Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 3: The principles of Ottoman rule in the Balkans

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 3: The principles of Ottoman rule in the Balkans


To make sense of the rapid changes during the last two hundred years of Balkan history, we need some sense of what went before, by looking at the Habsburg and Ottoman “old regimes” in the Early Modern period. The Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire are often (and usefully) presented together as natural rivals: one Catholic, the other Muslim; one western and European, the other eastern and Asian. You should already have some sense of the limits and pitfalls in such paired dichotomies. Also, such an approach misses the fact that these two countries had a great deal in common. Both were products of the late medieval period, and neither was well positioned to adjust to the driving forces of “modern” history: forces like nationalism, and the industrial revolution. They operated on the basis of pre-modern assumptions and institutions. We can begin to understand both countries and their histories by identifying a few key principles that shaped them. Those principles dictated the form of Ottoman and Habsburg history and when those principles reached their limits these states fell apart.

Ottoman principles

If we make a list of the principles behind a modern Western European state, we might include nationalism and a notion that the state and the ethnic nation are ideally identical; the rule of law and the accompanying idea of a constitution; and the fundamental place of the citizens as the embodiment of the country. In the Ottoman Empire, wholly different principles were at work. In its prime the Ottoman Empire was defined by its ruler, by its faith and by its military, all acting together. If we understand these forces, we can see reasons for its great successes and later for its great failures.

The military principle

All countries have a military: why then focus on this as a defining force? Because without doing so, one can’t explain the rapid Turkish conquest of the Balkans or the social institutions that were planted there.

The Turks are Muslims but not Arabs. There was a general migration of Turkish-speaking nomads south into the Arab world after 700 CE. In 1055 Turks captured Baghdad and created the Seljuk Empire, which remained Islamic but was no longer Arab-ruled. When the Mongols destroyed the Seljuk state in the 1200s, Turkish tribes scattered West into Anatolia. One of them came to be named for Osman, its leader. They became involved in the wars of the Byzantine Empire against Bulgaria, Serbia and the Crusader states that had been set up in Greece after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Ottoman Turkish soldiers first entered the Balkans around 1345 as Byzantine mercenaries and later returned to conquer it. They soon defeated the Bulgars and the Serbs.

Incidentally, that Serbian defeat (which took place at the field of Kosovo in 1389) was a defining moment for Serbian history. First, there was a great killing which wiped out the nobility and knights and left the Serbs as a peasant nation. The democratic, populist, often vulgar nature of Serbian politics in modern times owes something to Kosovo. Second, enshrined in national legends and epic poetry, Kosovo encapsulated Serbian identity. The story of Kosovo allowed the Serbs to remember who they were by remembering their enemies. Kosovo as a place remains part of the present day ethnic strife in the Kosovo region. Even though its population today is mostly Albanian, the Serbs are as likely to give up this sanctified battle field as, say, Texans would be to return the Alamo to Mexico.

In 1444 at Varna Sultan Murad II crushed an intervening force of Hungarian, Polish, French and German crusaders. In 1453, scarcely 100 years after the Turks entered Europe, Sultan Mohammed II (known as “the Conqueror”) took Constantinople by siege with an army of 100,000 and some of the world’s most modern artillery. In taking the city, Mohammed II erased the last remnant of the Roman Empire and subjugated the Greek world. Symbolizing the transition, the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, became a mosque.

After conquering Syria, Egypt, parts of the Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia and North Africa as far as Algeria, Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent” overran Moldavia and Bessarabia (in today’s Romania) in the 1520s. At the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, his army killed 25,000 Hungarian knights and their king. The Ottoman forces reached their European high water mark in 1529 when they failed to take Vienna by siege (although they repeated the siege in 1683).

The “military principle” behind the Ottoman Empire helps explain how a tribal society of nomadic mercenary cavalry soldiers from the steppes of Central Asia did so well. The Ottomans were successful conquerors for some good reasons:

First, by comparison with their feudal European rivals, the early Ottoman state and its armies were tightly organized and controlled.

Second, European rulers were divided amongst themselves, even at war with each other.

Third, Turkish armies were constantly reinforced by new waves of “ghazi” warriors from Central Asia, who were motivated by both religion and the prospect of spoils.

