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The Ottoman Empire (1451-1922)


Timeline of Ottoman History


1453-     Conquered Constantinople


1516-1517-  Occupied Syria, Egypt and western Arabia.


1520-1566   -  Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent


1521-      Suleiman seized Belgrade.


1520’s  - The Ottomans established an outpost in Algiers.


1529-      First siege of Vienna.


1550’s-   The Ottomans established an outpost in Tripoli.


1571-      Battle of Lepanto marked the growing dominance of Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean.


1574  -    Established an outpost in Tunis.


1683  -    The last siege of Vienna by the Ottomans.


1699-      Treaty of Carlowitz.  Hungary lost.


1703-       Rebellion of the army linked to many dissatisfied high officials led to the removal of the leading religious figure in the Empire and even the Sultan from office.


1718-1730  -  “Tulip Age”  The first serious attempts at westernizing reforms.


1760-        Wahhabi movement began.


1774-       The Ottomans lost Crimea to the Russians.



Basic Features:


Political Organization:   A Turkish empire ruled by the Sultan, a hereditary ruler.

                                       As the empire grew the Sultans added some of the functions and ideals of the

                                                earlier office of caliph to his role.

                                        The early military-political elite was drawn from the warrior class of the

                                                Ottoman tribe.

                                        As the empire grew other Muslims were incorporated into the civilian


                                        Below the Sultan was a council of military, religious and political figures (the

 diwan), led by the Sultan’s chief official, the Grand Vizier. The council

served as advisors, policy makers, and a kind of high court of appeals.

                                       The day-to-day operations of government, especially the paper-work side of

                                                things were carried out by “secretariats.”

                                        Alongside the Sultan’s household, the Grand Vizier and diwan, a group of slave

 officials constituted a third group vying for influence within the



Social Organization:     The Ottoman Empire had a very diverse society. Pastoralist nomads,

 agriculturalist villages, sea-faring towns, large cities with extensive

religious, economic or political traditions were scattered throughout the


   It did have a very strong urban base.  

                                       The Empire was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious.

   The landed Turkish aristocracy was key in core areas of the Empire.



Value Systems:  Islam (Sunni)

                           Minority populations of Shi’a Muslims, Jews, and Christians.




Overview of the Ottoman Empire


A. Origins

1. The Ottomans were a Turkish tribe that resided in the Anatolia near Constantinople. Beginning in 1299 they began to build a large state. By 1500 the Ottoman state included the Hungary, the Balkans, Mesopotamia, and parts of Arabia. The capital was established at the ancient city of Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, with its capture in 1453.

2. By 1566 the Ottoman Empire was the mightiest state of its time

      B. People

                  1. 40-50 million people. Sunni Muslims made up the large majority.

2. The empire was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious, though political power

 dominated by  Sunni Muslims, especially Turks..

     a. Religious toleration was the norm in these areas until the Mongol invasions

 in the thirteenth century.

1) Mongol favor for Nestorian Christians created resentment among Muslims.

      2) When the Mongol khan converted to Islam, Christians in the Middle East

            faced increasing persecution, particularly in the areas of Iraq and Syria.

b. Thus Ottoman society faced greater tensions between the majority population and various minorities, especially the Christians.

                  3.  Strong urban development and tradition in many areas.

                  4. Fissures in Ottoman society made reform more difficult.

                              a. Sunni/Shi’a split.

                              b. Large Christian minority, especially in the Balkans.

                              c. Arab/Turk hostilities.

                              d. Gap between urban and rural populations.

                              e. Differences between pastoralist and settled populations.

      C. Economy

                  1. Greater wealth available in 1500 than any other state. Virtually self-sufficient.

                  2. Agriculture-

a.  Largely traditional,

b.  Commercial agriculture spread. Maize, tobacco, cotton

                  3. Manufacturing remained very strong, but largely traditional throughout the

 period. There was little technical advance. .

                  4. Trade was very strong in before 1700 although mercantile and business pursuits

 of low social status, especially among  the Turks. 

a. Most trade overland.

b. Exported agricultural products

c. Imported products from Persia, China and India. Porcelain, silk, carpets, slaves,

gold, textiles

d. Overseas trade often in the hands of non-Muslims or foreigners.


                        5. Weaknesses in the economy.

a. Ottoman indifference and European aggression led to the dominance of

 long-distance trade from Ottoman ports by European traders in the

 seventeenth century. Ultimately drained resources from the Empire.

                                    b. Silver influx from Europe created inflation. This in turn fostered unrest.

c. Few if any advances in technology or techniques.

d. The pattern of Ottoman raw materials in exchange for European

 manufactures indicated early on the imbalance that was to come.

            D. Government and Administration

1. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Sultan. The Sultans were theoretically absolutist

 rulers. The Sultan was not only the political and military leader of the Turks, but the

 chief protector of the faith and of many of Islam’s holiest sites.

2. The government was a combination of tribalism, feudalism, and oriental absolutism.

Military and civil administrations were closely linked.

3. Initially political and military class in the hands of the Ottoman warrior class.

 Lands were given to loyal warriors as fiefs for them to administer.

                        4. By 1500 a central administration had developed based on Byzantine models.

                                    a.. Vizier= chief of staff.

                                    b. diwan= council. Mostly economic responsibilities

                                    c. Sultan’s word was law.

                                    d. The religious establishment also linked to central government.

1. The Ulema served as provincial judges, dispensers of charities, and

 ministers of education.

                                          2.. The Sultan (serving as Caliph) claimed religious authority over

                                          all Muslims.

