Ottoman Empire


You are going to learn... 

  • How the Islamic Ottomans who were so powerful 500 years ago that they forced the Christian Europeans looking for trade routes to the east to discover America in the west.
  • How the Ottomans inadvertently created the opportunity for the English to beat the French and the Spanish in the race for building the greatest empire the world had ever seen.
  • The Muslim Ottoman Turks at the zenith of their power some 500 years ago controlled the Mediterranean Sea and would attack any Christian Ship who tried to pass through, destined for trade with India and China. They adversely affected the whole of Christian Europe for more than 300 years.
  • England was better off than their enemies, notably Spain and France who were directly involved with the many battles to keep the Turks out of Europe whereas England could spend a greater percentage of their resources developing their future Empire in America and India.
  • Indeed England developed some interesting bedfellows in their limited actions against the Turks, notably at one time the Russians. Until the English crushed Napoleon in 1815, the French were always on the opposite side.
  • When the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in 1918 at the end of the First World War, the three powers who took the remaining Ottoman territory outside Turkey were the Russians, the French and the English 

2000 to 4000 years ago
Early inhabitants, early rulers.
The Land we now call Turkey was influenced by the ancient Greeks and ruled by the Romans at the height of their empires. 1000 years before Greek culture (500-336BC) became dominant in the area the Mycenaeans (1600-1100) occupied Greece and put the city of Troy (in present day Turkey) into the history books when they (lead by King Agamemnon) attacked the fortified city of Troy with "the Trojan Horse" to get back Princess Helen who had eloped with the Trojan Prince Paris(1184BC). The remains of the famous city of Troy is in modern day Turkey, at Hissarlik just South of the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles (also known as the Hellespont) is the narrow, easily defended, exit from the Mediterranean en route to the Bosporus and the Black sea. 

The men accredited with bringing together the warring Greek city states of Athens, Corinth and Sparta were the Kings of Macedonia, Philip 2nd (359 BC) and his famous son Alexander the Great (336BC). Alexander also brought the whole of Turkey under his control along with all the countries east to Persia (Iran). Before the Mycenaeans the Hittite race of Biblical Old Testament fame lived in Turkey (Anatolia) and some 1000 years before Alexander the Great, attacked and controlled a similar sized territory including: Iraq (Babylon, Mesopotamia) and Syria. The Hittites military successes were largly due to them being the first to use horse drawn chariots in battle. 

2000 years ago
The Byzantium period, Christianity and Islam
The huge Roman Empire which included Britain in the west included also the whole of Turkey with their eastern headquarters in present day Istanbul then called by the Romanised Greek name Byzantium. Hence the Byzantium Empire and Byzantium art. (300 AD to 1453 AD) 

The apostle's of Jesus made many visits through Roman Byzantium notably Paul and Luke and Paul's evangelical letters to the Colossae (a town in central south west Turkey) may be read in the Biblical texts. The Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor to become a Christian, really put Turkey on the map when he changed the name of Byzantium to Constantinople, (AD 320 ) a town soon to have a population of half a million. He also made Constantinople the HQ of the Roman Empire's eastern division. 

When Rome and Roman Milan collapsed in about AD 476 Constantinople remained as the centre for Roman rule in Turkey, Greece, The Balkans and the Middle East. Simultaneously Constantinople became the centre of the Eastern branch of the Christian Church with Rome and the Popes remaining the head of the western section. Over the next 500 years the two branches of the Church grew apart over silly things (like what type of bread to serve at Communion), and the Churches officially split about 1000 years ago. 

The Romans in Constantinople certainly did not have it all their own way and had to continuously defend themselves from attacks by German tribes from the north and Persians from the East. Fortunately the City of Constantinople(on the Golden Horn) is easy to defend. On three sides it has a huge mote, the sea, and the western side only requires a straight high wall with both ends ending by the sea. Even better to the south are the Dardanelles only a mile wide in some places and thus an easy place to destroy enemy ships and likewise from the north an equally narrow sea channel from the Black Sea, the Bosporus. 

With the rise of the new religion Islam around 600 AD with centres in Medina and Mecca, in the country now called Saudi Arabia, and Jerusalem in present day Israel, and because Islamic followers were taught to fight and eliminate followers of other religions, a key target for them would of course have been the local centre of Christianity in Roman ruled Constantinople. However even under the best Arabic Islamic Muslim military leaders (e.g. Saladin) the eastern Romans managed to defend Constantinople.  

1000 years ago
Arrival of the Turks
About 1200 years ago we can start a new chapter with the arrival of perhaps the then best fighters in the world, from the East, the Turkish Mongols. Who were the Turks, were did they come from and how did they manage to rise to control the biggest area in Europe other than the Romans, together with the Middle East and the whole of North Africa and control the whole of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea? 

