The Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest empires in world history, both in size and duration.
The Ottoman Empire grew up in Anatolia (in modern Turkey) during the 13th and 14th centuries, and spread throughout south-western Europe, much of the Middle East and North Africa during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Its extent, duration and impact made it one of the greatest empires in world history.
The origins and early growth of the Ottoman realm
The word "Ottoman" derive from the name “Osman”, a late 13th/early 14th century warlord who founded the line of rulers who would later conquer and rule the vast “Ottoman” empire.
Osman (1258–1326) was the leader of one of several small Islamic states on the borders with the Byzantine empire. These “Ghazi” emirates had replaced the large Seljuq sultanate which had ruled much of Anatolia in the 11th to 13th centuries; they were highly militarised states whose purpose was largely to wage war in the name of Islam against the Christian Byzantines.
Osman’s successors extended their rule in Anatolia, at the expense of the Byzantine empire but also other Ghazi emirates, and into the Balkans, at the expense of the Byzantines and small Balkan nations such as the Serbs. As Ottoman power increasingly hemmed the Byzantines in, the capture of the historic Byzantine capital of Constantinople became a major objective for the Ottomans. Before this could be achieved, however, the great central Asian conquer Timur the Lame attacked the Ottomans from the east. In the battle of Ankara in 1402, Timur crushed the Ottoman forces, taking the sultan prisoner. Although Timur was dead within a few years, the Ottomans’ realm had been thrown into chaos. It was engulfed by civil wars, and conquered territories in Asia Minor and the Balkans broke free from its control.
After ten years stability was restored, and the lost territories were gradually recovered. Expansion was renewed with victories over the Hungarians and Poles at the battles of Varna (1444) and Kosovo (1448).
The Ottoman empire at its height
In 1453, the great city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans, and the remaining pockets of Byzantine territory soon followed.
In the early 16th century, Ottoman expansion continued with the conquests of Syria and Egypt. The empire reached the height of its power under its famous sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66). He completed the conquest of Serbia, and brought most of Hungary under Ottoman rule. He advanced as far as the city of Vienna, one of the most important European capitals at that period, but failed to capture the city (1529 and 1532). Further conquests followed in the Balkans and eastern Europe, as well as in the east, where Ottoman forces took Baghdad and most of the rest of Iraq from the Persians (1535), and in the south, where territories were acquired in Somalia and the Horn of Africa (1559).
After the reign of Sulemein the Magnificent, a series of weak sultans sat on the Ottoman throne. Perhaps also Ottoman expansion had over-reached itself under Sulemein. The Ottomans suffered reverses to their naval power in the Mediterranean with their failure to capture the island of Malta from a comparatively small group of Christian knights (1565), and in the defeat of their navy at the hands of a Christian navy at the battle of Lepanto (1571). They also experienced some significant reverses against Persia, in the east. Ottoman expansion in North Africa continued, however, and much territory was recovered from the Persians in 1639. The island of Crete was conquered from the Venetians in 1669, and further conquests were made in the Ukraine.
A second attempt was made to capture the Austrian capital, Vienna, in 1683. Like the first attempt more than a century before, this also failed; and in fact it marked the high water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe. The failed siege was followed by significant Ottoman defeats and important Austrian gains.
The Balkan frontier between the Ottoman and Austrian empires see-sawed more than once up to the mid-18th century, though the balance of military advantage was beginning to tip towards Austria. Likewise, although Ottoman forces gained a major victory over the Russians at the beginning of the 18th century, by the mid-century they were going on the defensive. In the late 18th century the Ottomans suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russians.
Increasing military pressure from Austria and Russia led to attempts at military reforms. The reforms of sultan Selim III (reigned 1789–1807) were opposed by powerful interests in the Ottoman establishment, and cost the sultan his life; however, his successor, learning from Selim’s failures, carried out a spectacular strike against these established interests and succeeded in carrying out a modernisation of the Ottoman army.
By this time, however, another force was sapping Ottoman strength: the upsurge of nationalism amongst the Balkan peoples (part of a widespread movement of nationalism throughout Europe). The Serbian revolution (1804–1815) was followed by the Greek war of independence (1821-9), which led to the first territory of the Ottoman empire gaining its independence. Pressure from Austria and Russia ensured that other Balkan states were moving towards independence by the mid-19th century. In the late 19th century defeats at the hands of Russia and Austria led to Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro all gaining full or partial independence from the Ottoman government. The Austrians gained control of Bosina Herzegovina, the British of Cyprus, and the Italians of Libya; and for a time the British gained a large measure of control over Ottoman government finances. The Ottoman empire was known as the “Sick Man of Europe”.
The end of the Ottoman empire
In 1908 a group of young Ottoman army officers and politicians known as the “Young Turks” took power and restored constitutional government (which had briefly been tried in 1876). A series of root and branch reforms of the Ottoman government and army were enacted over the next six years.
All this came too late to save the Ottoman empire. The First and Second Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913) led to the almost complete loss of its European territories, and the empire’s participation in the First World War (1914-8) as an ally of Germany sealed its fate. Despite some notable Ottoman victories, for example at Gallipoli in 1915-6, Allied troops and Arab nationalists drove the Ottoman army out of the Arabian peninsula, Palestine and Syria, and at the end of the war Allied troops occupied Constantinople. In the peace treaties which followed the war (1918-22) the Ottoman empire was partitioned amongst ten new countries. The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI, left the country in November 1922 and Turkey became a republic.