The historical timeline of Turkey is certainly colourful, extremely diverse, at times heart-breaking and on other occasions a celebration of civilisations. Indeed, any potential traveller who has an interest in the past of a country would be wise to pick up a book by author Richard Stone called “A Traveller’s History of Turkey.” He covers time periods of this country from the prehistoric era up to the modern Turkey that we see today.
The author dedicates two chapters to the Ottoman era and rightly so because this period from 1453 to 1909, shaped cultures, traditions and religion. Events that happened within the empire, also vibrated around the world.
The Ottomans were originally nomadic tribesman and their empire began in 1299, yet it was not until 1453 when they captured the Byzantine city of Constantinople that the eyes of the world would focus on them. As the pinnacle point between east and west, they had snatched a prime piece of land from western civilisations.
It would easy to assume that citizens of the newly conquered regions would be forced to convert to Islam, but at this stage, Constantinople had been severely neglected and was in a severe state of disrepair. Citizens had left en-mass for many years.
The conquering sultan Mehmed the 2nd set about restoring sewage works, water supplies and other daily amenities but more importantly, he invited people of all religions and nationalities to live in the city. Aiming to boost the population, Jews and Armenians settled into their own quarters, which existed side by side in peace with Muslim districts. The wealth and popularity of Constantinople had begun.
Life in the Ottoman Courts
Ottomans were skilled fighters, but also liked to indulge in creative outlets such as cuisine, arts, architecture and music. Under the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, a flourishing period of creativity began. The Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect Sinan rose to fame, eventually being credited for more than 100 buildings of which some are still standing today including the Suleyman mosque of Istanbul.
The kitchens of Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman sultans were also in operation full-time. The palace and its grounds were a fully functioning city and chefs created many recipes including the famous Turkish delight, sold as a popular souvenir all over Turkey.
Away from the kitchens and creative arts though, there was another world known as the harem. Consisting of the sultan’s wives, female relatives, concubines and slaves, many poor people had dreams for their daughters to become a member of the harem. Indeed one such slave was Hurrem, who went on to marry Suleyman the second and become one of the most important ruling women of the Ottoman Empire.
Sultan Murat the 3rd is also famous for his 40 concubines and 130 sons, who grew up in the harem. Polygamy was widely accepted as normal everyday standards and the maintenance and protection of the female harem members fell under the rule of the eunuchs. By 1520, it has also become standard practise for any new sultan to kill his brothers to prevent rivalry and threats to the throne.
What Caused the Demise of the Ottoman Empire?
The theory will change depending on which historian you speak to but a popular claim is that their lifestyles, rules and beliefs started to unravel. The price they paid for polygamy was jaded emotions, full of insecurity, and weakness. Certain sultans were dumb or half-witted, and under the rule of their mothers, were reluctant to leave the confines of the palace.
Despite allowing Jews and Christians to live within their lands, the Ottoman sultans still practised slavery. Christians girls were bought to the harem and boys subjected to the practise of Devsirme, in which they were removed from their families, forced to convert to Islam, educated in Ottoman schools and then destined for a life in the military.
Over the centuries as lifestyles started to improve, minority neighbourhoods obviously started to resent these practises. Everywhere, people were revolting from Egypt, Lebanon, the small island of Crete, and within the boundaries of Turkey itself.
Allied powers sensing the Ottoman Empire was starting to unravel started closing in, looking for any opportunity to disrupt their reign. Russia also started attacking and succeeded by capturing parts of Northeast Turkey, while the loss of Egypt in 1838, was a major blow. While all this was happening, the Ottomans continued building lavish palaces and indulging in extravagant lifestyles but they were now known as the “sick man of Europe.”
The Ottomans had forgotten the one skill that prompted them to success in the first place, their ability as clever and analytic fighters. A group of military generals called the young Turks originally aimed to rectify problems within the government but by 1909, they had disposed of the last ruling sultan. They continued to fight off invading allied forces in the First World War and later went on to start the Turkish War of Independence that they won. On October the 29th 1923, the Turkish Republic was officially formed.
What did the Ottomans Leave Behind?
While the Ottoman Empire is no longer in existence, they left many landmarks, trends, and traditions that are still seen in Turkey today. The popular belly dance now performed for tourists, is credited to the Roma citizens of the Ottoman Empire, while in recent years, there has been a comeback of traditional Ottoman cuisine that focuses heavily on spices and meat. An everyday popular drink is Ayran. Invented when the Ottomans were still nomadic tribesmen, the recipe blends yogurt, water and salt.
Even the simple art of buying a carpet portrays Ottoman trends because the motives and symbols, such as the tulip date from that period. The Ottoman Empire’s story is evident in so many aspects of today’s lifestyles and the echoes of their reign are loud and clear.
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