Anatolia, the Balkans, Syria, Egypt, c. 1300-1850

The Ottomans

When the empire of the Seljuks of Rum collapsed, the situation was exploited by a local Turkic ruling family in northwestern Anatolia whose ancestor was named Osman (Othman /Uthman). Invoking jihad (“holy war”), the Ottomans expanded their holdings into Byzantine Anatolia and soon also occupied large parts of the Balkans. Only the Byzantine capital of Constantinople held out until Mehmed II the Conqueror took the city in 1453 and put an end to the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire under the name of Istanbul. Conquests continued at the beginning of the 16th century, when Iraq was soon taken, along with Mamluk Syria and Egypt and the Mediterranean ports in North Africa. The Ottomans now dominated most of the Mediterranean with their fleet, and after the conquest of Hungary, they posed a serious threat to the rest of Christian Central Europe. The empire’s political and economic peak coincided more or less with the long rule of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s great powers and the strongest Muslim realm, which also ruled over the holy cities of Arabia.

In the course of the 17th century, however, the empire began to lose its position, and a final attempt at expansion in Central Europe failed in 1683, when the Ottomans were rebuffed before Vienna and then abandoned Hungary. The lack of booty from new, conquered lands combined with weak state government increasingly drained the empire’s finances throughout the 17th and 18th century. Although the Ottoman Empire remained very large, it developed in the 19th century into the “sick man of Europe,” which tried in vain to keep pace with the European powers’ reforms in administration, military matters, and trade.

The Ottoman Empire was controlled through a centralized system of government, with power concentrated in the sultans’ capital of Istanbul. Most of the administration’s leading officials and the awe-inspiring Janissaries had been taken as boys from Christian regions, converted to Islam, and undergone careful schooling.

A special design workshop was founded in the Topkapi Palace complex to produce patterns for tiles, woodwork, metalwork, and textiles used for the court’s many construction and decoration projects. The patterns spread to the rest of the empire with the artists who had been trained in the workshop and through the many monumental building projects in the provinces that were commissioned from Istanbul. From having a close kinship with Timurid art, Ottoman art soon developed a number of new and unique forms of decoration, with both more abstract patterns and naturalistic decorations based on local flora.