As a result of Mongol incursions the Seljuq's Middle Eastern empire was weakened and the foundations laid for the later Ottoman Empire.[1] Hülegü Borjigin, General, Khaan of the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 ending the Abbasid rule in Iraq. In 1260, the Mongols were finally stopped by the Mamelukes at the Battle of Ain Jalut, near Jerusalem. The Mameluke Sultans ruled Egypt and had invited the Abbasids to Cairo. The Ottoman Turks, who replaced the Seljuqs and Mongols, were equally warlike.  They pushed into Seljuq Turk lands and fought for control with the Byzantine Greeks.[2]; The Seljuqs had suffered considerably from the constant two-front pressure by both the Western crusaders and the Eastern Mongols.

Under a minor chieftain named Osman, groups of Turkish-speaking peoples in Anatolia were united in the Ottoman confederation which, by c1360, had conquered much of present-day Greece and Turkey and was threatening Constantinople. The Ottoman state was born on the frontier between Islam and the Byzantine Empire, by Turkish tribes, driven from their homeland in the steppes of Central Asia by the Mongols. The Turks embraced Islam and settled in Anatolia on the battle lines of the Islamic world, where they formed the Ottoman confederation. They were called ghazis, warriors for the faith, and their highest ambition was to die in battle for their adopted religion. The Ottomans began to crerate their empire in 1326 when Orhan captured the town of Bursa, south of the Sea of Marmara, and made it his capital.

While the Ottomans fought the Seljuks and Byzantines in Anatolia a new threat appeared. Although the Il-Khanid Kingdom had established the Seljuks as vassals, the Mongols had been stopped by succession issues and Anatolia had been quiet. However, in c1360, from Russia, India, and then Persia there were increasing reports of Timur Lenk (known in English as Tamerlane, or Tamur the lame). Tamerlane was a Muslim Tartar from Samarkand in Transoxiana (Uzbekistan), who led successful Turkic armies. Tamerlane made Samarkand his capital, and he conquered the area from southern Russia, northeast to Mongolia and south to India, Persia and Mesopotamia. In 1401, Tamerlane conquered Syria and occupied Damascus. Although he then defeated the Ottoman Sultan Bayzid I at the Battle of Ankara on July 28 1402, Tamerlane died in 1405 and the Ottomans recovered.[3]

The Ottoman Turks

The spread of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire: c1500

The Ottoman Empire: c1600

The Ottoman Turks were largely descendants of Turkish nomads who had arrived in Anatolia in the 11th. century as part of the Seljuq army. Their Ottoman name comes from Osman I, Bey, the son of their tribal founder (Ertugrul, Bey, a 13th. century Turkish chieftain). Osman succeeded his father in c1281. Osman gained independence for his people and began to expand mainly by fighting the Mongols and the Byzantines. Although Osman I was only the ruler of a small Turkman principality in northwestern Anatolia, he founded the Ottoman Turkish state. Osman's son was Orhan and under Orhan's leadership, the small Ottoman state grew. The Osmanli Dynasty ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1281 to 1923.. The first two Ottoman rulers did not call themselves sultan, but rather bey (tribal chief). Their successor sultans were the sole regents and government of the empire, at least officially. The Ottoman Empire was synonymous with the Caliphate, the Islamic State.

The Ottomans principality attracted Ghazis (warriors for the Islāmic faith) from the surrounding small Turkish emirates fighting the Byzantines. In 1324, the city of Bursa fell to the Ottomans, followed by Nicaea in 1331, and Nicomedia in 1337. Orhan established his capital at Bursa, which later became a major Islāmic centre, he also created the institutions that transformed the Ottoman conquests into a powerful state. In 1327 Orhan minted the first silver Ottoman coins; the Anatolian conquests were consolidated; and the army was established on a permanent basis. Finally, Orhan built mosques, madrassas (theological colleges), and caravansaries (early hotels to support trade on the caravan routes) in the newly conquered towns, particularly in Bursa.

