The Ottoman and Seljuk empiresby Rit Nosotro
Compare the rise and fall of the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Modern age, two Turkish empires have greatly influenced the events of history in the Middle East and abroad. From the steppes of Asia and the tribe of Oghuz came the Seljuk Turks who would establish the Seljuk empire in the 10th century, dominating the East to West trade routes and threatening the western world. Several hundred years later at the beginning of the 14th century, Osman, another Oghuz leader, would migrate to the Middle East and establish an even greater empire, the Ottoman empire. This empire would succeed in conquering the Byzantine empire-a feat that the Seljuk empire had failed to accomplished. While the comparisons and distinctions between the Seljuk and Ottoman empires abound, most of them revolve around the same issues.
A Brief History
In the late 10th century, Seljuk, an Oghuz chieftain, and his tribe converted to Sunni Islam. He then migrated into the area of Persia from the North, conquering various tribes as he went, and established the beginning of his empire1. Through the succession of sultans after him, the Seljuk empire expanded, and under the later control of Sultan Alp Arslan the empire stretched to its greatest extent with its eastern border against China and its western border against the Byzantine empire2. Under Alp Arslan's son, Togrul III, the empire then declined and turned into a variety of Turkish principalities, the greatest of which was the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia3.
During the decline of the Seljuk empire in the 11th century into individual principalities, another Oghuz tribe, the Ottomans, migrated into the area and became mercenaries to the Seljuks4. As the legend goes, when the Ottoman chieftain Ertugral, father of Osman, saw a battle between the Seljuks and the invading Mongols, he intervened and saved the Seljuks. Seljuk Sultan Kaihusrev II then rewarded Ertugral with the land of the battlefield. Following the death of Ertugral, his son Osman established the lands independence as another Turkish principality-the beginning of the Ottoman empire5. Although the empire would see its golden years under the beloved Sultan Suleyman (who the Muslims considered to be the second Solomon6), his son, Selim II, and the sultans following him intervened less in the matters of the empire. In this way the empire began its decline7.
Following many losses to Russia and Europe as well as internal revolts of Ottoman territories, the empire lost most of its lands. Soon a revolution to westernize and modernize the empire began through the liberal nationalist "young Turks" and their leader Ataturk8. When World War I arose, the empire sided with the Germans, were defeated, and then parceled out into French and English territories until it could once again establish independence. Only a few years passed until the formation of the current country of the Republic of Turkey in 1922 with Ataturk as its first president. This new, western, secular, republic became only a shadow of its former self-a very powerful, eastern, Islamic empire that had survived over six hundred years9.
Geography and wars with the Byzantine Empire
Of all the important aspects of the Seljuk and Ottoman empires, the greatest was its geographical placement on the crossroads of the Medieval world. Situated between the regions of Africa, Asia, India and Europe10, both empires controlled the trade routes and the famous Silk Road11 and exacted taxes from the trade12. Yet this source of income came with a high price. Their unique placement in the middle of the world created enemies on all sides. They had to protect themselves from both the hordes of Asia on their eastern border and the armies of Europe to the west.
With all their geographical similarities, two differences are evident- the extent of their empires and the economic value of the trade routes. Although the Seljuk empire stretched wide across the Middle Eastern world and threatened the Byzantine empire, the Ottoman empire grew even larger. The Ottomans conquered the entire Byzantine empire and extended their empire to "Europe as far north as Hungary and part of southern Russia; Iran; the Palestinian coastline; Egypt; and North Africa" 13. Both empires initially held the keys to East to West trade. During their supremacy, the Seljuks reconstructed the old Roman roads, built caravansaries where caravans could rest during their long travel14, and provided state insurance for losses that the traders may encounter15. Yet this great source of income began to decline during the Ottoman empire due to the discovery of new trade routes by the Europeans that circumvented the Turkish roads. These new trade routes cut deeply into the revenue of the Ottoman empire and became a major factor in its decline16.