Origins Turks can't call themselves Europeans, they developed from the roaming nomads of Mongolia ( part of the old USSR). Turks are related to the present day Finnish and Hungarians as well as those who now inhabit Mongolia and Turkmenistan. Mongolian roaming warriors developed amazing skills with bows and arrows and horses and a devastating combination of the two, creating the worlds best cavalry. They controlled the greatest land area in all history from Korea in the east to Poland in the west and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean sea. 

1200 years ago (800 AD) a roaming detachment arrived in Persia (Iran) and met, fought and lost to a superior force of Islamic Arabs. However the Arabs were highly impressed with the skills of this Cavalry from Mongolia and invited them to join their army. There followed a period of stability for the fighting Mongolian nomads who readily absorbed the Islamic faith and superior Arabic culture and some ended up taking the top brass positions in the Arabic armies. When the Arabic Empire collapsed the ethnic Mongolians took over the territories of Persia, Iraq and Syria and ran them very effectively.

At about the same time there were a number of free roaming private bandit armies made up from under employed Mongolian/Arabic Cavalry who wandered unopposed into Roman ruled Armenia and Anatolia (around Ankara in present day Turkey) and settled. In 1071, the Roman General headquartered in Constantinople/Byzantium Romanus 4th sent out a force to clear out these new settlers but failed to crush these superb Muslim cavalry men. Although they were bandits they did not attempt to act as local rulers but lived at peace with the Romanised locals who found them less oppressive than their previous Roman rulers from Constantinople. 

The Crusades

This attack by Muslims into Christian territory and the loss of Jerusalem to the Turks was the catalyst for the call (in 1095) by the head of the Roman Christian church, Pope Urban 2nd , for a holy war to retrieve lost Christian territory and particularly Jerusalem. By 1099 the Crusaders had recaptured Jerusalem. This was the start of 400 years of very expensive holy wars in which the English although not the most active of the Christian countries played many key but expensive roles. (The most famous being Norman English King Richard the 1st 1189-1199. "Few English Kings have played so small a part in the affairs of England and so large a part in the affairs of Europe".)

Crusader Mercenaries: Knights of St John of Jerusalem
During the early Crusades the Roman Church set up a hospital in Jerusalem to look after wounded Christian Crusaders, called the "Hospital of St John of Jerusalem". When the Turkish Muslims then fighting for the Arab Muslims made it too hot to stay in Jerusalem they left and took up residence in Cyprus. Here they changed from "Doctors" to formidable Mercenaries on hire to Crusading countries who needed a trained religiously fanatical army. For more than 500 years the Knights of St John were a continuous Christian presence in the Mediterranean and a continuous thorn in the side of the Muslim Turks. For the Knights to survive they built almost impregnable castles which were regularly attacked by the Turks. To survive the Knights had to retreat westwards to Rhodes and then to Malta The well known St Johns Ambulance grew from the famous Knights of St John of Jerusalem.

750 years ago
The commencement of the Ottoman Empire

About 200 years after the initial Turkish settlement in Bursa in eastern Anatolia a new and even more ferocious group arrived in Romanised Turkey and the result was very different. The new leader, Osman was one of the grandsons of the famous Mongolian ruler and empire builder Genghis Kahn. (1163 to 1227. The man who created the biggest land empire ever.) Osman invaded and settled in Anatolia in 1281 creating the beginnings of Ottoman Empire. To the Christian countries in the west of Europe the occupation of Jerusalem was bad enough so when the Ottomans took the first step across the Dardanelles from Turkey into Balkan Europe (1354) with the conquest of Gallipoli mild panic followed. Gallipoli is in a strategic position on the north coast(European) of the Dardanelles and controls the sea passage through to Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul then the centre of the Roman Empire and the centre of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church and an impregnable fortress. A little later (1389) the ruthless and skilled Ottoman Cavalries won a decisive battle in Kosova beating the combined armies from Serbia and Bosnia. Thus the Ottomans controlled the majority of the Balkans and their Empire stretched from the Danube, not far from Vienna to the Euphrates, Baghdad in modern Iraq.

The Osman dynasty which ruled this huge Islamic Ottoman Empire remained strong as suitable sons could be chosen by their fathers from as many as 500 or more, as at that time the Sultans could have as many wives as they liked, who regularly numbered 1000 or more. If the Sultan thought there could be rivalry between the brothers for the succession or even by their proud and ambitious mothers he would simply murder all but his chosen successor!! After Osman the next major contributor was Sultan Mehmed 2nd (1451-1481) who is credited with making the Ottomans into a world power as he finally conquered Constantinople and turned the Black Sea (the fastest route from Turkey to Europe and southern Russia) into an Ottoman lake.

