History begins after origins have disappeared. No one knows where the “Turks” arose; some have guessed that they were a Finno-Ugric tribe of the Huns, and that their name meant a helmet, which is durko in one Turkish dialect. They formed their languages from Mongolian and Chinese, and later imported Persian or Arabic words; these “Turkish” dialects are the sole means of classifying their speakers as Turks. One such clan took its name from its leader Seljuq; it grew from victory to victory, until its multiplied descendants, in the thirteenth century, ruled Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Asia Minor. A kindred clan under Ortoghrul fled in that century from Khurasan to avoid drowning in the Mongol inundation. It found military employment with the Seljuq emir of Konya (Iconium) in Asia Minor, and received a tract of land to pasture its herds.
When Ortoghrul died (1288?) his son Othman or Osman, then thirty years old, was chosen to succeed him; from him the Ottomans or Osmanlis received their name. They did not, before the nineteenth century, call themselves Turks; they applied that name to semi-barbarous peoples in Turkestan and Khurasan. In 1290, seeing that the Seljuqs were too weak to prevent him, Othman made himself the independent emir of a little state in northwestern Asia Minor; and in 1299 he advanced his headquarters westward to Yeni-Sheir. He was not a great general, but he was patiently persistent; his army was small, but it was composed of men more at home on horse than on foot, and willing to risk a weary life or limb for land, gold, women, or power. Between them and the Sea of Marmora lay drowsy Byzantine cities ill governed and poorly defended. Othman laid siege to one such town, Brusa; failing at first, he returned again and again to the attempt; finally it surrendered to his son Orkhan, while Othman himself lay dying at Yeni-Sheir (1326).
Orkhan made Brusa, sanctified with his father’s bones, the new capital of the Ottomans. “Manifest destiny”—i.e., desire plus power—drew Orkhan toward the Mediterranean, ancient circlet of commerce, wealth, and civilization. In the very year of Brusa’s fall he seized Nicomedia, which became Izmid; in 1330 Nicaea, which became Iznik; in 1336 Pergamum, which became Bergama. These cities, reeking with history, were centers of crafts and trade; they depended for food and markets upon environing agricultural communities already held by the Ottomans; they had to live with this hinterland or die. They did not resist long; they had been oppressed by their Byzantine governors, and heard that Orkhan taxed lightly and allowed religious liberty; and many of these Near Eastern Christians were harassed heretics—Nestorians or Monophysites. Soon a large part of the conquered terrain accepted the Moslem creed; so war solves theological problems before which reason stands in hesitant impotence. Having thus extended his realm, Orkhan took the title Sultan of the Ottomans. The Byzantine emperors made their peace with him, hired his soldiers, and allowed his son Suleiman to establish Ottoman strongholds on European soil. Orkhan died in 1359, aged seventy-one, firmly placed in the memory of his people.
His successors formed a dynasty hardly equaled in history for a merger of martial vigor and skill, administrative ability, barbarous cruelty, and cultured devotion to letters, science, and art. Murad (Amurath) I was the least attractive of the line. Illiterate, he signed his name by pressing his inked fingers upon documents, in the fashion of less distinguished homicides. When his son Saondji led a criminally unsuccessful revolt against him Murad tore out the youth’s eyes, cut off his head, and compelled the fathers of the rebels to behead their sons.32 He trained an almost invincible army, conquered most of the Balkans, and eased their submission by giving them a more efficient government than they had known under Christian domination.
Bajazet I inherited his father’s crown on the field of Kosova (1389). After leading the army to victory, he ordered the execution of his brother Yakub, who had fought valiantly throughout that crucial day. Such fratricide became a regular aftermath of an Ottoman accession, on the principle that sedition against the government is so disruptive that all potential claimants to the throne should be disposed of at the earliest convenience. Bajazet earned the title of Yilderim—the Thunderbolt—by the speed of his military strategy, but he lacked the statesmanship of his father, and wasted some of his wild energy in sexual enterprise. Stephen Lazarevitch, vassal ruler of Serbia, contributed a sister to Bajazet’s harem; this Lady Despoina became his favorite wife, taught him to love wine and sumptuous banquets, and perhaps unwittingly weakened him as a man. His pride flourished till his fall. After deflowering Europe’s chivalry at Nicopolis he released the Count of Nevers with a characteristic challenge, as reported or improved by Froissart:
John, I know well thou art a great lord in thy country, and son to a great lord. Thou art young, and peradventure thou shalt bear some blame or shame that this adventure hath fallen to thee in thy first chivalry; and to excuse thyself of this blame, and to recover thine honor, peradventure thou wilt assemble a puissance of men, and come to make war against me. If I were in doubt or fear thereof, ere thou departed I should cause thee to swear by thy law and faith that never thou, nor none of thy company, should bear arms... against me. But I will neither make thee nor none of thy company to make any such oath or promise, but I will that when thou art returned and art at thy pleasure, thou shalt raise what puissance thou wilt, and spare not, but come against me; thou shalt find me always ready to receive thee and thy company.... And this that I say, show it to whom thou list, for I am able to do deeds of arms, and every ready to conquer further into Christendom.33
When Timur captured Bajazet at Ankara he treated him with all respect despite the year of insulting correspondence that had passed between them. He ordered the Sultan’s bonds removed, seated him at his side, assured him that his life would be spared, and directed that three splendid tents should be fitted out for his suite. But when Bajazet tried to escape he was confined to a room with barred windows, which legend magnified into an iron cage. Bajazet fell ill; Timur summoned the best physicians to treat him, and sent the Lady Despoina to attend and console him. These ministrations failed to revive the vital forces of the broken Sultan, and Bajazet died a prisoner, a year after his defeat.
