9. The Sultan’s Palace Was a Claustrophobic Snake Pit
Life in the Ottoman sultan’s palace was no bed of roses – not even for the sultan. Throughout much of the Ottoman era, it was deemed unseemly for a sultan to speak too much, so a form of sign language evolved, and the ruler spent most of the day surrounded by silence. Those in the palace intrigued nonstop, as courtiers, viziers, eunuchs, and women of the Harem jockeyed for power.
The powerful eunuchs split along racial lines, and the Chief Black Eunuch and the Chief White Eunuch were fierce rivals. Protocol demanded that the sultan be escorted wherever he went by huge train of attendees, causing one ruler to complain: “If I go to one of the rooms, 40 pages are lined up; if I have to put on my trousers, I do not feel the least comfort, so the sword bearer has to dismiss them“.
For the most part, the Ottoman sultan’s Harem was not a Hugh Heffneresque playground of sensual pleasures. Instead, it was more of a dumping ground in which hundreds of royal female relatives, concubines, and wives were kept, most of them bored out of their minds with little to do. However, some powerful Harem women managed to wield great influence over a stretch of 130 years, circa 1533 to 1656. That period came to be known as “The Sultanate of Women”.
During the Sultanate of Women, imperial wives known as Haseki Sultans, and mothers of sultans known as Valide Sultans, often wielded significant political and social power. That enabled them to influence the daily running of the Ottoman Empire, the appointment, dismissal, and sometimes execution of its foremost officials.
7. An Ottoman Army Once Won a Victory Without Even Showing Up
By the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was past its prime as an expansive military heavyweight and was well on its way to the status of a hapless giant with clay feet. However, the Ottoman military in the late 1700s still retained an aura of prestige from past accomplishments. That was enough in at least one instance to gain it a victory without even showing up.
During the Austro-Turkish War of 1787 – 1791, it happened between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. That conflict witnessed one of history’s most catastrophic, and farcical, friendly fire incidents. It occurred in the Battle of Karansebes, in 1788. During that engagement, an Austrian Habsburg army killed and wounded over 10,000 of its own men, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy in sight.
The Austrian Habsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire. Their army, reflecting that diversity, was made of units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were rip-roaring drunk.
While the hussars were getting smashed, back in their camp, the Austrian commander grew concerned when the scouts were late in returning. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars, and demanded a share of the schnapps. The hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and it escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman had the clever idea of pranking the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the inebriated hussars to pick up the cry, and flee in panic while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. They were joined by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm had been a prank shouted by one of their comrades. It got worse.
While the fracas between drunken hussars and infantrymen was going on, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams across the river. When the mob of panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries, who shouted at them to “Halt! Halt!“. That was misheard by some non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the ensuing tumult, an artillery officer reasoned that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire.
As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Ottoman army arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs.
4. The Ottoman Empire Tried to Reform, But Couldn’t
By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had entered a period of terminal decline. The days of dynamic sultans and military prowess were long gone. Mediocre and inept rulers succeeded each other, while military defeats and a steady shrinking of Ottoman territory became the norm. What had once been a vibrant state was reduced to a backward realm that came to be known as “The Sick Man of Europe”. It owed its continued existence not to its own abilities, but to the inability of European powers to agree on how to divide it amongst themselves.
In the mid-nineteenth century, structural reforms were attempted, with the hope of liberalizing and modernizing the crumbling Ottoman Empire. They foundered on the rocks of religious and social conservatism, inertia, and entrenched corruption that resisted all efforts at cleaning up the system. So the Ottomans staggered on, going from setback to setback, until World War I, when they joined the wrong side, and effectively signed the empire’s death warrant.
The Ottoman army’s greatest defeat in WWI occurred when it fell to the same bluff on the same field as that of one of history’s earliest battles. The Battle of Megiddo, 1457 BC, is the earliest recorded battle for which we have reliable details. It took place between an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and a coalition of rebellious Canaanite states seeking to free themselves of vassalage to Egypt. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, an important hub at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Thutmose advanced from Egypt at the head of a strong army to Yaham.
From Yaham, he had the choice of three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map above). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, entailing passage through narrow ravines in which an approaching army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear. Thutmose’s choice was repeated by another army over three millennia later, with results that would doom the Ottoman Empire.
2. The Ottoman Army Fell For a Reprisal of the Ancient Battle of Megiddo
Pharaoh Thutmose III realized that the central route to Megiddo was so obviously dangerous, that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also guessed that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to be so foolhardy as to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. So Thutmose took the central route. As he had guessed, it was unguarded, and the Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, caught the Canaanites off guard, and won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony for centuries.
3375 years later, in WWI, General Allenby, an avid student of ancient history, was confronted with the same choice as Thutmose III as he led a British army against entrenched Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpectedly in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.
Six centuries – the lifetime of the Ottoman Empire – is a long time. The Ottoman dynasty had already established itself when the Black Death raged in the mid-fourteenth century, and it was still around as WWI raged in the twentieth century. During that span, Ottoman troops went from fighting against the Byzantine Empire with bows and arrows, to fighting against the British Empire with machine guns, modern artillery, and airplanes.
Defeat in WWI and its immediate aftermath finished off the Ottomans. After the war, the last sultan, Mehmet VI, signed a peace treaty that was seen as a humiliating betrayal by Turkish nationalists in Anatolia, the empire’s heartland. A nationalist opposition led by Mustafa Kemal (later surnamed “Ataturk”, or Father of the Turks) waged a successful Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). By the time the dust had settled, Mehmet VI had been forced to abdicate, bringing to an end the Ottoman Empire, whose Turk heartland became The Republic of Turkey.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading