Military History Armed Forces of the Ottoman Empire, 1683–1918
by
Virginia H. Aksan, Veysel Şimşek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0106

Introduction

The Ottoman Empire (c. 1300–1918) ruled over most of the territories of what is now known as the Middle East. The Ottomans were a Muslim dynasty (the house of Osman) that governed multireligious and multiethnic populations from the steppes of Russia to the Balkans and the Arabian Peninsula as well as North Africa, the Levant, and Turkey from the 1300s to 1918. The Ottoman difference lies in its creation of a ruling class of any and all that joined the sultan’s household, in some cases without even converting to Islam (such as troops that were provided by Ottomans’ vassals in the 14th century through the 16th century). The military power of the dynasty was based initially on the assignment of military fiefs (timars) to a warrior class known as sipahis, and the creation of a unique slave military infantry known as the Janissaries (new troops) and elite formations of household cavalrymen (kapıkulu süvarileri), who have been recognized as the first disciplined standing army of Europe. This combined cavalry and infantry power rapidly conquered Anatolia and the Balkans and absorbed and assimilated existing Byzantine and Islamic institutions. It twice fought its way to the gates of Vienna, the second time in 1683 when a coalition of European monarchs turned the tide in favor of Christendom. The date 1683 has ever since served as one of the great turning points of civilization in having come to represent the moment when “the Turk” was definitively turned back from the gates of Europe. The defeat led to a century of crisis and introspection on the part of the Ottomans, further disastrous defeats, and the gradual realization that the power of the once formidable Janissaries and fief-holding cavalrymen had weakened. Over the next century and a half, the entire premise of Ottoman rule, structured on patrimonial rule and sultanic largesse, would be altered in the struggle for survival. The results of that struggle included the decentralization of state revenues, the building of local paramilitary armies, and the blurring of the traditional categories of bureaucrat-warrior service class (askeri) and tax-paying class (reaya). In addition, the period saw the creation of wealthy state officials and local power holders who engineered (or resisted), largely from the 1790s to the 1830s, the destruction of the traditional armed forces and the creation of a new European-style disciplined, regimental force based on conscription of the Muslim population. The political contract that emerged in the era known as the Tanzimat period (1839–1876) constituted an Ottoman-style constitutional monarchy pledging equality of citizenship and taxation before the law even to non-Muslims, who had previously been tolerated as zimmi (people of the book) and largely excluded from military service and high-level administration. Despite such achievements, economic mismanagement, Christian and Muslim sectarianism, and continuous military pressure from Russia, coupled with empire-wide nationalist movements, led to further crushing defeats and the rise of a militarized and racialized Turkish nationalism in the Young Turks movement. More specifically, the Committee of Union and Progress, which relied on German financing and know-how to reorganize and arm the military at the turn of the 19th century, entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers in 1914, and collapsed into ashes along with the monarchies of Russia and Austria-Hungary at the end of that war in 1918.

General Overviews to 1683

Ottoman historians, in works such as Finkel 1988, Murphey 1999, Ostapchuk 2001, and Ágoston 2005, along with colleagues Géza Dávid and Pál Fodor (see under Dávid and Fodor 2007), constructed much early work on Ottoman warfare, and the authors of these works are responsible for setting the standard. One of the better explanations for the military failure at Vienna is found in Stoye 2006. Gradeva 2001 offers a glimpse of what the Habsburg-Ottoman border towns may have looked like. The collections in Tallett and Trim 2010 and Dávid and Fodor 2007 include a number of articles on the nature of war and society on the frontiers where the empires of the Ottomans, Habsburgs, and Romanovs met. Emecen 2010 is a useful collection of articles that explores Ottoman campaigns, pivotal battles, and management of warfare between the 15th and 17th centuries. Imber 2009 (second edition, first published in 2002) has a number of chapters on the Ottoman military and provides detailed and insightful information to the general reader. By contrast, the essays in Davies 2012 offer an in-depth look at the Ottomans and their borderland rivals.