A vital part of the Ottoman army was created in the corps of Janissaries - derived from the Turkish 'yeni cheri' meaning 'new troops'. They were made up of slave conscripts from occupied peoples - such as young Christian men from the Balkans. Those who joined the corps were chosen for their qualities and given special education, training, and conversion to Islam. Gradually over the years these recruits worked in administration, as well as the army, and having gained power influenced who would become Sultan and rule the Empire.

Janissaries led by the sultan


The Janissaries

The initial Ottoman beys' armies were created from Turkish tribes of questionable loyalty to the evolving empire. Many of the tribes had been fiercly independent and some remained rebellious for decades. The Turkish term, yeniçeri means new troops, indicating exactly what the Janissaries first were: an alternative to the old regular army. That army had been fragile as it was created from the free men of many different tribes and loyalties. Allegiance had been to their own tribal leaders, who were often tempted to oppose the sultan. Through their training, the Janissaries learned to give their allegiance to the sultan. In time, the Janissaries became one of the strongest imperial institutions.[6]

The Janissaries formed Ottoman infantry units that were the sultan's household troops and bodyguard.[4] The force was created by Sultan Orhan I from Muslim sons by c1365; and the number of fighting troops varied from c100-c55,000. The Janissaries were finally abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826. The Janissaries wore uniforms, were paid in cash as regular soldiers, and marched to distinctive music, similar to a modern marching band. The Ottomans used Janissaries in their major campaigns, including the 1453 capture of Constantinople, the defeat of the Egyptian Mamluks, and the wars against Hungary and Austria. Janissary troops were led to the battle by the Sultan, and had a share of the booty.

The Ottomans were the first state to maintain a standing army in Europe since the Roman Empire. The Janissaries have been likened to the Roman Praetorian Guard and they had no equivalent in the Christian armies of the time, where the feudal lords raised troops during wartime. A Janissary battalion was effectively the soldier's family. They lived in their barracks and served as policemen and firefighters during peacetime. The Ottoman army had a corps to prepare the road, a corps to pitch the tents ahead, a corps to bake the bread. The corps carried and distributed weapons and ammunition. The Janissary corps had its own internal medical auxiliaries, Muslim and Jewish surgeons who would travel with the corps during campaigns and had organized methods of moving the wounded and the sick to traveling hospitals behind the lines.

The first Janissary units were soon formed from prisoners of war and slaves. After c1384, their ranks were filled as feudal taxes paid by service to the sultan. Like the Mamelukes, recruits were taken from young Christians. With the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Initial recruits were captive Greeks and Albanians. Boys 8-20 were taken into the corps. The janissaries trained under strict discipline with hard labour and in spartan schools, where they were expected to remain celibate. They had to convert to Islam as Christians were not allowed to bear arms in the Ottoman Empire. They were distinguished by their lack of beards while they all wore moustaches.

In 1449 the Janissaries revolted for the first time, demanding higher wages, which they obtained. The stage was set for a dramatic evolution. Like the Streltsy of Tsar Peter's Russia or the Praetorian Guard which had proved to be a threat to Roman emperors, rather than a protection. After 1451, every new sultan felt obligated to pay each Janissary a reward and raise his pay rank. Sultan Selim II gave janissaries permission to marry in 1566, undermining the exclusivity of loyalty to the dynasty.

Ottoman Expansion

In 1345 Orhan annexed the Turkman principality of Karası and extended his control of Anatolia. In 1346 the Ottomans made an ally of the future Byzantine emperor  John VI Kantakouzenos, during the Byzantine civil war, by helping him fight his rival John V Palaiologos in the Balkans. Orhan married Theodora Kantakouzene, Ottoman Sultana, John's daughter, and was allowed to raid in the Balkans. These small Balkan raids gave the Ottomans the operational familiarity to conduct major campaigns; and in 1354 they seized Gallipoli as a permanent European foothold.[5]

The Ottoman expansion continued to the west and the Empire began to encroach into the Aegean and the Balkans. At the same time the Turks fought off Tamerlane and the Mongol armies in the East. There were several attempts to take Constantinople but these were unsuccessful until in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) conquered the city and renamed it Istanbul (a name based on the Greek 'the city'). This defeat ended the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople (Istanbul) became the Ottoman capital. The expansion continued - to the west Herzegovina and Bosnia (the Balkans); to the east the Crimea; and south through Syria, Egypt and North Africa.