Fourth, early Ottoman rule was not unattractive to the mass of its conquered Christian and Jewish subjects. The Ottoman armies faced few threats from revolts in lands already conquered. More about this later.

The dynastic principle

Dynastic rule was the second principle behind the Ottoman state. In this, Turkey reflected medieval practice all over Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The country consisted of the accumulated conquered lands of the Ottoman ruling house (named after the border lord Osman) and that land was passed down in the family. By the time of the Balkan conquests, the Ottoman rulers were no longer simply tribal “beys” but “sultans” who were full masters of secular life. A state treasury had appeared, distinct from the leader’s private purse. To create a sophisticated state apparatus, the Ottomans freely adopted useful institutions from the societies they conquered. The Seljuk Turks had accepted Islamic religious, educational and legal institutions, and thus Ottoman society inherited from the Seljuks a system of mosques, schools and courts. The Ottomans also adopted a whole array of bureaucratic features from the Byzantines: taxes, court functions, feudal practices and systems of land tenure. These institutions were strong tools supporting the dynasty.

The Islamic principle

Islam was the third key principle for Ottoman society. Political, cultural and legal forms followed Islamic law or “sheriat”. The Turks were Sunni Muslims: in contrast to Shi’i Muslim societies, religious institutions served the secular state. The sultan was recognized as God’s agent in the world. The state had three purposes:

First, the preservation and expansion of Islam.

Second, the defense and expansion of the ruler’s power, wealth and possessions. Because the sultan was God’s agent, his interests and those of Islam were believed to coincide. These first two purposes acted in full agreement.

Third, justice and security for the sultan’s subjects, as foundations of the first two purposes. The sultan was regarded as a shepherd, and his subjects corresponded to the flock (“rayah”). In a well-run Islamic state, all elements functioned in a smooth cycle. The government dispensed justice, safe and secure subjects prospered, taxation flowed from their wealth, the state and its military were sustained at necessary strength, and good government was preserved to begin the cycle again.

This ideal helps explain the attractions of Ottoman rule in its early days. Jews, Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. Jews and Christians were penalized only partially for failing to accept God’s most recent revelation through the prophet Mohammed. The Islamic conquerors tolerated the other two religions, at a time when toleration was rare in Europe. After the Frankish and Venetian sack of Byzantium in 1204, Orthodox Byzantine Greeks thought that Catholic Western Europeans were as bad or worse than the Turks. In the Ottoman administration, talented men of all faiths could fulfill at least limited roles. For peasants, the finality of Ottoman victory also meant an end to centuries of wars between Serbs, Bulgars, Byzantines and Crusaders, and thus offered stability. Ottoman taxes were lower than the taxes of the conquered Balkan Christian kingdoms.

How the principles worked together

These three principles — Islam, the dynasty and the military — acted together in the Ottoman Empire. As head of state, the Sultan sat at the top of a pyramid. Just below him was a small ruling class, his direct instruments. The mass of subjects were known as “rayah” or “protected flock.” This included both Muslims and non-Muslims. Jews and Christians were entitled to protection, but could not join the military or the sultan’s immediate ruling circle. However, if they chose to convert to Islam, men of talent from all religious or ethnic backgrounds potentially could wield great power.

Because of its divine foundation, the power of the sultan had no theoretical limit so long as Islamic law was upheld. The sultan was not just an absolute ruler in an abstract sense: many of his operatives were in fact his slaves. However, we have to distinguish Ottoman slavery from the forms of Western slavery with which we are more familiar. Ottoman slavery was based in the capture of military captives, who became the property of their captor. Once taken in, however, and provided that they were loyal, slaves were protected from abuse and enjoyed opportunities for responsibility and advancement as soldiers, statesmen and officials. Slaves were often given their freedom as a reward for service and their children were born free, not into slavery.

The “Devshirme”

One of the most exotic Ottoman institutions used slavery to seek out persons of talent, with potential advantages for both the state and the slave. This was the “devshirme” or child-contribution, established in the middle 1300s.

