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Ottoman Empire (1299 - 1923)

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At the peak of its military success, the great Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, stretching from Budapest to Azerbaijan and taking in Persia, Syria and the whole of the north African coast. It began, however, from relatively humble beginnings with Osman Bey, the leader of a small principality in northwest Anatolia, who gave the Empire its Turkish name, Osmanh (with Osman). His first military conquests began in 1299 with the conquest of Bilecik, Yenikent, inegol and iznik. He resolved to take Bursa, and after a siege, which lasted some eight years, his son, Orhan, finally took the city in 1326 and, in 1335, made the city his capital.His son, Suleyman, conquered Thrace in 1353 and it was his successor, Murad Hudavendigar, who continued the expansion by taking the Balkans into the Empire.

In 1362 Murad captured the city of Edirne, formerly known as Adrianople, and the following year established it as his capital. In 1453 Fatih Sultan Mehmet (Mehmet the Conqueror) conquered Istanbul thus bringing an end to the Byzantine era. In 1516-17 both Syria and Egypt fell to the Ottoman army, and with them the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, making the Ottoman sultan the most important figure in the Sunni Muslim world. 1520-66 was the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, under the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent, but from then onwards it began a slow decline, losing its economic and military superiority over Europe.

Despite efforts at reform during the 19th century, a number of nationalist movements broke out in Ottoman territories and the Empire began to fragment. Its fate was sealed when it entered the First World War on the side of Germany. Following the end of the war, the victorious allies shared the Ottoman lands and Britain, Italy, France and Greece began to invade its territories. The Ottoman parliament was dissolved on March 16th 1920. The Turkish Grand National Assembly, with Mustafa Kemal as its President began the Independence War, and in the process of establishing itself, decided on November 1st 1922 to abolish the sultanate. The last Ottoman Sultan Mehmet VI (Vahideddin) left Istanbul in secret on November 17th 1922 on a British Royal Navy vessel bound for Malta, and died in exile in 1926.

Ottoman Culture Although the Ottomans became known in the west for their opulent lifestyle and military might, the Empire's real strength was the fact that it created a well-ordered society, based on principles of religious and cultural tolerance, caring for the welfare of the sick and the poor. The arts were cultivated and Istanbul and its other major cities became centres for trade in fine silks and other valuable commodities.In the late 15th century, at a time when it was common in Europe for the mentally ill to be burned at the stake as witches, asylums in Edime were using music therapy and the scent of flowers to treat their patients.

The Ottoman Empire united peoples of many different faiths, nationalities and cultures. In the 19th century, Istanbul's population was made up of Muslim Turks, Orthodox Greeks, Gregorian and Catholic Armenians, Jews, Levantines as well as numerous foreign merchants. Even today, Istanbul is one of the few places in the world where you can see churches, synagogues and mosques built within a short distance of each other.

It was Mehmet the Conqueror (1451-1481) who established his patronage of the fine arts, setting up an atelier in the new palace of Topkapi, which developed techniques such as calligraphy and miniature painting. He also encouraged study visits from foreign artists, which is how Gentile Bellini came to spend a year in Istanbul in 1479, when he painted his famous portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London. Even before the advent of Islamic belief, Turks had the tradition of illustrating manuscripts, however, the art of calligraphy flourished alongside the strict Islamic belief that it was wrong to depict people or animals, and was mainly used to illuminate words from the Koran. It was also used for the elaborate, stylised signature unique to each of the sultans known as the tugra. The detailed miniatures, on the other hand, act as a historic document portraying the lives of the sultans and their court, showing both historic and everyday events. At a much later date, Sultan Abdulhamid II who ruled from 1876 - 1909, appointed state photographers and sent albums of their photographs to fellow heads of state around the world, to show them the progress and achievements of his empire.

The Ottomans were also great explorers and the famous Admiral Piri Reis was a renowned navigator and important cartographer, who charted and drew remarkably accurate maps of the world, including the oldest surviving map showing the Americas, which dates back to 1513 and is kept in the Topkapi Palace Museum.

