The Ottoman Empire: Economy & Religion

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

For around 600 years, the Ottoman Empire controlled much of southern Europe and the Middle East. The empire was influenced by Islam and operated as the primary trade route between east and west.

Foundations of an Empire

From about 1301-1922, the Ottomans ruled an empire that included Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and much of coastal North Africa. That's a lot of land! For centuries the Ottomans had to go to war to protect their power and territory.

In the mid-15th century, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city known at the time as Constantinople and defeated the Byzantine Empire. He slaughtered and exiled people before rebuilding the city as Istanbul, the city of Islam, and made it capital of the newly expanded Ottoman Empire. From that point, the Ottomans became an important part of the European political and economic landscape.

Sultan Mehmet II
Sultan Mehmet II

Ottoman Religion: Islam

When Mehmet conquered Constantinople, he defeated the 1100 year old Byzantines, who were Christian, and installed Islam as the governing ideology of the Ottoman Empire. Theology, jurisprudence, education, expansion, etc., were all based in Islamic tradition. Additionally, as the Empire controlled the territories that included the three holiest Muslim sites - Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem - Ottoman Sultans felt an obligation to act as the protectors of Islam itself and as such were also caliphs (spiritual and political leaders of Muslims worldwide).

The sultan/caliph was required to rule using Islamic law, also known as sharia. Islamic religious knowledge was taught in schools that were state-run and widespread. The military traveled throughout the world, from Spain to Sumatra (Indonesia) to fight for persecuted Muslims. The identity and characteristics of the Ottoman Empire were defined by Islam.

Yet, not all citizens of the Ottoman Empire were Muslims. Christians and Jews were permitted to live and practice in their territories under the millet system. Millets were small groups of like minded people that elected their own leaders and enforced their own laws. Still, each millet operated under the Sultan and paid taxes. The most invasive tax was the devshirme, or gathering system, in which non-Muslims were required to surrender some of their male children to the state to become slaves, soldiers, or occasionally government workers.

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