The Middle East and the West: Rise of the Ottomans NPR's Mike Shuster continues a special six-part series on the long and turbulent history of Western involvement in the Middle East with a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic state that challenged European control of the Mediterranean.
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The Middle East and the West: Rise of the Ottomans

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The Middle East and the West: Rise of the Ottomans

The Middle East and the West: Rise of the Ottomans

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We continue now with our series on the troubled history of the Middle East and the West. For centuries after the Crusades, when Europeans talked about their conflicts with Islam, they invariably referred to the Turks, not the Arabs. The Ottoman Turks swept out of central Asia during the 14th century conquering nearly all of modern-day Turkey. They then set about expanding their empire in the Arab Middle East and into Europe. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

There is an enormous fortress on the Bosphorus just a few miles north of Istanbul. It's called the Rumeli Hisari. Today a modern suspension bridge rises above it with the steady hum of traffic linking the European and Asian sides of Turkey. Oil tankers and cargo barges ply the waters below. The Rumeli Hisari is a museum now, and on this recent summer day metalworkers were busy putting together a stage for an orchestra performance. But when the Ottoman Turks built it in the early 1450s, they used it to assault the city of Constantinople and destroy the thousand-year-old successor to the Roman Empire, Byzantium.

In the mid-15th century, the Ottomans were led by Sultan Mehmet II, known as The Conqueror. In April 1453 he launched the attack on Constantinople, and in less than two months the city was his, says Edhem Eldem, professor of history at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

Professor EDHEM ELDEM (Bogazici University): It was no big deal in military terms. I mean, the only thing that could resist were the walls. The city was already dying, and it was defended by 6 or 7,000 men. But it was ideologically, symbolically very important because it was a possibility for the sultan to claim some kind of a succession to the Roman imperial tradition. And I think that symbolically, ideologically speaking, politically speaking, that is the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.

(Soundbite of prayer)

SHUSTER: Mehmet rapidly expanded his empire conquering what is now Syria, Egypt and, by 1517, Arabia. The Ottoman Turks had converted to Islam several centuries earlier, but now, for the first time, they came to rule Islam's most holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Top Kapi Palace in Istanbul, where the Ottoman sultans once ruled, now houses some of the gifts Arab princes sent the Ottomans.

Today readings from the Koran echo through a hall that houses, or so say the exhibits, whiskers from the prophet Muhammad's beard, his tooth, his sword and walking staff. The Ottoman rulers were pious, and they were recognized throughout the Arab world as inheritors of the caliphate, the supreme Islamic religious authority. But their motivations and goals went far beyond the purely religious, says Eldem.

Prof. ELDEM: It would be wrong to call the Ottoman Empire a purely Islamic state. It was not. It was a state that claimed some kind of an attachment, some kind of allegiance to Islam, but combined it with other forms of heritage from the Byzantine tradition or from the Turkic tradition that did not really correspond to Islam. So they always had this very, very pragmatic approach to Islam.

SHUSTER: Mostly the Ottomans were about empire building, turning their state into the Mediterranean's greatest power. In 1520, Suleiman I, known as the Magnificent, became the sultan. He ruled for nearly half a century and may have been the Ottomans' greatest leader. Donald Quataert is professor of Middle East history at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Professor DONALD QUATAERT (State University of New York at Binghamton): Suleiman considered himself to be the head of the Islamic world. He considered himself to be the head of an Islamic state. He also considered himself to be an heir to the Caesars. These rulers, including Suleiman, are wearing different hats at different times.

SHUSTER: Suleiman set his sights on Europe, says Carter Findley, history professor at Ohio State University, to turn the Ottoman Empire into a European as well as Middle Eastern power.

Professor CARTER FINDLEY (Ohio State University): He's the one who makes about two-thirds of Hungary part of the Ottoman Empire, which it would be for another 150 years. It's in the early part of his reign that the first siege of Vienna occurs. And, really, the most successful part of the military expansion occurred in the early years of his reign. After that point the sort of comparatively easy phase of Ottoman Empire building--that's over, and the Ottomans are starting to come up against the biggest powers in Europe.

