Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
At its height in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman empire linked three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. The empire stretched from the southern borders of the Holy Roman Empire through Hungary and the Balkans to Yemen and Eritrea in the south, controlling much of North Africa and western Asia, and encompassing an array of cultures, languages, peoples, climates and social and political structures. This combination of a vast territory, a diversity of incorporated populations and longevity makes the Ottoman empire a perfect case through which to explore the connection between empire and bureaucracy. The Ottomans demonstrate how premodern empires could have strong bureaucratic features, while retaining a degree of institutional flexibility that enabled imperial, patrimonial and bureaucratic forms of rule to interact with one another. This chapter explores the bureaucratic as well as the patrimonial and non-bureaucratic aspects of rule in the Ottoman empire, especially at the height of the Süleymanic era (1520–66) when a bureaucracy – characterized by routinized office holding, trained office holders and rules and regulations for maintaining office – had taken root at the core regions of the empire. The Ottoman empire was, however, a particularly mixed case because of the complex layering of direct and indirect rule which resulted in variations in the degree of the patrimonial-bureaucratic mix between the core and periphery of the empire. The Ottomans benefitted from both the bureaucratic and patrimonial features of their rule, which sometimes tugged against each other, but also cooperated to routinize Ottoman rule.
Conceptualizing Ottoman Imperial Rule
The Ottoman state grew out of a small principality at the edges of Anatolia in the aftermath of the decline and parcellization of the Seljuk empire in the later twelfth century CE.Beginning with Osman Gazi (d. 1326), the descendants of the House of Osman both fought and engaged in economic and political relations with their contemporaries across the frontiers. When it suited them, they allied with other frontier lords (beğs), Christian princes and Turcoman tribes. Even if these alliances were forged as equals, soon enough the Ottomans began to be considered, in religion and in law, as first among them. Osman's son Orhan (r. 1326–62) took the title sultan, typically reserved for the Seljuk rulers, and he struck his own coins.