Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 13: The Birth of the Ottoman Empire

Copyright ©2010, 2011, 2012 by T. Pavlidis

The Year 1300

The year 1300 can be seen as the one that divides the period when the Middle East was ahead of Western Europe (certainly as late as 1200, see Gibbon's quote in Chapter 12) and the modern era where the West is ahead of the Middle East (certainly true by 1400). There are several explanations for the western cultural and scientific advance, but why the Middle East stagnated? Sure the Crusaders "took knowledge" from the East, but "taking knowledge" does not deprive its original owner of the possession.

In Chapter 8 we discussed the Arab Golden Age and attributed its end to the rise of religious fundamentalism. We should remember 1195 as the year when the famous Arab scholar Ibn Rushd (Averroes to the Europeans) was exiled at the instigation of religious authorities. It is an interesting coincidence that Magna Carta was granted in 1215 and that year is often remembered as the beginning of the "rule of Law" in England (see Chapter 12). Was it a pure coincidence that religious fundamentalism rose in Islam as the power of the nobles declined in Europe as a result of the Crusades [ibid]? Or was the rise of fundamentalism in Islam also a result of the Crusades? These are interesting speculations but we should not ignore the local political factors.

The major political entity in the Middle East at that time was the Mamluk empire centered in Egypt and stretching up to Syria. It was the Mamluk armies that defeated the Mongols of Genghis Khan. But a new power was rising, the Ottoman Turks who dominated the region until the early 20th century (end of World War I). Rather than the effects of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, the new regional power and its policies may offer the answer for the decline of intellectual activity in the Middle East.

The Ottoman Turks (1300-1400)

One of the principalities into which the Seljuk empire had broken up, eventually grew to be the mighty Ottoman empire. The name Ottoman is derived from Osman, the founder of the principality in 1299, in the western part of the Seljuk lands. In 1326 the Ottomans captured Bursa from the Byzantines and made it the capital of their state [BL95, p. 107]. Gibbon considers that event the start of the Ottoman Empire. The office of Vizir was instituted and its first occupant was Aladin, the brother of sultan Orhan (son of Osman). A college of Islamic studies was founded and a military re-organization was carried out establishing infantry troops in addition to the traditional Turkish cavalry. [EG, Chapter LXIV, vol. 6, pp. 292-294]. During that time the Byzantines were engaged in a ruinous civil war between the emperor Andonicus II and his grandson Andronicus III who eventually won and became undisputed emperor in 1328. Gibbon remarks that "The Greeks, by their intestine divisions, were the authors of their final ruin" [ibid, p. 295]. Indeed, the conquest of Bythinia (the province surrounding Bursa) took place during the civil war between the two Andronicus.

In addition to the Ottomans, the Byzantines were facing threats in the Balkans from the Serbians and in the Aegean from the Venetians and the Genovese. In 1347 the bubonic plague (Black Death) broke out in Constantinople. Because the plague was spread by rats from port to port it affected the coastal areas more than it did the interior lands of the Serbians and the Turks [WT97, p. 773]. To make things worse another civil war broke out amongst the Byzantines and the co-emperor John VI Cantacuzenos relied on Ottoman mercenaries. At the end of the war he tried to dismiss them but they did not oblige. When an earthquake in 1354 destroyed the fortifications of Callipolis on the straights of the Dardanelles the Ottomans repaired the fortress and occupied the city achieving for the first time a foothold in Europe [ibid, p. 776]. Orhan was succeeded by his son Murad I who is credited with establishing the corps of the Janissaries (meaning new soldiers in Turkish). They consisted of young European captives who were converted to Islam and raised to become soldiers, not unlike the Mamluks [EG, Chapter LXIV, vol. 6, pp. 299-300]. Gibbon quotes Murad as giving a blessing to the Janissaries that ends with the phrase "and wheresoever they go, may they return with a while face" [ibid]. The expression "white face" is used (In both Turkish and Greek) to denote someone who is proud of what he has accomplished.

In 1365 the Ottomans captured Adrianopolis and made it their capital, encircling Constantinople from both the East and the West. In 1387 they captured the major port of Thessaloniki from the Venetians and in 1389 they defeated the Serbians at Kosovo. While the Ottoman sultan Murad I was killed in the battle [CF05, p. 21] the Serbians lost their state and the defeat at Kosovo still reverberates at modern times. Within 35 years from their first foray into the European lands of the Byzantines, the Ottomans ended up controlling most of them. In addition, in 1352, they had signed a commercial treaty with the Genoese [BL95, pp. 107-108]. In 1371 the Byzantine emperor John V had agreed to pay tribute to Murad I and become his vassal [WT97, p. 780, EG, Chapter LXIV, vol. 6, p. 299]. The same emperor also tried to obtain help from the West by traveling to Italy and submitting the Eastern Church to the authority of the Pope, thus reversing the schisms of 1054. However, the so called union of the churches was rejected in Constantinople and no military help came from the West. The humiliation of the once mighty Roman empire was complete.

