The Ottoman Empire - History

The Ottoman Empire - History

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The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was an imperial state that was founded in 1299 after growing out of the breakdown of several Turkish tribes. The empire then grew to include many areas in what is now present-day Europe. It eventually became one of the largest, most powerful and longest-lasting empires in the history of the world. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire included the areas of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. It had a maximum area of 7.6 million square miles (19.9 million square kilometers) in 1595. The Ottoman Empire began to decline in the 18th century, but a portion of its land became what is now Turkey.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Sultanate (1299-1922 CE as an empire 1922-1924 CE as caliphate only), also referred to as the Ottoman Empire, written in Turkish as Osmanlı Devleti, was a Turkic imperial state that was conceived by and named after Osman (l. 1258-1326 CE), an Anatolian chieftain. At its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries CE, the empire controlled vast stretches including Anatolia, southwestern Europe, mainland Greece, the Balkans, parts of northern Iraq, Azerbaijan, Syria, Palestine, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and parts of the North African strip, in addition to the major Mediterranean islands of Rhodes, Cyprus, and Crete. Renowned the strongest military superpower of its time, the empire stagnated and faced prolonged decline from the late 16th century CE onwards until it was replaced by the modern Republic of Turkey after the First World War (1914-1918 CE).

Rise, Zenith & Fall of the Ottoman Empire

In the 11th century CE, the Seljuk Turks, a people from the Asian steppe who had accepted the Sunni version of Islam, swept over Persia and neighboring eastern territories and then advanced westwards towards Anatolia. There, they dealt the imperial forces of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 CE) a devastating defeat near Manzikert in 1071 CE, and henceforth several Turkic tribes settled the region. By the end of the 13th century CE, the various Anatolian beyliks (petty kingdoms) were virtually independent but feuding amongst each other. Osman (r. 1299-1326 CE), the bey (chieftain) of Bithynia, a region situated westwards, near the Sea of Marmara, initiated a war with the bordering Byzantine realm, expanding his domains at their expense and laying siege to Prusa (Bursa) which fell after his death in 1326 CE.


Osman's successors swept over the Byzantine holdings in Anatolia and Europe, even taking over the Balkans by the close of the 14th century CE. The Europeans made vehement attempts to fight off the Ottomans but they failed, most notably at the pivotal battles of Kosovo (1389 CE) and Nicopolis (1396 CE). The Turks met their match, not from the west but the east, when they clashed with the rival Timurid forces (over a territorial conflict in Anatolia) under the Turko-Mongol leader Timur (aka Tamerlane, r. 1370-1405 CE) near Ankara in 1402 CE. The Ottomans were defeated, and Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 CE) was captured.

However, the western powers failed to exploit this opportunity to its fullest, and after a civil war, otherwise known as the Ottoman Interregnum (1402-1413 CE), Mehmed I (r. 1413-1421 CE), a son of Bayezid, emerged victorious as the unrivaled ruler of the unified Ottoman realm, and for this, he is often dubbed as the second founder of the empire. Having restored the empire's borders as they were before the Battle of Ankara, the Ottomans appeared before the legendary Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, the last bastion of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453 CE, under Mehmed II the Conqueror (r. 1451-1481 CE, a grandson of Mehmed I).


The Ottomans turned eastwards under Selim I (r. 1512-1520 CE, Mehmed the Conqueror's grandson) who targeted the rival Safavid (Shia) Dynasty of Iran (1501-1736 CE) and the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250-1517 CE). He dealt a pulverizing defeat to the former in 1514 CE but did not pursue a complete conquest the Mamluk realm, however, was engulfed in its entirety by 1517 CE.

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The latter victory gave the Ottomans access to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, allowing them to claim the title of Caliph of the Islamic world. The Ottomans and Safavids, and successive Persian empires, would continue to clash intermittently for the next three centuries, and the territories in Iraq and Azerbaijan would exchange hands several times until the matters were finally resolved with a peace treaty in 1847 CE.

Selim's son Suleiman I (r. 1520-1566 CE) remains the most celebrated ruler of the Ottoman era and is referred to as Kanuni (Lawgiver) in the east and the Magnificent in the west. He conquered Belgrade in 1521 CE, took the island of Rhodes in 1523 CE, and secured a major and consequential victory against Hungary at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 CE (which destabilized the region for years to come, and allowed the Turks to assert their dominion over it, competing the Austrians in doing so). In Africa, Algiers had accepted Selim's suzerainty in 1517 CE, and Tunis entered Ottoman rule under Suleiman in 1534 CE.


This territorial loss was merely a prelude for a century-long episode to come. The Tatars of Crimea were defeated by the Russians in 1783 CE, hence cutting off the empire's hegemony in the Eastern Black Sea region. The Greek Revolution (1821-1829 CE) established Greek independence, and their example was followed by Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, all of whom broke away from the empire by the end of the 19th century CE. Egypt escaped direct Ottoman control as early as the 1830s CE and was eventually lost for good to the British Empire five decades later in the 1880s CE. France seized Algeria in 1830 CE and Tunis in 1881 CE, and the last Ottoman-held African territory, Libya fell to Italy in 1911 CE.

The last autonomous Ottoman ruler to have made any significant contributions to the empires was Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909 CE) who took the scepter amidst the First Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire (1876-1878 CE an era of constitutional monarchy), which he put an end to in just two years, reasserting absolute monarchical control. Hamid made vehement attempts at modernization (most notably in the education sector) and introduced several technological advancements such as laying down extensive railway systems but remains controversial due to his involvement in the massacre of local Armenian population (1894-1896 CE also known as the Hamidian massacres), which are often seen as a prelude to the Armenian genocide (1914-1923 CE) that happened later on.


Abdul Hamid was deposed in 1909 CE by the Young Turks party, a nationalistic and secular political entity which restored constitutional monarchy in the empire, also known as the Second Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire (1908-1920 CE). However, from that point onwards, the sultans became mere figureheads and the empire had started on the course of its destruction. The final nail was struck in the coffin of the empire when it became involved in the First World War (1914-1918 CE) on the Central Powers' side (Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany). The Sultanate was destroyed by the war and officially ceased to exist by 1922 CE.

In the aftermath of the war, the Greek army invaded Anatolia, taking Smyrna (Izmir) and moving inland. The Greek invasion force was pushed back by Turkish freedom fighters, led by the Turkish nationalist leader and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal (r. 1923-1938 CE), during what was later termed as the Turkish War of Independence (r. 1919-1923 CE). The last Ottoman leader, Abdulmejid II (r. 1922-1924 CE) served only as the Caliph of Islam (symbolically) for two years, until the office was officially abolished by Kemal.

Ottoman Government

From the time of Murad I (1362-1389 CE), the leader of the Ottoman State was called sultan, often understood as a religiously inspired warrior king. The title of the sultan was used by several monarchs of the Islamic world in medieval times, and in many cases, further legitimized by the blessings of the spiritual leader of the Muslim community, the caliph (Khalifa in Arabic). The sultan, though in theory a subordinate to the caliph, was practically independent and in most cases more authoritative.


The sultan's actions and decisions were considered final, although there was an advisory body of viziers (ministers also known as paşa or pasha) to assist, and in times even replace the sultan in political affairs. These ministers and several other high-ranking bureaucrats were selected from promising officers of the elite Jannisary military corps conscripted from the conquered Balkans territory. The grand vizier (prime minister) was the direct subordinate of the sultan and in many cases proved instrumental in asserting the latter's authority, as exemplified by the members of the Köprülü family who served the office in succession from 1656 to 1703 CE.

