Sultan Mehmet II

Like their rivals, the Persian Safavids and Indian Moghuls, the Ottomans established an absolute monarchy that maintained power with a sophisticated bureaucracy influenced by the Mongol military state and a legal system based on Muslim law that relied on both military power and economic might to maintain control. One of their great challenges was to reconcile Islamic egalitarianism with their autocratic rule.

Ottoman rule could be arbitrary and despotic yet tolerant and fair. Subjects were required to pay taxes and submit to authority but merit was rewarded. Although Armenian and Jewish communities were segregated, Christianity, Judaism and other religions were tolerated and people were not required to conform. Martin Luther ruled praised the Ottomans. "The Turk...rules quite civilly, he preserves peace and punishes criminals.”

The Ottomans were able to hold on to power as long as they did at least partly because they relied on outsiders to fill positions in the military and the bureaucracy. That way were able to maintain a healthy distance between themselves and the local people. Because they were connected to the local people, the military and the bureaucracy were more likely to remain loyal and under control of the Ottoman rulers.

Why the Ottoman Empire Was Successful

The Ottoman Empire organized society around the concept of the millet, or autonomous religious community. The non-Muslim "People of the Book" (Christians and Jews) owed taxes to the government; in return they were permitted to govern themselves according to their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims. The religious communities were thus able to preserve a large measure of identity and autonomy. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the BBC: “There were many reasons why the Ottoman Empire was so successful: 1) Highly centralised; 2) Power was always transferred to a single person, and not split between rival princes; 3) The Ottoman Empire was successfully ruled by a single family for 7 centuries. 4) State-run education system; 5) Religion was incorporated in the state structure, and the Sultan was regarded as "the protector of Islam". 6) State-run judicial system; 7) Ruthless in dealing with local leaders; 8) Promotion to positions of power largely depended on merit; 9) Created alliances across political and racial groups; 10) United by Islamic ideology; 11) United by Islamic warrior code with ideal of increasing Muslim territory through Jihad; 12) United by Islamic organisational and administrative structures; 13) Highly pragmatic, taking the best ideas from other cultures and making them their own; 14) Encouraged loyalty from other faith groups; 15) Private power and wealth were controlled; 16) Very strong military; 17) Strong slave-based army; 18) Expert in developing gunpowder as a military tool; 19) Military ethos pervaded whole administration. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

Influences, Structure and Goals of the Ottoman Empire

Battle of Lepanto

According to the BBC: “Although the Ottoman Empire was widely influenced by the faiths and customs of the peoples it incorporated, the most significant influences came from Islam. The ruling elite worked their way up the hierarchy of the state madrassahs (religious schools) and the palace schools. They were trained to be concerned with the needs of government and to be mindful of the restrictions of Islamic law. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

“In its structure the ruling elite reflected a world of order and hierarchy in which promotion and status were rewarded on merit. Thus birth and genealogy, aristocracy or tribe became almost irrelevant to success in the system. Only one post, that of the Sultan, was determined by birth. Suleiman - a golden age |::|

According to the BBC: “Ottoman rulers had a very short-term policy. They rejected the idea of developing territory and investing in it for gain at some time in the future; land and peoples were exploited to the point of exhaustion and then more or less abandoned in favour of new ground. This policy meant that the Ottoman Empire relied on continuous expansion for stability. If it did not grow, it was likely to collapse. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

Ottoman Organization and Government

Under the Ottomans, a hierarchy stretched down from the sultan through governors down to the village or neighborhood headman. Ottoman Pashas were like English governors in India and Malaysia. They regarded their postings as living in exile among savages.

Turks at the Gates of Constantinople

At the apex of the hierarchical Ottoman system was the sultan, who acted in political, military, judicial, social, and religious capacities, under a variety of titles. He was theoretically responsible only to God and God's law--the Islamic seriat (in Arabic, sharia ), of which he was the chief executor. All offices were filled by his authority, and every law was issued by him in the form of a firman (decree). He was supreme military commander and had official title to all land. During the early sixteenth-century Ottoman expansion in Arabia, Selim I also adopted the title of caliph, thus indicating that he was the universal Muslim ruler. Although theocratic and absolute in theory and in principle, the sultan's powers were in practice limited. The attitudes of important members of the dynasty, the bureaucratic and military establishments, and religious leaders had to be considered. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Three characteristics were necessary for acceptance into the ruling class: Islamic faith, loyalty to the sultan, and compliance with the standards of behavior of the Ottoman court. The last qualification effectively excluded the majority of common Turks, whose language and manners were very different from those of the Ottomans. The language of the court and government was Ottoman Turkish, a highly formalized hybrid language that included Persian and Arabic loanwords. In time Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were also employed in state service, usually in diplomatic, technical, or commercial capacities.*

