10 Battles That Shaped the Ottoman Empire

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On June 4, 1915, the Third Battle of Krithia was fought between the Ottoman Empire and its Allied enemies, composed of mostly French and British troops. The Ottomans won, handily and somewhat surprisingly. The Allies had to retreat and regroup as a result, and the Balkans campaign had to go through a more careful re-think by Allied strategists.

World War I marked the end of the Ottoman Empire, of course, but the “sick man of Europe” had more fight in it than many Western historians give it credit for. Scholarship on the Ottoman Empire has improved over the years, but there is still plenty of opportunity () to do more. The Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, after all, and lasted for 623 years.

The Ottoman Empire was actually one of three multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires in Europe that perished as a result of World War I, along with Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia. To the east of the Ottomans were two other, long-lasting empires, the Persian empire ruled by the Qajar dynasty (which perished in 1925) and the Mughal empire of India (which perished in 1857). These eastern empires are referred to by many historians as “gunpowder empires” and they controlled the Eurasian trade routes that Chinese and especially European merchants used for exchanging goods and ideas. Here are 10 battles that shaped the Ottoman Empire:

10. Battle of Ankara: July 20, 1402. This battle, which the Ottomans lost, ceded to Timur and his realm leadership of the Muslim world. It also plunged the empire into chaos, and led directly to the Ottoman Interregnum, a devastating 11-year civil war. The battle itself included war elephants, Christian vassals from the Balkans, and was the only time in the 500-year history of the empire that a Sultan was captured in battle (he died after three months in captivity). The Ottoman Empire, far from being the major player it eventually became, got a taste of what it was like to fight major battles against major foes.

9. Fall of Constantinople: April 6-May 29, 1453. The siege of Constantinople introduced to the world the Ottoman Empire as a major player on the world stage. The Ottomans had slowly been expanding their empire westward, and the conquest of Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire - heir to Rome itself - marked their arrival in Europe and Christendom. The Ottomans renamed the city Istanbul and promptly made the city the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Fall of Constantinople, and thus a major port city and trading route to Asia, to the Ottomans forced many Europeans to look for other ways to reach the spice markets of the East.

8. Battle of Zonchio: August 25, 1499. Fought between the Ottomans and the merchant princes of Venice, the Battle of Zonchio marked the first time in history that cannons were employed on ships. Once Constantinople fell, the Ottomans came into almost immediate conflict with a number of Christian states in Europe, and one of Europe’s major powers at the time - Venice - was an especially enterprising foe. Officially, seven wars were fought between the two polities, with the Ottomans winning the bulk of them. The Ottoman wars against Venice led to the latter’s decline as a regional power, and led to more and more territorial acquisition in Christian lands. Istanbul was marching westward, but it was also sailing westward, and Ottoman naval power after the Battle of Zonchio was not to be trifled with.

7. Battle of Chaldiran: Aug. 23, 1514. While the Ottomans had enjoyed mostly success in their westward expansion into Christendom, the East remained a tougher task. This began to change after the Battle of Chaldiran, fought between the Ottomans and the Persians (governed at that time by the Safavid dynasty). The Ottomans decisively routed the Safavids at Chaldiran and went on to march into the Safavid capital and loot it. The battle led to Ottoman territorial expansion into the East, with the whole of Anatolia being annexed along with what are now Kurdish lands. The Battle of Chaldiran also ended Shi’a resistance to Ottoman (a Sunni empire) rule, because the Shi’ites could no longer appeal to an outside power for help. While the Safavids, and Persia, were shaken by the defeat, the dynasty survived and the two rivals continued their beef for another 300 years. In many ways, the factions involved in the Battle of Chaldiran are still at work today. You could even argue that the issues facing the Ottomans, Safavids, and their indigenous allies, are the same ones facing their present-day successors.

6. Battle of Vienna: Sept. 12, 1683. By the late 17th century, the Ottomans had managed to push from Constantinople to the gates of Vienna, deep within the heart of Christendom. The situation was so dire from the point of view of the Europeans that the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth - bitter enemies - joined forces to turn back the Muslims from the East. The united front of Catholic and Protestant allies managed to turn back the massive Ottoman siege, so totally, in fact, that the Holy Roman Empire chased the Ottomans out of Hungary and some of the Balkans, too. The Ottoman Empire’s westward expansion was halted for good after the Ottoman defeat, and European fancies about Ottoman decline began to gain more traction.

5. Battle of Kars: Aug. 9-19, 1745. The Battle of Kars is considered by most historians to be the last major battle of the last major war between the Ottoman Empire and Persia. The battle itself, in which Persia won a pyrrhic victory, was fought by hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. Ottoman strength was at about 140,000, while Persian strength was at roughly 80,000. At this point in time, both empires had cannons. The Persians managed to surround the larger Ottoman force and, once that was accomplished, began slaughtering the conscripts. Some estimates put the Ottoman casualties as high as 50,000 (and the Persian casualties at 8,000). The Ottoman defeat meant that neither side would be able to achieve a long-lasting victory, and the borders of the empires remained largely the same until the British and Russians began picking apart Persia in the 19th century.

4. Siege of Acre: March 20 - May 21, 1799. The Ottomans won a crucial victory against Napoleon’s armies in Asia, after allying themselves with the United Kingdom. The Siege of Acre was Napoleon’s first defeat in almost three years, and marked a turning point in the global allies’ war against France. The Ottoman Empire, for all its faults, fought the last remnants of ancient Rome (Byzantine Empire) and the first army of Europe’s radical new experiment with what is now called “nationalism.”

3. French Conquest of Algiers: June 14 - July 7, 1830. In 1830, France was yet again a monarchy and the Ottomans in Algeria were demanding war reparations from Napoleon’s campaign. The new king of France, Charles X, found this offensive and, instead of making a payment, launched an invasion. Algiers became a part of France, but on July 4 a revolution in France occurred and Charles X was overthrown. The conquest of Algiers led to a revolution in France and a significant loss of territory for the Ottoman Empire.

2. Battle of Gura: March 7-9, 1876. Little is known about the Ottoman presence in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, but this is changing, slowly but surely. (For example, one of RealClearHistory’s 10 best books of the last 10 years features a study about the Ottomans in eastern Africa.) There is also less of a focus on the Ottoman use of proxies to fight their wars. Much of the sociological focus of Ottoman warfare is on conscripts, but the Ottomans used proxies well, perhaps not as well as the British, Dutch, and French, but well enough that in the late 1870s Egyptian troops invaded Ethiopia for Ottoman purposes. The proxies failed to defeat Ethiopia, and the decisive Battle of Gura saw the invaders outmanned and outclassed, but the invasion also forced the Ethiopians to cease hostilities against Ottoman vassals strewn along the Red Sea (present-day Eritrea).

1. Battle of Jerusalem: Nov. 17-Dec. 30, 1917. When the United Kingdom captured Jerusalem from the Ottomans, the battle was significant for mostly symbolic reasons. In fact, the battle itself was unremarkable from a strategic point of view. The Ottoman Empire had been on the ropes for quite some time, and the Allies could use fresh resources against Istanbul thanks to America’s entrance into the war at the beginning of 1917. What was less predictable than the fall of Jerusalem to the Allies was how the local political scene would play out in the absence of shrewd Ottoman governance. Donald Trump just moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, 101 years after it fell to British forces, but the implications of this battle are far from over.

Further thoughts?

No battles with Russia? The Ottomans and the Russians fought so often, and so viciously, that the topic deserves a whole column of its own. Next week’s column will address the Russo-Ottoman rivalry, so stay tuned! It might be a good idea to re-read RCH’s “10 Battles That Shaped Russia,” too.

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