Turkish warlord, founder of Ottoman Empire
T oday Istanbul is a magnificent city that serves as a crossroads between worlds: Europe, of which it is geographically a part, and the Asian mainland of Turkey just a few miles distant, to which it is culturally tied by nearly six centuries of history. Once, however, Istanbul was Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, and its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was regarded as a crisis for the Christian nations of Europe.
The fall of Constantinople was one of the events that heralded the end of the Middle Ages, but it had been foreseen nearly two centuries before—according to legend, at least—in a dream by Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. It is no wonder that such a leader, who founded one of the world's longest-lasting empires, would inspire many legends; however, the reality of Osman's life was remarkable enough.
Roots of the Turks
Until the eleventh century, Asia Minor, or Anatolia, site of modern-day Turkey, was primarily inhabited by peoples
The Balkan Peninsula, the southeastern corner of the European continent, is at the crossroads of many worlds: Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, Christian and Muslim, European and Asian, Western and Eastern. Not surprisingly, then, it has been the site of numerous conflicts.
In the twentieth century, World War I began in what is now Bosnia, and World War II saw heavy fighting throughout the area. The postwar years were a time of intense hatred and suppressed conflict in the Communist nations of the Balkans, and the years since the fall of Communism have produced ethnic wars involving Serbia and its neighbors. The Middle Ages were no different, with wars involving the Ottoman Turks and other forces. Along with its wars, however, the era also produced a number of heroes.
One of the earliest was Boris I (ruled 852–89), the Bulgarian ruler who converted his nation to Christianity. Though there were Catholic missionaries in the area, Boris accepted the Greek Orthodox faith, and modeled many aspects of his realm on the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire. He even adopted the ancient Roman title of "caesar," or czar (ZAR). Boris in fact became so interested in Christianity that he abdicated, or resigned from the throne, and spent most of his last eight years in a monastery. Bulgaria flourished under his successors, briefly becoming a power that overshadowed both the Byzantines and the Russians in the 900s.
Far to the other side of the Balkan Peninsula was Croatia, whose first king was Tomislav in the tenth century. Long before, under the rule of Charlemagne (see entry), Croatia had accepted Roman Catholicism rather than Greek Orthodoxy. Tomislav, however, faced an enemy that accepted no form of Christianity: the Magyars, destined to found the nation of Hungary. In fighting back the pagan invaders, Tomislav added considerable territory, and united Croatia for the first time.
To the south of Croatia was Bosnia, where even today, people use the expression "to talk of Ban Kulin," meaning "to speak of better times." This is a reference to Kulin (ruled c. 1180–c. 1204), a ban, or local ruler. Despite the fact that Hungary then controlled the area, Ban Kulin helped the tiny nation achieve a measure of independence. A Catholic, he revolted against Rome by becoming a Bogromil, a member of a Bulgarian sect that asserted God had two sons, Christ and Satan. In 1203, the pope forced Ban Kulin to renounce the Bogromil faith.
Ultimately most Bosnians would become Muslims, since their country, along with much of the Balkan Peninsula, would be annexed to the Ottoman Empire. Before it fell to the Ottomans, however, neighboring Serbia experienced a flowering under a series of kings named Stephen. The greatest of these was Stephen Dusan (dü-SHAHN; 1308–1355), who seized the throne from his father in 1331. He went on to conquer a number of lands from the Byzantines, and in 1346 had himself crowned emperor of the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgars, and Albanians. Four years later, he conquered Bosnia, and was marching on Constantinople in 1355 when he died.
Serbia's dreams would be dashed in a battle at Kosovo—ironically, the site of a modern-day conflict involving Serbia and Albania—in 1389. At Kosovo Field, known as "the field of the black birds," the Ottomans dealt the Serbs under Prince Lazar (1329–1389) a humiliating defeat, and soon afterward added Serbia and Bulgaria to their empires.
Fifty years later, Kosovo was the site of another battle between Ottoman forces and an Eastern European hero, Hungary's János Hunyadi (YAH-nos HOON-yahd-ee; c. 1407–1456). Trained as a knight, Hunyadi scored early victories against the Turks in the 1430s, and even drove the Ottomans out of Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, and Bulgaria. This put the Hungarians in a position to influence the region, but with Hunyadi's defeat by the Turks at Kosovo, those hopes came to an end.