The day-to-day conduct of government and the formulation of policy were in the hands of the divan, a relatively small council of ministers directed by the chief minister, the grand vizier. The entranceway to the public buildings in which the divan met--and which in the seventeenth century became the residence of the grand vizier--was called the Bab-i Ali (High Gate, or Sublime Porte). In diplomatic correspondence, the term Porte was synonymous with the Ottoman government, a usage that acknowledged the power wielded by the grand vizier.*

Ottoman Rule and Islam

The Ottomans controlled the Kaaba
Islam's holiest site
Ottoman Turkey was an Islamic state. It was the seat of the Muslim caliphate and guardians of the Holy Islamic sites in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem and the pilgrimage routes to the Hajj. The Turks viewed themselves as a defender of the Sunni Islamic world and culture against Christendom to the West and Shiite Islam to the east. Many of their military campaigns were organized under of the banner of jihad.

The Ottomans greatly improved the Grand Mosque around the Kaaba in Mecca. Every year they presided over the Hajj with great pomp and formality and organized a great pilgrimage caravan from Damascus to Mecca and used it as an opportunity to display their authority over the Muslim world and their proficiency in maintaining the Holy Sites.

The Ottomans were relatively devout but Islam was not an underpinning of their authority as it had been in Arab-Muslim dynasties that owed their legitimacy to their relationship to the Prophet. The religious elite was of mixed origin and trained at religious schools in Istanbul in a manner similar to the Janissaries. The most powerful were the muftis, who advised the sultan on religious matters. But overall religious people didn’t have much power.

Ottoman Justice

The sultans governed according to the Koran and sharia (Islamic law) and civil codes that dealt with criminal and financial matters. Even so the sultan had the right to issue fermans, or edicts, on subjects not covered by Koran. These laws in turn influenced the laws of other nations.

Suleyman the Magnificent, also know as Suleyman “lawgiver,” streamlined the Ottoman legal system. The Ottomans helped develop the system of Islamic courts and define sharia as it could be applied in a formal setting. Under the millet system, Christians were tried under their own laws.

Judges were appointed and paid by the government. They and the legal personnel that supported them were organized like the local Ottoman bureaucracy. Judges not only presided over cases they settled disputes and oversaw financial transactions and sometimes acted as spokesmen for the sultan.

Ottoman Bureaucracy

Ottoman power was administered with “bureaucratic efficiency, unrivaled by an state at that time.” The empire was essentially a bureaucratic state with different regions under the umbrella of single administrative and economic system. The administrative elite was drawn mainly from converts to Islam from the Balkans and Caucasus that were slaves in the sultan’s household and were recruited and trained like Janissaries. This was to make sure that their loyalty was with sultan not the local people. Local people were encouraged to participate in the government but they were generally not given positions with much power.

Meeting in Topkapi palace

At the top of Ottoman bureaucracy was the grand vizir, an official who answered only to the sultan and was often the real power behind the throne. Below him were other vizers that controlled the military, the civil service and the regional governments. The highest officials made up a council that met in the sultan’s palace and decided policy, met foreign ambassadors and responded to petitions. Sometimes the sultan showed up at these meetings but mostly they were presided over by the grand vizer.

Low level bureaucrats consisted primarily of secretaries who drew up documents and officials who kept financial records (most of which still exist and are carefully filed away). Subjects were expected to comply with their orders and requests. If not security forces were called in.

Merit System in the Ottoman Administration

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote in “The Turkish Letters, 1555-1562": “No distinction is attached to birth among the Turks; the deference to be paid to a man is measured by the position he holds in the public service. There is no fighting for precedence; a man's place is marked out by the duties he discharges. In making his appointments the Sultan pays no regard to any pretensions on the score of wealth or rank, nor does he take into consideration recommendations or popularity, he considers each case on its own merits, and examines carefully into the character, ability, and disposition of the man whose promotion is in question. It is by merit that men rise in the service, a system which ensures that posts should only be assigned to the competent. Each man in Turkey carries in his own hand his ancestry and his position in life, which he may make or mar as he will. [Source: C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniel, eds., “The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq,” vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, 1881), pp, 86-88, 153-155, 219-222, 287-290, 293. “Busbecq, a Fleming, was the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Sublime Porte (the Turkish Sultan's court in Constantinople) from 1555-62. His letters provide important foreign accounts of the Ottoman state. Because Busbecq was trying to bring about reform at home, he did not dwell on the very real problems with Ottoman government]

