Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 14: The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Copyright ©2011, 2012 by T. Pavlidis

Revision of 2/2/12: The section "Who Were the Ottomans?" has been moved to Chapter 13 because of a better fit of the material.

The reign of Mehmed II (1451-1481)

Mehmed II was only 21 years old when Constantinople fell. One of his first acts was to appoint a new patriarch, Gennadius, and treat him with respect (he invited Gennadius to share a meal with him). The patriarch was given several privileges as well as authority over the civic affairs of all Christians in his territories. In this way Mehmed created a "Christian state within the state" [FB78, pp. 104-106]. Soon afterwards Mehmed created the position of Chief Rabbi and appointed Moshe Capsali to it with jurisdiction over all the Jews of the Ottoman state. The condition of Jews in that state was far better than in Christian Europe and 40 years later the Jews expelled from Spain found refuge in the Ottoman empire. Both the patriarch and the chief rabbi were made members of the imperial council (divan) that also included the Muslim Mufti [ibid, pp. 106-107]. Some years later (in 1461) an Armenian patriarchate was also created in Constantinople [ibid, p. 197].

The policy of religious autonomy for Ottoman subjects was a shrewd move. Not only it insured their loyalty, it also make less likely a conspiracy against the sultan since powerful positions in the empire were shared by people of diverse religious backgrounds. This certainly contribute to the longevity of the Osman dynasty that lasted till the end of the Turkish empire around 1922. We discuss the subject of religious communities in more detail in the next section.

The Ottomans adopted several of the Byzantine institutions and customs, although this probably had started before the fall of Constantinople, in the various Turkish states of Asia Minor [ibid, pp. 107-108]. The Sultan also appointed in high positions members of the Byzantine aristocracy that had converted to Islam . One of them Mahmud Pasha Angelovic was made grand vizier. (He was a descendent of the Angeli family and he is described as half-Greek, half-Serbian.) [ibid, p. 115] The sultan's private secretary was the Greek Thomas Catavolenus (known as Yunus Bey) [ibid, p. 204].

One person who resisted the Ottomans was the Walachian ruler Vlad III Dracula (1431-1476). He was notorious for his cruelty, in particular for killing captured Turks and others by impaling. He became know as Vlad the Impaler. In several cases he had hundreds of people executed on some flimsy pretext. Once he invited all the beggars in his country to a banquet and then set the dining hall on fire burning them all alive. When an emissary from the sultan refused to bare his head before appearing in front of Vlad, he had three nails driven through the turban to secure it in its place [ibid, p. 203]. Vlad's father Mircea had ruled Walachia a vassal of the Ottoman sultans and Vlad and his two brothers had spent time in Mehmed's court as hostages against their father's good behavior [CF05, p. 36]. It is possible that mistreatment at the Ottoman court traumatized young Vlad and led to his cruelty.

The sultan tried to capture Vlad by trickery and the plot was entrusted to the Greek Catavolenus and the Ottoman commander of the Danube region, Hamza Pasha. But Vlad was able to outwit the plotters and he ended up capturing both Catavolenus and Hamza. He had their feet and hands cut off and then had them impaled. After the failure of the plan in 1462 Mehmed launched a campaign against Vlad that forced him out of Walachia although the Ottoman suffered significant losses [FB78, pp.202 -208].

We should mention that the eponym Dracula refers to his membership to the Order of the Dragon, an organization devoted to the defense of Christian Europe against the Ottomans, rather than to his cruelty. Some scholars claim that he was the inspiration for the novel Dracula but others doubt it []

Mehmed claimed that his conquest of the Byzantine Empire (officially the Roman Empire) gave him the rights to all the territories of that empire and had sat his eyes on Italy [FB78, p. 112]. The last Greek state, the empire of Trabizon, fell to the Ottomans in 1461 [ibid, p. 196] and the news of the continuing successes of Mehmed caused alarm in Europe. Some Italian rulers tried to befriend the sultan and Pope Pius II conceived a plan to convert Mehmed to Christianity [ibid, pp. 198-201]. Overall Mehmed seems to have had a "love-hate" relationship with Italy. In 1479 asked Venice for a painter and they sent Gentile Bellini who painted a portrait of the sultan (see [ibid, p. 378]. The following year (1480) Mehmed II sent a force that captured the southern Italian port of Otranto, killing its entire male population of 12,000 and shipping 8,000 others as slaves to Albania. However the Ottomans were eventually defeated by forces led by king Ferrante of Naples [FB78, pp. 390-395].

