Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s Master Architect

Rustem Pasha Mosque in the foreground and the Suleymaniye Mosque, an Ottoman imperial mosque on the Third Hill of Istanbul.
National Geographic Creative/Alamy

Between the 13th and 16th centuries the Ottoman state grew from a small Turkish principality in Anatolia into a sprawling empire that controlled territory in eastern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. This transformation was accompanied by the development of a distinctively Ottoman style of architecture. Across the diverse territories that had been gathered under Ottoman rule—and that had little in common in terms of language, religion, or culture—monumental buildings featuring massive domes and soaring pencil-thin minarets were instantly recognizable manifestations of Ottoman grandeur.

The individual most responsible for developing and refining the classical Ottoman architectural style was a builder named Sinan (1491–1588), who served as the empire’s chief architect from 1539 until his death in 1588. During that time he designed hundreds of buildings, including mosques, palaces, baths, tombs, and caravansaries, and oversaw the construction of hundreds more.

Sinan was born to a Christian family in southeast Anatolia. When he was 21 he was drafted into the Jannisary corps, an elite Ottoman infantry force who were recruited as adolescents or young men from the Christian territories of the empire and converted to Islam. He participated in the military campaigns of Suleyman the Magnificent, both as a combatant and as an engineer—the latter allowed him to develop the building expertise that he would put to use later in life.

When Sinan was 47, Suleyman appointed him as the chief architect in Istanbul. Sinan embarked on a series of increasingly impressive buildings. His first large mosque was the Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul, dedicated to the memory of Suleyman’s son and heir who died at the age of 22.

Another of Sinan’s most important works is the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, which remains an essential feature of Istanbul’s skyline. It is almost as large as the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque in Ottoman times. The core of the building is a vast dome flanked by two semidomes, which combine to form an awe-inspiring interior space. The ground on which the Süleymaniye complex was constructed slopes toward the Bosporus strait; one of Sinan’s architectural talents was his ability to build on challenging terrain.

The Selimiye Mosque, built in Edirne between 1569 and 1575, is considered Sinan’s masterpiece. In this building, Sinan managed to build a dome roughly as large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia, both having a diameter of about 31 meters. The dome sits on eight piers in an octagon, rather than the usual four larger piers, giving the central space a feeling of openness and weightlessness that is enhanced by the light that filters in from hundreds of small windows.

After completing the Selimiye Mosque, Sinan continued to design smaller buildings until his death in 1588.

 

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah MUSLIM EXPLORER AND WRITER

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, in full Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Lawātī al-Ṭanjī ibn Baṭṭūṭah, (born February 24, 1304, Tangier, Morocco—died 1368/69 or 1377, Morocco), the greatest medieval Muslim traveler and the author of one of the most famous travel books, the Riḥlah (Travels). His great work describes his extensive travels covering some 75,000 miles (120,000 km) in trips to almost all of the Muslim countries and as far as China and Sumatra (now part of Indonesia).

Early Life And Travels

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was from a family that produced a number of Muslim judges (qadis). He received the traditional juristic and literary education in his native town of Tangier. In 1325, at the age of 21, he started his travels by undertaking the pilgrimage(hajj) to Mecca. At first his purpose was to fulfill that religious duty and to broaden his education by studying under famous scholars in EgyptSyria, and the Hejaz (western Arabia). That he achieved his objectives is corroborated by long enumerations of scholars and Sufi (Islamic mystic) saints whom he met and also by a list of diplomas conferred on him (mainly in Damascus). Those studies qualified him for judicial office, whereas the claim of being a former pupil of the then-outstanding authorities in traditional Islamic sciences greatly enhanced his chances and made him thereafter a respected guest at many courts.

That renown was to follow later, however. In Egypt, where he arrived by the land route via Tunis and Tripoli, an irresistible passion for travel was born in his soul, and he decided to visit as many parts of the world as possible, setting as a rule “never to travel any road a second time.” His contemporaries traveled for practical reasons (such as trade, pilgrimage, and education), but Ibn Baṭṭūṭah did it for its own sake, for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples. He made a living of it, benefitting at the beginning from his scholarly status and later from his increasing fame as a traveler. He enjoyed the generosity and benevolence of numerous sultans, rulers, governors, and high dignitaries in the countries he visited, thus securing an income that enabled him to continue his wanderings.

