Why the Ottoman Empire rose and fell

One of the greatest empires in history, the Ottomans reigned for more than 600 years before crumbling on the battlefields of World War I.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 9 Dec 2019, 16:58 GMT
The tughra (insignia) of the 16th-century Ottoman emperor Süleiman the Magnificent. A tughra generally includes the name of the sultan and his father along with the phrase "the eternally victorious."
Photograph by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Known as one of history’s most powerful empires, the Ottoman Empire grew from a Turkish stronghold in Anatolia into a vast state that at its peak reached as far north as Vienna, Austria, as far east as the Persian Gulf, as far west as Algeria, and as far south as Yemen. The empire’s success lay in its centralised structure as much as its territory: Control of some of the world’s most lucrative trade routes led to vast wealth, while its impeccably organised military system led to military might. But all empires that rise must fall, and six centuries after the Ottoman Empire emerged on the battlefields of Anatolia, it fell apart catastrophically in the theatre of World War I.

A 16th-century portrait of Osman, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Photograph by Bridgeman Images

Osman I, a leader of a nomadic Turkic tribe from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), began conquering the region in the late 13th century by launching raids against the weakening Christian Byzantine Empire. Around 1299, he declared himself supreme leader of Asia Minor, and his successors expanded farther and farther into Byzantine territory with the help of foreign mercenaries.

In 1453, Osman’s descendants, now known as the Ottomans, finally brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees when they captured the seemingly unconquerable city of Constantinople. The city named for Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, then also became known as Istanbul (a version of stin polis, Greek for “in the city” or “to the city.”

This 16th-century miniature painting depicts the army of Süleiman the Magnificent marching into Europe.

Photograph by Bridgeman Images

Now a dynastic empire with Istanbul as its capital, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand across the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa. Though it was a dynasty, only one role—that of the supreme ruler, or sultan—was hereditary. The rest of the Ottoman Empire’s elite had to earn their positions regardless of birth.

Under the reign of Süleiman the Magnificent, whose 16th-century lifetime represented the peak of the Ottomans’ power and influence, the arts flourished, technology and architecture reached new heights, and the empire generally enjoyed peace, religious tolerance, and economic and political stability. But the imperial court left casualties behind, too: female slaves forced into sexual slavery as concubines; male slaves expected to provide military and domestic labour; and brothers of sultans, many of whom were killed or, later, imprisoned to protect the sultan from political challenges.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire was a real player in European politics and was home to more Christians than Muslims. But in the 17th century, it began to lose its stronghold. Until then, there had always been new territory to conquer and new lands to exploit, but after the empire failed to conquer Vienna for a second time in 1683, it began to weaken.

Political intrigue within the sultanate, strengthening of European powers, economic competition because of new trade routes, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution all destabilised the once peerless empire. By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was derisively called the “sick man of Europe” for its dwindling territory, economic decline, and increasing dependence on the rest of Europe.

It would take a world war to end the Ottoman Empire for good. Already weakened beyond recognition, Sultan Abdul Hamid II briefly flirted with the idea of constitutional monarchy before changing course in the late 1870s. In 1908, the reform-minded Young Turks staged a full-fledged revolt and restored the constitution.

The Young Turks who now ruled the Ottoman Empire wanted to strengthen it, spooking its Balkan neighbours. The Balkan Wars that followed resulted in the loss of 33 percent of the empire’s remaining territory and up to 20 percent of its population.

As World War I loomed, the Ottoman Empire entered into a secret alliance with Germany. The war that followed was disastrous. More than two thirds of the Ottoman military became casualties during World War I, and up to 3 million civilians died. Among them were around 1.5 million Armenians who were wiped out in massacres and in death marches during their expulsion from Ottoman territory. In 1922, Turkish nationalists abolished the sultanate, bringing an end to what was once of history’s most successful empires.


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