Figure 1: The growth of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1683

Mehmed II died in 1481 at age 49 after a brief illness at the start of a military campaign probably directed against the Mamluk territories. There is speculation that he was poisoned [ibid, p. 403-404]. He was succeeded by his son Bayazid II. Bayazid's mother (therefore the Valide Sultana) Gulbahar was a Christian convert to Islam. Babinger claims she was Albanian [ibid, p. 51] but other historians present a more credible argument that she was Greek [HL03, p. 153]. (Incidentally, there were at least three other women of Greek origin amongst Mehmed's II wives. One of them was a niece of the emperor Constantine Paleologus.)

The map of Figure 1 shows the growth of the Ottoman empire. Dark purple marks the conquests of Mehmed II. A comparison with Figure 1 of Chapter 10 shows that, with the exception of southern Italy, the Ottoman Empire in 1481 had roughly the same lands as the Roman Empire did in 1040.

The Millets

Millet is the Turkish word for religious community and the population of the Ottoman empire was subdivided into millets [BL95, pp. 321-330]. The people of each millet were under the authority of a religious leader and were obligated to follow the laws of their religion as long as they did not conflict with the laws of the state. For sure, there was no separation of church and state. Still the system was an improvement over the practice of Byzantium where only one faith was tolerated. There were four major millets that are described next in the order of their rank [ibid, p. 322]

The Muslim millet or millet-i-hakime was the first in rank and included all Sunni Muslims. Linguistically was quite diverse, including speakers not only of Turkish and Arabic, but also Albanian, Greek, Kurdish, and other languages of the Balkans and the Caucasus. Its head was the Grand Mufti of Constantinople and its members were subject to the Sharia law.

Second in rank was the Greek or Rum-millet that included all orthodox Christians under the leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the rules of the Orthodox Canon Law. It was also quite diverse linguistically with speakers of Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian as well as Turkish and Arabic. Most of the ancestors of today's Christian Arabs were members of the Rum millet. The term used by the members of the millet themselves was "Arabic-speaking Christians" reserving the term "Arab" for the desert nomads.

Third was the Armenian millet, more homogeneous than the first two although at various times it included other Monophysites such as the Egyptian Copts.

Fourth was the Jewish millet under the Chief Rabbi of Constantinople that was also quite diverse linguistically, especially after the arrival of the Ladino speaking Jews from Spain in 1492. Its members follow the Jewish Halakhic law.

Over the years additional millets were created covering Syrian Christians, Catholics, Protestants, etc, so that by 20th century there were seventeen millets in the Ottoman Empire. The most problematic of all millets was the Shia millet that was established in the sixteenth century, after the Ottoman conquest of Mesopotamia. The Ottoman ruler's were Sunni and thus they considered the Shia's as heretics and therefore Shia clerics were not allowed to render judgment under their own Islamic law. Of course, Shia's would not submit themselves to Sunni judges or educators, so they would not go to court or attend schools. This started a vicious cycle of increasing alienation between the Sunni and the Shia inhabitants of Mesopotamia [SM02, pp. 93-95].

The emphasis on religious identity has contributed to the tension amongst different groups not only in Iraq but also in many other areas that had been under Ottoman control for several centuries. These include the lands of former Yugoslavia as well as Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.

Not only civic law but also education was the provenance of the millets. Since all education was under the control of religious leaders this discouraged any secular learning as well as any attempts at science. Today, in the modern and secular United States there is still religious opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution. Imagine the situation in a society where education is under the complete control of religious authorities. The fact that there were several religions involved made no difference because each one of them was sympathetic to the other's desire to allow education only in agreement with their respective sacred books.

Complete religious control of all education (as well as all civil law) maybe a major cause in the stagnation of the Middle East region while Western Europe was undergoing the Renaissance.

The great power of religious authorities also became a problem when different ethnic groups broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. The religious leaders were loath to lose the authority they had under the millet system and separation of church and state became problematic for the new countries. For example, Greece did not recognize (or allow) civil marriages until 1982.

