For more than six centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, coming to rule a massive empire that stretched from Persia to the borders of Hungary and Poland, through the Middle East and across Northern Africa. Rising into power in a vacuum left behind by the Mongol invasions and the sweep of the Black Death, the Ottomans remained an empire until the aftermath of the first World War. During that time they were central to the political events in Europe and the Near East, ruling a fractious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious empire.
The Ottoman empire was founded by Islamic warriors, fighting in the service of Seljuk Persians against the Byzantines. These semi-nomadic people from Central Asia settled in Anatolia, and after the Mongol Empire had swept aside the Seljuks, Osman I founded the Ottoman dynasty, originally ruling a small patch of Anatolia around Bursa. It was a precarious position, bordered by Turkmen rulers on one side and the still-formidable Byzantines on the other. But Central Asia was in a state of political and cultural flux as a result of the Mongol invasions, and the Ottomans were successful in attracting people willing to fight for an expansion of their territory at the expense of the Byzantines.
The Ottomans chipped away at Byzantine-held territories in the Balkans and modern-day Turkey. Likewise they were able to make military and political gains at the expense of rival Islamic powers, like the Seljuks and Turkmen, coming to rule most of Europe south of the Danube. Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, marking the end of the Byzantines and the last link to the Roman Empire. Sultans Selim I and Suleiman I brought the empire to its height of territorial dominance, adding Egypt, the Levant, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Europe as far as Hungary, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia.
Suleiman's reign is seen as the high water mark for the Ottoman Empire, a golden age marked by military conquest, political and legal reform, monumental construction, and patronage of the arts and crafts. Life in the Ottoman Empire was governed through a complex intermix of secular codes, Islamic jurisprudence, and regional custom, and social ranks and hierarchies. The Janissary soldiers are an illustrative example of this mix of practices. Originally these were Christian-born boys who were consigned to the Ottoman state as tax or tribute, converted to Islam and raised in the strict, martial life of a soldier. Janissary life was governed by strict laws and discipline. They were forbidden to marry or own significant property, and were intensely loyal and considered the elite infantry of the empire.
The Ottoman empire was an integral part of the European political calculus of wars and alliances for centuries, sometimes allying with, and sometimes fighting against the various nations. Even for nations that did not actively fear Ottoman invasion, there was a healthy respect for the military and economic power of the empire. For most of the Renaissance and early Industrial period, there was a simmering conflict between the Islamic Ottomans and the Christian Europeans, with both sides choosing to emphasize the religious difference during times of conflict, while downplaying the difference during eras of peace.
A period of slow decline followed the reign of Suleiman, as subsequent Sultans were unable to engage as effectively with the business of directly administering as sovereign. Military reversals followed, like the naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571. Still, the empire proved resilient enough to persist for centuries, and Ottoman armies lay siege to Vienna multiple times, with the last of these, in 1683, representing the last time Europe was seriously threatened by the empire's expansion.
World War I marked the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans backed the Central Powers against the Entente, which proved disastrous for the nation. Ancient institutions had not reformed sufficiently to allow for political recovery. Rising Turkish nationalism and movements for independence throughout the empire splintered it further. The Young Turks, under Mustafa Kemal, created a Turkish republic in 1920, with control of the remaining Ottoman territories being divided amongst the victors.
The Ottoman Empire is remarkable for many qualities: Its military conquests, its successful unification of much of the Islamic world under a single political entity, and the qualities of its arts and architecture. Rising as it did from the plague- and invasion-shattered world at the crossroads of three continents, its institutions were durable and flexible to face centuries of challenges.