“Those who receive the highest offices from the Sultan are for the most part the sons of shepherds or herdsmen, and so far from being ashamed of their parentage, they actually glory in it, and consider it a matter of boasting that they owe nothing to the accident of birth; for they do not believe that high qualities are either natural or hereditary, nor do they think that they can be handed down from father to son, but that they are partly the gift of' God, and partly the result of good training, great industry, and unwearied zeal; arguing that high qualities do not descend from a father to his son or heir, any more than a talent for music, mathematics, or the like; and that the mind does not derive its origin from the father, so that the son should necessarily be like the father in character, our emanates from heaven, and is thence infused into the human body. Among the Turks, therefore, honours, high posts, and judgeships are the rewards of great ability and good service. If a man be dishonest, or lazy, or careless, he remains at the bottom of the ladder, an object of contempt; for such qualities there are no honours in Turkey!

“This is the reason that they are successful in their undertakings, that they lord it over others, and are daily extending the bounds of their empire. These are not our ideas, with us there is no opening left for merit; birth is the standard for everything; the prestige of birth is the sole key to advancement in the public service.”

Ottoman Local Government

The pasha and his harem

The provincial governments were organized like hierarchal corporations with successively smaller divisions, departments, and branches. The governors had their own bureaucracy which was like a miniature version of the state government. Within large provinces there were regional governments (equivalent of country governments). that in turn had their own bureaucracies. The primary duty of these governments was to collect taxes.

There were taxes on the import and export of goods, on urban trades and crafts and on agricultural production. Non-Muslims paid a poll tax graded according to wealth. Muslims paid no personal taxes. They often made Islamic zakat payments. This money supported religious schools and social services.

In the cities there were police, other security forces, firefighters, street cleaners and lamplighters. Religious foundations and charities supported by Muslim zakat payments ran and maintained schools, hospitals, hostels and mosques. Because was little threat of attacks, city walls were pulled down or fell into disuse.

Ottoman Iqta System

The Ottomans ruled using the iqta system, a method of dividing land and paying tributes and taxes that was devised by the Mongols. Land was divided up into non-hereditary fiefs. These fiefs were granted by the sultan to a lord known as pasha for various reasons (usually by distinguishing oneself in war or by giving providing gifts or women for his harem).

Pashas were governors in the iqta system. Their primary responsibility was collecting taxes and recording revenues. They viewed themselves as mini-sultan. On one document began “the pasha, whose glory is high as Heaven, king of kings, who are like stars, crown of the royal head, the shadow of the Provider, culmination of kingship...sea of benevolence and humanity, mine of the jewels of generosity, source of memorial of valor...”

Compared to feudalism, the disadvantage of the iqta was that pashas were encouraged to get rich quick and hoard their loot since the land did not necessarily end up in the hands of their descendants. This lead to the overtaxation of subjects, "skimping" on military obligations, and negligence. The advantage is that land was granted by some degree by merit and intrigues and wars between pashas was minimized. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

See Mongols

Ottoman Empire Economics

The Ottomans dominated trade on the Silk Road and the Mediterranean. They formed a monopoly with Venice and traded with countries as diverse as Bavaria, Austria and Poland. Goods produced in the Ottoman Empire for which there was a demand in Europe included coffee from Yemen, sugar from Egypt, grain form Tunisia and Algeria, cotton from Palestine, silk from Lebanon, and textiles from Syria.

According to the BBC: “Istanbul became not only a political and military capital, but because of its position at the junction of Europe, Africa, and Asia, one of the great trade centres of the world. Another important city was Bursa, which was a centre of the silk trade. Some of the later Ottoman conquests were clearly intended to give them control of other trade routes. Among the goods traded were: 1) Silk and other cloth; 2) Musk; 3) Rhubarb; 4) Porcelain from China; 5) Spices such as pepper; 6) Dyestuffs such as indigo. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

“The economic strength of the Empire also owed much to Mehmet's policy of increasing the number of traders and artisans in the Empire. He first encouraged merchants to move to Istanbul, and later forcibly resettled merchants from captured territories such as Caffa. He also encouraged Jewish traders from Europe to migrate to Istanbul and set up in business there. Later rulers continued these policies.” |::|

The Ottoman and people within the empire were able to prosper simply because good were able to move relatively freely and safely in so large an area. A great deal of attention was devoted to making sure that grain, and other foodstuffs and supplies were delivered to Istanbul and they were made available at pirces the masses could afford.