When Murad I was killed in Kosovo he was succeeded by son Bayezid I who was given the surname Yildirim or Thunderbolt. [EG, Chapter LXIV, vol. 6, pp. 300-301] (However I use the modern Turkish spelling of the word as well as its most prevalent meaning.) Bayezid completed the conquest of the Turkish principalities in Asia Minor capturing the old Seljuk capital of Iconium (Konya) [ibid].

Bayezid asked the caliph to recognize him as "Sultan of Rum" aiming at inheriting the authority of the Seljuk sultans of Anatolia. In 1396 his army met a European (mostly French and Hungarian) army in Nicopolis, a city on the south shore of Danube in Bulgaria. The Turks inflicted a crushing defeat on the European knights, thus solidifying their control of the Balkans [BL95, p. 108]. (See also As the fourteenth century was ending the Ottoman Turks controlled most of the Balkan peninsula (including the modern countries of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia) as well as most of Asia Minor. It would seem that the end of the Byzantine Empire would be imminent but help came from the Far East with a second Mongol invasion.

The Second Mongol Invasion

This time the Mongol leader was Timur the lame, or Tamerlane. He was born in what is today Uzbekistan and his reign began in 1370. He had risen from relatively humble circumstances and quickly became the ruler of an empire that covered Persia, what is now the central Asia states, parts of Russia, and parts of India [EG, Chapter LXV, vol. 6, pp.308- 317]. Tamerlane may have decided to attack the Middle East rather than China, the usual target of Mongol raiders, because in 1368 China saw the rise of the strong Ming dynasty. Eventually, Ming emperors built the Great Wall of China but the latter was completed more than 40 years after Timur's death.

Tamerlane was a Muslim, but that did not stop him from attacking other Muslim rulers. Gibbon [ibid, pp. 318-19] reports a correspondence between Timur and the Ottoman sultan Bayezid, son of Murad I. Timur sent a haughty letter that enraged Bayezid, who flush from his victories in Europe replied in an even more insulting way. Timur postponed dealing with Bayezid and directed his attention first against Syria. His army included elephants that carried turrets filled with archers or with devices spewing Greek fire [ibid, p. 321] and easily defeated the Mamluk troops. Then the Mongols sacked and burned Aleppo, a major Syrian city about 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast. The Mongols had a practice of erecting a pyramid of human heads from their victims when they took a city. In the case of Baghdad the pyramid consisted of 90,000 heads [ibid, p. 322].

In 1402 Timur moved into Anatolia, occupied the major city of Kayseri and met Bayezid's army in the plain of Ankara. The Ottoman armies suffered a crashing defeat and Bayezid himself was captured by the Mongols [ibid, 323-326, also CF05, p. 29]. The Mongol troops took over most of Asia Minor and Bayezid died a prisoner. Timur died in 1405 and his empire dissolved after his death. His main legacy has been the wanton destruction of cities and the slaughter of people from India to Persia to Syria to Asia Minor [EG, Chapter LXV, vol. 6, pp. 334-336]. The destruction caused by the two Mongol invasions is sometimes seen as the cause for the stagnation of the Arab countries but not everybody agrees with that assessment.

The damage inflicted by the Mongols on the Ottomans served to prolong the life of the Byzantine state for a few more decades but it could not change its ultimate fate.

Recovery from the Mongol Attack

Bayazid I died in captivity and his succession unleashed a civil war amongst his sons that was eventually won by Mehmed I who reigned as sultan during 1413-1421. He was succeeded by his son Murad II but the latter faced immediately a pretender to the throne. "False" Mustafa had first appeared in 1415 claiming to be Bayazid's son [CF05, pp.33-34] but failed to depose Mehmed I and he had found refuge in Constantinople. In 1422 Mustafa was released by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II in the hope of causing internal strife amongst the Ottomans [EG, Chapter LXV, vol. 6, pp. 340-341]. However Murad II defeated Mustafa quickly and he started a siege of Constantinople but he had to suspend it because of internal challenges to his rule [ibid, p. 342].

