefits to the Ottomans.

First of all, the Spanish Jews brought significant wealth into the empire. This led to Bayezid saying, “they say Ferdinand is a wise King – he who impoverishes his own Kingdom to enrich mine.”

Second, the Spanish Jews brought significant technological development, including the installation of the first printing press in Constantinople.


Bayezid also permitted Rabbis to rule on internal disputes between Jews in Constantinople and for them to live free of religious persecution. Though they had to pay a higher tax rate than Muslim subjects in what was known as the cizye tax, the tax rate was significantly lower than what they had been paying in Spain before their expulsion.

Who was Selim ‘The Grim’?

Although he only ruled for eight years, from 1512 to 1520, one of the most successful Ottoman Sultans was Selim I, who conquered the Levant and the Hejaz for the empire.


He was given the epithet The Grim by his people. However, this wasn’t seen as a criticism of his demeanor or outlook toward the world. Instead, it was a commentary on Selim’s ruthlessness with his Grand Vizier. While Grand Viziers could often expect to last through the majority of a reign, with some getting through several Sultans, Selim got through six Grand Viziers in just eight years.

That means he beheaded five Grand Viziers out of dissatisfaction with their governance when the Empire was growing at its fastest rate. So ruthless was Selim that until this day, a traditional Turkish curse translates to “may you be the Grand Vizier to the Sultan Selim.”

Ulama and Fatwas

The Ulama were the religio-legal class of the Ottoman Empire, leading worship and serving as the judges and prosecutors for legal cases.


On a local level, this was done by figures known as *Kadi*. To prevent corruption, the Kadi were regularly rotated from Timar to Timar every 18 months. This stopped them from building a relationship with the local Timar Holder, over whom they held power.

On a national level, the Ulama reported to the Grand Mufti, who represented the religious class in the Imperial Divan.


Upon ascending to the throne, Selim I wanted to go to war with Safavid Persia on his eastern border. However, Islamic law states that no Islamic ruler can go to war with other Muslims.

Selim had his Grand Mufti declare that the Safavids were infidels and fake Muslims to get around this. Moreover, he requested a fatwa, which is formal permission, stating that Allah supported his desire to go to war.

Battle of Chaldiran

In the years leading up to the Ottoman invasion of Persia, a new rival dynasty appeared on their eastern border. Under Shah Ismail’s leadership, the Safavids had been hoping to take territory from the Ottomans by orchestrating a series of internal revolts within Ottoman territory. As a result, Selim I felt the need to destroy this emerging threat.


The Ottoman invasion in 1514 culminated in the Battle of Chaldiran, where Selim I’s 60,000 troops faced up against 40,000 Safavid defenders.


The Ottomans won a decisive victory over Shah Ismail, allowing them to occupy and loot the Safavid capital of Tabriz. This was largely achieved because the Ottomans had vastly more developed artillery than the Safavids, with numerous and powerful cannons to draw upon.

After the battle, Ismail retreated in disgrace. However, this opened up a border with the declining Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt for the first time, presenting a new opportunity for Ottoman expansion.

Battle of Marj Dabiq

The Mamluks were an Islamic caliphate that ruled Egypt and Syria from the 13th century until 1516.

As the controllers of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the Mamluks were the most prestigious rulers in the Islamic world. However, a series of civil wars weakened the military power of the Mamluk state. Selim saw an opportunity.

Despite having lesser numbers, the Ottomans won a convincing victory over the Mamluks at the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, allowing them to seize Egypt.

Although the Mamluks attempted to conduct a last-ditch defense of their heartlands at the Battle of Ridanya in 1517, it was too little, too late.

Significance of Egypt

The significance of Egypt was twofold for the Ottoman sultans. First, it allowed the Ottomans access to North Africa, which allowed them to open a new naval frontier with the Christian navies of Genoa and Venice, as well as bringing them into direct contact with the Spanish Habsburgs for the first time.


Second, Egypt was an incredibly lucrative region for the Ottomans. Modern economic historians predict Egypt accounted for about a third of Ottoman state revenue in 1520.

This was largely due to the agricultural opportunities afforded by the fertile Nile basin, which was ideal for growing crops. The revenue brought in from Egypt allowed the Ottomans to expand their Janissary Corps as well as invest in new weaponry and the expansion of their naval fleet.

Ruling former Mamluk Territories

After extinguishing the Mamluks, Selim I recognized the possibility of unrest. As a result, he introduced several legal reforms designed to placate his former subjects.

Customarily, when an empire conquered and absorbed a new territory in the 16th century, the laws of that former territory would be invalidated, and the people would be forced to live under the laws of the conquering power.


However, Selim proclaimed that the citizens of Damascus could continue to live under the customary law they were used to, including following the taxation dictated by the Mamluks. For example, olive trees remained taxed by age rather than yield.

Moreover, Selim I set up an independent Mamluk Divan in Cairo to allow for continuity of power on a local level and did not institute the Timar system in Egypt. He also allowed local litigants to bring legal cases to the Madrasses rather than the Kardis – it was only when taking legal action against an Ottoman that the Mamluk people had to go through systems that were foreign to them.

This helped the Ottomans to avoid unrest and ensure a smooth power transition when taking over Egypt.

Caliphs, Caesars, Khans

From the beginning of the Ottoman era, the Sultans referred to themselves as Khans, seeing their origins as nomadic herdsmen from Central Asia, leaving them as the natural ideological heir to that empire. This allowed them to lay claim to being the legitimate ruler of all Asiatic peoples.


Upon conquering Constantinople in 1453, the Sultans also lay claim to the title of Caesar, which had previously been held by the Byzantine emperors, stemming from Constantine I’s realignment of the Roman Empire eastward in the 4th century. This allowed them to lay claim to being the legitimate ruler of all European people.


Upon conquering the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, Selim I lay claim to the title of Caliph, allowing him to lay claim to being the legitimate ruler of all Islamic people. The overall impact of this is that it completed Ottoman claims for universal sovereignty.

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