Hunyadi was almost the exact contemporary of Albania's Skanderbeg (1405–1468). The name, given to him by the Turks, is a version of Alexander, and calls to mind Alexander the Great; his real name was George Kastrioti (kahs-tree-OHT-ee). Brought up as a Muslim among the Turks, in his late thirties he became a Christian, abandoning the Turks and supporting the cause of his own people. His defeat of Ottoman forces under the sultan Murad II in 1450 made Skanderbeg a hero throughout Europe; but soon after his death in 1468, Albania became a part of the Ottoman Empire.
with close cultural ties to the Greeks. As for the Turks, who eventually gave the land its name, they came from a broad stretch of Central Asia outside the Chinese borders, from whence they began moving westward in the 500s.
Turks settled in various places, but perhaps no group was as notable as the Seljuks, a dynasty founded by Toghril Beg (see box in Shotoku Taishi entry). They defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, putting that empire's fortunes in a downward spiral from which it would not recover. They also laid claim to Anatolia, which would remain in Turkish hands from then on.
A world of fading empires
Osman (AWS-mahn), who came from the Ghazi (GAHZ-ee) tribe of Turks, was born in 1259. Legend has it that his grandfather led the Ghazis out of northeastern Iran. After the grandfather's death along the way westward, Osman's father Ertogrul (urt-oh-GRÜL) replaced him.
By then the Mongols were on the move, and Ertogrul supported the Seljuks against these invaders. This might have seemed like an obvious choice since the Ghazis and Seljuks were related, but the Seljuks were nonetheless grateful and rewarded Ertogrul for his support by granting him lands in northeastern Anatolia.
Though the Mongols' realms were still growing at that time, the Ghazis were surrounded by fading empires. At one time, the Muslim world had been ruled by the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, but its power had been broken by the Seljuks in 1258. Now the power of the Seljuks, too, was in decline. To the west was the Byzantine Empire, whose people adhered to the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity. The Ghazis, on the other hand, were Muslims, and like the Abbasids and the Seljuks before them, they viewed any conflict with the Byzantines as a "holy war" on behalf of their religion. Thus Osman would feel justified in later building his empire at the expense of the Byzantines.
One of the most powerful legends of Osman's early life concerned a dream in which he saw himself taking the Byzantine capital at Constantinople. That literal dream, and the figurative dream of empire that it spawned, was closely tied with a love affair.
As a youth, Osman reportedly fell in love with Malkhatun (mahl-hkhah-TOON), whose name means "treasure of a woman." He asked her to marry him, but her father, a respected Muslim holy man, refused—no doubt because Osman was a rough chieftain and warlord. Years passed, during which time Osman asked again and again for the hand of Malkhatun, only to be refused each time. Finally he had come to accept the fact that they would never marry; then one night, he had a dream.
In his dream, he was sleeping alongside a friend when a full moon arose from his friend's chest, then floated over to Osman and sank into his own chest. The moon symbolized Malkhatun, and its joining of his chest was their marital union. Then out of Osman's chest grew a great tree, which rose to shadow the entire world. A wind began to blow all the trees' leaves toward Constantinople, which came to resemble a ring. Osman was just about to put the ring on his finger when he awoke.
It is not hard to believe that Osman had this dream of empire; much more difficult to believe is the story that upon hearing of the dream, Malkhatun's father changed his mind and allowed the marriage. Probably the whole tale was created long after Osman's time; whatever the case, he did go on to marry Malkhatun and to found a great empire.
The conquest of Bursa
Out of respect for his Seljuk hosts, Osman's father had not tried to expand his territories. But times were changing: the Mongols had destroyed the Seljuks' power, and when Osman became chieftain in 1288, he set about acquiring new lands. From 1299, when he refused to pay tribute or tax money to the Mongol ruler, he symbolically created his own state, which would form the nucleus of the realm named after him: the Ottoman Empire.
During the period from 1300 to 1308, Osman fought a number of engagements, successively taking pieces of Anatolia from the Byzantines. Finally he reached the city of Bursa, only seventy miles from Constantinople across the Sea of Marmara. Osman would never live to see the conquest of Constantinople, however: his last eighteen years would be caught up in a struggle to take Bursa.
The conquest of the city looked easier than it was. From 1308 Osman's troops controlled almost all areas around it, but it took them another thirteen years to seal off Bursa's port at Mudanya (moo-DAHN-yah). The Byzantines proved stubborn adversaries, and even after the taking of Mudanya, the Turks had to maintain a five-year-long siege against Bursa before the city finally yielded in 1326.
Six centuries of empire
As a major commercial center, Bursa was a huge gain to the Ottoman Turks. Osman himself, however, did not live to enjoy the triumph: when he learned about the city's capture from his son Orkhan (ruled 1326–62), he was on his deathbed. Giving Orkhan some final advice about treating all his subjects equally and fairly, Osman died at the age of sixty-seven.
The empire grew quickly under Osman's successors, and it rapidly acquired much of the Balkan Peninsula on Europe's southeastern tip. Given the weakness of the Byzantines, then, it is surprising that more than 125 years passed between the death of Osman and the taking of Constantinople. However, the Byzantines were fierce in holding on to what remained of their empire, and the invasion of Anatolia by Tamerlane (see entry) in about 1400 slowed the Ottoman advance.
By the mid-1400s, however, the Ottomans had won the prize dreamt of long before by Osman. The empire kept growing until 1683, by which time it dominated a huge portion of southeastern Europe, all of the Middle East and North Africa, and much of what is now southern Russia. Thereafter it went into a long decline, just like the Byzantine Empire had long before. It came to an official end only in 1922.
For More Information
Andryszewski, Tricia. Kosovo: The Splintering of Yugoslavia. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2000.
Creasy, Edward S. History of the Ottoman Turks: From the Beginnings of Their Empire to the Present Time. London: Bentley, 1878.
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient & Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.
Kostich, Dragos D. The Land and People of the Balkans: Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973.
Sheehan, Sean. Turkey. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.
"End of Europe's Middle Ages—Ottoman Turks." [Online] Available http://www.ucalgary.ca/HIST/tutor/endmiddle/ottoman.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"History 323: The Middle East in the Making: The History of the Ottoman Empire." [Online] Available http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/ottoman/module2/lecture1.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Kosovo Field: As Bitter As Yesterday." [Online] Available http://www.megastories.com/kosovo/map/kosovof.htm (last accessed July 26,2000).
The Ottoman Khilafa. [Online] Available http://www.naqshbandi.org/ottomans/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Osman I (1259-1326) was the leader of a tribe of conquering warriors, who formed an independent state out of which arose the great Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1259, Osman I entered a world desperately in need of a leader. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East several great empires were declining. The Byzantine Empire—the eastern Roman Empire based around the capital city of Constantinople (Istanbul)—had endured for nine centuries but was beginning the long process of decline. During the Fourth Crusade of 1204, Constantinople fell for the first time to the Latin knights of the crusade. Impregnable, due to its strategic geographic position and defenses, the fall of the capital city symbolized the declining power of the Byzantine emperor. On the eastern flank of Byzantine lay the Seljuk Empire, consisting of eastern Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, Armenia, part of Persia, and western Turkestan. But this Empire too began to lose control of its possessions due to the invasions of mongol leader Genghis Khan. After the decisive battle of Kozadagh ended with victory for the Mongol invaders, the Seljuk sultans were reduced to vassals. The Mongol khan, interested only in securing annual payments from his vassal states, did not implement a system of control and government over the former Seljuk territories. With Byzantine control diminishing, Seljuk rule subjugated, and Mongol leadership missing, a power vacuum resulted in Asia Minor.
Situated on the border between the Byzantine and Seljuk empires was a frontier area inhabited by a collection of nomads and city dwellers of many races and religions. Driven up from the east due to political turmoil and the advancing Mongol hordes, many were of Turkoman descent. Caught between feuding and declining empires this area had all the characteristics of a frontier. Beyond the limits of central control, power rested in the hands of independent Ghazi leaders who ruled over small tribes and parcels of land. These Ghazis were Turkish warriors fighting for the faith of Islam against the infidel, the Christian settlers in Byzantine areas. On horses, the Ghazis raided and looted Christian villages, securing the goods on which their wealth was based.