SHUSTER: The biggest power then in Europe was the Hapsburg Empire, which united Spain and the Netherlands with Austria and its territories. Its ruler was Charles V, whose grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, had cleansed Spain of Arabs and Jews only a few decades earlier in 1492. In 1529, Suleiman's armies thrust deep into Europe and set siege to Vienna. But then the Ottoman march stalled, never to advance further. It was a matter of distance and weather and the capabilities of the Ottoman army at the time.

Prof. FINDLEY: The major reason for the failure of it was that this was almost beyond the limits of how far the Ottoman forces could get early enough in the year to stage a siege, which is going to take time, and bring the siege to successful completion before they had to withdraw in the fall.

SHUSTER: Still, a substantial portion of Europe would remain under Ottoman control for another century and a half.

In the mid-16th century warfare between the Ottomans and the Europeans took to the seas. Istanbul is a city crisscrossed by waters centered here at the Golden Horn and its several bridges in the heart of the old city. Naval battles for control of the Mediterranean raged for decades, climaxing at the battle of Lepanto near the western coast of Greece in 1571. Traditionally historians have said this was the turning point when a European fleet led by the Venetians smashed the Ottoman navy. But modern-day historians say it wasn't quite that decisive. Again, Donald Quataert.

Prof. QUATAERT: This was a major battle in which hundreds of ships on both sides were involved and thousands died. From the perspective of the winners, it's a big deal. From the perspective of the Ottomans, it was a major defeat. And yet the very next year the Ottoman sultan had rebuilt the fleet. It was up to its pre-Lepanto size and was, once again, dominating the sea lanes.

SHUSTER: The real turning point came more than a century later when the Ottomans launched another concerted assault against Vienna in 1686. This time they were defeated decisively. By the end of the century they had signed a peace treaty with a coalition of their European adversaries. They would never be as powerful again.

(Soundbite of prayer)

SHUSTER: Istanbul is a city of mosques, the most magnificent built by various Ottoman sultans. The story of the Ottoman Empire has come down to contemporary times as another crusade of a sort between Islam and Christendom. Scholars both in Istanbul and in the West believe it was much more complex than that. Edhem Eldem of Bogazici University says religion did play a significant role on both sides, but he says the goals of the leaders on both sides were anything but spiritual.

Prof. ELDEM: Obviously religion was the easiest way to maintain and underline and emphasize difference and transform that into a potential area of conflict for imperial expansion.

SHUSTER: Many in Europe 400 years ago did fear the Ottomans because they were Muslims, says David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Professor DAVID LESCH (Trinity University): From the European point of view, they certainly saw it as another Islamic onslaught. And many of the European Christian coalitions that were formed to fight the Ottoman Empire and prevent them from expanding further into Central Europe were termed Crusades.

SHUSTER: But Lesch emphasizes that's not how the Ottomans perceived the nature of their conflicts with the European states during these centuries.

Prof. LESCH: From the Ottoman perspective, interestingly, they really didn't see it as such. Obviously, they saw value in spreading their religion. But the Ottoman Empire saw itself as very much, even more so, a European Empire than a Middle Eastern Empire. And they took a very tolerant view toward non-Muslims, and so, for most of the Ottoman Empire, especially when it was at its largest, most of its population was non-Muslim. It was, in fact, Christian.

SHUSTER: For historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University, rulers on both sides pursued the same goals, their different religions notwithstanding.

Mr. RICHARD BULLIET (Historian, Columbia University): It was basically power politics of powerful states. And the Ottoman Empire was part of the European system of strong states struggling for territorial gain.

SHUSTER: This disconnect of perspective and understanding would continue to plague the Western and Middle Eastern worlds even as the conflicts intensified a century later, when Europeans started arriving once again on Arab shores as conquerors. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: There is a time line along with photos, maps and biographies of key figures in Mideast history at our Web site,

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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