Ottoman Empire
former empire in Southeast Europe, Southwest Asia, and North Africa
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Ottoman Empire
See also: European history
The Ottoman Empire, also known metonymically as the Sublime Porte, and especially in the 19th and 20th centuries as the Turkish Empire, was one of the great empires of the Old World, from the 14th to the early 20th century. At the height of its power, it controlled most of the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of North Africa, with a sphere of influence across much of Europe, Asia and Africa. The empire collapsed at the end of World War I, and was succeeded by modern Turkey.
The Gate of Salutation, which leads into the Second Courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, the imperial seat between the 15th and 19th centuries. No one except the officials and ambassadors were allowed across this gate. Even if you were honoured highly enough to be let pass through, you had to dismount here, as crossing on a horseback was a privilege set aside only for the sultan.
The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate, but in this world, a spell of health is the best state.
—Suleiman I 'the Magnificent'
The Turks trace their origin to Central Asia. Their current homeland in Anatolia (Asia Minor) has been home to many civilizations throughout history, including Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was not the first Turkish empire based in Anatolia, but it was certainly the most influential.
The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I, after whom the state is named, in northwestern Anatolia in 1299, as one of the several Turkish petty kingdoms emerged after the collapse of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, the preceding Turkish empire, as a result of the Mongol invasion. Taking full advantage of its location on the borders of the Byzantine Empire that was much weakened by that time, the Ottoman state quickly grew, crossing over to the European mainland by taking the Gallipoli Castle in 1354. As the empire expanded into the Balkans, it also annexed the other Turkish kingdoms in Anatolia one by one. This was briefly stalled by a decade-long interregnum, when five claimants to the throne, along with their supporters, fought against each other all over the land, after the 1402 defeat of Ottoman sultan Beyazıt 'the Thunderbolt', by Central Asian warlord Tamerlane (arguably of Genghis lineage). Regardless, in 1453, the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror succeeded in conquering Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and in the process desecrated many of the great churches and converted them to mosques, while also claiming Byzantine and therefore Roman culture as their own, as evidenced by the later sultans' main title, Kayser-i Rum (literally Ceasar / Kaiser of Rome). This impressive achievement for the Turks helped to spread Islam in parts of the Balkans, and was a disgrace for the Christians, giving rise to fantasies about new Crusades that in the end never materialized. Contrary to popular belief, Constantinople's name was not officially changed to Istanbul (which, in fact, is the Ottoman Turkish rendition of Istinpolin, a Greek appellation common folk used to refer to the city) in 1453, the imperial officialdom called the city Kostantiniyye (which literally translates to Constantinople in Ottoman Turkish) till the collapse of the Empire, as it served the Ottoman Empire's claim of being the continuation of Rome.
Peak (or Classical Age)
The fall of Constantinople had a decisive impact on Europe. The Turks proved the superiority of gunpowder weapons, which soon became common in European armies. Christian scholars leaving Constantinople contributed to the Renaissance in Italy and other parts of Europe. The disruption of the Silk Road encouraged Europeans to find a sea route to Asia, inspiring the Voyages of Columbus to the Americas, Da Gama's trip eastbound on the Cape Route around Africa, and Magellan's subsequent voyage westbound around the world.
Especially after 1453, the Ottomans saw themselves as a diverse and tolerant Islamic Empire, protecting and synthesizing Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures, as they tried to keep this vision of themselves until the 19th century. Perhaps most famously, The Ottomans welcomed Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain after the 1492 Reconquista of that country by the Christians. Despite its relatively tolerant nature for its time, however, it is important to keep in mind that the Ottomans were, in every way, an empire, which meant that it relied on the subjugation of many people under its rule. Slavery was prevalent in the empire well into the 19th century, and even if slavery in the Ottomans generally differed from the chattel slavery practiced in many other places in Europe and Asia, it still makes up many of the most painful stories people have of the Ottoman Empire, even today. Nevertheless, slaves had some legal protection, could rise to high social status, and even become the Grand Vizier - the de facto ruler of the empire, rather than the more figurehead-like Sultan - as was the case with Mehmed Pasha Sokolović, and most slaves - having no other choice - used the system as an alternate, more difficult method of 'climbing the social ladder'. In theory, the empire restricted enslavement of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and many slaves were captive pagans from Central and East Africa. However, through the devşirme system, many Christian boys, were separated from their families and were forced to enroll in the military and civilian apparatus of the empire, and had various assignments: supporting roles in war galleys, providing sexual services to noblemen, and sometimes domestic service. An elite of slaves could become bureaucrats, harem guards, or janissaries (the Sultan's elite soldiers).
