The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire: 1300 to 1924

The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire: 1300 to 1924

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In the late 13th century a series of small principalities emerged in Anatolia, sandwiched between the Byzantine and Mongol Empires. These regions were dominated by ghazis-warriors dedicated to fighting for Islam-and ruled by princes, or "beys." One such bey was Osman I, leader of Turkmen nomads, who gave his name to the Ottoman principality, a region which grew vastly during its first few centuries, rising to become a massive world power. The resulting Ottoman Empire, which ruled large tracts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, survived until 1924 when the remaining regions transformed into Turkey.

A Sultan was originally a person of religious authority; later, the term was used for regional rules. The Ottoman rulers used the term sultan for almost their entire dynasty. In 1517, Ottoman Sultan Selim I captured the Caliph in Cairo and adopted the term; Caliph is a disputed title that commonly means the leader of the Muslim world. The Ottoman use of the term ended in 1924 when the empire was replaced by the Republic of Turkey. The descendants of the royal house have continued to trace their line to the present day.

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Osman I (c. 1300-1326)


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Although Osman I gave his name to the Ottoman Empire, it was his father Ertugrul who formed the principality around Sögüt. It was from this that Osman fought to broaden his realm against the Byzantines, taking important defenses, conquering Bursa, and becoming regarded as ​the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

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Orchan (1326-1359)

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Orchan (sometimes written Orhan) was the son of Osman I and continued the expansion of his family's territories by taking Nicea, Nicomedia, and Karasi while attracting an ever larger army. Rather than just fighting the Byzantines, Orchan allied with John VI Cantacuzenus and expanded Ottoman interest in the Balkans by fighting John's rival, John V Palaeologus, winning rights, knowledge, and Gallipoli.

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Murad I (1359-1389)


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The son of Orchan, Murad I oversaw a massive expansion of the Ottoman territories, taking Adrianople, subduing the Byzantines, and winning victories in Serbia and Bulgaria which forced submission, as well as expanding elsewhere. However, despite winning the Battle of Kosovo with his son, Murad was killed by an assassin's trick. He expanded the Ottoman state machinery.

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Bayezid I the Thunderbolt (1389-1402)


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Bayezid conquered large areas of the Balkans, fought Venice, and mounted a multi-year blockade of Constantinople, and even destroyed a crusade directed against him after his invasion of Hungary. But his rule was defined elsewhere, as his attempts to extend power in Anatolia ​brought him into conflict with Tamerlane, who defeated, captured, and imprisoned Bayezid.

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Interregnum: Civil War (1403-1413)


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With Bayezid's loss, the Ottoman Empire was saved from total destruction by weakness in Europe and Tamerlane's return east. The sons of Bayezid were able to not only take control but fight a civil war over it; Musa Bey, Isa Bey, and Süleyman were defeated by Mehmed I.

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Mehmed I (1413-1421)

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Mehmed was able to unify the Ottoman lands under his rule (at the price of his brothers), and received assistance from Byzantine emperor Manuel II in doing so. Walachia was turned into a vassal state, and a rival who pretended to be one of his brothers was seen off.

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Murad II (1421-1444)

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Emperor Manuel II might have assisted Mehmed I, but now Murad II had to fight against rival claimants sponsored by the Byzantines. This was why, having defeated them, Byzantine was threatened and forced to step down. Initial advances in the Balkans caused a war against a large European alliance which cost them losses. However, in 1444, after these losses and a peace deal, Murad abdicated in favor of his son.

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Mehmed II (1444-1446)

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Mehmed was just 12 when his father abdicated, and ruled in this first phase for just two years until the situation in the Ottoman warzones demanded his father resume control.

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Murad II (Second Rule, 1446-1451)

Portrait of Murad II (Amasya, 1404-Edirne, 1451), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, illustration from Turkish Memories, Arabic manuscript, Cicogna Codex, 17th century. DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

When the European alliance broke their agreements Murad led the army which defeated them, and bowed to demands: he resumed power, winning the Second Battle of Kosovo. He was careful not to upset the balance in Anatolia.

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Mehmed II the Conqueror (Second Rule, 1451-1481)

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If his first period of rule had been brief, Mehmed's second was to change history. He conquered Constantinople and a host of other territories which shaped the form of the Ottoman Empire and led to its dominance over Anatolia and the Balkans.

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Bayezid II the Just (1481-1512)


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A son of Mehmed II, Bayezid had to fight his brother to secure the throne. He didn't fully commit to war against the Mamlūks and had less success, and although he defeated one rebel son Bayezid couldn't stop Selim and, fearing he had lost support, abdicated in favor of the latter. He died very soon after.

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Selim I (1512-1520)


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Having taken the throne after fighting against his father, Selim made sure to remove all similar threats, leaving him with one son, Süleyman. Returning to his father's enemies, Selim expanded into Syria, Hejaz, Palestine, and Egypt, and in Cairo conquered the caliph. In 1517 the title was transferred to Selim, making him the symbolic leader of the Islamic states.