Although the sultan was the unrivaled ruler of the realm, the Ottomans allowed local rulers to retain their autonomy in return for fealty, and in several cases, the locals would retain their system of governance, such as in the Balkans. The Ottoman administrative framework can be perfectly surmised from the following extract:

Paradoxically the early Ottoman state was both militantly Islamic and strongly influenced by Greek culture, heir to the Saljuqs (Seljuks) but also to practices and structures derived from the Roman-Byzantine Empire it replaced. Straddling the Christian Balkans and the western reaches of Dar al-Islam, it was a bridge between rival civilizations. (Ruthven, 86)

The biggest flaw in the Ottoman sovereignty framework was that of succession the Ottomans followed somewhat of a Darwinian principle: only the most capable prince could take the throne. The princes, known as Şehzade, were expected to serve as governors of various regions under their father's suzerainty to gain military and administrative experience, however, this practice was forsaken in later years, as it created competition for a claimant and hence invited fratricide.

From the time of Selim II (1566-1574 CE), as the sultans submitted to the pleasures of the harem and distanced themselves from the administration of their realm, corruption, intolerance, and nepotism began to plague the framework. Potential successors were left inept without any practical experience, allowing other parties (ministers, janissaries, or queens) to assert more control over the sultan, who then became pawns in palace intrigues. For a brief period in the 17th century CE, mother queens (Valide Sultan), began asserting direct control over minor sovereigns, as exemplified by the rule of Kosem Sultan (r. 1623-1632 CE & r. 1648-1651 CE), after the death of her husband, Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-1617 CE).

Later sultans made vehement attempts to solidify the empire, and Sultan Abdulmejid I (r. 1839-1861 CE) introduced a list of important reforms known as the Tanzimat (1839-1876 CE originally conceived by his father Mahmud II). These reforms offered many rights such as equality and religious tolerance for all while also overhauled the financial structure of the empire, promoted Ottoman nationalism in contrast to ethnic divisions, limited the role of unruly factions, and undermined the authority of all anti-state conspirators.

However, secular nationalists were unimpressed by the Tanzimat reforms and wished to create a more European-style government. They gave rise to the First Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire (1876-1878 CE) which lasted only for the first two years of Abdul Hamid's reign. There was no party system but the elected members of the Ottoman parliament were deemed as the representatives of the people and asserted some degree of control over the Sultan until he put an end to the era.

Hamid, who was opposed to liberal reforms, was deposed in 1909 CE, and hence the Second Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire (1908-1920 CE) commenced. This time around, the sultans became mere figureheads placed by the ruling pashas (ministers), who took over the reins of power, most prominently the trio that served amidst the First World War, namely Mehmed Talat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Ahmed Cemal Pasha of the Young Turks party, also known as the “Three Pashas” (and who are considered responsible for the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1923 CE).


Islam remained a defining factor for the empire the sultan was expected to protect the people of that faith and Islam itself - blasphemous remarks were not tolerated. However, as historian Stephen Turnbull comments,

. the Christians under Muslim rule seem to have enjoyed a greater toleration than was shown to the Orthodox under Latin domination, so resistance was not always as fierce as may have been assumed. Churches might be turned into mosques, while those left in Christian hands suffered certain restrictions such as at the prohibition of bell ringing and public processions, but matters could've been much worse. The Orthodox world had the tragic memory of the Fourth Crusade of 1204 CE to remind them of how well off they were under Ottoman rule by comparison with a western conquest. 'Better the Sultan's turban than the bishop's mitre' wrote one Byzantine scholar. (75-76)

An instance of religious inclusion and acceptance can be stated from the time of Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512 CE) who welcomed the Spanish Jews in 1492 CE, in stark contrast to the mistreatment of Jews rampant throughout medieval Europe. Mehmed the Conqueror went so far as to write a declaration offering the Christian clerics complete protection and religious independence.

However, instances of extremism and intolerance on religious, ethnic or nationalistic basis also abound the annals of Turkish history such as the violent butchery of war captives pioneered by Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 CE) after the Battle of Nicopolis (1396 CE), the plundering of conquered cities, and the maltreatment and genocide of local Armenians from the late 19th to early 20th century CE.

Ottoman Military

The founder of the empire, Osman, branded himself as a ghazi, meaning holy warrior, and led forces majorly composed of such holy warriors, waging ġazā, a form of holy war, against the Byzantines. As the Ottoman realm expanded, new military corps were incorporated into the growing Turkish army. Raider cavalry called the akincis (akin - raid) was often employed to scout and launch preemptive raids in the enemy's territory before the main army arrived. The sipahis were the elite Ottoman heavy cavalry units, well-armored and equipped with lances, who were paid with land instead of salaries.

The light infantry was mostly composed of irregular azap(s) (meaning unmarried or bachelor, which they were), who were equipped with both melee and ranged weapons. However, the most iconic Ottoman (heavy) infantry units were recruited via the devşirme (meaning child levy) system, laid down by Sultan Murad I, by which children from the Balkans were conscripted, converted to Islam and trained as elite janissary soldiers (Turkish: yeñiçeri, meaning new soldier), some of whom would also serve as ministers and leading bureaucrats of the realm.

The janissaries served as both heavy infantry and cavalry units, although they are mostly famous for the former. Their resilience and skill won them the admiration and dread of European powers, for instance, they were largely responsible for the Ottoman victory against a European Crusader coalition army at Varna (1444 CE). The janissaries were innovative in that they wore official uniforms and were equipped with gunpowder weapons like arquebuses, which often helped them turn the tide of battle.

The Ottomans were famous for the incorporation of gunpowder weapons, including light and heavy cannons the latter being exemplified by the massive Dardanelles Gun (Şahi topu), a prototype of which was also deployed before the walls of Constantinople in 1453 CE. The Ottoman army also pioneered the use of an official military band, known as the mehterân, who played war tunes (and several imperial anthems) of which many songs are famous even to this day.

This military structure, though initially quite successful, gradually eroded as no attempts were made at modernizing or reforming the forces. The janissaries ascended the power ladder, at the expense of the sultans, alienating other military orders, which took to brigandage, such as the Celali revolts (1590-1610 CE named after an early albeit unrelated Shia rebel) that raged throughout the empire's core and took decades to completely subdue. Meanwhile, external foes started gaining a military edge. Selim III (r. 1789-1807 CE) introduced the Nizam-i-Cedid (New Order), a reformed military system, which could potentially replace the obsolete janissaries. This move was met with stiff resistance by the janissaries, who forced the sultan to abandon his efforts and ultimately took his life.

Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839 CE) realized that the survival of the fragmenting empire could only be preserved with a new army, and he thenceforth set upon emulating Selim's example. He trained modern troops, who pledged absolute loyalty to the house of Osman, and in turn, these soldiers destroyed the janissaries when they rebelled, reasserting the sultan's authority in 1826 CE. They were branded as Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye (The Victorious Soldiers of Muhammad), often shortened as Mansure Army (Victorious Army).

The Ottomans were also famous for valuing talent, even in their enemies, for instance, they recruited corsairs and pirates, who raided their ships, amidst their ranks, turning foe into a friend. Two of most notable examples are that of Hayreddin Barbarossa (l. 1478-1546 CE), the victor of the naval battle of Preveza (1538 CE), and Yusuf Raïs (l. 1553-1622 CE), originally named Jack Birdy, and possibly the inspiration for Captain Sparrow's character in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The Ottoman navy, which was first commissioned on a titanic scale by Suleiman the Magnificent, dominated the Mediterranean, in rivalry to other European naval powers, most notably Venice, until its defeat at the Battle of Lepanto (1571 CE). The vestiges of Ottoman naval power waned from the 17th century CE onwards due to the friction in modernization and lack of funds to support a stronger and bigger fleet.