                  5. Gradually the rise of imperial slaves into government service led to a lessening

                              of the militaristic character.

                  6. The lack of a clear principle or method of succession led to much court intrigue

                              and poor leadership.

                              a) There was often very little continuity from one regime to the next.

7. Through the 16th century power was based primarily in the Sultan’s household.

 By the seventeenth century, power shifted increasingly to an oligarchic group

surrounding the Grand Vizier.

                              a. With the decline in the Sultan’s power, the power of the central

                        government over the provinces also declined. However, most local rulers

                        wished to stay within the Ottoman Empire.

      E. Military

                  1.Traditional Turkish warrior class (Ghazi).

                  2.. Old Balkans aristocracy.

            3. Janissaries. Slave soldiers. Developed as a counterbalance to the military power

                        of the nobility. These were the best troops in the world in the late fifteenth and

                        sixteenth centuries.

a. Infantry, highly trained. Become the core of the military.

b. Over time the Janissaries became a distinct class. Many integrated into

 the business class. They maintained a very conservative economic and social


4. Most infantry were outsiders, paid from imperial treasury.

5. The Ottoman sultans maintained a standing army of 70,000 men and reserves of


6. Used gunpowder technologies, but failed to develop existing technologies further.

The Ottomans relied heavily on foreigners, especially Europeans.

F. Culture. 

1. Sunni Islam was the dominant religion. There were sizeable minorities of Christians,

 Jews and Shi’ite Muslims.

2.  The Empire’s high culture was a blend of Islamic, Arab, Persian, a little Turkish

traditions and learning.  Art and Architecture prospered.

3. The inherited scientific, technological, medical, and philosophical traditions were

among the highest in the world at the beginning of this period.

4. Relatively high level of literacy.

5. The Ottomans swung decisively towards the extremist anti-intellectual critique of

rationalist philosophy and science. This decision throttled innovation in Muslim science

 and technology. Muslim thought froze into fixed mode just when European thought was

expanding. The madrasas of the Islamic world increasingly emphasized the rote

memorization of authoritative texts. Neither the Shari’a nor Sufism could be abandoned or easily changed.

    G.  Weaknesses in the Ottoman Empire

                  1. When conquests stopped both nobles and Janissaries became restless.

                  2. Poor leadership after Suleiman.

                  3. Lack of innovation in politics, technology and economy

                  4. Intellectual rigidification and even ossification set it.

                  5. Religious tolerance declined and the two major sects of Islam became increasingly

                  rigid and aggressive.

6. The Ottoman Empire was a land-based state. It was ultimately unwilling or unable to

meet European challenges at sea.



The Religion of Islam



Problem: Rejecting Allah’s Guidance


Humans created by Allah for the purpose of submission to the Divine Will. Humans have the ability to reason and can determine for themselves the need to submit to Allah. No doctrine of original sin. In fact people are born with a disposition toward virtue, knowledge, and beauty. Allah is gracious- especially in his gift of the Qur’an.  Allah wants people to submit willingly. But God is omniscient and knows who will and who will not. Life is a sort of testing ground.  Those who reject Allah’s guidance worship other powers, whether another god or something secular. Everything is ultimately dependent on Allah.


Cause: Distraction


The reason humans continue to stray from the path is not disobedience but rather distraction. Often distractions by jinn, the evil spirits which cause them to forget what their higher soul is telling them to do.

Only the prophets were pure and free from distraction. They can be models for people to follow.


Reality: The signs of Allah.


Reality was created by Allah. The natural world constitutes “signs of Allah” that human reason can discern. Traditionally Islamic culture has supported science- the application of reason to the understanding of the natural world. In principle, it is believed that scientific discoveries will inevitably confirm the truth revealed by Allah.

Like the Christian world, Muslims have a linear view of time.

Everything happens as Allah wills, and only as Allah wills.


End: Paradise and the “House of Islam”


Islam is eschatological. Muslims believe Allah revealed the end time to Muhammad, though not when it would be. The Qur’an describes paradise, and the torments awaiting infidels.

On Judgment Day Allah’s angels will sound their trumpets, bodies will be rejoined with souls, and Allah will judge whether they lived according to his will.

There is also a picture of the goal toward which societies are oriented. Dar al-islam (house of Islam or peace).  The ideal society is one that has willingly made the revelation of Allah the basis of its life. The conservative interpretation of dar al-Islam is that the sharia should be the only law in a society, since all areas of life must submit to the will of Allah revealed in the Qur’an and other sources of his will for us.

Umma.  This is the idea of a single worldwide Muslim community. This notion, too, is rooted in the Qur’an.



Means: A Life of Submission


Islam has no priesthood. There are no intermediaries between the believer and Allah. Each society and each individual is responsible for choosing to submit to Allah.

The foundation of daily life are the Five Pillars of Islam. Muhammad was not divine. There are no shrines to Muhammad or even images of him to which people bow or pray.

1) To become a Muslim one simply recites the creed.

2) Daily prayer

3) Almsgiving

4) Fasting

5) Hajj- the pilgrimage to Mecca.



Sacred: There is No God but Allah


Muslims are very strict monotheists. There are two broad categories of sources of knowledge of Allah. The first is the Qur’an and to a lesser extent other written works. The second type of source is simply the observation of nature. Thus there is no inherent contradiction between “science” and religion. Where contradictions appear to exist, it is a result of our flawed reasoning.

There are angels. Iblis (Satan) was an evil jinn. But all power is from Allah.

Islam recognizes private property and thus resists socialism. However, it does not recognize interest as a legitimate means of acquiring wealth.