Your guide to the Ottoman empire

The Ottoman empire was one of the most resilient empires in world history, persisting for just over 600 years. But how did it start? Why did it end? And when did it transform Constantinople into Istanbul? BBC History Revealed explores the Ottomans' rapid rise and tremendous fall

A sultan rides through Istanbul – at its height, the Empire ruled over more than 15 million subjects

Was the Ottoman empire really history’s longest-lasting empire?

That’s a debate that is hard to fit into a nutshell. But, the ever-changing world power that was the Ottoman empire – an Islamic network of countries comprising much of the Mediterranean coast (besides Italy) – emerged in 1299 and persisted until 1922.


This means that it certainly outstripped the British empire in terms of longevity, if not reach. Depending on the start and end dates, though, the Roman empire could be said to have lasted longer, as it endured from the beginning in the first century BC until the fifth century AD.

How did the Ottoman empire get started?

The name comes from an anglicisation of ‘Osman’, after Osman I, the founder of the dynasty, who would go on to rule the empire. The area known as Anatolia, or Asia Minor, the westernmost fringe of Asia, was split into numerous Turkish states following the end of the medieval Sultanate of Rum.

At the same time, the Byzantine empire (the name given to the Eastern arm of the Roman empire) was falling. Osman and his followers were there to pick up the spoils.

At first, the Ottoman powerbase was only one of many in the region. Osman’s son Orhan, however, was much more interested in conquest, so extended his land to the Balkans. He went on to block trade routes and reduce Byzantine control in the north west, all of which allowed for further expansion.

Ultimately, the greatest treasure to be captured in the whole hemisphere was the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine empire for 1,000 years.

Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor (Photo by Getty)
Osman I, the first Ottoman emperor (Photo by Getty)

Was it a straightforward march to greatness?

Not a chance – not between the Byzantines fighting back, Mongol interventions, internal strife and regular Crusades from the West.

Sultan Bayezid, Osman’s great-grandson, was imprisoned by the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, triggering years of civil war that only ended when his son, Mehmed I, emerged as the victor. It was, in turn, his grandson Mehmed the Conqueror who earned his name as the man who took Constantinople. Around this time, the city became known as ‘Istanbul’, which to the Greeks meant ‘in the city’, but was claimed by the conquerors to mean ‘full of Islam’.

Mehmed’s forces had taken control of all areas surrounding the city, including the strategic hotspot of the Bosporus Straits, and all it took to complete the campaign was a 57-day siege, starting in April 1453. When the Sultan set foot in his new capital, he proclaimed: “The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars.” He even claimed the title of Caesar.

Was the Ottaman empire a harsh regime?

There’s actually very little to suggest that the Ottomans were any more brutal in their ruling than any other European power of the time. The Christian Orthodox Church was maintained, and the succeeding sultans were just as likely to ally themselves with the rulers of France, for example, as any other empire-building nation if it were mutually beneficial.

By the middle of the 16th century, in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman empire boasted a population of more than 15 million people across three continents, as well as being one of the strongest military and naval forces on the planet.

Why did the Ottoman empire fail?

Managing to maintain the empire over four centuries could hardly be called ‘going wrong’, yet it is true that by the 19th century, the dwindling empire was known as “the sick man of Europe” – a term coined by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia during the Crimean War.

Russia emerged as one of the key antagonists of the Ottoman empire, and the Crimean War was in part caused by the empire’s decline, as growing European powers faced off to take over their territories. Despite the dissolution of the empire, it was to emerge as the victor of one more major military campaign – Gallipoli, in which the Allied forces failed to take over the Turkish peninsula.

However, Turkish forces became so strained that their signing of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918 effectively handed Istanbul over to the English and French, which began carving up what remained of the Ottoman empire – ushering in a whole new era of tribalism and strife.


This content first appeared in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed