The Rise of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire

[Excerpted from Turkey: A Country Study. Paul M. Pitman III, ed. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1987]

Turkish Origins

The first historical references to the Turks appear in Chinese records of about 200 B.C. These records refer to tribes called the Hsiung-nu, an early form of the Western term Hun, who lived in an area bounded by the Altai Mountains, Lake Baikal, and the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and are believed to have been the ancestors of the Turks. Specific references in Chinese sources in the sixth century A.D. identify the tribal kingdom called Tu-Küe located on the Orkhon River south of Lake Baikal. The khans (chiefs) of this tribe accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Tang dynasty. The earliest known example of writing in a Turkic language was found in that area and can be dated from about A.D. 730.

Other Turkish nomads from the Altai region founded the Görtürk Empire, a confederation of tribes under a dynasty of khans whose influence extended during the sixth to eighth centuries from the Aral Sea to the Hindu Kush in the land bridge known as Transoxania, i.e., across the Oxus River. The Görtürks are known to have been enlisted by a Byzantine emperor in the seventh century as allies against the Sassanians. In the eighth century some Turkish tribes, among them the Oguz, moved south of the Oxus River, while others migrated west to the northern shore of the Black Sea.

Great Seljuk Sultanate

The Turkish migrations after the sixth century were part of a general movement of peoples out of central Asia during the first millennium A.D. that was influenced by a number of interrelated factors--climatic changes, the strain of growing populations on a fragile pastoral economy, and pressure from stronger neighbors also on the move. Among those caught up in this spirit of restlessness on the steppes were the Oguz Turks, who had embraced Islam in the tenth century and established themselves around Bukhara in Transoxania under their khan, Seljuk. Split by dissension among the tribes, one branch of the Oguz had gone to India, while another, led by descendants of Seljuk, struck out to the west and entered service with the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, who were the spiritual leaders of Islam as well as temporal rulers of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Persia.

Known as gazis (warriors of the Islamic faith), the Turkish horsemen were organized in tribal bands to defend the frontiers of the caliphate, often against their own kinsmen. In 1055, however, a Seljuk khan, Tugrul Bey (reigned 1055-63), occupied Baghdad at the head of an army composed of gazis and Mamluks (slave-soldiers, usually Circassians and Kurds). Tugrul forced the caliph to recognize him as sultan (temporal leader) in Persia and Mesopotamia. His regime eliminated Arabs from government and relied entirely on a corps of Persian ministers to administer what came to be known as the Great Seljuk sultanate.

As they engaged in state building, the Seljuks also emerged as the champions of Sunni Islam against the Shia. Tugrul's successor, Mehmed ibn Daud (reigned 1063-72)--better known as Alp Arslan (the "Lion Hero")--prepared for a campaign against the Shia Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. However, he was forced to divert his attention to Anatolia by the gazis on whose endurance and mobility the Seljuks depended. The Seljuk elite could not persuade these tribesmen to live within the framework of a bureaucratic Persian state, content with collecting taxes and patrolling trade routes. Each year the gazis cut deeper into Byzantine territory, raiding the infidels and taking booty according to their tradition. Some hired on as mercenaries in the private wars of Byzantine nobles and occasionally settled on land they had taken. The Seljuks followed the gazis into Anatolia in order to keep control over them. In 1071 Alp Arslan routed the Byzantine army at Manzikert near Lake Van, opening all of Anatolia to conquest by the Turks.

Armenia had been annexed by the Byzantine Empire in 1045, but religious animosity between the Armenians and the Greeks prevented the two Christian peoples from cooperating against the Turks on the frontier. When their homeland fell to the Seljuks after the Battle of Manzikert, large numbers of Armenians were dispersed throughout the empire, many of them settling in Constantinople, where in its centuries of decline they became generals and statesmen as well as craftsmen, builders, and traders.

