Rise and decline of the Ottoman Empire
THE country of Turkey stretches over portions of Europe and Asia the slender thread of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles being the division between the two continents. A rapid current rushes through these channels, but in some places they are so narrow that you can shout across from Europe to Asia, and it is no uncommon thing to hear the dogs barking from the other side.
Turkey in Europe spreads northwards from these points up to Bulgaria, and consists of a long strip of country extending from the Black Sea to the Adriatic.
Turkey in Asia is more extensive, and stretches from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. Persia lies to its east, and the Red Sea and blue Mediterranean to its west.
Turkey holds sway over some of earth's fairest lands, the homes of its most ancient civilizations and lands familiar to us through Holy Writ and profane history, and the sources of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other beliefs.
The rulers of Turkey were the Turks, originally a nomadic tribe from Central Asia. Compelled to abandon their homes on account of the desiccation or drying up of large tracts of their country, which were converted into a desert, they swarmed into Armenia and Persia in quest of new pasture-lands for their flocks and cattle. Like the in-coming tide, they swept everything before them, and finally overwhelmed not only Asia Minor, but also Egypt and Northern Africa.
Converted at an early stage of their history to the Muslim faith, they propagated it wherever they went, and, under the leadership of the Sultans of the Seljuk dynasty, they established themselves in Konia, and advanced their rule to the gates of the Byzantine Empire. But it was reserved for a kindred tribe under Ertogrul to be the successors of the Seljuks and establish the Ottoman dynasty which still holds sway over Turkey.
The events leading up to it were as follows Ertogrul, with a band of 400 followers, was wandering about Asia Minor, and accidentally came across a conflicting Mongolian and Seljuk army in the neighbourhood of Angora. He dashed into the fray in support of the latter, and changed impending defeat into a brilliant victory. In reward for this timely assistance the Seljuk Sultan awarded to Ertogrul the district of Anatolia, which bounded the Greek or Byzantine Empire, the capital of which Empire was then Constantinople.
During the summer the new-comers drove their flocks to the mountains, and during the winter they withdrew them to the plains, but, growing bolder and more powerful, Ertogrul waged war against the Greeks. Success followed upon success, until at last, in 1326, under the leadership of Othman, the son of Ertogrul, Nicea, noted for its Council which drew up the Nicean Creed, fell to the sword of the Moslem. Brusa also was taken, and there Othman enthroned himself as Sultan of the dynasty thenceforth known as the Ottoman.
Before proceeding further it might be interesting to relate an incident which pictures the primitive character and frugality of the founders of this dynasty. When the mighty Othman died, the only possessions he left behind were a salt-bowl, the symbol of hospitality, a spoon, his sword and standards, his cloak and white turban, a pair of horses, a yoke of oxen, and his flock of sheep. His sword is still preserved in Constantinople, and each successive Sultan is invested with it on his coronation. The descendants of his flock of sheep are still the heritage of the reigning Sultan, and still browse on the ranges of Bithynian Olympus, and supply butter and cheeses for the royal household.
The victories of the Ottoman Turks were followed by the incorporation of the Seljuks, and drew into their ranks crowds of recruits thirsting for blood and plunder. The Asiatic shores of the Bosphorus were ravaged with sword and fire, and shortly afterward (in 1453) Constantinople was invested and stormed and the last of the Byzantine Emperors slain.
Driving everything before them, the victorious Turks marched northwards into Europe, devastating, burning, plundering, slaying, and making captives of women and children, until at last they reached the walls of Vienna, and at one moment it looked as if all Europe would fall to their sway.
But this was the limit of their Northern conquests, and, like the tide which recedes after it has reached its fulness, so this assault on Vienna and its repulse marks the high tide and first ebb of Turkey's greatness.
One by one they lost their possessions in Europe, such as Hungary, Roumania, Greece, Servia, and Bulgaria, and now only a comparatively small strip of country remains to them in Europe. In Asia also large tracts of country have been wrenched from Turkey by Russia; and in Africa, Egypt and Tunis are Turkish only in name.
The splendid conquests of the Turks were due to the hardihood of a race brought up in frugality and nomadic pursuits. Their strength and courage were amazing, and their religious zeal made them reckless of their lives. Their early Sultans, too, were men of extraordinary energy and sagacity, and were the first among the Turks to organize regular soldiers. A famous corps was that of the Janissaries, who were selected from the strongest and most beautiful Christian youth forced away from their parents or captured in battle. Confined all their lives in barracks, and daily drilled in the arts of war, they grew to be as invincible as Cromwell's Ironsides.
But as discipline relaxed they became insubordinate, dethroning Sultans and nominating others, until one day, in 1826, Sultan Mahmoud IV. had them secretly surrounded in their barracks and annihilated. A venerable planetree may yet be seen in the old Palace grounds where the survivors were hanged. Its hollow trunk ultimately served as the shop of a shoemaker.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire was due to the corruption of the Turks that followed acquisition of wealth. They lost their hardihood, and their Sultans became profligate and luxurious. They filled their harems with wives and numberless slaves, and addicted themselves to pleasure instead of duty. They became tyrants, and their jealousies and fears of being supplanted made them so cruel that it became customary for a Sultan ascending the throne to kill all his brothers or near male relatives.
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