This post is a reflection on the role that the Ottoman Empire played in shaping the modern world. It draws on a new book by Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World.
The Ottomans are the Rodney Dangerfields of empires: They don’t get no respect. If we picture them at all, it’s either the exotic image of turbans and concubines in Topkapi Palace or the sad image of the “sick man of Europe” in the days before World War I, which finally put them out of their misery. Neither does them justice. For a long time, they were the most powerful empire in the world, which dramatically shaped life on three continents — Europe, Asia, and Africa.
But what makes their story so interesting is that it is more than just an account of some faded glory in the past. As Mikhail points out, the Ottomans left an indelible stamp on the modern world. It was their powerful presence in the middle of Eurasia that pushed the minor but ambitious states of Western Europe to set sail for the East and West Indies. The Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and English couldn’t get to the treasures of China and India by land because of the impassable presence of the Ottomans. So they either had to sail east around Africa to get there or forge a new path to the west, which led them to the Americas. In fact, they did both, and the result was the riches that turned them into imperial powers who came to dominate much of the known world.
Without the Ottomans, there would not have been the massive expansion of world trade, the Spanish empire, the riches and technological innovations that spurred the industrial revolution and empowered the English and American empires.
Here are some passages from the book that give you a feel of the impact the Ottomans had:
For half a century before 1492, and for centuries afterward, the Ottoman Empire stood as the most powerful state on earth: the largest empire in the Mediterranean since ancient Rome, and the most enduring in the history of Islam. In the decades around 1500, the Ottomans controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any other world power. It was the Ottoman monopoly of trade routes with the East, combined with their military prowess on land and on sea, that pushed Spain and Portugal out of the Mediterranean, forcing merchants and sailors from these fifteenth-century kingdoms to become global explorers as they risked treacherous voyages across oceans and around continents—all to avoid the Ottomans.
From China to Mexico, the Ottoman Empire shaped the known world at the turn of the sixteenth century. Given its hegemony, it became locked in military, ideological, and economic competition with the Spanish and Italian states, Russia, India, and China, as well as other Muslim powers. The Ottomans influenced in one way or another nearly every major event of those years, with reverberations down to our own time. Dozens of familiar figures, such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Montezuma, the reformer Luther, the warlord Tamerlane, and generations of popes—as well as millions of other greater and lesser historical personages—calibrated their actions and defined their very existence in reaction to the reach and grasp of Ottoman power.
Other facts, too, have blotted out our recognition of the Ottoman influence on our own history. Foremost, we tend to read the history of the last half-millennium as “the rise of the West.” (This anachronism rings as true in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East as it does in Europe and America.) In fact, in 1500, and even in 1600, there was no such thing as the now much-vaunted notion of “the West.” Throughout the early modern centuries, the European continent consisted of a fragile collection of disparate kingdoms and small, weak principalities locked in constant warfare. The large land-based empires of Eurasia were the dominant powers of the Old World, and, apart from a few European outposts in and around the Caribbean, the Americas remained the vast domain of its indigenous peoples. The Ottoman Empire held more territory in Europe than did most European-based states. In 1600, if asked to pick a single power that would take over the world, a betting man would have put his money on the Ottoman Empire, or perhaps China, but certainly not on any European entity.
The sheer scope was the empire at its height was extraordinary:
For close to four centuries, from 1453 until well into the exceedingly fractured 1800s, the Ottomans remained at the center of global politics, economics, and war. As European states rose and fell, the Ottomans stood strong. They battled Europe’s medieval and early modern empires, and in the twentieth century continued to fight in Europe, albeit against vastly different enemies. Everyone from Machiavelli to Jefferson to Hitler—quite an unlikely trio—was forced to confront the challenge of the Ottomans’ colossal power and influence. Counting from their first military victory, at Bursa, they ruled for nearly six centuries in territories that today comprise some thirty-three countries. Their armies would control massive swaths of Europe, Africa, and Asia; some of the world’s most crucial trade corridors; and cities along the shores of the Mediterranean, Red, Black, and Caspian seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. They held Istanbul and Cairo, two of the largest cities on earth, as well as the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, and what was the world’s largest Jewish city for over four hundred years, Salonica (Thessaloniki in today’s Greece). From their lowly beginnings as sheep-herders on the long, hard road across Central Asia, the Ottomans ultimately succeeded in proving themselves the closest thing to the Roman Empire since the Roman Empire itself.
One of the interesting things about the Ottomans was how cosmopolitan and relatively tolerant they were. The Spanish threw the Muslims and Jews out of Spain but the Ottomans welcomed a variety of peoples, cultures, languages, and religions. It wasn’t until relatively late that the empire came to be predominately Muslim.
Although all religious minorities throughout the Mediterranean were subjected to much hardship, the Ottomans, despite what Innocent thought, never persecuted non-Muslims in the way that the Inquisition persecuted Muslims and Jews—and, despite the centuries of calls for Christian Crusades, Muslims never attempted a war against the whole of Christianity. While considered legally inferior to Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (as elsewhere in the lands of Islam) had more rights than other religious minorities around the world. They had their own law courts, freedom to worship in the empire’s numerous synagogues and churches, and communal autonomy. While Christian Europe was killing its religious minorities, the Ottomans protected theirs and welcomed those expelled from Europe. Although the sultans of the empire were Muslims, the majority of the population was not. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire was effectively the Mediterranean’s most populous Christian state: the Ottoman sultan ruled over more Christian subjects than the Catholic pope.
The sultan who moved the Ottoman empire into the big leagues — tripling its size — was Selim the Grim, who is the central figure of this book (look at his image on the book’s cover and you’ll see how he earned the name). His son was Suleyman the Magnificent, whose long rule made him the lasting symbol of the empire at its peak. Another sign of the heterogeneous nature of the Ottomans is that the sultans themselves were of mixed blood.
Because, in this period, Ottoman sultans and princes produced sons not from their wives but from their concubines, all Ottoman sultans were the sons of foreign, usually Christian-born, slaves like Gülbahar [Selim’s mother].
In the exceedingly cosmopolitan empire, the harem ensured that a non-Turkish, non-Muslim, non-elite diversity was infused into the very bloodline of the imperial family. As the son of a mother with roots in a far-off land, a distant culture, and a religion other than Islam, Selim viscerally experienced the ethnically and religiously amalgamated nature of the Ottoman Empire, and grew up in provincial Amasya with an expansive outlook on the fifteenth-century world.