An Animated History of the Ottoman Empire (1299 — 1922)

His­to­ry is selec­tive. Or, rather, it’s select­ed by those in pow­er for their own uses. Nowhere do we see this more than in nation­al­ist re-imag­in­ings of an impe­r­i­al past, whether it be British, Roman, or, in the case of mod­ern Turkey, Ottoman. “Much has been writ­ten,” notes Time magazine’s Alan Mikhail, “about [Turk­ish pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s attempts to ‘res­ur­rect’ the Ottoman Empire or to style him­self a sul­tan.” Erdogan’s turn to hard­line Islam has been inspired by one par­tic­u­lar sul­tan, Selim I, under whose rule, “the Ottoman Empire grew from a strong region­al pow­er to a gar­gan­tu­an glob­al empire.” Mikhail com­pares Selim to anoth­er his­tor­i­cal fig­ure famed for sin­gle-mind­ed intol­er­ance: Andrew Jack­son, a hero of the for­mer Unit­ed States pres­i­dent.

Erdogan’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Ottoman Empire some­times seems to have more in com­mon with ear­ly Euro­pean ideas about the empire than its ideas about itself. Euro­pean writ­ers in the 16th and 17th cen­tu­ry linked the Ottomans with Islamist repres­sion, an Ori­en­tal­ist take on Turk­ish pow­er as a dan­ger­ous yet seduc­tive new ene­my. “The glo­ri­ous Empire of the Turkes, the present ter­rour of the world,” wrote Richard Knolles in his 1603 Gen­er­all His­to­rie of the Turkes, “hath amongst oth­er things noth­ing in it more won­der­ful or strange, than the poore begin­ning of itselfe….” These same sen­ti­ments were echoed in 1631 by Eng­lish writer John Speed, who described the “sud­den advance­ment” of the Empire as “a ter­rour to the whole world.” Like­wise, Andrew Moore in 1659 wrote of “this bar­barous Nation, the worlds present ter­rour,” a nation with a “small & obscure begin­ning.”

All empires have small begin­nings. In the case of the Ottomans, the sto­ry begins with Osman I, a trib­al leader of obscure ori­gins who found­ed the Empire in Ana­to­lia some 300 years before the authors above put pen to paper. (The word “Ottoman” derives from his name.) A series of con­quests fol­lowed, the most dra­mat­ic occur­ring in 1453 when Mehmed the Con­quer­er entered Con­stan­tino­ple, effec­tive­ly end­ing the Byzan­tine Empire, an event you can see high­light­ed in the video above, an “entire his­to­ry of the Ottoman Empire” — all 600 years of it — from 1299 to 1922. Such an extend­ed peri­od of con­quest and influ­ence led, of course, to a vari­ety of views about the nature of the Ottomans, not least among the Ottomans them­selves, who saw them­selves not as Mus­lim invaders of Europe but as the right­ful heirs of Rome. Indeed, edu­cat­ed Ottomans referred to them­selves not as “Turks,” a word for the peas­antry, but as Rūmī, “Roman.”

In many ways, the Ottomans — bloody con­quests, slav­ery, geno­cides and all — took after the Romans. “Obvi­ous­ly they saw val­ue in spread­ing reli­gion,” says David Lesch, pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East his­to­ry at Trin­i­ty Uni­ver­si­ty in San Anto­nio. But they did not share the nar­ra­tive of a “clash of civ­i­liza­tions” favored by Euro­pean writ­ers of the time, and cer­tain revi­sion­ists today. “The Ottoman Empire saw itself as very much, even more so a Euro­pean empire than a Mid­dle East­ern empire. And they took a very tol­er­ant view toward non-Mus­lims since for most of the Ottoman Empire — espe­cial­ly when it was at its largest — most of its pop­u­la­tion was non-Mus­lim. It was in fact Chris­t­ian.” The obser­va­tion brings to mind the cen­tral claim of Turk­ish schol­ar Namık Kemal’s influ­en­tial essay “Europe Knows Noth­ing about the Ori­ent,” in which he writes that Euro­pean schol­ars have failed to under­stand the “true char­ac­ter such as ours, which is so close to them that … it might as well be touch­ing their eye­lash­es.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Down­load Thou­sands of Ottoman-Era Pho­tographs That Have Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

The Rise and Fall of West­ern Empires Visu­al­ized Through the Art­ful Metaphor of Cell Divi­sion

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Ani­mat­ed Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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