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The Ottoman Empire and the Christendom

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Expansion of the Ottoman Empire

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire


The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest Islamic Empires to date. It stretched from the Red Sea to present-day Algeria to the borders of Austria-Hungry, and in its vast territory, Islam encountered many different types of people (Ahmad 20). On the western front of the empire, the Ottomans conquered Byzantine, Venetian, and other European territories. Prior to Ottoman rule, each of these areas was predominantly Christian and they were able to remain so during their rule.

For the purpose of this paper, Ottoman interaction with western entities such as the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, Austria, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, and their conquered people, are the Ottoman Empire’s encounters with Christendom. I will use both their European names and their Christian sect names to distinguish them as Christendom. This is necessary because Christendom changed dramatically while the Ottoman Empire was in direct contact with it. The Christian sects that the Ottomans encountered included Greek and Russian Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jacobites, Armenian Christians, and other Eastern European Christians.

The Ottoman Empire’s interactions with Christendom can be categorized into seven main themes:

  1. Territorial confrontation
  2. Reactions to Ottoman rule in light of Catholic oppression
  3. Ottoman change in class structure away from nobility
  4. Slavery of non-Muslims
  5. Ottoman administrative structure
  6. Western antagonism
  7. Trade

Invitation and Early Expansion

The total span of the Ottoman Empire ranged from the borders of Austria-Hungary to the Red Sea (Ahmad 20). Initial Ottoman settlement in the direction of Europe was invited by the Byzantines who asked the Ottomans to help them displace the Seljuk armies attempting to invade their territories in Anatolia. Shortly after the dispersion of the Seljuk armies, the Ottoman Empire began to emerge. The Ottomans were on friendly terms with Christendom because of their help in defeating the Seljuk armies. Coexistence was promoted within both the Christian and Islamic traditions (Kafar 109). The Byzantine Empire was also struggling with the invasion of the Venetians, who had sacked Constantinople in 1204 as part of the fourth crusade (Davies and Davis 25). As the Ottoman Empire expanded it began to conquer territory belonging both to the Byzantines and the Venetians. In 1354 the Ottomans entered Europe and had conquered much of Thrace by 1370. By 1389 Constantinople remained only as an island of unconquered land surrounded by Ottoman territory, and the Peloponnese was the only substantial piece of land still under byzantine control. It was not until 1453 that the Ottomans captured Constantinople and transferred their capital there, renaming it Istanbul (Davies and Davis 25). It took the Ottomans one hundred more years to conquer the Peloponnese, in essence defeating the Byzantine Empire for good (Davies and Davis 28).

The Venetians attempted to fight off the Ottomans. Part of this attempt was to lay siege to their ships. The siege gave the Ottomans an excuse to attack Crete and expand their empire even further (Davies and Davis 27). By 1669 the Ottomans conquered Crete which they held for 200 years (Davies and Davis 28). From the late 14th century to the early 15th century the Ottoman Empire secured its domain in the Balkans. As a result, the ethnic composition of that area changed dramatically (Kafar 110). Ottoman conquest of the Balkans was made easier due to the division of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in a time when the church and state were so interconnected that the church ruled the land. This division made the Balkans weak because it fragmented the area (Hoerder 145). The Ottomans fought with the Venetians and other European entities into the 20th century for control of those territories as the Ottoman territory continued to grow and shrink as they conquered former Byzantine land and land under Latin rule (Davies and Davis 25, 27). The Ottoman Empire spread as far west as Vienna, but they were stopped twice from expanding beyond that point by the Austrian armies (Kafar 110).

An example of Islamic art, known for its use of calligraphy

An example of Islamic art, known for its use of calligraphy


The 18th century showed the beginning decline of the Ottoman Empire. In 1774 a European source stated that the Ottoman Empire was “stagnant and archaic,” and may have lasted longer than it should have because of European countries’ inability to agree on the appropriate method to divide up the Empire’s lands, a process which they had begun to do in the 18th century (Ahmad 5). Outside European involvement in the territories became more intense through colonialism. The French, Russians, and British were prominent in their attempts to colonize Islamic lands (Ahmad 11). The empire was constantly dealing with interference from Austria in Albania, Russia in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia, and the French in Syria (Ahmad 20). Napoleon gained his fame during his French invasion of the Ottoman Empire’s colony in Egypt (Ahmad 6). Mistrust of the west was rooted in part as a reaction to European imperialism into Muslim territories. Ottomans held contempt for the Russians, French, and British because of their colonization of Islamic lands (Ahmad 11). As a result, the Ottomans hoped to ally with Germany which had not colonized Muslim territory. Kaiser Wilhelm presented himself as the “champion of Islam against its enemies” (Ahmad 11).

