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Ottoman Society


The Ottomans: From Frontier Warriors To Empire Builders
Author: Robert Guisepi
Date: 1992

For centuries before the rise of the Ottoman dynasty in the 13th and 14th
centuries, Turkic-speaking peoples from central Asia had played key roles in
Islamic civilization as soldiers and administrators, often in the service of
the Abbasid caliphs. In fact, the collapse of the Seljuk Turkic kingdom of Rum
in eastern Anatolia in Asia Minor, following the invasion by the Mongols in

1243 described in Chapter 20, opened the way for the Ottomans' rise to power.
The Mongols raided but did not directly rule Anatolia, which fell into a
chaotic period of warfare between petty, would-be successor states to the
Seljuk sultans. Turkic peoples, both those fleeing the Mongols and those in
search of easy booty, flooded into the region in the last decades of the 13th
century. One of these peoples, called the Ottomans after an early leader named
Osman, came to dominate the rest, and within decades they had begun to build a
new empire based in Anatolia.

By the 1350s, the Ottomans had advanced from their strongholds in Asia
Minor across the Bosporus straits into Europe. Thrace was quickly conquered
and by the end of the century large portions of the Balkans had been added to
their rapidly expanding territories. The Ottoman rise to power was severely,
but only temporarily set back in 1402, when the armies of Timur swept into
Anatolia and defeated the Ottoman sultan Bayazid at Angora. For nearly a
decade thereafter the region was torn by civil war between Bayazid's sons,
each hoping to occupy his father's throne. The victory of Mehmed I led to the
reunification of the empire and new conquests in both Europe and Asia Minor.

In moving into Europe in the mid-14th century, the Ottomans had bypassed
rather than conquered the great city of Constantinople, long the capital of
the once-powerful Byzantine Empire. By the mid-15th century, the Ottomans, who
had earlier alternated between alliances and warfare with the Byzantines, were
strong enough to undertake the capture of the well-fortified city. For seven
weeks in the spring of 1453, the army of Mehmed II, "The Conqueror," which
numbered well over 100,000, assaulted the triple ring of land walls that had
protected the city for centuries. The undermanned forces of the defenders
repulsed attack after attack until the sultan ordered his gunners to batter a
portion of the walls with their massive siege cannon. Wave after wave of
Ottoman troops struck at the gaps in the defenses that had been cut by the
guns, overwhelmed the defenders, and raced into the city to loot and pillage
for the three days that Mehmed had promised as their reward for victory.

In the two centuries after the conquest of Constantinople, the armies of
a succession of able Ottoman rulers extended the empire into Syria and Egypt,
across North Africa, thus bringing under their rule the bulk of the Arab
world. The empire also spread through the Balkans into Hungary in Europe, and
around the Black and Red Seas. The Ottomans also became a formidable naval
power in the Mediterranean Sea. Powerful Ottoman galley fleets made it
possible to capture major island bases on Rhodes, Crete, and Cyprus; to drive
the Venetians and Genoese from much of the eastern Mediterranean; and to
threaten southern Italy with invasion on a number of occasions. From their
humble origins as frontier vassals, the Ottomans had risen to become the
protectors of the Islamic heartlands and the scourge of Christian Europe. As
late as 1683, Ottoman armies were able to lay siege to the capital of the
Austrian Habsburg dynasty at Vienna. Even though the Ottoman Empire was in
decline by this point in time and the threat the assault posed to Vienna was
far less serious than a previous attack in the early 16th century, the
Ottomans remained a major force in European politics until the late 19th

A State Geared To Warfare

Befitting an empire that had been founded and extended to spread Islam
through the waging of the jihad, or holy war, military leaders played a
dominant role in the Ottoman state and the economy of the empire was geared to
warfare and expansion. The Turkic cavalrymen, who were chiefly responsible for
the Ottomans' early conquests from the 13th to the 16th centuries, gradually
developed into a warrior aristocracy. They were granted control over land and
peasant producers in annexed areas for the support of their often sizeable
households and numerous military retainers. From the 15th century onward,
members of the warrior class also vied with religious leaders and
administrators drawn from other social groups for control of the
ever-expanding Ottoman bureaucracy. As the power of the warrior aristocracy
shrank at the center, they sought to build up regional and local bases of
support that inevitably competed with the sultans and central bureaucracy for
revenue and labor control.

