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A very brief history of the Ottoman Empire

A very brief history of the Ottoman Empire


Around the year 1038 CE, a Turkomen leader Tughril along with his brother Chagri Beg founded a Turkish state in the eastern Iranian city of Nishapur. In no time, the newly born state captured the parts of central Asia and Afghanistan, much of Persia and Iraq, Levant, and Anatolia. Widely known as the Great Seljuq Empire, this Turkish state played a profound role in shaping the future of the Muslim world for more than two centuries.

After Tughril’s death, his nephew Alp Arslan ascended the Seljuq throne and ruled the empire from Isfahan. In the eighth year of his reign, he led a major campaign to annexe Anatolia to his empire. He defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE and established his control over the conquered region of Anatolia. Alp Arslan’s victory at Manzikert became one of the key reasons behind the Crusades. A few years later in 1081 CE, Alp Arslan’s cousin Suleiman ibn Qutulmish parted his way from the Great Seljuqs and established an independent Seljuq Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia with its capital in Nicaea (Iznik).

During the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and the Muslim world in the early thirteenth century, many nomadic Turkish tribes fled from their homeland and settled in the Seljuq lands of Anatolia. In 1243 CE, the Mongols defeated the Seljuqs of Rum in the Battle of Köse Dağ and annexed them as their vassal state. With the sack of Baghdad in 1258 CE, the Muslim world was doomed and several petty dynasties or principalities emerged in the absence of a powerful Muslim caliphate or state.


A nomadic Turkish tribe of more than two thousand people living in four hundred tents had settled on the Byzantine and Seljuq borders of western Anatolia escaping the Mongol atrocities. They established a powerful Beylic uniting other Oghuz tribes to join their forces to fight against both the Mongols and the Byzantines. When Osman became their head in around 1281 CE, he started raiding the Byzantine lands and was able to occupy the Byzantine fortresses of Eskişehir and Kulucahisar in Anatolia.

Previously, the Mongol Ilkhanate had already taken over the Seljuqs of Rum sometime in 1256 CE. Therefore, on the ruins of the Seljuqs of Rum, the Ottomans or Osmanlis under the leadership of Osman established an independent state in western Anatolia in 1299 CE. The first major city conquered by the Ottomans was Bursa. The city fell to the Ottomans on April 6, 1326, after a 9-year-long siege. As per Osman’s wish, his son and successor Orhan made Bursa the first official Ottoman capital and it remained so until the conquest of Adrianople in the 1360s.

Ottoman Beylic at the time of Osman’s death

Orhan further expanded the Ottoman Beylic and annexed remaining Byzantine strongholds in Anatolia. He annexed the Beylic of Karasids in 1345, which enabled him to conquer the Gallipoli peninsula in 1354. Conquest of Gallipoli opened Orhan’s way to enter Europe and taking advantage of the Byzantine civil war, the Ottomans conquered Adrianople sometimes in the 1360s. Thus, Orhan became the first Ottoman ruler to establish his power in the European lands. Orhan was succeeded by his son Murad I.

A short reign of Murad I (1362-1389 CE) brought some major victories for the Ottomans. Murad I was the first Ottoman ruler to use the title of Sultan. He also established the very famous Janissaries. Murad brought most of the Balkans under his control and made the Serbian and Bulgarian princes pay him tribute. In a key Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Sultan Murad lost his life but the Ottomans under his son’s command still managed to win the battle.

Murad’s son Sultan Bayezid Yıldırım (or Thunderbolt) made some major conquests in Europe and unified most of Anatolia. During his reign, the rising Ottoman Empire extended from the Taurus mountains in Anatolia to Serbia in Europe. The two major battles Sultan Bayezid I fought were the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 and the Battle of Ankara in 1402. In Nicopolis, Bayezid crushed the Crusaders but on the other hand, he had to face a fierce defeat against Timur in Ankara. Timur took Bayezid prisoner where he died in captivity in 1403.

