Eyes Eastward

Balkans and Eastern Europe in the Early Modern period.

Five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans, a timeline.

Few months ago, a person I have known at work told me about her interest over the Ottoman Balkans. These words rang as a very loud bell to my mind and I told her that, as an independent researcher, I study this subject. Long story short, she asked me if I could give her an overview of the Ottoman presence in the Balkans through a timeline.

I immediately accepted the task enthusiastically, but at the same time I felt overwhelmed by more than five centuries of Ottoman and European history to be sifted and enshrined in a space which could be graphically rendered and could convey the basic information of the most salient episodes of this long journey.

My original idea was to have one timeline only which could encompass the whole Ottoman rule in the region, excluding all the episodes regarding other territories of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Ottoman vicissitudes in Europe were often strictly connected to what happened in non-European provinces. Being an empire stretching from the Southeastern Europe to the Fertile Crescent and North Africa, passing through Anatolia and lower Caucasus, things can hardly be seen completely separated. Many times wars on one front led to attacks on the other side of the empire. This particular feature certainly represented a challenge for the Ottomans, but they were able to face it for at least four centuries. It is indicative of this ability the amazing way the sultan Bayezit I could manage to fight wars on both sides of his dominions, switching quickly from one antipode to another at the end of the 14th century. This talent earned him the epithet of “Yıldırım” (Thunderbolt).

Eventually, I decided to divide the timeline in two parts in order to offer a better perspective to someone who is just approaching the subject. At the same time I tried to offer a space able to recap the most salient facts which led to the formation of the countries existing today in the region. The other dilemma was the choice of a software able to build an “elastic” presentation, with the possibility to have both a general overview of the timeline and zooms for more in-depth analysis. I opted for Prezi, not the most user-friendly software in terms of composition, but I think definitely the right choice for this kind of presentation.

The first part deals with the Ottoman expansion. My narration starts from Northwestern Anatolia, where Osman I quickly expanded the tiny strip of land he ruled in the area at the end of 13th century, reaching the outskirts of Constantinople. The first European morsel was conquered by his successor, Ohran gazı, who established an Ottoman bridgehead in Europe taking Gallipoli/Gelibolu. The Ottoman appetite became more and more voracious, nurtured by the open decadence of Constantinople and the frequent quarrels among the Balkan kingdoms, which made clear to the Ottomans that the latter’s territories were a yummy opportunity not to be missed.

Ottomans, were still one of the Turkoman groups which ravaged the area and their head was more a tribe chief, more a first among equals rather than a supreme leader.[1] Even the offensive strategies of this people were still very close to the nomadic world they originated from. Raids and pillages were the main means through which they weakened their Christian and infidel neighbours before conquering their lands. The same attribute gazı or ghazi, added to the names of the first sultans, meant fighter for Islam against the infidel, frontier raider into non-Muslim lands.[2] It is important to stress that at times the Ottomans were recruited by the same Byzantine notables as a support in their internecine clashes. The fruit of the raids earned the Ottomans booty and slaves, but they also possessed large livestock and they were good traders. In particular, horses were their main and more precious key asset, this animal was an appreciated item in their commercial exchanges and fundamental for their raids. [3]

Land and agriculture became increasingly important once the Ottoman state started to expand and its economy needed more solid basics. Agriculture slowly replaced pastoralism and raids, and it affirmed itself as the backbone of the Ottoman economy (especially in Anatolia)[4] throughout the whole existence of the empire.

The relentless expansion of the Ottomans did not worry Byzantium only, but it soon caught the eye of the Balkan kingdoms and of the Kingdom of Hungary which sought to master the region in the Middle Ages. Serbs, Bosnians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Vlachs joined the forces in several coalitions as well as crusades were launched against the Muslim invaders, but to no avail. Ottomans destroyed the enemies thanks to a formidable army and taking advantage of the divisions among the allied forces. A pivotal clash was the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, by which the Ottomans ousted the last significant resistance of Serbia and were easily able to invade the remnant territories of this kingdom.