Economy & Trade

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE was not only the start of advanced Ottoman imperial ambitions but also secured trade domination of the area for the Turks. Since the Tatars of Crimea had sworn fealty to the sultan, Mehmed II also held the hegemony in the Black Sea area. With the Dardanelles under their control, the Turks closed the historical Silk Road for their western foes. Exclusive trade rights with Mughal India (r. 1526-1857 CE, intermittently), a regional superpower, via the Indian Ocean also brought in heaps of revenue for both empires, and the European merchants who did use the Ottoman-controlled routes were bound to pay taxes to the empire.

Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and their control of the Dardanelles, forced rival European powers to seek new trade routes, westwards, into the New World. However, the Turks soon lost that edge in the east, as explained by historian Mehrdad Kia:

The economic and financial decline of the empire was exacerbated by the significant diversion of trade from traditional land routes to new sea routes. Historically, the vast region extending from Central Asia to the Middle East served as a land bridge between China and Europe. The taxes and the custom charges collected by the Ottoman government constituted an important component of the revenue generated by the state. The Portuguese rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and subsequent establishment of a direct sea route to Iran, India, and beyond, however, allowed European states and merchants to bypass Ottoman held territory. (12)

Ottoman Era Art & Architecture

Architectural masterpieces from the Ottoman era have dazzled and mesmerized visitors for centuries. The Ottoman architecture draws heavily from Persian, Byzantine, and Arabic styles, intermingling the three to create a unique blend, perfectly embodied in their designs for masjids or mosques of which several were commissioned by the sultans as they are central to the Islamic belief. Madrassas (religious schools), soup kitchens, hospitals, universities, sultans' tombs are also perfect examples of Turkish architectural mastery.

Ottoman palaces like the Topkapi (meaning Cannon Gate) which served as the imperial housing and headquarters between the 15th and 16th centuries CE, and the Dolmabahçe (meaning (Filled-in Garden) which replaced the former in mid-19th century CE, are also great examples of architectural excellence from the era, although the latter is also an example of the toxic largess that crippled the empire's economy.

Ottoman era art adorns the pages of several manuscripts commissioned by the sultans. The style, as with the architecture, has been adopted from neighboring cultures. Several miniatures, Islamic calligraphic masterpieces, decorative carpets, tiles, and portraits from the era provide a peek into the cultural values and history of the nation. The sultan's name was also written in a stylized fashion, known as the tughra which was used to sign imperial documents. Poetry and music were also patronized by the Ottoman rulers, many of whom were excellent composers themselves Suleiman the Magnificient would often write romantic verses for his wife Hurem Sultan (l. c. 1502-1558 CE), under the pen name Muhibbi (meaning lover).

From the 19th century CE onwards, European-style music was also inculcated in the court, as exemplified the official Ottoman Imperial Anthem, composed under the patronage of Sultan Abdulmejid I (r. 1839-1861 CE). These forms of art and architecture allow modern observers to better understand the things that the Turkish people held close to their hearts, and although European influences can be observed in gradual increments over the centuries, one can still distinguish the elements that made the Ottoman Turks unique.



Constantinople was the heart of the Byzantine Empire. It became the capital of the Ottoman Empire when it was conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.

Sultan Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey ©

Mehmet slaughtered many of the population and forced the rest into exile, later repopulating the city by importing people from elsewhere in Ottoman territory.

Mehmet renamed Constantinople Istanbul – the 'city of Islam' - and set about rebuilding it, both physically and politically, as his capital.


Istanbul became not only a political and military capital, but because of its position at the junction of Europe, Africa, and Asia, one of the great trade centres of the world. Another important city was Bursa, which was a centre of the silk trade.

Some of the later Ottoman conquests were clearly intended to give them control of other trade routes.

Among the goods traded were:

  • Silk and other cloth
  • Musk
  • Rhubarb
  • Porcelain from China
  • Spices such as pepper
  • Dyestuffs such as indigo

The economic strength of the Empire also owed much to Mehmet's policy of increasing the number of traders and artisans in the Empire.

He first encouraged merchants to move to Istanbul, and later forcibly resettled merchants from captured territories such as Caffa.

He also encouraged Jewish traders from Europe to migrate to Istanbul and set up in business there. Later rulers continued these policies.

The siege of Constantinople

When Sultan Mehmet II rode into the city of Constantinople on a white horse in 1453, it marked the end of a thousand years of the Byzantine Empire. Earlier attempts to capture the city had largely failed - so why did the Ottomans succeed this time? What effect did the fall of Constantinople have on the rest of the Christian world?

Roger Crowley, author and historian Judith Herrin, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London and Colin Imber, formerly Reader in Turkish at Manchester University discuss these questions.

Effects of the fall of Constantinople

The capture of Constantinople ended the Byzantine Empire after 1100 years. The effect of this on Christian Europe was enormous.

One unexpected effect was that many scholars fled from the new empire and went to Italy, where they were influential in sparking off the Renaissance, and increasing trade with the east.

Although the Pope demanded a crusade to recapture Istanbul from the Muslims, the Christian nations failed to produce an army for him, and no attempt to retake the city was made.

The Muslim dominance of the trading centre of the former Constantinople increased the pressure on Western nations to find new ways to the East by going westwards. This eventually led to the expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, and Drake.


Roman & Byzantine rule Edit

According to the Hebrew Bible, Noah's Ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain in the Taurus Mountains in eastern Anatolia, near the present-day borders of Turkey, Armenia, and Iran. [4] Josephus, Jewish historian of the first century, notes Jewish origins for many of the cities in Anatolia, though much of his sourcing for these passages is traditional. [5] The New Testament has many mentions of Jewish populations in Anatolia: Iconium (now Konya) is said to have a synagogue in Acts of the Apostles 14:1 and Ephesus is mentioned as having a synagogue in Acts 19:1 and in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. The Epistle to the Galatians is likewise directed at Galatia, which once held an established Jewish population.

Based on physical evidence, there has been a Jewish community in Anatolia since the fourth century BCE, most notably in the city of Sardis. The subsequent Roman and Byzantine Empires included sizable Greek-speaking Jewish communities in their Anatolian domains which seem to have been relatively well-integrated and enjoyed certain legal immunities. [ citation needed ] The size of the Jewish community was not greatly affected by the attempts of some Byzantine emperors (most notably Justinian I) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success. [6] The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asia Minor under Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians. [7] Although there is some evidence of occasional hostility by the Byzantine populations and authorities, no systematic persecution of the type endemic at that time in western Europe (pogroms, the stake, mass expulsions, etc.) is believed to have occurred in Byzantium. [8]

Ottoman era Edit

The first synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is "Tree of Life" (Hebrew: עץ החיים ‎) in Bursa, which passed to Ottoman authority in 1324. The synagogue is still in use, although the modern Jewish population of Bursa has shrunk to about 140 people. [9]

The status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire often hinged on the whims of the sultan. So, for example, while Murad III ordered that the attitude of all non-Muslims should be one of "humility and abjection" and that they should not "live near Mosques or tall buildings" or own slaves, others were more tolerant. [10]

The first major event in Jewish history under Turkish rule took place after the Empire gained control over Constantinople. After Mehmed the Conqueror's conquest of Constantinople he found the city in a state of disarray. After suffering many sieges, the devastating sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 and the arrival of the Black Death pandemic in 1347, [11] the city was a shade of its former glory. Since Mehmed wanted the city as his new capital, he decreed its rebuilding. [12]

In order to revivify Constantinople he ordered that Muslims, Christians and Jews from all over his empire be resettled in the new capital. [12] Within months, most of the Empire's Romaniote Jews, from the Balkans and Anatolia, were concentrated in Constantinople, where they made up 10% of the city's population. [13] At the same time, the forced resettlement, though not intended as an anti-Jewish measure, was perceived as an "expulsion" by the Jews. [14] Despite this interpretation, Romaniotes would be the most influential community in the Empire for a few decades, until that position would be lost to a wave of Sephardi immigrants.

