The rise of the Ottoman Empire - Mostafa Minawi
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One of the common themes of Ottoman early history is the rulers’ relative tolerance for religious differences as well as their pragmatic approach to political and military decisions. This, however, should not be interpreted as the dynasty’s lack of religious identification with Islam. The Ottomans followed the early Islamic empire’s administrative model, known as the “Pact of Umar,” an understanding between Muslim rulers with non-Muslim subjects that allowed for communities’ autonomy when it came to religious matters and religious laws governing personal status laws, in exchange for a special “Jizya” tax as well as other conditions for living under Muslim rule. The tolerance was a strategy that allowed them to expand quickly while minimizing the potential for local rebellions of recently conquered territories. After the conquests of Constantinople and the beginning of the stabilization of the empire, the Ottomans adjusted this model to suit the population of Istanbul. This system was known as the Millet System, in which Jews, Greek (Rum) Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox Christians were given a certain level of autonomy over their community affairs, with one head of each Millet acting as the liaison between the rulers and members of the community.
As the Ottoman dynasty’s rule expanded, the ruling elites’ cultural influences also grew. From their Turco-Mongolian origins, the Ottomans quickly mixed with the native population; adopted and adapted Seljuks and Byzantine administrative practices; Balkan, Persian, and Anatolian cultural influences; and Orthodox Islamic religious practices. Knowing that most of the mothers of the sultans were slaves brought to the royal harem from the neighboring Balkans, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Georgia, and other surrounding regions, it becomes easier to understand how the Ottoman dynasty became deeply influenced by religions, languages, and cultures from all of the surrounding regions. It is hard to overstate the truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of the Ottoman Empire and its ruling elites.
One region that was incorporated relatively late was the Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking Levant, and Arabia. This region encompassed the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz, which had been under the Mamluk Sultanate’s rule until their defeat in the early 16th century. The conquest of the “Arab Lands” was a major inflection point in the history of the empire, solidifying the empire’s position as the most powerful Muslim polity in the world. From this point forward, Ottoman sultans had the prestige of ruling over the three holiest cities in Islam, namely, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina. It was also in the early 16th century that the empire took on Orthodox Sunni Islam as the official religion, mostly in response to challenges from the Shi’i Safavid Empire to the east.
As the Ottoman empire’s expansion phase slowed down, the Ottoman classical period, particularly during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, or (Kanuni Süleyman) Suleiman the Law-Giver as he is better known in the region, started. However, the traditional unidirectional “rise” and “decline” approach to studying major empires obscures all the important incremental, multi-directional changes on the political, social, cultural, and economic levels that cannot fit neatly into a Rise and Fall model. This video does not cover what historians have in the past mistakenly described as the slow and steady decline towards the dissolution of the empire; roughly a period that stretches from the end of Suleiman’s reign in 1566 until the official end of the empire in 1923. This older “orientalists’” approach that tended to color all that happened in the Middle East as signs of “cultural decay” and “political decline” has been discredited. Thankfully, over the past three decades, historians have made wonderful uses of the rich Ottoman governmental archives, as well as a multitude of archival sources in local Ottoman languages to provide a much more nuanced understanding of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. From the network of powerful women of the harem who kept the empire together during a difficult period in the late 17th an early 18th centuries to understanding the infiltration of the Ottoman Empire by European powers that slowly chipped at the sovereignty of the empire in the late 18th and early 19th century, hundreds of monographs continue to be published in a multitude of languages. If you are interested in exploring topics from pandemics to the law, and from sex to science in the Ottoman Empire, chances are, there is a book or a podcast on that!
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