The Development of the Ottoman Empire to 1566

In 476 AD the Roman Empire in the West finally collapsed with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. This was the climax of a prolonged period of internal weakness, and intolerable pressure by the German tribes forced into Roman territory by the westward expansion of the Huns. While Western and Central Europe lived through the Dark Ages, the Roman imperium passed to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (which became known as Byzantium). From the eleventh century onwards, however, Byzantium experienced the same problems as had the Western Roman Empire: political disintegration and constant attacks from outside. These attacks were conducted mainly by various branches of the Turkish people, who originated from Central Asia and migrated westwards. In 1453 the last bastion of Byzantium, Constantinople itself, was captured by the Ottoman Turks, who were already by this stage the new masters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The origins, survival and growth of the Ottoman Empire encompassed a particularly complex period of Near Eastern history. The purpose of the next two sections will be to examine the use made by the Ottoman Turks of external factors and to explain the internal strength and formidable military capacity of the early Sultanate.

The Ottoman Turks were one of several peoples competing for supremacy in the Near East in the late Middle Ages. But they alone managed to control events and to take advantage of the three major elements which interacted with each other in this area. These were the Asiatic intrusions into Anatolia, the political vacuum across the Straits in the Balkans, and the negative response of the Christian powers of Europe to the growing Turkish peril.

The Asiatic intrusions totally altered the balance of power in Anatolia, making possible the emergence of a new state. The first invaders were the Seljuk Turks. Driven westward by the pressure of other nomadic tribes in Central Asia, particularly the Mongols, they destroyed most of the Asiatic part of the Byzantine Empire after their victory over the Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071, one of the really significant battles in world history. The eastern and central parts of Anatolia were now detached from Byzantium and became part of the Seljuk Sultanate. In many ways, however, this state was weaker than the unit which it had replaced, and the Seljuks were unable to provide an administration capable of bonding together the many different Turkish factions in Anatolia. It needed only one major catastrophe to release the strongest of these factions in a bid for supremacy. This happened in 1243, when the Mongols themselves poured into the area with an enormously efficient and destructive military capacity first forged by Genghiz Khan (1167–1227). They smashed the Seljuks at the Battle of Kozadagh (1243) and the Sultan was forced to pay homage to the Khan. But instead of remaining to rule the region which they had conquered, the Mongols lost interest and diverted their attention to Russia and Eastern Europe. They left behind them a series of semi–autonomous Turkish principalities who now completed the destruction of Seljuk authority. From the chaos emerged the Ottomans. They had not been strong enough to challenge the power of Byzantium, the Seljuks or the Mongols, but were now capable of welding together the shattered pieces and forming a new state. Mainly responsible for this was Osman, who expanded his principality of Sogut into a large part of western Anatolia, becoming the first Ottoman Sultan (1290–1326). His son, Orkhan I (1326–61) added further conquests, the most important being Nicaea (1331) and Nicomedia (1337), both from Byzantium. For the rest of the fourteenth century the Ottomans concentrated on gaining a foothold in Europe. Then, in 1402, the Asiatic element intruded again. The distant rumblings of the Mongols reached another crescendo as they launched a second great invasion on Anatolia, led by Tamerlane. The Ottomans managed no better than the Seljuks against Mongol cavalry and they were defeated at the Battle of Angora (1402). But, unlike the Seljuk Sultanate, the Ottoman Sultanate did not col lapse. Again the Mongols withdrew; and the Ottomans recovered because of their more effective administration and the lack of any substantial tribal group to challenge their authority as they had challenged the Seljuks. Indeed, the Mongol attack actually benefited the Ottomans. Although it precipitated the worst defeat in early Ottoman history, it did force subsequent Sultans like Mehemet I (1413–21) and Murad II (1421–51) to reconstitute Ottoman power in a more important and advantageous area, South–Eastern Europe.


Figure 2. The Ottoman Empire before 1700

The Balkans were not a difficult prey for the Ottomans because the entire area was experiencing serious internal political problems. Byzantium declined steadily until the end of the twelfth century, the process being greatly accelerated after 1204. But emergent states like Serbia and Bulgaria, which sought to replace Byzantine hegemony with their own, were unable to achieve any kind of unity or effective alliance. The various parties to the squabbles of the fourteenth century attracted the attention of the Ottomans, although the latter first arrived in Europe by invitation. In 1345 the Byzantine Emperor, John Cantacuzene, requested Ottoman military assistance in an internal succession crisis, and again, in 1352, to deal with the Serbs. Serbia, under King Stephen ‘Dushan’ (1331–55), appeared a far greater threat to John Cantacuzene than the Turkish mercenaries hired for Byzantium. This soon proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. The troops of Sultan Orkhan I (1326–61) refused to leave Thrace. Too late, the Emperor realized his blunder, and appealed to Serbia and Bulgaria to assist him to expel his ‘guests’. Their refusal to do so was later paid for by their total extinction as more Ottoman armies poured across the Straits and into the Balkans. Gradually the Balkan rulers came to recognize the enormity of the Turkish threat. Over the next hundred years Sultans Murad I (1361–89), Bayazid I (1389–1402) and Murad II (1421–51) had to deal with a total of four coalitions assembled against the Turks. In the end, however, these confederacies all failed, being defeated by the Ottomans at Chernomen on the Maritza River (1371), Kossovo (1389), Nicopolis (1396) and Varna (1444). The Ottomans were militarily superior to the Serbs and Bulgarians and had been allowed to establish themselves in strength in Thrace during those vital early years. The only real chances of success which the Balkan Christians had were through co-operation with the Asiatic enemies of the Turks and assistance from the rest of Europe. Neither materialized. The Mongols did invade Anatolia in 1402, but this was six years after the Ottomans had crushed the third of the Balkan coalitions and there was therefore no possibility of planning a pincer movement.

