Ottoman state builders (c. 1300–1922) erected and maintained one of the more durable and successful examples of empire-building in world history. Born during medieval times in the northwest corner of then Byzantine-Asia Minor, the Ottoman state achieved world-empire status in 1453, with its conquest of Constantinople. For a century before and two centuries after that epochal event, the Ottoman Empire was among the most powerful political entities in the Mediterranean-European world. Indeed, but for the Ming state in China, the Ottoman Empire in about 1500 was likely the most formidable political system on the planet.
The rapid expansion of the Ottoman state from border principality to world empire was due partly to geography and the proximity of weak enemies; but it owed more to Ottoman policies and achievements. After the migrations of Turkish peoples from Central Asia broke the border defenses of the Byzantine Empire back in the eleventh century, many small states and principalities vied for supremacy. The Ottoman dynasty emerged on the Byzantine borderlands not far from Constantinople, and its supporters employed pragmatic statecraft and methods of conquest and rewarded the human material at hand—whether Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, Turkish, Christian, or Muslim—for good service. These pragmatic policies, coupled with an exceptional openness to innovation, including military technology, go far in explaining why this particular minor state ultimately attained world-power status.
In its domestic politics, the Ottoman state underwent continuous change. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals in the early days of the state. Between about 1453 and the later sixteenth century, however, sultans ruled as true autocrats. Subsequently, others in the imperial family and other members of the palace elites—often in collaboration with provincial elites—maintained real control of the state until the early nineteenth century. Thereafter, bureaucrats and sultans vied for domination. In sum, the sultan nominally presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman history but actually, personally, ruled only for portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It seems important to stress that the principle of sultanic rule by the Ottoman family was hardly ever challenged through the long centuries of the empire’s existence. While this rule was a constant, change otherwise was the norm in domestic politics.
Political power almost always rested in the imperial center and, depending on the particular period, extended into the provinces either through direct military and political instruments or, indirectly, through fiscal means. The state exerted its military, fiscal, and political authority through a number of mechanisms that evolved continuously. One cannot speak of a single, invariant Ottoman system or method of rule, except to say that it was based on policies of flexibility and adaptiveness. Military, fiscal, and political instruments changed constantly, hardly a surprising situation in an empire that existed from the medieval to the modern age. Moreover, much of what historians thought they knew about Ottoman institutions has been challenged and rewritten. Take, for example, the cliché that the janissaries’ prowess as soldiers declined when they ceased living together in bachelor barracks and served as married men. It turns out that already in the fifteenth century, when the janissaries were the most feared military unit in the Mediterranean world, at least some were married with families.
The Ottoman state at first depended on the so-called timar system to compensate much of its military, which was dominated by cavalrymen fighting with bows and arrows. Under this system, the cavalryman was granted revenues from a piece of land sufficient to maintain himself and his horse. He did not actually control the land, but only the taxes deriving from it. Peasants worked the land and the taxes they paid supported the timar cavalryman while he was on campaign as well as when he was not fighting. In reality, the timar was at the center of Ottoman affairs for the earlier era of Ottoman history, perhaps only during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and part of the sixteenth centuries. Hardly had the state developed the timar system when the regime began to discard it, and the cavalry it was meant to support. Increasingly, the empire turned to infantrymen bearing firearms. As it did, the janissaries ceased to be a small, praetorian elite and evolved into a firearmed infantry of massive size. To support these full-time soldiers required vast amounts of cash, and so tax-farming replaced the timar system as the central fiscal instrument. (Timar holders owed service in exchange for the timar revenues, whereas tax farmers paid a sum at the tax farm auction for the right to collect the taxes, and they incurred no service obligation.) By 1700, lifetime tax-farms—seen as better cash cows—began to become commonplace. Varying combinations of cavalry and firearmed infantry, along with massive uses of artillery worked quite well for a time, but lost out in the arms race to central and eastern European foes by the end of the seventeenth century. The Ottoman military continued to evolve and, in the eighteenth century, firearmed troops of provincial notables and the forces of the Crimean Khanate largely replaced both the janissary infantry and the timar cavalry. During the nineteenth century, universal male conscription controlled by the central state slowly developed, and this was perhaps the most radical transformation of all. Lifetime tax-farms were abandoned but tax-farming continued, often in the hands of local notables in partnerships with the Istanbul regime.