Analyse why the Ottoman Empire proved to be the most successful and enduring of the early-modern Islamic empires. From its emergence as an empire in the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire conquered and expanded its reign throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa until its fall in the nineteenth century. This essay will examine the driving factors of Ottoman success in its conquest, and the dynasty system and law of the Ottomans which, arguably, was a core ingredient in the enduring reign of the Ottoman Empire.
While some of the ideas covered in this essay have been shared among various writers such as Imber, Murphey, and Yurdusev, their views are not universally held and are open to adversaries. Looking in detail at the diplomacy, law, dynasty system, and military aspect of the Ottomans, this work will suggest that these factors were the engine which drove the Ottoman Empire to be the most successful and enduring of the early-modern Islamic empires. The Ottoman’s diplomacy played a significant role in its conquest and expansion.
The Ottoman Empire conducted its external affairs based on the idea of Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) versus Dar al-Harb (the abode of the infidels) which in result placed the Ottomans in permanent state of war. Diplomacy, being a term related to the peace keeping between the nations, is somewhat inappropriate for the Ottoman Empire. Nonetheless their view and approach towards the external affairs greatly influenced their magnificent expansion. Founded by ghazis, the warriors devoted to the expansion of Islam in infidel lands and strived for conquest, the Ottomans held stubbornly to the idea of Islam’s superiority over Christian Europe.
As a result the Empire was organized upon the principles of ghazi, continuously declaring and leading a war against unbelievers. The Ottoman Empire strived for conquest and expansion from its very beginning. Filled with ghazi energy, the Ottomans had to continuously expand, capture new territories, and spread the Islam. However, this idea is challenged by different historical records, where the Ottoman Empire is claimed not to be an orthodox Islamic state.
It is argued that the governmental and administrative affairs were not solely governed under strict observance of Islamic law but was also under the guidance of the customary law and rather respectful of the local customs. Regardless to which view is held correct, we cannot ignore the fact that the Ottoman Empire was established by the ghazis who strived for conquest. The Ottomans, being a dynastic state, would have been influenced by the ways of their forefathers, the ghazis, therefore themselves also committing to an idea of expansion and conquest.
The Ottoman Empire was a dynastic state, whose existence was closely related to the stability and continuity of the imperial household. Empire’s continuity of existence was dependent upon sultan’s ability to produce male heirs. Since females could not inherit the throne of the Ottoman Empire, the first duty of an Ottoman sultan was to produce male heirs who will succeed him and continue the dynasty. The essential rule of family law that supported the assurance of imperial continuity was the rule which allowed a man to own and have sexual relations with as many female slaves as he desired.
His off-springs, regardless to from wives or slaves, were automatically freeborn, and had an automatic right to inherit which, in case of sultan, included the right to heir. During the first century of the Ottoman Empire, royal marriages were the norm in its dynastic system. However the purpose of marriage was usually political and lacked in reproduction of male heir. Throughout the history of Ottoman dynasty, it was the concubines, or slaves to be more exact, rather than wives whom assured the continuity of the imperial family, and so of the Empire.
The law and the dynastic system of the Ottoman Empire played an important role in the continuity of the empire by assuring a reproduction of male heir, whether it be from royal marriages or through legal sexual relations. Following reproduction, an essential element in ensuring the continued existence of the dynasty, so of the empire, was the management of succession. The Ottomans recognized that no fixed method or law of succession was capable of consistently delivering smooth transition of power from a sultan to his successor.
For this reason, the Ottoman’s attitude towards procedures, even as basic as the management of succession, was determined based on the circumstances rather than on fixed principles. However, one method of succession was regarded as necessary by several imperial eras. The law of fratricide was introduced by Mehmed II (1451-81) for a purpose aimed at post-succession stabilization, though the removal of brothers and rivals by the successors to the throne had been recognized and documented since Murad I’s (1362-89) reign.
Following his succession to the throne, Murad killed all his brothers and established a precedent which, after his death, was followed by the dynasty over a period of two hundred years. From Murad I’s time, the throne was passed onto the son of the sultan whom defeated and killed his brothers and other rivals to the throne. Furthermore, Murad’s son, Bayezid I (1389-1402) succeeded his father and claimed the throne after executing his brother on the battlefield of Kosovo in 1389. These events show a principle of dynastic succession that has been deeply rooted in the Ottoman Empire.
