The Ottoman Empire

One of History's Most Important Empires

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), Istanbul, Turkey (formerly Constantinople)
  Emad Aljumah / Getty Images 

The Ottoman Empire was an imperial state that was founded in 1299 after growing out of the break-down of several Turkish tribes. The empire then grew to include many areas in what is now present-day Europe to and it eventually became one of the largest, most powerful and longest-lasting empires in the history of the world. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire included the areas of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. It had a maximum area of 7.6 million square miles (19.9 million square kilometers) in 1595 (University of Michigan). The Ottoman Empire began to decline power in the 18th century but a portion of its land became what is Turkey today.

Origin and Growth of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire began in the late 1200s during the break-up of the Seljuk Turk Empire. After that empire broke up the Ottoman Turks began to take control of the other states belonging to the former empire and by the late 1400's all other Turkish dynasties were controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, the main goal of its leaders was expansion. The earliest phases of Ottoman expansion occurred under Osman I, Orkhan and Murad I. Bursa, one of the Ottoman Empire's earliest capitals fell in 1326. In the late 1300's several important victories gained more land for the Ottomans and Europe began to prepare for Ottoman expansion.

After some military defeats in the early 1400s, the Ottomans regained their power under Muhammad I and in 1453 they captured Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire then entered its height and what is known as the Period of Great Expansion, during which time the empire came to include the lands of over ten different European and Middle Eastern states. It is believed that the Ottoman Empire was able to grow so rapidly because other countries were weak and unorganized and also because the Ottomans had advanced military organization and tactics for the time. In the 1500's the Ottoman Empire's expansion continued with the defeat of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria in 1517, Algiers in 1518 and Hungary in 1526 and 1541. In addition, parts of Greece also fell under Ottoman control in the 1500s.

In 1535 the reign of Sulayman I began and Turkey gained more power than it had had under previous leaders. During the reign of Sulayman I, the Turkish judicial system was reorganized and Turkish culture began to grow significantly. Following Sulayman I's death, the empire began to lose power when its military was defeated during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Decline and Collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Throughout the rest of the 1500s and into the 1600s and 1700s the Ottoman Empire began a considerable decline in power after several military defeats. In the mid-1600s the empire was restored for a short time after military victories in Persia and Venice. In 1699 the empire again began to lose territory and power subsequently.

In the 1700s the Ottoman Empire began to rapidly deteriorate following the Russo-Turkish Wars and a series of treaties during that time caused the empire to lose some of its economic independence. The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853-1856, further exhausted the struggling empire. In 1856 the independence of the Ottoman Empire was recognized by the Congress of Paris but it was still losing its strength as a European power.

In the late 1800s, there were several rebellions and the Ottoman Empire continued to lose territory and political and social instability in the 1890s created international negativity toward the empire. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and uprisings by Turkish nationalists further reduced the empire's territory and increased instability. Following the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire officially came to an end with the Treaty of Sevres.

Importance of the Ottoman Empire

Despite its collapse, the Ottoman Empire was one of the largest, longest lasting and most successful empires in the world's history. There are many reasons as to why the empire was as successful as it was but some of them include its very strong and organized military and its centralized political structure. These early, successful governments make the Ottoman Empire one of the most important in history.

To learn more about the Ottoman Empire, visit The University of Michigan's Turkish Studies website.