The Harem
Although harem was simply the word used to describe the female living quarters in a residence, to many westerners it conjures up a romantic image, based largely on the Imperial harem at Topkapi Palace. The most important person in the harem was the Valide Sultan (Mother of the Sultan), followed by the Sultanas, sultan's daughters, his favourites and other concubines and odalisques (a word which comes from the Turkish 'odalik1 or chamber-maid). Traditionally, there were upto four kadins or favourites, who were the) equivalent of legal wives and thus accorded privileges. Nurbanu, for example, the favourite1 of Selim II was given an entourage of 150 ladies in waiting. In fact, many of those living in the harem had no contact at all with the' sultan but simply acted as servants to thel other members of the household. At its peak there were 1000 women living in the harem at Topkapi Palace. All of these were slave women, and non-Muslim, brought from all corners of the Ottoman Empire, avoiding the risk of betrayal by a wife, who might, have interests of her own. The women of the harem were said to be the most beautiful in the Empire and the most attractive were trained to entertain the sultan by dancing, reciting poetry, playing musical instrument and mastering the erotic arts. According to Muslim tradition, no man could  lay his eyes on another man's harem, which lead to the tradition of the harem being guarded by the black eunuchs, who were male prisoners of war or slaves fully castrated before! puberty, captured from territories such as Egypt, Abyssinia and the Sudan. At the height of the Empire as many as 600-800 eunuchs served in the palaceThe Chief Black Eunuch (Kiziar Aga), was the Ottoman Empire's third highest-ranking officer, after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier. His duties were wide-ranging: Overseeing the protection of their women, the purchase of new concubines, arranging all royal ceremonies and sentencing those women accused of crimes.

The Janissaries
Christian subjects were required by the practice of devşirme to give up one of their sons to the service of the sultan. After the boys had converted  to Islam they became either civil servants or soldiers, joining the elite army corps known as the Yeniçeri or Janissaries. Strict discipline was imposed upon them, but those who were gifted and ambitious could rise through the ranks, even as far as becoming Grand Vizier - the highest rank after the sultan. The Janissaries became so powerful, however, that they protested whenever they felt their privileges were being threatened signalled by their overturning of their soup kettles and often leading to full scale riots. The system persisted, however, until 1826, when the Janissaries lost popular support and were disbanded by Mahmut II. The traditional marching band of the Janissaries, the Mehter Takimi, has been revived in recent times and you can see them perform in the traditional uniform, playing kettle drums, clarinets and cymbals.

Ottoman Architecture
Architectural monuments to the greatness of the Ottoman Empire stand, not only, throughout Turkey, but also throughout the many lands which were under its rule. The Ottomans were prolific builders and some of their finest works are public buildings such as mosques (cami) and their surrounding kulliye (complex) consisting of buildings providing for the welfare of the community such as: Sifahane (hospital), medrese (college), imaret (alms kitchen), tabhane (guest house) and hamam (Turkish baths). Palaces, bridges, fountains, tombs and kervansarays (travellers' inns) are also amongst the fine buildings which remain to the present day. The Ottomans were fond of hunting and of spending time outdoors, often with lavish picnics, and you will find wooden köşk's (pavilions or summer houses) in many parks and woodlands. Private houses, amongst which are the konak (mansion) and yah (summer house, especially those on the shores of the Bosphorus) were traditionally built of wood, with the ground floor and foundations only being built of stone. Some have survived to the present day, despite the fire hazard that their wooden structure posed. Recently, great interest has been shown in their preservation and many of them have been renovated and some converted to hotels and pensions. Typically the upper floors jut out over the street and the windows are obscured by wooden lattice-work, intended so that the women of the house could look out without being observed. The houses were planned around a central gallery room known as a hayat off which the other rooms opened. The quarters were divided into the harem (the private part of the house only visited by the family and female guests) and the selamlik (where the man of the household received his guests). In grander houses these two areas would have separate courtyards, sometimes with fountains and ornamental pools.

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