Discover the history of the Ottoman Empire
The Turkish Republic was built in part on the proud legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Its remains can be seen scattered all around Istanbul, where walls, gates, water fountains, mausoleums, neighbourhoods and mosques carry the names of the great Viziers, Princesses and Queens. However, the names of main spots in town are named after to the top dogs of the Empire, the sole and absolute political and military regents, the Sultans. Though for many years, official government policy was to ignore the legacy of these, for the Empire was misrepresented as a backward entity, today, TV shows, movies and popular culture have turned many of them into national heroes and Turks have started to re-identify with their imperial ancestry. From this rediscovery of their past, it is not strange to find Turks today debating their favourite Sultans and their contribution to their history.
In order to familiarise yourself with Ottoman history as a way of introduction, we have made a selection of the top five most important Sultans you should know of, from a list of the 36 who reigned the Empire for more than six centuries. Learning about the Sultans will surely help you to recognise the relics dispersed around the imperial capital.
1) Sultan Osman I Gazi (1299-1324): Son of Khaima and Ertugul Bey, a Central Asian leader who had escaped the Mongol invasions of Central Asia and was given lands in western Anatolia by the Seljuqs, Osman declared independence from the Rum Empire in 1299 founding the Ottoman dynasty which would last six more centuries. Becoming the leader of the Turks in the region after his conquest of Byzantine lands and the demise of the Seljuqs, the Ottoman Sultan established the coronation practice of the Sword of Osman, through which the Sultan was girt with the sword of Islam thus announcing his enthronement. Osman died in his hometown of Sögut in 1324.
2) Sultan Mehmed II Fatih (1444-1446) and (1451-1481): A national hero, Mehmed II better known as Fatih (the conqueror) is known for conquering Constantinople in 1453, delivering a final blow to the one thousand year old Byzantine Empire. During the 31 years of his kingdom, Mehmed II furthered the territories of the Empire by conquering other Turkish kingdoms in Asia Minor, Albania, Bosnia and Serbia. He also built up the first Ottoman navy, defeating the Venetians and reaching the Italian coast by capturing the city of Otranto. His new territories and his judicial and administrative reforms set the wheels in motion for the golden years of the Ottoman Empire which would last for almost two centuries. Dying in 1481, his body was buried in the Fatih Mosque in the Fatih neighbourhood. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge connecting the European and Asian parts of the city carries his name.
3) Suleiman I The Magnificent (1520-1566): His 46 year rule, the longest of the Dynasty started by Osman, presided over the apex of the political, economic, social and cultural achievements of the Ottoman Empire. An imposing tall figure, who spoke more than five languages, Suleiman personally instituted new laws regulating taxation, education, criminal law, the military and society in general which would earn him the title of Kanuni or “The Lawgiver”. Stories tell of his admiration for Alexander the Great’s dream of unifying East and West, which drove his military campaigns in Hungary, Austria, North Africa and the Middle East. He is also famous for breaking the tradition and marrying a Ukrainian slave from the Ottoman Harem called Roxelana or Haseki Hürrem Sultan. She was to give Suleiman six children including the heir to the throne, Selim II. Suleiman is buried near his wife in the Süleymaniye Mosque , one of the most spectacular structures in the city, representing the pinnacle of Ottoman arts and power.
4) Murad IV Gazi (1623-1640): Following various decades of stagnation and internal fighting, Murad the IV re-established some peace and control over lost lands with his brutal tyrannical methods. Having regained control as absolute regent, he launched various military campaigns in the Middle East and Persia, where he would retake Baghdad and Azerbaijan for the Ottomans. He is also famous for failing his attempts to enter Central Europe in the second siege of Vienna, marking the end of the Empire’s expansion period. Murad IV’s physical strength has become part of his legend as he was said to have fought with a 50 kilogram broadsword which is on exhibition at the Topkapi Palace Museum . The warrior Sultan, died at the early age of 27 of a possible Cirrhosis despite having banned alcohol with capital punishment.
5) Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909): Love him or hate him, Abdul Hamid II is one of the most controversial figures of the Ottoman Empire, even today. Presiding over a collapsing empire, Abdul Hamid II took power over his disposed brother Murad V. For more than three decades, he was the last sultan to act as effective ruler of the Ottoman lands, presiding over the slow but sure collapse of the Empire as it further shrank from giving independence to Montenegro, Serbia and Romania and losing Armenian lands to the Russians. Crete, Cyprus, Egypt and Sudan were also lost in different ways, making the Empire a shadow of what it had been two centuries before. Despite all the drawbacks, Abdul Hamid II modernised the state, constructed railways and professionalised the bureaucracy. What he is most remembered for today is his fervent appeal to Islamic values and his rejection of Western liberal ideas – the reasons why he is still admired in conservative circles and detested by the Kemalist intelligentia. Finally, he was deposed from his throne at the Dolmabahçe Palace by the Young Turks revolution and his brother Mehmed V was proclaimed the new Sultan, losing almost no power as head of state.
Love, death, vengeance, war, coups, jealousy, magic and secrecy, the history of the house of Osman has all the elements of some of the best works of fiction. A small group of refugees from Central Asia came to rule throughout its six centuries of existence, one of the biggest Empires in the world, transforming the region and leaving a huge impact in history. As the setting for this story, Istanbul has the scars of this long traversed history on its streets, alleys, mosques, walls and palaces. A story that any visitor to the Imperial city should learn about to get the most out of their travel.
For further information, we recommend the following books.
Ottoman Centuries - Lord Kinross
Osman’s Dream - Caroline Finkel
Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire - Jason Goodwin
The history of the house of Osman has all the elements of some of the best works of fiction
"When you come to a fork in the road, take it" - Yogi Berra