The number of Romaniotes was soon bolstered by small groups of Ashkenazi Jews that immigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1421 and 1453. [13] Among these immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, a German-born Jew of French descent [15] ( צרפתי Sarfati "French"), who became Chief Rabbi of Edirne and wrote a letter inviting European Jewry to settle in the Ottoman Empire, in which he stated, "Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking," and asking, "Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians?" [15] [16]

The greatest influx of Jews into Anatolia Eyalet and the Ottoman Empire occurred during the reign of Mehmed the Conquerors's successor, Bayezid II (1481–1512), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Kingdom of Portugal, the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily. The Sultan issued a formal invitation and refugees started arriving in the empire in great numbers. A key moment occurred in 1492, when more than 40,000 Spanish Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition. [17] At that point in time, Constantinople's population was a mere 70,000 due to the various sieges of the city during the Crusades and the Black Death, so this historical event was also significant for repopulation of the city. These Sephardi Jews settled in Constantinople as well as Thessaloniki.

The Jews satisfied various needs in the Ottoman Empire: the Muslim Turks were largely uninterested in business enterprises and accordingly left commercial occupations to members of minority religions. They also distrusted the Christian subjects whose countries had only recently been conquered by the Ottomans and therefore it was natural to prefer Jewish subjects to which this consideration did not apply. [18]

The Sephardi Jews were allowed to settle in the wealthier cities of the empire, especially in Rumelia (the European provinces, cities such as Constantinople, Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, Adrianople and Nicopolis), western and northern Anatolia (Bursa, Aydın, Tokat and Amasya), but also in the Mediterranean coastal regions (Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, and Egypt). İzmir was not settled by Spanish Jews until later.

The Jewish population in Jerusalem increased from 70 families in 1488 to 1500 at the beginning of the 16th century. That of Safed increased from 300 to 2000 families and almost surpassed Jerusalem in importance. Damascus had a Sephardic congregation of 500 families. Constantinople had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals with 44 synagogues. Bayezid allowed the Jews to live on the banks of the Golden Horn. Egypt Eyalet, especially Cairo, received a large number of the exiles, who soon outnumbered Musta'arabi Jews. Gradually, the chief center of the Sephardi Jews became Thessaloniki, where the Spanish Jews soon outnumbered coreligionists of other nationalities and, at one time, the original native inhabitants.

Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have often been exaggerated, [19] it is undeniable that they enjoyed tolerance. Under the millet system they were organized as a community on the basis of religion alongside the other millets (e.g. Eastern Orthodox millet, Armenian Apostolic millet, etc.). In the framework of the millet, they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi. There were no restrictions in the professions Jews could practice analogous to those common in Western Christian countries. [20] There were restrictions in the areas Jews could live or work, but such restrictions were imposed on Ottoman subjects of other religions as well. [18]

Like all non-Muslims, Jews had to pay the haraç "head tax" and faced other restrictions in clothing, horse riding, army service etc., but they could occasionally be waived or circumvented. [21]

Jews who reached high positions in the Ottoman court and administration include Mehmed the Conqueror's Minister of Finance (Defterdar) Hekim Yakup Paşa, his Portuguese physician Moses Hamon, Murad II's physician İshak Paşa and Abraham de Castro, master of the mint in Egypt.

During the Classical Ottoman period (1300–1600), the Jews, together with most other communities of the empire, enjoyed a certain level of prosperity. Compared with other Ottoman subjects, they were the predominant power in commerce and trade as well in diplomacy and other high offices. In the 16th century especially, the Jews were the most prominent under the millets, the apogee of Jewish influence could arguably be the appointment of Joseph Nasi to sanjak-bey (governor, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims) of Naxos. [22] Also in the first half of the 17th century the Jews were distinct in winning tax farms, Haim Gerber describes it: "My impression is that no pressure existed, that it was merely performance that counted." [23]

Friction between Jews and Turks was less common than in the Arab territories. Some examples: During the reign of Murad IV (1623–40), the Jews of Jerusalem were persecuted by an Arab who had purchased the governorship of that city from the governor of the province. [ citation needed ] Under Mehmed IV (1649–87), the 1660 destruction of Safed occurred. [24] [25] [26]

An additional problem was Jewish ethnic divisions. They had come to the Ottoman Empire from many lands, bringing with them their own customs and opinions, to which they clung tenaciously, and had founded separate congregations. Another tremendous upheaval was caused when Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed to be the Messiah. He was eventually caught by the Ottoman authorities and when given the choice between death and conversion, he opted for the latter. His remaining disciples converted to Islam too. Their descendants are today known as Dönmeh.

The history of the Jews in Turkey in the 18th and 19th century is principally a chronicle of decline in influence and power they lost their influential positions in trade mainly to the Greeks, who were able to "capitalize on their religio-cultural ties with the West and their trading diaspora". [23] An exception to this theme is that of Daniel de Fonseca, who was chief court physician and played a certain political role. He is mentioned by Voltaire, who speaks of him as an acquaintance whom he esteemed highly. Fonseca was involved in negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden.

Ottoman Jews held a variety of views on the role of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, from loyal Ottomanism to Zionism. [27] Emmanuel Carasso, for example, was a founding member of the Young Turks, and believed that the Jews of the Empire should be Turks first, and Jews second.

As mentioned before, the overwhelming majority of the Ottoman Jews lived in Rumelia. As the Empire declined however, the Jews of these region found themselves under Christian rule. The Bosnian Jews for example came under Austro-Hungarian rule after the occupation of the region in 1878, the independence of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia further lowered the number of Jews within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.

The Jewish population of Ottoman Empire had reached nearly 200,000 at the start of the 20th century. [28] The territories lost between 1829 and 1913 to the new Christian Balkan states significantly lowered this number.

The troubled history of Turkey during the 20th century and the process of transforming the old Ottoman Empire into a secular nation state after 1923, however, had a negative effect on the size of all remaining minorities, including the Jews.

After 1933, a new law put into effect in Nazi Germany for mandatory retirement of officials from non-Aryan race. Thus, the law required all the Jewish scientists in Germany to be fired. Unemployed scientists led by Albert Einstein formed an association in Switzerland. Professor Schwartz, the general secretary of the association, met with the Turkish Minister of Education in order to provide jobs for 34 Jewish scientists in Turkish universities especially in Istanbul University. [29]

However, the planned deportation of Jews from East Thrace and the associated anti-Jewish pogrom in 1934 was one of the events that caused insecurity among the Turkish Jews. [30]

The effect of the 1942 Varlık Vergisi ("Wealth Tax") was solely on non-Muslims – who still controlled the largest portion of the young republic's wealth – even though in principle it was directed against all wealthy Turkish citizens, it most intensely affected non Muslims. The "wealth tax" is still remembered as a "catastrophe" among the non-Muslims of Turkey and it had one of the most detrimental effects on the population of Turkish Jews. Many people unable to pay the exorbitant taxes were sent to labor camps and in consequence about 30,000 Jews emigrated. [31] The tax was seen as a racist attempt to diminish the economic power of religious minorities in Turkey. [32]

During World War II, Turkey was officially neutral although it maintained strong diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany. [33] During the war, Turkey denaturalized 3,000 to 5,000 Jews living abroad 2,200 and 2,500 Turkish Jews were deported to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor and several hundred interned in Nazi concentration camps. When Nazi Germany encouraged neutral countries to repatriate their Jewish citizens, Turkish diplomats received instructions to avoid repatriating Jews even if they had could prove their Turkish nationality. [34] Turkey was also the only neutral country to implement anti-Jewish laws during the war. [35] More Turkish Jews suffered as a result of discrimatory policies during the war than were saved by Turkey. [36] Although Turkey has promoted the idea that it was a rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust, this is considered a myth by historians. [37] This myth has been used to promote Armenian genocide denial. [38]

