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Formed by the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire covered a vast territory.
With unequaled military strength, Turkish forces conquered the Middle East and south-east Europe. The empire flourished until the late sixteenth century, when it began gradually to decline. After 600 years, the dynasty came to an end in 1922 with the exile of the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI. The term 'Ottoman' has no ethnic significance and was derived from the Arabic form of Osman (Uthman), Osman I being the founder of the empire.
Origins of the Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans emerged from tribes of Turanian stock with their conversion to Islam in the seventh century. The defeat of the Seljuk by the Mongols in the thirteenth century enabled the Ottomans, under Osman I (who died in 1324), to expand into neighboring Asiatic provinces. Orkham, the successor to Osman, captured territories within the Byzantine Empire, including the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1354. Captured Christian children were raised in the Muslim faith to increase the ranks of the Janissaries, the ruthlessly efficient conquering armies of the Ottomans. Their power was demonstrated in 1396 when Bayezid I gained large areas of the Balkan Peninsula by defeating the allied armies of Germany, Hungary and France.
Expansion of the Ottoman Empire
Turkish dominance suffered a brief reverse in the hands of the Mongol leader Tamerlane in 1402. However, the empire was reunited and expanded under Mehmed I (1413-20) and Murad II (1421-51).
Mehmed I exploited the disunity of his enemies and brought the might of the Ottoman armies against the Byzantine Empire.
Constantinople was taken in 1453 and the Ottoman capital established there; Greece was annexed in the period 1456-60 and in 1480 Otrante in south-east Italy was temporarily held. Selim I (1467-1520), known as 'the Inflexible' expanded to the east and south, capturing Syria in 1515 and Egypt in 1516.
The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith during the reign (1520-66) of Suleiman I, known as 'the Magnificent'. The warrior king captured Belgrade in 1521, Rhodes in 1522 and annexed much of the Hungarian Empire in 1541. With France as a tentative ally, Suleiman launched a number of campaigns against the Hapsburg rulers of Austria and Spain and for the first time the Ottomans emerged as a major naval power.
Venetian possessions were seized in the Morea, Dalmatia and Aegean regions, and Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean trade routes threatened the economies of many countries. Within the empire, Suleiman was known for his reform of the Turkish legal system and the patronage of art and literature. This golden period of the sultancy saw the emergence of a national cultural heritage.
Decline of the Ottoman Empire
A gradual decline was experienced following the death of Suleiman in 1566. Selim II acquired only Cyprus before the empire was faced with the military unity of the major European powers. To protect remaining territories, Venice organized a Holy League among Spain and the Papal states. In the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the League crushed the Turkish fleet and ended the sultan's dominance of the Mediterranean.
In the East the restoration of unity in Iran under a strong shah posed a threat to the Ottomans. They were driven out of the Caucasus and Iraq and did not recapture the latter until1638. In 1671 the Ottomans captured Crete but in 1683 their seige of Vienna ended in failure. The Holy League set out to destroy the Ottoman Empire. In the wars that followed (1683-1792), the empire lost Hungary to the Hapsburgs, the Peloponnesus to the Venetians and all their possessions on the north coast of the Black Sea, including the Crimea, to the Russians. Furthermore, the Ottomans had to agree to the intervention of the Austrians and Russians on behalf of the sultan's Christian subjects.
French forces conquered the Mamelukes in Egypt in 1798 but the Ottomans did not lose their overlordship of the country until 1879. Serbia, under Karageorge, revolted against the Ottomans, who in 1806 found themselves at war with the Russians and in 1807 with the British. A period of reform, the Tanzimat, was introduced by Abdulmecid I in 1838 as a means of preserving the Ottoman state but its effectiveness was negated by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853. Initiated by Czar Nicholas of Russia to finally destroy the Ottomans, Turkey received the unexpected support of Britain and France. The Treaty of Paris returned both sides of the lower Danube River to Turkey and granted independence to Moldavia and Walachia.
Although the Ottomans were allowed into the company of European powers, Russia awaited its chance to resume war.
Insurrections in Crete in 1866 and in Herzegovina in 1875 provided Russia with the chance to instigate the Balkan Wars of 1877. The Russians proved to be the stronger force and, in the Treaty of Stefano (1878), the Ottomans agreed to recognize the independence of several European territories and to cede Asian territory to Russia. Allied powers, concerned at the growth of Russian power, modified the treaty at the Congress of Berlin. However, the final settlement was a major defeat for the Ottoman Empire, which was on the edge of bankruptcy.
Within Turkey, demands for a liberal government brought about the rise of party leader Midhat Pasha. Under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the first Turkish Parliament was opened in 1877. Abdulhamid found the Parliament a threat to his rule and returned to dictatorial rule.
The Young Turk movement rose in response to the dictatorial policies of Abdulhamid, which it believed would fail to preserve the empire. A rebellion led by an army corps in Macedonia in 1908 prompted the deposition of the sultan and the amending of the restored constitution to give more power to Parliament. However, it was the army that really took control of the government; it introduced important internal reforms but in foreign affairs it met with disaster. Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed by Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria was proclaimed independent and the military might of the Ottoman sultan seemed to be shattered. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 cost Turkey all its European possessions with the exception of the areas around Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Adrianople (now Edirne in north-west European Turkey).
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire fought with Germany and Austria-Hungary against the alliance of France, Russia and Britain. The Young Turks' belief that the war would result in a German victory proved to be a serious mistake and, by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, they lost the Arab provinces and a large area of Asia Minor. Resistance to the Allied occupation of Asia Minor was organized by Mustafa Kemal. He was supported by a large majority in Parliament, which regarded the sultan as a betrayer of his people. In January 1921, Parliament entrusted power to an executive council headed by Kemal and the last Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mehmed VI, fled into exile.