When recruits for the military were needed, Christian boys were confiscated from the population as slaves and converted to Islam. While there were no regular timetables or set quotas, perhaps a thousand boys were taken on average per year. As slaves, these boys became absolute dependents of the sultan. They were not used for the army alone: after growing up and being trained, they took on all kinds of roles in the imperial establishment. They were treated well and could aspire to power and wealth. The brightest of these children were educated in the law, foreign languages, the sciences, sports and administrative skills and then entered the sultan’s “Inner Service”. Promoted on the basis of skill, they could grow up to be provincial governors, treasury officials, physicians, architects, judges and high officials, and helped to run the empire. They could marry, if their careers permitted it, and their children were free Muslims. So desirable were these positions during the Ottoman heyday, that some rural Christian families bribed officials to select their sons. Because the “devshirme” was levied as a tribute on the conquered, it involved only the non-Muslim population, but some Muslim families also bribed officials to select their children illegally, in the hope of placing relatives in powerful offices. Some members of the “ulema”, the religion-based legal and educational system, came from this background. So did members of the “divan” or council of ministers and its supporting scribes and officials, including governors appointed to run provinces.

Levied children with less talent went into the military and formed the “janissary” infantry, the 30,000 men kept under arms as garrisons in key fortresses and as the core of the sultan’s army. The janissaries were supported by specialists such as armor makers and an Artillery Corps supervised by experts, some of them renegades from Western Europe.

The “devshirme” was one way in which the military principle used prior conquests to strengthen the state for more success. Another involved the feudal “timariots,” who made up the rest of the sultan’s army and also acted as the local arm of the Ottoman state. Land was the wealth of the state. Just as the sultan’s officials were his slaves, so also the country’s land was the possession of the sultan as the agent of God. To further the purposes of the state, the sultan granted temporary use of farm land to “timariots”, often ghazis who had helped conquer new regions. In return these men pledged to serve in the army as cavalry.

Under the Ottoman system, ownership of land was meant to be only temporary. Landholders enjoyed “usufruct” privileges only, that is, the right to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s property (in this case, the sultan’s). These fiefs (“timars” or “spahiliks”) legally could not be inherited by the landlord’s children, although those children might be granted the same usufruct rights. Timariots and spahis were also administrative agents of the state, collecting taxes and maintaining local order in combination with local religous courts. A timar holding could be so small that its income supported only a single cavalryman or it could be much larger if the timariot had to meet major responsibilities in the provincial administration.

The Ottoman system linked the prosperity of these feudal leaders to the military success of the empire. Ambitious Turkish horsemen could come to the Balkans from Asia Minor as military pilgrims or “ghazis”, help in conquest and receive estates as a reward for their success. Successful war paid for itself and the spoils system helped recruit soldiers. However, the same system meant that military failure had social consequences: we will look at this flaw in the system later.

Ottoman land tenure

The Ottoman Empire has had a low reputation in modern times and is sometimes dismissed as a brutal creation of conquest. Such a view overlooks the sophisticated, complex structures that made the early Ottoman Empire a powerful and civilized place. We can set the “timar” system into a wider context of landholding and property law as one way to show this. The Ottomans recognized four kinds of real property:

1) “Miri” or state land consisted of all arable farm land and pastures. It belonged to God and therefore to the sultan as God’s agent, unless granted to someone’s use. The state also owned forest lands, mountains and public areas such as roadways and market places. Land without heirs reverted to the sultan as “miri.”

2) “Timar” or semi-public land was miri land under usufruct grant by the sultan to civil or military officials. It was the basis of feudalism. Timar land was not meant to be private property and could not be inherited, but under certain legal or illegal conditions, timar land was often treated as if it were privately owned. Legal evasions might take the form of very long leases, or simply illegal grants resulting from bribery. Timar estates that had been converted to private property were called “chiftliks.”

3) “Vakf” land was tax-exempt property devoted to pious purposes or the support of institutions of public welfare such as hospitals or fire companies. As a tax dodge, some landholders contrived to place their land into vakf status by creating phony foundations for the support of their heirs (this was one way to make public land essentially private).

4) “Mulk” land was true private property. Legally, it consisted of the land occupied by people’s houses, or by gardens, vineyards and orchards — property improved by the owners. In essence, when timar land was converted to private status it illegally became mulk land. Mulk property was exempt from state control: the state could no longer demand military service from holders of “mulk” and also found it hard to protect “rayah” living there from abuses like excess taxation. The growth of private property therefore damaged the power of the sultan, the central state and the military.

