The Ebony Towers - A Cautionary Tale
What can the USA learn from the Ottoman Empire?
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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At its peak, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Balkan, up to the very gates of Vienna, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Greece, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, North Africa including Algeria, and most of the Arab Peninsula. It lasted 600 years.
The Ottomans invaded Europe while still serving as as a proxy army of mercenaries and guerilla fighters. When not at war with Byzantium, they were often used by this contemporary superpower (Byzantium) to further its geopolitical goals against its enemies - very much as the Afghan Mujaheedin or the Albanian KLA collaborated with the USA and its sidekick, the EU, during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Not unlike the Moslem Afghani warriors of 1989, the Ottomans, too, turned on their benefactors and brought on the demise of Byzantium after 1000 years of uninterrupted existence as a superpower.
The Ottomans were named after Osman I, the Oguz (Turkmen) tribal leader, the off spring of a noble Kayi family. They were ghazis (Islamic Turkish warriors). Fleeing from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, they invaded Anatolia in the second half of the 11th century. They immediately and inevitably clashed with Byzantium and delivered to it the first of a string of humiliating and debilitating defeats in the battle of Manzikert, in 1071. They spread inexorably throughout the fertile Anatolia, confronting in the process the Byzantines and the Mongols. They were no match to the brute efficacy of the latter, though. They lost most of Anatolia to the Mongols and maintained a few autonomous pockets of resistance in its eastern fringes. One of these anti-Mongol principalities (in the northwest) was led by Osman I.
Osman's was not the strongest principality. Its neighbour to the east, the Germiyan principality, was much stronger and more sophisticated culturally. Osman, therefore, drove west, towards the Bosporus and the Marble (Marmara) Sea. His desperate struggles against the corrupt and decadent Byzantines, made him the Robin Hood, the folk hero of the millions of urban unemployed, nomads, and dislocated peasants turned brigands - from Syria to the Balkan. Osman offered to these desperados war booty, a purposeful life, and Islamic religious fanaticism. They joined his armies in droves.
Byzantium, his avowed enemy, was no longer prosperous and powerful, but it was culturally superior and vital, Christian, and modern. But it was decaying. Its social fabric was disintegrating, corroded by venality, hubris, paranoia, avarice, inter-generational strife, and lack of clear religious and cultural orientations. Its army, much reduced and humbled by defeats and budget cuts, was unable to secure the frontier. Economic, religious, and social discontent undermined its consensus. Gradually, it lost its erstwhile allies. The Ilhanid dynasty in Persia refused to back it against its tormentors. Byzantium, high handed and conceited, was left to fight the Islamic terrorism on its borders all by itself. Mercenaries imported by the Byzantines from Europe served only to destabilize it further. Osman's successors tore Byzantium to hemorrhaging shreds, conquering the rest of Anatolia and the Balkan. They even employed Christian mercenaries against the Byzantines.
When Orhan, a successor of Osman, secured a territorial continuum and access to the Sea of Marmara, he took on another Turkmen empire, based in Aydin.
The people of Aydin were mercenaries at the service of competing factions in Byzantium (Thrace versus Constantinople). Orhan wanted to cut into this lucrative business. He started by defeating emperor Andronicus III and his advisor, John Cantacuzenus in the battle of Pelekanon in 1329. This unleashed the Ottoman troops upon Nicaea (1331) and Nicomedia (1337). Faced with the loss of the historic heart of their empire, the Byzantines accepted a Faustian deal. They made peace with the Moslem Turks and recruited them as allies and mercenaries against the Christian enemies of Christian Byzantium - the Serbs, the Italians, and the Bulgarians. Orhan became the principal ally of the young and dynamic Byzantine politician (later emperor) John VI Cantacuzenus, thus gaining entry, for the first time, into Christian Europe.
Andronicus III died in 1341and another civil war broke out in Byzantium. John Cantacuzenus, deprived of the much expected regency, confronted Alexius Apocaucus, the patriarch John Calecas, and the powerful and cunning empress mother Anne of Savoy. The Serb king Dusan wavered between support and rejection for Cantacuzenus, who was crowned as Emperor John VI in Thrace in 1346. The new emperor, aided by hordes of Turkish troops, demolished the coalition set against him. A revolution erupted in Thrace and Macedonia. "The Zealots", having seized power In Thessalonica, declared an independent community which lasted till 1350.
Byzantium was reduced to penury by these events and by the Black Death of 1347. It fought with Venice against Genoa only to lose tax revenues hitherto paid by the Genoese. Foreign powers - the Turks included - manipulated the hopelessly fractured Byzantine ruling classes to their advantage.
In the meantime, Orhan was introduced to Europe's modern weaponry, its superior tactics of laying siege, and its internecine politics by his Byzantine masters. After he helped Cantacuzenus grab the Byzantine throne from John V Palaeologus, the new emperor granted him the right to ravage both Thrace and his own daughter, Theodora, whom Orhan married. Ottoman raiding parties between Gallipoli and Thrace became a common sight. The loot was used to attract all manner of outcasts and dispossessed and to arm them. Byzantium was thus arming and financing its own worst enemy, facilitating its own demise.