  • Ágoston, Gabor. Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    An archival examination of Ottoman gunpowder manufacture, Ágoston’s work demonstrates Ottoman self-sufficiency in the production of gunpowder well into the 17th century, although not necessarily mastery of the evolving technology involving its manufacture.

  • Dávid, Géza, and Pál Fodor, eds. Ransom Slavery along the Ottoman Borders: Early Fifteenth–Early Eighteenth Centuries. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Of particular interest in this volume are the articles by Géza Palffy, “Ransom Slavery along the Ottoman-Hungarian Frontier in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (pp. 35–82), which discusses the extent of the enterprise in military labor, and Klára Hegyi, “Freed Slaves as Soldiers in the Ottoman Fortresses in Hungary” (pp. 85–91), which offers examples of the options facing Christian prisoners of war. Available as an e-book. See also Pál Fodor and Géza Dávid, Ottomans, Hungarians, and Habsburgs in Central Europe: The Military Confines in the Era of Conquest (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000).

  • Davies, Brian L. Warfare in Eastern Europe, 1500–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004221987E-mail Citation »

    Eleven essays by distinguished scholars on the military systems of the Ottomans and their Eurasian rivals—the Habsburgs, Poles, and the Russians.

  • Emecen, Feridun. Osmanlı Klasik Çağında Savaş. Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation: Warfare in the Ottoman classical age. Utilizing a large array of Middle Eastern primary sources, Emecen investigates Ottoman military policies, decisive battles, and conduct of warfare as the empire bid for supremacy in the Middle East and the Balkans.

  • Finkel, Caroline. The Administration of Warfare: The Ottoman Military Campaigns in Hungary, 1593–1606. Vienna: Verlag des Verbandes der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth account of the provisioning capabilities of the Ottoman army in the long war that ended with the Treaty of Zsitvatorok.

  • Gradeva, Rossitsa. “War and Peace along the Danube: Vidin at the End of the Seventeenth Century.” Oriente Moderno 20.1 (2001): 149–175.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of a very few articles that examines the impact of warfare on the borders of the empire.

  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-01406-1E-mail Citation »

    Imber is an expert on Ottoman legal history and this book is a general survey for the empire from its emergence to its zenith. Nevertheless, the chapters that deal with the Ottoman army, navy, and military recruitment (especially for the collection and training of Janissary recruits) are invaluable for the average reader.

  • Murphey, Rhoads. Ottoman Warfare, 1500–1700. London: University College London Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A truly microcosmic look at the workings of the pre-reform Ottoman military, Murphey’s intimate knowledge of the Ottoman archives is on display in discussing topics such as camel loads, provisioning, distances the army had to march, and practices on the march and in camp.

  • Ostapchuk, Victor. “The Human Landscape of the Ottoman Black Sea in the Face of the Cossack Naval Raids.” Oriente Moderno 20.1 (2001): 23–95.

    DOI: 10.1163/22138617-08101003E-mail Citation »

    Ostapchuk’s knowledge of northern Black Sea Tatar and Cossack culture of the 17th century is without parallel.

  • Stoye, John. The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial between Cross and Crescent. New York: Pegasus Books, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work is a reprint of the 1964 edition published in Edinburgh by Birlinn Press. Stoye’s evocation of the period is without equal in English. His knowledge of the terrain and of international relations surrounding the Ottomans prior to the 18th century is unparalleled.

  • Tallett, Frank, and David J. B. Trim, eds. European Warfare, 1350–1750. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This exceptional collection includes two articles on the Ottomans: Gábor Ágoston, “Empires and Warfare in East-Central Europe, 1550–1770: The Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry and Military Transformation” (pp. 110–134), which privileges the Habsburgs; and Rhoads Murphey, “Ottoman Military Organisation in South-Eastern Europe, c. 1428–1720” (pp. 135–158), which argues for the ability of the Ottomans to sustain successful siege warfare into the later 17th century.

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