The end of the 19th century was marked by increased French, Russian, and British attempts to gain colonies by taking territory from the Ottoman Empire. At this point in time, there was little that the Empire could do to stop them (Ahmad 22). This pushed the Ottomans into an alliance with Germany. Europe threatened the Ottoman Empire both economically and militarily. The Ottomans’ attempt to compete on both fronts through extensive reforms caused them to go deeply into debt (Ahmad 23). Their debit caused them to become increasingly dependent on European Powers only to decline the empire further despite their efforts (Ahmad 25). The alliance with Germany kept the other European powers from partitioning the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, yet it complicated the existence of the empire as Germany became stronger and more of a threat to the other powers (Ahmad 12). In 1914 the treaty was officially signed between Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were forced into the official pact to avoid isolation in the growing climate of World War One (Ahmad 16). A formal alliance with Germany was a gamble for the Ottomans but they needed it to avoid isolation and to have the chance to regain respect in the European world as a powerful entity. The empire had been likely to fall whether it allied or not after the post-war application of Wilson’s national self-determination. The loss of Germany in World War One was the end of the Ottoman Empire (Ahmad 18). In order to finance their involvement in World War One, the Ottoman Empire borrowed heavily from Germany. So much so that if Germany had won, there was talk of incorporating it as an externality of Germany. The end of the war brought the end of an Empire and the beginning of a national republic called Turkey (Ahmad 26).

Religious Toleration within the Empire

Ottoman conquest of Christian lands through their invasion of Europe was aided by the contempt of non-Catholics for the oppressive regime led by the Venetians and other various Catholic groups. Invasion of the Balkans was made easier due to the division of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This division made the Balkans weak because it fragmented the area (Hoerder 145). Christendom was divided into different groups. The Catholics oppressed the Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, Jacobites, Armenian Christians, and other Eastern Christians during their occupation after the fourth crusade. As a result, these non-Catholic Christians welcomed the religious freedom granted to them by the Ottoman Empire. The Catholics, however, turned to Rome to liberate them from Islamic control (Kafar 113). Similar to Eastern Christians, Jews were open to Ottoman Rule because of the religious tolerance granted to them. The legal status of Jews was higher in the Ottoman Empire than in any of the European nations. Jews began to immigrate into Ottoman territory. Despite Islamic laws against the building of new religious edifices, new synagogues were built within the empire. “The Ottoman Empire became a center of Jewish culture” (Kafar 113). The period of Venetian rule over various parts of the Byzantine Empire was marked by decreased population and immigration to those areas. The Venetians held the coastal cities of Nauplion and Monemvasia until 1540. During that time the flow of Armenian immigrants slowed into those areas but picked up once again after power was transferred over to the Ottoman Empire (Davies and Davis 28). Similarly, under the oppressive Venetian rule, Constantinople’s population had dwindled significantly. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and its name change to Istanbul, it became a goal of the Ottomans to repopulate their new capital. Istanbul’s population doubled several times under Ottoman control. The Ottomans implemented four strategies for repopulation. First, they invited the expelled non-catholic Christians to come back into the capital. Second, prisoners of war were given housing and work in Istanbul. Third, newly conquered regions had to send 4,000 families to connect those areas to the capital. Finally, the Ottomans hope that these forced replacements would encourage friends and families to relocate as well (Kafar 113).

Moving Away from the Feudal System and Social Mobility

Ottoman rule was also welcomed in part because of the Empire’s inclination away from class and nobility in the feudal sense that that been predominant during the Byzantine Empire and other western rules. Ottomans viewed Byzantium as an empire of backward people because they were so deeply embedded with the feudal system. Ottomans viewed their force as a necessary evil to improve the quality of the lives of the people (Hoerder 24). The expanding Ottomans eliminated the previous nobility of their conquered lands and with it the feudal system that had been in place. The Ottoman rulers collected taxes rather than forced labor from peasants. The taxes also guaranteed protection for those people; as a result, the peasant populations revered their Ottoman rulers (Kafar 114-115). Before the law, within the Ottoman administration, nobility and subjects were equal. This structure reduced corruption (Kafar 115). To further limit hereditary nobility, the Ottomans made it so that sons of Muslims could not hold public office (Kafar 115-116). Government positions were often filled with assimilated non-Muslim children through a system called devshireme where peasant children were taken into slavery and based on merit were trained to become the next rulers of the highest levels of government (Hoerder 141). This practice allowed for social mobility among the conquered subjects (Kafar 115-116).