Life in a religious state

Islam separated the world and its inhabitants into two zones: the world of Islam and the world of non-Muslim heretics. Distinctions of ethnic nationality were not important. The lives of the mass of population under the Ottoman system were tightly controlled, defined and divided according to three other criteria:

1) The most important was the division of the population by religion into “millets”. People interacted with the state through the leaders of their own millet, through a hierarchy leading up from local representatives to greater ones. Muslims were responsible to the “ulema” for taxes and legal matters. Only members of the Muslim millet could bear arms (including the forcibly converted janissaries), and were exempt from some taxes. Balkan Orthodox Christians (Greeks and Slavs combined at first) were under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In case of confict, Islamic law and state practice took precedence but otherwise the laws and institutions of the Orthodox millet remained in force (largely unchanged from local customs before the conquest). Because so much administrative, fiscal and legal business took place through the millet, the Orthodox church acted as a “state within a state.” Jews were administered through the chief rabbi in Istanbul, both the Sephardic Jews who came to the Eastern Mediterranean from Spain and the Ashkenazi Jews who were expelled from Central Europe. Finally, various small Christian minorities like the Armenians were part of a hierarchy under the Gregorian archbishop of Bursa.

2) Place of residence also affected the rights of the common people. Peasants could not leave their land and move into cities, because the Turks feared that the countryside would be depopulated. City life was attractive because urban dwellers were exempt from certain taxes and labor dues, and from auxiliary military duties (service as wagon-drivers, for example). Peasants paid taxes in kind: about a tenth of their produce went to their timariot landlord. Much of the rest of their crop was purchased by the state at a low price to feed the urban poor. Villages were liable for some duties as a community, including a small cash rent for use of the sultan’s land, and had to contribute labor to work the timariot’s estate (Western European peasants were liable for similar but larger burdens at this time). Mountain areas unsuited for agriculture were granted to nomadic tribes who paid taxes in kind: butter, yogurt, oil, cheese and other foods needed to feed the cities or the army.

3) In the cities, subjects were grouped according to their occupations. Craftsmen were members of guilds, which often had monopoly control of production, for example of salt or candles. Guilds regulated their own industries and taxed themselves to raise money for social welfare functions for their members. Guild representatives sat as a city council to advise the “kadi” or mayor. Fire departments, hospitals and other city services were supported by tax-exempt endowed foundations (vakf).

This was the idealized Ottoman system. Why did the Ottoman state decline? There were limits to what the principles of dynasty, Islam and military conquest could achieve. When the state passed beyond those limits, those same principles acted together again but instead created a cycle of failure.

Limits on the dynastic principle

The sultan was the core of the Ottoman state. When a ruling sultan was weak or incompetent, the state suffered. Beginning with Osman in 1290 and continuing through the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent who died in 1566, there were ten talented sultans in a row. Selim, known as “the Sot”, then came to the throne. He was the first in a succession of non-entities.

Several Ottoman practices worsened the situation. To avoid civil war, it had been Ottoman practice to murder all the brothers of each new sultan when he came to power. When Sultan Ahmed died in 1617 without an adult male heir, there was concern that the usual fratricide could end the royal line (because it would have meant the death of all the male heirs except one child, who might have died before reaching adulthood and fathering a son himself). Thereafter the oldest male member of the house became the new sultan, and the other male Ottomans were confined in the so-called “golden cage” of the palace and harem. Surrounded by officials and insulated from moral and political lessons, later products of the “golden cage” were very bad rulers, susceptible to competing factions of corrupt officials. The later Ottoman Empire sometimes had strong grand viziers, but no more outstanding sultans. Given the central power of the sultan, this left the state without a sense of direction.

Limits on the military principle

The military principle also failed when it reached certain limits. The Ottoman system depended on continued conquest. Assumptions of military victory and territorial expansion supported taxation, the land system and the feudal cavalry. Conquest paid for war and created estates for ghazis who became timariots, paid taxes and fought in new campaigns. When victory became defeat, spoils no longer paid for warfare and defeated warriors became a burden.

