The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 and rather quickly expanded from its origins as one of many Turkish states that rose to power after the decline of the Seljuq Turks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). But it really began to expand and consolidate power in the fifteenth century, especially after the conquest of Constantinople. Much of this success was a result of the Ottoman military and an elite fighting force called the Janissaries. The Janissaries were composed of a young male, Christian slaves taken from wars in the Balkans (modern-day Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, among others). They were raised in the Islamic faith and either became administrators for the sultan or members of the sultan’s personal bodyguard and military. It was these troops that used new weapons, called harquebus, to make the Ottomans one of the first gunpowder empires.
The Ottoman Empire reached its greatest size in the late seventeenth century but lasted until 1922. It was one of the largest and most long-lasting empires in world history. At its greatest extent, the empire extended to three continents, stretching from the Balkans in southeastern Europe across Anatolia, Central Asia, Arabia, and North Africa, thanks in large part to the Ottoman military and its use of gunpowder.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the Ottomans lost (and gained back) some important territories. Some historians say that this was partly to blame for the beginning of the Ottoman decline. But it might be more accurate to consider this a period of transformation. For a few centuries, the empire had grown under a strong central authority. But now it was shifting and undergoing important changes. It’s true that the Ottomans gained little territory after the seventeenth century. However, the Empire continued to exist into the twentieth century, just functioning differently than it had in the early centuries.
As the Empire stopped expanding, Ottoman leaders began to focus on consolidating territories that they already ruled. The borders of the Ottoman Empire became less fuzzy. The same was true of neighboring European and Asian states. The political structure started to shift around this time, too. For the first few centuries of its existence, the Ottoman Empire had been controlled by a chain of powerful warrior sultans. They ruled and led military campaigns. But by the middle of the seventeenth century, this stable chain of sultans was interrupted. Many sultans were overthrown after only ruling for a short period of time. These short reigns were the result of political rivalries, military revolts, and resistance from elites.
At this time, European monarchies were becoming more centralized, meaning most European monarchs had absolute power over their territories and subjects. But Ottoman power was shifting mostly in the opposite direction. A civilian bureaucracy (an organized system of state officials) was becoming stronger as the sultans themselves gave up some power. At the top of this bureaucracy, powerful officials called viziers had a lot of authority, but power was also becoming less concentrated in the capital. Instead, provincial officials gained more political control.
Central authority still mattered—but the balance had shifted. Local leaders and imperial officials worked with the sultan to manage the vast empire. Provincial leaders sent taxes to the capital. They also recruited soldiers for imperial wars. The capital and the provinces relied on each other for legitimacy. This was also the case with sultans and the powerful officials who controlled the political life of the empire.
An empire of nations
Since this one massive empire held territories across three continents, it’s hard to imagine a single identity unifying all the peoples. In fact, there was no such single identity. Like the Qing dynasty in China and the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire was multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Islam did play a big part in the empire, however. The Ottoman state based its authority on religion. The first warrior-sultans expanded the empire in the name of Islam. Sultans claimed the title of caliph or successor to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Alongside the sultans, religious scholars, called ulama, played a significant role in running the state. This was particularly true in the courts.
How did the Islamic nature of the empire affect the non-Muslim population? For the most part, non-Muslims had relatively lower social status than Muslims. They were also subject to special taxes and had other economic restrictions. However, non-Muslims had some autonomy (independence) under the Ottoman millet system. The system allowed religious communities to regulate their own religious and civil affairs. Each millet, or nation, had a religious leader that managed the community.
The millet system shows that clear boundaries between different social groups were important for Ottoman political control. There were even Ottoman laws that specified the kinds of clothing that people in different communities could wear, much like those that existed in the Qing dynasty. Despite this, it’s hard to simplify a set of rules governing Ottoman society. It was incredibly diverse. Generally, bureaucrats, religious scholars, and military officials had the greatest social power. Warrior-aristocrats, who were mostly Muslim, benefited from tax exemptions and the timar system of land grants. Under this system, in return for military service, warriors were given land.
The rest of society is made up of the lowest class. It included merchants, farmers, herdsmen, manufacturers, and seafarers. Though they had the least official power, they powered the engine of the empire. They were the main producers of goods and revenues (through taxes). They supported the military, bureaucracy, and religious establishment. The hierarchy was important, but it wasn’t totally rigid. Religious, gender, and economic differences put people into different groups. But there were a lot of overlaps. Commoners could be wealthy or poor. They could be peasants, townspeople, or nomadic pastoralists.
People also were able to move across groups or gain social power. Merit was often rewarded regardless of wealth, lineage, or social status. In fact, enslaved or common people in the Ottoman military or bureaucracy, such as the Janissaries, often rose through the ranks. They ended up in some of the highest positions in society.
Throughout the Ottoman Empire’s history, women were dependent on the men in their families for money and social position. This was the case in many medieval societies. Generally, older women or women with children had relatively more power in a household. Women’s lives were relatively stable over the centuries. This is large because religious ideas ruled gender relations. Islamic law granted women certain rights, like divorce and inheritance. It also allowed them to use their property and wealth to start and maintain institutions like schools and mosques. But religion was also used to limit women’s power. For example, women had different rights in the courts. Also, some interpretations of Islam were used to justify keeping women at home.
The Ottomans and the world
With the empire extending across continents, its borders touched numerous states and other empires. But it also had tense relationships with some of them. For example, it was involved in conflict with the Safavid Empire to its east for centuries. The Safavids also had a Muslim leadership and claimed religious legitimacy, but it was based on a rival Islamic school of thought. The Ottomans also had a strained relationship with their European neighbors. This was particularly true of the Russians and Austrians.
At the same time, the Ottoman state often collaborated with other European powers. They also wanted to imitate European models. For example, Ottomans enlisted European military advisors, because some leaders felt that recent military defeats were due to their less technically advanced militaries. Western nations could afford these new technologies partly because of New World wealth.
Ottoman elites also became more connected to global cultural movements, particularly the Enlightenment. Translations became more widely available with the Ottoman adoption of the printing press in the 1720s. Together, these trends of military and technological innovation and cultural worldliness gave rise to a series of reforms in education, the military, and finance beginning in the 1830s. Called the Tanzimat, these reforms were also a response to the diversity of the empire. They gave civil rights to minorities, including the guarantee for Armenian and Syrian Christians, Jews, and other millets (communities of different religious and ethnic minorities) to practice their religion. However, religious conservatives challenged these trends, insisting that the rise of secular education and other reforms was harming Ottoman society.
In a parallel development, Ottoman elites also began buying many global products and following trends from abroad. They collected foreign art, luxury goods, and food. Personal spending likely rose across the different social classes. Foreign goods became more common. As it had done in the past, the Ottoman state played a crucial role in this circulation of goods. Many of those living in the empire continued to be engaged in the production and distribution of food, raw materials, and other goods, in much the same way as Arabs had for centuries. The state did its best to ensure that state officials, military employees, and people living in the capital had access to what they needed. Silk Road trade networks had enriched the Ottomans for centuries. But new sea routes that bypassed Ottoman trade routes shifted the power away. This is not to say that regional trade networks ended during the eighteenth century, but the global sea networks that strengthened after the sixteenth century transformed the prestige and position of the Ottoman Empire. With a reduction in overland trade in favor of trade along global networks and with newly established colonies in Asia, European power grew as Ottoman power faded.