Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire - Islam's greatest empire

Beginning as a small emirate in central Turkey in 1299 the Sublime Ottoman State eventually stretched from the Canary Islands to Aceh (Indonesia) and at its peak under Suleiman the Magnificent the sultanate was bigger than the Roman Empire controlling the entire Middle East, northern Africa, the Balkans and dominated the eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Her armies besieged the Holy Roman Empire’s capital of Vienna twice and Christendom lived in awe and fear of her splendour and might.

Named after the empire’s first Sultan, Osman I, within a century the empire had absorbed most of the Byzantine Empire and threatened Constantinople which fell in 1453. The Ottoman capital was moved from Adrianople to Constantinople and the empire flourished with its control of the trade routes between Europe and Asia, secured by an innovative and loyal army and powerful navy. Muslim control of the trade routes to Asia was one motive in Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the Indies. During the 44 year reign of Suleiman the Magnificent he expanded the empire into central Europe and took Mesopotamia (Iraq) from the Persians and Tunisia and Algeria from the Spanish. While the Spanish Inquisition persecuted Muslims and Jews, he provided a sanctuary to both with Thessaloniki eventually boasting the largest Jewish population in the empire. Geographically the empire peaked in 1683 with its failed second attempt to capture Vienna and over the following 250 years the empire shrank, pressured from all directions.

Stagnation and Decline

The main threat to the Ottoman Empire came from Russia who laid claim to Rome’s mantle and dreamed of controlling the Bosporus Straits separating Europe and Asia. Russia spread through the Caucasus and set its sights on the Balkans. Western determination to prevent Russian expansion resulted in Britain and France propping up the Ottomans throughout the 19th Century. In WWI  Russia was promised its long awaited prize but the downfall of the Tsars thwarted them. The Habsburgs inched back the Ottomans over the centuries and internal weaknesses allowed the Serbs, Romanians, Greeks and Montenegrins to secure independence and gobble up Ottoman territory, taking the last slices in 1912. The French took Algeria in 1830, Djibouti in 1862 and Tunisia in 1881. The Ottoman Albanian governor, Mohammad Ali sent to reform Egypt in 1805 established de facto independence for the province which grew to challenge the power of the Sultan himself. Later in the century the British exploited Egypt’s financial woes caused by financing the Suez Canal and assumed real control of Egypt and Sudan in 1882. The Italians began taking Somaliland and Eritrea in 1882, took Libya in 1911 and the Dodecanese Islands in 1912.

By the beginning of the 20th Century the Ottoman Empire resembled a wounded animal with vultures circling waiting for the carcass to drop. In 1908 the Young Turk Revolution sought to reform and modernise the empire but by siding with Germany in WWI  their fate was sealed, being defeated in 1918. The victorious Allies carved up their empire and even sought to dismember Turkey itself but the war hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk united the nation, repulsed invaders and forced the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire on 1st November 1922. Atatürk then began one of the most comprehensive modernisations of a country in history.

Religion in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was surprisingly tolerant of all religions within its territory. The empire’s population was grouped into various ‘Millet’s’ which grouped people according to their religion rather than nationality and considerable autonomy was provided to each Millet to administer its own affairs. Initially there were five Millets – Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Jewish, but during the 19th Century the number of Millets grew to 17 as Catholics, Protestants and various other branches of Christian Orthodoxy were recognised and permitted to manage their own affairs. The first rulers of the Islamic community following the Prophet Muhammad had taken the title Caliph and with it came a sacred duty to provide spiritual guidance and protection to the worldwide Muslim community, as well as political power. Sultan Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, was the first Ottoman ruler to claim the title Caliph by virtue of the last Abbasid Caliph (in Cairo) relinquishing the title following his defeat. In 1924 the Turkish parliament abolished the institution of Caliphacy and the symbols of office; the Prophet of Islam’s sword and cloak are now exhibits in Istanbul’s dazzling Topkapı Palace Museum.