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Published June 3, 2019

The Ottoman Empire

At its greatest extent in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was a world power. The Sultan ruled over an estimated 25 million people of diverse ethnicities, religions and languages, in lands spanning 3 continents.  The Sultan was Sunni Muslim, descended by biological or ideological line from the founder, Osman (c. 1299). The first two Ottoman capitals, Bursa and Edirne, were seized from Byzantine control. The third, Constantinople, was taken in 1453 in the conquest of the Byzantine Empire. The conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517 allowed the Ottoman Sultanate to claim recognition as the Fourth Caliphate–thereby controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina–and recognition as the de facto leaders of the Muslim world.

The wealth of the Empire was derived from trade; the Ottoman navy controlled the Mediterranean. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ottoman ports, particularly those in North Africa, were the primary source for goods desired by Europeans: silks, textiles, coffee, and tulips. During this ‘Golden Age,” the Sultan was related by marriage to royal families of European nations, and diplomatic ties with Europe were strong. European artists vied for patronage in the Imperial court, and traditional arts, particularly calligraphy, textiles and ceramics, flourished.  As European nations grew more powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of decline, and was partitioned and progressively fragmented by military losses. Reforms were initiated to re-shape the cumbersome bureaucracy on western models, but overstressed the economy. Ottoman defeat in World War I and the subsequent loss of more territory spurred civil unrest. Nationalism dominated the last years of the Empire, with the Armenian Genocide, begun in 1915; the persecution and murder of ethnic minorities, particularly Greek and Romanian; and the displacement of millions of people. The Turkish War of Independence abolished the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922; the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923.