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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: July 2013

2 - The Ottomans, 1451–1603

from Part I - An Expanding Empire


The period from the second accession of Mehmed II in 1451 to the accession of Ahmed III in 1603 was one in which the Ottoman Empire was to reach the limits of its territorial expansion, stretching from Iran in the east to Hungary in the west, from the Crimea in the north to the borders of Morocco in the south. The empire truly became a world power, one of the major players in the politics of Europe (see Brummett, Chapter 3, this volume) and a dominant naval power in the Mediterranean (see Fleet, Chapter 5, this volume). With the conquest of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans took control of the Red Sea and entered the Indian Ocean, where they clashed with the Portuguese for control of the lucrative trade routes from the east (see Özbaran, Chapter 6, this volume). From the early sixteenth century onwards, the Ottomans were constantly challenged by the Safavid state of Iran, which effectively undermined the Ottomans’ ability to control their territory and secure the loyalty of their population in eastern Anatolia, and with whom warfare was particularly exacting as, after the calamity of Çaldıran in 1514, they avoided direct military confrontation, preferring retreat and scorched-earth tactics. Ottoman victories against the Safavids were thus often pyrrhic ones (see Boyar, Chapter 4, this volume).

The reigns of Mehmed II, Bayezid II and Selim I and the first half of the reign of Süleyman I represent a period of rapid conquest with an expanding state pursuing generally lucrative wars. By the middle of the sixteenth century, however, warfare had become more demanding and less rewarding, and the state became increasingly faced with the need to secure borders rather than extend them. The period was thus one in which the empire, as Géza Dávid (Chapter 9, this volume) notes, “reached the apogee of its military potential” but also one in which its effective military strength, although still formidable, began to decline.

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