Turkey served as a transit for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s. [39] [40]

A memorial stone with a bronze epitaph was inaugurated in 2012, as the third of individual country memorials (after Poland and the Netherlands) at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for eight Turkish citizens killed during the Nazi regime in the said camp. The Turkish Ambassador to Berlin, Hüseyin Avni Karslıoğlu stated in an inauguration speech that Germany set free 105 Turkish citizens, held in camps, after a mutual agreement between the two countries, and these citizens returned to Turkey in April 1945, although there is no known official record for other Turkish Jews who may have died during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

According to Rıfat Bali, Turkish authorities bear some responsibility for the Struma disaster, killing about 781 Jewish refugees and 10 crew, due to their refusal to allow the Jewish refugees on board to disembark in Turkey. [41] [42] William Rubinstein goes further, citing British pressure on Turkey not to let Struma ' s passengers disembark, in accordance with Britain's White Paper of 1939 to prevent further Jewish immigration to Palestine. [43] [44]

When the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Aliyah was not particularly popular amongst Turkish Jewry migration from Turkey to Palestine was minimal in the 1920s. [45] As in other Muslim-majority countries, discrimination later became the main "push" factor that encouraged emigration from Turkey to Palestine.

Between 1923 and 1948, approximately 7,300 Jews emigrated from Turkey to Mandatory Palestine. [46] After the 1934 Thrace pogroms following the 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law, immigration to Palestine increased it is estimated that 521 Jews left for Palestine from Turkey in 1934 and 1,445 left in 1935. [46] Immigration to Palestine was organized by the Jewish Agency and the Palestine Aliya Anoar Organization. The Varlık Vergisi, a capital tax which occurred in 1942, was also significant in encouraging emigration from Turkey to Palestine between 1943 and 1944, 4,000 Jews emigrated. [47]

The Jews of Turkey reacted very favorably to the creation of the State of Israel. Between 1948 and 1951, 34,547 Jews immigrated to Israel, nearly 40% of the Turkish Jewish population at the time. [48] Immigration was stunted for several months in November 1948, when Turkey suspended migration permits as a result of pressure from Arab countries. [49]

In March 1949, the suspension was removed when Turkey officially recognized Israel, and emigration continued, with 26,000 emigrating within the same year. The migration was entirely voluntary, and was primary driven by economic factors given the majority of emigrants were from the lower classes. [50] In fact, the migration of Jews to Israel is the second largest mass emigration wave out of Turkey, the first being the Population exchange between Greece and Turkey. [51]

After 1951, emigration of Jews from Turkey to Israel slowed perceptibly. [52]

In the mid 1950s, 10% of those who had moved to Israel returned to Turkey. A new synagogue, the Neve Şalom was constructed in Istanbul in 1951. Generally, Turkish Jews in Israel have integrated well into society and are not distinguishable from other Israelis. [53] However, they maintain their Turkish culture and connection to Turkey, and are strong supporters of close relations between Israel and Turkey. [54]

On the night of 6/7 September 1955, the Istanbul Pogrom was unleashed. Although primarily aimed at the city's Greek population, the Jewish and Armenian communities of Istanbul were also targeted to a degree. The damage caused was mainly material (a complete total of over 4,000 shops and 1,000 houses – belonging to Greeks, Armenians and Jews – were destroyed) it deeply shocked minorities throughout the country. [55] [56]

The present size of the Jewish Community was estimated at 17,400 in 2012 according to the Jewish Virtual Library. [57] The vast majority, approximately 95%, live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other much smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale, Edirne, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardi Jews make up approximately 96% of Turkey's Jewish population, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazi Jews and Jews from Italian extraction. There is also a small community of Romaniote Jews and the community of the Constantinopolitan Karaites who are related to each other.

The city of Antakya is home to ten Jewish families, many of whom are of Mizrahi Jewish extraction, having originally come from Aleppo, Syria, 2,500 years ago. Figures were once higher but families have left for Istanbul, Israel and other countries. [58]

Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Ishak Haleva, is assisted by a religious Council made up of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs. The Istanbul community also has 16 synagogues and well kept and guarded cemetery. [59]

In 2001, the Jewish Museum of Turkey was founded by the Quincentennial Foundation, an organisation established in 1982 consisting of 113 Turkish citizens, both Jews and Muslims, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire. [60]

The Turkish-Jewish population is experiencing a population decline, and has dwindled to 17,000 in a few years from an original figure of 23,000. This is due to both large-scale immigration to Israel out of fear of antisemitism, but also because of natural population decline. Intermarriage with Turkish Muslims and assimilation have become common, and the community's death rate is more than twice that of its birth rate. [61] [62]

According to researchers at Tel Aviv University, antisemitism in the media and books was creating a situation in which young, educated Turks formed negative opinions against Jews and Israel. [63] However, violence against Jews has also occurred. In 2003, an Istanbul dentist was murdered in his clinic by a man who admitted that he committed the crime out of antisemitic sentiment. In 2009, a number of Jewish students suffered verbal abuse and physical attacks, and a Jewish soldier in the Turkish Army was assaulted.

The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul has been attacked three times. [64] First on 6 September 1986, Arab terrorists gunned down 22 Jewish worshippers and wounded 6 during Shabbat services at Neve Shalom. This attacked was blamed on the Palestinian militant Abu Nidal. [65] [66] [67] The Synagogue was hit again during the 2003 Istanbul bombings alongside the Beth Israel Synagogue, killing 20 and injuring over 300 people, both Jews and Muslims alike. Even though a local Turkish militant group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks, police claimed the bombings were "too sophisticated to have been carried out by that group", [65] with a senior Israeli government source saying: "the attack must have been at least coordinated with international terror organizations". [67]

Traditionally, aliyah from Turkey to Israel has been low since the 1950s. Despite the antisemitism and occasional violence, Jews felt generally safe in Turkey. In the 2000s, despite surging antisemitism, including antisemitic incidents, aliyah remained low. In 2008, only 112 Turkish Jews emigrated, and in 2009, that number only rose to 250. [68] However, in the aftermath of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, antisemitism in Turkey increased and became more open, and it was reported that the community was also subjected to economic pressure. A boycott of Jewish businesses, especially textile businesses, took place, and Israeli tourists who had frequented the businesses of Turkish Jewish merchants largely stopped visiting Turkey. As a result, the number of Turkish Jews immigrating to Israel increased. [69] By September 2010, the Jewish population of Turkey had dropped to 17,000, from a previous population of 23,000 [70] Currently, the Jewish community is feeling increasingly threatened by extremists. In addition to safety concerns, some Turkish Jews also immigrated to Israel to find a Jewish spouse due to the increasing difficulty of finding one in the small Turkish Jewish community. In 2012, it was reported that the number of Jews expressing interest in moving to Israel rose by 100%, a large number of Jewish business owners were seeking to relocate their businesses to Israel, and that hundreds were moving every year. [71]

In October 2013, it was reported that a mass exodus of Turkish Jews was underway. Reportedly, Turkish Jewish families are immigrating to Israel at the rate of one family per week on average, and hundreds of young Turkish Jews are also relocating to the United States and Europe. [72]

Turkey is among the first countries to formally recognize the State of Israel. [73] Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically. Israel and Turkey have signed a multibillion-dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel. [74] In 2003 the Arkadaş Association was established in Israel. The Arkadaş Association is a Turkish–Jewish cultural center in Yehud, aiming to preserve the Turkish-Jewish heritage and promote friendship (Arkadaş being the Turkish word for Friend) between the Israeli and Turkish people. In 2004, the Ülkümen-Sarfati Society was established by Jews and Turks in Germany. The society, named after Selahattin Ülkümen and Yitzhak Sarfati, aims to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue and wants to inform the public of the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Turks and Jews. [75] [76]

The various migrations outside of Turkey has produced descendants of Turkish Jews in Europe, Israel, United States, and Canada. Today, there are still various synagogues that maintain Jewish-Turkish traditions.

