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May 05, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany



Bassam Michael Madany

13 May 2022

I have been interested in the history of the Ottomans since my early days. My father served in the Ottoman Army during the Great War (WWI). I’m thankful that he was stationed in Cilicia, Asia Minor and spared the fate of most Syrian conscripts who were posted on the east bank of the Suez Canal facing the British forces on its western side, The poor living conditions, and the excessive heat of the Sinai Peninsula, caused the death of hundreds of Syrian soldiers, including my uncle John.

Who were the Ottomans and how did they achieve such a prominence for several centuries in many parts of the world? At this point, a brief history of Islam is needed.

The Prophet Muhammad died at Medina in 632 A.D., without instructions about the leadership of the nascent Islamic Umma (Nation.) A number of his prominent followers devised the institution of the Caliphate, i.e., the Succession; that meant exclusively for Governance, since Muhammad was considered as the Last and Seal of Allah’s Messengers. The first four Caliphs were not related, they ruled from 632 to 661. Serious disputes took place among the Muslims in Medina, resulting in the assassination of three Caliphs.

A new phase of the Caliphate began with the Umayyad dynasty in 661, that moved the Capital from Medina to Damascus, Syria. The Umayyads began the Futuhat, as the Islamic conquests were called. Between 632 and 732, the Islamic Empire had spread eastward as far as India, and westward to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain.

The Umayyads employed Arabs in their army. Their rule was contested by Muslim factions who questioned the legitimacy of their Caliphate. In 750, they were defeated by the Abbasids who were descendants of Abbas, an uncle of Muhammad. The Abbasids built their capital Baghdad, on the shores of the Tigris River in Iraq. Gradually, they lost power; rival Caliphates sprung up in Andalusia (Spain) and in Cairo, Egypt. Eventually, the converted Turks of Central Asia, founded the Ottoman Empire, adding new territories to Islam, in eastern and central Europe. They conquered Constantinople in 1453 and expanded deep into the Middle East and North Africa. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I following the defeat of the Mamluks rulers of Egypt, assumed the position of Caliph of the Muslim world in 1517.

The Ottomans in Europe

From the late Middle Ages up to the early years of the twentieth century, the Ottomans sought to expand their domains in Europe. After they occupied Constantinople in 1453, their campaigns centered on Central Europe. The Battle of Mohacs in 1526, gave them control over the southwestern part of Hungary. The Ottomans mounted their first attack on Vienna in 1529. They tried again in 1683 with a force of 140,000 men. To stop this invasion, a Holy League was formed of Austria and Poland. Vienna was besieged for two months, however, the Ottomans failed in their attempt, thanks to the help Austria received from the Polish-Lithuanian League. That was a turning point in history, after which the Ottomans ceased to be a serious threat to Europe.

During the 19th century, the Ottomans were preoccupied with wars against Russia, which enabled the Serbs to free themselves from Ottoman rule (1804-1817). Greece achieved its emancipation from the Ottomans in the war of (1821-1832). The Ottomans lost all their lands in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1914-1918 War.

This much, the history of the Ottoman Empire told according to conventional historiography. Unfortunately, this approach leaves unmentioned the lasting impact of those conquests on the lives of the conquered societies. To give a balanced account requires a Social History of the Ottoman’s European Conquests is required. When this pathway is followed, It reveals the existence of a little-known feature of Ottoman Imperialism: “The Institution of the Devshirme.”

The Devshirme is a Turkish term that describes the Ottoman practice of taking away   young Christian boys from their families in the Balkans. Ottoman soldiers would enter a town and head to the Orthodox Church. They compelled the Parish Priest to procure the Baptismal Record revealing the names and ages of the boys born in the parish.

“With that list on hand, the five-year old boys and older, were taken away from their parents and sent to Istanbul where they were Islamized and trained for various positions in the empire. They were given a formal education, and trained in science, warfare, and bureaucratic administration, and became advisers to the sultan, elite infantry, generals in the army, admirals in the navy, and bureaucrats working on finance in the Ottoman Empire. They were separated according to ability and could rise in rank based on merit. The most talented, were trained for the highest positions in the empire. Sometimes, the devshirme recruits were castrated and became eunuchs to serve at the haremi.  Others joined the military, including the famed the corps of the Janissariesii.”

The Ottoman’s Devshirme robbed families of their sons in Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Armenia, and other parts of eastern and central Europe. The pain inflicted on families who lost their sons, is beyond measure. It became an unforgettable part of the collective memory of Eastern Christians who lived under the Ottoman rule. The Institution’s legacy must not be forgotten as other historical events have been, such as the Genocide of East African Slaves, related by Tidiane N’Diaye, in his book, “The Veiled Genocide: A Forgotten Historic Tragedy.iii The book is available in a French edition only. While it was published in France in 2008, no English edition has appeared fourteen years later!

