The Early History and Consolidation of the Ottoman Empire

The early history of the Turkish Ottoman Empire is discussed in this article. The Ottomans were a fascinating and long-lasting state formation in the Islamic world.

The Early History and Consolidation of the Ottoman Empire
Sultan Selim I, the conqueror of Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. Image: Wikipedia

The empire of the Ottoman Turks is one of the most original state formations of modern times. From the beginning of the 14th century until the end of the First World War, a period of more than 600 years, the Ottoman sultans ruled as absolute monarchs over millions of Christians and Muslims who lived in a huge empire that stretched across three continents and was centered on the eastern Mediterranean.

From its humble nomadic origins to its conversion into the most powerful state in Eastern Europe and the Near East—a rival of the Habsburgs in the struggle for European hegemony—the rise of the Ottoman Empire was dazzling. The way the Turkish state was set up, how its society was set up, and its religious and military policies left an indelible mark on the future of almost all Arab and Slavic people.

The Ottoman Empire then entered a long period of decline, becoming Europe's sick man, the victim of its neighbors' territorial ambitions and the centrifugal tendencies of its minorities, and incapable of adapting to the evolution of European countries. The big powers knew it was going to fail a long time before it did. When it did, it closed one of the most complicated and surprising chapters in history.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the small Turkmen emirate of the Osmanli, or Ottomans, established in the region of Bithynia, converted to Islam. The Ottomans ruled over Asia Minor for two hundred years, putting down other Turkmen groups and spreading into Europe at the expense of the fading Byzantine Empire, which ended when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. In the years that followed, the Ottoman Empire grew stronger. It would reach its peak in the 16th century.

The Conquest of Shah Ismail and the Safavid Empire by Selim I, Ottoman Sultan

Selim I (1512–1520), the ninth Ottoman sultan, was an energetic conqueror and autocrat who ruled with an iron fist. During the first two years of his rule, he killed every member of the Ottoman dynasty who might have had a claim to the throne. Having cleared the home front, he turned his attention to the east, where the new Safavid dynasty had established its empire in Persia (1502) and had formally declared itself Shiite, as opposed to the Sunni orthodoxy of the Ottomans.

Shiite preachers sent by the Safavids were having a lot of success in eastern Anatolia, which was weakening the Ottomans' power. Selim I knew that Shah Ismail was his biggest rival for the time being, but he didn't want to fight him. After vigorous repression of Shiite dissidents in Anatolia (there was talk of 40,000 executions), he proclaimed holy war in defense of the Sunni orthodoxy of Islam and launched his first campaign in 1514.

Shah Ismail knew that the Persian army couldn't beat the Ottoman army, so he retreated into the interior of Iran to get the army of Selim I there. He also burned down the lands of Azerbaijan to stop the Ottoman army from getting supplies. Selim was forced to receive his supplies from Istanbul across the Black Sea to Trebizond and from there by wagons, which caused discontent in the Ottoman army because of the ever-increasing difficulties.

Selim I insulted Shah Ismail in letters so that they would have to fight. His followers then forced Shah Ismail into battle. The two armies met at Caldiran in western Azerbaijan, and although the Ottoman army was exhausted, disgruntled, and short of supplies, it defeated the Safavid army because of its superior armament and military tactics.

Tabriz was easy to take, and the Ottomans moved a lot of merchants and artists from the traditional centers of Islamic culture to Istanbul. This was the start of the great cultural growth in the Ottoman Empire during the time of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Faced with the dissatisfaction of his army due to the lack of booty after the victory of Caldiran, Selim I withdrew to eastern Anatolia, abandoning Azerbaijan, which was recovered by Shah Ismail the following spring. Any way you look at it, the campaign wasn't a waste of time because it led to full control of eastern Anatolia and persuaded Ismail that it would be best to avoid a direct fight with the Ottomans.

The Fall of the Mamluk Empire and the Rise of Ottoman Control in the Middle East

Once Iran was no longer a threat, Selim I had to deal with the Mamluk Empire, which hadn't done so well in the war against the Safavids. For a long time, the Mamluks had trouble with the independent feudal lords and the Portuguese sailors who went into the Red Sea to try to change the trade routes between Europe and India to go along the coast of southern Africa.

Faced with this problem, the Mamluks asked for help from Selim, who sent them firearms, iron, and pitch for the construction of ships that would allow them to confront the Portuguese in the Red Sea. But the Mamluks didn't trust either the Ottomans or the Safavids, so when those two groups fought, the Mamluks tried to stay out of it. They even refused to help Selim when he ran out of food.

In 1516, Selim I organized a second expedition to the east. He crossed the Euphrates in July of this year and headed south. The Mamluk army went out to meet him but was defeated at Marj Dabiq, near Aleppo. Syria and Egypt fell practically without resistance.

Many officers, officials, and entire populations went over to the Ottomans in the hope of achieving a good position in the new regime. The Mamluk Empire quickly disintegrated. In October, Selim crossed the Sinai and defeated the last Mamluk resistance in the vicinity of Cairo. In 1517, he received the homage of the principal emirs of Egypt and was recognized as the protector and servant of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina.

The Ottoman Empire's Conquest of the Mamluk Empire and Its Impact on the Islamic World

After Selim took over Syria and Egypt, the Ottoman Empire covered almost all of the former Islamic Caliphate. Iraq, which his successor took over, was the only place it didn't include. The conquest of the Mamluk Empire is very important, both politically and economically. It gives the Ottoman Empire money, which makes it one of the richest and most powerful states of the 16th century.

It also gives the Ottoman Empire control over the holy places of Islam, which strengthens the position of the sultanate and puts it at the top of the Islamic world. A tradition from the 18th century says that the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, officially gave the caliphate to Sultan Selim and those who came after him. There is no earlier news of this transmission.

There are obvious political reasons why the Ottoman sultans, already in full decline, insisted on appropriating the classical theory of the caliphate. By calling themselves the caliphs of all Muslims, they claimed rights over the Muslim subjects of any country.

However, it seems that Selim assumed only the title of the servant of the two holy shrines. He retained the caliph al-Mutawakkil and his court in Istanbul and proclaimed himself the protector of Islam. As for the title of caliph, the Ottoman sultans have used it since the time of Murad I (1360–1389), even though it no longer meant what it used to.

The Ottoman sultans were the most powerful people in the Islamic world because they controlled Mecca and Medina and kept the pilgrimage routes in good shape.