Murad further developed the corps of the Janissaries that had been established by his grandfather [FB78, p. 15]. The recruits were young boys (12-14 years of age) that were selected mainly from amongst European Christians under the devsirme system. This was a human tax system under which Christian communities had to provide a certain number of boys at regular time intervals. The boys were converted into Islam and educated in special schools. They were educated not only in the military matters but also in the knowledge of the Koran and the Arabic and Persian languages [EG, Chapter LXV, vol. 6, pp. 343-345]. The recruits of the devsirme ended up not only as soldiers but also, depending on their aptitude, as administrators or as religious scholars. Those serving in the army were required to stay single but were allowed to marry upon retirement. (The father of the famous corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa was a retired Jannissary who had married the widow of a Christian priest.) While the recruits of the devsirme were considered slaves of the sultan, they held a high status and occupied many powerful positions in the empire not unlike the Mamluks. One difference from the latter was that the Janissary troops were infantry rather than horsemen. Ottoman cavalry was provided by the landed gentry.

Even though Murad failed to capture Constantinople, he was able to re-capture the major port of Thessaloniki in 1430. The city had been ceded to Venice by Manuel II in 1422 on condition that Orthodox Christianity be respected but the Venetian forces were unable to withstand the Ottoman assault [CF05, pp. 40-41]. The fall of Thessaloniki was followed by the capture of Yannina, a major city in Epirus [FB78, p. 10]. Murad spent the next year (1432) in his capital Adrianopolis (modern Edirne) and that is where his third son Mehmed, the future conqueror of Byzantium, was born [ibid, p. 11].

By this time the Ottoman state employed Christian Greek converts to Islam in high positions. One of them, Ishak Pasha had been the first vizier, although, in 1439, he was demoted to second vizier. The third vizier was Zaganos Pasha, another Greek convert to Islam [ibid, pp. 14-15]. There was tension between these converts and the old Turkish nobility that interfered with the smooth functioning of the state machinery. On the other hand the animosity between these two groups ensured that they would never conspire against the sultan. This divide-and-conquer policy became a cornerstone of the power of the Ottoman dynasty.

Murad re-established Ottoman hegemony in the Balkans that had been eroded since his grandfather's victory at Kosovo. The conquest of Serbia was completed in August 1441 but a new opponent appeared. John Hunyadi, a Transylvanian nobleman whose mother was Greek started raiding Turkish possessions inflicting a serious defeat on the Ottomans in 1441 [ibid, pp. 20-21]. Hunyadi's victories raised hopes in Europe and a new crusade was launched but, after some initial successes, it failed. Hunyadi and the Albanian nobleman George Castriot (known as Skanderbeg, Turkish for Alexander Bey) were able to inflict damage on the Ottomans but eventually they were defeated by Murad. The final battle took place in Kosovo in 1448 [ibid, p. 56]. (Also [EG, Chapter LXVII, vol. 6, pp. 407-413].)

Murad had abdicated in favor of his young son Mehmed in 1444 but he returned to the throne two years later as a result of a Janissary revolt. Apparently the Janissaries were unhappy with certain economy measures instituted by Mehmed [CF05, p. 46]. Murad II died in 1451 at the age of 49. His son was only 19 years old when he became sultan as Mehmed II [FB78, pp. 62-63]. Mehmed's first order of business was to kill his younger brother who was only an infant. Later he enacted the fratricide law that stated "whichever of the sultan's sons inherits the throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order" [ibid, pp. 65-66]. It would take only two years for Mehmed II to finish with the Byzantine empire.

Who Were the Ottomans?

In barely 100 years a tiny Turkish principality had become the mighty Ottoman empire, in spite of the setbacks inflicted by the Mongol invasion led by Tamerlane. Such a rapid growth exceeds the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries and we have to back to Alexander's time to see a comparable growth. (And Alexander's empire did not outlive his death while the Ottoman empire lasted for over 600 years). Therefore it is natural to ask who were really the Ottomans?

This topic is the subject of a monograph by H. W. Lowry ,The Nature of the Early Ottoman State [HL03] and I rely on that work in this section.

Lowry is critical of earlier claims that religious zeal fueled Ottoman expansion and instead provides strong evidence that the Ottomans started as a "Predatory Confederacy" [ibid, p. 57] between Muslim and Christian warlords. The Ottoman negotiator for the surrender of Bursa in 1326 was Köse Mihal, a recent convert to Islam who had been a Greek-Christian. His descendents were the Ottoman warrior family Mihalogullari [ibid, p. 59]. Another Ottoman warrior family, the Evrenosguallari, were certainly not of Turkic origin and he suggests a Catalan ancestry for them. (Catalans had served as mercenaries with the Crusaders and the Byzantines.) Both families have been using the title "King of the Warriors", putting them only just a notch below the sultan [ibid, p. 65]. A list of timariots in Albania in the year 1431 has survived to modern times and it is quite revealing. Timars were fiefs who owners were obliged to provide cavalry (spahis) for the Ottoman army. 16% of the timars were held by Christians, 30% by Muslims from Anatolia, and the rest by recent Muslim converts [ibid, p. 90]. No small part in the process of integration was played by the practice of Muslim men to marry Christian women [ibid, p. 93].

