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The Principles Of Ottoman Rule On The Balkans.

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The principles of Ottoman rule in the Balkans


To make sense of the rapid changes in the last two hundred years of Balkan history, we need some sense of what went before, by looking at the Habsburg and Ottoman "old regimes" in the Early Modern period. The Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire are often (and usefully) presented together as natural rivals: one Catholic, the other Muslim; one western and European, the other eastern and Asian. You should already have some sense of the limits and pitfalls in such paired dichotomies. Also, such an approach misses the fact that these two countries had a great deal in common. Both were products of the late medieval period, and neither was well positioned to adjust to the driving forces of "modern" history: forces like nationalism, and the industrial revolution. They operated on the basis of pre-modern assumptions and institutions. We can begin to understand both countries, and their histories, by identifying a few key principles which shaped them. Those principles dictated the form of Ottoman and Habsburg history, and when those principles reached their limits, these states fell apart.

Ottoman principles

If we make a list of the principles behind a modern Western European state, we might include nationalism, and a notion that the state and the ethnic nation are ideally identical; the rule of law, and the accompanying idea of a constitution; and the fundamental place of the citizens as the embodiment of the country. In the Ottoman Empire, wholly different principles were at work. In its prime the Ottoman Empire was defined by its ruler, by its faith, and by its military, all acting together. If we understand these forces, we can see reasons for its great successes, and later for its great failures.

The military principle

All countries have a military: why then focus on this as a defining force? Because without doing so, one can't explain the rapid Turkish conquest of the Balkans, or the social institutions which were planted there.

The Turks are Muslims, but not Arabs. There was a general migration of Turkish-speaking nomads south into the Arab world after 700 CE. In 1055 Turks captured Baghdad and created the Seljuk Empire, still Islamic but no longer Arab-ruled. When the Mongols destroyed the Seljuk state in the 1200s, Turkish tribes scattered West into Anatolia: one of them came to be named for Osman, its leader. They became involved in the wars of the Byzantine Empire against Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Crusader states set up in Greece after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Ottoman Turkish soldiers first entered the Balkans around 1345 as Byzantine mercenaries, and later returned to conquer it. They soon defeated the Bulgars and the Serbs.

Incidentally, the Serbian defeat (which took place at the field of Kosovo) was a defining moment for Serbian history. First, there was a great killing which wiped out the nobility and knights and left the Serbs as a peasant nation. The democratic, populist, often vulgar nature of Serbian politics in modern times owes something to Kosovo. Second, enshrined in national legends and epic poetry, Kosovo encapsulated Serbian identity. The story of Kosovo allowed the Serbs to remember who they were, by remembering their enemies. Kosovo as a place remains part of the present day ethnic strife in the Kosovo region: even though its population today is mostly Albanian, the Serbs are as likely to give up this sanctified battle field as, say, Texans would be to return the Alamo to Mexico.

In 1444 at Varna Sultan Murad II crushed an intervening force of Hungarian, Polish, French and German crusaders. In 1453, scarcely 100 years after the Turks entered Europe, Sultan Mohammed II (known as "the Conqueror") took Constantinople by siege, with an army of 100,000 and some of the world's most modern artillery. In taking the city, Mohammed II erased the last remnant of the Roman Empire and subjugated the Greek world. Symbolizing the transition, the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, became a mosque.

After conquering Syria, Egypt, parts of the Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia, and North Africa as far as Algeria) Sultan Suleiman "the Magnificent" overran Moldavia and Bessarabia in the 1520s. At the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, his army killed 25,000 Hungarian knights and their king. The Ottoman forces reached their European high water mark in 1529, when they failed to take Vienna by siege (although they repeated the siege again in 1683).

The "military principle" behind the Ottoman Empire helps explain how a tribal society of nomadic mercenary cavalry soldiers from the steppes of Central Asia did so well. The Ottomans were successful conquerors for some good reasons:

First, by comparison with their feudal European rivals, the early Ottoman state and its armies were tightly organized and controlled.

Second, European rulers were divided amongst themselves, even at war with each other.

Third, Turkish armies were constantly reinforced by new waves of "ghazi" warriors from Central Asia, motivated by both religion and the prospect of spoils.

Fourth, early Ottoman rule was not unattractive to the mass of its conquered Christian and Jewish subjects. The Ottoman armies faced few threats from revolts in lands already conquered. More about this later.

The dynastic principle

Dynastic rule was the second principle behind the Ottoman state. In this, Turkey reflected medieval practice all over Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The country consisted of the accumulated conquests of the Ottoman ruling house, named after the border lord Osman, and passed down in the family. By the time of the Balkan conquests, the Ottoman rulers were no longer simply tribal "beys" but "sultans" who were full masters of secular life. A state treasury had appeared, distinct from the leader's private purse. To create a sophisticated state apparatus, the Ottomans freely adopted useful institutions from the societies they conquered. The Seljuk Turks had accepted Islamic religious, educational, and legal institutions, so that Ottoman society inherited a system of mosques, schools, and courts. The Ottomans now adopted a whole array of bureaucratic features from the Byzantines: taxes, court functions, feudal practices and systems of land tenure. These institutions were strong tools for the dynasty.

The Islamic principle

Islam was the third key principle for Ottoman society. Political, cultural



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