The Sephardic Synagogue Sephardic Bikur Holim in Seattle, Washington was formed by Jews from Turkey, and still uses Ladino in some portions of the Shabbat services. They created a siddur called Zehut Yosef, written by Hazzan Isaac Azose, to preserve their unique traditions.

In recent years, several hundred Turkish Jews, who have been able to prove that they are descended from Jews expelled from Portugal in 1497, have emigrated to Portugal and acquired Portuguese citizenship. [77] [78] [79]

Ottoman History Podcast

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A History Of Fashion In The Ottoman Empire

Given the ardency of cultural development and growth during the Ottoman Empire’s heyday, it’s no surprise that certain elements of its history continue to inspire Turkish artists, chefs, and designers to this day. We take a look at the history of Ottoman clothing – from the sultan’s garments to the clothing worn by women of the court – for a small glimpse of those imperious days.

During the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire reached a peak of economic and political power. As such, the textile industry also witnessed a boom, with weaving techniques and the quality of fabrics at their pinnacle. Of course, the sultans would have nothing less than luxurious kaftans composed of the most expensive fabrics, with gold- or silver-plated threads. In order to supply the substantial demand, special workshops designed court apparel and furnishings, sometimes even placing orders to other workshops in Istanbul and Bursa in order to meet the high demand.

The stunning sultan kaftans (worn with şalvar, loose trousers) were made of fabrics such as brocade, velvet, satin and silk lampas, taffeta, mohair, and cashmere. International influence also played a major role, with various cloths ordered from renowned Italian weaving centers in Venice, Genoa, and Florence, as well as the diplomatic gifts from textile-rich countries such as Iran, India and China. One of most famous designs from this era was the Chintamani motif, which was composed of a wavy line with three circles. Other motifs such as flowers, branches with leaves, the sun, moon, stars, and the endless knot were also common. The sultan’s headgear was also a very important element of Ottoman fashion, beginning with the horasani (a woolen conical hat) and evolving to the mücevveze (a cylindrical hat wrapped in fine muslin).

As for the women belonging to the sultan’s family, a kaşbastı (a diadem embellished with a stone at the center) was worn on the head to indicate their rank. In the 17th century the head ornaments of women evolved, becoming increasingly ostentatious, with carefully selected set jewels. In the 16th century, a fez with a thin white scarf which covered the whole head and shoulders was also used. Women in the court wore an inner robe called an iç entari with an elaborate belt called the cevberi. These belts also became quite decorative, with attached jeweled daggers or embroidered key purses. As an outer layer, women also wore kaftans, which were lined with fur in the winter months, while all garments were made from the era’s prevalent textiles, such as brocade, silk and velvet.

During the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730), significant changes began to occur in clothing as Western influence took its hold. As women began to enter the recreational public sphere, their aesthetic also changed with the ferace (a plain outdoors overcoat) becoming more colorful and embellished with gilded trimmings and ribbons. Headgear with crests and covered by a thin white veil were worn by women, who also carried silk parasols with jeweled hand grips. A movement toward Westernization in dress during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II in the 17th century caused the Westernization of military apparel, as Ottoman sultans began to dress like Western commanders in darkly colored suits with embroidered borders, plus a fez. By the 1850s, women’s interest in European goods increased and orders were placed resulting in an import of fashion that changed the Ottoman style drastically.

Ottoman: A Curious Case

We've all been taught that the ottoman, the much coveted upholstered backless seat, received its title from its namesake empire, christened after its founder Osman I (‘Uthman' in Arabic). As per common belief, it was the norm back then for people to prop their feet on stools stacked with cushions at home or in tents. The credit for the ottoman's design goes to Turkish carpet weavers, who created such footrests using bales of cotton, says Debbie Koopman, a spokesperson at catalogue company Spiegel Inc. This method, in turn, was possibly derived from the ancient Egyptian technique of turning cloth and soft natural materials into low stools—a contraption meant to compensate for the sparsity of wood in the desert country. (The odd wooden frame would be padded with leather so it was comfortable to sit or kneel on.)

Photo caption: The furniture piece got its name due to its role in Turkish daily life. Photo by Perry Mastrovito via Getty Images

The Ottoman Empire - History

After a long decline since the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire came to an end in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I when it was dismantled by the Allies after the war ended in 1918.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the Ottoman Empire lost power and prestige

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I in the 14th century and reached its apex under Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, stretching from the Persian Gulf in the east to Hungary in the northwest and from Egypt in the south to the Caucasus in the north.
  • In the 19th century, the empire faced challenges in defending itself against foreign invasion and occupation it ceased to enter conflicts on its own and began to forge alliances with European countries such as France, the Netherlands, Britain, and Russia.
  • During the Tanzimat period of modernization, the government’s series of constitutional reforms led to a fairly modern conscripted army, banking system reforms, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the replacement of religious law with secular law and guilds with modern factories.
  • The Ottoman Empire had long been the “sick man of Europe” and after a series of Balkan wars by 1914 was driven out of nearly all of Europe and North Africa.
  • The Second Constitutional Era began after the Young Turk Revolution (July 3, 1908) with the sultan’s announcement of the restoration of the 1876 constitution and the reconvening of the Ottoman Parliament. This marked the beginning of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
  • The empire entered WWI as an ally of Germany, and its defeat and the occupation of part of its territory by the Allied Powers in the aftermath of the war resulted in its partitioning and the loss of its Middle Eastern territories, which were divided between the United Kingdom and France.
  • The successful Turkish War of Independence against the occupying Allies led to the emergence of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.

Key Terms

  • Tanzimat: Literally meaning “reorganization,” a period of reformation in the Ottoman Empire that began in 1839 and ended with the First Constitutional Era in 1876. This era was characterized by various attempts to modernize the Ottoman Empire and secure its territorial integrity against nationalist movements from within and aggressive powers from outside of the state.
  • Turkish War of Independence: A war fought between the Turkish nationalists and the proxies of the Allies – namely Greece on the Western front, Armenia on the Eastern, France on the Southern and with them, the United Kingdom and Italy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) – after some parts of Turkey were occupied and partitioned following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. It resulted in the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.
  • Young Turks: A political reform movement in the early 20th century that consisted of Ottoman exiles, students, civil servants, and army officers. They favored the replacement of the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government. Later, their leaders led a rebellion against the absolute rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. With this revolution, they helped to establish the Second Constitutional Era in 1908, ushering in an era of multi-party democracy for the first time in the country’s history.

Overview: The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire, was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the vicinity of Bilecik and Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans the Ottoman Beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a multinational, multilingual empire controlling much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. At the beginning of the 17th century, the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Some were later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.

With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. The Ottomans consequently suffered severe military defeats in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which prompted them to initiate a comprehensive process of reform and modernization known as the Tanzimat. The empire allied with Germany in the early 20th century and joined World War I with the imperial ambition of recovering its lost territories.

The Empire’s defeat and the occupation of part of its territory by the Allied Powers in the aftermath of World War I resulted in its partitioning and the loss of its Middle Eastern territories, which were divided between the United Kingdom and France. The successful Turkish War of Independence against the occupying Allies led to the emergence of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.