Constantinople &
Mehmed II: 1453


Up to this time the Ottoman Empire had had no central government or administration, which was exceptional considering the diversity of peoples, cultures and religions which were involved. With the capture of Istanbul a centralised administration evolved, controlled by the Sultanate. The Empire was generally tolerant with less than half the population being Muslim, and under direct rule. A key element in the new administration was the 'millet system'. A millet was an autonomous part of the Empire based on a community's religion which was also allowed to keep its own leader and customs. The leader was responsible to the sultan, or his representatives, for things such as the collection of taxes levied on non-Muslims for the upkeep on the army. Muslims had to do military service, whereas others did not but supported it financially. In addition to the millet system there grew a system of guilds of artists and popular mystic orders. Guilds often cut across religious boundaries and included many peoples with the same skills.

During the reign of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Persia threatened expansion, however, the Ottomans defeated the Mamelukes in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. By 1575 the Ottomans restored the Caliphate and conquered south-eastern Europe. Sultan  Selim I (1512-1520) again conquered Egypt, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, and defeated the Safavids of Persia at the Battle of Caldiran in 1514. Although the Ottomans killed the Mameluke Sultan Qansuh in battle in 1516 in Syria, the Mamelukes remained a powerful force within Egypt.[7]

The real empire-builder was Sulayman the Magnificent (1520-1566) whose territories covered most of the Near East, North Africa, Western Asia, the Balkans and Hungary. Sulayman created a formal state structure, established the primacy of Sharia law, made the Koran the basis of education, and encouraged art and architecture. Suleiman united the Muslim world and developed a Mediterranean army and navy making the Empire one of Europe's greatest powers. However, Suleiman died in 1566 and the Empire began to decline because of incompetence, corruption, and internal feuding.

Attempts to restore the Ottoman Empire were made by Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640) and the Koprulu family of Grand Viziers (chief executive officers), who dominated the administration from 1656 to 1702. Although the Empire's navy met with its first major defeat in the 1571 Battle of LePanto, but it still dominated the eastern Mediterranean. The invasion of Central Europe ended in failure and the Ottoman army began to collapse. There were a series of other losses which continued into the 1700s with the Russo-Turkish Wars. Internal problems took their toll but in the 1800s the major European powers also began to loot the empire by capturing vulnerable pieces such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan.


Ottoman Turkey became the 'Sick Man of Europe', and the Empire was finally dissolved at the end of WW I. The modern states of Greece and Turkey were created from the wreckage of the Empire in 1923.


1             Adapted from Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries; Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium;  The Ottomans at,; Ottoman Empire at,; Bill Turnbull, 'Islam Through the Years - Part 1' at,; JJ Saunders, 'A History of Mediaeval Islam' at; Great Seljuq Empire at,; Mongol military tactics and organization at,

2             Kinross op. cit., pp. 23-24. See also

3             Timur at,

4             See Kinross op. cit., pp. 48-52; and Janissary at,

5              The beautifully coloured maps are from R. Roolvink et al., Historical Atlas of the Muslim Peoples, see; and the Great Seljuq Empire at,

6              Looklex Encyclopaedia, Janissaries at,; and Janissaries at,

7              The Mamelukes were highly disciplined soldiers and administrators and were used by the Ottoman sultans in administering much of the middle east. However, they became too powerful and Ottoman troops finally massacred the Mamelukes in Egypt in 1811 and destroyed those in Baghdad in 1831.

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