A considerable portion of the economic resources that the Ottoman sultans
managed to control themselves was funneled into maintaining the massive armies
required both to sustain expansion and protect the territories the Ottomans
had won from rivals in all directions. From the mid-15th century, the imperial
armies were increasingly dominated by infantry divisions made up of troops
called Janissaries. Most of the Janissaries had been forcibly conscripted as
adolescent boys in conquered areas, such as the Balkans, where the majority of
the population retained its Christian faith. Sometimes the boys' parents had
willingly turned their sons over to the Ottoman recruiters because of the
opportunities for advancement that came with service to the Ottoman sultans.
Though legally slaves, the youths were given fairly extensive schooling for
the time and converted to Islam. Some of them went on to serve in the palace
or bureaucracy, but most became Janissaries.

Because the Janissaries controlled the artillery and firearms that became
increasingly vital to Ottoman success in warfare with both Christian and
Muslim adversaries, they rapidly became the most powerful component in the
Ottoman military machine. Their growing importance was another factor
contributing to the steady decline of the role of the aristocratic cavalrymen.
Just like the mercenary forces that had earlier served the caliphs of Baghdad,
the Janissaries eventually sought to translate military service into political
influence. By the late 15th century they were deeply involved in court
politics; by the mid-16th century they had the power to depose sultans and
decide which one of a dying ruler's sons would mount the throne.

The Sultans And Their Court

The sultans were nominally absolute monarchs, but even the most powerful
sultan maintained his position by playing factions in the warrior elite off
each other and the warriors as a whole against the Janissaries and other
groups. Chief among the latter were the Islamic religious scholars and legal
experts, who retained many of the administrative functions they had held under
the Arab caliphs of earlier centuries. In addition to Muslim traders, commerce
within the empire was in the hands of Christian and Jewish trading groups, who
as dhimmis, or "peoples of the Book," were under the protection of the Ottoman
rulers. The sultans were also responsible for the prosperity of their subjects
and for upholding Islamic law within their domains. Though they have often
been depicted as brutal and corrupt despots in Western writings, the Ottoman
sultans, especially in the early centuries of their sway, were frequently very
capable rulers. Ottoman conquest often meant effective administration and tax
relief for the peoples of areas annexed to the empire. This was true for the
peasants throughout much of the Balkans, whose Christian overlords had
oppressed them with excessive tax and service demands in the decades before
the Ottoman takeover.

Like the Abbasid caliphs, the Ottoman sultans grew more and more distant
from their subjects as their empire increased in size and wealth. In their
splendid marble palaces and pleasure gardens, surrounded by large numbers of
slaves and the many wives and concubines of their harems, Ottoman rulers
followed elaborate court rituals based on those of earlier Byzantine, Persian,
and Arab dynasts. Day- to-day administration was carried out by a large
bureaucracy headed by a grand vizier (wazir in Arabic), the overall head of
the imperial administration, who often held more real power than the sultan
himself. Early sultans took an active role in political decisions and often
personally led their armies into battle. Their sons were usually made
provincial administrators or military commanders. This practice gave the
potential successors to the ruler vital leadership training, and it does much
to explain the high quality of many of the Ottoman monarchs until the late
16th century.

Like earlier Muslim dynasties, however, the Ottomans suffered greatly
because they inherited Islamic principles of political succession that
remained vague and contested. The existence of many talented and experienced
claimants to the throne meant constant danger of civil strife. The death of a
sultan could, and increasingly did, lead to protracted warfare among his sons.
Defeated claimants sometimes fled to the domains of Christian or Muslim rulers
hostile to the Ottomans, thereby becoming rallying points for military
campaigns against the son who had managed to gain the throne. The uncertainty
of succession and threat of civil strife led some of the early sultans to have
all their brothers and other potential family rivals put to death at the time
of their accession to the throne. The extent to which fratricide was
practiced, however, was greatly exaggerated by the Ottomans' Christian
adversaries. From about 1600, rival princes and other possible claimants to
the throne were usually confined to the palace and harem, rather than being
put to death.

Constantinople Restored And The Flowering Of Ottoman Culture

An empire that encompassed so many and diverse cultures from Europe,
Africa, and Asia naturally varied greatly from one province to the next in its
social arrangements, artistic production, and physical appearance. But the
Ottomans' ancient and cosmopolitan capital at Constantinople richly combined
the disparate elements of their extensive territories. Like the Byzantine
Empire as a whole, Constantinople had fallen on hard times in the centuries
before the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Soon after Mehmed II's armies had
captured and sacked the city, however, the Ottoman ruler set about restoring
its ancient glory. He had the cathedral of Saint Sophia converted into one of
the grandest mosques in the Islamic world, and new mosques and palaces were
built throughout the city, benefiting from architectural advances the Ottomans
derived from the Byzantine heritage. Aqueducts were constructed from the
surrounding hills to supply the growing population with water, markets were
reopened, and the city's defenses were repaired. Each of the sultans who ruled
in the centuries after Mehmed strove to be remembered for his efforts to
beautify the capital. The most prominent additions were further mosques that
represent some of the most sublime contributions of the Ottomans to Islamic
and human civilization. The most spectacular of these was the Suleymaniye,
built by one of the most successful of the sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent
(1520-1566). Though it smacks a good deal of hometown pride, the following
description by a 17th-century Ottoman chronicler of the reaction of some
Christian visitors to the mosque conveys a sense of the awe that the structure
still evokes:

The humble writer of these lines once himself saw ten Frankish infidels
skilful [sic] in geometry and architecture, who, when the door-keeper had
changed their shoes for slippers, and had introduced them into the mosque
for the purpose of showing it to them, laid their finger on their mouths,
and each bit his finger from astonishment when they saw the minarets; but
when they beheld the dome they tossed up their hats and cried Maria!
Maria! and on observing the four arches which supported the dome . . .
they could not find terms to express their admiration, and the ten . . .
remained a full hour looking with astonishment on those arches. [One of
them said] that nowhere was so much beauty, external and internal, to be
found united, and that in the whole of Frangistan [Christian Europe]
there was not a single edifice which could be compared to this.

In addition to the mosques, sultans and powerful administrators built
mansions, rest houses, religious schools, and hospitals throughout the city.
Both public and private gardens further beautified the capital, which Ottoman
writers were inclined to compare to paradise itself. The city and its suburbs
stretched along both sides of the Bosporus, the narrow strait that separates
Europe from Asia. Its harbors and the Golden Horn, a triangular bay that
formed the northern boundary of the city, were crowded with merchant ships
from ports throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Constantinople's
great bazaars were filled with merchants and travelers from throughout the
empire and places as distant as England and Malaya. They offered the seasoned
shopper all manner of produce from the spices of the East Indies and the ivory
of Africa to slaves and forest products from Russia and fine carpets from
Persia. Coffeehouses - places where males gathered to smoke tobacco
(introduced from America in the 17th century by English merchants), gossip, do
business, and play chess - were found in all sections of the city and were
pivotal to the social life of the capital. The coffeehouses also played a
major role in the cultural life of Constantinople as centers where poets and
scholars could congregate, read their latest works aloud, and debate about
politics and the merits of each other's ideas.

Beneath the ruling classes a sizeable portion of the population of
Constantinople and other Ottoman cities belonged to the merchant and artisan
classes. The Ottoman regime closely regulated both commercial exchanges and
handicraft production. Government inspectors were employed to ensure that
standard weights and measures were used, to license the opening of new shops
and regulate the entry of apprentice artisans into the trades, and to inspect
the quality of the goods they produced. Like their counterparts in medieval
European towns, the artisans were organized into guilds. Guild officers set
craft standards, arbitrated disputes between their members, provided financial
assistance for needy members, and even arranged popular entertainments, which
were often linked to religious festivals. The guilds of Ottoman towns were
much more closely supervised by government officials, and a wider array of
occupational groups - including entertainers, prostitutes, and even ordinary
laborers - were organized into guilds than was normally the case in Europe.

The early Ottomans had written in Persian, while Arabic remained an
important language for works on law and religion throughout the empire's
history. But by the 17th century the Turkish language of the Ottoman court had
become the preferred mode of expression for poets and historians as well as
the language of the Ottoman bureaucracy. In writing, as in the fine arts, the
Ottomans' achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by those of their
contemporary Persian and Indian rivals. Nonetheless, the authors, artists, and
craftsmen of the Ottoman Empire have left a considerable legacy, particularly
in poetry, ceramics, carpet manufacturing, and above all in architecture.

The Problem Of Ottoman Decline

Much of the literature on the Ottoman Empire concentrates on its slow
decline from the champion of the Muslim world and the great adversary of
Christendom to the "sick man" of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. This
approach provides a very skewed view of Ottoman history as a whole. Traced
from its origins in the late 13th century, the Ottoman state is one of the
great success stories in human political history. Vigorous and expansive until
the late 17th century, the Ottomans were able to ward off the powerful enemies
that surrounded their domains on all sides for nearly four centuries. The
dynasty endured for over 600 years - a feat matched by no other in all human

From one perspective the long Ottoman decline, which officials and court
historians actively discussed from the mid-17th century onward, reflects the
great strength of the institutions on which the empire was built. Despite
internal revolts and periodic conflicts with such powerful foreign rivals as
the Russian, Austrian, Spanish, and Safavid empires, the Ottomans ruled into
the 20th century. Yet centuries earlier the empire had reached the limits of
its expansive power, and by the late 17th century the long retreat from
Russia, Europe, and the Arab lands had begun. In a sense, some contraction was
inevitable. Even when it was at the height of its power, the empire was too
large to be maintained given the resource base that the sultans had at their
disposal and the primitive state of transport and communications in the
preindustrial era.