The devshireme and prisoners of war made up a large portion of slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Slaves came from the conquered regions of the Empire, partially because Muslims could not legally be slaves. Some slaves converted to Islam to be freed (Kafar 116). The Ottomans enslaved the conquered people of Christendom only if the conquered population fought back, if they allowed the Empire to move in peacefully they would be permitted to continue their lives uninterrupted (Kafar 111). Much of the Ottoman army was made up of slaves, either prisoners of war or devhsireme children. Poor subjects often voluntarily sent their sons into this type of military slavery because it promised the opportunity of otherwise unavailable social mobility (Kafar 116). Women were also offered a chance at social mobility. Women's palace positions were filled by slaves, prisoners of war, or female subjects from around the empire. These selected women were educated and prepared for positions within the palace. The Sultan and other high-ranking palace officials choose their wives and concubines from these palace women giving them a lot of influence over the empire (Kafar 116).

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Administration Within the Empire

The Ottoman Empire varied from other Islamic administrations because of its use of the devshireme and its introduction of a cash waqf, an unorthodox pious income given to the government. However, in other respects such as their keeping of the dhimma- a contract where in return for a tax the empire would protect the conquered people and allow them to worship as they chose, they were the same (Hoerder 153). The Ottomans also implemented a policy called sürgün, a type of forced migration. Parts of conquered populations were resettled closer to Istanbul. Rebellious populations were moved to areas where they would be easier to control and merchants and other general subjects could be forced to resettle elsewhere as well. This process made it easier for the Ottoman Empire to maintain control without a strong military presence in the colonies. In some scenarios, the sürgün could be to the advantage of the moved population because of the possibility of increased opportunities in the new area (Kafar 111). Even Ottoman citizens such as the Gazi warriors were subject to forced settlement into the newly conquered Ottoman lands (Hoerder 147).

Administratively, towns were divided into districts called malhalle which centered on a religious building. These districts were divided by religious ethnicities. These groups also formed guilds based on their malhalle’s specialized crafts (Kafar 115). Non-Muslim religious groups were also given the ability of self-administration, called millet. Since they were given authority under the Sultan, religious leaders in turn supported the Sultan. Common people also supported the Empire because they were allowed to practice their customs without interference (Kafar 111). The Ottoman Empire implemented the millet system from its beginnings. The millet system originally granted the Greek Orthodox Church religious freedom and their own head of the church that had “full religious and civil authority over the Greek Orthodox community of the Empire.” Initially, this bound the patriarch to the Sultan because he was dependent on the Sultan for his authority. The millet system was also extended to Armenian and Jewish communities (Ahmad 20). European powers abused the millet privilege. Religious communities within the Empire selected protectors outside the empire to be the heads of the church. This made it so that the non-Muslim citizens of the Empire were not subject to Empire law but to the law of their protectorates, leading to intentional division within the communities. France became the protector of the Catholics, Brittan became the protector of the Protestants, and Russia became the protector of the Orthodox Christians. These powers also introduced Mission schools and Colleges that taught modern ideas and nationalism towards their protectorate country rather than the Empire, creating even more division (Ahmad 21).

European Antagonism

The Ottomans similarly had a system of Capitulations that granted foreign merchants privileges and subjected them to their home laws rather than Islamic laws. European merchant communities were treated as if they were religious communities. This practice eventually became a burden to the Ottomans because the foreign countries began to see these privileges as rights rather than dutifully feeling accountable to Sultan. As a result, the outside European powers caused trouble when the Ottomans attempted to deal with criminals in either the non-Muslim religious or merchant communities (Ahmad 21). Foreign nationalism among non-Muslim communities would not have been possible without the outside European protectorates. It is likely that if the Empire did not have the millet system or the Capitulations, these foreign powers and non-Muslim citizens would have looked to work with the Ottoman Empire to further their interests as a joint community rather than individualistically looking after their own interests to the detriment of the empire (Ahmad 22).

