Where did the Ottomans come from?

September 8, 2019

Not much is known about the nature of the early Ottoman Empire and its motivations for expansion. Its founding is told only in documents from 200 years after the fact and these claims are difficult to verify. Contemporary observers do verify the rapid expansion of the Empire, however. This rapid expansion has been difficult to explain and the question has become highly charged, generating a tremendous discharge of nationalist bile from every direction. The key dates are outlined below, then some of the big hypotheses of various historians.

A tribal group under the leadership of Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, seems to have settled in Bithynia by 1280, with a tiny territory centered around Söğüt. Osman wins the Battle of Baphaeus against the Byzantines in 1301 and conquers Bilecik and Eskisehir during his reign in battles against Byzantine frontier lords and the Germiyan Beylik.

Osman’s son Orhan I conquered Bursa in 1326, after which a verifiable historical trail begins to take form. The Ottoman organization begins to become more state-like, as Seljuk administrators set up Islamic institutions and bureaucratic practices. Orhan incorporates the neighboring and powerful Karesi Beylik, and marries the daughter of John VI Cantacuzenus, who allows the Ottomans to cross over to Gallipoli and begin raiding against a rival Byzantine faction. Plunder from Europe strengthens the Ottomans relative to the other Anatolian Turkic principalities.

In 1347, the plague decimated the settled areas of Europe and Anatolia, having a lesser impact on nomadic tribes. Murad I conquered Adrianople in 1362 and made it his capital. The Ottomans occupied most of Bulgaria by 1385. Serbia increasingly came under Ottoman domination following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Bayezid I continued conquests in the Balkans, including the Greek peninsula but was defeated in the Battle of Ankara in 1402 by Timur (Tamerlane) and died in captivity. The Ottoman Empire entered a ten year interregnum. Thessaloniki was captured from Venice in 1430 and Constantinople in 1453, marking the graduation of the Ottoman state from Principality to Empire.

The questions that historians ask about this period include: How did the Ottomans go from one village to controlling most of the Balkans and Anatolia in 150 years? Was there a specific motive behind the conquests? Was the Ottoman state Turkish? Was it an Islamic or Christian state? Was it a state at all? Here are the theories:

Ottoman historians (~16th Century): Ertugrul was descended from the Kayı branch of the Oghuz tribe and settled in Söğüt after fleeing the Mongols. Osman spent the night in the house of the dervish Ede Bali and had a dream that the moon rose from the dervish’s chest and sank into Osman’s. A tree grew from Osman’s chest under whose shade Osman saw the mountains at the four corners of the world, the great rivers of the world, cities and ships. Ede Bali heard this dream and interpreted that Osman was to become protector of the world (all the lands in the tree’s shadow) and gave his daughter to Osman in marriage. Problems: none of this is verifiable, though it is possible that Osman married Ede Bali’s daughter Mal Hatun.

Herbert A. Gibbons (1916): The Ottomans were a hybrid “race” mixing “wild Asiatic blood” with “European stock.” They were able to become successful as the continuation of the Byzantine Empire with a new Islamic face. The upshot of this theory is that Asiatic peoples would be wholly unable to form an efficient administrative apparatus and needed European expertise: the rulers were Turkish and tribal but the administrators and bureaucracy was wholly Byzantine. Problems: Aside from the race talk, the main issue here is that the early Ottoman bureaucracy was clearly Turko-Mongol in character, with the earliest extant documents written in flawless courtly Persian for the establishment of Islamic foundations (waqf/vakif).

M. Fuat Köprülü (1922/1934): The early Ottoman state was completely Turkish and of tribal character. The Ilkhanid, Seljuk, and other Muslim tribal entities in Anatolia at the time had the expertise to run a state and administrators from those states became part of the Ottoman organization. Köprülü was a descendent of one of the most important dynasties of Grand Viziers in the Empire (themselves of Albanian origin!); his thesis, though initially at odds with Ataturk’s nationalism, came to be foundational in Turkish Nationalist historiography. Problems: Köprülü projects contemporary Turkish identity back in time 600 years. Would the Ottomans consider themselves Turkish? Would they care? Additionally, the mothers of the early Sultans were of Greek/Bithynian origin as were many of the early Ottoman warlords including Mihal and Evrenos.

Paul Wittek (1937): The Gazi Thesis. It was irrelevant whether the Ottomans were Greek or Turkish. Rather, what mattered was that they were united by the Islamic ideology of ghazi/ghaza—raiding against the Christian infidel and for the spread of Islam. This thesis became central to Western historiography of the Ottomans and beloved of Balkan nationalists as it portrayed the Ottomans as bloodthirsty barbarians converting people at the point of a sword and edited away evidence of Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Wallachian collaboration with Ottoman expansion against threats from internal challengers and against Hungary and Venice. Problems: there doesn’t seem to have been an orthodox Islamic ideology of ghaza at this time period and the Ottomans didn’t try very hard to convert Christians. In fact, the population of the Ottoman Empire remained predominantly Christian until the conquest of the Mamluk Empire in 1517.

Halil Inalcik (1973): Accepts the Gazi Thesis while adding that the Ottomans were still also largely Turkish/tribal. Problems: In addition to the problems with the Gazi Thesis, Inalcik ignores the possibility that Osman’s collaborator Mihal was a Christian.

Rudi Linder (1983): Argues that the tribal nature of the early Ottoman “state” was flexible in allowing collaboration and alliance between a wide variety of actors motivated by plunder and only became ideologically driven as it became more state-like and settled.

Cemal Kafadar (Harvard, 1996): Accepts the Gazi Thesis but argues that ghaza in that time period was not codified by Islamic orthodoxy and thus allowed for the inclusion of Christian allies and was more about frontier raiding rather than religious ideology.

Heath Lowry (Princeton, 2003): The early Ottoman state was actually a plunder confederacy between almost equally powerful frontier lords including Osman, Mihal, and Evrenos. It was not essentially Islamic in character until after the incorporation of Arab lands in 1517 and ensuing ideological combat with the Safavids. It was Turkish and Greek and Slavic, Christian and Muslim, but pragmatically focused on wealth and plunder above all else. Its bureaucracy adopted Islamic state forms but altered them to accommodate existing Byzantine practice as minimized disruption of the peasantry allowed maximum extraction of resources.

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