Internal Weaknesses And Imperial Decline

The Ottoman state had been built on war and steady territorial expansion.
As possibilities for new conquests ran out and lands began to be lost to the
Ottomans' Christian and Muslim enemies, the means of maintaining the oversized
bureaucracy and army shrank markedly. The decline in the effectiveness of the
administrative system that held the empire together was signaled by the
rampant growth of corruption among Ottoman officials. The venality and
incompetence of state bureaucrats in turn prompted regional and local
officials - in provinces where the population was predominantly European and
Arab as well as those with a Turkish majority - to retain increasing amounts
of revenue for their own purposes. Revenues that were retained at the local
and regional level were, of course, lost to those who sought to run and defend
the empire as a whole.

Poorly regulated by the central government, many local officials, who
also controlled large landed estates, squeezed the peasants and the laborers
who worked their lands for additional taxes and services. At times the
oppressive demands of local officials and estate owners sparked rebellions.
But more frequently they caused the hard-pressed peasantry to abandon their
holdings and flee to those of less rapacious lords or to become vagabonds,
bandits, or beggars in the cities. Both responses resulted in the abandonment
of cultivated lands and social dislocations that further drained the resources
of the empire.

From the 17th century on, the forces that undermined the empire from
below were compounded by growing problems at the center of imperial
administration. The practice of assigning the royal princes administrative or
military positions, in order to prepare them to rule, died out. Instead,
possible successors to the throne were kept like hostages in special sections
of the palace, where they remained until one of them ascended the throne. The
other princes and potential rivals were also, in effect, imprisoned for life
in the palace. Though it might have made the reigning sultan more secure, this
solution to the problem of contested succession produced monarchs far less
prepared to rule than those in the formative centuries of the dynasty. The
great warrior-emperors of early Ottoman history gave way, with some important
exceptions, to weak and indolent rulers, addicted to drink, drugs, and the
pleasures of the harem. In many instances the later sultans were little more
than pawns in the power struggles between the viziers and other powerful
officials, and the leaders of the increasingly influential Janissary corps.
Because the imperial apparatus had been geared to strong and absolute rulers,
the decline in the caliber of Ottoman emperors had devastating effects on the
strength of the empire as a whole. Civil strife increased and the discipline
and leadership of the armies on which the empire depended for survival

Military Reverses And The Ottoman Retreat

Debilitating changes within the empire were occurring at a time when
challenges from without were growing rapidly. The Ottomans had made very
effective use of artillery and firearms in building their empire. But their
addiction to huge siege guns and the Janissaries' determination to block all
military changes that might jeopardize the power they had been able to gain
within the state caused the Ottomans to fall farther and farther behind their
European rivals in the critical art of waging war. With the widespread
introduction of light field artillery into the armies of the European powers
in the 17th century, Ottoman losses on the battlefield multiplied rapidly and
the threat they posed for the West began to recede.

On the sea the Ottomans were eclipsed as early as the 16th century. The
end of their dominance was presaged by their defeat by a combined
Spanish-Venetian fleet at Lepanto in 1571. Though the Ottomans had completely
rebuilt their war fleet within a year after the battle and soon launched an
assault on North Africa that preserved that area for Islam, their control of
the eastern Mediterranean had been lost. Even more ominously, in the decades
before Lepanto, the Ottomans and the Muslim world had been out-flanked by the
Portuguese seafarers down and then around the coast of Africa. The failure in
the early 1500s of the Ottomans and their Muslim allies in the Indian Ocean to
drive the Portuguese from Asian waters proved far more disastrous than Ottoman
defeats in the Mediterranean.

Portuguese naval victories in the Indian Ocean revealed the obsolescence
of the Ottoman galley fleets and Mediterranean-style warships more generally.
The trading goods, particularly spices, that the Portuguese carried back to
Europe around Africa enriched the Ottomans' Christian rivals. In addition, the
fact that a sizeable portion of the flow of these products was no longer
transmitted to European ports through Muslim trading centers in the eastern
Mediterranean meant that merchants and tax collectors in the Ottoman Empire
lost critical profits and revenues. As if this were not enough, from the late
16th century on, large amounts of silver flowed into the Ottomans' lands from
mines worked by Amerindian laborers in the Spanish possessions of the New
World. This sudden influx of bullion into the rather rigid and slow growing
economy of the Ottoman Empire set off a long-term inflationary trend that
further undermined the finances of the empire.