One of these leaders was Ertogrul, the father of Osman. There are conflicting stories as to the origin of the Ottomans and their arrival in the frontier area of Anatolia. The most common story is that Ertogrul's father Suleyman Sah, the leader of a tribe of Turkomans, led his people out of northeastern Iran in the late 12th century, just ahead of a Mongol invasion. Fearing death or enslavement, they headed west where Suleyman is said to have drowned crossing the Euphrates. Assuming the leadership, Ertogrul led part of the tribe into Anatolia where they settled. Older versions of the story are more detailed but unsubstantiated.
Historian Edward S. Creasy relates that Ertogrul and his small band, while journeying westward into Asia Minor, came upon two armies engaged in battle. Seeing that one army was much larger than the other, Ertogrul and his followers entered the fray on the side of the smaller force without knowing for whom they fought. Their addition made the difference and the smaller force was victorious. Once the battle was over, Ertogrul learned that the leader of the small force was Alaeddin, the Seljuk sultan, and the army defeated were Mongol invaders. In gratitude, Alaeddin bestowed on Ertogrul a principality on the frontier, bordering the Byzantine state. Regardless of the truth of this part of the story, there is no doubt that Ertogrul was given his fief in the area of Sogut in northeast Anatolia (roughly, present-day Turkey) to act as a guard and defender of the Seljuk border against the Byzantine forces. In the spirit of a true Ghazi, Ertogrul performed this job for the remainder of his life; he did not acquire any territory beyond the land given him. When he died in 1288, he left his fief and tribal leadership to his son Osman.
Born in 1259 at Sogut, few personal details of Osman's life exist. Legend has it that as a young man, he fell in love with Malkhatun—which apparently means "Treasure of a Woman"—and asked to marry her. But her father, a renowned holy man, refused. Resigned to unhappiness after several more years of refusal, Osman had a dream; he saw himself and a friend sleeping. From his friend's chest arose a full moon (symbolizing Malkhatun) which moved over and sank into the chest of Osman. From this union sprang a great tree which grew, eventually encompassing the world. Supported by the four great mountains—Caucasus, Atlas, Taurus, and Haemus—the tree covered a world of bountiful harvests and gleaming, prosperous cities. Then a wind began to blow, pointing all the leaves of the tree towards Constantinople. As Edward Creasy describes the rest of the dream:
That city, placed at the junction of two seas and two continents, seemed like a diamond set between two sapphires and two emeralds, to form the most precious stone in a ring of universal empire. Othman thought that he was in the act of placing that visioned ring on his finger, when he awoke.
This dream, so obviously a prophesy of a great and powerful empire that would result from a union of Osman and Malkhatun, caused Malkhatun's father to recant and agree to the marriage. Although this story of Osman's vision of empire is probably only a legend created through hindsight, Osman and his descendants did, indeed, create an empire.
By the time Osman assumed the leadership of his father's tribe in 1288, the stronger Ghazi leaders had begun, through conquest, to form larger principalities. Unlike his father, Osman too began a campaign of conquering the neighboring towns and countryside. In 1299, he symbolically created an independent state when he stopped the payment of tribute to the Mongol emperor. From 1300, there was a period of sustained conquest as he acquired the land west of the Sakarya River, south to Eskishehir and northwest to Mount Olympus and the Sea of Marmara. Osman and his men captured the key forts and cities of Eskishehir, Inonu, Bilejik, and eventually Yenishehir where he established a capital for the new Ottoman state. Still, they were not strong enough to capture the crucial and strongly fortified cities of Bursa, Nicaea, and Nicomedia.
On reaching the Sakarya River and the Sea of Marmara by 1308, Osman had effectively isolated the city of Bursa. An important Byzantine center at the foot of Mount Olympus, Bursa was well fortified, surrounded by a high wall and several small forts and outworks. With all the land around it occupied by Osman, Bursa was still able to receive supplies and communication through the port of Mudanya. Since Osman's troops could not take the city by force, Osman put Bursa under siege to force a surrender. Then in 1321, Osman took the port of Mudanya, thereby effectively isolating Bursa's inhabitants from the outside world. Incredibly, the siege went on for five more years, the city's stubborn inhabitants refusing to surrender. Inevitably though, the city fell, surrendering to Osman's troops on April 6, 1326.
