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Mom! They’re making me think!!

6 March, 2006

Mom! They’re making me think!

I ask the internets for their opinion. Got this from one of my students, and thought I’d throw it open:

Do you think the Ottoman Empire would have been able to make a foothold in Western Europe if they consistenly didn’t have to defend themselves to the East against the Mongols/Persians or maybe they had a hard time because European nations would form coalitions against them, in fear of a global empire? I think if they had been safe on their Eastern borders for much of the 14-17th centuries that they would have been able to expand into Western Europe especially during a time of political instability such as the Reformation. If yes, then do you believe that could have had major consequences in the centuries thereafter and do you think that could have changed the result of World War I where they were completely erased? I’m no expert on this and that is just an educated guess by me, but I was wondering if you could speculate with me because I find the vast empire of the Ottomans an intriguing and relatively unknown society in the sense that you never really ever hear about them compared to other great historical empires…

My initial impulse is to say that the Ottoman Turks did make the inroads that they made precisely for the reasons the student states — and were stopped by many of those reasons, as far as westward conquest is concerned. But I really don’t know enough about what was going on on the eastern borders. Anyone?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 March, 2006 6:34 am

    I went to an interesting talk a few months ago covering the Ottoman attempts to monopolize the Indian Ocean. Which didn’t go so well… for reasons internal as well–the factions working for African outposts (versus the Portugese) and Red Sea monopolies (versus the Ethopians, I think?) had to fabricate threats to Ottoman national security in that reason because so much attention was paid to the Mediterranean issue. And very soon, India ended up a maritime threat (and Akbar, I think it was? declared a new brand of Islam to help his ambitions). The moment that was lost there is a little later, I think, on the world trade monopoly stage, but it seems similar to your student’s speculation.

  2. 6 March, 2006 8:14 am

    I should know more about this than I do, but FWIW: your student’s speculation makes sense to me. I don’t know that much about what’s going on on the eastern borders, either (my world history responsibilities ended at 1500!), but I think that the Ottomans could have made further inroads into Europe, given the willingness of some nations (cough the French cough) to ally with them in order to further their own local (Western) ambitions. I’m not really sure if it would have changed the results of WWI very much – my vague sense is that industrialization in the 18th-19th centuries in Europe is a big factor that you don’t see among the Ottomans at that time, and unless the Ottomans made such inroads that they were able to industrialize earlier, I don’t think WWI would have ended much differently – but who knows? I’m guessing! (Would we have even had WWI if the Ottomans controlled Austria-Hungary?) Didn’t someone just blog recently about a book that operated on the premise that the US brokered a deal at the end of WWI and the Ottoman’s *weren’t* dismembered? (I think maybe scribblingwoman?) Sorry, this is completely disjointed and not especially helpful! But I’m impressed by your student’s question…

  3. 6 March, 2006 8:20 pm

    A very good question. I’ve given it a little thought (and wished I had a better reference library at hand).That the timing of the Ottoman’s multi-front wars had something to do with Christian successes is certainly plausible. I would include the struggle against Mameluke Egypt, and its role as an uneasy province, and potential liability, after the conquest of 1517. However, I suspect that the logistics of operating in the Balkans contributed a lot to slowing the Ottoman advance. Possibly the perceived danger of allowing too great a permanent military establishment in Transylvania and Hungary was also a factor. The Romans weren’t the only ones to worry about ambitious generals marching on the capital!(An answer to whether the Ottomans really missed a chance to fully exploit the European Wars of Religion may need to take such practical issues into account, too.)In the expansive period, direct control by the Sultan (as least as a symbolic presence) was still common when a major army was assembled. Some of the problems of the Ottoman campaign of 1529 have been attributed to delays while the Sultan was on the way to join the army (he couldn’t leave Istanbul until the roads were open), which would have cost them part of the campaign season, even if the forward units were already in the field. Whether more time for the Ottoman engineers to work would have made a difference in the outcome of the Siege of Vienna would be an interesting alternate-history question.By the 1680s, control was being entrusted to ministers and generals, who blamed each other for all failures. In the face of the Christian counter-attack (as part of the War of the Holy League) following that (second) Siege of Vienna, the fresh internal conflict in the elite couldn’t have helped in providing supplies and reinforcements to the Ottoman forces in Europe.Of course, the same operational difficulties would have bedevilled the Christian armies as they got farther from their bases, and deeper into the Balkan terrain; helping to explain why the Christian advance also stalled.

  4. 6 March, 2006 10:42 pm

    I’m certainly no expert, either, even though I dig the Ottomans, but I’ll throw in my two cents.The Eastern question is certainly a difficult one, and I think has some validity. The Ottomans had the same problems a lot of empires do – guerrilla warfare is tough to deal with. In the sixteenth century, after the Selim beat up on the Mamelukes, they got involved in Yemen, of all places, and got bogged down in a guerrilla war that, while ultimately just a small portion of the vast empire, tied up some resources that certainly could have been used in the West. So the East was certainly a problem.Let’s not forget, either, that for the first 50 years of the 1500s the major power in Europe was Maximilian and then, especially, Charles V. The limit to the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman was probably about as big as it could be and still function. Certainly the Hapsburgs were together enough back then to keep them from making major inroads into Europe.As for the end of the empire – states decline and fall, that’s the way it is. I read something once about how the Muslim world (both Arab and Turkic) was primarily a land-based empire, while the Europeans were forced to the sea, so the Islamic world turned in on itself and stagnated, especially in the areas of science, while the West was forced to keep coming up with innovations just to function. I don’t know if any research has been done on it, but it’s certainly intriguing.

  5. 9 March, 2006 9:24 pm

    A few thoughts on the Ottoman Eastern border situation, and perhaps to take us off the original topic a little.The major Ottoman rival on the eastern side was the Muslim Shi’a Safavid kingdom that fought border skirmishes and the Battle of Calderan / Chaldiran (which they lost) to hold their western front and possibly expand a little at the Ottoman expense.Had the Ottomans been able to defeat the Safavids and absorb those lands into the empire, they would have had a more difficult time with the next major Islamic kingdom to the east, the Mughals, who, under Akbar, had a fairly strong mansabdari system that could have put a huge army in the field for Akbar should he need it. Who would have won? Don’t have a guess. Need to do more reading on it.Unlike his successor Aurangzeb, Akbar was fairly tolerant of non-Muslims and actually invited members of various faiths to his court to discuss religion. The faith he established (Din E-Ilahi) was a modified version of Islam but he did not require anyone to follow it. It died out after his death; but it is a good example of the religious complexity of South Asia.Sorry for the long comment — been teaching these things recently.

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