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  Countries: Turkey Historical Overview

By Stan the Conquistador, Guest Writer

Turkish Town Center

The nation known as Turkey was ruled by the Ottoman Turks during the 16th to 18th centuries. The empire peaked in power in the sixteenth century when it was the greatest Muslim empire in the modern era. Their influence even crossed over into Europe. It was the only other point in history other than the Muslim invasion into Spain in the 7th century that Islam seemed to establish a presence in Europe. Their Islamic influence is still very evident today as it was back in the 16th century.

The empire was greatly expanded under the rule of Sultan Selim I and his son Sultan Suleyman (called "The Lawmaker" in Islam and "The Magnificent" in Europe). These two ruler propelled the empire to its utmost glory.

Selim was a ruthless ruler and general, qualities badly needed by the empire. However, the threat of Safavid Dynasty, another Turkish principality in Eastern Anatolia and Iran, was ever so great great. Unlike the Mameluke Empire in the Mid- East, the Ottomans did not see them as enemies. In fact, many Ottomans and members of the Janissaries Corp were attracted to the religious ideals of the Safavids and that was a problem that Selim solved by using brutal force. He ordered his forces to hunt down any Safavid supporters in Anatolia, killing thousands upon thousands of his own people. The two empires confronted militarily many times during the reign of Selim. An example of this can be found at the Battle of Caldiran in 1514. However, the Ottomans never did manage to entirely wipe out the Safavids.

Aside the Safavid Dynasty in Iran, the Mameluke Empire in the Mid-East was posing a serious threat to the empire. When he raised an army in 1516, it was not known if he was going to attack the Safavids in the north like for a second time or the Mameluke Empire in the south. However, the mamelukes, with their poor system of government and revolts in Egypt, were definitely the weaker opponent. And so, the great sultan marched his army south. On August 24, 1516, at the battle of Marj Dabik, the Ottomans had an easy victory and the remnants of the mamelukes were soon defeated in Egypt.

Suleyman succeeded his father in 1520. In his time, Suleyman was considered to be the most significant ruler in the world. He expanded the Ottoman Empire far into the east and the west.

Turkish Barracks

Working on the foundation that his father has built, Suleyman went to work on his own campaigns of conquest. His campaigns lasted for a long time. During the years between the 1520's and the 1530's, the Ottoman Empire successfully conquered Hungary by making it an Ottoman province. However, due to the strong resistance of the Haspburg family, the Ottomans never did manage to expand further into Europe.

But Suleyman's troubles with Europe was just beginning. Since the Ottomans traded extensively with countries in Asia (China, India, etc.), they were seen as a serious problem by the Portuguese, who set out to destroy all Muslim trade. In 1552, the Portuguese routed the Ottoman fleet and gained control over the Persian Gulf. Although the Ottomans did manage to defend the Red Sea, they would never recover from this blow as Portuguese trade prospered while the opposite happened to the Ottomans.

Although the Ottomans attempts to expand into Europe has permanently stopped, Suleyman still wanted to wage war. His priority was the Safavid Empire that his father never destroyed, as it still posed a serious threat. To ensure that Europeans (especially Austrians) would not invade his empire while the bulk of his army is in Iran, he made peace with Austria in 1553 and immediately marched upon Iran. Unlike his father, he did not attack from the north where the Safavids had full preparations for invasion but rather from the south where there were little defenses. By the end of 1553, Baghdad was in Ottoman hands and Bersa came into Ottoman rule not long after.

However, the longest lasting of the sultan's contribution was the Ottoman system in the codification of laws (thus giving him the title "Law Maker"). The system was based on the foundation built by Sultan Mehmed II ("The Conqueror") and recorded a huge body of law that included the workings of the state and emphasized the power of the sultan and government over people and property.

Suleyman earned his title "The Magnificent" in the hearts of the Europeans since he had built a large and prosperous (or magnificent) empire. Aside from this, just the mere news of his army marching would make the enemy tremble, thus his army is also magnificent. His reign was also a total success, since the Ottoman Empire was greater than ever in both size and prosperity.

In the early 17th century, the Sultanate was passed to the eldest child of the family. However, this was not always the case. In fact, the Ottomans did not pass their throne to the eldest or most senior person but rather believed that all the members of the royal family. This meant that successions usually took a very long time. The usual practice of a new sultan is to execute all of his brothers and the sons of his brothers to prevent them from competing for the throne.

Later in the 17th century, the system was revised. Instead of executing the brothers and other potential competitors to the throne, sultans usually just imprisoned them. This is why some sultans were succeeded by their brothers in later times. However, this was the basis of the failure of the Sultanate, since the throne could be possessed by an individual who's been a prisoner for the better part of his life (meaning that the individual would have little knowledge of how the world is changing), leading to incompetent or sometimes 'mad' rulers and corruption in the bureaucracy.

Turkish Janissary

The simple rule for qualification for the throne is worthiness. If a sultan has grown corrupted or simply too old to do the job, others usually tried to replace him. Selim got his throne by displacing his father, Bayezid II and Suleyman had to execute two of his sons because they committed treason against him.

