The Ottoman dynasty is named after a tribal leader called Osman, the leader of a small band of nomadic Oguz Turks in north-western Anatolia, on the Byzantine border. Our main task, in this first era of Ottoman history, is to explain how and why did Osman’s tiny principality became an empire, and not any other of the numerous Anatolian or Balkan states, some of which were arguably better equipped for the challenge.
By the year 1300, most of Anatolia, except the areas around the Marmara Sea and Trebizond in the north-east, was ruled by small Turkish principalities, founded after the destruction of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum by the invading Mongols. The population of Anatolia was already mostly Turkified by the principalities, which used the Turkish language in all matters as opposed to the Seljuk Sultanate which used Persian as its court language.
The principalities were varied in character. Some were founded by the former nobles in the Seljuk Sultanate, and were the natural successors of the old Seljuk order (Candar and especially Karaman), others were little more than coalitions of nomadic tribes which came to Anatolia with the Mongol hordes, and finally the ‘gazi’ (warrior) states which were founded on the border with Christianity. These gazi principalities, including Osman’s, were constantly raiding the Christian lands to their north and west. However, they were also interacting with the Christian peoples in peaceful ways such as trade, and a significant portion, if not the majority, of their populations were Christians. The gazi states were the Anatolian ‘wild west’, attracting people in need of land, excess population of cities, people fleeing wars, warriors and other adventurers.
History of the birth of the Ottoman Empire is also the history of the death of Byzantium, or more correctly, the Eastern Roman Empire. Throughout this period, this ancient and once glorious empire was reduced to a fraction of its previous land area, and it was almost constantly in turmoil, as various factions within it fought for dominance. Throughout the Middle Ages, Byzantium was the defender of a different economic, political and civil model opposed to other Christian lands. While lands of the Western Roman Empire evolved a decentralized order called feudalism and the cities declined, in the East the economy and culture was based on a network of cities and non-feudal pastoral communities. Mighty fleets of the Empire secured the eastern Mediterranean trade, guaranteeing the wealth of the realm. By the 1300s, however, the eastern Mediterranean trade was dominated by the Italian city states led by the Venetians and the Genoese. Also, in many places either under Western (Latin) rule or within the Empire, Western mode of production and feudal relations were replacing the traditional Eastern rural and urban communities. The mechanisms and justification of Byzantine rule was based on these traditional eastern relations, and as the crippled Empire became unable to uphold the old order, it was doomed to die.
As feudal and traditional factions fought for supremacy within the dying Empire, its Western and Islamic enemies were expanding into its remaining lands. Seeing the danger in 1302, the Empire decided to crush the head of the snake while young, and sent an army of 2,000 against Osman. Osman, however, with his few hundred tribal horsemen, managed to ambush and destroy it in Bapheus. This first Ottoman victory made Osman famous, and his principality the foremost gazi state. People were flocking under his banner.
Osman was replaced as Bey by his son Orhan, who continued to expand his state against the Byzantines. By 1352, he had taken Bursa, Nicea and Nicomedia. Orhan later married a Byzantine princess during the Byzantine civil war. He also managed to expand against other Anatolian principalities, a task that required diplomatic skill in addition to military might, as war against other Muslims is forbidden in Islam. When the Ottomans annexed Muslim lands, they had to come up with some legal or diplomatic justification. In many cases they justified their war against Muslims as war against heretics who sided with the infidels against the gazi state of the Ottomans. Ottomans used this justification many times when fighting other Muslim forces such as Karaman, Akkoyunlu, Mamluks and Safavids.
The Ilkhanid overlord of Anatolia died in 1335, and the nominal Mongol suzerainty was over. Orhan declared that he upgraded himself from ‘bey’ to ‘sultan’, making his state no longer merely a principality, but a sultanate, with a capital in newly captured (1326) city of Bursa, which he turned into a rich center of trade. It can be said that Orhan, rather than Osman, founded the Ottoman state. Many of the classical features of the Ottoman state were established by Orhan. So, by 1352, Byzantium was no longer the main enemy, and Orhan already ruled not just a band of nomads, but possibly the strongest, richest and surely the most dynamic state in Anatolia and the Balkans, which covered all of north-western Anatolia from Ankara to the Marmara Sea.
Written by: Beylerbeyi