The Ottoman Armies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Anatolia was a politically diverse crossroads in the thirteenth century.

Political Considerations

Anatolia Anatoliawas a politically diverse crossroads in the thirteenth century. The IlkhansIlkhans, the descendants of the Mongols;Turkic descendantsMongols, lost their grip on power in Iran; the Byzantine Empire;fall ofByzantine Empire was besieged by the Franks from the west and the Turks from the east. A serious power vacuum developed in the region. A wide array of smaller states formed in this period. Close to a dozen Turkish emirates emerged throughout Anatolia, the Italian trading republics of VeniceVenice and GenoaGenoa established a presence along the coasts, and various other groups attempted to control what was left.Armies;OttomanOttoman Empire;armiesTurks;armiesArmies;OttomanOttoman Empire;armiesTurks;armies

Out of this situation one group emerged to dominate the rest. The founder of this new state was Osman IOsman I (Ottoman founder)[Osman 01]Osman. He carved out an independent center of power near the Byzantine Empire and after years of raiding and building up a political network, the Ottomans, or Osmanlılar (those who are associated with Osman), became a force to be reckoned with. They developed a Ghazi ethos ghazi ethos (an Islamic ideology of fighting for the faith) but also an inclusive policy of recruiting military talent of any faith. The Ottomans found a fertile ground for their raids in 1354, as they crossed into the Balkans. There they discovered a politically disunited patchwork of states that were eventually brought into the Ottoman fold. With a foothold in Europe, the Ottomans dominated both sides of the Aegean.

Slowly the majority of the other regional powers were subordinated to the Ottomans. At the dawn of the fifteenth century, the Ottomans faced a new challenge from the East: the Turkic commander Tamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane (also known as Timur, 1336-1405). The Ottomans faced him at the Ankara, Battle of (1402)Battle of Ankara (1402) and were soundly defeated. The Ottoman sultanBayezid IBayezid I (Ottoman sultan)[Bayezid 01]Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402) was captured, and the Ottoman state was thrown into chaos. Between 1402 and 1413, contending Ottoman princes and former Ottoman vassals fought to fill the power vacuum as Tamerlane’s empire quickly evaporated.

Slowly the Ottomans were able to reestablish rule over their old territories and solidify their state again. During the reigns of Murad IIMurad II (Ottoman sultan)[Murad 02]Murad II (r. 1421-1451) and Mehmed IIMehmed II (Ottoman sultan)[Mehmed 02]Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481), the Ottoman Empire reconsolidated and began to expand. Those former vassals who had asserted their independence were brought to heel, and the empire was stronger than ever before. With the defeat of the Byzantines and the capture of Constantinople, Siege of (1453)[Constantinople, Siege of 1453]Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans established a position as the preeminent power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Military Achievement

The Ottomans were able to establish an empire centered on the Aegean, controlling western Anatolia and southeastern Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They unified a host of disunited states into a strong political entity. Despite defeat at the hands of Tamerlane and brief vassalage thereafter, the Ottomans became the dominant power in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Aegean.

The Ottoman armies in this period consolidated power in most of Anatolia by defeating their principal Turkish rivals: the emirates of Aydin, Menteshe, Karesi, Saruhan, Hamit, Germiyan, Teke, and Karaman. While accomplishing this, they inflicted a series of defeats upon the Byzantines at Bursa, Battle of (1326)Bursa (1326), Iznik, Battle of (1331)Iznik (1331), and Edirne, Battle of (1361)Edirne (1361), culminating with the capture of Constantinople (1453). While the Ottoman armies were establishing dominance over Anatolia, they also took the opportunity to become the premier power in the Balkans. After the fall of the Serbian EmpireSerbian Empire in 1355, the Ottomans slowly established suzerainty over the Serbian and Bulgarian successor states with major victories at Maritza, Battle of (1371)Maritza (1371) and Kosovo, Battle of (1389)Kosovo (1389), thereby becoming the dominant Balkan power of the period. Ottoman forces were also successful against various Crusades;OttomansCrusader armies sent against them, winning the day at Nicopolis, Battle of (1396)Nicopolis (1396), Varna, Battle of (1444)Varna (1444), and Kosovo, Battle of (1448)Kosovo (1448). The Ottomans also had substantial success against the Venetians at Thessalonica, Battle of (1430)Thessalonica (1430). The definitive military success of the period was the capture of Constantinople in 1453, which eliminated the Byzantines, made the Ottomans masters of the Aegean, and positioned them to become a world power.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The death of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1481. His sack and control of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The Ottoman army was initially reliant upon a Cavalry;Ottomancavalry force that was used to engage in plundering raids. These forces were typically lightly armed and armored, with an emphasis on speed. They frequently armed themselves with war hammers, maces, short swords, sabers, javelins, and spears. Early Ottoman armies often wore leather lamellar Armor;Ottomanarmor into battle. Later, as the Ottomans came into contact with the Byzantine, Crusader, and Serbian armies, they began to adopt more substantial armor and heavier weapons. Heavy mail and plate armor was utilized frequently, which differentiated the Ottomans from most of the early Islamic armies. In addition to carrying on the Turko-Mongolic tradition of armaments, the Ottomans borrowed from the Byzantines and other European powers.