Lowry quotes the Greek scholar Arnakis who states that the "Ottomans initially encountered a peasantry which had been abused by their Byzantine rulers with a resultant loss of morale. ... the lenient attitude of the Ottomans ... facilitated widespread conversion and subsequent assimilation". In short, the fast growth of the early Ottoman state was due to the "absorption of the indigenous Greek population of Bithynia." [ibid, p. 9] An Ottoman chronicler provides the following description for the aftermath of an Ottoman conquest. "All the villagers came back and settled in their places. Their state was better than it had been in the time of the unbelievers" [ibid, p. 81].

There is a modern parallel to this process. For the last 200 years impoverished and persecuted people from Europe have been migrating to the North American states and more recently to Australia. While these people kept, nominally, their religion, they adopted the language and culture of their new homelands. After a few generations the connection to the old countries is lost.

The Byzantine aristocracy was also eager to enter Ottoman service. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI had no children, so his successor would have been one of his three nephews, children of his older brother. All three converted to Islam and entered Ottoman service. One, renamed Mesih Pasha started as Admiral of the Ottoman fleet and rose to become Grand Vizier. A second, Has Murad Pasha, served as governor of the Balkans and died in 1472 while leading Ottoman troops against a Turkman chief. The third, Gedik Ahmed Pasha, also served as Grand Vizier. [ibid, p. 116].

There were 16 individuals who held the office of Grand Vizier. during the 64 years between 1453 and 1517, several serving more than one term. This was a most important office, equivalent to prime minister in Western kingdoms. Of the 16 only three were Muslim Turks. Five others were products of the Devsirme system (see previous section) where young Christian boys from the Balkans would be drafted and then covert to Islam and enter either the Army (Janissary troops) or the palace service. The other eight were all members of noble Christian families, Greek, Serbian, Albanian, or Bosnian [ibid, pp. 120-122]. Some of these individuals were mentioned in the previous section. Note also that at that time Bosnians and Albanians were predominantly Christian. Islamization of these areas came later.

A historical fact that is often ignored, especially by Greek historians, is that there were close family connections between the Ottoman and Byzantine rulers. Sultans selected wives (as opposed to concubines) with political goals in mind. They often married Byzantine noblewomen in order to cement alliances with Byzantine emperors. Figure 1 encapsulates those ties. Because sultans could have several wives (up to four by Islamic law) and countless concubines, the role of the queen was assumed by the mother of the sultan who took the title of Valide Sultana. Here are a few details.

Orhan I (reigned 1324-1362) married Theodora, daughter of emperor John VI Cantacuzene in 1346. Earlier (in 1299) he had married a Byzantine noblewoman Helen who, upon converting to Islam, changed her name to Nulifer. She was the mother of Murad I (reigned 1362-1389). When he became Sultan, she became the Valide Sultana. This makes Murad I half Greek. He also married a Greek woman (Gulcicek) who was the mother of the next sultan Bayezid I (1389-1402). So the famous Thunderbolt sultan (see above) was 3/4 Greek! The mother of Mehmet I (reigned 1413-1421) was a convert to Islam most likely of Greek origin. The mother of the next sultan, Murad II (1421-1451) was Turkish.

We are not sure about the ethnicity of Mehmed's II (1451-1481) mother. Most likely she was Serbian. The next sultan Bayezid II was Mehmed's son by a Greek woman, Gulbahar. Suleyman I was the first sultan to marry a woman that started as a concubine, the famous Roxelana.

  Figure 1: The ancestry of the early Ottoman Sultans. The name of each sultans is in a rectangle and the ethnicity of the wife who was the mother of the sultan's successor (in other words the Valide Sultana) is in an ellipse. The line under the name of each sultan depicts the mixture of his ancestry. (My main source for the ancestry of the sultans is [HL03, pp. 153-154].)

The End of the Byzantine Empire

The defeat of the Ottomans by the Mongols in 1402 provided some breathing space for the Byzantines but it was not put to good use. During 1399-1403 the emperor Manuel II traveled to Europe visiting France, Germany, and England but while he was treated with honors, he was unable to obtain any substantive help. One reason that the trip is memorable is that a member of his retinue, Chalcocondyles, wrote his impressions about those countries. He was impressed by London but also shocked by the habit of English women greeting strangers by kissing them. Scholars argue on the exact meaning of the words Chalcocondyles used [EG, Chapter LXVI, vol. 6, pp. 356-359]. Manuel II reigned for over 20 years after his return from Europe and he devoted his time in writing theological treatises. He composed 26 of them in defending orthodox Christianity against Islam [ibid, pp. 359-360]. In 2006 the Pope Benedict XVI quote parts of one of these treatises causing an outcry amongst Muslims who found the passages insulting.