Because of their geographical placement against Europe, both the Islamic Seljuk and Ottoman empires constantly fought with the Christian empire of Byzantium. In the battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Seljuks won a great victory against the Byzantine army, capturing the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes17. Shortly after his release and return to Byzantine territory, Romanus was killed by his own people partially due to his shameful defeat by the Turks18. While the Seljuks enjoyed a great victory in the battle of Manzikert which enabled them to further their conquest of Anatolia19, they never succeeded in conquering the Byzantine empire as a whole. But where the Seljuks had failed the Ottomans succeeded. Through their constant conquests into Europe, the Ottomans had engulfed all except Constantinople of the Byzantine empire by 1452. One year later Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and established it as his capital which finally ended the 1100 year long empire of Byzantine20.
Islam played an important role in the society and government of both Turkish states. Togrul Beg, leader of the Seljuks in the 11th century, was made Sultan by the caliph of Baghdad, of whom Togrul had named himself protector. Togrul then began his war against the Shia Muslims who rejected the authority of the Caliph of Baghdad21. Sultan Suleyman (1520-156622) of the Ottoman empire took it one step further and became himself caliph of all Islam. He continued warfare against Islamic ruling dynasties who no longer followed orthodox Islam23. Under this Islamic power many Christians and Europeans became Muslims.
Besides a mass conversion to Islam in Bosnia and extensive Muslim settlements in Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania24; another important Islamic influence of the Ottoman empire was Devsirme (child-tribute). Between the 15th and 19th centuries, military officers of the Ottoman empire brought Christian boys from the Balkans to become part of the famed Janissaries in the army or part of the Ottoman administration25. Over the entire span of its operation, twenty-thousand to thirty-thousand boys, usually between the ages of eight to ten, were taken26. Once part of the Devsirme most of them converted to Islam27. Despite the fact that they came from Christian families, the Sultan treated them well and some of them were promoted to high positions in the government and army, even to the position of "vizier", advisor to the Sultan28.
While Islam played an important role in both Turkish empires, they also both practiced religious tolerance. In the Seljuk sultanate of Rum the ruling class governed mostly Anatolian Christians, with a significant Jewish population29. Within this society "churches and synagogues flourished"30. In the latter years of the Ottoman empire religious tolerance progressed even further. By 1839 and 1856 the Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber and the Imperial edict gave "all non-Muslims the same rights and duties as Muslims"31. The 1876 constitution also stated, "All individuals who are citizens of the Ottoman State are considered Ottoman regardless of Religion or Sect"32.
Fall of Empires and Summary
Finally, while both empires rose from similar backgrounds, following their decline and fall, they birthed completely different nations. Both empires came from the Oghuz tribe of Asia yet they transferred their beliefs and traditions differently to the Turkish nation after them. In the 14th century the Turkish principalities that had formerly comprised of the Seljuk empire passed on their Islamic beliefs and eastern traditions to the rising Ottoman empire. This new empire then maintained them for several centuries until its decline. After the reign of Suleyman, the Ottoman empire declined until Europe had surpassed it in "science, technology, industry, education, commerce and military might"33. Internal revolutions began calling for modernization and westernization34, and following the destruction of the empire in World War I, the new Republic of Turkey emerged with a president, not a Sultan. This new president, Ataturk, then legislated a variety of revolutionary reforms never before seen in an Islamic state35. He adopted European style law codes and abolished the Islamic codes of Shari'ah and kanun. Furthermore he abolished the mystic orders of Islam, the Arabic call to prayer, and even the Islamic caliphate. In so doing he destroyed centuries of traditions held by two powerful empires and crafted a new secular state-an achievement that few, if any, Islamic states have accomplished36.
In summary, both the Ottoman and Seljuk empires influenced the world in similar ways. Both came from small tribes and expanded into large Islamic empires that had similar geographical placement. From there they both controlled the same trade routes, fought similar battles, and decreed similar religious standards. Yet in most areas the Ottomans extended further, able to build an empire from already established Turkish principalities instead of started from nothing as the Seljuks did. Monetarily the Ottoman trade routes failed, yet against the Byzantine empire they succeeded. They influenced Christianity further through these conquests and through the Devsirme. As the Ottoman Empire declined and then re-birthed into a Republic, the Turks offered religious minorities equal opportunities. Over a period of nearly nine hundred years these Turkish empires, strategically placed between the East and West, influenced religion and the surrounding world in a powerful and unique way.
1"Seljuk Turks." Wikipedia. 3 Sep. 2004. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seljuk_Turks> (October 8, 2004)
4Serif Yenen. "The Seljuk Period." Turkish Odyssey. 1997. <www.turkishodyssey.com/turkey/history/history3.htm#SELJUK> (October 8, 2004)
5"Ottoman History: 1299-1400." TheOttomans.org. 2002. <http://www.theottomans.org/english/history/history1299_2.asp> (October 8, 2004)
6Richard Hooker. "The Ottomans: Sulleyman." Washington State University: World Civilizations. 1996. < www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/OTTOMAN/SULEYMAN.HTM > (October 8, 2004)
8Richard Hooker. "European Imperialism and Crisis." Washington State University: World Civilizations. 1996. <www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/OTTOMAN/EUROPE.HTM > (October 8, 2004)
9Tom Brasnahan. "The Ottoman Turks." Turkey Travel Planer. 2004. < www.turkeytravelplanner.com/TravelDetails/History/Ottomans.html > (October 8, 2004)
10Richard Hooker. "The Ottomans: The 17th and 18th Centuries." Washington State University: World Civilizations. 1996. < www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/OTTOMAN/17TH.HTM > (October 8, 2004)
11Yenen, "The Seljuk Period."
12Hooker, "The Ottomans: The 17th and 18th Centuries."
13"Ottoman Empire" Tiscali. N.A. <www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0011548.html> (October 8, 2004)
14"Culture: The Seljuk Turks." Turkeyguide.com. 2001. < www.turkeyguide.com/culture/history015.htm > (October 8, 2004)
15Yenen, "The Seljuk Period."
16Hooker, "The Ottomans: The 17th and 18th Centuries."
17Tom Brosnahan. "The Seljuk Turks." Turkey Travel Planner. 2004. <www.turkeytravelplanner.com/TravelDetails/History/Seljuks.html> (October 8, 2004)
18Dr. Begench Karayev. "Causus Belli: A Historical Lesson." New Central Asia. N.A. <www.newscentralasia.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=757> (October 8, 2004)
19Yenen, "The Seljuk Period."
20Brasnahan, "The Ottoman Turks."
21"Seljuks." BELIEVE Religious Information Source. N.A. <http://mb-soft.com/believe/txh/seljuk.htm> (October 8, 2004)
22"The Brief History of Turks." OttomanSouvenir.com. N.A. <www.ottomansouvenir.com/General/the_brief_history.htm> (October 8, 2004)
23Hooker, "The Ottomans: Sulleyman."
24"Brief History of Ottoman Empire". OttomanSouvenir.com. N.A. <www.ottomansouvenir.com/General/more_on_ottoman_empire.htm> (October 8, 2004)
25 Tore Kjeilen. "Devsirme." Encyclopaedia of the Orient. 2004. < i-cias.com/e.o/devsirme.htm> (October 8, 2004)
27 Tore Kjeilen. "Janissaries." Encyclopaedia of the Orient. 2004. <i-cias.com/e.o/janissaries.htm> (October 8, 2004)
29Brosnahan, "The Seljuk Turks."
31"Brief History of Ottoman Empire"
32"The Brief History of Turks."
33Brasnahan, "The Ottoman Turks."
34 Hooker, "European Imperialism and Crisis."
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