Sultanate of Rum

Within ten years of the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuks had won control of Anatolia. Although successful in the west, the Seljuk sultanate in Baghdad reeled under attacks from the Mongols in the east and was unable--indeed unwilling--to exert its authority directly in the newly conquered territories in Anatolia. The gazis carved out a number of states there, under the nominal suzerainty of Baghdad, which were continually reinforced by further Turkish immigration. The strongest of them to emerge was the Seljuk sultanate of Rum ("Rome," i.e., Byzantine Empire), which had its capital at Iconium (Konya). During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Rum attained a position of dominance over the other Turkish states .

The sultanate of Rum was a tribal confederation. Sovereignty resided in the ruling family from whom the sultan, or paramount khan, was chosen and not in the person of the sultan himself. Tribal loyalty was likewise directed to the family rather than to an individual member of it, and succession to the sultanate was routinely challenged by one or more relatives. The sultan was essentially a military leader who left government in the hands of able Persian viziers (vice-regents). Beneath the sultan in the hierarchy of the Seljuk warrior elite were amirs (governors), who held military command in satellite provinces. Under the amirs were the begs (autonomous regional commanders) whose gazi troops were engaged by the Byzantine marcher lords or, more frequently, who looked for private wars to fight among themselves for plunder.

The social and economic structure of the Anatolian countryside was unchanged by the Seljuks, who had simply replaced Byzantine officials with a new elite that was Turkish and Muslim. Conversion to Islam and the imposition of the language, mores, and customs of the Turks progressed steadily in the countryside, facilitated by intermarriage. The cleavage widened, however, between the unruly gazi warriors and the state-building bureaucracy in Konya.

The Crusades

The success of the Seljuk Turks stimulated a response from Europe in the form of the First Crusade. A counteroffensive launched in 1097 by the Byzantine emperor with the aid of Western crusaders dealt the Turks a decisive defeat. Konya fell to the crusaders, who compelled the Turks to provide them with reconnaissance on their march to Jerusalem. In a few years of campaigning, Byzantine rule was restored in the western third of Anatolia, and the crusaders carved out feudal states there and in Syria as vassals of the emperor.

A Turkish revival in the 1140s nullified many of the Christian gains, but greater damage was done to Byzantine security by dynastic strife in Constantinople in which the largely French contingents of the Fourth Crusade and their Venetian allies intervened. In 1204 the crusaders installed Count Baldwin of Flanders in the Byzantine capital as emperor of the so-called Latin Empire, dismembering the old empire into tributary states where Western feudal institutions were transplanted intact. Independent Greek kingdoms were established at Nicaea and Trebizond and in Epirus from remnant Byzantine provinces. Turks allied with Greeks in Anatolia against the Latins; Greeks allied with Turks against the Mongols. In 1261 Michael Palaologus of Nicaea drove the Latins from Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire but as an essentially Balkan state reduced in size to Thrace and northwestern Anatolia.

Rum survived in the late thirteenth century as a vassal of the Mongols, who had already subjugated the Great Seljuk sultanate at Baghdad. Mongol influence in the region had disappeared by the 1330s, leaving behind gazi amirates that competed for supremacy. From the chaotic conditions that prevailed throughout the Middle East, however, a new power emerged in Anatolia--that of the Ottoman Turks.


Documentation of the early history of the Ottomans is scarce. According to semilegendary accounts, Estugrul, khan of the Kayi tribe of the Oguz Turks, fled from Persia in the mid-thirteenth century to escape the Mongol hordes and took service with the sultan of Rum at the head of a gazi force numbering "400 tents." He was granted territory--if he could seize and hold it--in Bithynia, facing the Byzantine strongholds at Bursa, Nicomedia (Izmit), and Nicaea. Leadership subsequently passed to Estugrul's son, Osman I (reigned ca. 1299-1326), the eponymous founder of the Osmanli dynasty--better known in the West as the Ottomans-- that was to endure for 600 years.