The next important event of Ottoman history was when Selim I (r. 1512–1520) took control of the Hejaz, the region surrounding the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ottoman sultans replaced the Islamic caliphates that had ruled the Arab peninsula since the 7th century, themselves claiming the title Caliph of Islam, and declared the empire to be a Muslim caliphate. While symbolically a turning point of the empire, in reality, this title had lost its original power very long ago, and therefore also had little influence over Ottoman society in general.
The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), better known in Turkey as "the Lawgiver" due to his many reforms, is often seen as some sort of golden age for the empire. By this time, the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman government was informally known, was directly ruling over a good portion of Central Europe, and most of the Middle East and North Africa, and was exercising suzerainty over a wide range of vassal states in parts of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In addition, the period saw the Ottomans exerting influence in parts of the world well beyond the imperial borders, in areas as diverse as Morocco in the west to Poland in the north, down the East African coast, and Aceh on Sumatra at the farther rim of the Indian Ocean.
The century after Suleiman's death was a period of decentralization for the empire, with periods such as The Sultanate of Women, when women in court held a large amount of de facto power over the empire. Therefore, a general decrease of the non-ceremonial roles of the Ottoman sultan and an increase of oligarchical power of the court took place. This led to territorial stagnation, as evidenced by the two unsuccessful sieges of Vienna in 1529 and especially 1683, which were the high-water mark of the Ottoman expansion in Europe, but it also led to one of the golden ages of Ottoman art, when Ottoman classical music, miniature, and architecture flourished. These pieces incorporated influences from all over the empire, with Byzantine, Arabic, Hellenic, Romani, Armenian, Sephardic, Persian, and Turkic cultural elements mixing to create a rich synthesis. However, throughout the 19th and until the end of the 20th century, Turkish states tried to limit the influence of Ottoman art, so much so that the Turkish government banned Ottoman music on radios throughout the 1930s, and generally opposed Ottoman-style art, as it perceived it as anti-modernity for its positive depiction of old morals, such as hijab-wearing and Ottoman non-heteronormativity. This meant that these art forms were largely replaced by their Western counterparts in modern times, and most of them don't have an active community, the big exception being Ottoman classical music, which rejuvenated in the 1950s with figures such as Zeki Müren and Münir Nurettin Selçuk.
As commerce shifted from the Mediterranean and the Silk Road to the high seas, the empire entered an era of slow but steady decline. The major blow to the Ottoman Empire, however, was the age of nationalism that arrived in the 19th century, and imperial authority began to shatter in the outlying areas of the "Sick Man of Europe" where Turks (which was a loose term for all lower-class Non-Arab Muslims at that time) were a minority. This lead to a movement of these Turks forming their own identity and laid the foundations of Turkish nationalism. This also meant that the once multi-ethnic empire changed its stance on minorities, from integration and slow assimilation, to complete and forced assimilation. By the time of the First World War, the Ottomans were a more-or-less failed state which was de facto ruled by an ultranationalist military junta composed of the "Three Pashas". As the ultranationalists' stance on minorities changed again, this time from assimilation to annihilation, the Three Pashas used the war as an excuse to systematically murder between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians — a crime that lives in infamy as the Armenian Genocide. Despite the fact that a good deal of Non-Armenians, with some being Turks, joined into the resistance against the genocide, sometimes resorting to hiding Armenians in the face of death, the modern state of Turkey actively denies it, and imprisons people who have made public statements supporting its recognition by claiming that they have insulted 'Turkishness'.
The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist in 1922 when the sultanate was abolished by a new secular republican government under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk which, to distance itself from the imperial past, based itself in the then-remote Anatolian town of Ankara.
Map of Ottoman Empire
The bulk of the Ottoman heritage in what is now Turkey rests in the Marmara region, where the empire started and grew. Curiously, the rest of the country is mostly devoid of any major monuments built during the Ottoman era—most historic sights either date back to the Seljuks and Turkish petty kingdoms pre-dating the Ottomans, or are remnants of the civilizations that called Anatolia home prior to the arrival of the Turks altogether.
The Old Bridge in Mostar. The Ottomans had many bridges built throughout their domains, both to faciliate trade and to move their army around easily.
In addition to Turkey's Marmara region, the Balkans are where you can best experience what is left of the Ottomans — almost any town south of the Danube has at least a building or two that has a connection with the Ottomans, although sometimes in a ruinous state. To this day, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina remain Muslim-majority countries, albeit largely secular with relaxed religious observances. Below is a selection of cities that best preserved their Ottoman heritage.