500 years ago

The Ottomans finally close off all Christian trade routes east via the Red Sea.
Up to this time the Ottomans had no naval strength, their army and particularly their cavalry were more than sufficient. Fortuitously in 1529 a man called Barbarossa (Red Beard), a Mediterranean pirate based in North Africa approached the Ottomans and offered to join forces and act as the Ottoman navy. At much the same time, 1517, the Ottoman armies expanded east and south and occupied the east Mediterranean coast from Syria through to Egypt. This finally put the stop to any Christian European country using the Mediterranean and the short land crossing at Suez to trade in India and the spice islands. Hence the need by England together with Portugal, Spain, Holland and France, to find a new route to the east and the fortuitous discovery of the Americas. These Christian countries all had Atlantic coasts and their ships were designed for Atlantic winds. "Red Beard's" ships were still galleys (propelled largely by oars) and although much smaller and with less firepower than Christian ships, could easily out-manoeuvre them in the light Mediterranean winds.

Worse was to come. Also in 1529 the Ottomans attacked the centre of Europe, Vienna. Although unsuccessful it sent shock waves around the whole of continental Europe and French, Spanish and later Prussian army detachments were sent to Vienna to drive off the Ottomans. England was not involved which of course enabled the English buckaneering explorers to concentrate on developing the New World and India while their larger and more powerful neighbours the French and the Spanish (who were also ruling Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands) were otherwise engaged.

The Ottomans continued to mop up strategic islands in the Mediterranean, especially if they were in the hands of the Christians, now also very much another Ottoman Lake. In 1565 they attacked and lay siege to Malta, the last stronghold of the Knights of St John. The Christian Knights were prepared to defend against the Islamic Ottomans to the last man and indeed this was the case finally, and with only a few Knights remaining, they were rescued by a Spanish fleet from the then Spanish territory Sicily. A similar fate befell Christian Cyprus(1571) then a Venetian Island but this time nobody came to the aid of the Christians and the Island became part of the Ottoman Empire.

So the Ottoman Empire some 500 years ago was at its zenith ruling the whole of Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, modern day Lebanon, Syria, modern day Iraq, the religious towns of Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina, Egypt and most of the fertile Mediterranean coast of North Africa. The Ottomans also had naval control of the Mediterranean and the Black sea. They were therefore custodians of both the Islamic and Eastern Christian faiths. The latter caused much grief outside the Ottoman empire particularly in Eastern Orthodox Russia as they grew more powerful under Tsar Peter the Great and afterwards. By contrast, the Muslim Ottomans did not murder Christians who would not convert, rather they just had to pay more in taxes. Indeed under the ruling dynasty many of the leading officials both in civil life and the army were recruited from the Christian sectors. 

One of the few Christian leaders who sent diplomats to Istanbul to open up trade was Protestant English Queen, Elisabeth 1st (1558-1603). She did this at the same time as she was supporting the likes of Sir Francis Drake in his trade voyages to America and elsewhere. 

250 years ago
The English retake the Mediterranean sea
It was not until 1650 after the civil war in England that the English, then with a formidable navy, re-entered the Mediterranean and turned it from an Ottoman lake to an English lake. The English attacked, conquered and set up strategic bases in Tangiers (1662 under Charles 2nd ), Gibraltar(1704 under Queen Anne and at the time of the Duke of Marlborough conquests in France), together with Sardinia(1708) and Minorca (1708). Notwithstanding these fortresses, Napoleon invaded Egypt to open up the old trade routes to the east via the Red Sea. Indeed it was Napoleon who was the first from Christian Europe to enter and occupy any of the Islamic Ottoman territories for 500 years. When the English heard about this audacious invasion of what they thought was their private route to their eastern Empire, they were quick to react and sailed into the eastern Mediterranean, found the French fleet attacked and destroyed it. Napoleon was well inland away from his fleet at the time. 

