Lessons we can Learn from the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was the most successful and longest-lasting empire in modern times. In fact, the Turkish empire lasted for roughly 600 years from the 15th to the 20th Centuries.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire included portions of the modern nations of Turkey, Greece, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Libya, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, the Ukraine, the Crimea, Hungary, Serbia, Algeria, Cyprus, Albania, Algeria, and Romania. Hence, the Ottoman Empire was the most successful Islamic regime in history.

Moreover, you can argue that the Ottoman Empire was the first modern state in Europe. To explain, the Ottoman Turks had a centralized government, a professional military, and an absolute monarch decades before European nations.

For instance, the Ottomans had an absolute monarch; the Sultan, a strong central government, and a professional army, the Janissaries, in the 15th Century. In contrast, Europeans still practiced feudalism and relied on collections of knights and mercenaries to fight their wars in the 15th Century.

Indeed, you can argue the Ottomans inspired the Europeans to create modern nations and armies. Notably, the Spanish, French, Swedish, Austrian, English, and Russian monarchies arose after the Ottomans invaded Europe. In particular, the Ottomans’ easy conquest of Constantinople; and the sorry remains of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, scared Europeans into reforming their nations.

Ottoman Empire at its Height

In addition, Europeans created professional armies after crusading knights were spectacularly unsuccessful in their attempts to prevent the Ottoman invasion of Europe. Thus, the Ottomans sparked the so-called revolution in military affairs that transformed Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Thus, there is much we can learn from the Ottomans and their long-lived empire. The story of the Ottomans’ long decline, in particular, can teach us a lot about today’s empires.

Lessons we can Learn from the Ottoman Empire

Some lessons we can learn from the Ottomans and their impressive empire include:

Complacency destroys Military Power

In the 15th Century and the early 16th Century, the Ottomans enjoyed overwhelming military superiority over their European and Persian enemies. In fact, the Ottoman armies were probably the most powerful military force on Earth in 1500 A.D.

By the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire was the “Sick Man of Europe.” Europeans called the Empire sick because of its growing military weakness. The Sultans had to beg European powers for help to defend the Empire against other Europeans.

For instance, the Ottomans could not keep Napoleon out of Egypt in 1798. Instead, Lord Nelson’s British fleet ended Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure at the Battle of the Nile.

Moreover, only British intervention kept the Russian army from claiming Constantinople for the Czars. In particular, British and French forces saved the Ottomans during the Crimean War. The Ottoman Empire was so weak that the Eastern Question; the European scramble for Ottoman lands, dominated European diplomacy throughout the 19th Century.

Complacency was one reason for the Ottomans’ decline. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottomans were willing to adopt European military technologies. For instance, Sultan Mehmed II used giant cannon; built and operated by German gunners, to blast through the Walls of Constantinople in 1453.

After 1600; however, the Ottoman military began ignoring European military developments. In addition, the training and professionalism of Ottoman forces declined. Notably, after 1750, the Ottomans could not protect their territories in the Crimea and Ukraine from the Russians.

The causes of Ottoman complacency are vague but cultural arrogance and exceptionalism probably played a role. Perhaps, the Turks were too proud to admit they could learn something from Christian Europeans.

In addition, new weapons’ technology, training, and tactics threatened the balance of power in the Ottoman Empire. For example, European-style massed infantry and cavalry were a threat to the Janissaries’ role as the Empire’s premier military force.

To explain, European style infantry gave the Sultan troops he could use against the Janissaries. Notably, Sultan Mahmud II used the European-trained Sipahi cavalry to exterminate the Janissaries in 1826, Ranker reports. The Sipahi killed over 4,000 Janissaries in an attack on their barracks.

In addition, the Sultan’s importing of European canon and guns threatened Turkish weapons manufacturers. The threat from rival powers like Russia eventually forced the Sultan to put military success ahead of economic nationalism.

However, after 1850, the Ottomans experienced something of a military renaissance. Interestingly, Ottoman armies did a better job of using new weapons like machine guns and heavy artillery in World War I than their British and French enemies.

Empires will become Overextended

Even though the Ottomans were the most powerful empire in the world in the 16th and 17th centuries, they became overextended.

In particular, Ottoman Armies made two ill-advised attempts to take Vienna; the capital of the Hapsburg Austrian Empire. First, in 1529 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent led an army of 100,000 to Vienna.

However, the distance between Suleiman’s base on the Black Sea and Vienna was so great, the long march gravely weakened the Ottoman army. In addition, the Turkish heavy artillery got stuck in the mud and never reached Vienna.

Hence, the Turks tried to pierce Vienna’s walls by storm and mining. Mining means they tried to tunnel into the city. Storm meant the infantry charged the walls. Consequently, the Turkish attackers were easy targets for Austrian snipers.

By October 1529, after a month of besieging Vienna the Ottomans were out of gunpowder. After a failed final attack, Suleiman ordered a retreat. Over 16,000 Turks died because Suleiman overextended his lines.

In 1683, Muslim Sultan Mehmed IV attacked Vienna again. The siege failed when the Ottomans’ ally French King Louis XIV did not send help. Instead, Polish King John III Sobieski’s cavalry rode in and defeated the Turks at the Battle of Párkány.

Ironically, Mehmed IV was an ally of the devout Roman Catholic Louis XIV in his war against the Catholic Hapsburgs. In addition, Sobieski’s forces included Muslim Lipka Tatar cavalrymen. Aeon’s Sam Dresser notes that a Lipka Tatar lieutenant named Samuel Murza Krzeczowski probably saved Sobieski from the Turks at Párkány.

Once again, the Ottomans failed because they advanced too far. In addition, Louis XIV’s French forces distracted the Hapsburg armies but not the Poles.

However, the Ottomans kept their empire in the Balkans until the early 1900s despite constant military pressure from the Hapsburgs. Notably, the Hapsburgs could not conquer Ottoman areas; like Serbia, until the late 19th Century.

Imperial Decline is Often Exaggerated

Interestingly, predictions of the Ottoman Empire’s eminent demise in the 19th Century were premature.

In fact, the Empire sort of survived World War I. The last Sultan Mehmed VI stayed on the throne until 1922 nearly four years after the abdication of his ally German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mehmed VI abdicated and fled Turkey when the Grand National Assembly of the new Turkish Republic dissolved the empire.

However, many observers expected the Ottoman Empire to collapse after the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). Instead, the Empire regrouped and survived World War I.

In fact, the Ottomans’ military performance in World War I was better than the supposedly more modern and professional Imperial German Army. For instance, the Turks inflicted humiliating defeats on the British at Gallipoli and Kut. The Ottomans captured a British Army at Kut, Iraq, in 1916. Meanwhile, German armies on the Western Front could only stalemate British and French forces.

Furthermore, after 1919, the Turkish army regrouped under Kemal Atatürk and defeated Greek and French invaders. Meanwhile, British forces reluctant to fight the Turks again, withdrew from Turkey.

Hence, the Turks lost World War I but won the next war with favorable terms in the Treaty of Lausanne. In contrast, the Allies forced the mighty German Empire to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles.

Therefore, history often disappoints those who expect fast imperial collapse. The Ottomans survived and, in some ways, prospered long after others predicted their demise.

The Ottomans prove that even badly governed and backward empires can survive many defeats and last for a long time. Given that history, today’s empires like the United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China could endure for a long time.