Estergon Kalesi (top centre) and Ciğerdelen Parkanı (bottom left) as depicted in 1664.
Middle East and Africa
Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda, a combined ,monumental fountain (street level) and Quran school (upper floor) in Islamic Cairo dating back to 1744.
Already regions with a history that reaches far before the Ottoman conquest, many places in the Middle East and parts of Africa nevertheless offer something to experience for travellers seeking Ottoman heritage.
A 16th-century Ottoman miniature depicting the Battle of Mohács, now on display in the Szigetvár Castle
The most common elements of the imperial Ottoman architecture include arches and domes, which were strongly influenced by the Byzantine architecture. It is also possible to see some influence from the structures of the Turks in Asia adapted from the nomadic lifestyle, such as yurts. The vernacular architecture most commonly associated with the Ottomans is still visible in the urban fabric of various old towns throughout Turkey and the Balkans. It made extensive use of wood — often brightly colored timbered or half-timbered buildings that reached several floors high in the Ottoman cities. These were swept by fires of devastating scales century after century because of this. In the later centuries of the empire, there were attempts to combine the Baroque and rococo into the Ottoman architecture, but these experiments didn't spread much beyond Istanbul and the former capital of Bursa.
Traditional Ottoman visual arts include ebru/paper marbling and miniature, both developed in compliance with the Islamic ban on depictions of living things. The Ottoman miniature, known as nakış by the Ottomans, had a very different perspective understanding than that has been commonly accepted in the West, and was often seen as a way of backing up of the written material in a book rather than pure art. The Topkapı Palace has a miniature collection but strolling through the newer stations of the Istanbul Metro will reveal many modern interpretations of miniature.
Calligraphy (hat) was also a common art; Turkish calligraphy, gracing most of the major mosques, is often thought to be the most refined form of the Islamic calligraphy.
The Ottomans had a long tradition of tilemaking (çini), with the main workshops in the towns of İznik and Kütahya south of Istanbul. While visiting the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul or any major mosque elsewhere will satisfy those with a passing interest in tiles, two sites of special note are the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Eminönü, Istanbul and the Yeşil Türbe ("Green Tomb") in Bursa.
The Islamic Arts Museum in Sultanahmet, Istanbul hosts a good exhibition of woodcarving and carpets dating back to the Ottoman period.
Karagöz and Hacivat are the main characters of traditional Turkish shadow play, developed during the early Ottoman era. Once one of the main forms of entertainment, it is now more commonly associated with the night festivities held during the Ramadan in Turkey as well as in North Africa. In Greece, where the tradition is also alive, it is called Karagiozis.
La Grande Piscine de Brousse (The Great Bath at Bursa), an 1885 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, in exhibition of the Museum of Western and Oriental Art of Kyiv
Soak up in a hamam (bathhouse). The Ottomans were avid builders and frequenters of bathhouses, and as such, many locations which were once the possessions of the empire still feature Ottoman-era bathhouses that usually take advantage of the local thermal springs.
The Mehter was the Ottoman military band taken to the battlefields with the rest of the army to instill courage for the Ottoman units, and fear in the opposing army. Cymbals, drums, and especially zurna, a high-pitched wind instrument, are the most dominant instruments in Mehter music. While many of the municipalities affiliated with the nationalist party found Mehter bands out of their staff, the real thing is a unit of the Turkish Armed Forces — which is perhaps the only one in the Turkish Army to allow, and indeed encourage, its members to grow facial hair — and performs weekly in Istanbul's Military Museum.
As for the music of the court, the tradition of classical Ottoman music (Osmanlı klasik musikisi) also - somewhat inaccurately - called Turkish art music (Türk sanat müziği), a heterophonic music that is usually, but not always, performed by a solo singer and a small ensemble, is also alive today. A varied and large number of scales (makam) form the basis of classical Ottoman music, which are also the main source of musicality in the pieces, as they are often not harmonized by multiple chords. A full show (fasıl), ideally conducted in the same scale throughout, follows the sequence of an instrumental prelude (peşrev), instrumental improvisations (taksim) and vocal compositions (şarkı / beste), and is ended by an instrumental postlude (saz semaisi). While often called classical Turkish music, it is influenced by Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, Balkan folk music as well, and this is often cited as the reason why the politicians of the early republican period were hostile to this type of music. Despite this, Ottoman music has survived to this day, even if most of its composers, especially the Non-Muslim ones are unknown in Turkey, as most of its usage is now restricted to rakı tables, and unfortunately, it does not carry most of the elegant reputation that Western classical music does in people's minds, despite their similarly rich histories. Catching up with the frequent public concerts of the Üsküdar Musical Society on the Asian side of Istanbul, often considered the most respected of the social clubs offering classes in classical Ottoman music, maybe a good way of entering the vast world of this genre.
