Ottoman Empire Research Paper Example

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The Ottoman  Empire (c. 1290–1922)  provides a vivid example of durable and successful state building in world history.  A  late  medieval creation,  the  Ottoman   state achieved world empire status in 1453 because of its conquest of Constantinople. During the surrounding several centuries, it was among the most powerful states in the world. Although geography and luck played roles, the success of the empire mainly derived from pragmatic and flexible Ottoman  policy-making and considerable openness to innovation, including military technology. At its peak,  the  empire  covered parts  of  Asia, Africa, and Europe. Its extent is suggested by this partial list of successor states: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Montenegro, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Syria, and Turkey.

Expansion slowly faded into memory and territorial contraction  began thanks  partly to  developments elsewhere in the world, notably the rise of capitalism and industrialism in Europe and then elsewhere, and to the New World wealth that poured into Europe. As wealth flowed elsewhere, the  Ottoman  Empire was unable to compete and lost its preeminent position; by about 1800 it  had  become a second-class economic, military, and political power. Within  the  empire  innovation  faded, partly because entrenched  bureaucrats, statesmen, and military personnel acted to protect their children’s positions and closed entry to newcomers.

During the nineteenth century a successful series of programs measurably strengthened the state and its military. The bureaucracy grew both in size and in the scope of its activities, now not merely collecting taxes and providing  security but  also  taking  responsibility for  the health, education, and  welfare of its subjects. Yet,  the empire fell defeated in World War I (1914–1918) and was partitioned by the Great Powers, notably Great Britain and France.

In its domestic polity, the Ottoman  state underwent continuous change. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals, but between about 1453 and 1600, sultans ruled  as true  autocrats. Thereafter until  about 1826, sultans reigned, but others in the imperial family and other inhabitants of the palace—often in collaboration with provincial elites—maintained real control of the state. Then, bureaucrats and sultans vied for domination of the state apparatus. In sum, the sultan presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman  history, but actually personally ruled for only portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth,  and  nineteenth  centuries. Also, political power almost always rested in the imperial center and, depending on the particular period, extended into the provinces either through direct military and political instruments or indirectly through fiscal means.

A combination of religious and secular laws regulated the  lives of  Ottoman   subjects. Under  Ottoman   state authority Muslim, Christian, or Jewish judges presided over the  legal affairs of  their  respective communities. Often, however, subjects of all religions used the Muslim courts  because rulings  from  such  courts  might  have greater weight than those from Christian or Jewish sources. In addition to this religious law, the state routinely passed its own, secular, ordinances, often with lipservice adherence to Islamic principles. In the nineteenth century,  when  a  flood  of  ordinances and  regulations marked the presence of an expanding bureaucratic state, even the lip service frequently fell away in favor of scientific management.

This  was an agrarian empire that,  again, changed considerably over time. Most Ottoman subjects were and remained cultivators, raising a wide variety of different crops for subsistence and for sale. The particular mix of crops changed over time.  Cereals remained  dominant throughout  the  Ottoman   period,  but  important  new crops emerged at different times, for example, tobacco in the seventeenth century. In theory, the vast majority of land was owned by the sultan, but in practice, generally, land users enjoyed security of tenure. Sharecropping was widespread and the major vehicle by which goods came to market; most holdings were small. Commercialization of agriculture considerably developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth  centuries.  Ottoman   manufacturing,  for  its part, remained largely small-scale and handcrafted, with some late mechanization. During  the  seventeenth and eighteenth centuries foreign markets for Ottoman manufactures fell away, but producers continued to enjoy a vast domestic market for their wares; in the nineteenth century export markets emerged for Ottoman rug makers and silk spinners, who usually were women working outside their homes. In transportation and communication there were important technological breakthroughs during the second half of the nineteenth century, including steamships, railroads, and the telegraph.

Ottoman  intercommunal relations are hotly argued, and many popular stereotypes persist around the “terrible Turks” who slaughtered Ottoman  Christians. For nearly all of Ottoman  history, this stereotype is not true. For most of its duration, the Ottoman Empire can be characterized fairly as a tolerant political system. At times, the Ottoman  state led the  way in  extending tolerance to minorities. For example, at the end of the fifteenth century Ottoman  sultans welcomed the large Iberian Jewish population that the new Spanish monarchs were expelling from  their  own  kingdom.  More  generally, the  key to Ottoman  success and a major reason for its longevity lay in the tolerant governmental treatment of those who did not share its professed religion. This tolerance was based both  in practical politics and  in the dictates of Islam. Until the 1870s the majority of Ottoman  subjects were Christians and the state’s official religion was Islam, which required that the Muslim state protect the religious rights of  its  Christian  and  Jewish subjects. The  Ottoman Empire, for nearly all of its history, was a multinational, multireligious entity that did not seek to impose Islam on its subjects. This fact often has been forgotten in the confusion surrounding the end of the empire and the emergence of the Ottoman successor states, but it remains true nonetheless. Overall, the Ottoman system recognized difference and protected those differences so long as subjects rendered obedience and paid taxes. Until the eighteenthcentury era of the Enlightenment, minorities in the Ottoman world likely were treated better than in Europe. Atrocities did occur, but they were exceptions in the rule of a generally admirable record of intercommunal relations over the 600-year life span of the Ottoman Empire.


  1. Imber, 2002. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Inalcik, Halil, with Donald Quataer 1994. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Lowry, H 2003. The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Quataert, D 2005. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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