The Ottomans were known to use heavy Guns;Ottomansguns during sieges as well as on the battlefield. Despite conflicting accounts of the use of artillery against the Karamans (1388), at Kosovo (1389), and at Nicopolis (1396), definitive evidence shows Artillery;Ottomanartillery in the Ottoman armies by 1420 and widespread use by 1440. For Siege warfare;Ottomansieges, the heavy guns were frequently used, and these were often cast on the spot. Some of the Cannons;Ottomancannons were enormous; according to certain sources, some of the cannonballs shot at the walls of Constantinople in 1453 weighed in excess of 1,900 pounds.

Ottoman armies also gradually began to utilize handheld firearms in the form of the Harquebuses;Ottomanharquebus Tufenk (firearm)(tufenk). The Janissaries janissaries were massed among the Araba (linked wagons) araba, a series of linked wagons similar to the Wagenburg (linked wagons) Wagenburg (a Bohemian defensive line of wagons) and used large volleys to suppress cavalry charges. These weapons were confined mainly to the janissaries and became prevalent only at the end of the fifteenth century.

Military Organization

The earliest organization of Ottoman forces was a predatory confederation drawn from nearby tribes, allies, and renegades; however, as Ottoman territorial control expanded, organizational principles were enforced. Two organizational systems were in place during this period. The first represents the initial attempt by the Ottomans to organize their army into something other than a raiding band. The second is the beginning of the form that the Ottoman army would assume in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Some of the first regular troops employed by the Ottomans were known as the Müsellem[Musellem]müsellem (tax-free), which were the earliest organized cavalry units, and the Yayas yayas, the earliest infantry forces. These groups were given land grants in return for their service. They were organized using a decimal system. This was the first structure given to the Ottoman army. However, the loyalty of these freedmen raised concerns for the Ottoman sultans and encouraged the creation of a new structure.

With the effective establishment of an Ottoman state, the principle of military slavery was enforced in the form of the Kapıulu corps[Kapiulu corps]Kapıulu corps. This force was made up of military slaves who were theoretically the property of the Ottoman sultan. The two principal branches of the Kapıulu were theJanissariesjanissaries and the Sipahis (Ottoman cavalry)sipahis, a Cavalry;Ottomancavalry force.

As the army grew, a specialized infantry force was utilized. The yeniçeri (the janissaries) were first drawn from prisoners of war and later from a special levy Devshirme (devshirme) on the Christian subjects of the empire. The janissaries adopted Harquebuses gunpowder weapons early in the fifteenth century, particularly the harquebus, which was used with great effect in this period. This force was organized into Ortas ortas, or regiments, typically containing between one hundred and three thousand troops.

The Azab corps (Ottoman irregulars)azab corps were established in the early fifteenth century and were drawn from rural Anatolia. Utilized principally as an infantry force, they also performed a naval function later. The azabs continued as a second-line infantry force in the Ottoman army until some time in the sixteenth century.

Turks surrender Varna to the Russians.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Sipahis (Ottoman cavalry)sipahis (sometimes rendered “spahis” in English) were cavalry forces drawn from the notables of Anatolia. Many of these forces received nontransferable land grants, timars, from which they drew their income and gathered their own forces in times of war. These forces were armored and generally heavily armed. “Sipahi” was also a term used for a unit from the six cavalry divisions of the Ottoman palace, which served as the bodyguard of the Ottoman sultans. These forces, along with the janissaries, formed the backbone of the Ottoman army after about 1400. There was a well-known rivalry between the sipahis and the janissaries.

In addition to these forces, the Ottomans employed various elements from vassals in the Balkans and Anatolia, particularly the Serbs. The Christian vassals of the Ottomans brought infantry forces that were often referred to as Voynuksvoynuks. These troops performed garrison duty along the Ottoman frontiers in the Balkans and joined the Ottoman army in major campaigns.

Additionally, Ottoman armies began to include units of miners and sappers who were needed to reduce the many fortifications that Ottoman armies encountered on campaign. An initial lack of these forces had hindered the Ottomans against Byzantine and Crusader fortifications. Later these forces became adept at using gunpowder and mining operations.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Tactics;OttomanStrategies;OttomanOttoman armies employed a wide array of tactics against the various opponents they faced as they consolidated power. The earliest Ottoman armies were little more than raiding bands. They relied on speed and subterfuge for success, and especially upon the time-honored nomadic strategy of feigned retreat and counterattack. These forces essentially wore other forces down by attrition rather than by using field tactics to win set battles. These forces were all but ineffective against fortified positions.