His son Mohammed I reorganized the Ottoman government and power. Though he blinded one pretender and killed another, he acquired the cognomen “Gentleman” by his courtly manners, his just rule, and the ten years of peace that he allowed to Christendom. Murad II had like tastes, and preferred poetry to war; but when Constantinople set up a rival to depose him, and Hungary violated its pledge of peace, he proved himself, at Varna (1444), as good a general as any. Then he retired to Magnesia in Asia Minor, where twice a week he held reunions of poets and pundits, read verse, and talked science and philosophy. A revolt at Adrianople called him back to Europe; he suppressed it, and overcame Hunyadi János in a second battle of Kosovo. When he died (1451), after thirty years of rule, Christian historians ranked him among the greatest monarchs of his time. His will directed that he should be buried at Brusa in a modest chapel without a roof, “so that the mercy and blessing of God might come unto him with the shining of the sun and moon, and the falling of the rain and dew upon his grave.” 34
Mohammed II equaled his father in culture and conquests, political acumen, and length of reign, but not in justice or nobility. Bettering Christian instruction, he broke solemn treaties, and tarnished his victories with superfluous slaughter. He was Orientally subtle in negotiation and strategy. Asked what his plans were, he answered, “If a hair in my beard knew, I would pluck it out.” 35 He spoke five languages, was well read in several literatures, excelled in mathematics and engineering, cultivated the arts, gave pensions to thirty Ottoman poets, and sent royal gifts to poets in Persia and India. His grand vizier, Mahmud Pasha, seconded him as a patron of letters and art; he and his master supported so many colleges and pious foundations that the Sultan received the name “Father of Good Works.” Mohammed was also “Sire of Victory”; to him and his cannon Constantinople fell; under the guns of his navy the Black Sea became a Turkish pond; before his legions and diplomacy the Balkans crumbled into servitude. But this irresistible conqueror could not conquer himself. By the age of fifty he had worn himself out by every form of sexual excess; aphrodisiacs failed to implement his lust; finally his harem classed him with his eunuchs. He died (1481), aged fifty-one, just when his army seemed on the verge of conquering Italy for Islam.
A contest among his sons gave the throne to Bajazet II. The new sultan was not inclined to war, but when Venice took Cyprus, and challenged Turkish control of the eastern Mediterranean, he roused himself, deceived his deceivers with a pledge of peace, built an armada of 270 vessels, and destroyed a Venetian fleet off the coasts of Greece. A Turkish army raided northern Italy as far west as Vicenza (1502); Venice sued for peace; Bajazet gave her lenient terms, and retired to poetry and philosophy. His son Selim deposed him, and mounted the throne (1512); presently—some said of poison—Bajazet died.
History is in some aspects an alternation of contrasting themes: the moods and forms of one age are repudiated by the next, which tires of tradition and lusts for novelty; classicism begets romanticism, which begets realism, which begets impressionism; a period of war calls for a decade of peace, and peace prolonged invites aggressive war. Selim I despised his father’s pacific policy. Vigorous in frame and will, indifferent to pleasures and amenities, loving the chase and the camp, he won the nickname of “the Grim” by having nine relatives strangled to contracept revolt, and waging war after war of conquest. It did not displease him that Shah Isma’il of Persia raided the Turkish frontier. He registered a vow that if Allah would grant him victory over the Persians, he would build three mighty mosques—in Jerusalem, Buda, and Rome.36 Having heated the religious predilections of his people to the fighting point, he marched against Isma’il, captured Tabriz, and made northern Mesopotamia an Ottoman province. In 1515 he turned his artillery and Janissaries against the Mamluks, and added Syria, Arabia, and Egypt to his realm (1517). He carried to Constantinople, as an honored captive, the Cairene “caliph”—rather the high priest—of orthodox Mohammedanism; and thereafter the Ottoman sultans, like Henry VIII, became the masters of the church as well as of the state.
In the full glory of his powers Selim prepared to conquer Rhodes and Christendom. When all his preparations were complete he caught the plague and died (1520). Leo X, who had trembled more at Selim’s advance than at Luther’s rebellion, ordered all Christian churches to chant a litany of gratitude to God.