Publishing this article on The Ottomans’ Conquests In Europe must not be construed as an attempt to cover up the sins of European Imperialism. The difference is that the former have not been confessed, while the latter were acknowledged by Western nations.

For example, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain, made it clear in his “The Winds of Change” speech at Cape Town in South Africa, on 3 February 1960.                        

“We have tried to learn and apply the lesson of our judgement of right and wrong. Our justice is rooted in the same soil as yours - in Christianity and in the rule of law as the basis of a free society. This experience of our own explains why it has been our aim in the countries for which we have borne responsibility, not only to raise the material standards of living, but also to create a society which respects the rights of individuals, a society in which men are given the opportunity to grow to their full stature - and that must in our view, include the opportunity to have an increasing share in political power and responsibility, a society in which individual merit and individual merit alone, is the criterion for a man's advancement, whether political or economic.”iv

While British, French, and Dutch decolonization took place without much struggle, it was not the case with the Belgian and Portuguese decolonization process, which was slow and violent. On the other hand, we should not forget a great cultural legacy of the European colonialists: the Latin script for the alphabetization of the African and Asiatic languages, which contributed to the spread of literacy among the various strands of society. A key role was played by Christian missionaries laboring in the field of translating the Bible into national languages. The French helped Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, by giving them a Latin-based alphabet, thus liberating them from the Chinese Ideographic symbols they had previously used.

In our globalized world where the Internet and the Social Media have broken down the walls of secrecy and isolation, it’s become extremely necessary to give revised and accurate versions of history. In fact, there are hopeful signs on the horizon as Arab Reformist scholars are calling for a revised version of Early Islamic History.

The Tunisian scholar Héla Ouardi published a book in French “The Last Days of the Prophet” where she dealt with the confusion that surrounded the passing of Muhammad. Three years later, she published, “The Cursed Califs”, a reference to the early disputes in Islam resulting in the rise of Sunni and Shi’ite Islam.  To appreciate the changing cultural scene in some parts of the Arab world, watch this Interview of Professor Ouardi done in French:

« Ouardi, chercheuse au CNRS est spécialiste de l’islam et de littérature française Trois ans après « Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad », dans lequel elle revenait sur la mort de Mahomet, elle publie « Les Califes maudits. La Déchirure » (Éditions Albin Michel).


i The Imperial Harem was the Ottoman sultan's harem – composed of the wives, servants (both female slaves and eunuchs), female relatives and the sultan's concubines – occupying a secluded portion (seraglio) of the Ottoman imperial household.[1] This institution played an important social function within the Ottoman court, and wielded considerable political authority in Ottoman affairs, especially during the long period known as the Sultanate of Women (approximately 1533 to 1656).

Ottoman Imperial Harem - Wikipedia

iiJanissaries began as elite corps made up through the Devshirme system by which AlbaniansArmeniansBulgariansCroatsGreeks, and Serbs were taken, levied, subjected to circumcision and conversion to Islam, and incorporated into the Ottoman army. They became famed for internal cohesion cemented by strict discipline and order. Unlike typical slaves, they were paid regular salaries. Forbidden to marry before the age of 40 or engage in trade, their complete loyalty to the Sultan was expected. By the seventeenth century, due to a dramatic increase in the size of the Ottoman standing army, the corps' initially strict recruitment policy was relaxed. Civilians bought their way into it in order to benefit from the improved socioeconomic status it conferred upon them. Consequently, the corps gradually lost its military character, undergoing a process that has been described as "civilianization".

The Janissaries were a formidable military unit in the early years, but as Western Europe modernized its military organization technology, the Janissaries became a reactionary force that resisted all change. Steadily the Ottoman military power became outdated, but when the Janissaries felt their privileges were being threatened, or outsiders wanted to modernize them, or they might be superseded by the cavalrymen, they rose in rebellion. By the time the Janissaries were suppressed, it was too late for Ottoman military power to catch up with the West.  The corps was abolished by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826 in the Auspicious Incident, in which 6,000 or more were executed.  Janissary - Wikipedia                     

iii In 2008, Editions Gallimard published Le Génocide Voilé. The author, Tidiane N’Diaye, is a Senegalese anthropologist and economist, living in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

iv Harold Macmillan: The Wind of Change Speech, 3 Feb. 1960 Address by Harold Macmillan to Members of Houses of the Parliament of the Union Of South Africa, Cape Town, 3 February 1960                     

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