From Cairo, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah set out via Upper Egypt to the Red Sea but then returned and visited Syria, there joining a caravanfor Mecca. Having finished the pilgrimage in 1326, he crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern IranAzerbaijan, and Baghdad. There he met the last of the Mongol khans of Iran, Abū Saʿīd (ruled 1316–36), and some lesser rulers. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah spent the years between 1327 and 1330 in Mecca and Medinaleading the quiet life of a devotee, but such a long stay did not suit his temperament.

Embarking on a boat in Jiddah, he sailed with a retinue of followers down both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen, crossed it by land, and set sail again from Aden. This time he navigated along the eastern African coast, visiting the trading city-states as far as Kilwa (Tanzania). His return journey took him to southern Arabia, OmanHormuz, southern Persia, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.

There a new, ambitious plan matured in his mind. Hearing of the sultan of DelhiMuḥammad ibn Tughluq (ruled 1325–51), and his fabulous generosity to Muslim scholars, he decided to try his luck at his court. Forced by lack of communications to choose a more indirect route, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah turned northward, again passed Egypt and Syria, and boarded ship for Asia Minor (Anatolia) in Latakia. He crisscrossed that “land of the Turks” in many directions at a time when Anatolia was divided into numerous petty sultanates. Thus, his narrative provides a valuable source for the history of that country between the end of the Seljuq power and the rise of the house of Ottoman. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was received cordially and generously by all the local rulers and heads of religious brotherhoods (ākhīs).

His journey continued across the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, then to the northern Caucasus and to Saray on the lower Volga River, capital of the khan of the Golden HordeÖz Beg (ruled 1312–41). According to his narrative, he undertook an excursion from Saray to Bulgary on the upper Volga and Kama, but there are reasons to doubt his veracity on that point. On the other hand, the narrative of his visit to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the retinue of the khan’s wife, a Byzantine princess, seems to be an eyewitness record, although there are some minor chronological discrepancies. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s description of the Byzantine capital is vivid and, in general, accurate. Although he shared the strong opinions of his fellow Muslims toward unbelievers, his account of the “second Rome” shows him as a rather tolerant man with a lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in the realm of Islam than in non-Muslim lands, whether Christian, Hindu, or pagan.

After his return from Constantinople through the Russian steppes, he continued his journey in the general direction of India. From Saray he traveled with a caravan to Central Asia, visiting the ancient towns of BukharaSamarkand, and Balkh, all of those still showing the scars left by the Mongol invasion. He took rather complicated routes through Khorāsān and Afghanistan, and, after crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range, he arrived at the frontiers of India on the Indus River on September 12, 1333, by his own dating. The accuracy of that date is doubtful, as it would have been impossible to cover such enormous distances (from Mecca) in the course of only one year. Because of that discrepancy, his subsequent dating until 1348 is highly uncertain.

Time In India And Later Journeys

By that time Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was already a man of some importance and fame, with a large train of attendants and followers and also with his own harem of legal wives and concubines. India and its ruler, Muḥammad ibn Tughluq, lived up to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s expectations of wealth and generosity, and the traveler was received with honours and gifts and later appointed grand qadi of Delhi, a sinecure that he held for several years.

Though he had apparently attained an easy life, it soon became clear that his new position was not without danger. Sultan Muḥammad, an extraordinary mixture of generosity and cruelty, held sway over the greater part of India with an iron hand that fell indiscriminately upon high and low, Muslim and Hindu alike. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah witnessed all the glories and setbacks of the sultan and his rule, fearing daily for his life as he saw many friends fall victim to the suspicious despot. His portrait of Muḥammad is an unusually fine piece of psychological insight and mirrors faithfully the author’s mixed feelings of terror and sympathy. Notwithstanding all his precautions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah at last fell into disgrace, and only good fortune saved his life. Gaining favour again, he was appointed the sultan’s envoy to the Chinese emperor in 1342.

He left Delhi without regrets, but his journey was full of other dangers: not far away from Delhi his party was waylaid by Hindu insurgents, and the traveler barely escaped with his life. On the Malabar Coast of southwestern India he became involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked near Calicut (now Kozhikode), losing all his property and the gifts for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of the sultan, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah chose to go to the Maldive Islands, where he spent nearly two years; as a qadi, he was soon active in politics, married into the ruling family, and apparently even aspired to become sultan.

