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The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

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Read on to learn all about the rise and peak of the Ottoman Empire.

Read on to learn all about the rise and peak of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire rose from a small emirate to become the greatest power in the Eastern Mediterranean in a mere 200 years. At the beginning of the 14th century, the House of Osman's domain was not much larger than a few tens of kilometres. Yet, it took only two centuries for him and his descendants to expand the lands of the Ottoman. By 1541, the Ottoman Empire controlled the whole of Anatolia, Syria, the Levant, Egypt, most of Mesopotamia, Greece, the Balkans up to the Danube and 1/3 of the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Ottomans also had vassals like the Danubian Principalities, the Crimean Khanate and the Pirates of North Africa. The only man who was a match for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was Emperor Charles V. Still, his domains were nowhere near as well centralized as the Ottoman state and were also a lot more fragmented and divided by religious tensions between the Catholics and rising Protestants.

The rise of the Ottoman Empire was a political and military success story, yet it was by no means a certainty, and the Ottomans faced many reverses during their rise.

The Beginnings

The Ottomans rose in the power vacuum created by the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the disintegration of the Seljuk Sultanate and the Ilhkanate of Persia. Thanks to this power vacuum, there was an absence of a strong political entity in the middle east, except the Mamluk Sultanate, which had just kicked out the Crusaders from the Holy Lands.

At first, the followers of Osman were modest in numbers and, probably to their adversaries, looked more like a band of raiders than a conquering army. It is believed that the early Ottoman army was almost solely made up of nomadic horse archers, and they excelled in hit-and-run tactics, pitched battles and sieges were not a strong point of the early Ottoman armies.

Nonetheless, Osman and his son Orhan made the best of what they had. Formal sieges were by no means the only way by which a medieval army was able to conquer the land. Medieval cities, just like their modern counterparts, were unable to produce their food, so for the existence of walled towns, it was necessary for this town to have countryside around it that fed it. And these areas were very vulnerable to the attacks of nomadic horse archers.

By harassing and pillaging the countryside, the Ottomans were able to isolate and starve the towns around their domains to submission. Slowly but surely, the lands under their control steadily grew.

Anatolia before the rise of the Ottomans

Anatolia before the rise of the Ottomans

Orhan also exploited a Byzantine Civil War in the 1340s and the 1350s. He allied with one of the factions and used the opportunity to gain a foothold in Europe, especially in Southern Thrace. By the time the Byzantine Civil War was over, the Greeks were much weakened and by all means weaker than the Ottomans.

This change of political power was perfectly symbolised by the fact that Orhan forced the Byzantine emperor, John V, to accept Orhan’s conquests that were directly threatening Constantinople itself.

Orhan died in 1362 and was followed by his son Murad. Murad campaigned during the 1360s, 70s and 80s in the Balkan Peninsula and managed to extend the domains of the Ottomans. He turned many small Bulgarian and Serbian principalities into his vassals or annexed them directly. After the bloody First Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Serbs became the vassals of the Ottomans.

The Ottoman success was aided by the internal tensions of the Balkan states. Bulgarian Tsar Ivan chose to divide his empire between his sons when he died, while the Serbian Empire of Tsar Dusan the Mighty fell apart after the death of the great ruler.

Had these empires remained united, no doubt the Ottomans would have had a much harder time in their early Balkan expansion, but picking off the smaller principalities was an easier task. By the time Murad was killed at the Battle of Kosovo, most of the small principalities were vassals or annexed.

Bayezid continued the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans and Anatolia. His rapid expansion got him into conflict with King Sigismund of Hungary and Timur the Lame.

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At first, Bayazid’s raiding armies reached Hungary and Sigismund called a Crusade to defeat the Turks. A big army of mainly French, German, Italian, Hungarian and Romanian Crusaders attacked the Ottomans, but the multitude of leaders led to a faulty chain of command. Bayazid quickly moved against the Crusaders and defeated them at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.

The threat from Timur the Lame was of a completely different magnitude. By expanding rapidly in Anatolia, Bayazid came into conflict with the greatest warlord of Central Asia, a man who had previously smashed the forces of the Golden Horde. Unbeknownst to Bayazid, Timur also enlisted the alliance of some of Bayazid’s Anatolian vassals.

The two clashed at the Battle of Ankara in 1402; thanks to the treachery of Bayazid’s vassals, the battle’s outcome was never in doubt. Even the Sultan was captured after the battle, and he died a year later, still a prisoner of Timur.

Middle Period of the Expansion

The death of Bayazid led to a huge civil war between his sons, the Ottoman Interregnum. The Civil War lasted for 11 years between 1402 and 1413 before Mehmed I emerged victoriously.

Mehmed and his son Murad II reestablished the Ottoman power, and by the 1440s, the Ottomans were easily as powerful as they were during the days of Bayazid.

Ottoman expansion further north in the Balkans was opposed by legendary military leaders like John Hunyadi, Skandenberg, Stephen the Great and Vlad Tepes.

Hunyadi was by far the most influential and powerful of this figure, thanks to the simple fact that he was born into and became the leading nobleman and later governor of the strongest remaining Christian state in the Balkans, the Kingdom of Hungary.

Hunyadi led offensives to the Balkans in the 1440s, but for various reasons, both failed. Hunyadi was a military man, first and foremost, and an adept learner. Thanks to king Sigismund’s conflict with the Hussites, Hunyadi got first-hand contact with the successful military techniques of the Hussites. He adopted many of these and was known for his preference for professional mercenaries for feudal armies.

He fought an offensive war against the Ottomans first between 1442 and 1444. Despite his smaller numbers, Hunyadi’s armies performed well. The decisive battle came in 1444, at Varna. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Christians held their own.

