The success of the Ottoman Sultanate was closely tied to its military conquests, and its pinnacle was marked by the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. During his reign, the borders of the Ottoman Empire began to stabilize as military campaigns to reach further extended beyond the campaigning season. Up until this point, the Ottoman administration had been tailored for its territorial ambitions and had worked effectively prior to the reign of Suleyman, however, as territorial expansion stifled, the administration tailored for conquest began to suffer. A look into the aspects of the administration will help explain the early success of the Ottoman Empire and its suitability for the empire’s objectives.
The commonly held view is that territorial expansion is a measure of success for an empire, and certainly by this measure, the Ottomans were very successful. Their empire spanned across three continents, including territories in North Africa, Southeast Europe, and Western Asia. However, I will argue, in the Ottoman case, territorial expansion was also a necessary activity to perpetuate its success. Therefore, it is necessary for the sake of argument to broaden the term success to include measures such as quality of life of the people, political stability, and prestige of the empire.
From the outset the Ottoman Empire was a conquering state, motivated by Islamic ideology. This conception of the state can be understood within the Islamic framework that the world is divided into two domains, the house of Islam and the house of war. The key difference is people in the house of Islam lived in submission to the will of God, and in the house of war, people did not. Because the house of Islam was considered a domain of justice, it was up to the Muslims to expand this domain. As a result the house of Islam was in a constant state of war with the house of war. Motivated by this ideology, the Ottoman Empire best exemplified this tension.
In fact, many of the Ottoman institutions were conducive to conquests. Of which, the most important was the Timar system. But before we explore what exactly the Timar system was, and how it fuelled the Ottoman Empire’s appetite for conquests, we need to take a look at the context in which the Timar system was implemented.
I already mentioned the Ottoman Empire in theory was in a constant of war, however, for the purpose of this essay, it helps to distinguish in general the two kinds of war the Ottomans were engaged in. The first kind, which was the explicit kind, took the form of imperial campaigns into the Christian Kingdoms led by the Sultan. The second kind was Ghazi warfare along the borders of Ottoman Empire. This kind of warfare reflected the tensions we explored earlier between the house of Islam and the house of war, and accordingly it was characteristic of this second kind of warfare to be perpetual. For purposes of this essay, we will only focus on the consequences of war of the first kind.
Unlike Ghazi warfare, imperial campaigns led by the sultan did little to instill Islamic values into society. Therefore, areas that were conquered by such campaigns often retained their religious identities. This presented a problem for the Ottoman state. Because the populace retained their religious identities, the Ottoman state had to contend with issues typical of patrimonial states. They required the support of local elites to “permeate and control society” in their spheres of influence. Of course by doing so, undermined the power of the Sultan and distributed it to these elites. But as Karen Barkey points out in her essay “In Different Times: Scheduling and Social Control in the Ottoman Empire, 1550 to 1650” through a method of rotation and scheduling, the Ottoman state was able to limit the power of these elites.
It is also in this context, to consolidate power, the Timar system was applied.