Ottoman Empire

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Date: 2020
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 861 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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The Ottoman Empire (c. 1299–1923) was a powerful Islamic empire which controlled territories in Europe, Africa, and Asia from the Middle Ages (c. 5th–15th centuries) to the 20th century. With territories sprawled across three continents and a history spanning more than 600 years, the Ottoman Empire was one of the largest, most diverse, and longest-lasting in history. It was ruled by a sultan, who was both a political and a religious leader. Over the course of the medieval and early modern periods, the Ottoman sultans oversaw one of the greatest Islamic states in Europe.

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Words to Know

the ruler of a Muslim country
the systematic killing of an entire group of people

The Ottoman Dynasty

The empire takes its name from its founder, Osman I (died c. 1324). He participated in raids against the Byzantine Empire and eventually expanded his empire even further. By around 1299, he established the Ottoman Dynasty, which ruled over the Ottoman Empire.

However, it would be another century before the fledgling empire became an international power in its own right. In 1453, the Ottomans, led by Mehmed the Conqueror (1432–1481), defeated the Byzantine army and took control of its capital, Constantinople. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks was a major shock for Christian Europe. The Byzantine Empire was one of the greatest Christian centers in Europe. Its collapse meant that the rest of Europe became even more vulnerable to Muslim conquest.

Constantinople was renamed Istanbul ("the city of Islam") and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Over time, Istanbul became a major international center for culture and commerce—just as Constantinople had been in the past.

The empire reached its peak during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I (1494–1566). He was known as "Suleiman the Magnificent" in the West and "Suleiman the Lawgiver" within the empire. During his rule, the empire's borders reached their greatest extent through military conquests. In response to the rapid growth of his empire, Suleiman enacted political, economic, and educational reforms. In addition, he supported the works of many talented people in his court, such as the architect Mimar Sinan (c. 1488–1588), who helped build the Taj Mahal. Suleiman's patronage of the arts, in fact, led to a golden age in Ottoman art, literature, and architecture. Today, many beautiful structures from Suleiman's time have survived. This includes the mosque where he was buried, the Süleymaniye Mosque (1557).


The empire experienced a period of political and economic turmoil following the death of Suleiman in the late 16th century. The cost of warfare began to take its toll on the empire. Moreover, the Western powers took to shipbuilding in earnest and grew rich from maritime trade and colonization. This meant that they were becoming a serious economic and military threat to the Ottoman Empire. The Russian and Habsburg Empires became its main rivals in the West, while the Persian Safavids posed a threat to the empire in the East.

Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was continually at war with foreign powers. It suffered several defeats during the 1600s–1700s. One of the most devastating of these was the Crimean War (1853–1856), which resulted in significant casualties and territorial losses for the Ottoman Empire. It also set the stage for a series of events leading up to the empire's participation in World War I (1914–1918).

In the meantime, the Ottoman Empire attempted to modernize its political, economic, military, and civic structures during the 19th century. These were conducted in response to the empire's waning power in Europe. However, this period also saw increasing tensions between the Muslim Ottomans and outnumbered Christian followers.

These tensions and reforms were carried over into the next century, as nationalism flared up in territories under Ottoman control. The Young Turk Revolution (1908) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913) were among the major events of the early 20th century that threatened the fragile stability of the empire. These were both nationalistic movements which changed the empire internally, through further political reforms, and externally, through the loss of territories.

World War I accelerated the empire's decline. The Ottoman Empire joined the war as part of the Central Powers alongside its former rival, Austria-Hungary, which succeeded the Habsburg Empire. The Ottoman Empire was drawn into the conflict because of a political alliance with the third member of the Central Powers, Germany. During the conflict, the empire conducted a series of genocides against its minorities, the most infamous of which was the Armenian genocide (1914–1923). The atrocities committed during these genocides later inspired the Holocaust of World War II (1939–1945).


The Central Powers ultimately lost the First World War. As part of the postwar armistice agreement, the Ottoman Empire fell under Allied occupation and was subsequently partitioned. This meant more territorial losses, which it was unable to recover as the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1922) broke out not long after.

The Turkish War eventually led to the withdrawal of the Allied forces from the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, it resulted in the overthrow of the sultanate, which effectively ended the Ottoman Empire and led to the creation of modern-day Turkey.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • Why were the Ottomans considered to be a threat to Christian Europe?
  • What factors led to the decline of the Ottoman Empire?
  • Why was maintaining territory important for the Ottoman Empire?

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|IZCUES473758213