6 lesser-known facts about the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire covered a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Who founded the it? And what was their most humiliating military defeat? Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about one of the largest empires in history…
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.
Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this empire.
The founder of the Ottoman empire was a man called Osman
Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).
It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.
Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.
Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.
The Ottomans could be unlucky
Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”
While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.
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Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.
Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.
Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.
Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.
Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’
Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.
Many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing
More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.
Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British empire was exclusively ‘English’.
Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think
In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:
“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah's deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men's necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”
Let's break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.
The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.
“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that's only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.
The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.
The sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together
Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.
The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon
On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.
The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.
Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).
The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just
From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.
The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.
Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.
The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.
Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).