Sultans’ territories ended up bordering important powers, military and economic giants of their time. Middle Ages witnessed frequent conflicts between the Ottomans and Hungarians who jousted for the control over the Balkans. Kings of Hungary headed several crusades (the one of 1396 saw the contribution of several Western contingents) in the 15th century, which all ended miserably. These defeats confirmed the uncontested hegemony of the Ottomans in what they called Rumelia (the European side of their possessions) and gave them free rein to absorb and subjugate the rest of the peninsula. In the year of Mehmet II’s death, 1481, the whole Balkan basin was in Ottoman hands, with the exception of the small Republic of Ragusa, and some Adriatic ports and islands belonging to Venice, the other important competitor the sultans had to face, which saw its primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean slowly eroded by the Ottomans.

However, the Ottoman conquests in this period proceeded mostly following the same gradual scheme. The territories inhabited by infidels were raided and weakened, then the Ottomans imposed vassalage. Last step was the complete absorption of these lands in the empire.[5] 

Between this period of formidable conquests and the invasion of Hungary there are two important moments which shaped the internal and external perception of the Ottoman Empire. One is the already cited conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the other is the capture of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina and of Egypt, respectively in 1516 and 1517.

The conquest of Constantinople was a quite easy job for the Ottoman army, considered the most fearsome war machine of that time, especially since the Byzantine empire was just the ghost of its ancient magnificence. However, the acquisition of the city, renamed Istanbul, had considerable symbolic and strategic importance. Mehmet II Fatih (the Conqueror) bestowed on himself the title of Kayser-i Rum, “Caesar of the Romans”, thus implying more a continuity rather than a rupture with the legacy of the Roman Empire and its ambitions. This claim was not a vain Ottoman excercise of vanity, even the Orthodox of the capital arrived to attribute the new ruler the title of “Sultan Basileus” and even outside the empire the continuation of Roman legacy was an accepted and acknowledged concept.[6] Strategically and commercially speaking, the possession of this “great commercial, administrative, and military center facilitated the assimilation, control, and defense of the sultan’s conquests, while control of the waterways between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean established a stranglehold on European trade with the hinterlands to the north and east and provided considerable new revenue.”[7]

The conquest of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1516, and the triumph in Egypt the following year are not strictly related to the Balkans, but they are fundamental moments for the empire. Under a Muslim point of view, after the acquisition of the Arab lands the empire ceased to be a “sultanate of frontier” and Selim I and his successors acquired the prestigious title of “servitors of the two holy Sanctuaries”.[8] The sultans started to see themselves as “leader and defenders of the entire Islamic world”, acquiring also the title of caliph even if the latter was more claimed in later centuries. [9]

The impact of the subjugation of Constantinople certainly raised the level of hostility against the Ottomans, but this did not mean that Christian states closed their doors to them. On the contrary, they  started an accommodation with the new master of the city. Genoese, for instance, negotiated a treaty with the sultan even before the fall of the city. [10]

Selim’s successor, Süleyman II Kanuni (the “Law Giver”, more known in Europe as the “Magnificent”) kept expanding the empire. After breaking the Danubian defence line, through the conquest of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1521, the Ottomans easily defeated the Hungarians at Mohács five years later, occupying the rest of the Kingdom of Hungary. Thus, here as well, the sultan established a vassalage first and then completely annexed Hungary in 1541. This achievement marked the apogee of the Ottoman Empire and put it in direct contact with the Austrians. The first siege of Vienna in 1529 proved to be the first foretaste of a long rivalry along the whole Early Modern period. This proximity also boosted the alliance between the sultan and the “très chrétien” king of France (staunch enemy of Austria), the so-called “impious alliance” or the “sacrilegious union of the Lily and the Crescent” in 1536, which aroused scandal among European courts.

Süleyman II tried to move his empire’s borders even more northward and although his troops won the harsh battle of Szígetvár (depicted in the paint of Johann Peter Krafft, 1825, at the top of this post) in 1566, the Ottomans had to stop their further advance into Austria. Apart from other small acquisitions in northern Hungary, the Ottoman empire stabilised its borders for about a century, until the bold and ruinous siege of Vienna in 1683.

The link below will allow you to access for free and risk-free to the first part of the timeline. It will open a page of the presentation website Prezi:

First part of the timeline of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans

The second part of the timeline basically follows the Ottoman political and territorial decline in the region. The watershed I chose is the Treaty of Karlowitz/Karlofça in 1699, which ratified the loss of Hungary after nearly two centuries of Ottoman rule and a significant movement backwards of the Ottoman borders. This division between first and second period is based on a conventional separation in the historiography. It is clear, however, that such an important and eye-catching blow is just the epiphany of more complex causes which slowly consumed the Ottoman political and military framework.

First ominous manifestation of these trends certainly was the treaty of Zsitva-Török signed nearly a century earlier, in 1606. This treaty did not move the borders but contained several significant clauses. The most noteworthy was the recognition, for the first time by a sultan, of the Austrian emperor as a ruler of equal rank, summarised by the second clause of the treaty which states:

et unus alterum Caesarem appellat, et non autem regem”[11].

In the Latin confirmation of the treaty of 1616 there was also the promise of freedom of worship for the Roman Catholic subjects of the sultan (and consequent right of intervention in favour of the emperor in the internal issues of the Ottomans).[12] Another important concession made by Mehmet III in the same treaty  was the lifting of the tribute which the Austrians paid to the Ottomans since 1547 (in exchange for a lump-sum payment of 200,000 florins).[13]

The causes of the Ottoman decline are very complex, here it will be enough to acknowledge that already during the last decades of Süleyman’s rule, “campaigns resulted in less conquest, less booty and more expenses”.[14]

It is also important to underline the difficulty to manage such a big and diverse empire, an enterprise which required very demanding economic and military energies. Furthermore, the empire had to face both new external and internal challenges, which slowly developed.

The Treaty of Karlowitz/Karlofça and that of Passarowitz/Passarofça (1718) made clear to the world that the Ottomans were not the almost unbeatable army of the past anymore. Their weakness was unambiguous and this sparked the appetite of the bordering countries, which were willing to take advantage of this new situation to expand their dominions in the Balkans. The Eastern Question was born.

If the wars against Hungary and Venice were now just a far memory, new actors challenged the Ottomans. One was the aforementioned Austria, but in the 17th century, a new contender for the hegemony in the area emerged: Russia. This empire, after consolidating its territorial integrity and its position as a regional power, at the end of 17th century started pushing also towards the Black Sea during the reign of Peter the Great, and over the whole 18th and 19th centuries engaged the Ottomans almost ceaselessly.

Both Austria and Russia tried to stir respectively the Catholics and the  Orthodox subjects of the sultans and were more and more influential in the internal issues of the Ottoman Empire.

Another, unexpected and ambiguous competitor was certainly France at the eve of the 19th century. Napoleon‘s military genius and insatiable ambitions led him to break the long-standing tradition of French friendship with the Ottomans with the occupation of Egypt in 1798 and then successfully obtained the Dalmatian coast after defeating the Austrians in 1805. The French emperor in a first moment tried to preserve the Ottoman Empire’s integrity, but once he realised this was not useful to his plans anymore, then he planned to partition it with Russia, but to no avail.[15].

These attempts were certainly fueled by the internal situation of the Ottoman provinces, for a serious lack of control was particularly evident especially in the Balkans. Constantinople, in order to support its soldiers engaged in wars against Russia and Austria, decentralised the collection of taxes, local governance and the provision of troops and supplies in favour of local ayans (notables) [16], who began challenging and sometimes rebelling against the sultan, often stirred by foreign powers. This phenomenon took the name of “age of ayans” and it spanned from the beginning of the 18th century to the reign of Mahmud II. [17]