Other folk dances and genres in the Ottoman Empire are also still popular in former Ottoman lands and are sometimes included in the periphery of classical Ottoman music. These include hora / oro, a usually high-tempo circle dance, sirto / syrtos, one of the national dances of Greece which was also favored by sultans of the Empire, especially Abdülmecid, who wrote the piece Hicazkar Sirto, kasap / hasapiko, the genre of one of the best-known Istanbulite folk songs Istanbul Kasap Havası, köçekçe / cocek, a highly diverse style that was used for many purposes, including what is now known as 'Oriental belly dance'; contrary to popular belief and depictions of female dancers, this was originally exclusively meant for cross-dressing men - called köçeks - to dance to.
If you do not plan to go to an event of this sort, the music of artists like Cihat Aşkın in his album 'İstanbulin', and Kudsi Erguner are somewhat famous entrances to late and early Ottoman classical respectively.
Ottoman music is also performed in the Arab world and particularly the Levant, where it is considered classical Arab music, and somewhat similarly to the way Ottoman cuisine affected the cuisines of Balkan lands that were long part of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman music also greatly influenced what is now considered traditional music in lands like Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.
See also: Middle Eastern cuisine, Balkan cuisines
The kitchens of the Old Palace, Edirne
The kitchens of the Topkapı Palace were often the source of many of the dishes that are popular in the Turkish and other regional dishes to this day, with the chefs experimenting on a daily basis with whatever ingredients they might lay their hands on, including lots of nuts and fruits.
The early Ottoman cuisine was characterized by the lack of various foods that were unknown in the Old World before the voyages of Columbus to the Americas, such as tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, that are now ubiquitous in the cuisines of the formerly Ottoman areas. Pepper dolma (large peppers stuffed with rice and various other fillings, such as ground meat) was made with quince instead, an ingredient that is almost completely forgotten now in Turkish cuisine. Other common ingredients during the early era were rice, eggplants, and some birds such as quails. There are many common aubergine-based dishes in the regional cuisines, such as karnıyarık, moussaka, imam bayıldı, stuffed eggplant dolma, and fried eggplant. This last one, or rather the small accidents happened during its preparation, was the main culprit behind the fires that wrecked Ottoman towns. As the empire was on the main trade routes such as the Silk Road, various spices were also widely available.
The Ottomans were great fans of soups; derivations of their word for soup, çorba, can be found in any language spoken from Russia in the north to Ethiopia in the south. Yahni, a stew of meat, various vegetables and onion that is common in the regional cuisines, was often the main meal.
Börek/burek, savoury pies filled with cheese, meat, spinach, potato or mushrooms depending on the location, was (and is) eaten as a quick dish at any time of the day. Pogača/poğaça, of the Byzantine pogatsa origin, is another close variety of baked bread filled with cheese or sour cream and common all over the Balkans as far away as Slovakia.
The yoghurt-based side dishes derived, or spread, by the Ottomans include cacık/tsatsiki/tarator, which often includes diluted yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and olive oil and can be considered either a cold soup or a yoghurt salad, and plain ayran, the yoghurt drink, which is salty in Turkey, but without the salt, and better known simply as jogurt in the Balkans.
Pastırma/basturma, air-dried cured beef had two types: the Anatolian type has been heavily seasoned with fenugreek, and most of the time this is the only type that is available in Turkey today. On the other hand, only salt is added to the Rumelian type, which has a far heavier "smoky" flavour and is common in the Balkans.
The Ottomans were big in desserts. The dessert from the former empire that is best known by the outsiders is probably baklava, which may have Ancient Mesopotamian, Central Asian or Byzantine origins (often amounting to layers of bread with honey spread in between in its original form), but it was the chefs of the Topkapı Palace that put it into current shape. Other desserts invented by the palace chefs and spread over the empire include lokma/loukoumades (deep-fried and syrup-soaked doughs), güllaç (deriving its name from güllü aş, "rose meal"), a derivative of baklava in which thin layers of dough are washed with milk and rosewater instead of syrup, tavuk göğsü, a milk pudding sprinkled with chicken breast meat (yes, this is a dessert), kazandibi, a variety of tavuk göğsü which had one side of it deliberately overcooked and burned, and, of course, Turkish delight (lokum/rahatluk), a confectionery of starch gel and nuts, flavored by rosewater.