The battle was still very much in the balance when the foolish young Hungarian King, Wladyslaw I, recklessly charged the Sultan and got himself killed. When the news of the king’s death spread, the Christians panicked and ran.

Murad met Hunyadi four years later again, at the Second Battle of Kosovo. Murad was a good military tactician and quickly adopted the wagon fort tactics after Varna. By Kosovo, the Ottoman army was equal to Hunyadi’s in terms of weaponry and tactics but had more manpower.

The result was a decisive Ottoman victory at the Second Battle of Kosovo. After this defeat, Hunyadi, just like the rest of the legendary Christian Princes in the Balkans, was forced to remain on the defensive. The Ottomans took the initiative.

The Hungarians checked the Ottoman advance under the son of Murad, Mehmed the Conqueror, in 1456, at the Siege of Belgrade, Hunyadi’s last victory, but were unable to counterattack into Ottoman territory. As the Ottomans annexed the rest of Serbia and Bosnia, the Ottoman Hungarian borders settled at the Danube.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Did Mehmed the Conqueror get his name for capturing Constantinople?
    • Yes
    • No

Answer Key

  1. Yes

Under the rule of Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottomans slowly but surely took over the whole Balkan peninsula. After the deposition of Vlad Tepes and the death of Skanderbeg, it was only Moldavia under Stephen the Great that was not an Ottoman vassal.

Mehmed also finally took Constantinople in 1453 and finally ended the existence Byzantine Empire.

Mehmed also checked the advances of Uzun Hassan, the new Turkic ruler of Persia.

Mehmed also tried to invade Italy. The Ottoman troops gained a foothold on the peninsula by capturing the city of Otranto, but they were unable to extend their beachhead and were forced to retreat.

Mehmed’s son, Bayazid II, was a more peaceful man and large-scale military operations in Europe were relatively rare. Raids continued yearly, on the other hand. He also got into a war with the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, but neither side could gain the upper hand over the other.

The relatively peaceful reign of Bayazid was followed by the conquests of his son Selim I. Selim was a great military leader, and during the 1510s, he defeated and conquered the whole Mamluke Sultanate.

As a result of his conquests, the territory of the Ottoman Empire was greatly expanded by the addition of Syria, the Levant and Egypt. Selim also checked the conquests of Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, by smashing the Shah’s armies at the Battle of Chaldirah.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. In his homeland Suleiman the Magnificent was known as the lawgiver?
    • False
    • True

Answer Key

  1. True

Peak Under Suleiman the Mgnificent

Selim died in 1520 and was followed on the throne by his son, the man that became known as Suleiman the Magnificent. As his father had conquered most of the east, Suleiman turned Westward.

After the Kingdom of Hungary had rejected his offers of peace, the young Sultan led his armies against the fortress of Belgrade and captured it in 1521. Feet that not even his illustrious predecessor Mehmed the Conqueror was able to pull off.

His next target was the island of Rhodes. The Knights Hospitaller held Rhodes, and these were no friends of the Ottomans. The knights frequently raided Muslim ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the Aegean Sea. If the communication lines between Egypt and Constantinople were to be safe, the Knights had to be dealt with.

Suleiman besieged the fortress and captured it after a long and costly siege in 1523.

After a couple of years of relative peace, Suleiman invaded Hungary in 1526 and smashed the armies of King Louis II at the Battle of Mohacs. Even the king died in the aftermath of the battle when his horse threw him into a river and, weighed down by his armour, he drowned.

The death of the childless Louis threw the kingdom into a civil war. The nobles elected two kings; one faction elected Habsburg Ferdinand, while another one of their own nobleman, John Zapolya. Suleiman backed Zapolya and turned the kingdom into his vassals. For the time being, Suleiman was happy enough with a vassal Hungary and did not annex the country.

A couple of years later, Suleiman attacked Vienna, but this time he failed. Vienna was a distant target for the Ottoman armies; long roads and bad weather forced Suleiman to leave his heavy guns behind. The early arrival of winter also forced him to lift the siege after only a couple of weeks.

Suleiman also got into conflict with the Persians in the East and the Portugals in the Indian Ocean. The Ottomans struggled against their Safavid adversaries in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus region. After their defeat at Chaldirah, the Persians largely avoided pitched battles and used scorched earth tactics.

When the Ottomans advanced, they retreated and later came back to pick off the isolated garrisons left behind by the Ottomans. Suleiman managed to conquer Mesopotamia and get access to the Persian Gulf, but further Ottoman conquest was out of the question, as the logistical strains were simply too great.

In the Mediterranean, Suleiman accepted the offer of Barbarossa Hayreddin, who became the vassal of the Ottomans. The Barbary pirates of Algiers and Tunisia served as an advanced naval force of the Ottomans in the Western Mediterranean. They played a great role in checking Spanish advances into North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean by keeping them busy in the Western Mediterranean.

Suleiman returned to Hungary in 1541 and directly annexed the middle part of the kingdom, which became known as the Pashalik of Buda, named after its centre.

By the end of Suleiman’s reign, the Ottoman expansion was largely finished. Although Murad III annexed new territories from the Persians in 1590 and the Koprulu Grand Viziers in the second half of the 17th century, these conquests were rather short-lived. The empire of Suleiman remained the core of the empire in the following centuries.

The Ottoman Empire when Mehmed the Conqueror became Sultan in 1451.

The Ottoman Empire when Mehmed the Conqueror became Sultan in 1451.

Sources

Imber, Colin. (2009). The Ottoman Empire 1300-1650: The Structure of Power (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Murphey, Rhoads. (1999). Ottoman Warfare: 1500-1700. Rutgers UP.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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