World History 2 54 - 4.2.2 Expansion, Revolutions, and Reform

The Ottoman state’s geographic position was an important advantage from its beginning well into the height of its power in the seventeenth century. The early empire was born on the dividing line between Europe and Asia and balanced between them for nearly its entire existence. The collapse of the Byzantine Empire allowed the Ottoman sultan to rule from a capital city situated between the two continents. After establishing his new capital in Istanbul, Mehmed II issued a call for citizens of the empire to come and settle there to restore its economic vitality (Figure 4.16). This was necessary because the city had experienced steady demographic decline over the previous few centuries. At first, Mehmed offered free housing to anyone who moved there voluntarily; later, he ordered thousands of Serbs, Armenians, Greeks, Jewish people, and Turks to settle in the city. Although he would not live to see it, within a century Istanbul was by far the largest city in Europe, with nearly a half million residents, and it dominated the land and sea trade between Europe and Asia.

An image of two men on a yellow mosaic background is shown. The man on the left has a black beard, wears a long blue robe with gold accents and gold trim, a large white turban with a red top on his head, and a serious expression. He holds a scroll with text on it in his left hand and a handkerchief in his right. The man on the right facing him has a white beard, wears a blue gown with a red cape over his shoulders and also has a serious expression on his face. On his head he wears a black cloth with a cross in the middle. He extends his left hand to the other man and holds a walking cane in his right hand. Castle walls are behind them.
Figure 4.16 This eighteenth-century mosaic shows Mehmed II (left) handing Gennadios II a document officially recognizing Gennadios’s position as the Greek Orthodox patriarch of the new capital of Istanbul. (credit: modification of work “Gennadios II and Mehmed II” by Ecumenical Patriarchate/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Over the next century, the Ottoman Empire extended its influence into Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. Under Ottoman control, the Egyptian Red Sea fleet battled the Portuguese for dominance in the Indian Ocean, sending troops and armaments to aid allied rulers in India and ships to the straits of Malacca. The Ottoman Empire is generally considered to have reached its pinnacle by the rise of Sultan Suleiman I in 1520. During his reign, Ottoman armies continued their Balkan expansion by conquering Serbia and Hungary, and in 1529 they laid siege to Vienna, then the seat of the Habsburg Empire.

Although Vienna was never conquered, the threat of military conquest by the Ottomans was a constant worry for the Habsburgs. Queen Elizabeth I of England, also a rival of the Habsburgs, sent an embassy and military advisers to Istanbul to propose an anti-Habsburg alliance. Despite the Ottoman alliance with England, the Ottoman’s war with the Habsburgs quickly reached a stalemate, where it remained for several decades. Ottoman territorial expansion in North Africa found its farthest limit to the west in modern Algeria; to the east, it reached the shores of the Persian Gulf and established official borders with Safavid Iran. In Europe, Suleiman’s strength and military dominance of the Mediterranean world, along with the splendor of his capital city and the riches flowing through the empire, earned him the title “the Magnificent.”

To most Ottomans, however, Suleiman was known as “the lawgiver.” Most Ottoman subjects were unaware of their legal rights until Suleiman’s rule. Although Ottoman law was based on sharia, a certain amount of interpretation was required in matters such as criminal law, management of lands, and tax law. These laws were thus usually established by decree. Over the course of two and a half centuries, different parts of the empire were subject to decrees issued by many sultans, often substantially different from one another and sometimes contradictory. Suleiman reviewed the laws, ensured their compliance with Islamic principles, and issued a single unified law code for the empire that remained in force for three centuries. He also ordered the new law code to be publicized widely, so every Ottoman subject knew they had the right to have disputes heard in a court of law and judged fairly. These reforms won Suleiman wide acclaim and popularity as a ruler who cared about his people. Suleiman died in 1566 while commanding an expedition into Hungary. His death was kept secret for two months so as not to demoralize the troops; it was not until they returned to Istanbul that his death was made public in time for the coronation of his son as Selim II.

The period of Ottoman history after Suleiman’s rule has often been described by historians as a time of slow decline, leading to the empire’s disintegration beginning in the nineteenth century. This largely European interpretation attributes the ebbing of Ottoman power to two factors: the rise of European military might and Ottoman territorial overextension. In this view, the winds of change began to blow in 1571 when the Ottoman navy was destroyed in a naval battle at Lepanto in Greece by the Holy League—a confederation of the Spanish Empire, the Papal States, Venice, and Genoa, among others. The battle effectively ended Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Ottoman enthusiasm for continuing its naval rivalry with Portugal, the Netherlands, and France in the Indian Ocean.

With this loss, the curtain was drawn back on the legend of Ottoman invincibility. European military technology caught up to and then surpassed Ottoman capabilities over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ottoman territory was then gradually lost to European kingdoms, particularly in the western part of North Africa and in the Balkans. While the empire’s land wars against the Habsburgs in Europe continued for another century, culminating in yet another failed siege of Vienna in 1683, it was also recognized at court that foreign wars were becoming more expensive but leading to far less economic and territorial gain.

From the north, the growing power of Russia became another threat. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Russian forces pushed south across the steppes toward Ottoman territory. Under Tsar Peter the Great, Russian armies temporarily captured the Ottoman-held territory of Azov in the Crimea along the Black Sea in 1696. In the late eighteenth century, Russia’s expansion ramped up again, eventually leading it deep into Ottoman territory with control over the northern coast of the Black Sea. Often aided by Austria, Russia steadily undermined Ottoman control over the Balkans, and over the nineteenth century, its influence came to replace Ottoman sway in the region.

More recently, historians have refined this older interpretation of Ottoman decline. According to the newer view, the threats from Europe in the west and the Safavids in the east convinced the Ottoman rulers to try making their control over their core territory more efficient. They sent delegations to several countries in Europe and to Mughal India to observe local systems and make recommendations for improvements at home. Several European military advisers were brought to Istanbul to train soldiers, and Ottoman scientists and engineers were sent to European universities to learn more about engineering, history, and military modernization and the ways in which they could be applied at home. Although the Ottoman Empire had become weaker by the nineteenth century, these reforms nevertheless helped it to survive into the twentieth century.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax