The Ottoman Empire (1300-1453): West to Danube, East to Euphrates

  By Beylerbeyi, January 2008; Revised
  Category: Islamic Civilizations
The Ottoman dynasty is named after a tribal leader called Osman, the leader of a small band of nomadic Oguz Turks in north-western Anatolia, on the Byzantine border. Our main task, in this first era of Ottoman history, is to explain how and why did Osman’s tiny principality became an empire, and not any other of the numerous Anatolian or Balkan states, some of which were arguably better equipped for the challenge.

By the year 1300, most of Anatolia, except the areas around the Marmara Sea and Trabizond in the north-east, was ruled by small Turkish principalities, founded after the destruction of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum by the invading Mongols. The population of Anatolia was already mostly Turkified by the principalities, which used the Turkish language in all matters as opposed to the Seljuk Sultanate which used Persian as its court language.

The principalities were varied in character. Some were founded by the former nobles in the Seljuk Sultanate, and were the natural successors of the old Seljuk order (Candar and especially Karaman), others were little more than coalitions of nomadic tribes which came to Anatolia with the Mongol hordes, and finally the ‘gazi’ (warrior) states which were founded on the border with Christianity. These gazi principalities, including Osman’s, were constantly raiding the Christian lands to their north and west. However, they were also interacting with the Christian peoples in peaceful ways such as trade, and a significant portion, if not the majority, of their populations were Christians. The gazi states were the Anatolian ‘wild west’, attracting people in need of land, excess population of cities, people fleeing wars, warriors and other adventurers.

History of the birth of the Ottoman Empire is also the history of the death of Byzantium, or more correctly, the Eastern Roman Empire. Throughout this period, this ancient and once glorious empire was reduced to a fraction of its previous land area, and it was almost constantly in turmoil, as various factions within it fought for dominance. Throughout the Middle Ages, Byzantium was the defender of a different economic, political and civil model opposed to other Christian lands. While lands of the Western Roman Empire evolved a decentralised order called feudalism and the cities declined, in the East the economy and culture was based on a network of cities and non-feudal pastoral communities. Mighty fleets of the Empire secured the eastern Mediterranean trade, guaranteeing the wealth of the realm. By the 1300s, however, the eastern Mediterranean trade was dominated by the Italian city states led by the Venetians and the Genoese. Also, in many places either under Western (Latin) rule or within the Empire, Western mode of production and feudal relations were replacing the traditional Eastern rural and urban communities. The mechanisms and justification of Byzantine rule was based on these traditional eastern relations, and as the crippled Empire became unable to uphold the old order, it was doomed to die.

As feudal and traditional factions fought for supremacy within the dying Empire, its Western and Islamic enemies were expanding into its remaining lands. Seeing the danger in 1302, the Empire decided to crush the head of the snake while young, and sent an army of 2000 against Osman. Osman, however, with his few hundred tribal horsemen, managed to ambush and destroy it in Bapheus. This first Ottoman victory made Osman famous, and his principality the foremost gazi state. People were flocking under his banner.

Osman was replaced as Bey by his son Orhan, who continued to expand his state against the Byzantines. By 1352, he had taken Bursa, Nicea and Nicomedia. Orhan later married a Byzantine princess during the Byzantine civil war. He also managed to expand against other Anatolian principalities, a task that required diplomatic skill in addition to military might, as war against other Muslims is forbidden in Islam. When the Ottomans annexed Muslim lands, they had to come up with some legal or diplomatic justification. In many cases they justified their war against Muslims as war against heretics who sided with the infidels against the gazi state of the Ottomans. Ottomans used this justification many times when fighting other Muslim forces such as Karaman, Akkoyunlu, Memluks and Safavids.

The Ilkhanid overlord of Anatolia died in 1335, and the nominal Mongol suzerainty was over. Orhan declared that he upgraded himself from ‘bey’ to ‘sultan’, making his state no longer merely a principality, but a sultanate, with a capital in newly captured (1326) city of Bursa, which he turned into a rich centre of trade. It can be said that Orhan, rather than Osman, founded the Ottoman state. Many of the classical features of the Ottoman state were established by Orhan. So, by 1352, Byzantium was no longer the main enemy, and Orhan already ruled not just a band of nomads, but possibly the strongest, richest and surely the most dynamic state in Anatolia and the Balkans, which covered all of north-western Anatolia from Ankara to the Marmara Sea.

In 1352, Ottomans set foot on the European continent in Gallipoli. Few years later, Stefan Dushan died (1355), and the Serbian state was divided into smaller parts. Thus Balkans was divided into weak states and feudal holdings which were unpopular among the peasantry. They were economically and, in some places, territorially dominated by the Western states of Hungary, Venice and Genoa. Not only the Balkans was divided into small states, but every Balkan state was divided internally, into two factions: the pro-Latin faction mostly popular among the ruling classes, and the staunchly anti-Latin Orthodox Christian faction supported by the peasantry. 

