|European historical travel topics:
Prehistoric Europe → Ancient Greece → Roman Empire → Vikings and the Old Norse → Hanseatic League → Medieval and Renaissance Italy → Ottoman Empire → Nordic history → Russian Empire → Napoleonic Wars → Austro-Hungarian Empire → Industrial Britain → World War I → World War II → Holocaust remembrance → Cold War
The Ottoman Empire was one of the great empires of world history. At the height of its power, it controlled most of the Middle East, as well as the Balkans and parts of North Africa, with a sphere of influence across much of Europe, Asia and Africa. The empire collapsed at the end of World War I, and was succeeded by modern Turkey.
The Turks trace their origin to Central Asia. Their current homeland in Anatolia (Asia Minor) has been home to many civilizations throughout history, including Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was not the first Turkish empire based in Anatolia, but it was certainly the most influential.
The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299. In 1453, it succeeded in conquering the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. This impressive achievement for the Turks was a disgrace for the Christians, and gave rise to fantasies about new Crusades that in the end never materialized. Constantinople's name was subsequently changed to Istanbul, and it served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for over 450 years.
Still, the fall of Constantinople had decisive impact on Europe. The Turks proved the superiority of gunpowder weapons, which soon became common in European armies. Christian scholars leaving Constantinople contributed to the Renaissance in Italy and other parts of Europe. Europeans were also forced to sail the Atlantic, which a few decades later led them around Africa, and to the Americas.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans saw themselves in large measure as a multi-national, multi-religious Islamic empire that was responsible for preserving and extending the heritage of Rome, as successors of the Byzantine Empire that they defeated, and also with protecting the Islamic holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. As an indication of the toleration of non-Muslims that existed during much of its history, the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain after the 1492 Reconquista of that country by the Christians. Unfortunately, toward the very end of the existence of the Ottoman Empire, they put down an independence movement by the Armenians and, in the process, systematically murdered between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians - a crime that lives in infamy as the Armenian Genocide.
The Ottomans promoted arts including music, pottery, architecture that incorporated many Byzantine motifs and techniques, calligraphy and cuisine, whose styles still have a major influence on the Balkans and the Arab world as well as the modern Turkey of today.
The bulk of the Ottoman heritage in what is now Turkey rests in the Marmara region, where the empire started and grew. Curiously, the rest of the country is mostly devoid of any major monuments built during the Ottoman era—most historic sights either date back to the Seljuks and Turkish petty kingdoms pre-dating the Ottomans, or are remnants of the civilizations that called Anatolia home prior to the arrival of the Turks altogether.
- Istanbul. The grand Ottoman capital for centuries is, needless to say, home to the largest Ottoman heritage anywhere in the world.
- Söğüt. This small hillside town in northwestern Turkey was the first capital of the Ottoman state, where it began as a semi-nomadic principality in what was then the Byzantine borderlands.
- Bursa. The first major city that the Ottomans had taken control of, Bursa is considered to be the cradle of Ottoman civilization and is the site of most early Ottoman monuments.
- Edirne. There is much Ottoman heritage to see in this European co-capital of the empire, including the Selimiye Mosque, which many think is the zenith of Ottoman architecture.
- Safranbolu. Well-preserved Ottoman-era old town in northern Turkey that is in the World Heritage list.
- Iznik. Famous for its faïence pottery-making industry from the 16th century (known as the İznik Çini, Çin meaning China). Iznik tiles were used to decorate many of the mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere in the empire designed by famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.
In addition to Turkey's Marmara region, the Balkans are where you can best experience what is left of the Ottomans — almost any town south of the Danube has at least a building or two that has a connection with the Ottomans, although sometimes in a ruinous state. Below is a selection of cities that best preserved their Ottoman heritage.
- Sarajevo and Skopje . The respective capitals of the Balkan states of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republic of Macedonia both feature preserved Ottoman old towns.
- Mostar. The stone bridge spanning over the River Neretva that had to be rebuilt after the Yugoslav Wars is one of the most iconic Ottoman monuments in the region.
- Prizren. Referred to as the cultural capital of Kosovo, Prizren maintains its Ottoman streetscape.
- Kavala. A historic Greek town adorned with many Ottoman structures.
- Thessaloniki. A city with a continuous 3,000-year history, preserving relics of its Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman past.
- Plovdiv. While Bulgaria remained under Ottoman rule for centuries (longer than some regions in modern Turkey), most Bulgarian cities underwent large-scale reconstructions after the Bulgarian independence. Plovdiv is an exception, having remarkably preserved its old town full of traditional Ottoman architecture, including the Dzhumaya/Hüdavendigar Mosque. Dating back to 1363, this is considered to be the oldest mosque in Europe except those built in Spain by the Moors, and of course, those in Turkey itself.
- Eger. Marking the furthest extent of the Ottoman rule in Europe, the lonely minaret of this Hungarian town is the northernmost one ever built by the Ottomans, with the adjoining mosque long since disappeared in favour of a small square.
- Bakhchysarai. The seat of the Crimean Khanate, which, although nominally autonomous from the Ottoman might, adopted much of the Ottoman aesthetics and culture.
Middle East and Africa
Already regions with a history that reaches far before the Ottoman conquest, many places in the Middle East and parts of Africa nevertheless offer something to experience for travellers seeking Ottoman heritage.
- Damascus. One of the most important cities of the empire, Damascus hosts a wide number of Ottoman-built mosques, bazaars, and tombs, including that of the last Ottoman sultan who was exiled from Turkey after the republic was proclaimed, although it is yet to be seen how many of them could escape the destruction wrought about by the ongoing civil war.
- Jerusalem. While strictly speaking non-Ottoman in origin, except for the walls that enclose the Old City (built by Suleiman the Magnificent), the Ottomans had unsurprisingly taken great lengths to ensure that the buildings—including those held sacred by non-Muslims—and the community of this sacred city, that they ruled for 400 years, remain intact.
- Mecca and Medina . The sultans often viewed themselves as servants, and not rulers, of the holiest cities of Islam, and as such almost each of them, as well as many other members of the dynasty, tried and left a mark to these cities during their time on the throne, although most of these monuments are neglected by the current Saudi authorities, to say the least.
- Cairo. The main centre of Ottoman power and culture in North Africa.
- Suakin. Once the main Ottoman harbor on the Red Sea and the seat of the Ottoman province of Habesh, some locals in this Sudanese town still celebrate their Ottoman roots.
Soak up in a hamam (bathhouse). The Ottomans were avid builders and frequenters of bathhouses, and as such, many locations which were once the possessions of the empire still feature Ottoman-era bathhouses that usually take advantage of the local thermal springs.