Osman I's small amirate attracted gazis--who required plunder from new conquests to maintain their way of life--from other amirates, siphoning off their strength while giving the Ottoman state a military stature that was out of proportion to its size. Osman I, who acquired the title sultan, organized a politically centralized administration in Sögüt that subordinated the activities of the gazis to its needs and facilitated rapid territorial expansion. Bursa fell in the final year of his reign. His successor, Orkhan (reigned 1326-59), crossed the Dardanelles in force and established a permanent European base at Gallipoli in 1354. Murad I (reigned 1359-89) annexed most of Thrace (called Rumelia, or "Roman land," by the Turks), encircling Constantinople, and moved the seat of Ottoman government to Adrianople (present-day Edirne). In 1389 the Ottoman gazis defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosóvo, where Murad lost his life. The steady stream of Ottoman victories in the Balkans continued under Bayezid I (reigned 1389-1403). Bulgaria was subdued in 1393, and in 1396 a French-led crusade that had crossed the Danube from Hungary was annihilated at Nicopolis.

In Anatolia, however, where Ottoman policy had been directed toward consolidating the sultan's hold over the gazi amirates through conquest, usurpation, and purchase, the Ottomans were confronted by the Mongol hordes under Timur Lenk (Tamerlane), to whom many of the Turkish gazis had defected. Timur crushed Ottoman forces near Ankara in 1402 and captured Bayezid I, who, according to tradition, was displayed in an iron cage. The unfortunate sultan died in captivity the next year, leaving four heirs who for a decade competed for control of what remained of Ottoman Anatolia after Timur had restored the Seljuk amirs. Recovery of Ottoman prestige was slow, but Anatolia was gradually reabsorbed, and in the 1420s Ottoman power had revived sufficiently to undertake fresh campaigns in Greece.

Aside from scattered outposts in Greece, all that remained of the Byzantine Empire was its capital, Constantinople. Cut off by land since 1365, the city, despite long periods of truce with the Turks, was supplied and reinforced by Venetian intermediaries, who made it possible for Constantinople to carry on its commerce by sea. On becoming sultan in 1451, Mehmed II (reigned 1451-81) immediately planned the systematic reduction of the city's stillformidable defenses. The military campaigning season of 1453 commenced with the fifty-day siege of Constantinople, during which Mehmed II brought warships overland on greased runners into the Golden Horn (inlet of the Bosporus Strait, port of Constantinople) to bypass the chain barrage and fortresses that had blocked the entrance to Constantinople's harbor. On May 29 the Turks fought their way through the gates of the city and brought the siege to a successful conclusion.

News of the fall of Constantinople was heard with horror in Europe, but as an isolated military action it did not have a critical effect on European security. To the Ottoman Empire, however, the capture of the imperial capital was of supreme symbolic importance. Mehmed II, a man of culture and learning as well as a superb warrior, regarded himself as the successor of the Byzantine emperors without a break in continuity. He made Constantinople the capital of the Ottoman Empire as it had been of the Byzantine Empire, and he set about rebuilding the city. The basilica of Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, and Constantinople--which the Turks called Istanbul (from the Greek phrase eis tin polin, "to the city")--replaced Baghdad as the center of Sunni Islam. But Constantinople also remained the ecclesiastical center of the Greek church, of which Mehmed II proclaimed himself the protector and for which he appointed a new patriarch after the custom of the Byzantine emperors.

Ottoman Institutions

The administrative institutions characteristic of the late Ottoman Empire had already taken shape in the fourteenth century during the reigns of the first sultans. At the apex of the hierarchical Ottoman system was the person of the sultan, who acted in a number of capacities--political, military, judicial, social, and religious--under a variety of titles. Officially the sultan was called padishah (Persian for high king or emperor). Among the Turks he was, as his nomadic warrior forebears had been, the khan, a master of the tribal ruling class. For his Christian subjects he was the "emperor"; later, among the Arabs under Ottoman rule, he was the imam (religious leader), the protector of Islam. He was theoretically responsible only to God and God's law--the Islamic seriat (Arabic sharia), of which he was the chief executor. All offices were filled by his authority, and all legislation was issued by him in the form of a firman (decree). He was supreme military commander, and he had basic title to all land. During a period of Ottoman expansion in Arabia, Selim I (reigned 1512-20) also adopted the title caliph, indicating that he was the universal Muslim ruler. Although theocratic and absolute in theory and in principle, the sultan's powers were in practice limited. The attitudes of important members of the dynasty, the bureaucratic and military establishments, and religious leaders had to be considered. Ultimately, the extent of authority exercised by a particular sultan depended on his personality rather than on a constitutional formula.