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Süleyman I (II) the Magnificent (1521-1566)

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Arguably the greatest of all the Ottoman leaders, Süleyman not only extended his empire greatly but he encouraged an era of great cultural wonder. He conquered Belgrade, shattered Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs, but could not win his siege of Vienna. He also fought in Persia but died during a siege in Hungary.

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Selim II (1566-1574)


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Despite winning a power struggle with his brother, Selim II was happy to entrust increasing amounts of power to others, and the elite Janissaries began to encroach on the Sultan. However, although his reign saw a European alliance smash the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto, a new one was ready and active the next year. Venice had to concede to the Ottomans. Selim's reign has been called the start of the decline of the Sultanate.

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Murad III (1574-1595)

Portrait of Murad III (1546-1595), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, illustration from Turkish Memories, Arabic manuscript, Cicogna Codex, 17th century. DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

The Ottoman situation in the Balkans began to fray as vassal states united with Austria against Murad, and although he made gains in a war with Iran the finances of the state were decaying. Murad has been accused of being too susceptible to internal politics and allowing the Janissaries to transform into a force that threatened the Ottomans rather than their enemies.

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Mehmed III (1595-1603)

Mehmed III's Coronation in the Topkapi Palace in 1595 (From Manuscript Mehmed III's Campaign in Hungary). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

The war against Austria that started under Murad III continued, and Mehmed did have some success with victories, sieges, and conquests, but faced rebellions at home due to the declining Ottoman state and a new war with Iran.

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Ahmed I (1603-1617)


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On one hand, the war with Austria that had lasted several Sultans came to a peace agreement in Zsitvatörök in 1606, but it was a damaging result for Ottoman pride, allowing European traders deeper into the regime.

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Mustafa I (1617-1618)

Portrait of Mustafa I (Manisa, 1592 - Istanbul, 1639), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, illustration from Turkish Memories, Arabic manuscript, Cicogna Codex, 17th century. DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Regarded as a weak ruler, the struggling Mustafa I was deposed shortly after taking power, but would return in 1622.

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Osman II (1618-1622)

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Osman came to the throne at 14 and determined to stop the interference of Poland in the Balkan states. However, a defeat in this campaign made Osman believe the Janissary troops were now a hindrance, so he reduced their funding and began a plan to recruit a new, non-Janissary army and power base. They realized​ his plan and murdered him.

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Mustafa I (Second Rule, 1622-1623)

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Put back on the throne by the once elite Janissary troops, Mustafa was dominated by his mother and achieved little.

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Murad IV (1623-1640)

Circa 1635, Engraving of Sultan Murad IV. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

As he came to the throne at the age of 11, Murad's early rule saw the power in the hands of his mother, the Janissaries, and grand viziers. As soon as he could, Murad smashed these rivals, took full power, and recaptured Baghdad from Iran.

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Ibrahim (1640-1648)

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When he was advised in the early years of his reign by an able grand vizier Ibrahim made peace with Iran and Austria; when other advisors were in control later, he got into a war with Venice. Having exhibited eccentricities and raised taxes, he was exposed and the Janissaries murdered him.

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Mehmed IV (1648-1687)

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Coming to the throne at the age of six, practical power was shared by his maternal elders, the Janissaries, and grand viziers, and he was happy with that and preferred hunting. The economic revival of the reign was left to others, and when he failed to stop a grand vizier from starting a war with Vienna, he could not separate himself from the failure and was deposed.

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Süleyman II (III) (1687-1691)

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Suleyman had been locked away for 46 years before becoming Sultan when the army expelled his brother, and now couldn't stop the defeats his predecessors had set in motion. However, when he gave control to grand vizier Fazıl Mustafa Paşa, the latter turned the situation around.

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Ahmed II (1691-1695)

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Ahmed lost the very able grand vizier he'd inherited from Suleyman II in battle, and the Ottomans lost a great deal of land as he was unable to strike out and do much for himself, being influenced by his court. Venice attacked, and Syria and Iraq grew restless.

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Mustafa II (1695-1703)

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An initial determination to win the war against the European Holy League led to early success, but when Russia moved in and took Azov the situation turned, and Mustafa had to concede to Russia and Austria. This focus caused rebellion elsewhere in the empire, and when Mustafa turned away from world affairs to focus on hunting he was deposed.

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Ahmed III (1703-1730)

Sultan Ahmed III Receiving a European Ambassador, 1720s. Found in the collection of the Pera Museum, Istanbul. Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Having given Charles XII of Sweden shelter because he had fought Russia, Ahmed fought the latter to throw them out of the Ottomans' sphere of influence. Peter I was fought into giving concessions, but the struggle against Austria didn't go as well. Ahmed was able to agree to a partition of Iran with Russia, but Iran threw the Ottomans out instead.

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Mahmud I (1730-1754)

Jean Baptiste Vanmour/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Having secured his throne in the face of rebels, which included a Janissary rebellion, Mahmud managed to turn the tide in the war with Austria and Russia, signing the Treaty of Belgrade in 1739. He couldn't do the same with Iran.

