‘The religious and political problems of sixteenth-century Europe – so vast, so intricate in themselves, so enmeshed in social change and cultural reorientation – were consistently rendered more complicated and more intractable by the holy war which Islam had vowed against unbelievers.’ Richard MacKenney, Sixteenth-Century Europe (1993), 243.The empire therefore cannot be seen in purely secular terms. Religious considerations often dictated policy. The attacks on Rhodes (1522), Malta (1565) and Cyprus (1570) were designed to secure Muslim pilgrims’ access to the holy places. The infidels were also the Shi‘ites of Persia.
The Ottoman Advance
The term Ottoman is derived from Osman (Arabic: 'Uthman), the nomadic chief who founded both the dynasty and the empire. In 1300 Osman ruled one of the petty Muslim emirates of Turkish Anatolia, a frontier principality between the Byzantine Empire in the West and the Seljuk Turks in the east. A series of military victories led to the creation of a world power with 9,000 miles of borders, stretching from Hungary to the Persian gulf, sharing a common currency, the dinar.
The Osman dynasty came to power in a principality dedicated to holy war or gaza. As the major Muslim rivals of Byzantium, the Ottomans attracted masses of nomads and urban unemployed and created a huge, well-organized and highly disciplined army. They were able to take advantage of the decay of the Byzantine frontier defence system and the rise of economic, religious, and social discontent in the Byzantine Empire. Beginning with Osman and continuing under his successors Orhan (Orkhan, ruled 1324-60) and Murad I (ruled 1360-89), the Ottomans took over Byzantine territories, first in western Anatolia and then in southeastern Europe.
In March 1354, when an earthquake destroyed the walls of Gallipoli, the Ottomans under Süleyman landed in Europe. In 1361 Murad I captured Adrianople, the second city of the Byzantine Empire. Renamed Edirne, the city became the new Ottoman capital, providing the Ottomans with a centre for the administrative and military control of Thrace. As the main fortress between Constantinople and the Danube, it controlled the principal invasion road through the Balkan Mountains, assured Ottoman retention of their European conquests, and facilitated further expansion to the north.
After this, Europeans no longer talked of a crusade to recover the Holy Land – instead they recognized the need to protect Constantinople.
Murad incorporated many European vassals. He retained local native rulers, who in return accepted his suzerainty, paid annual tributes, and provided contingents for his army when required. This policy enabled the Ottomans generally to avoid local resistance by assuring rulers and subjects that their lives, properties, traditions, and positions would be preserved if they peacefully accepted Ottoman rule. It also enabled the Ottomans to govern the newly conquered areas without building up a vast administrative system of their own or maintaining substantial occupation garrisons.
Murad captured Macedonia in 1371, central Bulgaria in 1382, Sofia in 1385. This culminated in the defeat of the Balkan allies at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, during which Murad was killed. South of the Danube only Wallachia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, and the Serbian fort of Belgrade remained outside Ottoman rule, and to the north Hungary alone was in a position to resist further Muslim advances.
In the early 15th century their power was temporarily checked by the last Mongol eruption led by Timur the Lame (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). But as the century progressed Constantinople became more vulnerable.
The Fall of Constantinople
The fall of Constantinople to the vast army and heavy cannon of the forces of Mehmed II (the Conqueror reigned 1451 -1481) was one of the most traumatic and symbolic events in European history, marking the end of the Roman Empire in the east. Mehmed changed the city’s name to Istanbul and the Church of Hagia Sophia was turned into the mosque of Aye Sofya, while the cross was later replaced by a minaret.
Istanbul was to become Europe’s greatest capital. In 1453 it was a city in decay with only 30-40,000 inhabitants. Within a century it was to contain half a million people, of whom only half were Turks. It was probably six times the size of Venice and five times bigger than Paris. In strategic terms it was the ideal base for operations in Hungary or the Mediterranean.