The Ottoman Empire inherited many Byzantine institutions that came to be overlaid with Islamic ideology and Turkish customs. It was an Islamic empire--as the Byzantine had been a Christian empire--that was literally the private holding of the Osmanli family from whom the concept of the Ottoman state could not be separated. The ruling house and the empire's civil and military ruling class were considered Ottomans. For generation after generation, heirs to the throne were the product of mixed parentage, born to wives or concubines of the sultan who came from many different ethnic groups, while the ruling class was recruited from subject peoples.

Three characteristics were necessary for acceptance into the ruling class: Islamic faith, loyalty to the sultan, and compliance with the standards of behavior of the Ottoman court. The last qualification effectively separated the Ottomans from the Turks in language and in manners. The language of the court and government was Ottoman Turkish, a hybrid, highly formalized linguistic concoction laced with Persian and Arabic loanwords. In time Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were also employed in state service, usually in diplomatic, technical, or commercial capacities.

The elite operated within a hierarchical structure that contained five separate categories of service. The highest was the "inner-service," composed of the sultan, his family and harem, and his personal attendants. The "outer-service" included high-ranking government officials. A third category included military commanders and landholders and a fourth, the bureaucracy. Lastly, the ulama (Islamic scholars and theologians) consisted of judges in the seriat courts and religious teachers. Collectively, all members of the elite, civil as well as military, were known as askeri (soldiers), a term that reflected the pervasive influence of gazi mythology. But whatever their rank or background, servants of the state were considered the "slaves" of the sultan, in theory to be used and disposed of at his discretion.

The day-to-day conduct of government and the formulation of policy were in the hands of the divan, a relatively small council of ministers that met regularly under the direction of its chief minister, the grand vizier. The entranceway to the public buildings in which the divan met--and which in the seventeenth century became the residence of the grand vizier--was called the Babiali (High Gate, or Sublime Porte). In diplomatic correspondence, the term Porte (for Sublime Porte) was synonymous with the Ottoman government, a usage that acknowledged the power wielded by the grand vizier.

The Ottoman Empire had Turkish roots and rested on Islamic foundations, but from the start it was a heterogeneous mixture of ethnic groups and religious creeds. Ethnicity was determined solely by religious affiliation. Muslims were thereby lumped together regardless of language or ethnic background, and Turks as such were Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims, one among many groups who were the sultan's subjects. Because of the indivisibility of Islamic law and religious practice, it was inconceivable that the seriat could be applied to nonMuslims . Under the system that was introduced, non-Muslim groups, including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, were recognized as millets (religious communities) and granted a degree of autonomy in their communal affairs and allowed to operate schools, religious establishments, and courts based on their own customary law.

Ottoman Military Establishment

The Ottoman state originated as a gazi amirate. The gazi spirit was cultivated by the ruling class, and the mythology constructed around it became part of Ottoman ideology. A clearcut distinction was never made between the civil and military functions of government. Military concepts and procedures permeated the operations of the court, ministries, and bureaucracy. The two basic functions of government in the Ottoman Empire were said to be the making of war and the collecting of taxes to support the making of war. Each year the sultan mounted and frequently led a carefully planned campaign designed to achieve a particular objective--the conquest of a new province, the reduction of a troublesome fortress, or the suppression of a rebellion--within the season allotted for it. A new force was assembled for each campaign season.

Highly mobile Turkish light cavalry, skilled as mounted archers, had carried early Ottoman expansion across the Dardanelles into Europe, but these tribal troops proved inadequate for garrisoning conquered territory in the Balkans and were unreliable for more prolonged campaigns that took them far from the Anatolian heartland. The Ottomans impressed prisoners of war and recruited their Christian vassals for campaigns against Muslims. But other arrangements were required for recruiting, training, and maintaining a permanent regular army that included infantry--an arm in which the traditionally mounted Turkish gazis were deficient--and artillery. In the fifteenth century the Ottomans adopted the devsirme (literally, collection of booty) for military purposes.