Another important problem was the reform of the army. This point was particularly delicate, because it involved the participation of Western techniques and weapons which were not accepted by the traditionalist elite,the janissaries and the Muslim clergy. The former opposed the changes since they were particularly jealous of their role and privileges. Once the core of the Ottoman army and its main strength, janissaries became a burdensome problem, they were able to overthrow sultans and influence significantly their policies. Opposed to them there were several reformers who tried to fix the problems, and modernise the empire. The struggle between the reformers and the traditionalists reached its highest and dramatic point with the overthrow of the reformer and Francophile sultan Selim III in 1807 and the installation on the throne of Mustafa IV, in the most essential respects a puppet. [18]

Nevertheless, the victory of the janissaries was short-lived because internecine conflicts soon established Mahmud II as new sultan. During his long reign he inexorably started a series of reforms which changed profoundly the Ottoman Empire, one of these was the abolition of the janissaries corps in 1826. These changes set the path for a further modernisation of the empire through the “Tanzimat” which were developed by his successor Abdülmecid. Another merit of Mahmud II was the reassertion of the central authority in the Balkans, suppressing the Balkan notables and enhancing his control in the provinces.

However, the region at the beginning of the 19th century experienced two important rebellions. The first episode was the Serbian Uprising, the second was the Greek War of Independence or Greek Uprising.

The former rebellion is the mirror of both the internal and external difficulties the empire was facing. In fact, in 1804 the Serbs did not revolt against the sultan but against the arrogance of the janissaries in a first place. In the timeline you can find a more accurate explanation of this uprising which had several phases, and it ended up with the concession of a strong autonomy for the Serbs. Later on, in 1829, a disastrous defeat against Russia compelled the sultan to modify the status of Serbia, from an autonomous province to a vassal state. Paradoxically, the Ottoman “method” of conquest was used upside down to release a province from its grip.

The Greek Uprising is a different and more consistent rebellion and it eventually ended with the independence of Greece recognised through the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832. Although these two cases differ very much from each other, in both we can see the decisive backing of Russia, at least at some stages. Russia established itself as protector of the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire thanks to the Treaty of Küçük Kainarca, in 1774, and used this leverage every time its national interest required it. In the Greek case, the French and English intervention were fundamental to assure the victory of the rebellious cause. A further confirmation that the Ottoman internal affairs were a question of international diplomacy and out of the full control of the sultan and his entourage.

The winds of nationalism blew over the Balkans and the stronger and stronger influence of European powers resulted in the crumbling of the Ottoman rule in the region in the 19th century. Revolts and massacres in the 1870s tore apart the several communities which lived side by side for centuries. The Congress of Berlin in 1878 (promoted in order to limit the effects of the Treaty of San Stefano and the huge advantages Russia could earn from it) was another crucial moment which marked the conclusion of the Ottoman centuries-old rule in the region. Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Romania became independent states. These new entities (with the exception of Romania) were just waiting for the right moment to expand their territories at the Ottoman’s expense and in 1912, seizing the opportunity given by the Italian invasion of Tripolitania, they joined their forces in the Balkan League and attacked the remnant of the Ottoman army in Europe. Victory was easy and it was achieved after few months but shortly after the League’s members started to struggle with each other for the preeminence in the area. Their rivalries produced the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece, both states rebuffed Bulgarian troops and even Romania and the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict in order to take advantage of the situation. In 1913 the Treaty of Bucharest forced Bulgaria to cede several territories acquired in the previous conflict to Greece, Serbia and Romania, meanwhile by the treaty of Constantinople the Ottomans regained the important city of Edirne and its surroundings.

The Balkan Wars embittered the relations among these new Balkan states and affected their foreign policies in the following decades. Other effects of these latest conflicts were the complete disappearance of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans and the independence of Albania.

My narration stops here, since the following First World War saw the Ottoman intervention in the Balkans in a very marginal fashion. Apparently, according to Wundt’s heterogony of ends, this timeline ended up being probably more useful to me than to my “customer”.