The central role of the sultan affected Ottoman military practice. By tradition, the sultan assembled one large army in Istanbul and then marched to the frontier to make war. After 1550 the sheer size of the country created geographic limitations on further growth. The army could only travel 90 to 100 days’ march before it had to turn back in order to get home before winter. In 1529, the siege of Vienna could not begin until September 27 and had to be called off on October 15 to allow time for the return journey. Even if later sultans had been good generals, the size of the country limited their options. Regional armies, close to the borders, could have solved this problem, but decentralization ran counter to the dynastic principle. Once decline began, regional armies became risky centripetal forces.

The end of conquest meant lean times for ghazis and timariots: they lost income and after 1650 were sometimes forced off their lands by Austrian or Russian armies. Deprived of their incomes, they set themselves up as local warlords or bandits in remote parts of the Balkans, too far from the capital to be forced into obedience. Instead of preying on foreign enemies, they began to prey on the peasants. Taxes and labor dues increased, local courts were intimidated or bribed, and usufruct holdings became heritable private “chiftliks” passed down in the family. No local authorities were available to enforce the law because the timariots were the only local authorities. The tax revenue stream to the center then slowed to a trickle. Officials in Istanbul went unpaid and became susceptible to bribes. In this way the collapse of the miltary feudal system soon damaged the rest of the state.

Changes in military science also reduced the power of the Turkish armed forces. Western European use of gunpowder and professional infantry made feudal cavalry obsolete. Meanwhile, the elite janissary infantry declined. In the early 1500s janissaries gained the right to marry and have children, and were given permission to practice a trade during the winter to support their families. Membership became hereditary (the devshirme ceased in 1637). The janissaries soon devolved into a mob of cobblers and weavers, only powerful enough to intimidate their own government when paid off by various cabals. Riotous janissaries nevertheless blocked all military reforms from 1589 until 1826.

Limits on the Islamic principle

The inability to reform and improve was not confined to the military. The division of the country into Muslim and non-Muslim halves led to tension and oppression. In the new hard times, Muslims had better access to arms, political power, bribes and other ways to defend their interests. Corrupted courts allowed local landlords to rob their Christian peasants. The burden of bad times fell on non-Muslims, and the country broke into rival blocks based on the “millets.”

The tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims also led to hostility and contempt for Christian European culture. Until 1600, Ottoman medical, mathematical and military science was as good as that of the West but after 1600 advances in science that originated outside the Muslim world were rejected. The Ottomans therefore failed to keep up in science, technology, metallurgy, navigation and other fields. No printing press, for example, was established in Turkey until 1727. Backwardness had military consequences and after 1650 Turkey’s wars nearly all ended in defeat.

There were also serious economic consequences. When Portugese navigators discovered the African water route to India, Ottoman influence over trade between Europe and Asia stagnated. This led to a decline in urban life and urban industries. After this, trade centered on the export of raw materials and the import of European industrial goods. Because Western manufactured goods were cheaper, the guilds in the Ottoman cities were undersold and declined.

Another consequence was price inflation because Ottoman consumers now competed with wealthier Western Europeans for goods. Officials on fixed salaries had to resort to bribe-taking to feed their families. Small-scale rural timariots were driven from their lands by rising expenses. Vacant lands then fell under the control of powerful landlords, who raised private armies and acted virtually without government control. By 1800, the “ayan” (or “notable”) Ali Pasha of Jannina ruled the northwestern portion of what is now Greece, while Osman Pasvanoglu ruled western Bulgaria. Such men took advantage of the Napoleonic Wars to live like kings until the revolts in Serbia and Greece forced them out.  Such men paid few taxes to the central state, but held governors’ titles as “pashas” mostly because they were too strong to be evicted.

New forces

By this time the downward spiral was nearly complete. The interlocking principles of Ottoman society were too complex for reform: instead new forces began to appear. These included opportunistic merchants who lived by border smuggling. These “conquering Balkan Orthodox merchants” (as one scholar dubbed them) included Greek ship-captains who owned a schooner or two, Serbian pig farmers who drove hogs to markets in Hungary, and Bulgarian dockside traders who imported Russian furs. These were the kind of people who created the revolutions that completed the pattern of Ottoman decline.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created May 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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