Decline and Modernization

Beginning in the late 18th century, the Ottoman Empire faced challenges defending itself against foreign invasion and occupation. In response to these threats, the empire initiated a period of tremendous internal reform which came to be known as the Tanzimat. This succeeded in significantly strengthening the Ottoman central state, despite the empire’s precarious international position. Over the course of the 19th century, the Ottoman state became increasingly powerful and rationalized, exercising a greater degree of influence over its population than in any previous era. The process of reform and modernization in the empire began with the declaration of the Nizam-ı Cedid (New Order) during the reign of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) and was punctuated by several reform decrees, such as the Hatt-ı Şerif of Gülhane in 1839 and the Hatt-ı Hümayun in 1856. By the end of this period in 1908, the Ottoman military was somewhat modernized and professionalized according to the model of Western European Armies.

During the Tanzimat period, the government’s series of constitutional reforms led to a fairly modern conscripted army, banking system reforms, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the replacement of religious law with secular law and guilds with modern factories.

Defeat and Dissolution

The defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1908–1922) began with the Second Constitutional Era, a moment of hope and promise established with the Young Turk Revolution. It restored the Ottoman constitution of 1876 and brought in multi-party politics with a two-stage electoral system (electoral law) under the Ottoman parliament. The constitution offered hope by freeing the empire’s citizens to modernize the state’s institutions, rejuvenate its strength, and enable it to hold its own against outside powers. Its guarantee of liberties promised to dissolve inter-communal tensions and transform the empire into a more harmonious place.

Instead, this period became the story of the twilight struggle of the Empire. The Second Constitutional Era began after the Young Turk Revolution (July 3, 1908) with the sultan’s announcement of the restoration of the 1876 constitution and the reconvening of the Ottoman Parliament. This era is dominated by the politics of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the movement that would become known as the Young Turks. Although it began as a uniting progressive party, the CUP splintered in 1911 with the founding of the opposition Freedom and Accord Party (Liberal Union or Entente), which poached many of the more liberal Deputies from the CUP. The remaining CUP members, who now took a more dominantly nationalist tone in the face of the enmity of the Balkan Wars, dueled Freedom and Accord in a series of power reversals that ultimately led to the CUP seizing power from the Freedom and Accord in the 1913 Ottoman coup d’état and establishing total dominance over Ottoman politics until the end of World War I.

The Young Turk government had signed a secret treaty with Germany and established the Ottoman-German Alliance in August 1914, aimed against the common Russian enemy but aligning the Empire with the German side. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I after the Goeben and Breslau incident, in which it gave safe harbor to two German ships that were fleeing British ships. These ships, officially transferred to the Ottoman Navy, but effectively still under German control, attacked the Russian port of Sevastopol, thus dragging the Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in the Middle Eastern theater.

The Ottoman involvement World War I in the Middle Eastern ended with the the Arab Revolt in 1916. This revolt turned the tide against the Ottomans at the Middle Eastern front, where they initially seemed to have the upper hand during the first two years of the war. When the Armistice of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918, the only parts of the Arabian peninsula still under Ottoman control were Yemen, Asir, the city of Medina, portions of northern Syria, and portions of northern Iraq. These territories were handed over to the British forces on January 23, 1919. The Ottomans were also forced to evacuate the parts of the former Russian Empire in the Caucasus (in present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), which they had gained towards the end of World War I after Russia’s retreat from the war with the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was solidified. The new countries created from the former territories of the Ottoman Empire currently number 39.

The occupations of Constantinople and Smyrna mobilized the Turkish national movement, which ultimately won the Turkish War of Independence. The formal abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate was performed by Grand National Assembly of Turkey on November 1, 1922. The Sultan was declared persona non grata and exiled from the lands that the Ottoman Dynasty ruled since 1299.

The Dissolution of the the Ottoman Empire: Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, November 17, 1922

Powerful Women of the Ottoman Empire

1. Hurrem Sultan, The Laughing One

Hurrem Sultan

Born in Ruthenia, in what is now Ukraine, a young girl named Roxelana was captured by Tartar soldiers who sold her to a slave market in Istanbul. What she couldn’t have known is that someday she’d earn the name Hurrem Sultan (The Laughing One) and become one of the most powerful women in the Ottoman Empire as the wife of Suleiman The Magnificent.

Writers of the day describe her beauty as legendary, and with her flaming red hair, she must have cut a striking figure. She was poised, strong-willed, and intelligent.

But she traversed a rocky road. Life from the outset had been pretty rough. At the slave market, she was purchased by Suleiman’s grand vizier and best friend, Ibrahim Pasha, who gave her as a gift to the sultan.

Roxelana knew she’d have to find a way amidst the thousands of concubines vying for the sultan’s favors. So she sought ways to keep her mind and her body healthy. It was imperative for her to learn the customs (such as when to bow and how to dress). And in a competitive world where everyone was a potential rival, she learned to use her intelligence wisely and sometimes ruthlessly.

With so many women vying for Suleiman’s attention, Roxelana knew she’d have her work cut out for her if she wanted to give him an heir. But fortune smiled on her and she gave birth to her first child, a son, Mehmed. That elevated her position but she fought for more, impressing the sultan with her intelligence. So much so in fact, that she advised him on matters of the state.
Soon Suleiman was devoted to her and she went on to have four more children with him. And over time, he married her. It was the first time in the history of this grand empire that a slave girl had become empress.

By the time she’d earned the title “Hurrem Sultan” she’d gained her freedom and focused on her political power, and she channeled her monetary resourcefulness into building charitable institutions, providing jobs for laborers and skilled craftsmen for her beneficent projects. This included charitable foundations like soup kitchens, hostels and mosques for pilgrims in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

By the time of her death in 1558, she left behind a legacy that only a few women in history have surpassed. Suleiman would follow her in death eight years later but she was such an inspiration to him that he wrote the following poem below.

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry-faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Constantinople my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad, and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of
Eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”

2. Turhan Hatice Sultan, The Killer Queen

Turhan Hatice Sultan

Like Hurrem Sultan, she was also a slave who became a favorite of the sultan. Captured in Russia when she was just 12 years old, she was sent to Topkapi palace as a gift from the King of Crimea to Kosem Sultan. It’s thought that Kosem Sultan gave young Turhan Hatice to her son Ibrahim as a concubine. In time, she gave birth to a son, Mehmed, who would become Mehmed IV. As Ibrahim’s favorite concubine she was given the title of “Haseki.”

But this was a time of conflict and Ibrahim was deposed in 1648 by his own son, Mehmed who became the sultan when he was just seven years old. Because he was so young, Hatice’s enemy, Kosem Sultan became regent. Hatice found herself passed over because she had no political backing in court. And Kosem Sultan ruled powerfully, dominating the court and awarding prestigious positions to her friends. Kosem also had the backing of the Janissary corps, the elite infantry troops of the Sultan’s household.

Hatice and Kosem were locked in a fierce battle for the next three years, but Hatice managed to gain supporters within the court, including the chief black eunuch, Suleyman Agha, and the grand vizier Siyavus Pasha. Kosem hoped to depose Mehmed IV and install Suleyman, his younger brother. The main reason she wanted to do this is that Suleyman’s mother was easier to manipulate than Hatice, who was ambitious. But her plan failed because Turhan Hatice learned of the plot through one of Kosem’s slaves. In September 1652 Suleyman Agha and his followers strangled Kosem with the cord from a curtain. That was followed up with the massacre of Kosem’s supporters in the court.

This led to a series of power struggles and factional strife because Turhan Hatice needed to find a vizier that was intelligent enough to handle these problems. Finally, in 1656, she settled on Koprulu Mehmed Pasha and transferred most of her power as regent to the new grand vizier. Now that she had things set in place, she could do the things she wanted to do, like building and repairing fortresses along the Bosporus, the Black Sea, and the Dardanelles. She built mosques and libraries with them and hundreds of books were donated. Proving to be one of the beloved powerful women of her time.

She died in 1683 and was buried alongside her son and their family at the “New Valide Mosque,” now called the Yeni Mosque in Istanbul Turkey. While she did indeed commit murder, she is beloved by her people because of her philanthropy.