It helped me to go more in depth with my knowledge of the Ottomans and their empire, and to understand better their internal organisation and modus operandi especially for periods of their history which were not direct objects of my studies. I decided eventually to share it, because I hope it could be useful to someone else and I am also wishing to receive feedback and suggestions to enhance it.

The following link will lead you to the second part of the presentation:

Second part of the timeline of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans


[1] Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. I, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1976), 23.
[2] s.v. “Ghazi”, The Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. II, (Leiden: Brill, 1991)
[3] Kate Fleet, “The Turkish Economy, 1071-1453”, in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. I, ed. Kate Fleet, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 230-234.
[4] Ibid., 234-240.
[5] Kate Fleet, “The Ottomans, 1451-1603: A political history introduction”, in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. Ii, eds., Suraiya N. Faroqhi, Kate Fleet, eds., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 24. See also Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. I, 50.
[6] Murat Çizakça, “The Ottoman government and economic life: Taxation, public finance and trade controls”, in Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. ii, 241-242.  In 1466, The Greek philosopher Georgios Trapezuntios legitimised this acceptance writing that Mehmet was the Emperor of the Romans, since “The person, who legally holds the capital city of the Empire, is the Emperor and the capital city of the Roman Empire is Constantinople”. Çizakça underlines that this recognition went far beyond the borders of the Ottoman dominions, in fact not only “Greek, Italian and Austrian but also Arab and Persian authors considered the new empire as the continuation of its Roman predecessor. For these people, the Ottoman Turks were the Romans of modern times. Even in Sumatra, Malacca and the Indonesian archipelago, the sultan was known as the “Raja Rum”, the Roman Raja.”. Ibid.
[7] Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. I, 57.
[8] Gilles Veinstein, “Religious institutions, policies and lives”, inCambridge History of Turkey, vol. ii, 348-354.
[9] Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire , vol. I, 85.
[10] Daniel Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 230-232. The religious conflicts between Catholic Church and England, led the latter’s queen, Elizabeth, to seek relief from Muslim states. England’s relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century are well presented in Jerry Brotton, The Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Penguin Books, 2016).
[11] Karl-Heinz Ziegler, “The Peace treaties of the Ottoman Empire with European Christian powers”, in Peace Treaties and International Law in European History. From the Late Middle Ages to World War One, ed. Randall Lesaffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 345n41.
[12] Ibid, 346.
[13] Palmira Brummet, “Ottoman expansion in Europe”, in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. ii, 54. Kate Fleet asserts that in the Mediterranean Sea this change must be tracked back to the 16th century, after the capture of Tunis in 1574, “although the seeds of this change can perhaps be seen in the Ottoman failure to take Malta in 1565”. Kate Fleet, “The Ottomans, 1451-1603: A Political history introduction”, 21. A more detailed analysis of this trend is in Kate Fleet, “Ottoman Expansion in the Mediterranean”, in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. II, 170-172.
[14] Kate Fleet, “The Ottomans, 1451-1603: A Political history introduction”, 36.
[15] Giuseppe Pio Cascavilla, ““L’aimable visir”: Pierre David’s consulship under Hüsrev Mehemed Pasha’s rule as governor of Bosnia”, in French Historical Studies, in press.
[16] Virginia Aksan, Ottoman Wars, 1700-1870 : an Empire Besieged, (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 85.
[17] For the “age of ayans”, see Bruce McGowan, “The Age of Ayans, 1699-1812”, in An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, eds. Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 658-663. An analysis of the Balkans over this period is also offered in Frederick F. Anscombe, ed., The Ottoman Balkans, 1750-1830, (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006).

[18] A worth reading book about the internal and external challenges over this troubled period of Ottoman history is Virginia Aksan, Ottoman Wars, 1700-1870 : an Empire Besieged, (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).
Credits: The paint is “The Siege of Szigetvár” by Johann Peter Krafft.  Painted in 1825, this work was commissioned by the Austrian court and obviously it stresses the heroism of the extreme sacrifice of Zrínyi Miklós and his soldiers against the hated Ottomans.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Szigetv%C3%A1r#/media/File:Johann_Peter_Krafft_005.jpg




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