Finding the situation too dangerous, he set out for Sri Lanka, where he visited the ruler as well as the famous Adam’s Peak. After a new shipwreck on the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India, he took part in a war led by his brother-in-law and went again to the Maldives and then to Bengal and Assam. At that time he decided to resume his mission to Chinaand sailed for Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the Muslim sultan and started for China; his description of his itinerary contains some discrepancies.

He landed at the great Chinese port Zaytūn (identified as Quanzhou, near Xiamen [Amoy]) and then traveled on inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. That part of his narrative is rather brief, and the itinerary, as well as the chronology, presents many problems and difficulties, not yet surmounted, that cast shadows of doubt on his veracity.

Equally brief is his account of the return voyage via Sumatra, Malabar, and the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Syria. In Syria he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death of 1348, visited again many towns there and in Egypt, and in the same year performed his final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he decided to return home, sailing from Alexandria to Tunisia, then to Sardinia and Algiers, finally reaching Fès, the capital of the Marīnid sultan, Abū ʿInān, in November 1349.

But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain, and two years later (in 1352) he set out on a journey to the western Sudan. His last journey (across the Sahara to Western Africa) was taken unwillingly at the command of the sultan. Crossing the Sahara, he spent a year in the empire of Mali, then at the height of its power under Mansa Sulaymān; his account represents one of the most important sources of that period for the history of that part of Africa.

Toward the end of 1353 Ibn Baṭṭūṭah returned to Morocco and, at the sultan’s request, dictated his reminiscences to a writer, Ibn Juzayy (died 1355), who embellished the simple prose of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah with an ornate style and fragments of poetry. After that he passes from sight. He is reported to have held the office of qadi in a town in Morocco before his death, details of which remain uncertain. It has been suggested that he died in 1368/69 or 1377 and was buried in his native town of Tangier.

Legacy

The claim of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah to be “the traveler of Islam” is well founded: it is estimated that the extent of his wanderings was some 75,000 miles (120,000 km), a figure hardly surpassed by anyone before the age of steam power. He visited, with few exceptions (central Persia, Armenia, and Georgia), all Muslim countries, as well as many adjacent non-Muslim lands. While he did not discover new or unknown lands, and his contribution to scientific geography was minimal, the documentary value of his work has given it lasting historical and geographical significance. He met at least 60 rulers and a much greater number of viziers, governors, and other dignitaries; in his book he mentioned more than 2,000 persons who were known to him personally or whose tombs he visited. The majority of those people are identifiable by independent sources, and there are surprisingly few errors in names or dates in Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s material.

His Riḥlah, as his book is commonly known, is an important document shedding light on many aspects of the social, cultural, and political history of a great part of the Muslim world. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was a curious observer interested in the ways of life in various countries, and he described his experiences with a human approach rarely encountered in official historiography. His accounts of his travels in Asia Minor, East and West Africa, the Maldives, and India form a major source for the histories of those areas, whereas the parts dealing with the Arab and Persian Middle East are valuable for their wealth of detail on various aspects of social and cultural life.

On the whole, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah is reliable; only his alleged journey to Bulgary was proved to be invented, and there are some doubts concerning the East Asian part of his travels. A few grave and several minor discrepancies in the chronology of his travels are due more to lapses in his memory than to intentional fabrication. A number of formerly uncertain points (such as travels in Asia Minor and the visit to Constantinople) have since been cleared away by contemporary research and the discovery of new corroborative sources.

Another interesting aspect of the Riḥlah is the gradual revealing of the character of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah himself; in the course of the narrative the reader may learn the opinions and reactions of an average middle-class Muslim of the 14th century. He was deeply rooted in orthodox Islam but, like many of his contemporaries, oscillated between the pursuit of its legislative formalism and an adherence to the mystic path and succeeded in combining both. He did not offer any profound philosophy but accepted life as it came to him, leaving to posterity a true picture of himself and his times.

Ivan Hrbek

God vs. the Gods – The First Known Instance of Monotheism in History

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In the long line of pharaohs of the dynasties of ancient Egypt, Akhenaten was unique. Yet until recently, almost nothing was known about him. Akhenaten lived during the 14th century BC and his reign lasted for 17 years.. Evidence of his existence was discovered only in the late 19th century.