Expeditions were regularly organized to collect a tribute of Christian boys from the Balkan provinces. Those taken became Muslims and underwent training that instilled in them a corporate identity. These "slaves of the state" were committed to celibacy and to a lifetime of service. The most promising recruits were selected and prepared for admission to the Ottoman ruling class at special schools in Constantinople and Bursa, where they engaged in Islamic studies, learned Persian and Arabic, and received advanced military training. The rest were sent to work on the land and to do service in the regular army, through which some eventually rose to prominence.

At the height of its effectiveness in the sixteenth century, the regular army never numbered more than 20,000 men, none of them ethnic Turks. It was divided into three branches: artillery, cavalry, and an elite infantry corps, the janissaries (from the Turkish yeniçeri; literally, new troops). The janissaries formed a self-regulating guild administered by a council of elected unit commanders with the rank of dey (literally, maternal uncle). During the reign of Murad III (reigned 1574-95), standards were relaxed to allow Turks to enlist as janissaries. Regulations prohibiting marriage and ownership of property by janissaries were also dropped. By 1700, when the devsirme was terminated, the ranks of the corps had increased to 100,000 men and had become predominantly Turkish in composition. This quantitative adjustment destroyed the qualitative advantage that the janissaries had always exercised over their adversaries. Frequently rebellious and forceful in demanding privileges, the janissaries became stronger than the government that they served, unseating viziers and deposing sultans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and bending state policy to their will.

Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent

Ottoman expansion under Mehmed II's successor, Bayezid II (reigned 1481-1512), was chiefly maritime in its thrust. The sultan's new navy, reinforced by corsairs, displaced the naval power of Venice and Genoa in the eastern and central Mediterranean. Selim I, known as Selim the Grim, extended Ottoman sovereignty southward, conquering Syria and Palestine. In 1517 he drove the last of the Mamluk sultans from his throne in Cairo and made Egypt a satellite of the Ottoman Empire. Selim I was also recognized as guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It was from this time that the Ottoman sultans adopted the title of caliph.

Selim I's son, Süleyman I (reigned 1520-66), was called the kanuni (lawgiver) by his Muslim subjects because of a new codification of seriat undertaken during his reign. In Europe, however, he was known as Süleyman the Magnificent, a recognition of his prowess by those who had most to fear from it. Victory upon victory over the Christian powers followed. Belgrade fell to Süleyman after a siege in 1521. The next year the Christians were compelled to abandon the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1526 Ottoman forces killed the king of Hungary and the flower of the Magyar nobility at the Battle of Mohács and took Buda on the Danube. Vienna was besieged unsuccessfully during the campaign season of 1529. North Africa up to the Moroccan frontier was brought under Ottoman suzerainty in the 1520s and 1530s, and governors named by the sultan were installed in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In 1534 Kurdistan and Mesopotamia were taken from Persia. The latter conquest gave the Ottomans an outlet to the Persian Gulf, where they were soon engaged in a naval war with the Portuguese.

Süleyman I was a pragmatic statesman as well as an audacious general. Ottoman forces confronted those of the Habsburg kingemperor Charles V along the Danube and in the western Mediterranean. In 1536 Süleyman I's diplomats concluded a treaty with Francis I of France, the Habsburgs' European rival, which granted the French commercial concessions in the Ottoman Empire in return for an informal alliance against their common enemy. The so-called capitulations also allowed French consuls legal jurisdiction over French subjects in Ottoman domains and recognized the French king as protector of the Christian holy places in Palestine, concessions that would have long-term effects on Ottoman relations with other foreign powers.

The long reign of Süleyman I was the Ottoman "golden age." When he died while on a campaign in Hungary in 1566, the Ottoman Empire was a major world power. Most of the great cities of Islam--Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, and Baghdad--were under the sultan's crescent flag. The Porte exercised direct control over Anatolia, the Balkan provinces south of the Danube River, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Egypt, Mecca, and the North African provinces were governed under special regulations, as were satellite domains in Arabia, in the Caucasus, and among the Crimean Tartars. In addition, the native rulers of Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania, and Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik) were vassals of the sultan.