Ottomans’ defeat in the Battle of Ankara was a disaster. A civil war of succession broke out among the sons of Bayezid. The Ottoman Interregnum (also known as the First Ottoman Civil War) continued for 11 years until Mehmed I reunited the Ottomans in 1413 and proclaimed himself the Sultan. Mehmed I made the conquests of several islands in the Aegean Sea and was succeeded by his son Murad II.

Murad II became the Sultan in 1421 and the very next year in 1422, he led an unsuccessful siege of Constantinople. However, Murad II successfully reconquered the city of Thessalonica in 1430. He also won the Battle of Varna in 1444 and the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448. Murad II was succeeded by his son Mehmed II.

The conquest of Constantinople was still a dream for the Ottomans. But determined to take the city, 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II besieged Constantinople in 1453. After a 53-day-long siege, the city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans on May 29, 1453. Known as the Conqueror, Sultan Mehmed II made huge conquests during his second 30-year-long reign. Famous Hagia Sophia was also converted into the Mosque after the conquest. He also conquered the Empire of Trebizond in 1461 and annexed Negroponte in 1470.


The first Ottoman-Venetian War (1463–1479) ended with the victory of the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II. The sixteenth-century began with a huge expansion under Sultan Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent. This century is known as the magnificent century of the Ottoman Empire because the empire witnessed many social, cultural, political, and economic developments. The sixteenth-century is also notable for the rise of the three Islamic Gunpowder Empires (Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans), which ruled from Bengal in India to Buda in Europe.

Sultan Selim’s accession to the throne immediately brought a huge victory for the Ottomans in the Battle of Chaldiran against the Safavids in 1514. The Ottomans also annexed parts of Eastern Anatolia and northern Iraq. In 1517, they defeated and overthrew the Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo and established their control over the two Holy Cities. Thus, Sultan Selim I became the first Ottoman caliph and called himself the servant of the Holy Mosques.

Under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans secured major victories both in Asia and Europe. Right after one year of his accession to the throne, Suleiman conquered Belgrade in 1521. In 1522, he conquered the Aegean island of Rhodes when the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John surrendered it to the Sultan. In 1526, Suleiman defeated the Kingdom of Hungary and its allies in the Battle of Mohács. In 1529, he besieged Vienna but failed to take the city. In Asia, Suleiman conquered Baghdad in 1534 and established his control in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, the Ottomans also captured Buda in 1541 and Esztergom in 1543.

Ottoman Empire at the time of Suleiman’s death, 1566 CE

During the last years of his reign, Suleiman had to face an embarrassing defeat in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565. Suleiman’s victories at Rhodes (1522) and Preveza in north-western Greece (1538) made the Ottomans masters of the eastern Mediterranean. They now controlled the Persian Gulf, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Red Sea, which made them the master of naval trade routes. Suleiman also patronized many artists, poets, musicians, and architects. Famous architect Sinan Pasha and the admiral Hayrettin Barbarossa also served the empire during the reign of Suleiman.

After Suleiman’s death, the Ottoman Empire went through numerous dramatic social, political, and economic changes. It took a turn from an expansionist state into a bureaucratic one. The Sultans also began to abstain from participating in military campaigns and many of them failed to deal with the financial and socio-political disturbances. The seventeenth-century also witnessed the rise of one of the most powerful women of the Ottoman Empire, Kösem Sultan. Kösem was the wife of Sultan Ahmed I and enjoyed the longest reign of any of the Harem women, almost half a century. She was Haseki Sultan (the Imperial Consort) from 1605 to 1617 and Valide Sultan (the regent of Sultan Murad IV, Ibrahim, and Mehmed IV) from 1623 to 1651 (until her death).

During eighteenth-century, the Ottomans faced defeat in the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-1718 but won the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1714-1718. The Ottomans also made reforms in the field of education to cope up with the challenges faced by the empire due to the Industrial Revolution of Europe. An Imperial Naval Engineers’ School was founded by Sultan Mustafa III in 1773 initially aiming at training the shipbuilders and cartographers.