In 1463 Mehmed II invaded Bosnia, causing large scale conversions to Islam. His successor, Bayezid II, conquered Herzegovina in 1483, leaving only Belgrade outside Ottoman control. The Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (ruled 1458-90) was interested mainly in establishing his rule over Bohemia and agreed to peace with the Ottomans (1484).
The wars with Venice
The Empire fought a long series of campaigns against Venice between 1463 and 1479. In 1479 Venice was forced to cede Albania to the Ottomans in 1479, but it continued to encourage revolts against the sultan in the Morea (the area of Greece south of the Gulf of Corinth), Dalmatia, and Albania. It gained control of Cyprus in 1489 and built there a major naval base, which it used as a base for pirate-raids against Ottoman shipping and shores. Between 1499 and 1503 the Ottomans and Venice were at war again. Bayezid conquered the last Venetian ports in the Morea, thus establishing bases for complete Ottoman naval control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet emerged for the first time as a major Mediterranean naval power, and the Ottomans became an integral part of European diplomatic relations. But Bayezid could not follow up all his military gains because he was faced with Shi’ite revolts in eastern Anatolia.
Mamluks and Persians
Bayezid’s troubles show that Ottoman rule was not unchallenged in the Muslim world. At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries the Ottomans had two Muslim neighbours. The older of the two was the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt, with its capital in Cairo, ruling over all Syria and Palestine and the holy places of Islam in Arabia. In 1517 Selim I (‘the Grim’, r. 1512-20) captured the Mamluk empire, and Egypt and its dependencies were incorporated into the empire. This gave the Ottomans access to the great Egyptian granaries and the gold resources of the Sudan.
The other Muslim power was Persia, united by a new and religiously militant dynasty. The founder of the dynasty, Shah Ismail Safavi (reigned 1501-24), a Turkish-speaking Shi‘ite from Azerbaijan, brought Iran under a single ruler and ended a tradition of tolerance by imposing Shi ‘ism on his Sunni subjects and advanced into Anatolia. For a brief period it seemed as if there might be an anti-Ottoman alliance between Christendom and Persia. In 1523 Shah Ismail sent a letter to Charles V expressing surprise that the European powers were fighting each other instead of joining forces against the Ottomans. (The emperor did not send a reply until 1529 by which time the shah had been dead five years!)
Süleyman the Magnificent
Süleyman whom Christians called 'The Magnificent', (reigned 1520-66) ruled over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and over the seats of the former caliphates of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. With the capture of Mesopotamia in 1534 the Ottomans had access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian spice trade, though here they came up against the Portuguese. Under him, the Ottoman Empire became a world power and his title ‘emperor of Islam, the king of kings, the greatest emperor of Constantinople, the lord of Egypt, Asia and Europe… the master of the universal sea’ hardly seemed inappropriate.
Under Süleyman, there were also further conquests of the Christian world. Belgrade was attacked in 1521. In 1522 the Turks attacked Rhodes, which was held by the 6,000 troops of the crusading Knights of St John. As with Belgrade, Süleyman encountered more resistance than he expected and allowed for the peaceful evacuation of the garrison in 1523. (The Knights retreated to Malta.) For a vivid account of the siege see Roger Cowley's Empires of the Sea, reviewed here.
Hungary, with its weak monarchy and squabbling aristocracy, was in no position to withstand the Ottoman advance from Belgrade in 1526. At the battle of Mohács in 1526 Turkish cannon inflicted one of the worst military defeats in the history of Christian Europe. The young king Louis (right) was killed and much of Hungary became a client kingdom of the Ottoman empire.
A challenge was mounted by his brother-in-law, the Archduke Ferdinand (Charles V’s brother and the future Emperor), who was elected king of Hungary at the Diet of Pressburg (Bratislava). After suppressing revolts within Turkey Süleyman advanced on Vienna in 1529, taking Buda en route. Had Vienna fallen, it would have opened up a path to Germany. But after a two-month siege, the Turks fell back. In 1532 Ferdinand and the Sultan signed a treaty.