Ottoman armies from the beginning and throughout the period made frequent use of light cavalry raiders, or Akıncıs[Akincis]akıncıs. These forces began to appear in the Balkans around 1400. Later they were drawn from Ottoman vassals such as the Crimean Tatars and the Walachians; they constantly harassed opposing armies and softened up border defenses. They kept the borders of the Ottoman Empire in a nearly constant state of war, which meant that the Ottomans’ opponents had to be constantly concerned about raids. Hence, many opponents of the Ottomans in the Balkans built elaborate border fortresses. During battles, these light cavalry forces attempted to draw the enemy in toward the Ottoman strong point and the entrenched janissaries.

One of the Ottomans’ most enduring tactics was the use of a fortified center on the battlefield as a rallying point. These points were often strengthened using field fortifications, such as trenches or palisades of sharpened stakes. Later the arabas were used by the Ottoman armies while on campaign as mobile strong points containing a concentration of cannons and muskets. These strong points also functioned as command centers, often housing the Ottoman sultan and his cavalry bodyguard as well as the janissaries. These formations were particularly effective against cavalry forces and led to Ottoman victories at Nicopolis (1396) and Kosovo (1448).

Contemporary Sources

Sources for the earliest years of the Ottoman army are scant. The Ottoman army began as a raiding confederacy and kept no real records. Of the extant sources from this period, the majority are from the perspective of the Ottomans’ adversaries. The Ottoman sources of the period are also problematic, because they are laced with legends and figures from previous periods; as a result, contemporary events are difficult to disentangle–and even these sources were often written after the events they relate. Another issue is that few of these sources have been translated into English.

By the end of the fourteenth century, there were better accounts of the Ottoman military. Those available in English include Mihailović, KonstantinMihailović, KonstantinPamiętniki janczara (Mihailović)[Pamietniki] Memoirs of a Janissary (Mihailović) Konstantin Mihailović’s Pamiętniki janczara (fifteenth century; Memoirs of a Janissary, 1975), which offers a unique look into the Ottoman army from the perspective of one of the janissaries. It provides great detail about the rigors and the lifestyle of the janissaries. The Crusade of Varna (2006; part of the Crusade Texts in Translation series) gives extensive information about the Varna, Crusade of (1444) Crusade of Varna (1444) from the perspectives of all parties involved, including the Ottomans, the Hungarians, the French, and others. A section in this work, the anonymous “The Holy Wars of Sultan Murad Son of Mehmed Khan,” provides an Ottoman perspective on this conflict. The Siege of Constantinople: Seven Contemporary Accounts (1972) gives great detail on the 1453 siege from the Byzantine and Genoese perspectives.Armies;OttomanOttoman Empire;armiesTurks;armies

Books and Articles
  • Bartusis, Mark C. The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society 1204-1453. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
  • Chalkokondyles, Laonikos. Laonikos Chalkokondyles: A Translation and Commentary of the Demonstrations of Histories. Translated by Nikolaos Nikoloudis. Athens: Historical Publications St. D. Basilopoulos, 1996.
  • Doukas. Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. Prepared by Harry J. Magoulias. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
  • _______, ed. The Crusade of Varna. London: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Inalcik, Halil. “Osman Ghazi’s Siege of Nicea and the Battle of Bapheus.” In The Ottoman Emirate, 1300-1389, edited by Elizabeth Zachariadou. Heraklion: Crete University Press, 1993.
  • _______. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. Translated by Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
  • Kaldy-Nagy, Gyor. “The First Centuries of Ottoman Military Organization.” Acta Orientalia (Budapest) 31 (1977): 147-183.
  • Melville-Jones, J. R., trans. The Siege of Constantinople: Seven Contemporary Accounts. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1972.
  • Mihalović, Konstantin. Memoirs of a Janissary. Translated by Benjamin Stoltz. Historical commentary and notes by Svat Soucek. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Joint Committee on Eastern Europe, American Council of Learned Societies, by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan, 1975.
  • Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks, 1300-1774. New York: Osprey, 2001.
  • _______. Crusade of Nicopolis, 1396. New York: Osprey, 1999.
  • Robinson, H. R. Oriental Armour. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1967.
Films and Other Media
  • Ottoman Empire. Documentary (Eastern Traditions Series). Wolf Productions, 2005.
  • The Ottoman Empire. Documentary. Films Media Groups, 1996.
  • Ottoman Empire: The War Machine. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 2006.

The Ottoman Empire

Armies and Infantry: Ancient and Medieval

Armies of Muṛammad and the Caliphate

Armies of the Seljuk Turks

West African Empires


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