Several able sultans took measures to shore up the crumbling imperial
edifice in the 17th century. The collapse of the Safavid dynasty in Persia and
conflicts between the European powers at this time also gave the Ottomans hope
that their earlier dominance might be restored, but their reprieve proved
temporary. With the scientific, technological, and commercial changes
occurring in Europe and the overseas expansion that these innovations had made
possible, the Ottomans were falling at an accelerating rate behind their
Christian rivals in most areas of endeavor, but most critically in trade and
making war. The sense the Ottomans inherited from their Arab, Persian, and
Turkic predecessors that little of what happened in Europe was important
prevented them from taking seriously the revolutionary changes transforming
western Europe. The intense conservatism of powerful groups like the
Janissaries and, to a lesser extent, the religious scholars reinforced this
fatal myopia. Through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, these groups proved
able to block most of the Western-inspired innovations that reform-minded
sultans or their advisors sought to introduce. As a result of this narrow and
potentially dangerous view, the isolated and increasingly fossilized Ottoman
imperial system proved incapable of checking the forces that were steadily
making for its dismemberment.

Abbasid Comparisons And The Ottoman Achievement

We have encountered many of the forces that led to the decline of the
Ottoman Empire in earlier Islamic history. In fact, in many ways the Ottoman
decline seems to be a replay of the earlier fall of the Abbasid caliphate. At
the center of both empires, the forces that sapped their strength included the
decreasing ability and reduced powers of the rulers, court intrigues and
succession disputes, the growing involvement of mercenary soldiers in
politics, and bureaucratic corruption. Away from the capitals at Baghdad and
Constantinople, revolts by peasants and townsmen oppressed by the landed
classes, the loss of territory to internal rebels, and defeats in wars by
foreign powers all contributed to imperial decline.

Though these parallels are striking, they should not blind us to crucial
differences between the two cases. These differences arise in part from
changes in the international and domestic conditions that each dynasty, which
were widely separated in time, had to face. The growing military and economic
competition of European rivals, for example, had much more to do with the
Ottoman decline than the Abbasid, in which (despite the Crusades) the
Europeans did not play a critical role. But they also suggest that the
Ottomans had learned a good deal from Abbasid mistakes and improved
considerably upon their predecessors' performance.

To begin with, the real power of the Ottoman rulers persisted much longer
than that of the Abbasid caliphs - two to three centuries as opposed to three
or four generations. In part this was due to the higher caliber of the early
Ottoman sultans, which can be traced to the better training that the princes
of the royal house were given in the first phase of Ottoman history. In
addition, the Ottoman bureaucracy was larger, better organized, and more
dedicated than its Abbasid counterpart. It was therefore better able to
administer effectively the various parts of the empire and funnel resources to
the central government, at least in the early centuries of Ottoman rule. The
Ottoman military machine was much better prepared, disciplined, and led than
the motley alliance of forces that had brought the Abbasids to power. In the
early centuries of Ottoman expansion, a military elite from a single ethnic
stock, committed to a common project of religious expansion, directed military
operations and discouraged infighting. By contrast, the Abbasid alliance soon
broke apart, with Sunni fighting Shi'a and individual commanders seeking to
create their own kingdoms. In both cases mercenary forces, which were employed
to strengthen the military establishment, became deeply embroiled in politics.
But the Janissaries were, initially at least, more effectively controlled by
the Ottoman rulers. They also took much longer to become a major political
force than the Turkic mercenaries who threatened the Abbassid throne soon
after they first entered the service of the caliphate.

Interestingly, the greater political and military success of the Ottomans
did not translate into a higher level of intellectual or artistic achievement.
Though the Abbasid dynasty was weaker and far less expansive than the Ottoman,
its reign witnessed a burst of creativity in the arts, sciences, and
philosophy that has seldom been matched by any human society. Though the
Ottomans made significant contributions to Islamic architecture, literature,
and various crafts, their accomplishments lacked the range, originality, and
sheer magnitude of those of the Abbasid age. In the broadest sense, the
Ottoman legacy was one in which the restoration and preservation of the
Islamic heritage was foremost. For centuries, Ottoman power brought a high
level of internal peace and protection from outside invaders to the Islamic
heartlands. But the price of security was an inflated bureaucracy and military
establishment that proved both an increasing burden for peasants and merchants
and a major barrier to creativity and innovation. With the Muslims' old
adversaries, the Europeans, forging ahead, the price paid would prove a very
high one indeed.


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