200 years ago
The English take over the diplomatic initiative from France
Napoleon was finally beaten by the English at the Battle of Waterloo (in Belgium) in 1815. This was a watershed for the English influence amongst the Ottomans as up to this point the French diplomats in Istanbul had always had their own agenda but after 1815 the English were seen by the Ottomans to be the best ally and the French very often came in to endorse the English ideas. About this time many parts of Europe were subjected to undercurrents for recreating or even creating (new) national boundaries. This applied to the Ottoman Empire as much as it did to the Austro-Hungarian, the Swedish or even the British. The Irish tried to leave the British Empire (not achieved for almost 100 years) and the Jews tried to set up a new state in Ottoman Palestine, (not achieved for almost 100 years). The Norwegians wanted independence from Sweden (achieved 1905). The countries of Italy(1870) and Germany(1871) were created from independent city states ruled or influenced from abroad. The English supported the Greeks who fought for 8 years for independence from the Ottoman Empire, achieved in 1830. At a similar time a naval alliance between England , France and Russia fought together to annihilate the Turkish fleet(1827) 

150 years ago
The war in the Crimea. (1853-1856)
The Crimea is a peninsular jutting out into the Black Sea from southern Ukraine/Russia. At the height of their empire the Ottoman Turks occupied much of this area. At this time the land was in Russian hands which did not please the Ottomans. What was worse was the simmering wish by the Russians, who were effectively custodians of the Eastern/Greek Orthodox Christian Church, to "liberate" the Eastern Christian areas of Serbia and Moldova with a final goal of Istanbul/Constantinople itself. The English diplomats in Istanbul drafted many a letter on behalf of the Sultan in an attempt to avoid a war but to no avail. When the Russians sent an army into Serbia, Turkey declared war on Russia. The last thing the English wanted was a Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean which if Istanbul was taken, the Russians would achieve. So the English persuaded the now like minded French, to join forces against the Russians in a combined English /French/ Turkish offensive. The Crimean War. Many events from this war are still talked about in England mainly because of the huge losses (200,000) on both sides. 

  • The battle at Balaclava
  • The charge of the Light Brigade
  • The phrase "We are not to reason why, we are only here to die."
  • Florence Nightingale. An heroic English nurse who also made a damming report on the appalling conditions in the Army hospitals

Very little territory changed hands and after three years of fighting both sides called a truce largely due to sickness. The Russians were kept out of the Mediterranean and Istanbul remained part of the Ottoman Empire. 

This war was the catalyst to the "liberation" of the Balkan states from some 500 years of Ottoman rule. The English regrouped with France and Russia to form a persuasive unified front to peacefully force the Ottomans to give up, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro (1878). Previously in 1881 the Ottomans had been persuaded to give (back) Thessaly to Greece (Thessaly included the town of Thessalonica and the land east almost to Istanbul.) Bulgaria was the last Balkan state to break away from the Ottomans which they achieved with persuasive talk from the Russians. 

100 years ago
Their final mistake. 1914-1918
For the last 50 years the Ottomans had being trying to bring their medieval culture up to modern Western European standards. New universities were built, science and engineering were studied, top students were sent to overseas Universities. All information had to be studied within their fundamental Islamic rules. This resulted in two disastrous movements by a dissatisfied educated elite and an admiration of the German military war machine. At the time of the First World War the English tried to persuade the Ottomans to stay neutral but the local military chiefs where convinced the Germans could not loose and joined the German side. The Germans lost, Turkey lost, and all their remaining territories were split between the English(Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Emirates) and the French (Lebanon, Syria, Iran). The final end of the Ottoman Empire. 

One of the contributing factors to the English achieving the greatest empire the world has ever seen was the actions of the Ottoman Turks When Red Beard joined forces with the Ottomans about 500 years ago, any English, French or Spanish ship which tried to enter the Mediterranean Sea as the shortest route to the Spice Islands in the east were likely to be stopped by Red Beard. Hence the incentive for the English, Spanish, French and Dutch to sail west to get to the east in the hope that the world was round. The Americas which at that time were not on any map were discovered. The Ottomans 500 years ago had a wish to conquer the whole of Europe.

The invasion and conquest of Hungary(1526), attacks on Vienna(1529 and 1683/99) made the Europeans know they were serious. The Spanish and French, in support of the Habsburgs, were on the alert for about 200 years for major land actions against the Ottomans which created the opportunity for the English to concentrate on building their navy and developing their Empire. Janissaries. An elite Christian army but part of the Ottoman military. From 1330 until 1826 the Ottoman sultans created and maintained an elite army corps, the Janissaries who were recruited mainly from Balkan/Greek Christian groups conquered by the Ottomans. Under initial Ottoman military training they became a formidable fighting force in medieval warfare.

The main motivation for fighting was glory plus particularly the spoils of war. So in peaceful times their "salaries" would fall and they would try and persuade the Sultan to conquer more lands. When the Ottomans acquired a navy the Janissaries would sail with the fleet and spearhead the land operations as was the case in their attack on Malta against the Knights of St John. In the early 19th century the Sultans, who were looking at western military techniques saw the Janissaries had outdated modes of warfare and were also becoming too powerful. Sultan Mahmud 2nd therefore killed the entire corps in a surprise "dawn raid".(1826).