Nineteenth-century was a turning point in the history of the Ottoman Empire. The empire witnessed many reforms and modernisation during the Tanzimat period. According to Coşkun Çakır, “The Tanzimat period refers to a time of Westernising reforms from 1839 until 1876. Although there had been periods of reform under earlier sultans, major reforms were begun with the ferman, or imperial mandate, issued by Sultan Abdülmecid (r. 1839–61) in November 1839, called the Gülhane Imperial Rescript (Gülhane Hattı Hümayunu), in reference to the imperial rose garden where it was proclaimed.”

In between these modernisation tussles, the Ottomans went through a never-ending phase of underdevelopment. Therefore, they had to ally with France and the British to fight and defeat the Russians in the Crimean War (1853-1856). By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottomans had lost huge territories both in Asia and Europe. During this time, many nationalists like Namik Kemal also emerged and proposed the ideas of patriotism. Namik Kemal himself used words like hürriyet and vatan in his writings to promote nationalism.

Sultan Abdulhamid II is perhaps the most important Ottoman Sultan of this declining phase of the empire. Although he came to power at a time of political upheaval, he made some very major developments and changes throughout his empire. During his reign, the First Constitutional Era came into force in 1876 and was later suspended in 1878. In 1908, the Sultan was deposed by the Young Turks who favoured the constitutional government. Therefore, the Second Constitutional Era began with the Young Turk Revolution in July 1908.


After an embarrassing defeat in the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), the Ottomans had lost almost all their territories in Europe. With the fear of losing the remaining territory, the Ottomans decided to join World War I on the side of the Central Powers. According to Ahmet Şeyhun, “The signing of the Ottoman-German Mutual Defence Agreement of 2 August 1914 was initiated by him (Halim Pasha) in early July, during private conversations with Baron von Wangenheim, the German ambassador to the Porte. Said Halim was strongly convinced that the empire’s security in a general world crisis could only be assured by its alliance with one of the rival military blocs, the Triple Alliance or the Entente.”

Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country from the back door of the Dolmabahçe Palace after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate on 17 November 1922.

Meanwhile, the Great Arab Revolt erupted in Arabia in 1916 demanding their freedom from the Ottomans. Fighting on many fronts exhausted all of the empire’s resources and therefore, the Ottomans lost the first World War. Allied troops occupied the Ottoman territories including Istanbul and the Armistice of Mudros signed on October 30, 1918, finally marked the defeat of the Ottomans in WWI. In 1922, the GNA and Allied Powers signed the Armistice of Mudanya and on November 01, 1922, the Ottoman Sultanate was abolished. Thus, a mighty empire finally came to an end after ruling for over six centuries.


Adams, Gibbons Herbert. 1916. The Foundation of the Ottoman Empire: a History of the Osmanlis up to the Death of Bayezid I (1300-1403). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Armstrong, Karen. 2015. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. London: Vintage (Penguin Random House).

—. 2001. Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. 2nd. New York: Anchor Books.

See Also

—. 2002. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library.

Çakır, Coşkun. 2009. “Tanzimat.” In Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, by Gábor Ágoston and Bruce Masters, 553-555. New York: Facts On File, Inc.

Collier, Dirk. 2016. The Great Mughals and Their India. New Delhi, India: Hay House.

Creasy, Edward Shepherd. 1854. History of the Ottoman Turks: From the Beginning of Their Empire to the Present Time. Vol. I. II vols. London: Richard Bentley.

Finkel, Caroline. 2007. Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923. New York: Basic Books.

Goodwin, Jason. 2011. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. United Kingdom: Random House.

Harl, Kenneth W. 2017. The Ottoman Empire: Course Guidebook. Virginia: The Great Courses.

Howard, Douglas A. 2017. A History of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

İnalcık, Halil. 2013. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. United Kingdom: Orion.

J. Shaw, Stanford, and Ezel Kural Shaw. 1977. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, Roy. 2006. Fifty Key Figures in Islam. Taylor & Francis.

Kuru, Ahmet T. 2019. Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peacock, A. C. S. 2015. The Great Seljuk Empire. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Rogan, Eugene. 2015. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited.

Shaw, Stanford J. 1976. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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