Ottomans succeeded in the Balkans by exploiting the state of affairs. Their first problem, of course, was to cross the sea to Europe without a navy. This was possible due to an alliance with Genoa, who was at war with Venice at the time. In return for the crossing, Ottomans helped Genoa in Gallipoli, and granted them favourable terms in trade. These were the first capitulations in Ottoman history. Once they were in Gallipoli, the Ottomans managed to stay in Europe thanks to their Byzantine ally and relative Kantakuzenos.

Once they secured their foothold, the Ottomans were expanding in the Balkans, by taking sides in various Balkan conflicts, such as helping the Bulgarian king against an attack by Byzantium, Hungary and Wallachia. Their expansion followed the Roman road Via Egnatia, which is the main trade route in the Balkans. Edirne (Adrianople) was captured in 1361, and made the new capital, a move which signified that the Balkan expansion would be continuing. Indeed, Balkan cities fell one after the other, alarming Christians everywhere. In 1371, a large Serb army moved east, but got defeated by the Ottomans in Chirmen. After this battle, the Balkan states and Byzantium became vassals of the Ottoman sultan. 

Ottoman dominance in the Balkans brought them into direct conflict with Hungary, the strongest state bordering the region. There were further attempts at driving the Ottomans back to Anatolia, but they failed. Ottomans have managed to protect their dominance in the Balkans by two spectacular victories, the first against a large Balkan alliance in Kosovo (1396) and the second against another large, this time Western crusader army in Nicopolis (1396).

While the Ottomans succeeded to defeat their enemies on the battlefield, their 400 year rule over the infamous Balkans, populated completely by people of different cultures and religions, would have been impossible only by the strength of arms. Ottomans managed this by exploiting the divisions between the classes mentioned above. In lands where they annexed, they replaced the heavy feudal exploitation of the peasantry with a lighter centralised tax regime. If the local nobles cooperated with them, the Ottomans allowed them to retain their noble status and Christian religion. In this period there were many Christians even from higher classes who willingly worked for the Ottomans. Many Byzantine ‘pronia’ were made into Ottoman ‘timarli’ cavalry, but were allowed to keep their religion. The Islamisation of the ruling classes was a slow process, lasting until the 16th century. In all Ottoman wars after their expansion, they had Christian troops such as the ‘voynuks’, ‘vlachs’, or various vassals’ troops in their army, even when fighting against these troops’ co-religionists/nationalists.

If the nobles refused to cooperate, Ottomans confiscated their lands and replaced them with the Ottoman version of the feudal lord, the ‘timarli’. Timarli cavalry were local representatives of the state in a given area, who were the members of a military class. They were similar to the feudal knight in many ways, as they collected the taxes and maintained the order, and were required to join the main army during times of war with their retainers. But the timarli did not own the land and the peasants, unlike the feudal knight, and they were not allowed to punish the peasants without proper sentencing by the local judge. This system led to an improvement in the status of the Balkan peasants who were reduced to serfs in the feudal areas.

More importantly, when the Ottomans confiscated land from feudal lords and sometimes the church in the Balkans, they gave it to the peasantry to cultivate. And the peasants preferred to have larger lands and to pay lower taxes to the Ottoman state than working harder for a Christian overlord most of the time, especially when that overlord was Catholic. The Ottomans knew this and eliminated the pro-Latin factions and protected the Orthodox Church against the Catholic Church.

Practical result of Ottoman anti-Latin and rapid expansion policies in this period was freedom of worship (in any case better than what they would get under Western rule) and lighter exploitation of the Orthodox Christian peasantry. This practical approach gave the Ottomans legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of Balkan Christians (mainly the lower classes), and allowed them to hang on to the Balkans despite grave external threats.
While conversion of Christians was not a good option, settlement was a way of introducing Muslims to the Balkans. As Ottomans moved deeper into the Balkans, they allowed nomads to settle in the lands they conquered. Thrace and parts of Bulgaria such as Dobruja were settled heavily by these nomads, whose ancestors can be found there even today. Machiavelli observes this in ‘The Prince’, writing that when the Turks invade a land they settle there, so they can keep it secure.

Ottomans also continued to expand in Anatolia after they started their expansion in the Balkans. In 1387, Karaman, inheritor of the Seljuk legacy of the old order and the main enemy of the Ottomans in the east, attacked with its army of tribal riders, but were defeated by the Ottomans and their Balkan Christian allies. After this battle, Karaman and the remaining Sultanates in Anatolia had to accept Ottoman vassalage.

By 1402, Bayezid I ‘Thunderbolt’, ruled over a vast area of vassal states stretching from Albania to Armenia, and had already tried to take Constantinople. He recognised the problems caused by the vassals who tended to rebel, and the remaining existence of Constantinople between the two halves of his domain. Only way forward was a centralised state with a secure centre. However, disaster was about to strike, and that plan had to wait 50 years.