The future king of Egypt was originally named Amenhotep IV, son of pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. He was not first in line to the throne but his older brother died at a young age. Some scholars believe that the young prince was shunned as a child, as he never appeared in family portraits. He later married the well-known Queen Nefertiti.

Once on the throne, Akhenaten made revolutionary changes to Egyptian life. He banished worship of Egypt’s many gods, including Amun-Ra, popular among the priestly class. Instead, only one deity, the sun disk god Aten, was to be recognized as the Supreme Being. Akhenaten considered himself a direct descendant of Aten.

Worship of Aten may have been the first known movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once suggested that Moses may have been a priest to the cult of Aten, who later fled Egypt with his followers to maintain their beliefs after the death of Akhenaten.

After changing his name to Akhenaten, the pharaoh ordered grand monuments built for Aten in the Egyptian capital, Thebes. Temples were reoriented toward the east, where the sun rose each day. Icons for other Egyptian gods were removed.

Akhenaten then had a new city built in honor of his god. Two years later, he moved the royal palace there. The new city was located at modern day Amarna and was filled with up to 10,000 people. The population included priests to the sun god, merchants, builders, and traders. Akhenaten lived here for ten years until his death.

Along with statues, there were a number of sculptures portraying the royal family. This was common for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Almost all previous royal portraits depicted the king and queen as rigid. They are serious. They are wearing the royal insignia and their bodies are shaped perfectly and muscular. They look like gods themselves.

Not Akhenaten though. His face looks stretched. The nose is narrow and the chin is pointy. He has large lips and broad hips. A pot belly oozes over his waist. Why does Akhenaten look so different from other sculptures of the period?

One theory is that the king may have suffered some sort of ailment. One of the possibilities is that he had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Some of the possible symptoms include a tall and thin body type, long arms, legs, and fingers, as well as curvature of the spine.

Yet, Akhenaten and his family look like real people with physical flaws. It is timeless. The images reach out to us through the many centuries. In one stone relief, the sun god Aten’s light is shining down on Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and some of their children.

The pharaoh is holding one child in his arms, giving her a kiss. Nefertiti is holding two younger kids, one child reaching for the queen’s jewelry. It’s a scene that might look like any contemporary family.

It appears Akhenaten’s rule was not popular, both within the kingdom and beyond. Correspondences from foreign rulers allied to Egypt describe frustration with Akhenaten’s lack of military and financial support. Egyptian power and influence declined during the king’s reign.

Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not outlive him. Almost immediately after his death, the priestly elites of Amun-Ra and the other gods regained their influence. Statues and references to Akhenaten and Aten were removed. Akhenaten’s name was erased from official royal lists.

His temples were destroyed and the material used for new building projects. The city at Amarna was abandoned — even the mummified body of Akhenaten was removed from his tomb, never to be seen again.

Akhenaten’s successor was one of his sons, King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. He is more famous today than his father because his tomb was discovered mostly intact by archaeologists in the early 20th century.

As his name suggests, Tutankhamun embraced the old deity of Amun-Ra and the traditional ways of ancient Egypt. During his short reign, King Tut mostly turned away from his father’s legacy, the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten.

 Mark Shiffer

The gorilla that learned to sign and loved a kitten, has sadly passed away

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It’s a sad day in the famous animal kingdom. Koko the gorilla has died.

Koko became famous as a linguistic marvel. She was said to have mastered more than 1,000 hand signs to communicate with her human handlers.

Animal psychologist Francine Patterson taught Koko a modified version of American Sign Language and said she used her words to convey not only tangible items but also thoughts and feelings.

Koko was said to have an IQ between 75 and 95 and could understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

Koko died in her sleep at age 46, which is considered “old” for a gorilla. Gorillas typically live to between 30 and 40 in the wild.

“Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world,” said the Gorilla Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to study and preserve great apes, which oversaw Koko’s life and announced her death.

Koko captured the world’s heart when she gently held a kitten, which she called All Ball. The story of the gorilla and her pet was told in National Geographic and later in a children’s book, Koko’s Kitten. Sadly, All Ball was hit by a car and killed. In heart-breaking video footage, Dr. Patterson asks Koko what happened to All Ball, according to NPR, and Koko signs: cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love. And then: unattention, visit me.