The other alternative, assistance from Catholic Europe, had always been illusory. The reaction of the major Christian powers to the plight of the Balkan states was at best inappropriate and at worst destructive. As early as the eleventh century Byzantium had requested western assistance against the Seljuks. The Crusades, which were the West's reply, went badly wrong. The first three Crusades concentrated on the recapture of Palestine from the Seljuks, and had no bearing on the military problems of Byzantium in Anatolia. Gradually the crusading spirit degenerated and acquired strong economic and commercial motives. The infamous Fourth Crusade was a prime example of this. Venice, a long–standing competitor with Byzantium for commercial supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, deliberately made use of a Byzantine succession crisis to persuade the Crusaders to attack and sack Constantinople in 1204, a blow from which Byzantium never fully recovered. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Mohammed II (1451–81) should have brought home to the Western world the reality of Turkish military power and prepared it psychologically for the need to act to prevent any further contraction of Christian Europe.

Yet even now Christian Europe pursued a dual policy, which was skilfully exploited by Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66). Charles V and Ferdinand I found themselves committed to a defensive struggle in Hungary and Central Europe following the great Turkish victory at Mohacs in 1526. The Habsburgs also tried to contain Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean, without much success. On the other hand, France departed from any concept of a united Christendom defying the power of Turkey, and gave priority to dynastic interests in her own struggle with the Habsburgs. After his defeat at Pavia by Charles V in 1525 and the humiliating Treaty of Madrid (1526), Francis I urged Suleiman to divert Habsburg pressure on France by launching a Turkish attack on Vienna. Although this was attempted without success in 1529, a precedent had been established. The Ottoman Empire, an alien religious entity, had now become an inseparable part of the European diplomatic scene. France openly defied any religious motives for alliances by drawing up a formal treaty with Suleiman in 1536. This was accompanied by joint Franco-Turkish action in the Mediterranean in an at tempt to weaken the vulnerable southern flank of Habsburg power.

By the time of Suleiman's death in 1566 the Turkish threat to Central Europe had finally been contained. But, on balance, the first ten Sultans had been enormously successful in spreading Islam into what had once been a wholly Christian continent. True, the Ottomans had failed to capture the city of Vienna, but then no Christian army had come within three hundred miles of Constantinople.

Sustained conquest and active diplomacy presupposed the existence of two inherent advantages: a stable situation internally and readily available military strength.

Internal stability is essential to prevent the possibility of revolt and civil war at the very time that military resources are fully stretched. The Sultans pursued a policy towards their conquered subjects which was generally more tolerant than that of western monarchs. This showed in the more heterogeneous nature of Turkish society and in the use of the Millet system. By this the subject races were given permission to pursue their own religion. The recognition of the relevant religious leaders by the Sultan was an essential part of this policy; one of the first official acts of Mohammed I after the capture of Constantinople in 1453 was to organize the election of a new Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church (the office eventually going to Gennadios II). Also confirmed were the structure of Judaism, with the appointment of Chief Rabbis, and the minority Armenian Patriarchate. Generally, subject peoples like the Greeks and Jews realized that they were much better off under Ottoman rule than they would be in Spain or Austria—when the Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, many thousands of them fled to the Ottoman Empire, taking with them their skills in commerce and craftsmanship and thus benefiting the Turkish economy. On the whole, the Sultans were content to allow a considerable degree of internal autonomy, sometimes maintaining the original rulers in the areas which submitted to Ottoman rule. This, admittedly, nurtured national consciousness of the type which cut across a uniform Turkish nationalism, but it kept the subject races relatively quiet while the Empire was expanding. The danger came when the Empire fell into decline and these groups began to assert their separatism more aggressively. This, in turn, provoked a more savage form of repression from the authorities, particularly in the late nineteenth century.

Without the backing of a formidable military capacity the Sultans would have been unable to gain the respect of the European powers. At first they depended on the horde, light cavalry of the type used by the Mongols. This was gradually replaced by the sipahis, a feudal levy of horsemen based on the timar fief system. The early Sultans managed to maintain a tight control over the distribution of fiefs, refusing to allow them to become hereditary automatically, as already applied to the estates of tenants in chief in most parts of Europe. But undoubtedly the most important military factor in the growth of the Ottoman Empire was the use of janissaries, introduced by Orkhan in 1326 and fully developed by Murad I. Regular levies were used to extract recruits from among the Christian subjects and the boys selected were given a rigid training which was designed to produce the highest levels of courage and obedience. The majority of parents considered the selection of a son to serve the Sultan an honour or, at least, an advantage. Consequently, there was little resentment and no basis for revolt. The janissaries provided the backbone of the infantry and were particularly effective against the less disciplined troops of Serbia and Hungary—for example, at Kossovo in 1389 and Mohacs in 1526. Under Suleiman the janissaries reached a total of 20,000, the largest really dependable corps possessed by any state in Europe. Until Spain set a new standard for disciplined infantry, the armies of the western countries tended to disintegrate at times into destructive rabbles, the most notorious example being the sack of Rome by the imperial troops of Charles V in 1527. Had the Turks succeeded in capturing Vienna it is doubtful whether the same would have happened there. What made the janissaries particularly effective, apart from their training, was that they were usually armed with the most up–to–date weapons, especially field artillery and firearms. This was of crucial importance in the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

The rise of the Ottoman Empire was remarkably rapid and radically altered the political and economic structure of Eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, in a sense, the Ottoman state was geared to conquest rather than retrenchment and this meant excessive dependence on the leadership of the Sultans themselves. By the time of the death of the Empire's greatest ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, crises were already occurring and it was clear, even to contemporaries, that the tide was beginning to turn.

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