As the Ottomans got rid of the Turkish beys in Anatolia, the Beys sought refuge in Transoxania, at the court of Timur Leng, arguably the greatest Central Asian conqueror in history after Genghis Khan. Timur contacted the Ottomans and told them that he descended from Genghis Khan and was the successor to the Ilkhanids, and therefore Anatolia was rightfully his. Ottomans were to bow to him and swear allegiance. Ottomans refused to bow and replied to Timur’s propaganda by their own. Their propaganda involved ‘remembering’ that they are also Khans, kings of Central Asians, descended from a prestigious Oguz tribe called Kayi, which traced its origins to the Central Asian conquerors of Oguz legends. Timur was not impressed and moved west with his elephant-reinforced army. Bayezid, together with his Balkan Christian and Anatolian Turkish vassals met him near Ankara in 1402. A great battle was fought near Ankara and arguably the worst case of betrayal in Ottoman history happened when the Turkish troops from the principalities defected to their former masters on Timur’s side. Despite the efforts of the Serb vassals who fought to the end, the Ottomans lost the battle and Bayezid was captured and soon died. Timur overran the rest of Anatolia and re-instituted the old principalities before returning to Samarkand, his capital. Heirs of Bayezid bowed before Timur and lost their sultan status to the Central Asians once more after the Seljuk defeat against the Mongols some 150 years ago, and Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

As was the case for many other Turkic or nomadic people, Ottomans believed that the land belonged to the whole of the ruling family. They followed old nomad traditions and sent the heirs to the throne to different towns as governors, when they were still children. This way, the heirs learned how to rule. There were no formal rules of succession, so when their father died, any one of the heirs, could become the new ruler. Usually the first to get to the capital and enlist the help of the Kapikulu corps (infantry were the Janissary), the standing army of the Porte (the Ottoman court), recruited from slaves and prisoners of war, would be the new sovereign. Sometimes the heirs fought each other for the throne. The losers were usually killed, and sometimes ran abroad and lived in exile, often used by foreign powers as bargaining chips against the Ottomans.

So when Bayezid died, not only the Anatolian princedoms were re-created, but also a civil war for the throne started between his four sons. Thanks to the remarkable resilience of the Ottoman state machinery and the formidable Kapikulu corps, Mehmed I managed to defeat his brothers and keep the core lands. He also defeated a large uprising in Bulgaria by Sheik Bedreddin, a scholar who inspired Muslims and Christians alike to establish a new, communal order. Nevertheless, problems and war between heirs continued even after Mehmed I’s death in 1421, and his son Murad II managed to consolidate the realm only in 1423.

Meanwhile Hungary, still a powerful state, had increased its influence in the Balkans while the Ottomans were trying to recover. When Murad II returned to reclaim Serbia and other buffer-lands, the two powers were set in a collision course. In the beginning, Ottoman advance was stopped by the Hungarian King Janos Hunyadi, who was the greatest enemy of the Ottomans since Timur. He was a capable commander who knew how to fight the unconventional military machine of the Ottomans, unlike other Western kings. While all small Balkan countries have a minor military figure, such as Iskenderbeg or Vlad Tsepes, which their nationalists believe have killed millions of Ottomans and saved Europe, Janos Hunyadi was the only real threat to the Ottomans’ future in the Balkans in the 15th century. After defeating Ottoman armies in Serbia and Transylvania in 1440-1443, Hunyadi went on the offensive and crossed the Danube in 1444 and in 1448, but was defeated in two bloody battles in Varna and Kosovo, respectively. Once more, just like after Nicopolis in 1389, the crusaders had to abandon their goal of driving the Turks back into Anatolia, this time for about 400 years.

When Mehmed II ascended to the throne in 1451, Ottoman state had fully recovered from Timur’s blow. Ottoman cities were rich and safe. They had a powerful army and a navy. Mehmed II thus had the means to fulfil both the prophecy of the prophet by becoming ‘the Conqueror’, and the dream of his dynasty and take on the Byzantine mantle, by creating a centralised state in the lands that lie south of Danube and west of Euphrates.

While the Ottomans expanded both in Balkans and in Anatolia between 1300 and 1453, they were careful to alternate expansion in one direction with expansion in the other. They were afraid of a two-front war, especially in the early stages when they had no navy and had not fully secured the Dardanelles strait. In case of a two-front war in which the straits were blocked by an enemy navy would have meant death to the sultanate. Therefore two main factors, namely the lack of a navy in the beginning, and the existence of the Roman road of Via Egnatia, determined the nature of the Ottoman expansion.

It is also important to acknowledge that both in the east and in the west, Ottoman foreign policy was never determined by religion. Never in their history were the Ottomans a crusading state or a theocracy. Relationship of the Ottoman state with Islam was essentially the same as any other empire’s relationship with its official ideology. For the Ottomans, Islam was always the way to justify their policies, both foreign and domestic. Believing that the Ottomans conquered the Balkans in order to spread their religion is a grave mistake, essentially the same as believing that USA invaded Iraq in 2003 to bring ‘liberty’ to the Iraqi people.