European antagonism such as the abuse of the millet system is rooted in the power struggle between Christendom and Islam. During the early expansion days of the Empire, religious identity as Christians or Muslim and ethnic identity among common people became fluid in the western parts of the Ottoman Empire causing friction between the larger actors in the struggle of dominance between Islam and Christianity (Hoerder 140-141). Catholic Christendom narrowed its scope of the dangerous “other” and declared that it was Islam by the 17th century. It targeted the Ottoman Empire, what it believed to be the political form of Islam. As a result, Islamic scholars were disinclined to interact on a scholarly level with non-Muslims (Kafar 109). Christendom was ruthless to those they considered others. For example, when Islamic expansion forced Gypsies out of their native lands in northern India and into Eastern Europe, they were persecuted on a deadly level (Kafar 109). When the Ottomans began expanding and replacing the Christian rulers of their colonies, the Catholic Church opened war against them. In order to finance their war, they implemented a “Turk Tax”. The name was used as propaganda to pit the European people against the Turks as the people who caused the economic troubles caused by the tax (Kafar 110). Additionally, in 1669 the Pope created a Holy League made up of Venetians, Austrians, Polish, German, Slavs, Tuscan, and papal crusaders to attack the Ottomans (Davies and Davis 28). This level of antagonism continued well into the 19th century. When the Ottoman Empire was faced with the question of whether to westernize, many were opposed due to a lack of distrust of the westerners. They believed that westernization made the Empire subservient to the European Powers (Ahmad 6-7).

Trade in the Ottoman Empire

One of the biggest issues concerning Ottoman westernization was trade reform. Traditionally the Ottoman Empire was the site of a complex trade network including merchants from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. They exchanged goods such as furs, silks, and horses. As early as the fourteenth century, the Ottomans and the Venetians were conducting trade treaties. In general, trade did not suffer during the Early Ottoman Empire (Hoerder 6). During this time the nationality of merchants shifted from Italians dominating to Ottoman subjects such as Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims taking control of trade (Kafar 114). Nineteenth-century trade reform included integration into the world economy (Ahmad 6-7). The Treaty of Balti Liman in 1838 officially established free trade in the Empire. This agreement hurt manufacturers but improved the business of raw material exports (Ahmad 10). Although the reforms were needed, they failed to meet the demands of the rapidly changing world market and industrialization and subsequently lead to bankruptcy and foreign control (Ahmad 5-7). These reforms ultimately led to the Empire’s reliance on Germany and could not stop their demise.


In conclusion, territorial confrontation, reactions to Ottoman rule in light of Catholic oppression, Ottoman change in class structure away from nobility, slavery of non-Muslims, Ottoman administrative structure, western antagonism, and trade are six themes that exemplify the Ottoman Empire’s interactions with Christendom. The Ottoman Empire was in constant conflict with Christendom over territory as the Empire gained and lost land. Incorporated subjects into the Ottoman Empire had mixed feelings toward the Empire because of the dichotomy between the previous oppressive Catholic and the new tolerant Islamic regimes. The general population also welcomed the change in class structure when their subjecthood shifted from Christendom to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans also enslaved Christians and other non-Muslims, but slavery could lead to social mobility that was previously unavailable to the people. The Ottoman administrative structure was imposed from the beginning to be tolerant towards its new subjects. Western powers used these tolerant regimes against the empire as part of their constant antagonism directed toward the empire. Finally, trade connected the Ottoman Empire to Christendom as they were forced to work together to distribute goods from one part of the world to another. Learning and understanding these interactions between Christendom and the Ottoman Empire helps us to understand the dynamics of current problems from both ideological and ethnic disputes in Eastern Europe today.

Works Cited

Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Los Angeles: University of

California, 1995.

Ahmad, Feroz. "The Late Ottoman Empire." The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire. Ed.

Marian Kent. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1984. 5-30.

Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Davies, Siriol, and Jack L. Davis. "Greeks, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire." Hesperia Supplements 40

(2007): 25-31. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.


Tariq Sattar from Karachi on February 02, 2016:

Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest empire not just in size but in tolerance towards minorities of different faiths as well. In fact persecuted Jews and Christian minorities too took shelter in the realms of Ottomans, and authorities welcomed them.

Who could forget the time of Jews being thrown out of Spain in 1492 along with Muslims and being embraced by Ottomans. Its just sheer ignorance as most often Ottomans are not given their due credit of tolerance of religious minorities.

Stevegideons on March 09, 2015:

A great source of historical facts....

Fatiha from CALGARY on January 08, 2014:

And I was led to believe Islam was all about forcing its religion......good citing.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on October 11, 2013:

Excellent historical Hub, enewcomer. This Hub helps very much to explain some of the antagonisms between Muslims and the West.

shamelabboush on October 08, 2013:

countries, kingdoms and empires are all like human beings: they are born fresh, the grow strong in their youth, then they start to decline till they finally die. It took place and will continue...

Bruce from Chicago, Illinois on October 03, 2013:

Good Overview . . .

Daddy Paul from Michigan on October 02, 2013:

Worth the read.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 29, 2013:

I learned a few things reading this. I had not realized until now that the Ottomans were separate from the Seljuk Turks. Your explanation about how Germany came to an alliance with the Ottoman Empire was also very informative. Good work!

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