The Rise of Osman and the Genesis of the Ottoman Empire
Cemal Kafadar, a historian of the Ottoman Empire teaching at Harvard, begins his study of the early empire with these words: “Osman is to the Ottomans what Romulus is to the Romans, the eponymous founding ﬁ gure of a remarkably successful political community in a land where he was not . . . one of the indigenous people” (Kafadar 1995, 1).
In its broad outlines, Kafadar’s statement is true, with the exception that Osman was not a mythical persona but very much a historic ﬁ gure (a fact noted by Kafadar elsewhere in his book). Born in 1258, Osman was one of the many Turkish tribal leaders who settled in Bithynia (Anatolia), on the constantly ﬂ uctuating frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. His ancestors had arrived in the region in the second great mass migration of Turkish nomads from Central Asia.
The region was then a ﬂ uid center of power, characterized by constantly shifting alliances between Turkish nomads, Armenian princes, crusading knights, and Byzantine generals. Drawn into the no-man’s (or everyman’s) land on the unstable Byzantine frontier, Turkish warriors skirmished and sometimes entered into military agreements with a host of adventurers and interlopers of every conceivable political, religious, and linguistic stripe.
Before the arrival of the Ottomans as an organized political unit, two large Turkish tribal confederacies held sway: the family group that revolved around the legendary warrior Melik Danishmend and the Seljuks of Rum, a nomadic pastoralist cluster that eventually formed a state (Rum was yet another term used for the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire).
The ghazi state, of which Osman’s was one, was not just a military formation but a militant one as well. And the militancy of that state rested upon its Islamic component, which itself was an amalgam of the shamanistic and spiritualist vestiges of a Turkic nomadic past with the holy war tradition in Islam.
Ghazis were, for the most part, warrior Suﬁ s who raided the lands of dar al-harb (“the abode of war,” the name given by Muslims to non-Muslim districts), in the process opening up the Byzantine-Anatolian borderlands to Islam. It was the ghazi ethos that was to shape Ottoman societies from the very beginning, in its insistence on “a dynamic conquests policy, basic military structure and the predominance of the military class within an empire that successfully accommodated disparate religious, cultural and ethnic elements” (Inalcik and Quataert 1994, 11).
Osman’s state was only one of the many contending polities that struggled for ascendancy in that period, but his state-building venture was to outshine and outlast all the polities that had existed before. According to tradition, in 1299, Osman, taking advantage of a perceived power vacuum in Anatolia, declared his principality’s independence from the Seljuk Turks, who, in any case, ruled the area for only eight more years. This tradition has it that Osman’s declaration of independence is the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.
An exceptional commander and an even better administrator, Osman’s chieftaincy became an enduring state only gradually. In 1326, just prior to Osman’s death, the Ottomans, led by Osman’s son Orhan, captured Bursa (located in what is now northwestern Turkey) from the Byzantine Empire and made it their capital.
After Orhan (r. 1326–62) succeeded his father as bey, he named his brother Alaeddin as vizier, the ruler’s most trusted adviser. In 1328, Orhan began a three-year siege of Nicaea (modern Iznik) that ended with that city’s surrender in 1331. The capture of Nicomedia (modern Izmit) in 1337 and the defeat of the principality of Karasi placed all of northwestern Anatolia in Ottoman hands. Together Orhan, who was the ﬁ rst Ottoman to bear the title of sultan, and Alaeddin forged the basis of the empire.
Instead of simply conquering and moving on as had many of their predecessors, the Ottomans worked to assimilate conquered territory into their (Anatolian) empire. This period of consolidation was aided by Ottoman-Byzantine peace for approximately 20 years and by the marriage of Orhan to Theodora, daughter of Byzantine emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–54), whom Orhan had assisted in gaining the throne.
Orhan was succeeded by his son Murad I (r. 1362–89). During Murad’s reign, the Ottoman Empire, with the assistance of the ghazi warriors and using Gallipoli as a base, expanded into Byzantine territory, making vast inroads in northern Greece, Macedonia, and Bulgaria which bypassing Constantinople. Murad’s administration of the conquered European territory differed from his father’s Anatolian plan of assimilation but nevertheless proved successful, as the Ottomans maintained suzerainty over their European vassal states.
However, after these impressive gains of the Ottoman state in the Balkans and Anatolia, Bayezid (r. 1389–1402), Murad’s successor, was defeated in 1402 at Ankara by Tamerlane, who then turned eastward to resume his conquest of India. His excursion into Anatolia was to restore the Turkish princes, including some Ottomans, to their thrones, thus dividing Anatolia and making it less likely to pose a threat on his own western ﬂ ank. In this, Tamerlane was temporarily successful.
Under Murad II (r. 1421–44, 1446–51), the Ottomans took up their mission once more, expanding even farther into Europe by taking over Serbia and threatening the gates of Vienna. In the most spectacular coup of all, Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, fell to the troops of Mehmed II (known as “the Conqueror”; r. 1444–46, 1451–81) in 1453.
Thereafter, it was named Istanbul and became the seat of the Porte, the administrative and political heart of the empire. In the words of Turkish scholar Halil Inalcik, “Mehmet the Conqueror was the true founder of the Ottoman Empire [because] he established an empire in Europe and Asia with its capital at Istanbul, which was to remain the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries” (Inalcik 1973, 1995, 29).
After a century and a half of Ottoman expansion into eastern Europe, the new rulers next turned their attention to the Arab region and North Africa. But while they were able to sweep through the Mediterranean lands and North Africa with relative ease, they met obstacles in the East and ﬁ nally had to come to grips with their most stubborn rivals, the Safavid dynasty in Iran.
The Safavids, originally a mystic brotherhood that all but deiﬁ ed their ruler as a descendant of the House of the Prophet, were to stand in the way of total Ottoman control of the East. For more than four centuries, the enmity between the Ottomans and Safavids and their successor states remained a feature of the historic struggle between two competing strands of Islam and two loci of power. The struggle between the two great world empires invariably took its highest (or most violent) form in Bilad Wadi al-Raﬁ dain (Mesopotamia, in Arabic).