10. The Old World Empires

10.9 The Ottomans: the third colonial empire

The Turkish tribes that had replaced the Huns as the main power in Central Asia after Attila’s death protected China, which it even sometimes directly ruled (the Wei dynasty). Most of these Turkish tribes had evolved a culture based on artisanate, smelting of iron, commerce, money and a script derived from the Syriac. Christian Manichean (since 762, Manicheism became the official Christian religion of the powerful Ouighurs) and Christian Nestorian Turks lived in stone houses, raised horses, camels and sheep and intensively practiced agriculture. The steppe, under their influence, receded before well-irrigated fields. These Christian tribes staunchly opposed the penetration of Islam in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz annihilated the Christian Ouighurs in 840 and other Turks, the followers of Seljuk, were islamized in the process of conquering Persia.

These Moslem Turks inflicted on Byzantium the disaster of Mantzikert in August 1071. This catastrophe, the Turkish occupation of the Holy Land, an increase in European population numbers, the possibility for the Latin and Greek Christianities to restore Unity by a joint military action against Infidels prompted the initiation of the crusades. These crusades were in fact the European attempt to conquer the two imperial successor states. The Europeans took and looted Constantinople, established a Latin Empire that signified the beginning of the end for Byzantium, and occupied militarily the Holy Land. The Latin Empire lasted only 50 years. The Crusades were discontinued and the Turks eventually carried away the prize, after, however, a severe drawback.

The Turkish conquest was first delayed by the Mongols and later by Timberline, who ravaged Persia (1383), North India (1398), and Persia again repeatedly, and he tried to destroy the Turkish power in Syria (1400) and Anatolia (1402). This Moslem warrior followed the recommendation of Mohammed to the letter: the end justifies the means and the means applied, the jihad, were gruesome. According to René Gousset, “Timberline joined to ferocity a taste for religious murder. He killed by coranic piety. He represents the synthesis, that probably was missing in History, of Mongolic barbarity and Moslem fanaticism“.

After Timberline’s death, the Ottoman Empire was resurrected and Mohammed II took Byzantium on 29 May 1453. Artillery won the night and the Basileus fell, arms in hand, fighting heroically, tragically abandoned by a West distracted with futile quarrels (the “100 years war” 1347-1450).

The Ottomans savagely conquered the whole of the Old Empire and made it larger than the Roman one. Arabic Islam had to bow to them, Persia and India were conquered but Latin Christendom escaped for the most part from their rule, as also Russia, heir to the fallen Byzantium. The Empire continued to be ruled with ruthlessness and brutality from Constantinople. Mohammed II asserted: “Our empire is the fatherland of Islam. From father to son, we aliment the lamp of Islam with the oil that we press out of the heart of the unbelievers”. And deeds followed words: the elite corps of the Ottoman armies was composed of Albanians and Kosovars who pitilessly destroyed and annihilated all opposition (see fig. 10.35). They have forever thereafter been hated by the Orthodox Slavs.


Figure 10.35. The Janissary. Scene of the beginning of the XVIth century. Woodcarving. Austrian peasants are brought in captivity. Their killed baby is carried on the lance of the janissary.

The pitiless Janissaries were Christians of low extraction recruited between ages 10 and 20 in Albania, the Kosovo, Hungary and other Christian provinces, and formed to become elite soldiers dedicated to the protection of the Sultan.

The Ottoman Empire was a model of a colonial Empire, where everything was the property of the Sultan. The fundamental weakness of the new Moslem rulers was their religion: they were Sunnites and their legitimacy was perennially questioned by the Shiites and by the Christians of the Empire while the Koran was a holy book written in Arabic, that could neither be translated into Turkish nor questioned. The Shiites now rule over Iran. They adhere to the teaching of Ali, the son –in – law of Mohamed, whom they consider his rightful successor. The Sunnites adhere to the teaching and practices of Mohamed, as exposed in the Sunna. Contrary to accepted opinion, Sunnites are much more integrist and fanatical than Shiites.

The greed of the Ottoman rulers was a second weakness because it paralyzed private initiative of any citizen of the empire, who could be dispossessed of all his belongings and even killed, at the whim of the ruler. The third weakness was the savagery of the ruling military class, which precluded any rendition from the enemies: twenty Turkish assaults were needed to take Belgrade in 1521. Rhodes resisted 115,000 Turks during 6 months with 12,000 men. After the battle of Mohacs, on 29 August 1526, most of the Hungarian nobility, including the king, preferred to die in combat rather than surrender and Suleiman II executed the remaining 12,000 prisoners. Hungary became “the place where the hammer wielded by the thirst of conquest of the Turks but also by the French foreign policy, did not stop to fall”. In 1529, the 20,000 defenders of Vienna successfully opposed 300,000 Turks.

During that time, the West developed weapons sufficiently effective to stall any encroachment of Ottoman rule on Latin lands, with the exception of Hungary. Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) repeatedly failed to capture Vienna. The formidable naval battle of Lepantus (1571) engaged near the Gulf of Corinth was fought with archaic galleys on both sides, but the Western powers involved also had at their disposition three-masted galleons that were the sea-fortresses of the day. This victory – gained despite France’s preferred alliance with the Turks and despite the absence of English vessels- announced to the world that it would soon have to reckon with the West.

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