Armed Forces of the Ottoman Empire, 1683-1918

Virginia H. Aksan

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Armed Forces of the Ottoman Empire, 1683-1918

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The Ottoman Empire (c. 1300–1918) ruled over most of the territories of what is now known as the Middle East. The Ottomans were a Muslim dynasty (the house of Osman) that governed multireligious and multiethnic populations from the steppes of Russia to the Balkans and the Arabian Peninsula as well as Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, and Turkey from the 1300s to 1918. The Ottoman difference lies in its creation of a ruling class of any and all who would convert and join the sultan’s household. The military power of the dynasty was based initially on the assignment of military fiefs (timars) to a warrior class known as sipahis and the creation of a unique slave military infantry known as the Janissaries (new troops), who have been recognized as the first disciplined standing army of Europe. This combined cavalry and infantry power spread rapidly and absorbed and assimilated Byzantine lands and institutions. It twice fought its way to the gates of Vienna, the second time in 1683 when a coalition of European monarchs turned the tide in favor of Christendom. The date 1683 has ever since served as one of the great turning points of civilization in having come to represent the moment when the Turk was definitively turned back from the gates of Europe. The defeat led to a century of crisis and introspection on the part of the Ottomans, further disastrous defeats, and the gradual realization that the power of the once formidable Janissaries had inexorably weakened. Over the next century and a half, the entire premise of Ottoman rule, structured on patrimonial rule and sultanic largesse, would be altered in the struggle for survival. The results of that struggle included the decentralization of state revenues, the building of local paramilitary armies, and the blurring of the traditional categories of warrior (askeri) and peasant (reaya) classes. In addition, the period saw the creation of wealthy state officials who engineered (or resisted), largely from the 1790s to the 1830s, the destruction of the traditional armed forces and the creation of a new European-style disciplined, regimental force based on conscription of the Muslim population. The political contract that emerged in the era known as the Tanzimat period (1839–1877) constituted an Ottoman-style constitutional monarchy pledging equality of citizenship and taxation before the law even to non-Muslims, who had previously been tolerated as zimmi (people of the book) and excluded from military service. Despite such achievements, economic mismanagement, Christian and Muslim sectarianism, and continuous military pressure from Russia, coupled with empire-wide nationalist movements, led to further crushing defeats and the rise of a militarized and racialized Turkish nationalism in the Young Turks movement. More specifically, the Committee of Union and Progress, which relied on Prussian financing and know-how to reorganize and arm the military at the turn of the 19th century, entered World War I on the side of Germany in 1915, and collapsed into ashes along with the monarchies of Russia and Austria-Hungary at the end of that war in 1918.

Article.  5003 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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