The Reign of Bayazid II (1481-1512)

After Mehmed's II death his son Bayazid became sultan but he had to face a serious challenge from his brother Cem. Bayazid II defeated Cem with the support of the Janissaries and Cem, eventually, ended up in Rome [CF05, pp. 81-87]. Bayazid II is the sultan who allowed the Sephardic Jews to settle in Thessaloniki and other Ottoman lands when they were expelled from Spain in 1492. Bayazid II is also the sultan who banned the printing press.

The printing press had been invented by Gutenberg around the time of the fall of Constantinople. It did not go unnoticed in Ottoman lands but this invention of the devil (as religious leaders claimed) was banned by a decree issued by Bayazid II in 1485. However, a Jewish press was approved about 20 years later on the condition it prints only texts in the Hebrew alphabet. An Armenian press was approved in 1567 and a Greek one in 1627, each limited to the respective alphabets. Printing of Arabic characters was considered sacrilegious and it was not permitted. It was only in 1727, almost 300 years after the invention of the printing press, that printing in Turkish with Arabic characters was allowed [BL95, pp. 268-269]. (See also [CF05, pp. 366-367].)

The banning of the printing press may help explain a paradox. Until the end of the 13th century the Islamic Arab world was more advanced culturally and intellectually than Christian Europe (see Chapter 8, The Arab Golden Age). Bernard Lewis observes that "Of the alternative routes from Hellenistic antiquity to modern times, it might well have seemed that it was the Islamic civilization of the Arabs, rather than those of Greek or Latin Christendom, that offered the greater promise of advancing towards a modern and universal civilization" [BL95, p. 270]. Why it did not happen? The printing press story suggests that authoritarian rule (Ottoman) stopped the advance in its tracks. Ironically, the failure of the crusades weakened authoritarian rule in Europe just before the rise of the Ottomans (see Chapter 12) so that the laggard was able to advance quickly past the leader.

Bayazid fought the newly established Safavid dynasty of Iran (see below) and the Mamluks but he made no significant territorial acquisitions. These were left to his son Selim I. [CF05, pp. 88-98]. Bayazid also came close to become involved in wars in Italy. The French king Charles VIII laid claims to the kingdom of Naples and both Alfonso, king of Naples and pope Alexander VI asked Bayazid's help but the French conquered Naples before Bayazid could do anything [ibid].

Meanwhile in Iran

From the rise of Islam to the late fifteenth century most Iranians were Sunni Muslims but near the end of Bayazid II's reign a Shia sect rose in rebellion. They were called the "Red Heads" (Kizilbash) from their tall read hats with twelve folds that symbolized their devotion to the Twelve Imams of Shia Islam.. They were actually members of the Safavid religious order that had founded in north-western Iran in the early part of the fourteenth century by Sheikh Safi al-Din Ishak. The Safavids were originally a Sufi Sunni sect but they had accepted the Shia doctrine by mid-fifteenth century. In 1501 the fourteen year old Safavid Shah Ismail (1502-1524) captured Tabriz (see map of Figure 1) and founded the Safavid Iranian dynasty. According to C. Finkel [ibid, pp. 94-97], Ismail's "aggressive adoption of an ideology ... which contrasted so markedly with that of the Ottomans was a political move with a stark religious dimension that polarized the two states ...". While it took some time for the Shia creed to be accepted by all Iranians, it eventually became the sole religion of the Iranian state.

Ismail I eventually conquered additional territory including all of today's Iran as well as Iraq, including the sacred to Shia's city of Karbala. While most of Iraq was eventually lost to the Ottomans the rest of the Safavid empire remained intact until modern times. The Safavid dynasty ended in 1736 and several other dynasties followed until the Islamic revolution of 1978.

A family connection: According to Wikipedia ( Ismail I had some Greek ancestry. His granmother Theodora (known as Despina Khatum = Lady Despina) was the daughter of emperor John IV of Trabizon (see above). John was trying to establish an aliance with the Turkoman kingdom of Ak Koyunlu (White Sheep) against the Ottomans, so he arranged for the marriage of his daughter to the Ak Koyonlu ruler, Uzun Hassan. Eventually Uzun Hassan lost to the Ottomans (in 1473). Uzun Hassan and Theodora had a daughter Martha who married Haydar Savafi Sultan, Sufi Grand Master of the Shia Kizilbash sect and one of their sons was Ismail I.

First Posted: February 2, 2011. Latest Revision: February 2, 2012.

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