In 1354, Ottoman mercenaries occupied and fortified the earthquake shattered Gallipoli. The Ottomans crossed permanently into Europe. When Orhan's son, Suleyman, transformed Gallipoli into an ominous base from which to overpower Christian Europe - the emperor (and other Christian nations) protested. The Ottomans ignored them and proceeded with their expansionary preparations. They raided the Balkan as far as Adrianople. Cantacuzenus was toppled and denounced for his collaboration with the Turks. Europe woke up to the nightmare on its doorstep. But it was way too late.
It was the emperor John V Palaeologus who forced Cantacuzenus to abdicate and to retire to a monastery. John V appealed to the Pope, and through him, to the Western world, for help against the Turks. But the Popes were more concerned with the three centuries old schism between the Roman Church and the Church in Constantinople. John V has begged for help for more than a decade. In 1366, he visited Hungary and pleaded for assistance, but in vain.
The Ottomans embarked on three centuries of unhindered conquests, arrested only at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century. Recurrent international (read European) alliances and crusades failed to constrain them. The Serbs, the Bulgars, the Hungarians were all routed in bloody battlefields. Cut off from its grain supplies and tax base, proud Byzantium accepted the suzerainty of the Ottomans, their former mercenaries. When emperor John V united the churches of Constantinople and Rome in a vain and impetuous effort to secure the military involvement of the West - he only succeeded to fracture Byzantium further. Murad, the Ottoman ruler, incorporated large parts of Christian southeastern and central Europe into his burgeoning feudal empire. Local kings and emperors were left to govern as administrators, vassals to the Ottomans. They paid annual tribute and provided contingents to the Ottoman army. These achievements were consolidated by later Ottoman rulers for centuries to come.
In 1449 the sultan Mehmed II prepared to assault Constantinople. The West wringed its hands but provided no material or military help. The union of the two churches - Rome and Constantinople - was celebrated in the magnificent church of in Hagia Sophia in 1452. But the people of Byzantium revolted and protested against this opportunistic move. Many said that they preferred the rule of the Turks to being enslaved by the Latin West. Soon their wish would come true.
On May 29, 1453 Turkish soldiers forced their way into the shattered city. Most of the commanders (among them Venetians and Genoese) were dead or wounded. Constantine, the last emperor, fought, on foot, at one of the gates and was seen no more.
Constantinople was plundered and savaged for three long days and nights by the triumphant Turks.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (2002 edition) sums it up thus:
"The Ottoman Empire had now superseded the Byzantine Empire; and some Greeks, like the contemporary historian Critobulus of Imbros, recognized the logic of the change by bestowing on the Sultan all the attributes of the emperor. The material structure of the empire, which had long been crumbling, was now under the management of the sultan-basileus. But the Orthodox faith was less susceptible to change. The Sultan acknowledged the fact that the church had proved to be the most enduring element in the Byzantine world, and he gave the Patriarch of Constantinople an unprecedented measure of temporal authority by making him answerable for all Christians living under Ottoman rule.
The last scattered pockets of Byzantine resistance were eliminated within a decade after 1453. Athens fell to the Turks in 1456-58, and in 1460 the two despots of Morea surrendered. Thomas fled to Italy, Demetrius to the Sultan's court. In 1461 Trebizond, capital of the last remnant of Greek empire, which had maintained its precarious independence by paying court to Turks and Mongols alike, finally succumbed; the transformation of the Byzantine world into the Ottoman world was at last complete."
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vol. (1972-73; originally published in French, 2nd rev. ed., 1966)
Stanford J. Shaw and E.K. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 vol. (1976-77)
Robert Mantran (ed.), Histoire de l'Empire Ottoman (1989)
Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert (eds.), An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914 (1994)
L.S. Stavrianos, The Balkans Since 1453 (1958, reissued 1966)
Peter F. Sugar, Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804 (1977)
Nicoara Beldiceanu, Le Monde Ottoman des Balkans, 1402-1566 (1976)
Halil Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age,1300-1600 (1973, reprinted 1994)
M.A. Cook (ed.), A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730 (1976)
Dorothy M. Vaughan, Europe and the Turk: A Pattern of Alliances, 1350-1700 (1954, reprinted 1976)
Michael Angold, The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204 (1984) and Church and Society in Byzantium Under the Comneni, 1081-1261 (1995)
Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (1993)
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 3 vol. (1951-54, reprinted 1987)
Kenneth M. Setton (ed.), A History of the Crusades, vol. 1-3 (1955-75)
Donald M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453, 2nd ed. (1993)
Herbert Adams Gibbons, The Foundation of the Ottoman Empire (1916, reissued 1968)
William Miller, The Latins in the Levant: A History of Frankish Greece, 1204-1566 (1908, reprinted 1979)
Trebizond, The Last Greek Empire (1926, reprinted 1969)
Donald M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (1979) and Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations (1988, reissued 1992)
Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century (1958, reissued 1992) and The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (1965, reissued 1990)
Speros Vryonis, Jr., The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh Through the Fifteenth Century (1971, reissued 1986)
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