Characteristics of Turkish rule
The sultan enjoyed absolute power in the appointment of his ministers, the most important of whom was the grand vizier. The sultan and his advisers formed the chief law court or divan and sought guidance from the ulema, the body of clerics who interpreted Islamic law.
The sultan’s role was not hereditary – the office passed from one holy warrior to another. Because kinship ties were weak, sultans often came to office through fratricide.
The sultans Replaced the jurisdiction of feudal lords with a centralized administration. Turkish historians claim that Ottoman centralization benefited the peasants, relieving them of the most oppressive labour dues. This might help to explain why they met with little resistance in the Balkan lands.
The janissaries: Ottoman armies had previously been composed of Turcoman tribal levies, who were loyal to their clan leaders, but as the Empire acquired the characteristics of a state, it became necessary to have paid troops loyal only to the sultan. The sultan’s power was guaranteed by his elite corps of infantry, the janissaries, (corruption of Turkish words meaning ‘yeni new and çeri, troops’) which was Europe's first standing army. They were formed initially from Christian prisoners of war after the capture of Adrianople (1361), and later from Christian children in the Balkans. Technically slaves, they were directly under his command and not allowed to marry or wear beards. With their long cloaks and feathered turbans, armed with scimitars and arquebuses, they were the most highly disciplined fighting force in the world.
Sipahis and timariots: The army was supplemented by the household cavalry, the sipahis. The bulk of the regular army was formed of the holders of timars, military fiefs who had either to serve as cavalry or provide a number of horsemen according to the size of the fief. In contrast to western feudalism, these fiefs were not hereditary and were redistributed after the holder’s death. This provided an incentive for military advance as conquest would provide more land for distribution.
The army was probably 80,000 strong and equipped with fine cannon manufactured by Europeans.
The navy: The navy was enhanced by many Greeks who served as sailors in the fleet.
The system by which Christian children became janissaries was known as devshirme. It also applied to the administration of the empire.
Commissioners were sent out to each governmental district, where they toured the villages. It was the duty of each Christian father to wait upon the commissioner with all his male children between the ages of 8 and 20. Parents with only one son were exempt. Those thought to be the fittest and most intelligent were chosen as tribute to the sultan. They were then taken to places of special training, turned into Muslims and given the best possible education, tutored by the palace eunuchs. When their education was completed, the most talented entered the-Sultan's service in the palace - a civil service based on merit. Most of the other joined the Janissaries.
For all its religious fervour, the regime was in practice pragmatic. The conquering Turks were few in number and lacked the governmental and technical skills of the people they conquered.
The relative tolerance of their Christian and Jewish subjects was part of Islamic holy law relating to ahl al dhimma (people of the covenant). Jews and Christians were deemed to have some insight, though grossly imperfect, of true religion. In return for freedom to practise their religion, the subject population was obliged to pay a special tax and wear dress that distinguished them from Muslims.
One of Mehmed II's first acts when he captured Constantinople was to appoint Gennadius as Patriarch. Though Hagia Sophia had been turned into a mosque, he specifically spared the Church of the Holy Apostles as the patriarchal church. This led to rumours that he was ready to convert to Christianity. Pius II wrote to him warning him against the Orthodox religion!
The Jews: Bayezid’s policy of economic expansion led to his encouragement of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 to immigrate to the Ottoman Empire. They settled particularly in Istanbul, Salonika, and Edirne, where they joined their coreligionists in a golden age of Ottoman Jewry that lasted well into the 17th century. They were allowed to practise their religion. By mid-16th century Istanbul had the world's largest Jewish community. Jews traded, practised medicine, and introduced the printing press.
The West reacted with panic to the Ottoman threat, but in spite of calls for a Christian alliance, failed to unite. Venice was initially reluctant to commit itself to war because of its dependence on Ottoman grain supplies. France was prepared to ally with Ottomans against Habsburgs. Both France and England were unwilling to forgo Levantine trade. Papal pronouncements that the Ottoman advance was a judgement from God often fell on deaf ears.
