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What Was the Ottoman Empire?

By David White
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Ottoman Empire was a sprawling political and military entity that arose in the late Middle Ages and survived into the 20th Century. The achievements of the empire include excellence in art and culture, autocratic brilliance and a large handful of initial military victories, and eventual defeats toward the end of its reign.

The Ottoman Turks were one small state to begin with, one of a handful of successors to the Seljuk Turks, who thrived in Asia Minor in the early Middle Ages. In the 15th Century, the Ottomans began to solidify their hold on Asia Minor. One of the first great accomplishments of the empire was the capture of Constantinople, in 1453. This victory has been called a monumental achievement by many world historians, and it certainly signaled the death knell of Western occupation of the former Byzantine capital.

The following century saw the rise of the most famous ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman the Magnificent. His long reign was punctuated by a series of brilliant victories, giving the Ottomans control of much of Egypt and the Balkans territory, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldava, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. It was Suleyman who installed a justice system that lasted until the fall of the empire. It was also during his reign that the great Ottoman tradition of beautiful art, architecture, and literature began its ascent. Suleyman renamed Constantinople as Istanbul and had some of the world's most breathtaking buildings and paintings created.

The reign of Suleyman, however, was the high-water mark of the empire. Not long after his death, Ottoman forces were defeated in the great naval Battle of Lepanto by a combined Spanish and Venetian force. A progressive series of European victories followed, steadily carving up the territory into smaller and smaller pieces. An especially troublesome blow was the loss of Greece in the early 19th Century.

Egypt gained its independence as well, as did Hungary, Moldava and a large chunk of Serbia. Various wars with Russia during this period included the Crimean War, which involved other major European powers as well. Bosnia-Herzegovina left the Ottoman Empire near the end of the 19th century. The rest of the Balkans territories followed, only to be swept up by the expanding Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary soon after the turn of the following century.

The last of the European possessions disappeared in the Balkans Wars of 1912-1913. The next year, World War I began. During this struggle, the Ottomans were aligned with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The one bright spot for the empire in this war was victory in the Gallipoli campaign. When the Central Powers were defeated and the war had ended, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved. The once proud, expansive empire had become a collection of separate countries, including Turkey. Turkey inherited the empire's tradition, if not its territory.

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Discussion Comments
By anon199200 — On Jul 22, 2011

Only very few of them were Greek, but most of them were Albanian and Bosniaks. Actually, the reason these two countries later accepted Islam as the religion of their majority is because of the power and reputation brought home by those devshirmah. Also wrong in your statement that they were kidnapped. Many families were willing to give their sons as devshirmah, because many of the previous devshirmah became prime ministers and other highly regarded officials. Also wrong that they were all janissaries, actually many of them were vali (mayors) and scientists.

By Tufenkian925 — On Jan 16, 2011

It is interesting to note the change in appearance among Turkic peoples throughout Central Asia and all the way to Turkey. You can tell that as they progressed Westward in their raids, they intermarried with many Caucasian-looking peoples, such as the Persians and the native population of Anatolia.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 15, 2011

Many of the Ottoman Turkish traditions derived from the Turqo-Persian Seljuq dynasty. The influence of old Persian customs on much of the modern Mid-Eastern world is immense. Before crossing into the Middle East to conquer, the Turkic bands from which the Turks descend were largely nomadic and uncivilized. Through the Persians and the new religion of Islam, the Turks came to be a highly educated society.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 13, 2011

Ottoman women came to have a mystique in Europe due to the reputation of the harem. Despite popular belief, these harems were likely not fantastical places of erotic wonders, but were merely quarters for the many wives and concubines of powerful nobles and the sultan. It was normally inappropriate for men to enter the harem.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 11, 2011

The Ottomans kidnapped or conquered Christian families and often drafted the sons of noble birth and high repute to become Janissaries, which means "new troops" in Turkish. These political and military elites were the royal guard of the Sultan, and had a great deal of influence in the Ottoman Empire. Many of them were Greek.

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