3. Handan Sultan, The Smiling Queen

Born in 1574, there is some controversy surrounding her birthplace. Many historians, however, believe Handan, whose original name is likely Helena, was born in the Sanjak of Bosnia, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, in the region of Montenegro. While she was born into an influential family, she began her life in the same way as the women mentioned above, as a servant girl in the household of Cerrah Mehmed Pasha, the beylerbeyi (governor-general) of Rumelia Eyalet, a province in the Ottoman Empire that covered much of the present-day Balkans. Mehmed Pasha was a former cerrah, or surgeon and was the husband of Gevherhan Sultan. Handan was a beautiful woman, and she was presented as an imperial consort to prince Mehmed, the nephew of Mehmed Pasha. Young Mehmed ascended the throne after the death of his father in 1595 and Handan, whose name means “smiling” in Ottoman Turkish, accompanied him.

Handan gave birth to five children over the years and when Mehmed III died at 37 in 1603 she became Valide Sultan as the mother of the new sultan Ahmed I. Becoming Valide Sultan meant she was now the “legal mother” of a ruling sultan and it gave her new powers. Truly one of the powerful women of her time. But perhaps her toughest job was keeping watch over her son Ahmed, who did some pretty risky things like going out on hunts and conducting spur-of-the-moment incognito inspections in all kinds of weather during a time when there was plenty of conflict within the Ottoman empire. Young Ahmed earned a reputation for circumventing his mother’s wishes. And it looks like he did this easily because his mother was inexperienced in political affairs.

But her inexperience served her well, actually and she became beloved because she was apolitical. She was known to be kind, wise, and merciful, and overtime despite her political naivete, she ultimately helped her son run his empire successfully. And she loved entertaining her own people at her son’s court.

Sadly, she died at Topkapi palace when she was only 30-31 years old after a long illness.

Handan Sultan’s son, Ahmed I

4. Safiye Sultan, Protector of the Heritage

Growing up in the court of Suleiman The Magnificent, Safiye Sultan, born in Dukajini, Albania, dedicated her life to bringing back the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. She was one of the last prosperous and powerful women in the 16th century Ottoman Empire and was captured and sent to Topkapi palace while still a child, where she became a gift for Sultan Murad III when she was just 13.

Eventually becoming his chief wife, Safiye loved the traditions of the court, and that brought her many allies. In her mind, she needed to preserve the vision of the kingdom created by Hurrem Sultan and Suleiman. That belief was affirmed when the birth of her son coincided with the death of Suleiman, and she came to believe this was a sign from Allah. To her, this meant she was protected by the highest power. She lived a long and productive life, becoming a force in politics, becoming a key advisor to Murad and her son Mehmed III.

It’s believed she was about 69 when she died in Istanbul in 1619, having seen the reign of seven sultans: Suleiman The Magnificent, Selim II, Murad III, Mehmed III, Ahmed I, Mustafa I, and Osman II.

Sultan Murad III, husband of Safiye Sultan

5. Nurbanu Sultan, the Benevolent Haseki

Born Cecelia Venier-Baffo, she was born of an illegitimate liaison between two noble Venetian families and was captured at age 12 in 1537. Shortly after that, she became part of the Ottoman harem and the concubine of Selim II. Captivated by her beauty, it wasn’t long before the sultan married this woman who would become the mother of Murad III, and four daughters, Ismihan Sultan, Şah Sultan, Fatma Sultan, Gevherhan Sultan, Raziye Sultan.

And even after Selim acquired other concubines, she was still his favorite, thanks to her beauty and intelligence. As the mother of the heir apparent, young Murad, Nurbanu became an advisor to her husband. She was definitely astute, and even managed to hide the body of her husband in an icebox in 1574 until Murad could return from Manisa province, where he served as governor. On his arrival, she became one of his chief advisors. She’s also uniquely known as the first woman to become a member of the Sultanate of Women and formed an alliance with Catherine de Medici, the regent of France, establishing a relationship between the two countries.

But eventually, Nurbanu’s politics got her in trouble. She and her son were widely pro-Venetian, causing bad blood between the empire and the Republic of Genoa. It’s thought that her death in 1583 was at the hands of a Genoese agent.

Sultan Selim II, husband of Nurbanu Sultan

We quite often think of the Ottoman Empire as a repressive place for women, but each of the powerful women mentioned above persevered and fostered what surely became one of the world’s most powerful empires.

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Why the Ottoman Empire rose and fell

One of the greatest empires in history, the Ottomans reigned for more than 600 years before crumbling on the battlefields of World War I.

Known as one of history’s most powerful empires, the Ottoman Empire grew from a Turkish stronghold in Anatolia into a vast state that at its peak reached as far north as Vienna, Austria, as far east as the Persian Gulf, as far west as Algeria, and as far south as Yemen. The empire’s success lay in its centralized structure as much as its territory: Control of some of the world’s most lucrative trade routes led to vast wealth, while its impeccably organized military system led to military might. But all empires that rise must fall, and six centuries after the Ottoman Empire emerged on the battlefields of Anatolia, it fell apart catastrophically in the theater of World War I.

Osman I, a leader of a nomadic Turkic tribe from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), began conquering the region in the late 13th century by launching raids against the weakening Christian Byzantine Empire. Around 1299, he declared himself supreme leader of Asia Minor, and his successors expanded farther and farther into Byzantine territory with the help of foreign mercenaries.

In 1453, Osman’s descendants, now known as the Ottomans, finally brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees when they captured the seemingly unconquerable city of Constantinople. The city named for Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, then also became known as Istanbul (a version of stin polis, Greek for “in the city” or “to the city.”

Now a dynastic empire with Istanbul as its capital, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand across the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa. Though it was a dynasty, only one role—that of the supreme ruler, or sultan—was hereditary. The rest of the Ottoman Empire’s elite had to earn their positions regardless of birth.

Under the reign of Süleiman the Magnificent, whose 16th-century lifetime represented the peak of the Ottomans’ power and influence, the arts flourished, technology and architecture reached new heights, and the empire generally enjoyed peace, religious tolerance, and economic and political stability. But the imperial court left casualties behind, too: female slaves forced into sexual slavery as concubines male slaves expected to provide military and domestic labor and brothers of sultans, many of whom were killed or, later, imprisoned to protect the sultan from political challenges.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire was a real player in European politics and was home to more Christians than Muslims. But in the 17th century, it began to lose its stronghold. Until then, there had always been new territory to conquer and new lands to exploit, but after the empire failed to conquer Vienna for a second time in 1683, it began to weaken.

Political intrigue within the sultanate, strengthening of European powers, economic competition because of new trade routes, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution all destabilized the once peerless empire. By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was derisively called the “sick man of Europe” for its dwindling territory, economic decline, and increasing dependence on the rest of Europe.

It would take a world war to end the Ottoman Empire for good. Already weakened beyond recognition, Sultan Abdul Hamid II briefly flirted with the idea of constitutional monarchy before changing course in the late 1870s. In 1908, the reform-minded Young Turks staged a full-fledged revolt and restored the constitution.

The Young Turks who now ruled the Ottoman Empire wanted to strengthen it, spooking its Balkan neighbors. The Balkan Wars that followed resulted in the loss of 33 percent of the empire’s remaining territory and up to 20 percent of its population.

As World War I loomed, the Ottoman Empire entered into a secret alliance with Germany. The war that followed was disastrous. More than two thirds of the Ottoman military became casualties during World War I, and up to 3 million civilians died. Among them were around 1.5 million Armenians who were wiped out in massacres and in death marches during their expulsion from Ottoman territory. In 1922, Turkish nationalists abolished the sultanate, bringing an end to what was once of history’s most successful empires.



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