In 1352, Ottomans set foot on the European continent in Gallipoli. Few years later, Stefan Dushan died (1355), and the Serbian state was divided into smaller parts. Thus Balkans was divided into weak states and feudal holdings which were unpopular among the peasantry. They were economically and, in some places, territorially dominated by the Western states of Hungary, Venice and Genoa. Not only the Balkans was divided into small states, but every Balkan state was divided internally, into two factions: the pro-Latin faction mostly popular among the ruling classes, and the staunchly anti-Latin Orthodox Christian faction supported by the peasantry.
Ottomans succeeded in the Balkans by exploiting the state of affairs. Their first problem, of course, was to cross the sea to Europe without a navy. This was possible due to an alliance with Genoa, who was at war with Venice at the time. In return for the crossing, Ottomans helped Genoa in Gallipoli, and granted them favorable terms in trade. These were the first capitulations in Ottoman history. Once they were in Gallipoli, the Ottomans managed to stay in Europe thanks to their Byzantine ally and relative Kantakuzenos.
Once they secured their foothold, the Ottomans were expanding in the Balkans, by taking sides in various Balkan conflicts, such as helping the Bulgarian king against an attack by Byzantium, Hungary and Wallachia. Their expansion followed the Roman road Via Egnatia, which is the main trade route in the Balkans. Edirne (Adrianople) was captured in 1361, and made the new capital, a move which signified that the Balkan expansion would be continuing. Indeed, Balkan cities fell one after the other, alarming Christians everywhere. In 1371, a large Serb army moved east, but got defeated by the Ottomans in Chirmen. After this battle, the Balkan states and Byzantium became vassals of the Ottoman sultan.
Ottoman dominance in the Balkans brought them into direct conflict with Hungary, the strongest state bordering the region. There were further attempts at driving the Ottomans back to Anatolia, but they failed. Ottomans have managed to protect their dominance in the Balkans by two spectacular victories, the first against a large Balkan alliance in Kosovo (1396) and the second against another large, this time Western crusader army in Nicopolis (1396).
While the Ottomans succeeded to defeat their enemies on the battlefield, their 400 year rule over the infamous Balkans, populated completely by people of different cultures and religions, would have been impossible only by the strength of arms. Ottomans managed this by exploiting the divisions between the classes mentioned above. In lands where they annexed, they replaced the heavy feudal exploitation of the peasantry with a lighter centralised tax regime. If the local nobles cooperated with them, the Ottomans allowed them to retain their noble status and Christian religion. In this period there were many Christians even from higher classes who willingly worked for the Ottomans. Many Byzantine ‘pronia’ were made into Ottoman ‘timarli’ cavalry, but were allowed to keep their religion. The Islamisation of the ruling classes was a slow process, lasting until the 16th century. In all Ottoman wars after their expansion, they had Christian troops such as the ‘voynuks’, ‘vlachs’, or various vassals’ troops in their army, even when fighting against these troops’ co-religionists/nationalists.
If the nobles refused to cooperate, Ottomans confiscated their lands and replaced them with the Ottoman version of the feudal lord, the ‘timarli’. Timarli cavalry were local representatives of the state in a given area, who were the members of a military class. They were similar to the feudal knight in many ways, as they collected the taxes and maintained the order, and were required to join the main army during times of war with their retainers. But the timarli did not own the land and the peasants, unlike the feudal knight, and they were not allowed to punish the peasants without proper sentencing by the local judge. This system led to an improvement in the status of the Balkan peasants who were reduced to serfs in the feudal areas.
More importantly, when the Ottomans confiscated land from feudal lords and sometimes the church in the Balkans, they gave it to the peasantry to cultivate. And the peasants preferred to have larger lands and to pay lower taxes to the Ottoman state than working harder for a Christian overlord most of the time, especially when that overlord was Catholic. The Ottomans knew this and eliminated the pro-Latin factions and protected the Orthodox Church against the Catholic Church.
Practical result of Ottoman anti-Latin and rapid expansion policies in this period was freedom of worship (in any case better than what they would get under Western rule) and lighter exploitation of the Orthodox Christian peasantry. This practical approach gave the Ottomans legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of Balkan Christians (mainly the lower classes), and allowed them to hang on to the Balkans despite grave external threats.
While conversion of Christians was not a good option, settlement was a way of introducing Muslims to the Balkans. As Ottomans moved deeper into the Balkans, they allowed nomads to settle in the lands they conquered. Thrace and parts of Bulgaria such as Dobruja were settled heavily by these nomads, whose ancestors can be found there even today. Machiavelli observes this in ‘The Prince’, writing that when the Turks invade a land they settle there, so they can keep it secure.
Ottomans also continued to expand in Anatolia after they started their expansion in the Balkans. In 1387, Karaman, inheritor of the Seljuk legacy of the old order and the main enemy of the Ottomans in the east, attacked with its army of tribal riders, but were defeated by the Ottomans and their Balkan Christian allies. After this battle, Karaman and the remaining Sultanates in Anatolia had to accept Ottoman vassalage.
Written by: Beylerbeyi