Koko was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo and lived most of her life at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. A western lowland gorilla, she was named Hanabi-ko, Japanese for “fireworks child” to commemorate her birth date, which readily turned into the nickname Koko.

She was chosen as an infant to work on a language research project Dr. Patterson was conducting. Dr. Patterson developed a decades-long relationship with her subject.

Koko appeared in two documentaries and on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1978, in a kind of proto-selfie: a photograph she took of herself in a mirror.

KoKo The Famous Gorilla Receives A Kitten

In 2001, the comedian Robin Williams visited Koko. In a hilarious and delightfully sweet video, she can be seen showing Williams around her environs, sniffing and trying on his glasses, and mimicking his silly faces. She invited him to tickle her, and gently tried to tickle him too.

Williams seemed genuinely delighted as she goes through his pockets, pulls out his wallet, and tries to eat his money. When she saw his image later in movies, she seemed to recall him and also seemed to mourn his death.

Koko also met other kind-hearted celebrities like Mr. Rogers, Betty White, Sting, and William Shatner, who after learning of her death, posted a remembrance to Twitter, including a photo of their meeting.

Beyond her capacity to communicate, she also impressed scientists with her ability to play a recorder, which requires simultaneous breath and finger control.

In time, however, some scientists questioned Dr. Patterson’s methods and interpretations, suggesting that the gorilla merely kept signing until she received whatever “reward” she desired from Dr. Patterson. Some skeptics posited that people were projecting their own emotions onto Koko when they suggested that the gorilla was sad about the death of Robin Williams; the gorilla may have been simply mirroring the sadness in her human handlers.

Of course, it’s impossible to measure the depth of a gorilla’s understanding and emotions. And it is undeniable that she had an impact.

“Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” the Gorilla Foundation said in the statement announcing her passing.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

 E.L. Hamilton

6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ottoman Empire

Turkish artillery of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.

Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.

1

The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while  Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Turkish state. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire. “Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west,” says Duducu.(Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
2

The Ottomans could be unlucky

Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”

While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.

Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

3

Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, 1601. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
4

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”

Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.

The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.

5

The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
6

The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.

The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

 Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).

The Pirate Cemetery of Madagascar was the off-season home for an estimated 1,000 pirates

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, Ile Sainte-Marie (or St. Mary’s Island as it is known in English), a long, thin island off the eastern African coast, became a popular base for pirates.

Up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the rocky island home, including widely-feared brigands Adam Baldridge, William Kidd, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, Abraham Samuel and Thomas Tew. They lived in the île aux Forbans, an island located in the bay of Sainte Marie’s main town, Ambodifotatra.

This place was not far from the maritime routes along which ships returning from the East Indies sailed in transit, their holds overflowing with wealth, it was provided with bays and inlets protected from storms and finally, it had abundant fruit and was situated in quiet waters.

For around 100 years, Ile Sainte-Marie was the off-season home of an estimated 1,000 pirates. Source

The beautiful tropical island’s numerous inlets and bays made it the perfect place to hide ships. The pirates sailed mostly from England, Portugal, France and America to make this island off the coast of Madagascar a home, a hideout and a strategic place.

Cyclones and centuries have worn away many of the well-aged engravings on the stone markers. Source

With so many pirates abiding on the island, some even raising families at the time, it’s no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world’s only legitimate pirate cemetery.

In the center of the cemetery, there is a large black tomb that locals say is the final resting place of Captain Kidd, buried there in an upright position to punish him for his sins.

There are mostly graves from 1800s but only one with the classic skull and crossed bones. Source

The pirates were off Ile Sainte-Marie by the late 1700s, when the French seized the island. It wasn’t returned to Madagascar until 1960. The utopian pirate republic of Libertalia was also rumored to exist in this area, although the republic’s existence, let alone its location, has never been proven.

Today, 30 headstones remain, though locals say there were once hundreds. Source

A recently discovered map from 1733 by John de Bry, an archaeologist working on shipwrecks in the area, called the land mass the “Island of Pirates” and identified the location of three pirate ship wrecks.

The crumbling cemetery, its graves half covered by tall, swaying grass, is open to the public. Source

So many pirate legends are floating around Sainte-Marie, but, is this cemetery authentic? Everyone on the island, including government tourism officials, of course, claim it is. However, dead pirates or not, this cemetery is one of Madagascar’s most popular tourist destinations.

By David Goran