The Renaissance seems to involve a lot of maps.
For some reason, ignorance being the most likely explanation, I always thought the Ottomans were Arabs. They were not; they were Muslims, but mixing up Ottoman and Arab is like mixing up French and German. Just because they share a religion didn’t make them the same. Different language, different customs, different leaders, entirely different culture.
The Ottomans were a major power during the Renaissance, controlling access to trade and threatening the Mediterranean and Western Europe. They held some of the most venerated cities: Constantinople, Athens, Baghdad, and Damascus. They were deadly serious about conquest, and they didn’t particularly have respect for the classics. Unlike the Arabs at their cultural peak, the Ottomans burned libraries. They were the reason Philip the Navigator went looking for trade routes to India going west.
Where Did the Ottomans Come From?
The Ottoman name comes from Osman I, who emerged out of Anatolia, which is the eastern part south of the Black Sea. If you think about trade and strategic territory, you can start to see why the Black Sea, that huge kidney-shaped waterway, was so important. It was how you got from the Atlantic Ocean, across the Mediterranean to all of Russia, India, the Silk Road. To the north is Germany and Russia, powers in their own right. To the south has been territory that has churned over time, as one group after another has swept through, but that’s where the Ottomans originated.
Osman was part of a clan that grew in power as the Arabs fought off the Mongols, who had conquered Baghdad to the southeast and most of Russia to the north. The litany of Osman’s conquests, territorial expansions, family struggles, and treaty-based marriages would sound very similar to the interplay between the Guelphs and Ghibellines or the English-Scottish-French struggles. Osman won out.
The last place he was attacking when he died in 1326 was Bursa, far to the west. Bursa looks like a very fine city today, with modern transit and big soccer stadium, whose team won the league championship in 2009, according to its marketing department.
Gaining Respect and Constantinople
So here we are in 1326, with Osman’s successors taking charge across the south of the Black Sea. We have a growing empire that is winning its battles and convincing local armies to join rather than be slaughtered. To the north, the Golden Horde, the Mongols have held the area now known as Ukraine–also strategic–and have treaties and roots settled with the Tatars. The Mongols have control of the north. Or so they thought until the bubonic plague swept across Asia through Russia and through the Mongol armies, who are attacking a Genoese settlement in the Crimean. Black Death, see “B.”
The Ottoman Turks were also heavily affected by the pandemic, but they managed to rebound quickly enough, just as the Europeans did. Within a hundred years, they were expanding to the south and west. The maritime powers of Genoa and Venice were still sailing around in the Eastern Mediterranean. Venice had installed its own rulers in Constantinople, but this created in-fighting, which weakened the Byzantines. The last remnants of the Christian empire fell in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II took Constantinople, supposedly with Christian mercenaries fighting next to his Janissaries, his elite, “shock and awe” troops. In other words, the leader of the region of Turkey took back the key strategic city in northern Turkey from a group that was essentially supported by a tiny water-bound island several hundred miles to the west.
Once the Ottomans had Constantinople, they pushed upwards into the Balkans and expanded across Greece and as far north as Hungary (stopping only a few klicks short of Vienna). At the time, they weren’t a fan of the Byzantine Library, which they destroyed. It unfortunately held some of the last remnants of the ancient Greek texts. Fortunately, though the Great Arab Caliphs of the 7-800s had appreciated the literature and had stocked their own libraries with translations. Those had made their way to libraries as far west as Toledo, as well as in Salerno and Palermo. These were re-translated into Latin, and eventually drifted north to the monasteries, which is why the Italians and French had them to start debating Aristotle and painting pictures of Plato for the Vatican in the 15th century.
Suleiman: From the Balkans to Gibraltar
The last significant expansion of territory came under Suleiman I, born in 1494. Suleiman pushed the Ottoman rule across northern Africa and south into Baghdad and other purely Arab states. But most of the conquering had already taken place, so his reign was generally peaceful and flourished in art and culture.
Suleiman actually invited many of the Italian and other Renaissance humanists to his court. He invested in infrastructure, which meant both buildings and art. His wife, Hurrem Sultan, also called Roxelana (hmm, who have I got for “R”?), was a major influence on his approach during this time of relative peace. Because of the advances in culture and territory, his reign was labeled the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.
After Suleiman died, his son was not as strong a ruler, and some decline occurred as it always does when a great peace ends. However, while later Ottoman rulers didn’t have the same presence and command as Suleiman, they held some of their territory, and it took until the 1900s for them to slowly lose bits and pieces to other armies. Their culture formed the basis of Turkey today, which still remains an important critical gateway between the Mediterranean and the east.
And they were a big reason that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.