Manuel had married a Serbian noblewoman, Helena Dragas, and had six sons with her. He was succeeded by the oldest son, John VIII Paleologus in 1425. The latter traveled to Italy with Byzantine clergy and reached an agreement with the Pope for a union between the Greek and the Roman churches. The decree for the union was signed in Florence in 1439 [FB78, p. 17] [EG, Chapter LXVI, vol. 6, pp. 367-379]. Historians claim that the Greek scholars who accompanied the emperor contributed to the revival of interesting in the Greek classics amongst Italian scholars [ibid, pp. 383-392].

While the emperor and the church leaders had agreed to the union of the churches the result was not accepted by the Byzantine clergy and laity. Because there was no military help from the West the union agreement seemed like a sell-out. The union was also rejected by the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. While a Russian primate had taken part in the Florence agreement he was met with opposition when he returned home. [EG, Chapter LXVII, vol. 6, pp. 392-397]. Typical of the attitude of the Byzantines towards the Pope was the statement of a high official of the empire that he would rather see a Turk's turban in Constantinople than a cardinal's hat [EG, Chapter LXVIII, vol. 6, p. 433]. For the Byzantines the union meant complete subjugation of their church to Rome, while a Muslim conquest would have allowed them religious autonomy. The latter had been consistent practice of Muslim rulers as we saw in Chapter 6. There was also the view amongst Greeks that any help from the West would result in the revival of the Latin Empire of Constantinople rather than the saving the Byzantine empire [FB78, pp. 68-69]. (See also [CF05, p. 43].)

A few churches accepted the union and their descendents are today's Eastern-rite Catholics that follow the Byzantine rituals while recognizing the Pope as the head of the Christian church. (An eastern-rite bishop took part in the funeral of Pope John-Paul II in 2005 and the Greek words of the hymn of resurrection were heard in St Peter's square.)

Figure 2: Lands of the Byzantine Empire in 1452 (in blue). The empire consists only of Peloponese and the small area around Constantinople. There is also another small state under Byzantine rulers centered around Trabizon on the Black Sea (outside the area of the map).
Adapted from

John VIII died childless in 1448 and he was supposed to be succeeded by the eldest of his surviving brothers Constantine who was despot of Mystra in Peloponese. However another brother, Demetrius, also raised claims to the throne and the Byzantines asked Murad II to arbitrate the dispute. Murad decided in favor of Constantine who sailed from Peloponese to Constantinople on a Catalan ship in March 1449 [FB78, p. 56], [EG, Chapter LXVII, vol. 6, pp. 413-414]. As Constantine XI he was the last Roman emperor. By that time the once mighty Roman empire had been reduced to minuscule size shown in Figure 2. Given the pitiful state of the empire it is amazing that the office of the emperor would be the subject of a dispute and that the Ottoman sultan would be asked to decide. What were these people thinking?

When Constantine became emperor he was a widower, so he asked his great chamberlain Phrantzes to find him a wife from the royal houses of the region. Phrantzes found a prospective bride in the daughter of a Georgian prince. But the marriage did not take place because Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople [EG, Chapter LXVII, vol. 6, pp. 414-416]. He had the advantage of a new military technology, gunpowder, and shots from his canons breached the walls of the city. It fell on May 29, 1453 and Constantine XI was killed in the battle. According to Greek folklore, he did not really die but he was converted into marble (Μαρμαρομενος Βασιλιας). He is supposed to rise (I forget what will be the triggering event) and resume ruling the empire.

A lot has been written about the final battle of Constantinople (for example, [EG, Chapter LXVIII, vol. 6, pp. 433-449], [FB78, pp. 75-98]) and it is remember as a dark day in Greek history. Some of the writings include "what ifs" of events that may have saved the city. The sad truth is that the Fall of Constantinople may have had great symbolic significance (for both the Ottomans and the Christians) but it was only the final step in a process that had started at least a century earlier. Comparing the map of Figure 5 in Chapter 11 to the map of Figure 2 tells the story of the long decline.

It was only after the disastrous war of 1919-22 that Greeks gave up the idea of restoring the Byzantine empire with Constantinople as its capital.

First Posted: April 17, 2010. Latest Revision: February 12, 2012.

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