The surrender of Bursa marked a turning point in the development of Osman's new state. Although Osman had been rapidly acquiring land since 1288, the acquisitions were mainly rural with nomadic peoples. Bursa was a major commercial center which opened up the new state to the rest of the world. From that point on, the Ottoman state was an important player in the events and decisions affecting the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The year 1326 also marked a turning point with the death of Osman. Due to age and increasing illness, he had placed his eldest son Orhan at the head of his troops. On his deathbed at Sogut, Osman lived long enough to hear from his son of the surrender of Bursa. According to legend, Osman then gave Orhan his final advice:
My son, I am dying; and I die without regret, because I leave such a successor as thou art. Be just; love goodness, and show mercy. Give equal protection to all thy subjects, and extend the law of the Prophet. Such are the duties of princes upon earth; and it is thus that they bring on them the blessings of Heaven.
In recognition of the importance of the victory, Osman then directed Orhan to bury him at Bursa and to make it the capital city of the new Empire. Shortly after, Osman died at the age of 67. As requested, he was buried at Bursa in a beautiful mausoleum which was to stand as a monument to him for several centuries after.
Unlike his father before him, Osman bequeathed to his son an independent state. It is uncertain whether the minting of coins and the pronouncement of prayers to the house of Osman, the signs of independence, began in the last years of Osman's rule or in the beginning of Orhan's. Still, by the time of his death, Osman had created a state independent of either Byzantine or Mongol control. Recognizing the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, Osman had directed his efforts to acquiring territory at the Byzantine's expense. Crucial to his success was his ability to attract other Ghazi warriors to fight under him. Motivated to fight against the infidel, these Turkish nomads were attracted to Osman's conquest of the Christian towns and cities. Most authors speak of the loyalty and devotion that Osman was able to command from his men.
As a ruler of the people in his dominions, as well as of his troops, Osman had received loyalty and respect. He was reputed to be just in his decisions and in his treatment of all people. All citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, were treated equally with respect to property and person. Yet, Osman could also be ruthless in demanding obedience from his followers. One story, whose validity cannot be assured, relates the situation surrounding Osman's decision to attack an important Greek fortress. Osman's uncle, Dundar, who reportedly had been one of the original settlers in Sogut after crossing the Euphrates, opposed the attack as too risky. Perceiving his uncle's actions as a threat to his authority as well as to his rule, Osman said nothing but, raising his bow, shot and killed his uncle instantly. Like his successors, Osman expected obedience and respect from his subjects and soldiers.
Following in his father's footsteps, Orhan continued to expand the new state into Byzantine territory, capturing the cities of Nicaea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. By 1345, the Ottoman state had grown significantly, encompassing all of northwestern Asia Minor from the Aegean to the Black Sea. This expansion was to continue until the late 17th century. From modest beginnings, Osman created the basis for one of the largest and longest-lived empires ever. By 1683, the Ottoman Empire encompassed the Balkans, Greece, Hungary, and Italy in the west, the north shore of the Black Sea, the entire Middle East, Egypt and parts of Arabia along the shores of the Red Sea, as well as all of North Africa, and parts of Morocco and Spain. Although expansion ended after 1683 and decline began, the Ottoman Empire continued to exist until the first World War. Enduring for over 600 years, Osman's state had an enormous effect on the course of historical events in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It is as the founder of this great Empire that Osman acquires his fame.
Creasy, Edward S. History of the Ottoman Turks: From the Beginnings of their Empire to the Present Time. Bentley, 1878, repr. Khayats, 1961.
Fisher, Sydney Nettleton. The Middle East: A History. 3rd ed. Knopf, 1979.
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Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. Translated by Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. Praeger, 1973.
Wittek, Paul. The Rise of the Ottoman Empire. Royal Asiatic Society, 1938. □
Osman I (ōsmän´) or Othman I (ōthmän´), 1259–1326, leader of the Ottoman Turks and founder of the dynasty that established and ruled the Ottoman Empire. The Osmanli or Ottoman Turks derive their name from Osman. He proclaimed (1290) his independence from his overlord, the Seljuk Turks, upon the collapse of their empire. Aided by an influx of Muslim warriors, he expanded his state in NW Asia Minor at the expense of the petty Christian lords who were his neighbors. He nevertheless inaugurated a policy of religious tolerance. Just before his death in 1326, his son and successor, Orkhan, took the city of Bursa from the Byzantines.