The image of the Turk was at first a crude caricature. But travellers to the Ottoman Empire reported a different story - most notably de Busbecq, imperial ambassador at Constantinople.
There were important cultural implications for Europe: Anatolian carpets, Turkish baths, and coffee. In 1618 English traders established a coffee factory at Mocha in the Yemen. The Empire was also the bridge by which Europeans (especially the Portuguese) explored other cultures. It was a transit for Persian products. In 1619 the first Persian silk arrived in England.
Ottoman feelings of cultural and religious superiority meant that they had very little interest in Europe - apart from an admiration of western weapons. German firearms a revelation to a cavalry armed with bow and arrow, sword and shield! After 1590 they began to manufacture their own firearms. Western science was ignored but not Western consumer goods. European cloth was imported through Istanbul.
The beginnings of decline?
The 1530s showed both the strengths and weaknesses of the Ottomans. In 1537 Corfu withstood an Ottoman siege. (If it had been captured it would have been the base for an invasion of Italy.) But in the following year the combined fleets of Venice, Genoa and the pope under the Venetian admiral, Andrea Doria, was defeated by the corsair Khair ad-Din (Barbarossa) off Prevesa in the Ionian Sea.
After this the Venetians prepared for war at sea in what they saw as a long war or attrition. In 1539 Venice doubled its reserve fleet to 50 galleys.
The Mediterranean was now the major theatre of war, with Philip II inheriting his father’s problems. In May 1565 a Turkish fleet with 40,000 troops landed at Malta. (MacKenney, 258-9) The Christians held out for four months until relieved by Don Garcia de Toledo, the viceroy of Sicily. As with Vienna and Corfu this highlighted Ottoman problems in mounting successful sieges. It was the real turning point in the naval war against the Christians’.
Süleyman died at the siege of Szigeth in Hungary in 1566 at the age of 72. His successor Selim (‘the Sot’) the son of the ambitious senior wife Roxolana, was no warrior and reflected the decline in the personal qualities of the Sultans. As they declined, the viziers became more powerful, but their practice of selling offices to the highest bidder led to a huge decline in the quality of the Empire’s administrators. The timariot was also changing as land was not distributed not for prowess in battle but at the whim of the provincial governors. The janissaries had been given permission to marry by Süleyman and they were now demanding that their sons be allowed to join the corps.
In 1570 the Turks attacked Cyprus and took Nicosia. The Venetian government appealed for help to Don John of Austria, Philip II’s half-brother.
In May 1571 a Holy League was formed of Spain, the papacy and Venice, but before a fleet could be got ready to sail, Famagosta had fallen. The Venetian defender Marc’ Antonio Bragadin was cruelly put to death. His skin is preserved in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.
In October, the combined Venetian, Spanish and papal fleet defeated the Turkish fleet under Ali Pasha at Lepanto on 7 October in the Gulf of Patras in Greece. It shattered the myth of Ottoman invincibility at sea, and ended the 'Golden Age' of the Ottoman Empire.
‘The fleet of the divinely guided Empire encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels and the will of Allah turned the other way.’In Ottoman histories this is known as the ‘rout’. The Turks never again risked a naval confrontation with Christendom on such a scale.
For G.K. Chesterton's rousing and very politically incorrect poem, Lepanto (1915), see here.
However, the importance of Lepanto should not be exaggerated. The Venetians were forced to recognize the loss of Cyprus and to pay an indemnity of 300,000 ducats. In 1573 Venice withdrew from the Holy League, and the Turks assembled an even greater fleet off Tunis and captured the city in the following year. In 1581 Philip II and Selim made a truce – a recognition that both sides faced serious problems: Philip was dealing with the Netherlands revolt and Selim with Persia.
The Ottomans were to remain a threat until the late 17th century. They laid siege to Vienna as late as 1683.