Although the sultan was supposedly the sole ruler of the empire (much like the Divine Right of Kings theory in England or the Mandate of Heaven theory in China), the government was actually ran by a huge bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is controlled by a whole bunch of complex and rigid set of rules (some of these rules even applies to the sultan). The bureaucracy was commanded by the Grand Vizier, which was the highest position available in the Ottoman Empire next to sultan.

However, after the death of Suleyman the empire began to lose its forward momentum. It's glorious conquests ceased and its long decline began. This was due to the reign of Selim II, the successor of Suleyman. Unlike his father and grandfather, Selim II seemed to be more interested in alcohol and sex more than ruling the empire. Shortly after his ascension to the throne, he retreated from his administrative and decision-making duties as sultan. This was only the beginning, however. In earlier times, like with Selim I and Suleyman, sons were expected to follow their fathers into battle and take on duties in the government. This apprenticeship created one worthy sultan after another (such as Mehmed II, Bayezid II, Selim I and Suleyman). However, Suleyman did not intend to pass the throne to Selim, but rather Mustafa, his eldest son or Bayezid, his second son and son Selim never participated in this apprenticeship. This created a long line of sultans who were extremely incapable.

After this, the Ottoman Empire started its long journey from the most powerful nation both militarily and economically to the withering kingdom that it was by the end of the 18th century. As the sultans became more and more disinterested in governing due to the fact that most sultans were selected from members who were locked in isolated conditions for most of his life, the more power the bureaucracy took on. This led to mighty power struggles within in the bureaucracy and constant shifts in power. Also, the incompetence of the central government eventually led to corruption at the local level, which eroded local support for the empire.

As time went on, the power within the empire shifted onto the janissaries, who were the warriors and military administration for the empire. In earlier times, one's position in the military was determined entirely by merit. By the mid-seventieth century, this had became hereditary. The quality of the Ottoman military became extremely poor and the Ottoman Empire was like an apple rotting from the core.

One man, named Muhammad Kuprili, tried to reverse all this by using his authorities as the Grand Vizier to restore the empire to the old ways. He also tried to motivate the empire to expand into Europe again, but this never happened in his lifetime. However, the strength of one man is not enough to stop the falling of a mountain, as the saying goes. The Ottoman Empire has lots its glory and shall never get it back.

Kuprili's new expansion policies came into being shortly after his death, and the Ottomans marched onto Austria. But during the siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans were defeated by an alliance of European nations armed with heavy artillery, something that the Ottomans did not use actively in their military conquests. After its defeat, the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip over existing territories in Europe. In 1699, the Ottoman Empire signed Hungary and Transylvania back to Austria to maintain peace. This left only Macedonia and the Balkans under Ottoman control, and these territories began to destabilize after the Ottoman defeat in 1683.

Turkish Temple

The Ottoman Empire never did open new attempts to expand, but rather concentrated on maintaining its existing territory. Throughout the 18th centuries, the Ottomans fought wars with great European powers such as Russia and Austria. However, most of these wars ended with great losses to both sides and there wasn't really a 'winner'.

Although wars with Europe were costly and contributed to the decline, this was not the main reason. There's a saying in my native tongue that goes something like this: "A mighty tree could easily withstand the hacking of a few axes, but a hollow tree could not even withstand the gentle breeze". What that really means is that if an empire is strong internally, it need not fear from external wars and the expansion of other nations. However, an empire already filled with corruption and internal struggle could easily fall under the hands of a few pirate fleets. This was what was happening to the Ottoman Empire. The population doubled during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the empire's economy could not support these new people. Famine and unemployment broke out and the great Ottoman Empire is being consumed from inside out.

It's economy also went downhill, since its wealth depended on the fact that its geographic location overlaps that of several major trade routes and crossroads. However, due to the new rise of European power, many new trade routes developed and the ones that the Ottomans have control of no longer receives very many traffic. Also, the Ottoman Empire failed to industrialize, which meant that its products could not compete with the cheaper and better products of the Europeans. Since a large percentage of the empire depended on their handcrafts for a living, this made the empire even weaker.

By the end of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire was well on its way of declining. It has gone from the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean in the 16th century to a withering principality with internal corruption and economic instability written all over it in late 18th century. However its art, culture and architecture are most remarkable. Like the many Islamic cultures before them, they made it their duty to dignify their civilization. Examples of their architecture are the Blue Mosque built in 1615, the Suleymaniye Mosque built in 1557, the Rustem Pasa Mosque built in 1561 and the Faith Mosque built in 1470. It's culture can be defined by its textile designs in rugs and paintings. So aside from blood thirsty conquerors, the Ottomans were also great humanists who enjoyed life, arts and literature.

The Ottoman Empire, although powerful for only about 60 years, existed until WWI when it was finally erased from the map by European powers. However, its legacy as a mighty empire built from almost nothing will live forever. It spread Islamic influence into Europe and that will last for a long time. Its impact on world history is great and can never be erased. Its great military campaigns under Selim I and Suleyman I were remarkable in scale. May it live in the hearts of the Turkish people for an eternity.

Related Links:
» Turkish Building Gallery


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