Various restaurants in Istanbul and other major Turkish cities claim to revive the Ottoman cuisine — check their menus carefully to find a reputable one true to the authentic palace recipes. The more unusual they sound and look, the better.
Available in most of the former empire
The coffee culture is one of the biggest legacies of the Ottoman Empire in the lands it ruled over once: whether it be called Turkish, Bosnian, Greek, Arabic or Armenian, this popular beverage, cooked in copper pots (cezve/džezva/ibrik) and served strong in small cups, is prepared more or less the same way. Yemen had been the main coffee supplier of the empire since the 16th century, when coffeehouses quickly appeared all over the Ottoman cities — indeed it was the loss of Yemen during World War I that turned the Turks to the tea-drinking nation that it is, quite unwillingly at first.
Despite the Islamic ban on alcoholic beverages, wine was widely produced by the Christian subjects of the empire, especially the Greeks and Albanians, and enjoyed by many, including the Muslim Turks, in meyhanes (Persian for "wine house"). Every now and then when a devout sultan acceded to the throne, he would ban the production of wine and shut down all the meyhanes, but these all turned out to be temporary measures. The current national firewater of the Turks, rakı, came about much later, and its production and consumption exceeded those of wine only in the late 19th century. Other anise-flavored drinks, very similar to rakı both in taste and history, are widely drunk in the areas formerly ruled by the Ottomans, and are known by the names of ouzo (Greece), mastika (Bulgaria), zivania (Cyprus), and arak (the Levant).
Şerbet, a refreshing and very lightly sweet drink made of rose petals and other fruit and flower flavors, was a very popular summer beverage. Nowadays, it is customarily served in Turkey when celebrating the recent birth of a baby and may be available seasonally at some of the traditional restaurants. Hoşaf, from Persian for "nice water" is another variation on the theme, made by boiling various fruits in water and sugar.
Boza, a very thick, sourish-sweet ale with a very low alcohol content made of millet or wheat depending on the location, is still popular in pretty much every part of the former empire. It is often associated with winter in Turkey (and may not be possible to find in summers), but in the Balkans, it is rather considered as a summer beverage. On a linguistic sidenote, the English word "booze" might be derived from the name of this drink, through Bulgarian buza according to some theories, and pora, its counterpart in Chuvash, an old Turkic language spoken in the Volga Region of Russia, might be the origin of Germanic bier/"beer", etc.
One of the major stereotypes of the Ottomans in the West might be the image of an old man, with his huge turban, sitting in the shade of a tree and in no hurry puffing away his hookah (nargile), maybe with a little bit of opium for some added effect. Nargile is still popular in some of the former parts of the empire, especially in Turkey, the Middle East and parts of the Balkans. In Istanbul, you can find nargile cafes with interior designs recalling the Ottoman days in the districts of Tophane and Beyazıt-Çemberlitaş, where you will be served hookahs of tobacco or non-tobacco (and non-psychoactive) herbs, the latter for bypassing the modern laws against indoor tobacco smoking, as well as hot drinks.
The official language of the empire was Ottoman Turkish, which differed from vernacular Turkish and is almost completely incomprehensible for modern Turkish speakers without some training. It was written in a totally different script (Persian variant of the Arabic script with some characters specific to Ottoman Turkish), and its vocabulary is very, very liberally sprinkled with Arabic and especially Persian words — in fact it can be considered a collage of Persian and Arabic words stuck onto a Turkic grammar. In most larger Turkish cities, it is possible to attend classes of varying lengths and depths for Ottoman Turkish.
However, this was the language of the palace, the ruling elite and some literary types; the common folk on the streets spoke a plethora of languages depending on the location (often the common language would differ even between districts of the same city) and ethnicity, but it was also not unusual to see a Turk speaking Greek or an Armenian speaking Turkish and so on. Indeed, the first novel written in Turkish, Akabi Hikayesi was penned in 1851 by Vartan Pasha, an ethnic Armenian, and published exclusively using the Armenian alphabet.
Arabic was used locally in parts of the empire, and was also the language of Islamic scholarship. During the last couple centuries of the empire, learning French was also in fashion among the elite. The Ottoman Francophilia left a lasting impact on modern Turkish — take, for example, the Turkish names for the ancient cities of Ephesus (Efes, derived from French Éphèse, rather than the Greek original) and Troy (Truva, from Troie).
See also
Islamic Golden Age

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Last edited on 6 July 2021, at 23:19
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