That is, dating from the earliest days of the empire, the indivisibility of the Ottoman territory and undividable sovereignty. This principle of dynasty succession was a key element that held the Ottoman Empire together and guided the empire through its long and enduring reign. The Ottoman Empire was the home to an army that was capable of leading both effective sieges and field battles. The Ottoman’s development in warfare, especially in sieges, was the work of Orhan and Murad I, the second and third sultans respectively.
The capture of Ankara in 1354, Dimetoka in 1359, and fall of Prousas (Bursa), Nikaia (Iznick) and Nikomedia (Izmit) during the time of Orhan, suggests that by the end of fourteenth century, the troops of the Ottoman Empire had mastered the art of siege warfare. This became more evident during the reign of Murad I whom, during his last decade, conquered and controlled Serai in 1383, and Thessaloniki in 1387, after a siege of only four years. During fourteenth century, the Ottomans learned how to conduct sieges through the techniques of blockade and battery, and of scaling walls.
By the time of Bayezid I (1389-1402), the Ottomans also used siege towers. This is evident in the description of Bayezid’s siege of Larende in 1398, where Schiltberger tells how platforms were constructed opposite the walls. By 1422, mining became part of the Ottoman siege strategy. In the account of Kananos, on the siege of Constantinople, he describes how the Ottomans dug mines to the walls of the city and set fire to the wooden poles which supported the tunnel. As the mine collapsed, a section of the wall collapsed with it.
Ottomans experience and knowledge on siege craft was a huge contribution to the successful conquest and expansion of the empire. However it is only a part, though a great one, of the great Ottoman military system that led to its success. In the military sense, the Ottomans had the reputation of invincibility among their opponents. This was due to a powerful combination of timar holding cavalrymen and Janissaries, in addition to extensive knowledge on siege craft, and a great deal of discipline on the battlefield.
Timar is the term for smallest fief holding, which for those of the soldiers who had possession of it was relieved from depending on plunder for a living. By 1400, most of the Ottoman soldiers served the empire on contractual basis, and this allowed the sultan to recruit a predictable number of reliable soldiers throughout his reign. System such as Timar allowed the Ottomans to attract and form a huge section of their fighting men with the Janissaries, an elite corps that effectively overwhelmed the opponents with terror, on a contractual basis.
The expansion of the Empire between 1300 and 1590 is the result of the Ottomans effective military system. The abundant supply of men, through the system of Timar, which only few of their rivals could match, was a key factor in Ottoman’s success in arms. This essay has considered and examined the possible factors of the Ottoman Empire’s success and endurance. Examining in particular the diplomacy, law, dynasty system, and military system of the Ottomans, it has shown that these factors together were huge contribution towards the long and successful reign of the Ottomans.
Though details of many historic records have been omitted to remain within the scope of the subject, the factors discussed were examined carefully to conclude, each played a part in creating an enduring Empire of success. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. A. Nuri Yurdusev, The Ottoman attitude toward diplomacy, in A. Nuri Yurdusev, ed. , Ottoman Diplomacy, Conventional or Unconventional? Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 2. [ 2 ]. Ibid. , p. 14 [ 3 ]. Ibid. [ 4 ]. Yurdusev, p. 15. [ 5 ]. Colin Imber, Ottoman Empire,1300-1650: The Structure of Power. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 7. [ 6 ]. Ibid. , p. 87. [ 7 ]. Ibid. , p. 88. [ 8 ]. Ibid. , p. 87. [ 9 ]. Ibid. , p. 92 [ 10 ]. Imber, p. 96 [ 11 ]. Rhoads Murphy, Ottoman sovereignty: tradition, image and practice in the Ottoman imperial household, 1400-1800. Bloomsbury, 2008, p. 102 [ 12 ]. Ibid. , p. 104 [ 13 ]. Ibid. , p. 103 [ 14 ]. Imber. , p. 98. [ 15 ]. Ibid. [ 16 ]. Ibid. [ 17 ]. Imber. , p. 254. [ 18 ]. Ibid. [ 19 ]. Imber. , p. 255. [ 20 ]. Ibid. [ 21 ]. Suraiya Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the world around it, I. B. Tauris, 2006, p. 98. [ 22 ]. Imber. , p. 256. [ 23 ]. Ibid. [ 24 ]. Imber. , p. 257-258. [ 25 ]. Imber. , p. 324.