Ottoman Empire Control of Trade

After 1405 the Silk Road between Europe and China was closed. The Ottoman Turks took control of the trade routes in the Middle East. Even news from China was in short supply. Within China, the emperors had closed their borders to foreigners.

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote: “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman conquests allowed them control of many ports and sole access to the Black Sea, from which even Russian vessels were excluded, and trade among the provinces increased greatly. As the largest city in western Asia or Europe, Istanbul was the natural center of this commerce. Cairo became the main entrepôt for Yemeni coffee and Indian fabric and spices, and was itself a producer of rugs. Businessmen in Aleppo and Bursa sold silk to Ottoman, Venetian, French, and English merchants, and North African woven furnishings were popular throughout the region. Damascus was an important stop along the pilgrimage route to Mecca and Medina, supplying caravans on their way to those cities and goods to their residents. [Source:Marika Sardar Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The Ottoman Empire had a dual economy in the nineteenth century consisting of a large subsistence sector and a small colonial-style commercial sector linked to European markets and controlled by foreign interests. The empire's first railroads, for example, were built by foreign investors to bring the cash crops of Anatolia's coastal valleys--tobacco, grapes, and other fruit--to Smyrna (Izmir) for processing and export. The cost of maintaining a modern army without a thorough reform of economic institutions caused expenditures to be made in excess of tax revenues. Heavy borrowing from foreign banks in the 1870s to reinforce the treasury and the undertaking of new loans to pay the interest on older ones created a financial crisis that in 1881 obliged the Porte to surrender administration of the Ottoman debt to a commission representing foreign investors. The debt commission collected public revenues and transferred the receipts directly to creditors in Europe.*

Ottoman Empire and the Coffee Trade

20120527-Kahvihuone in palestine.jpg
Enjoying coffee in Ottoman Palestine
The Ottoman empire took over the coffee trade when they took over Yemen. The oldest known coffee houses were opened in Constantinople in 1554 by two merchants. As well as places to hang out they were became known as "schools of the cultured." At this time Al-Makha (Mocha) in Yemen was the focal point of the coffee trade.

Turkish coffee became so popular in Istanbul that women were allowed to divorce their husbands if they couldn't keep the ibrik , or pot, filled. Turkey never grew its own coffee, and the drink was popular only when the Ottoman empire was rich enough to import large quantities of beans. Turkish soldiers drank it as the besieged Vienna in 1683.

The Ottomans in turn introduced coffee to Europe. Venetians merchants carried the first cargo of coffee from Turkey to Italy in the late 16th century. By 1618, the English and Dutch had set up coffee factories in Al-Makha (Mocha) in Yemen and made a killing when coffee houses became all the rage in the late 1600s.

Ottoman Silk Trade and Production

Nazanin Hedayat Munroe of the Metropolitan Museum Art wrote: “Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman state (1326–65) and already an important entrepôt on the Eurasian trade route, allowing the Ottomans to function as middlemen in the trade of raw silk. Cocoons or undyed silk thread produced in Safavid Iran's northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran passed through these territories; they were weighed on government-controlled scales and a further tax was levied on materials purchased by European merchants (who were mostly Italian). A decline in the export of Iranian raw silk in the mid-sixteenth century due to political strife instigated the beginnings of domestic sericulture in the Ottoman state, and from that point onward there was a larger variety of the quality of silk and fiercer competition for the European market. [Source: Nazanin Hedayat Munroe Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Ottoman silk hand towel

“Ottoman weaving workshops in Bursa were well established by the fifteenth century, producing the majority of Ottoman luxury velvets (çatma) and metal-ground silks (seraser or kemha) for export as well as for domestic markets. Compound weave structures consisting of two warps and two or more complementary wefts (seraser, or taqueté) continued to be a preferred pattern structure, while structures such as lampas (kemha), combining twill and satin weaves, were added to the repertoire. Textile workshops under court control in Istanbul were focused on producing cloth of gold and silver (seraser) for use as clothing and furnishings in the imperial palace and honorific garments (hil'at) (2003.416a-e) given to courtiers and foreign ambassadors. Woven silks purchased by European merchants often ended up in palaces or churches throughout Europe as secular or ecclesiastical garments (06.1210) worn by high-ranking officials or used to encase relics. \^/

“As the central power of the Ottoman state in Istanbul began to wane in the later seventeenth century, royal workshops and commissions began to falter. Textiles once protected by sumptuary laws and produced solely for use by the court began to appear in the bazaar for sale to anyone who could afford them. The upwardly mobile middle class began appropriating the dress and style of the aristocracy, while private workshops took over much of the production of silks.” \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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