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Osman III (1754-1757)

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Osman's youth in prison has been blamed for the eccentricities which marked his reign, like trying to keep women away from him, and the fact that he never established himself.

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Mustafa III (1757-1774)

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Mustafa III knew the Ottoman Empire was declining, but his attempts at reform struggled. He did manage to reform the military and initially was able to keep the Treaty of Belgrade and avoid European rivalry. However, Russo-Ottoman rivalry could not be stopped and a war started which went badly.

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Abdülhamid I (1774-1789)

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Having inherited a war going wrong from his brother Mustafa III, Abdülhamid had to sign an embarrassing peace with Russia which simply wasn't enough, and he had to go to war again in the later years of his reign. Still, he tried to reform and to aggregate power back.

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Selim III (1789-1807)

Detail from the Reception at the Court of Selim III at the Topkapi Palace, gouache on paper. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Having also inherited wars going badly, Selim III had to conclude peace with Austria and Russia on their terms. However, inspired by his father Mustafa III and the rapid changes of the French Revolution, Selim began a wide-ranging reform program. Selim tried to westernize the Ottomans but gave up when faced with reactionary revolts. He was overthrown during one such revolt and murdered by his successor.

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Mustafa IV (1807-1808)

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Having come to power as part of a conservative reaction against reforming cousin Selim III, who he'd ordered murdered, Mustafa himself lost power almost immediately and was later murdered on the orders of his own brother, the replacement Sultan Mahmud II.

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Mahmud II (1808-1839)

Sultan Mahmud II Leaving The Bayezid Mosque, Constantinople, 1837. Private Collection. Artist : Mayer, Auguste (1805-1890). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

When a reform-minded force tried to restore Selim III, they found him dead, so deposed Mustafa IV and raised Mahmud II to the throne, and more troubles had to be overcome. Under Mahmud's rule, Ottoman power in the Balkans was collapsing in the face of Russia and nationalism. The situation elsewhere in the empire was little better, and Mahmud tried some reforms himself: obliterating the Janissaries, bringing in German experts to rebuild the military, installing new government officials. He achieved much in spite of military losses.

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Abdülmecit I (1839-1861)

David Wilkie/Royal Collection Trust/Public Domain

In keeping with the ideas sweeping Europe at the time, Abdülmecit expanded the reforms of his father to transform the nature of the Ottoman state. The Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber and the Imperial Edict opened an era of Tanzimat/Reorganization. He worked to keep the Great Powers of Europe mostly on his side to better hold the empire together, and they helped him win the Crimean War. Even so, some ground was lost.

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Abdülaziz (1861-1876)

Рисовал П. Ф. Борель/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although continuing his brother's reforms and admiring the western European nations, he experienced a turn in policy around 1871 when his advisors died and when Germany defeated France. He now pushed forward a more Islamic ideal, made friends with and fell out with Russia, spent a huge amount as debt rose, and was deposed.

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Murad V (1876)

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A western-looking liberal, Murad was placed on the throne by the rebels who had ousted his uncle. However, he suffered a mental breakdown and had to retire. There were several failed attempts to bring him back.

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Abdülhamid II (1876-1909)

Newspaper illustration of Abdülhamit (Abdul Hamid) II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from a 1907 article entitled "The Sour Sick Sultan as He Is".

San Francisco Call/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Having tried to stave off foreign intervention with the first Ottoman constitution in 1876, Abdülhamid decided the west was not the answer as they wanted his land, and he instead scrapped the parliament and the constitution and ruled for 40 years as a strict autocrat. Nonetheless, the Europeans, including Germany, managed to get their hooks in. The Young Turk uprising in 1908 and a counter-revolt saw Abdülhamid deposed.

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Mehmed V (1909-1918)

Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Brought out of a quiet, literary life to act as Sultan by the Young Turk revolt, he was a constitutional monarch where practical power rested with the latter's Committee of Union and Progress. He ruled through the Balkan Wars, where the Ottomans lost most of their remaining European holdings and opposed entry into World War I. This went terribly, and Mehmed died before Constantinople was occupied.

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Mehmed VI (1918-1922)

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Mehmed VI took power at a critical time, as the victorious allies of World War I were dealing with a defeated Ottoman Empire and their nationalist movement. Mehmed first negotiated a deal with the allies to stave off nationalism and keep his dynasty, then negotiated with the nationalists to hold elections, which they won. The struggle continued, with Mehmed dissolving parliament, the nationalists sitting their government in Ankara, Mehmed signing the WWI peace Treaty of Sevres which basically left the Ottomans as Turkey, and soon the nationalists abolished the sultanate. Mehmed was forced to flee.

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Abdülmecit II (1922-1924)

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The sultanate had been abolished and his cousin the old sultan had fled, but Abdülmecit II was elected caliph by the new government. He had no political power, and when the new regime's enemies gathered round, caliph Mustafa Kemal decided to declare the Turkish Republic, and then have the caliphate abolished. Abdülmecit went into exile, the last of the Ottoman rulers.


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